Belgrade, 1941 by Biljana Jovanović
Translated from the Serbian by John K. Cox.
“Keep at it! Don’t dawdle! Everything’s collapsed. It’s gone!”
Ivan urged his mother impatiently on, watching her root around in the ruins on Uskočka Street. He screamed at her, flapping his arms, cursed, threatened her, looked around in nervousness and fright: It’s already getting dark! But Milica, not paying him any heed, sat down on a smashed ceiling joist, and, now with her cane and now with her bare hand, she picked through the indistinguishable mass of rags, furniture, burnt scraps; she peered into slivers, dust; pried apart little clumps of tile, poked her cane here and there, into small piles of black ash; all at once, a smile lit up her face, and she bent over quickly and with both hands rummaged about in the soot, and when she pulled out of it a small tin pot, she looked crestfallen and then broke out in tears; she let out an extended screech and called out for Ivan, who was standing some twenty steps away, to come help her.
They had both been searching, since it wasn’t completely dark and they hadn’t found it yet, for the metal box with jewelry, belonging to one Saša Vengerov.
That evening, on the 6th of April, 1941, Ivan passed Milica on, as if she were a package, to relatives at number 5, Đure Jakšić Street.
Milica remained standing in the door of her relatives’ apartment, staring intently at the doorjamb, like a forgotten puppy.
The relatives, of whom there were six on Đure Jakšić Street, later all told Ivan, one after another, that Milica remained standing by the door “for a terribly long time” that evening.
And it wasn’t as if they didn’t try to prise her away from the door; at first they entreated her, and ultimately they threatened her. They used force to wrest the cane and small suitcase out of her clenched hands. Simon said: “It took three hours.” Magda, though, couldn’t decide—at one point, she said “an hour and a half,” and another time—“two hours.”
The girls shouted in unison: “All night! She stood there all night!”
On one occasion, Ivan concluded, after listening to the way they quarreled and tried to outshout each other, that Simon was definitely exaggerating. It wasn’t possible that Milica had stood there, without moving, for three hours!
“That woman didn’t move for three hours, kind of like she’d been struck by a bolt of lightning. Not a single muscle twitched on her face. Dumbfounded. Paralyzed. No water, no snacks, as if she were dead. Nothing! Nobody could get the cane or suitcase out of her hands. She rolled her eyes and locked them onto the wood. She was looking off somewhere, but you couldn’t tell what she was looking at. And her pupils stayed stationary! We snuck around her, this way and that, Magda, me, the girls, even the old lady…and—nothing! We waited to see if she was going to break down of her own accord, fall over on her back, start squealing…or something. We brought over a hard-backed chair, then an easy chair, moved the ottoman closer and then pushed it up against the door to make her bend at the knees, but she wouldn’t make a sound…”
He didn’t believe what Simon was saying. Milica could not have stood there, immobile, for three hours! Simon was exaggerating.
And that night, when Milica finally peeled herself away from the door, took a step or two, began to speak, smiled, took off her coat (besides the little suitcase, which was full of trifles of all sorts, it was the only one of her possessions that she had saved from the bombardment)—and everyone began to look at her in wonder. It wasn’t Milica! It was the devil.
She presented them with her demand: a separate room for herself, a non-negotiable. She couldn’t room with anyone; she coughs, sleeps lightly, gets up in the night-time, walks around, and sometimes doesn’t sleep at all. On Đure Jakšić Street we had four bedrooms, and things were cramped even without Milica. We started bickering over who was to go where, and it would’ve gone on and on if Simon had not said obediently, in a firm voice: “The best room for Milica is Ana’s. It has a balcony.”
Ana looked at her father with hatred in her eyes, but no word crossed her lips.
Magda objected loudly, and Milica began to cry. Simon shouted, banged his cane on the floor, and everyone got quiet.
The next day, Ana reproached her father for the unjust arrangements. She argued angrily that he could give up his room, so that she wouldn’t be elbow to elbow with her sisters in one room. “Hush up, girl,” Simon snapped back at her.
“Simon, something’s not right with Milica!” Magda said.
“What do you mean, Magda?”
“It’s like she’s gone a bit bonkers, Simon!”
“Listen, Magda, she’s just experienced a double shock. Do you know what I mean?” Simon said in a whisper.
“She has a funny look in her eyes, Simon.” And Magda added: “She’s kind of cross-eyed.”
Simon waved her off and muttered: “That’s something from earlier. I’ll ask Ivan about it when he comes.”
Since the death of Đurađ Kralj, Simon’s oldest brother, in January of 1929, Milica and her son Ivan had been inseparable. They bought a little apartment on Uskočka Street and, shortly after they moved in, that was where Saša Vengerov showed up. Before that, they lived for years in a set of rooms in the courtyard of a building in the Belgrade suburb of Voždovac, with no running water. Đurađ Kralj often came home drunk and would crawl Milica’s frame and start beating her; she would then get drunk herself; in the end, both of them, black and blue and swollen, would be dragged off to their beds by Ivan. Just a boy then, he would stay awake all night, curled up on the floor, watching their faces in fear—in case they died! In the morning, the two of them, Milica and Đurađ, would wake up irritated and ready for a new altercation– Đurađ beat Milica, and Milica beat Ivan. When he got a little bigger, Ivan returned the blows. For years it went on like that, and even after Đurađ’s death, Milica hit Ivan and Ivan hit Milica, right up until Vengerov came to Uskočka Street. Vengerov, with his funny little boxes. Peace and kindness began to be the order of the day. Vengerov brought these things. His face beamed with joy; it sparkled like the jewelry from those small boxes.
And, in the midst of all the hullabaloo, the beatings, tears, and laughter of the drunken man, in Voždovac, he could have been twelve, no older, a quiet sense of dread got into Ivan forever—his stomach knotted, his hands shook, he would suddenly be drenched in icy sweat, a hard lump would lodge in his throat—he would stutter.
“Well, but something’s wrong with her. Something from earlier,” reasoned Simon the Uncle (as Milica had nicknamed him). He raised his pipe into the air, scribbling something up there with his hand, and twisting his head towards the ceiling so that his neck was oddly bent. “We’ll ask Ivan when he comes,” Magda’s whisper resounded like an echo. “We will ask him, but why is he not here? He isn’t around. He has disappeared,” Simon continued. “He’s vanished. Vanished,” Marija, newly awakened, repeated after him, scrunched up on her chair, not understanding anything.
Milica raced into the room, slammed the door, stood there all red in the face, with her legs planted far apart and her hands on her hips, and burst out with:
“Are we going to Russia? Everyone’s there. Come on, Simon, pack your rags and let’s go.”
“For God’s sake, Milica,” Simon said, very much shocked.
“Everyone, who?” Magda asked sarcastically, and then she whispered to Ana, “Look! Look at her! Look at those eyes!”
“Everyone. My brother. Simon’s mother, and maybe your father, too,” Milica replied.
“They’re dead. All of them are dead,” Simon said indifferently.
“They’re all alive in Russia. They are waiting for us. Don’t you see?”
“But—they’re dead, Milica,” Simon replied gently.
“Aha! If you haven’t peeked down into the earth…ha! How do you know that?”
“There’s Jovan over there on Šumadijska Street. Go ask him,” Simon said.
“Why should I ask her?” Milica asked, growing even more agitated.
“He was present at the funeral for my father,” Magda said, nudging Ana with her shoulder.
“What does he know? He knows about as much as you do. Nobody knows! How is some uncle of Magda’s supposed to know?” Milica shouted.
“But the Russians are communists,” Magda said.
“So what?” They’re not the only ones there. There are other people, too. And also Saša. Saša went back to Petrograd.”
“Who’s this Saša?” Simon asked.
“A friend of mine.”
“He was killed if he went back. None of them are alive there,” Simon hissed at her.
“You have no idea! How could you know? I have relatives there as well.”
“But who is Saša?”
“Saša Vengerov. A wonderful man. Saša. The best.”
“Wonderful, eh?” And Simon chuckled maliciously. “So was he a White Guardist?”
“But of course. As were my relatives.”
“What relatives, you poor thing?…Your mother was born here. You’ve got no connection to the Whites or the Reds!”
“No matter. That does not matter. I know what my mother said when that mess got started over there,” Milica asserted, with a wave of her hand. Her face was glowing red.
“So now, what? You’d like to go there, is that it?”
“But what is this Saša to you? He’s some kind of spy.”
“What do you mean by that? What concern is it of yours? What do you care about him? He’s the finest person I’ve ever met. The best. Just so you know!”
Simon snorted a laugh; he was silent for a moment and then said, in a mocking voice:
“Are you trying to tell me that you were in love with this guy Saša?”
“But nooo, Simon! He is my friend, my best friend…It’s just that now I don’t now where he is. I do not know! But people have told me that he’s in Petrograd, that he went back. Do you understand, Simon?”
“Well, that’s some kind of friend! A tramp, just a garden-variety tramp. He comes and he goes. He left you, did he? You can see that he abandoned you,” Simon replied coldly.
Ivan blew in one night, muddy, freezing, and bruised, with no coat, the soles broken off of his shoes, in the middle of the winter, in ’42. They thronged around him, pestering him with questions. Where had he been all this time? What was he doing, who helped him, what was his job, how’d he live, what did he eat, where did he sleep, and why hadn’t he come to see them earlier? His mom had lost her mind, become irrational, since that time last year when she stood at the door for the whole night, yes, she went nuts, but he was nowhere to be found, and they thought he was no longer alive!
Ivan spent the night on the couch in their living room, and in the morning, early, after he had greeted his mother with a kiss, while all the other denizens of the house were asleep, he left, leaving behind a note—on urgent business. “He has vanished again,” Simon said angrily; he had not been able to ask Ivan anything about Vengerov.
Not even a week passed before there was Ivan again, back on Đura Jakšić Street; he was toting a set of bags; from the doorway he called to Simon, and then they locked themselves away conspiratorially in Simon’s room to see whether or not Simon wanted to keep any of it, of the little gilded items, and how much he would pay. Ivan didn’t have time to catch his breath, or to give people proper greetings until he completed the job that had brought him there.
“Well, Boy,” said Simon, mocking him with this nickname. (Ivan was close to forty years old.) “Where’ve you been all this time? Why were you gone? You’re never ever around, man!”
Practically in a panic, Ivan pulls things out of the bag, panting and perspiring.
“Wait! Never mind that now. We’ll have time…But do you have any news? From Tomaš? Or from Dušan, eh?” Simon inquired of him.
Ivan remained bent over the bag. He didn’t lift his head and he answered apathetically: “No.”
“You must have heard something! D’you know if they’re alive?” Simon prodded him with his cane.
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything. C’mon, let’s get this done,” Ivan said nervously.
“Stop it! We have time for that later, young man! So…What’s Mr. Nedić up to?”
“How should I know?” Ivan said between clenched teeth.
“How could you not know, Boy? You know. Why wouldn’t you?” Simon mocked.
“He’s feeding the people. That’s what he’s doing!” Ivan shouted furiously. “Can we finish our work here, Simon?”
“He’s feeding them, you say. Very well, my man. Let him feed them. Anyway, who’s your partner now?”
“A goldsmith on Trnska Street.”
“Aha. On Trnska. Good.”
“C’mon. Let’s get this over with,” Ivan says again…[…]
A moment later he was seated in the living room, holding a cup of tea in his hands, and, staring down at the tips of his shoes, as Magda babbled on about Milica and how she read in the newspaper that two women had handed over 10,000 dinars to Nedić. She wondered where they’d gotten so much money; Magda babbled on about how they’d taken Milica to the doctor in December and how that hadn’t been of any help, because she “spends all day either sleeping or crying.”
Ivan swallowed his tea without a sound.
Ana was sitting with her back turned to him, and she couldn’t see the two tears that slid down his face and into his cup.
Magda slurped her tea, with her eyelids fluttering, and spoke; at one moment in a tearful voice, and the next, in a hateful one, quickly and without rhyme or reason, sighing and grinning in a simple-minded way; she talked about the anti-Masonic exhibition that Milica had twice visited, one time on the very day that the decision had been made to ration tickets for wood, and snow had fallen, and then she told him about the liturgy in St. Mark’s and how a woman had run around the outside of the church wailing and asking for help at the top of her lungs.
Ivan forced down first one, then a second, and then a third cup of Magda’s insipid “medicinal” tea, which was made from ten different herbs. Then, in anguish, he mumbled:
“There’s a war on.”
“Yes, it’s war,” Magda repeated after him and then paused. Ivan thought: “That has shut her up at last.”
And then Magda came back to life and bombarded him with laments about shortages, the cold, and Milica, referring rapturously to Nedić’s Christmas message, blinking constantly.
Ana gave her a disdainful look.
Old Marija was asleep.
Words rained down on Ivan’s tilted head. Now and again he looked up and saw Magda’s eyelids fluttering. They trembled, reddish and wrinkled and tiny teardrops were collecting in the corner of her eyes.
And just when she mustered up the courage to say that the Aufforderungen for Jews had to be put up in every window “so that people know how to behave,” into the room walked Simon, chuckling and banging his cane on the floor.
“Aah. Magdica has joined the discussion,” he said mockingly.
Ana ran out of the room.
All I said was that we still need these Aufforderungen, so people will know how to behave.
“Aha. So that’s all you said, you dimwitted woman,” Simon hissed. He sat down on the chair, gave a laugh caught up in a wheeze, and looked up them up and down. Magda was swaggering, and Ivan seemed depressed.
“And you are saying, Boy, that Nedić is feeding the people?”
At that Ivan stood up abruptly and yelled back:
“Listen, Simon, I can’t take this anymore!”
“And why is that, boy?” Simon responded sarcastically, prepared at that moment to taunt him ferociously.
“That…your…tone of voice,” Ivan stammered uncertainly.
“He’s right!” Magda interjected sternly.
“Magda, don’t interfere! And you, Ivan, you’ve driven this woman mad with your worship of Nedić.”
“Nothing has driven me ‘mad’! I have my own mind. The man is a patriot and a Slav. He’s saving the refugees.”
“Ivan took heart: “Magdica said it perfectly. Someone has to feed this whole nation.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, boy! He cares about the people, but that isn’t the issue, don’t you see? He’s an actor, a clown, and I’ve known it since that time he said he’d rather be a private under Stalin than a general under Hitler.”
“So what? That changes nothing about the big picture. Those are circumstantial details. The main than is that he’s feeding the people,” Magda added.
Simon all of a sudden deflated, unable to continue this conversation that he himself had initiated. In a quiet voice he asked Ivan:
“And you have no news about Dušan, eh?”
“I told you already. I don’t know anything.”
“He’s definitely not alive.”
“He is. He is alive.”
“How do you know? He took the name Jozef, right?” Simon forced a little laugh.
“Elza rescued him, I know that for sure,” a flustered Ivan went on.
“Do you think Miss Elza is pretty?” Simon was unexpectedly turning it all into a joke.
Ivan and Magda looked at him in astonishment.
The diminutive old lady whispered out of the half-darkness: “Pretty…It’s pretty…”
Simon, relaxed now, listening to her, continued:
“And you think it’s pretty now, don’t you, baba? Uh-huh. Pretty.”
Baba mumbled something unintelligible and drifted back into dreamland…[…]
“You know what? Go ahead and tell me, Boy, who’d you get these things from?”
Simon’s nasal whisper appeared right next to Ivan’s ear.
Ivan recoiled as if scalded. He hadn’t heard the other man enter the room, and a little from awkwardness and a little from the unpleasant odor coming from Simon’s mouth. He said nothing in response but just stared at him with his head twisted aside. But Simon repeated his question in a sharp, biting tone. Ivan began, fearfully, to justify himself; he bought it all from a dairyman on Aleksandrova Street; from the proprietor of a ćevapčići stand on Višnjička, and from a grocer on Dalmatinska. Simon, however, didn’t believe him, shook his head suspiciously, still hunched over him, and squinting, while a crooked smile made its way across his lips.
“And the little wooden icon? Where’d you get that icon?”
“Tarailo sold it to me really cheap.”
“Where’d Tarailo get it?”
“He’s there. Go ask him,” Ivan let fly angrily.
“But isn’t it silver?”
“Tarailo stole it. He stole it!”
“I don’t know,” Ivan said and shrugged his shoulders indifferently. “Maybe he did steal it.”
And Simon, as if he were waiting for this, shouted:
“You’re scum, Boy. Scum! You deserve treatment with billy-clubs and poles for what you do. You don’t even spare women. That’s just how you are. You’re getting stolen items for me, you scum. You ought to have your naked ass whipped. With the billy-club of that Nedić of yours, and not ten times but twenty-five. That’s how many blows you deserve.”
Ivan waited until Simon’s fury subsided, and then, apparently not offended in the least, but as peaceful and composed as he could be, and when the accustomed coloration had returned to Simon’s face, when his anger had disappeared, he said to him:
“But last time you didn’t ask where the things came from.” […]
“Do you know why this is?” Simon the Uncle inquired in that nasal voice of his.
“Why what is?” Ivan whispered.
“Why it is that your mother is suffering so?”
Simon rested his lips compassionately on Ivan’s cheek; and Ivan, with his hair standing on end from the most breath now tickling his neck like a snake’s tongue, forgot for an instant about his shoes, about his coat, and sprang up from his chair; he paced around the room, tiny, agitated, completely flushed.
“That’s difficult to explain,” he mumbled to himself and shielded his eyes, deliberately averting his gaze, anything to avoid contact with Simon’s small, mocking, superior eyes, with his judgmental smile, lest he be overcome again by a feeling of nausea and torment.
Simon the Uncle banged around theatrically with his cane, followed immediately by his shoes, and a moment later his face turned severe, with his eyes reduced to slits, sharp, piercing. He clenched his teeth.
From where he was, in the corner of the room where he’d paused briefly, Ivan could make out Simon’s dour face and he could see his decisive, straight-backed profile.
“That’s difficult to explain…Very difficult,” he repeated rapidly, blinking, while a bitter crust formed around his lips—Simon always produced a vague sense of agitation in him. […]
“Nonsense! Nonsense! Nonsense!” he said.
“What are you trying to say, Boy?”
“I’m saying it: nonsense!”
Suddenly all the hatred in Ivan burst out of that one word.
He hated Simon because he was always clean-shaven, always smelling of cologne, always wore a buttoned-up shirt, always kept his shoes on inside the house, and always carried a small handkerchief in the upper pocket of his housecoat.
“What nonsense, Boy? I don’t understand.”
Simon the Uncle knew how to curry favor when needed—he’s set his voice to “quaver”, soften it, and a child-like honesty and confusion would shine forth from his face. Earlier, using this tried-and-true method, like a great magic spell, he was able to break Ivan and bring him to heel. Even now this was the case, too. Ivan’s hatred popped like a soap bubble. Nothing remained of the tension in his muscles when he had said “nonsense” with distinct intervals after every syllable. He was overcome by futility and feebleness; perspiring all over, he stammered and repeated uncertainly:
“Nonsense. I said…nonsense…This empty spouting off about blood that’s Russian, soft, irritable…That’s nonsense, Simon, and your brother said so. Everyone says so.”
“I didn’t mean anything bad with that,” Simon blurted out earnestly. “Tell me. Go on and tell me.”
“What should I tell you?”
“Who, boy, who is Vengerov?”
“Saša Vengerov, a friend of my mother’s. A decent man, Simon.”
“What do you mean by friend? What do you mean, decent? And where is he? Where is he if he’s decent and a friend—why has he disappeared?”
“He’s here, I guess, in hiding. Probably. I don’t know.”
At that point Simon expounded at length on how, all things considered, Milica had fallen in love with Vengerov (Ivan gave him a mistrustful look) and how Vengerov, “that low-life,” was the cause of her suffering and her unusual state of disorientation. He demanded that Ivan tell him all he knew about Vengerov.
At first Ivan hesitated, but then he started to talk about one thing after another: about Vengerov fleeing there from Russia when he was nineteen, with his wife, using the last name Mišic, about how he got a passport in that name, on the recommendation of Serbia’s diplomatic representative at the time, Milan Nenadić, from Denikin’s headquarters when it was being was broken up, and how he came by several jewels, in Belgrade, from Russian aristocrats. And later Saša pawned these jewels in Cetinje for six thousand, and then some thugs in Cetinje took away his wife, and they cheated him, and he ended up without either his wife or his money. Sašenjka is resourceful, though, and he got his hands on several more jewels and turned up at Milica’s; in fact, Milica met him somewhere, and he boasted to her, it seems, about the jewels and about his supposed acquaintance with some of her relatives there, in Russia. So that’s how they got close, became friends, and, ultimately Sašenjka moved in with them there on Uskočka Street.
“Moved in?” Simon the Uncle was agape with wonder.
He moved in with them and brought Milica a box with jewelry. There wasn’t a lot of jewelry in there, but it was real, real gold and real precious stones and silver, and the box was small, metal.
“Precious stones?” Simon the Uncle’s eyes gleamed.
Ivan went on to tell everything that he had heard about Sašenjka, and what he’d thought about him, how he looked; and as the tale developed further and further, Simon’s excitement kept increasing: because of “tall, handsome Vengerov,” because of “Saša Vengerov the wonderful human being,” because of the box with jewelry, real jewelry; and the man frowned whenever Ivan referred to Vengerov as “Sašenjka.” Milica bragged that she had gotten two boxes from Sašenjka; she said that to Ivan, but Ivan told Simon that he’d never seen the second box.
Finally, having heard “everything” about Saša Vengerov, Simon asked morosely:
“Is that all?”
“That’s all.” Ivan shrugged his shoulders.
“So where are these boxes now?”
“I wish we’d found even one of them. But we searched,” Ivan lamented.
“And you didn’t find them.”
“Well why not, for heaven’s sake? They’re metal, you said, so they didn’t burn up. That means someone else found them, and took them!”
It bothered Simon more than it bothered Ivan, this thought that the gold had gone missing. It bothered him that they hadn’t found Saša’s precious stones, and he couldn’t get over the fact that they hadn’t located the boxes (the box?) if they had sought them. He thought that they had not looked for them! Had they told him, he would’ve found them, he would’ve dug holes, rummaged around, ransacked things, would not have stopped until he’d found him. Then, staring into Ivan’s face, he thought– isn’t this whole story about the wonderful Saša Vengerov made up? Milica fabricated Vengerov, and there weren’t any boxes of jewelry. Very well, if she didn’t invent Saša, and maybe she didn’t—she did invent the boxes. Where would Saša get so much jewelry, so many precious stones? And why give them away? He never possessed them. If he gave anything to Milica, it might be one box or two—of fake emeralds, fake silver, fake gold!
“You said, Ivan, that someone deprived Vengerov of his wife?”
“They took her away, in 1921…and that’s when he lost all his money.”
“Who knows if he ever even had a wife, eh? Maybe he made that up.”
“He told my mother that.”
“He made it up. Fabricated, what else? And did Milica fall in love with him?”
“I don’t know. She might have.”
“Aha. She fell in love.”
“But where is he now, this fine, upstanding Saša of yours?”
“I don’t know. How could I know?”
“Maybe he’s not even alive. What do you think, Boy?”
“Maybe. Who knows?”
Biljana Jovanović (1953–96) was a Serbian intellectual who wrote in almost all major genres; she published poetry, three novels, four plays, and a number of nonfiction pieces, mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. Widely known among intellectuals and activists for her feminist and anti-war work with human rights groups and a “flying” (underground) university, she was also a courageous and fiercely innovative creative writer. Her novels were Pada Avala (1978), Psi i ostali (1980), and Duša, jedinica moja (1984).
John K. Cox is professor of East European History at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He has published literary translations of works by Danilo Kiš, Radomir Konstantinović, Ajla Terzić, and recent South Slavic writers. Currently he is translating all three of Biljana Jovanović’s novels. He earned his PhD in history from Indiana University in 1995.
This excerpt from Duša, jedinica moja (My Soul, My One and Only) is published by permission of Rastko Mocnik.
Published on February 23, 2018.