Today brought us a deliciously silly, if ominous, hashtag on Twitter (#randompenguin), as news broke that Random House parent Bertelsmann is in merger talks with Penguin Group. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/25/penguin-random-house-merger-talks
Let’s imagine some potential new titles being bid on by two (or more) rivalrous mega-pubs when suddenly they meld into a single uber-mega-pub. Given the basic math of bidding and acquiring, well… I picture authors recast in rags, holding up their even emptier porridge bowls. It’s a time of fragility for the battered artiste. Still, who do we all want to submit to first?
Here, btw, is my first novel, Drina Bridge (Raincoast Books, 2006):
The story moves between Toronto, New York City and former Yugoslavia. It’s about losing love, finding love, and surviving two wars. To tease potential new fans, I offer this short chapter, an episode from one character’s boyhood in World War Two.
Rain brought relief from the heat, but cast a new curse. Other cruelties remained unchanged, keeping pace with our progress through ruined villages and towns held by Italians who ignored us, or by Ustashas who could ignore or as easily murder us if they were bored or drunk enough. Our destination was Visegrad, yet another several days’ hike.
Trudging through steady drizzle along a mud-clogged road, Uncle exclaimed yet again how near we were to Visegrad, even as a hacking cough drowned his words. Aunt called him a fool. He flashed his yellow teeth, windmilled his arms to rally us forward — a ludicrous jollity. Aunt stopped walking. She stood staring down into the mud. She looked up and glared at Uncle still shuffling ahead, now pumping his scarecrow arms like pistons on a locomotive.
“Vaso, the rain is not going to stop! So we must stop!”
She scanned the roadside: sodden vegetation, scrubby trees, burned houses, and ahead on the right a house well abused but unscorched, with a roof. She marched past Uncle, veered off the road, picked her way through litter and smashed furniture to its gaping front door, peered inside. She shouted a greeting into the shadows. We waited on the road. When she entered the house my sister looked at us, then followed her. They appeared at a broken window.
“Come and look. It’s not so bad. It’s dry at least.”
Uncle pondered the horizon. He coughed and spat green mucus into the mud. He approached the house and entered. So we were sheltered, suddenly and absurdly cheered by our fortune.
Uncle made his patriarch’s inspection, Aunt already looking for a broom, my sister stepping over broken glass to open cupboards. I and my cousins followed Uncle from room to room, everything a musty chaos, not one object where it belonged. Strewn clothing, bedding, furniture, papers and photographs, a leather-bound Koran torn apart, floorboards ripped up, holes punched through plaster, pillows slashed open, walls splattered with bullet holes, a mattress crusted with dried blood, blood on the wall above it, and sprayed across the ceiling. Uncle closed a door on the blood. We went into the kitchen, Aunt now sweeping debris, my sister going out the back door with a bucket.
“There’s a rain barrel, Uncle.”
He said we would leave first thing next morning. Aunt gazed levelly at him and put her broom aside.
“Help me move this table.”
There was scrapwood under the back steps. Uncle kindled a fire in the kitchen stove, and we dried our clothes. We still had some smoked salt fish from home, a quarter-round of hard cheese, one tin of meat. In the cellar we found some withered potatoes, two jars of onions in brine, some mouldy sausage that we trimmed and fed to Garo.
The rain stopped. Uncle went down to a pond behind the house with hook and line and came back without fish, but in his hat some raspberries, which he divided into four little piles on the enameled tabletop that Aunt had wiped clean. I remember Uncle’s calloused fingers stained red, and the red blotches on the white enamel, the sweet tang of the fruit. We boys gobbled ours, but my sister said they tasted like dog piss. She spat into the sink and Uncle ate her berries in an indignant gulp. Closing our minds to the pitiful things all around us, we ate in the cramped kitchen, filled our stomachs with boiled potatoes, Uncle’s smoked fish, briny slices of onion. Garo, as usual, ate our fish heads. The cheese and meat we saved.
A truck drove past at dusk. At a distance it slowed and turned, came back and stopped in the road, disgorged three men: an Ustasha officer in high, polished boots like Mussolini’s, and two soldiers in clean uniforms. In the yard we were inspected and deemed mildy amusing, and more certainly repellant (disgust being, for a trampled enemy, the only possible variant of pity). I watched a soldier slap Uncle repeatedly about the ears until Aunt blurted that there was indeed a weapon in the house. She offered to get it, but the shiny boots posed and demurred and chose me instead. The two soldiers followed me inside and I pointed to the bag containing Uncle’s rusty pistol, a relic from the Great War. (A war triggered, of course, by a Serb nationalist. Nothing can ever quite redeem us.) The soldiers searched the rest of our baggage, peered into a few cupboards. Everything they looked upon seemed to confirm in them the correctness of their contempt.
So they took our gun and left Uncle with aching ears, Aunt and my sister weeping, my cousin of nine saying, as if planning a tea party, that he would kill all the Croats some day, and roast them on spits and feed them to their mothers in a soup. Aunt barked at him between sobs for this last part. But it was just a schoolyard story (though not quite apocryphal), something mothers have heard and still hear.
We rested as best we could on a patch of floor, and began walking before dawn under stars in a clear sky. The sun climbed over a ridge and dappled us through tree boughs, and I felt that this day might be better.
In Ceznjavica, Italian soldiers and Croats were camped in the abandoned houses. The main street was scattered with rubble, some civilians gathering it into piles while bored soldiers stood about smoking. A crazy woman in a dress caked with filth performed a bizarre dance, jerking like a puppet in front of the soldiers. They smoked and stared at her with dumb contempt as she lifted her dress to flash her pubis at them. Aunt saw the display too late, then hustled us past. Uncle later bartered his aluminum pocket comb to a soldier for some cigarettes.
As we left the town a hellish stench made us gasp and wretch. We passed a horse with legs stiff in the air, its exploded belly swarming with vermin. My sister vomited on the road, then so did my two cousins, and Aunt fussed, wiping their faces, because they’d lost their breakfast of cold potato.
We passed into the German zone. The cruelty of the Ustashas and the indifference of the Italians gave way to a measured suspicion. We were questioned at certain crossings, though never impeded for long. The day advanced. The sun stayed with us and grew too hot. There were others on the road, some with horse and wagon, some with wagon only, pushing and pulling, some lugging bags and suitcases. Some were clearly Muslim by their dress. Others, like us, attempted a non-identity. No one spoke; eyes glanced away. We were all closed inside our fear and exhaustion. Approaching a village at dusk we found an empty house, but it was so strewn with filth and debris that we slept under trees in the yard. The night was mild and dry and we were undisturbed.
The next day, on a narrow ravine road following a river, a Muslim holy man with horse and wagon overtook us. He was singing to himself — or it seemed almost to the horse. A mournful serenade. The man was fat, too fat for war’s deprivation, a grizzled, sweating moonface under his white turban. We moved aside to allow his passage and he stopped his song to call a greeting, then he addressed his horse, told it to halt. After sharper commands it did at last halt, the wagon now well past us. The man twisted his bulk around to look at us. He asked our destination and sputtered at the response, “Visegrad? Forget it! Ustashas have taken it.” He could take us to Zepa if that would do. We climbed into the wagon, six of us and the dog, a jumble of aching limbs and baggage. Uncle sat in front with our Samaritan. He was the hodza of Zepa’s mosque.
We bumped along, spreading goodwill, working to get past the need to confirm it. The horse would fart now and then with ripping-sputtering sounds. “Poor Lijepota. She ate apples, rotten ones.” We repeated, “Poor horse,” and gazed with trepidation at her rolling behind.
Presented with these evidently benign Others, the hodza revealed, as if casually, the existence of Others among his friends, spoke of his young nephew, a communist, whose Serb wife was a nurse trapped in Visegrad, forced by the Ustashas to bandage the wounds of soldiers who would go back into the hills to fire upon her husband. He related all of this gazing far ahead at the road, with little anglings of his head, as if caught between black mirth and a settling despair, a despair that is simply submission before the unalterable.
The hodza’s words established alliances without firmly declaring them, and allowed Uncle to confirm, also indirectly, that we too had no love for the Croat henchmen of Mussolini and Hitler; Aunt’s cousins in Visegrad were after all at their mercy, and what’s more, my Muslim mother and her neighbour had disappeared while traversing a road between villages in the first month of the war. In truth it was probably Chetniks who had taken them, but in the hodza’s wagon Aunt and Uncle allowed the implication to stand: that Ustashas had murdered my mother. It enabled us to freely share our Serbness and Muslimness with this kind man, and all to share equally our relief that this passage together to Zepa would not be soured by any evidence of Croat blood or sympathy. That my parents’ village had once had its Croat shopkeepers, its Croat family on the hillside who allowed us to collect spring water from behind their house, that the foundation of this house was built of stones given from my father’s meadow, that Serb and Croat men had drunk home-brewed brandy together late into the night sitting on those freshly mortared stones — none of this mattered in the holy man’s wagon. It was all an unspeakable truth buried safely under our careful language of survival.
So, the darker vision: This Slobo, who is I, this Slobo whose freedom is to write his own justifying auto-history, is, like any other Slobo, reduced by a world teetering on suspicion and lies. My black self shrugs, having ascertained the worst: history is an exchange of distrust and devolving guilt that never tallies, never adds up to more than a cycle of opportunism and moral idiocy, a storm brewing always in the roiling clouds of money and politics, releasing the winds of destruction again and again upon the hapless.
And yet, as if to mock us, a semblance of good cheer settled upon our wagon. Things were, for a time, better. (Do tyrants ever feel such unaccountable gaiety? Is it what they seek, or is it something utterly beyond them?) A cool breeze flowed from the river gorge, making the sun feel less like a burden than a caress. Aunt was encouraged to cease worrying for her unreachable cousins in Visegrad (whom she hadn’t seen for twenty years.) Uncle played the fool until she slapped his hand and he snatched it away, miming a child’s face of crocodile tears; Aunt shook her head, her mouth set, but Uncle had won. She opened our food cache and said we should have our dinner as long as we were idle, and our kind hodza would certainly enjoy a bit of cheese or fish, perhaps some pickled onion? Uncle voiced regret that we had no brandy. “But maybe you don’t partake, Mullah?”
“Ah, but I do,” said the hodza. He instructed me to look under my seat, and there beneath a canvas was a crate of old soda bottles filled with clear liquid and sealed with wax stoppers. Aunt played indifference to Uncle’s ceremonious opening of the bottle. The men passed the liquor between them, and Aunt, uncharacteristically, accepted the mullah’s offer of a sip, just one, taken with a twitch of defiance.
We reached Zepa in the early evening, the mullah cooing gently to his horse, which was exhausted by the gruelling climbs and perilous descents that made up Zepa’s natural fortification. As we rounded a bend entering the town, the road widened and at a distance stood the mosque: a low lead-roofed dome, and beside it the pointed white rocket of the minaret. To my child’s eyes, minarets were rockets. I would imagine standing on the little ring of balcony near the top and soaring off into the heavens. I had seen a film when we stayed once at my grandmother’s in Sarajevo: men travelling in rockets and visiting costumed people on other planets, Buck Rogers mouthing Belgrade Serbian. So we slowly approached this Muslim starship, and a line of shadow climbed it as the sun dropped behind a mountain.
The town was quiet, sleepy even, the houses undamaged. Two soldiers with rifles slung, knives at their belts, came out of a house, and when they saw the mullah they stopped, bowed low, and received a prayer as we passed.
Now we stood stiff-limbed in the dust of the road, looking up at the calm sad moonface.
“I cannot offer you shelter. My own house and the mosque are beyond full. You can see.”
There was indeed a crowd of people in the yard of the mosque, the smoke of cooking fires rising amid the bent backs of women, children running or dawdling, old men clustered on a low wall like birds, smoking, nodding rheumy eyed. Some of them glanced at us with disinterest or a vague disdain. Our attire in no way marked us, leaving open the option of weary contempt for whatever we might be. The mullah knew as we did that a mosque encamped by Muslims was not the place for us. His gestures of regret were both good manners and a mime for those who watched and hoped we would not be allowed to join the throng. He directed us to an abandoned feed mill a short distance down the street, and there we settled for the night with a half-dozen Serb families who shifted their belongings to give us room on the grain-scattered floorboards.
Zepa was within the German zone, but it remained a haven. So ringed was it with mountains and entrenched Muslim forces that neither Germans, Chetniks nor Partisans had managed to secure the town. Its Muslims and few Serbs had so far been spared the worst conflicts, left to muddle through the lesser ones spurred by the war’s tide of forced nomads. The feed mill in Zepa was our home until November.