Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
To be published by Grove Press, June 2008
From Chapter 1:
“How long a heart attack takes over three hundred feet, how much a spider’s life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the Comrade in Chief
of the unfinished can work”
Grandpa Rafik, my mother’s father, died for good a long time ago—he drowned in the river Drina. I hardly knew him, but I can remember one game we played, a simple game. Grandpa Rafik would point to something and I’d say its name, its color, and the first thing that occurred to me about it. He’d point to his penknife, and I’d say: knife, gray, and railway engine. He’d point to a sparrow, and I’d say: bird, gray, and railway engine. Grandpa Rafik pointed through the window at the night, and I said: dreams, gray, and railway engine, and Grandpa tucked me up and said: sleep an iron sleep.
The time of my gray period was the time of my visits to the eye specialist, who diagnosed nothing except that I could see things too fast, for instance the sequence of little letters and big letters on his wall chart. You’ll have to cure him of that somehow, Mrs. Krsmanovic, said the eye specialist, and he prescribed drops for her own eyes, which were always red.
I was very scared of trains and railway engines at that time. Grandpa Rafik had taken me to the disused railway tracks, he scratched flaking paint off the old engine; you’ve broken my heart, he whispered, rubbing the black paint between the palms of his hands. On the way home—paving stone, gray, railway engine, my hand in his large one, black with sharp scraps of peeling paint—I decided to be nice to railway trains, because now he had me worried about my own heart. But it had been a long time since any trains had passed through our town. A few years later the first girl I loved, Danijela with her very long hair who didn’t return my love, showed me how silly I’d been to protect my heart from being broken by trains.
Peeling scraps of paint and the gray game are all I remember of Grandpa Rafik, unless old photos count as memories. And Grandpa Rafik is absent from our home in general. However often and however readily my family like to talk about themselves and other families and the dead over coffee, Grandpa Rafik is very seldom mentioned. No one ever looks at the coffee grounds in a cup and sighs: oh, Rafik, my Rafik, if only you were here! No one ever wonders what Grandpa Rafik would say about something, his name isn’t spoken with either gratitude or disapproval.
No dead person could be less alive than Grandpa Rafik.
The dead are lonely enough in the earth where they lie, so why
do we leave even the memory of Grandpa Rafik to be so lonely?
Mother comes into the kitchen and opens the fridge. She’s going to make sandwiches to take to work, she puts butter and cheese on the table. I look at her face, searching it for Grandpa Rafik’s face in the photos.
Mama, do you look like Grandpa Rafik? I ask when she sits down at the table and unwraps the bread. She cuts up tomatoes. I wait and ask the question again, and only now does Mother stop, knife blade on a tomato. What kind of grandpa was Grandpa Rafik? I ask again, why does no one talk about him? How am I ever going to know what kind of a grandpa I had?
Mother puts the knife aside and lays her hands in her lap. Mother raises her eyes. Mother looks at me.
You didn’t have a real grandpa, Aleksandar, only a sad man. He mourned for his river and his earth. He would kneel down, scratch about in that earth of his until his fingernails broke and the blood came. He stroked the grass and smelled it and wept into its tufts like a tiny child—my dear earth, you’re trodden underfoot, at the mercy of all kinds of weight. You didn’t have a real grandpa, only a stupid man. He drank and drank. He ate earth, he brought earth up, then he crawled to the bank on all fours and washed his mouth out with water from the river. How that sad man loved his river! And his cognac—a stupid man who could love only what he saw as humbled and subjugated. Who could love only if he drank and drank.
The Drina, what a neglected river, what forgotten beauty, he would lament when he came staggering out of a bar, once with the frame of his glasses bent, another time after wetting
himself, oh, the stink of it! What a messy business old age is, he wept when he stumbled and fell, trying to hold tight to the river in case he took off. Oh, how often we found him at night under the first arch of the bridge, lying on his belly with his fingers clutching the surface of the water. Swollen, blue hands, half-clenched into fists. He’d be holding flowers in the river, stones, sometimes a cognac bottle. It went on like that for years. Ever since they took the railway out of service, so that there were no more trains running through the town with that sad man switching the points for them, setting the signals, raising the barriers. He lost his job and never said a word about it, he had nothing to do now and nothing at all to say. He was sent into retirement and he drank day after day, first in secret up at the railway station that wasn’t a station anymore, though the old engine still stood there, and later by the river and in the middle of town, overcome by sudden, stupid love for the water and its banks.
You didn’t have a real grandpa, only an embittered man. He drank and drank and drank until he was tired of life. If only he’d loved chess or the Party or us as much as he loved his trains and then his river, and most of all his brandy! If only he’d listened to us and not the deep, unfathomable Drina!
One evening he scratched a farewell letter into the river bank. He had drunk three liters of wine, and he used the broken neck of a bottle as his pen. We pulled him out of the mud by his feet, and he whimpered and cried out to the river: how am I to save you, how am I to save something so large all by myself ?
To think that something so sad can stink like that! We were called when his shouting and his songs got to be more than anyone could bear. Papa carried him home in his arms and put him in the bathtub, clothes and all, and in the bathtub your drunken grandfather threw up twice, in a fury, cursing all anglers: may your weapons turn against your own mouths, he said, prodding the river’s belly like that with your hooks, tearing the fish’s lips—ah, what silent pain! May your skin be flayed with blunt knives, you criminals, may the depths take you along with your boats, your filthy gasoline, all your weirs, all your turbines, all your mechanical diggers! A river: a river is water and life and power and nothing else.
Around midnight I washed his hair and his tortoise neck, I washed behind his ears and under his armpits. He kissed my hands and said he knew exactly who I was. In spite of his tears he knew whose knuckles he was patting, he remembered everything: what a jewel Love was, and Fate such a bastard!
I’m your daughter, I told him three times, not your wife, and on that night, his last, he made me three promises: from now on, he’d wear clean clothes, he’d drink no alcohol, and he’d stay alive. He kept only one of them. His railwayman’s cap was found under the first arch of the bridge, his cognac bottle was also found, but he himself was never found. We probed the water near the banks of the Drina for him with pitchforks. Why had he gone out again? What was there left to love on that May night? The bars had all been shut for ages when I tucked him up after his bath, after he’d made his promises. An angler, of all people, found his body in the reeds downstream. His face was under the water, his feet were on the bank—his beloved Drina was kissing him in death, marrying that sad man who kept only one of his promises. He had smartened himself up for the wedding and was wearing his uniform with the railwayman’s badge. He had spent so many nights looking for death, but until then he didn’t have the courage to find it; he didn’t keep his head under water long enough for the Drina to be the last and only tear he wept.
And when he was to be laid out for the funeral, twelve hours after I’d washed him into making his three promises, I was the one who took the loofah again, the hardest I could find, I was the one who scrubbed his thin torso the way you scrub a carpet, rubbed soap into his yellow, wrinkled belly and brushed his flabby calves. I didn’t touch his fingers or his face. Your sad grandfather had dug his hands into the bank, and what kind of daughter would I have been to scrape the earth out from under his fingernails? After he had said: when I die I don’t want any coffin? How that sad man loved his cruel river, how he loved the willows and the fish and the mud! You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, only a naive man. But you were too little to remember his naivete. You liked the way he said gray, gray, gray to everything, for some reason you thought it was funny. It was only for his river that he thought up the brightest of colors, he saw the detail of nothing but the Drina, that sad man who could laugh only when he saw his reflection in the water. You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, just a sad man.
I look at my mother with a thousand questions in my eyes. She has sung me the song of the sad man as if she’d been rehearsing it since the day he drowned. She has sung as if he hadn’t belonged to her, as if someone else had written the lines, yet with such loving anger that I was afraid a mere nod of my head might disrupt the song. Now she shakes her head over something I can’t see and lays slices of bread out in a row on the table.
I ask only two of my thousands of questions. What did Grandpa write on the bank? And why didn’t any of you help him?
My mother is a small woman. She runs her fingers through her long hair, combing it. She puffs in my face as if we were playing. She unwraps the butter. Unwraps the cheese. Spreads butter on the bread. Puts a slice of cheese on the butter. Puts tomatoes on the cheese. Sprinkles salt on the tomatoes with her thumb and forefinger. Takes the bread on the palm of her hand. Puts another slice of bread on top of it. Presses them firmly together.
SASA STANISIC was born in Visegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1978. At the age of fourteen, he fled to Germany with his family and went to study literature in Heidelburg and Leipzig. His novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone will be published by Grove Press in June, 2008.
Copyright 2006 by Luchterhand Literaturverlag, Munich
Translation copyright 2008 by Anthea Bell