Thursday, April 06, 2006

Arsenié Negovan

Excerpt (pp. 76, 108-110) 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.

(…) With respect to the future, however, Niké was a provocative and negligently chosen name for a house with which I dreamed of finding happiness. Viewed superficially, the name suited the house very well, (…)

(…) Niké no longer existed. My enchanting Niké was dead, dead and buried beneath an offensively ugly stele in the shape of a public promenade. Not only she but also her closest family had been brutally rooted out – probably according to some inhuman principle of co-participation in misfortune. Everything that was there in her place seemed so unreal now that, completely unhinged by this somnambulist vision, I thought – what am I saying, I hoped – that I had lost my way (this isn’t Kosmajska Street, it’s the street of some Biryuzov!), and that as soon as I pulled myself together I’d find the right one, where Niké would be waiting for me. But the awareness that I was leaning on Kleont Negovan’s house, and that my disappointing gaze could turn to Aspasia whenever I wanted, brought me harshly back to the fact that Niké was no more, that if I wished, I could walk around her tomb.

And you, Arsenije, you were so certain that you knew everything about the outside world simply because you found out about your brother’s death? There are other things too which have ceased to exist in the meantime – your Niké, for example – and who knows what else. Of course, they would have stayed alive if you hadn’t seen them dead. (…)

(…) Nothing held me here now. I walked toward Aspasia, but with the feeling that I owed something to Niké’s memory. It would have been heartless to leave without making an attempt to find out under what circumstances she had been destroyed. The most natural thing, of course, would have been to call on Kleont. But that would have required an explanation to which, at the moment of mourning, I was least of all disposed.

As I approached Aspasia I noticed a sign: a clumsily drawn shoe, and next to it white as chalk: SHOEMAKER – SOFRONIJE ŽIVIĆ – COURTYARD: TURN RIGHT. Sofronije Živić, shoemaker? No, there was no one with that name among my tenants. Nor had Golovan told me of a shoemaker in Aspasia. But it was quite clear why he had remained silent. He knew well that I didn’t allow workshops in my houses, still less crude signs hung over their doorways. There could be no further doubt that my lawyer had been lying to me about many details concerning my houses. In this light, his obliging behavior became understandable and his exaggeration conscientiousness took on a different meaning. Standing beneath that chalklike shoe, I remembered another illuminating incident. I had asked that the business records be brought to me for inspection. The weather was bad, the temperature ten degrees below zero, Golovan had come personally, by car in fact, to hand over the books. Feeling guilty about disturbing him, I had asked him why in God’s name he hadn’t sent the books with one of his clerks. He replied that he had prepared them personally in order to provide me with supplementary information. The explanation had seemed reasonable, and it gratified me to see in it that professional pride which had disappeared from commercial affairs. But in actual fact Golovan had feared lest I question his subordinates and so find out everything he had been concealing from me. I decided that a clarification of this puzzling situation would be my first concern on returning to Kosančićev Venac.

As I feared, the shoemaker Sofronije Živić worked on his loathsome shoes in a workshop of unbaked bricks which, parasite like, clung to Aspasia’s defenseless back. A workshop resembling a disgusting tick which sucked out of the parent house’s body all the strength it possessed. And of course, under such conditions Aspasia’s garden was no longer a picture-book rosary but an abandoned polygon paved with bricks, halfway between a cesspool and a stockyard.

From the shoemaker, in his apron of shiny brown leather – to whom, incidentally, my name meant nothing – I managed to learn very little, except that he had settled there in 1950, that he took in footwear of all European types from boots and sandals to dress shoes and slippers, that the area had been heavily bombed, and that before he moved here, the ruins had been removed and the little park built in its place.

What could I do? I thanked the shoemaker and left. Only when I had gone halfway along Carica Milica Street did I remember that I hadn’t even looked at Aspasia.

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