The end of 1999 found me in a Belgrade still shaking off the rubble and soot of the NATO bombings.
The world is getting ready to step into the new millennium, groups of football supporters are downing beers in the park behind the Sveti Marko church, pensioners are feeding the pigeons among the statues of the Kalemegdan fortress, the cassette and CD sellers in front of the Students’ Cultural Centre are smoking weed, unhindered by the police, and young people are making plans for New Year’s Eve parties.
Snowflakes have begun floating down and I’m watching them settle on the roofs of the market stalls in Zeleni Venac Square. I’m having a vinjak with Miloš and Dobrila, who are discussing the music they will take to the party in a few hours. It’s 31st December. After tomorrow, history will have a new prefix. Miloš is telling us about a book on the general psychoses that preceded the year 1000. I ask him what it was like during the NATO bombings.
‘What do you think it was like? We went out to concerts every day, playing rock music on the bridges, waiting for a bomb to fall on our heads and not giving a flying fuck.’
I throw Dobrila a confused look and he laughs heartily.
‘When death becomes a common – daily – thing, waving at you from behind every building, street corner or every little cloud in the sky; when children learn to fall asleep to the music of sirens, and when you throw all your vain hopes into the mind-blowing whirl of one of Anton’s guitar solos, then fear vanishes.’
‘And what’s left?’
‘What can be left other than madness and mockery?’
Instantly, I realise this is true. Dozens of jokes are made about the bombings that took place a few months ago. The country is on the rocks, poverty is baring its teeth, Milošević is still in power, and the world’s largest military alliance is being ridiculed even on the bumper and fridge stickers sold by gypsies at pavement stalls or the flea market. Miloš is telling the story of a group of volunteers that saved the Yugoslav Drama Theatre from a fire, back in April. He uses the abbreviation JDP – ‘Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozorište’. I ask him what JDP means.
Dobrila lights himself a cigarette and says: ‘Jako Dobar Požar …’ Very good fire.
They both burst into savage and strange laughter. Out- side, the snow is thickening and they mention casually that, two days ago, in the toilet of the small and picturesque bar we’re in, while sinking into the sugary rhythms of Cuban music, someone was shot in the head. I try not to look shocked, but my drink gets stuck in my throat. I cough. Miloš pats me on the back, laughing.
‘A run-in between gangsters, nothing special. Do you know what that busybody Bata Trlaja said five or six years ago? “Small pond, many crocodiles.” That’s Belgrade, a hell of a city …’
We sip our drinks, then we head off for our New Year’s Eve party. A guy named Fedja is playing music. I find out from the people there that he’s half Albanian, but he’s ‘cool’, he’s ‘one of us’. People are singing, dancing, drinking, smoking, having fun. We walk out of there at around five a.m. We stop to eat some skewers and pljeskavica spiced meat at the Cerska Bitka bar. The owner is both bartender and cook. Some homeless people are pissing on crates at the back of the shack. Knele, as the owner is called, steps outside and threatens them with a hatchet, then he comes back and serves us, on the house, with a round of loza – grape brandy from Montenegro, his home. From the small radio on the counter we hear ‘Tempest Sailor’ by the band Atomsko Sklonište. With our mouths and glasses full, we sing the chorus at the top of our lungs: ‘The shore is fifty-fifty, but I’m giving everything to you …’ Knele boasts that he saw the ‘Atomics’ live when he was serving in the army, in Istria, back in 1984. Oh, those were the days …
He takes the bottle of brandy and puts it on the table. ‘Here, drink as much as you want. It’s on me. The food, too, fuck it, it’s New Year’s Eve!’
The atmosphere at Cerska Bitka is more fun than at the New Year’s Eve party we’ve just been to. We get drunk and sober up at the same time, it’s a damn good feeling. The sun is rising slowly above our post-apocalyptic Belgrade. It snowed quite a bit last night, covering the tram stop, the tiles on the houses, the cars in the parking lot, in a blanket of white. We would all like to stay captive as long as possible in the fog of cigarettes and ćevapi meat rolls that engulfs the small pub. The owner tells us of the horrors he lived through on the front line during the civil war.
‘I was a butcher at the slaughterhouse in Kragujevac for ten years, but I’d never seen as much pig’s blood as I did human blood in Bosnia …’
We listen in silence, we eat and, from time to time, we raise our shots of brandy. Flesh and blood are the food of the land we live on, and our land is a god who’s constantly thirsty and hungry. Outside the day has begun, but the darkness inside us is getting heavier. We watch the people waiting for the tram and wonder where the hell they’re off to on a Saturday morning, on the first day of the new millennium. The owner packs twenty ćevapi to go, so we ‘have something to nibble on’ when we wake up. We line up behind the tram stop to empty our bladders, except for Dobrila, who ventures out to the bar’s seedy loo. We try to write something with our pee jets in the soft snow. A few feet away, we notice a drunk guy, collapsed in a very unnatural posture.
Knele points at him and cries: ‘Ha ha! Look at that bastard sleeping, like Ceaușescu in the snow!’
It’s my turn to burst out laughing like an idiot.
Knele looks at me, confused, but Miloš explains: ‘The boy is from Romania, I forgot to mention …’
‘So? Is there a problem? Did I offend you in any way?’ the ruddy-faced bar owner asks me, slurring his words.
‘No, not at all,’ I say, ‘it’s just funny, the whole scene …’
‘This is what I remember from the TV: after they executed Ceaușescu, he just lay there in the snow, like a football player celebrating a goal surrounded by his teammates.’
So this is what’s left, I think to myself, of the most-feared dictator of Eastern Europe – a joke made by a drunk in another country about another drunk. All that remains after the NATO bombings is ridicule, stacks of sarcasm and black humour. The haze of the end of a civilisation. An ugly, undignified, grotesque end. The execution squad of history is ruthless to those who see themselves as the eternal masters of things and destinies.
Knele continues his story, swigging from a bottle: ‘I had a friend who was working for the Novi Sad TV station. They were the first foreign journalists to get into Timișoara in 1989. He told me he got goosebumps when the entire square started chanting “Yu-go-sla-vi-a, Yu-go-sla-vi-a”.’
‘Yes, that’s the way it was. People were waiting for help, for a sign they weren’t alone …’
‘God,’ says Knele, caressing his bottle and staring into space, ‘how wretched people must have felt if they were waiting for the dead to come to the rescue?’
‘Back then, Yugoslavia wasn’t dead yet …’
‘You know what Chekhov said: “If in the first act you hung a gun on the wall, then in the next act it should be fired.” Our house had been smelling of death for a long time, ever since the first act. The problem was, we were too drunk at the wake …’
The tram pulls in. We get on and, through the dirty window, we wave at Knele, who is opening a beer bottle on the doorframe. The snowed-in drunk wakes up and staggers away. We’re crossing the Danube, the umbilical cord of old Europe. Bridges are made to connect people, and the savages that destroyed them just didn’t understand rock ’n’ roll. They create some bland, dysfunctional rules, and we break them with the lawlessness in our DNA. The sun smiles over the dome of Sveti Marko. There’s still a mouthful of brandy in the bottle, which I hand to Miloš.
‘Are we going home?’ I ask him.
‘Are you crazy? We’ve just entered history and you want to sleep?’
‘Then what should we do?’
Dobrila shakes the mud off his boots, fixes the red lock of hair that has escaped from his cap and, counting the cigarettes in his rumpled pack of Bond, says: ‘We’ll buy a few beers from the stall, then go to Kališ to watch the Sava meet the Danube at Ušće.’
We get off the tram and cross the city centre towards Kelemegdan. We park ourselves on a wooden bench and gaze at the Danube. A seagull flies down and lands on a cast-iron railing in front of us. We watch it silently, admiringly, and feed it the ćevapi Knele gave us.
‘It’s one of the few birds that has stayed loyal to us, for better or worse,’ says Miloš eventually.
‘Yes,’ says Dobrila, ‘I was going to get a tattoo of a swallow, but I think I’ll get a Danube seagull instead.’
It’s started snowing again. The invisible camera moves up, towards the sky, while we are left below in a static frame. A dot in the ever-flowing universe, like the river at our feet, where no Ceaușescu can ruin the beauty of the landscape through his acrobatic death.
By Goran Mrakić
Translated by Mihaela Buruiană
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Goran Mrakić has worked as a publisher and journalist at the Serbian newspaper Naša Reč in Timișoara. He has published poetry, aphorisms and short novels, in both Romanian and Serbian, including Punk Requiem (2015) and Garage Stories (2018).
Mihaela Buruiană is an English / French / Romanian translator. She has translated close to forty books, including Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter, and Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Goran Mrakić’s short story sees her trying her hand translating Romanian literature into English.