Friday, April 07, 2006

Arsenié and the Students' Demonstration 1968

Excerpt (pp. 168-178) taken from The Houses of Belgrade, English translation by Bernard Johnson; copyright © 1978 by Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Northwestern University Press. Originally published in Serbian – Hodočašće Arsenija Njegovana, © 1970 by Borislav Pekić.

(…) I was just concluding my revolutionary concept when on all sides I noticed an unusual excited movement. I would have noticed it earlier had I not been so preoccupied with my calculations. The people were all hurrying toward the railroad embankment. And the railroad was jammed full of red fire engines and military trucks with rubberized green canvas tops. I had no particular urge to join that animated movement, and certainly not to let it carry me along as a current carries a splinter of wood. I stopped an agitated passer-by who seemed, despite the camera slung around his neck, a reasonable-looking man, and asked him:

“Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what’s happening on the other side of the embankment?”

The man looked at me pleasantly, but without understanding. “Je m’excuse. Je regrette bien. Je ne parle pas serbe.”

“Oh, excusez-moi, je voulais seulement demander ce qui se passé la-bàs derrière la digue?”

“Une révolte, monsieur,” the man said enthusiastically. “Une révolte!”

“Quelle révolte?”

“Une révolte magnifique!”

(…) At first I couldn’t believe it. Being a foreigner, the man could easily have misinterpreted the disturbance. It must be a huge fire menacing the town, and now the soldiers were on their way to control it.

But I too was hurrying toward the embankment. Fortunately, none of my houses lay on the Zemun side. Since I wasn’t personally threatened by the fire, and furthermore was incapable of looking on helplessly while houses were being destroyed, I would have returned home if I hadn’t known how unpredictable the whims of fire are. I considered it opportune – and all the more so since I was once again committed to my business affaires – to take a closer look, and to undertake my own defensive measures should the blaze be spreading toward my houses.

“Is the fire a big one, young man?”
“What fire? It’s a riot, old man, a riot!”

I was astounded. “Are you saying things are out of hand down there?”

“What’s the matter with you? They’re marching on Belgrade!”

Still hoping to clear up the misunderstanding, I addressed another onlooker who was limping towards the embankment.

“In heaven’s name, sir, somebody just told me that a mob is trying to force its way into town. Is it true?”

“It’s true,” he said without stopping. “But they won’t make it, the bastards!”

I fell in beside him. “No one could be happier than I about that. But how do you know they won’t?”

“I used to be in the army.”

“My late brother was in the army, too. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? General George Negovan? I’m Arsénie K. Negovan and my business is housing.”

“I was a colonel. I was in command of a battery.”

I knew nothing about military units but despite his unduly direct speech and behavior, which I put down to barrack-room upbringing, the colonel inspired me with confidence. I kept as close to him as I could, all the more so since he shared my disgust at what was happening on the Zemun side of the embankment.

The citizens from behind were pushing me towards the underpass, (…)

(…) Along the tracks and in the curve of the underpass the army, in steel helmets and standing three deep, had formed a cordon to block off the approach to the town.

“That’s not the way to do it,” said the colonel. “They ought to block the road with trucks, set up road blocks.” (…)

(…) Now the pictures that they were carrying on poles could be seen with the naked eye. One was Lenin. I didn’t recognize the others, but they surely belonged to the same coterie. Scrawled across one of the placards in red was: FREEDOM, TRUTH, JUSTICE! DOWN WITH CORRUPTION! (I had no quarrel with that, though I would have added, “and banking.”) NO MORE UNIMPLOYMENT, I HAVE BEEN BEATEN UP! (I was, too, I thought, looking at the young man with the bandaged head who was carrying the placard.) THE REVOLUTION IS NOT YET FINISHED! (It needs to start first, you son of a bitch. But it looks as if it has started already.) DOWN WITH THE RED BOURGEOISIE! (…)

The rioters stood opposite the cordon of soldiers, singing. (…)

“I wouldn’t even talk to them,” said the colonel, taking the binoculars from his eyes. “If they’d let me, I’d teach them a lesson!”

The man behind me spat again. “What would you do then?”

“I’d go strait at them – what else? Attack both sides. I’d surround the column and smash them before they knew what was happening.”

“It’s easy to attack,” said the man behind us. “Why not meet their demands?”

I had to intervene. “In heaven’s name, sir, de quoi parlez-vous? Can’t you see what they’re demanding? They want our property!”

“Only property unjustly accumulated,” said the man dryly. (…)

“I wouldn’t even talk to them!” repeated the colonel. “They’ve been given freedom, and now all kinds of scum are wandering about the country!” (…)

Suddenly the crowd below the embankment became agitated and began to sing (…)

The man behind joined in the chorus. (…)

“Why shouldn’t I sing the Internationale? I’m a Communist.”

“I’m a Communist, too, but I’m not singing – not with that rabble. I fought for this country, comrade!”

“I fought, too, comrade!”

“For what?”

“That’s just what I’m asking myself!”

I couldn’t understand a word of it. They sounded as if they’d taken leave of their senses.

“Gentlemen, get a hold of yourselves!”

But they’d already come to blows. They were grappling with each other as violently as the cramped space allowed, and in doing so pushed me right up to the edge of the embankment, above the sandy field where at the very moment the military cordon was under growing pressure from the frenzied mob.

I cried out ounce again: “Mais s’il vous plaît, messieurs!”

(Whenever I was excited or in a difficult situation, I always resorted to French, probably because I went to school in Grenoble and first began to think maturely in that language.)

But already I was falling off the embankment. I have no proof that the two of them intentionally pushed me (although I wouldn’t vouch for the man sympathetic to the rioters), but they didn’t hold me back eider. And so, still clutching my stick and my binocular case, I rolled down towards the ditch, (…) I arrested my fall without great bodily harm: my stick and binocular case were still firmly in my grip, nor were my pince-nez broken. But my hat was no longer there: it had fallen off and rolled right down into the rioting mob. Having a wide, stiff Boer brim, it rolled easily. I followed it with my eyes for some time, for it was black as pitch and its width made it clearly visible. And its quality, of course. Miraculously, no one had yet trampled it: the rioters’ heels just pushed it away, and like some lame black bird it continued to bounce elastically over the sand.

I was proud of it.

I followed it until at last it stopped under an enormous heel, crushed. Bitterly I raised my eyes: it was the red standard-bearer. He still held the red flag aloft, even though he was being beaten. The soldiers had formed a circle around him, and hitting him with their batons, but the great ox wouldn’t let go of the flag. He was brandishing it like a club and fending off the soldiers. All around as George would have said, they were fighting “hand to hand”. I couldn’t discern any enthusiasm among the soldiers. They were shouting “Charge!” and “Kill!” but they weren’t shooting or using their bayonets.

Crouching there in ditch, it seemed to me that this wouldn’t stop the mob. I’m not disputing that the soldiers were hitting them in the back, grinding their boots into their stomachs, trampling them down unmercifully. I couldn’t see everything that was going on in the field because bodies continually blocked my view, and anyway I had no stomach for violence. The standard-bearer hadn’t fallen yet. He was bloodied but still on his feet, waving his flag like a battle-ax. Hammering at him from close quarters, the soldiers were trying to force him into the ditch, where the cramped space wouldn’t allow him to defend himself. They were pushing him toward me and hitting him all over his body, which jerked convulsively but wouldn’t give in. (…)

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