Zvonko Karanović (Serbia, 1959) writes poetry and prose. He published three novels and more than ten collections of poetry, several of which have also been translated. His poems have been translated into twenty languages and featured in several regional and international anthologies, most notably in New European Poets (Graywolf Press, USA, Minnesota, 2008). He is the recipient of several Serbian poetry awards, as well as several international literary scholarships. Zvonko Karanović’s work refers strongly to the heritage of the beat generation, as well as popular culture. In his recent collections of poetry, he’s experimented with surrealism, film-like editing, and prose poems.
Four walls and a city
In the morning in front of the agency, we sit in the car with a guy called Moses. He is Israeli and he is taking two broads with him, the car is an orange Passat, a real wreck. The moment we leave Amsterdam and take the motorway, the three of them start fighting. We realize that Moses is a pimp and the girls are whores. They’ve got work to do in Munich. The redhead is sitting next to Moses, the two of us are in the back with the dark-haired one. The three of them are having a fierce argument, they are screaming at each other, we are keeping our mouths shut and watching them, and on the motorway, every now and then we see roadworks. The road now narrows down to one traffic lane in each direction, and we keep seeing those yellow things, cat’s eyes, that always make the car shake like crazy. Moses is driving in the yellow lane at a speed of 160 km/hour, at the same time he’s rolling a cigarette with one hand and screaming at the two chicks. The dark-haired from the back seat starts hitting him in the neck and shoulders. In a sort of a half-turn he tries to slap her, she leans against the door, he can’t smack her properly because he needs to watch the road. The redhead grabs him by the arm, he drops the cigarette, bends down to get it, while at the same time driving the car, the wreck is wobbling, but it’s going like mad, and I start to shake out of fear. If those cat’s eyes puncture our tires while we’re going 160 km/hour, there won’t be anything left of us. Mikha and I have gone deathly pale. There’s no way out now. Moses is acting as if we’re not there. I am looking at Mikha, he’s older, I expect him to do something. He should tell Moses to slow down, or at least mind the road, but Mikha is silent. He pretends he doesn’t notice how they are exchanging blows just next to him. For fuck’s sake, we won’t come out of this alive. And then Mikha decides to turn on his famous zen mode that we practiced in Belgrade. Right in the middle of all the fuss, he falls asleep. Since he cannot do anything, the man falls asleep like a baby. I try to do the same thing, but it’s not working. I close my eyes and pray to God the car breaks down, that’s our only chance to stay alive. Not only will the car not break down, but it’s going at breakneck speed.
We reach Munich around noon. The fear makes me feel more dead than alive, I can’t feel my legs, arms, shoulders. My uncured gastritis is slowly coming back. I can feel it waking up and stretching across my stomach. We pay Moses our share for the fuel, say good-bye to all three of them and go to the bus station. We buy two tickets to Belgrade, for 6 o’clock. We’ve got 5 hours before the bus. We stop by a local place at the bus station and ask the waiter if we could leave our things there. The waiter is kind, he stuffs the cardboard suitcase and the canvas bag in the broom closet. We need to go on a food hunt. The last time we ate, a sandwich each, was this time the previous day. Not a pfennig in our pockets, we’ve literally spent everything, to the last nickle. We’ll have to steal some food. Neither Mikha nor I know how to steal, but we go for it. I’m growing weaker and weaker. My gastritis is raging, I can’t feel pain in my stomach anymore, just fire. We need to quickly find something to eat, I’m going to collapse, I say to Mikha. We have a 15-hour bus ride ahead of us, if I don’t eat, I’m definitely going to faint. Then you’ll be on your own. Don’t worry, we’ll snatch something, says he. And then, just our luck, the moment we enter any of the stores, everyone starts staring at us. No way we can take anything. There’s something fishy about us. We look pathetic, worn out, like a pair of junkies in need of a fix. One bakery, another bakery, one supermarket, another supermarket, we stop by all such shops in the pedestrian zone, nothing. Wherever we show up, instantly all eyes are on us.
Meanwhile, people are promoting utility knives on Marienstrasse. They are chopping carrots, cucumbers and cabbage in their wooden booths, pushing various kitchen knives and grating tools. We stand in front of a booth and watch. The man takes some cabbage, ham, cheese and cuts them right in front of us. He carefully puts the pieces on a plate and shows the audience how neatly cut they are. When he’s done displaying them, he just throws the big pile of food into a trash bin. The man casually throws away first-class food! Like hypnotized, we head towards the bin to take what he threw out, but no. There are security guys preventing the curious crowd from approaching too close to the booths. We’re embarrassed to ask for what they have thrown away, we mingle for about twenty minutes, we even start to look suspicious. Then we give up. We walk on, come across a few booths of the same sort, and it’s the same story. Something conspired against us. I’ve felt burning in my stomach for quite some time now. I think about giving up when we run into a church. This is our last chance, I say to Mikha. Let’s go inside, there must be some money on the altar. God will forgive us if we swipe a few pennies. We rush into the yard, but the church doors are locked. One church wing has been turned into a restaurant. Annoyed because we’ve lost our last chance to get some money and as upset as we were, we start swearing at all the infidels who dared transform a church into a bistro. We leave the yard disappointed and at the exit see a relief sculpture on the wall: two angels standing and holding two bags of golden coins each. And a thought comes to me: God, send us some cash! If there is an angel of finances, can we at least get some spare change, so we can get something to eat! I’m already half-dead and because I have got no strength, I force Mikhail to go back to the station. I have to sit down, I’m going to faint.
We go back to the place where we left our things and I sit at the table in the corner. We’ve got one hour before our bus is due. Mikha doesn’t want to give up and decides to continue the food quest. The waiter approaches me and I order a glass of water. He gets it for me, and as I try to take it, a German guy at the next table springs up: Nein! Nein!, he shouts. Even though I don’t know German, I get what he wants to tell me: You can’t drink water in a bistro! I ignore him, look out the window, when the waiter comes and puts a pint in front of me. The guy ordered me a beer. Danke, I thank him for the drink and nod. I’ve drunk less than half of it, Mikha arrives and asks where I got the beer. I tell him what’s happened. Oh, great, says Mikha and reaches for the beer. The German guy jumps on his feet again. Give the other gentleman one pint, he shouts to the waiter. We won’t have two men drinking one beer! The waiter brings one more pint and Mikha can’t thank the English-speaking German bloke enough! We laugh – beer is not only a drink, but also food! Our stomachs are not completely empty.
We’ve got half an hour before our bus and we should go. We take the suitcase and the bag from the broom closet and I suggest we give one of our drawings to the German guy. The man’s saved my life. We open the suitcase and from the works we’ve got left, we choose a nice etching. We give it to the man and say: We are artists, this is a little gift for you. He gets confused: Well, I can’t accept this! It’s too much! Somehow we manage to give him the drawing. Our gesture touched him, and he starts taking everything he’s got from his pockets: cigarettes, a lighter, some lose change, and hands it all to us. That had something to do with those angels. He’s going to Norway to work on oil rigs and hasn’t got much cash on him. All his money is on his credit card. It turns out he’s got twenty Deutsche Marks and he even apologizes for not having more. We thank him, he apologizes to us, you can’t tell who’s more polite. The bus is about to leave, the last passengers are getting on. And I say to Mikha: You go and ask the driver to wait for just a second, and I’ll go and get some food. I’m all over the place, I pop into a bakery, but there’s nothing there except a few huge doughnuts and stale bread. I buy two doughnuts and half a loaf of bread and quickly get on the bus. I sit down and literally swallow my doughnut and fall asleep instantly. I think Mikha didn’t even unpack his and I was already asleep.
We’re sitting in Belgrade and waiting for the entrance exam results. We act as if we have already passed. There is coerced optimism in the air brought on by autosuggestion. After seven days of nervousness and waiting, a letter from Holland arrives saying we’ve both been admitted, Mikha on the sculpturing department, and I on graphic design. Hurrah! Great! We travel to Niš to tell the news to our parents. I get home and sit my folks down at the table. I tell them how Mikha and I took the entrance exam at the Art Academy in Amsterdam. We’ve both passed and we are starting our studies in October. They are completely stunned. Ma is crying, she won’t hear it: To hell with Amsterdam and your god damn studies abroad. I won’t have it! Pa is quiet, thinking. Ma suddenly lifts her head and sets off for a counterattack: Why don’t you enroll in Belgrade? You barely finished high school and you’re talking about college studies! You are going there to use drugs, I know. Pa is still quiet, shaking his head. I tell them how this is an opportunity I have to use. If I’ve been admitted to such a prestigious school, my art must be good, they’ve recognized my talent. Not everyone can enroll at the Gerrit Rietveld, the most famous art academy in Holland. I ask them for two thousand DMs for the scholarship, and I’ll earn the rest on my own. I’m going, whether they like it or not. Ma leaves our gathering theatrically and goes to the bathroom crying. Pa goes after her to try and calm her down.
In the morning, Pa is waiting for me and wants to talk. Coffee and a glass of vinjak1 in front of him. In his hand a lit up cigarette, even though he quit smoking ages ago. He’s gone darker, smaller, he runs his hand through his gray hair. I sit at the table and he says: Son, I see you’ve made up your mind, but we don’t have money for your education. Pa being on my side doesn’t help the slightest after all. Without money to enroll, all my effort goes down the drain. I bow my head and leave the house without a word. I go to the Nišava River, sit on the quay and look at the river all afternoon. I cannot come to terms with what’s happening. My life chance should just go to waste? When I get home in the evening, Pa wants to talk to me again. He hands me an envelope with two thousand and five hundred DMs in it, and his album with postage stamps he’s been collecting all his life. If you get in trouble, sell this in an antique store. There are valuable and rare stamps in it, he says. Ma is still not showing her face. She’s sitting in the room and crying, she’s now angry at him too. Mikha had it a lot easier. After a little bit of grumbling and resistance, he gets three thousand DMs. If he fails in Amsterdam, he can always go back to Belgrade and continue his studies. At least he’s got some assurance.
Translated by Kruna Petric