Two Stories by Dario Džamonja

The Addict

Last Friday, I went to the supermarket with my cousin to buy some ingredients for stuffed grape leaves. We chose the worst hour of the worst day, sometime around 6pm, when everyone is on their way home from work and doing the grocery shopping for the weekend and the upcoming week.

The checkout lines were endlessly long. Plus, an old lady standing in front of us had miscalculated and stuffed her shopping cart with more items than she had money for, so she was facing the difficult decision of what to return: a bag of chips or a roll of toilet paper.

“Fuck the grape leaves,” I said to my cousin irritably. Immediately I caught the eye of a fellow standing in the line next to us.

“Where are you guys from?”

“Sarajevo, and you?”

“Me too.”

He reached out to shake our hands and introduced himself with a smile:

“My name is Atif. Atif Abazović.”

The name sounded familiar, and I could sort of recall his face: the way his eyes smiled, the way I couldn’t see his mouth from his thick moustache, and the way he pushed his glasses up his fairly large nose.

The feeling was mutual, because he could swear that he also knew me from somewhere. As we walked out of the supermarket, we invited him for a drink across the street. He accepted, although he said that he had given up drinking a long time ago:

“A year before the Olympics, I ended up in the hospital. It wasn’t much of a surprise; if you were to fill a swimming pool with all the liquor I drank that year, all that brandy, anisette, grappa, Zvečevo, Vlahov, you’d drown before you reached the other end. And all I ate during that time were hot dogs from Gril, the joint across the street from the Second Gymnasium, and no more than the number of fingers on my hands. After that I had to get on the bandwagon.”

My cousin and I ordered a Martel, and he got a pitcher of beer.

We looked at each other confused, and he explained:

“Beer is not alcohol–beer is food. Did you know that there is a sip of milk and a bite of meat in every beer?”

That sounded familiar, as did his other stories: teachers from the Second Gymnasium, friends from Club FIS, waiters from the restaurant Stara Istra, girls from the Park café, small-time conmen from the bar Bulevar… It was as if he and I had been leading parallel lives and had never met, but instead crossed paths, passing each other in bar toilets, sitting in the same rows at the same cinemas, cheering at the same football games, riding in the same trams…

“Atif, what are you doing now?”

He lit a cigarette (again a familiar gesture), inhaled deeply, finished off his beer, wiped his moustache with his forearm, looked me straight in the eye and said:

“I’m looking for a cure. But I haven’t had much luck. Look, I’ve been “abstaining” from Sarajevo for five years now. If I’d been a heroin addict all my life I’d be clean by now, but, for the life of me, I can’t get Sarajevo out of my blood. Sometimes, I feel like it is all over and done for, that I’ve kicked the habit, but the smallest detail–a familiar voice on the phone, a name in the newspaper, a dream–is enough to bring it all back, and then I go crazy from a desire to…to…I don’t know what…”

We sat there drinking in silence because I knew (from my own experience) that it would be too cruel to ask:

“Why don’t you go back?”

We parted ways and promised to stay in touch.

“God willing,” I added as always.

I called my cousin last night to ask whether he had Atif’s address or phone number. He said he didn’t remember any Atif from the supermarket or having a drink with him.

I replied that I wasn’t crazy, and he insisted that I must have made a mistake, that it must have been another day, that he had never left the house, and that he had been watching a basketball game on TV…

Thinking about it now, I remember how Atif hadn’t bought anything at the supermarket (so why the fuck was he at the checkout?) and I wonder if I dreamt of Atif Abazović…

Or did Atif dream of me?

Nameless Horror, or How It All Began

The seats had been taken out of the Boeing 747, so to the eleven of us passengers on this originally enormous airplane now felt like being on a soccer field.

The deathly silence only increased the sense of foreboding and everyone was concerned with their own thoughts and worries. (I will never understand why we say “concerned,” when it is so much more than that–your brain is cracking under the pressure, your forehead is furrowed in pain, and cold sweat is breaking through your skin.)

I opened a bottle of juniper brandy, and soon it was making the rounds while the plane taxied down the runway.

During the flight, I was racking my brain trying to figure out when all this had begun.

Was it…

…the day I stood in front of a microphone; the day sixty thousand people from across Bosnia came to Sarajevo to march for peace; the day I spoke in front of the Parliament building saying that I would like to use the opportunity to congratulate our national leaders for bringing all this upon us and to remind everyone that the culprits are not the Serbs, Croats, or Muslims, but the shameful papani (which is nothing more than an acronym for primitive, amoral, partially literate, aggressive nationalists); the day that my words and the words of others who shared these beliefs were interrupted by shots fired by Karadžić’s mercenaries from the top floor of the Holiday Inn across the street; the day we realized that they were much more dangerous than just a bunch of drunken, drugged-up hooligans worthy of contempt and pity and that the threats against Muslims made by Karadžić, a failed poet, corrupt psychiatrist, and anxious peasant, were not just drivel; the day we realized that the plague of nationalism, supported by artillery and tanks, cannot be stopped with mere hippy slogans like “Make Love, Not War”; the day fear gripped Sarajevo as “liberators” crept out onto the streets pillaging every boutique, store, or bar in the city with the excuse of salvaging the goods from the Chetniks; the day I was separated from my wife and child who were one block away and the government-enforced curfew did not allow me to run the hundred meter dash to see them, so all I could do was pull down the blinds and crawl around our apartment which was within shooting range of the snipers from the Jewish Cemetery under the hill of Trebević; the day the National Library was shelled and burnt down, while those who destroyed it accused “the fucking Muslims” of the act because allegedly the library mostly held “Serb books”; the day precise artillery fire destroyed every important building in the city: the train station, the bus station, the main post office, the city bakery, the main electric plant, the water plant…

…the day I felt fear for the first time in my life?

Not fear of what will happen the next minute or the next day but simply fear–that feeling that overruns you from your toes to the furthest reaches of your brain, fear that paralyzes every thought and activity, fear that kills all emotions and turns a man into a vulnerable animal who can only helplessly fear.

Or…

…did all this start the morning Dijana woke me up to see the results of “the first democratic elections” in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we saw that nationalist parties had won a landslide victory against non-nationalist, liberal parties.

We were hung over that morning because we had already celebrated the victory of the liberal reformist party the night before–the one we had voted for, naively confident in the knowledge that all of our friends would vote for them as well.

We comforted ourselves by saying that these were just the preliminary results from the villages and that the reports from the cities would change things because “diversity” would come through. The reports from the cities were even more devastating.

We felt betrayed, because it was obvious that our friends–our Mujos and Savas and Ivans–were not just our friends, our raja, but deep inside, or barely under their skin, simply Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. They could hardly wait to join the flock, to forever lose their individuality in order to become cells in a sick nationalist monster that was doomed to fail, but only after it did everything in its power to take as many people with it into oblivion.

In the name of what? The sense of a historical moment?

What sense? Which history?

We were on the very brink. We had one foot in something new. We had no idea what it was, but it surely would have been better than the life we had lived until then. You can call it “democracy” or “the twenty-first century” or “the new world order.” And then we crashed into an abyss of hatred, prejudice, savagery, and religious madness.

Or should I go further back in history, which I don’t want to do or have any desire to do, and look for a beginning in those dusty, rotten, six-hundred-year-old wars?

For me, as long as I’m alive, there will always be a question without an answer: WHY? I have no valid answer to the question of when it all began, and the only thing I can do is try to describe how it went on and how it is still going on–this nameless horror!

Bios

Dario Džamonja

Dario Džamonja (1955-2001) was the most renowned short story author of his generation and the most influential author of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. His own biographical note in the 2001 edition of Letters from the Madhouse simply said: “My name is Dario Džamonja. I was born in Sarajevo in 1955. I died in Sarajevo in 1993 when I left it. I died again in 1998 when I left America and my children. Now I’m trying to live again in Sarajevo from my writing.” He never managed to get published during his life in the United States. Only a handful of his stories were published in English, most of them posthumously.

Aleksandar Brezar

Aleksandar Brezar was born in Sarajevo in 1984. He currently resides in Northampton, MA. He has worked as a journalist at Radio 202 and a translator on several documentary films and other film-related projects for PBS, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Al Jazeera English, among others. His translations have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Protest.ba, Peščanik, and Lupiga.

Pisma iz ludnice. Copyright (c) Estate of Dario Džamonja, 2001. English translation copyright (c) Aleksandar Brezar, 2014.