Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Borislav Pekić: Interrogation or Self-Interrogation (Part-1)

Excerpt taken from Borislav Pekic's three-volume, The Years the Locusts devoured; translated © 1993 by Christina Pribićević-Zorić; published in ‘Vengeance!’ a Passport Anthology: Number 6, 1993.

Otto Dix 1914
The night of the sixth to seventh of November 1948[1]. The door opens and, as I stir awake, in the gaping hole, two shadows, like golden aura, slowly take shape against the light of the naked kitchen bulb. One of them switches on the light in the little maid’s room where I sleep in the winter and the two hazy shadows become two men in brown leather coats. This is the ultimate in 1917 revolutionary chic, the top hat and boater of the triumphant proletariat[2]. At first, however, they remind me of pilots who have veered off course and crash-landed by my side. I have no reason to see them as angels bearing glad tidings. Glad tidings disappeared from my life long ago.

In between the two of them, in the distance, in the clinical whiteness of the enamel tiles, is my mother’s blood-drained face. Above it hangs a mirror framed in red celluloid, stained with old-age lead freckles. In it the glare of the light bulb obliterates the contours of the kitchen furniture, enveloping my midnight callers in a spectral shroud. To the right, stripped kitchen towels hang from the wall. Farther back, the flower balcony is engulfed in darkness. Below, dishes are drying in the sink[3].

Schumann is playing but distinctly on the radio.

"Du bist meine Ruhe". ("You are my peace").

I had forgotten to turn it off. My gaze turns to the crystal ashtray and its cigarettes butts, to the pack of Moravas, the matches and the green book jacket. Nietzsche’s Will to Power from the ‘Cosmos’ Caryatid series.

Wonderful, I think to myself. Whatever kind of power you may have learned from it, it doesn’t look as though you’ll be using it much now. Henceforward, power will be turning itself on you.
The door shuts. My mother’s face vanishes.

I lie still. I jus kick my foot free of the bedcover, a blanket fitted into a slip of sheets. I try to assume an expression of faint surprise. I know that is what people do when they are about to be arrested. They are always surprised at being dragged out of the hiding-place they have dug for themselves in their own imagination. But, except for ones imagination, there is no other hiding-place[4].

I know this is an arrest.
Dj. M. was locked up three days ago. Today was November 6th. I believed in Dj. M.’s courage and stamina, but I also believed in the stamina of the police. I had been prepared for this since the 4th. (Never, I think truly prepared. I am afraid that had I truly expected arrest to be the final outcome of my activities, I would never have embarked upon them in the first place. Or else, I would have done so in any event, which, considering my uncompromising anti-communism, is equally possible. The reason why I am uncertain about where the truth lies in that at least two persons are in conflict in this manuscript: the one who was arrested on the night between the 6th and 7th of November 1948, and the other who talks about that arrest, empathizes with the former, but does not entirely believe him. The Character of the arrested man despises and detests the Reason of the narrator, while the Reason of the narrator distrusts and secretly derides the Character of the arrested man. Unequal to the task, Reason has no other choice.) So, I was prepared. The secret is one indivisible whole. It lasts only as long as its relevant components remain secret.
Is what I feel fear? It’s no use lying to myself. It is fear. The abrupt hollowness, the giddiness of suddenly hurtling through space and not seeing its boundaries. The sinking stomach, wrenched out of me, something I later only experienced in the drop of an airplane.
The elder of the two, both are very young, asks me my name[5].

The procedure starts. Now I must prove my mettle. On no account must I reveal that I am afraid. I must act the way I would in front of a dangerous animal. Coolly and calmly. (The delusion is obvious. By staying cool and calm in front of a wild stray dog, we expect it to retreat. But when we act coolly and calm in front of the police, we do not really expect them to retreat. On the contrary, we know that they will pounce on us twice as ferociously. How, then, does one act cool and calm? How and why?)

I squeeze out my name. It does not sound quite as pathetic as I feared; shamefaced, rather. All those books about arrests are of no help. All those stories about arrests are of no use[6]. It always looks entirely different when it is you they come for. As though it were happening for the first time. As though this were the first arrest since the world began. The genesis of arrest as a process. A miracle.

‘I arrest you in the name of the people. Get up.’

(The people, meanwhile, know nothing about me. Yet here they are arresting me. They are no better informed even if I fight for them, even if I make certain demands in their name, yet that is what I do. The symmetry is perfect. The people know as much about me as I know about them; as much as I have acted on their behalf, so much do they want my arrest.) I get up. My powers of observation are hazy, disjointed, confused. I decide that the tales of exceptional lucidity in times of crisis are not true. At least not always. Certainly not in my case. I am conscious only of the inconsequentials of the scene. That I haven’t cut my toe nails in ages. That the room hasn’t been aired and reeks of cold stale ashes. That I have a date with J. in the afternoon. That one of the police agents has thin blonde hair and the other a stain the size of a fist on his leather coat (a stain I will later associate with blood, somebody else’s to be sure, and later still, perhaps with his blood, because, of course, it had to be somebody else’s and it had to be blood simply because it was on the coat of a policeman – a revolutionary not a civilian policeman – just as, of course, the stain would have to be from petrol if it were on the uniform of a driver).

The younger of the two tosses a suit on my bed. A jacket and brown plaid trousers. It couldn’t have been less pleasant to the touch had it been made of poison ivy. This is not the suit I wore last night. I realize now they have been in the house for some time. That I wasn’t woken up right away. That they may have already searched the place. That all that remains is for me to get dressed and – leave. (The search doesn’t worry me. There is nothing in the house to incriminate me. Nothing but me.)

My nakedness embarrasses me. I hide my sex with the sheet. Its whiteness is deathly. The trouser legs are tight. Tighter than ever before. First they have been narrowed by fashion, then by fear. ‘Sulundari’, I think ‘sulundari’[7]. I suddenly take an immense liking to the word. It could be the name of a magus. Albertus Magnus, Cagliostro and Sulundari. Sulun Dari or perhaps Su Lun Dari?

The older of the two walks over to the night table and picks up Nietzsche.
‘Ha!’, he exclaims. Then he treads on my bare foot with his boot. ‘Sorry. The room is so small.'[8]

Schumann’s wistfulness comes over on the radio. The heel of my foot is killing me. And again, contrary to every theory about the mind becoming lucid in times of crisis, I see nothing useful, I notice only inanities. I imagine Schumann in a crumpled white shirt, sitting at the piano. I see his thin wire-frame spectacles. The children around him. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter turns the music sheets for him.

The police agent turns off the radio. The image remains. As does the pain in my foot. Then the image disappears. The pain is still there.

I’m dressed. There is a knock at the door. My mother’s hand offers a thick pullover. She’s the only one here who is using her head. I am afraid, parenthetically thinking about Schumann. The police agents are doing their job. We are all too busy to worry about tomorrow. That only our mothers do.

After Dj. M.’s arrest I had decided to prepare a few of the usual things in case they came for me as well. But I didn’t prepare them because that would be evidence of my guilt. I was an idiot. They have certainly got stronger evidence against me than a blanket under my bed.

If they haven’t, they’ve got Dj. M.
Now they’ve got me as well.

The evidence will come of itself. (If it proves at all necessary since they’ve already got the people they want. The purpose of evidence is to remove certain people. If and when they are removed, what is the point of evidence?)

But there is one question that is a must. A senseless question. And it is because of its glaring senselessness that it must be asked. It is simply a ritual. The whole ceremony is a ritual. The same canonic answers always follow the same canonic questions.

‘What do you mean, “why”?’
‘Why am I being arrested?’
‘You know that better then anybody.’

I do, unfortunately. I do not ask myself whether it would be better if I did not know. I know it is better that I do know. It is harder to invent guilt than to bear it. Real guilt is always easier than fabricated guilt. A person who has a concealed revolver will show it (even though I personally did not show mine). A concealed tank does not have to be shown. (That, fortunately, I did not nave.) You are taken at your word.

I put on my shoes. I try to control my fingers (if not my fate, then at least my fingers). When I master my left hand, the right hand shakes. When I calm my right hand, the left trembles. No one hurries me. They are politer than I expected. That offends me. They have no right to be different from what I imagined. The waning pain in my foot reassures me. They may not be so different after all.

‘Can I take my cigarettes with me?’
‘Go ahead.’

Lying on top of the radio are my wallet, my watch, my fountain pen. There is no money in the wallet, the fountain pen is dry, the watch has stopped. I assume it is after 1.00 a. m. The German station I had been listening to plays classical music until 2.00 a. m.

Continue Part-2

Excerpt taken from Borislav Pekic's three-volume, The Years the Locusts devoured; translated © 1993 by Christina Pribićević-Zorić; published in ‘Vengeance!’ a Passport Anthology: Number 6, 1993.
This text, written much earlier and revised with footnotes in 1985, is taken from the 12th volume of Selected Works (Odabrana dela), a book of essays and diaries entitled Where the Vines Weep (Tamo gde loze plaču), ‘Partizanska knjiga’, Beograd 1984.
In Yugoslavia the revolutionary elite did not adopt working class blue as its civilian uniform. (As far as I know, only the Chinese did that.) Nor did it take to the black suits of the Soviets (which made them look like the grim managing executives of a funeral home.) From the very outset, the fashion style of Yugoslav revolutionaries was distinguished by a certain individualism, ranging from spontaneous or affected nonchalance to striking elegance and even regal splendour. I am not saying, of course, that this led to 1948, but any divergence from the acknowledged model is already a form of rebellion. As were for us, in the immediate postwar years, ties with unnatural small knots, narrow trouser legs, braces instead of belts, platform shoes, felt hats; as are, in relation to today’s highly individualized urban dress (still successfully resisted only by London’s City), the samely uniforms of hippies, punks and the motorbiking Hell’s Angels. Because when diversity becomes the universal standard, uniformity is the only way to resist it.
[3] The preciseness of the description, from which I have actually omitted various material details that would gladden the heart of any fan of the new novel, is deceptive in terms of my memory’s true powers. They have always been quite modest. Here, however, my memory has excelled, albeit in a superfluous direction. The reason may well be the role it played during my arrest. Namely, at the time, it was not performing its primary function of collecting and recording facts for the repository of the past, but rather was responding to the survival instinct, providing spontaneous psychological protection. By preoccupying itself with the irrelevancies of the scene, it prevented the mind from comprehending the tragic significance of what was actually taking place. It would have performed this same function in the event of my execution. But that does not make me grateful to it. I can imagine myself in a situation where I am drowning and, to protect me against despair, my memory preoccupies itself with registering the look of the waves and with metaphors for their rage. What I mean to say is this: if ever I find myself in a situation where the only thing that can save me from misfortune is total concentration on those aspects of it that are crucial to my salvation, but my memory, thinking it is doing me a service, focuses solely on the incidentals, on the ‘lead freckles’ staining the ‘mirror in red celluloid’, how on earth will I get out of it?
[4] Nor is there really any hiding-place there either. Perhaps even less so, paradoxically enough, then in real life. In your imagination especially if you have a vivid one, they arrest you every night. In real life they do so once and it’s over. Naturally, then it is a serous matter. But when you are dreaming about being arrested, you do not know that it is not serious, so it amounts to the same thing.
[5] Formalities are intended to protect the innocent against police error. But, in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, correct procedure and the Germans’ renowned fastidiousness regarding form, did not save the musician Weiss from the S.A. They duly asked him his name. When he duly responded, they duly fired five bullets into his stomach. The only undue aspect to the entire affair was that the Weiss with the five bullets in his stomach was not the Weiss who was supposed to be killed. Other than the musician Weiss, though, no on suffered any consequences. Not even the real Weiss. He was killed anyway. So, procedure does not in itself guarantee justice, nor does it protect against mistakes. Perhaps it was this knowledge, during the big purges, that led the police, in the final stages of the massacre, to reject all procedural form as superfluous, so that if the person they had come for was not at home, they would take whoever happened to be there, and if the place was empty, they would take someone from next door or from across the street. Shalamov’s story about the man who was whisked off the street to stand in for a fugitive internee and round off the official number for transport, saving the guards from prison camp themselves, and who for this purpose, had to carry the name of the fugitive he had never seen in his life, illustrates the values of the police procedure better than any textbook. I do not wish to indulge in exaggerated comparisons, but there is not a police force in the world, not even those working under the strictest constraints of the law and the controlling eye of public opinion, whose favourite procedure isn’t – to scotch procedure.

 Nor does it help that you have been arrested before. Mind you, my arrests prior to 1948 cannot be taken all that seriously; I was detained by the police twice. The first time, at the end of March 1941, in Cetinje, because I had participated in demonstrations against the Pact, which upsets me to this day; the second time in 1943, in Banat, because during a football game on my mother’s property in Bavaniste, I had cursed my team-mate’s ‘Kraut mother’. The ball was mine, and I considered myself to be within my rights of ownership, which pleases me to this day. The arrest were less serious because of my age (I was eleven in the first instance and thirteen in the second), and more serious because of the fact that in 1941 my father was the head of the Provincial Administration in Montenegro, and in 1943 the local police chief was one of his prewar employees. The Cetinje police chief’s two sons, Pavle and the late Dusko Vujisic, took part in the anti-German demonstrations and were arrested as well. And therein lies the reason for the collapse of the former Yugoslavia: not only had the sons of the Province’s two senior police officials demonstrated against it, but, instead of being sent to reform school, they were released from prison that very same night.

 ‘Sulundari’ are stove-pipes (translator’s notes).

 This is just the beginning of the dirty tricks and underhanded chicanery (sometimes ordered, more often self-initiated) that constitute the history of prisons.

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