Sunday, April 02, 2006

Borislav Pekić: Interrogation or Self-Interrogation (Part-2)

Continue from 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.

For the first time I take the advice given in books and willfully extract permission to take my cigarettes with me. I shove everything into my pocket. My wallet, my fountain pen, my watch.

‘You won’t be needing that’, says the younger of the two.
‘What will I be needing?’

Dali 1940
I get no answer. It seems I won’t be needing a thing. Nothing, except for my memory. That’s what the police agent should have said. What will I be needing?, I’d ask. Memory, he’d replay. That would be the right dialogue. The definitive dialogue.

But the articles stay in my pocket all the same (only to be taken away from me half an hour later). The wallet, the watch, the fountain pen. I had been given the fountain pen for my eighteenth birthday, a few months before graduating from high school. It had been hoped I would write better homework with it. Instead I wrote perfectly decent proclamations. The reputation of the Third Boys’ Gymnasium did not profit much from that pen. It was gold, with a black-and-green cylinder. A ‘Pelican’. But it never had any ink in it. I always wrote with a pencil. I didn’t write homework on principle. But I curried the pen with me. It looked intellectual. I didn’t wear glasses and you had to have something to show you were a thinking man. The pen has a dramatic history to it, it is one of the jewels in the crown of my resistance, and although it relates not to the interrogation but to the beginning of my parole. I copy it down from my Diary – Where the Vines Weep.[9]

‘Finally I was returned the possessions that have been taken away from me on the night of my arrest. The wallet, the watch. The fountain pen wasn’t there. Did I have it that night? Of course I did. Am I sure? Of course I am. What kind of fountain pen was it? I describe it as something quite gorgeous. Gorgeous and expensive. The two men at the desk confer quietly. They will check and see. You do that, I say.

‘Some ten minutes later they return from somewhere, from the recesses of the storeroom, with blank faces and information that my fountain pen isn’t there and that I have to leave without it. They expect me to go. I don’t give up easily. I give them a hard time. That without a doubt is my revenge. It may not be all that great, but it is instantaneous, and that counts for something.

“I want my fountain pen”, I say softly. “I had it. It was taken away from me when I was arrested.”
“Is it so important now?”, one of them asks, laughing.
“It’s important.”
“Then loge a complaint.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“What are you doing?”
“Lodging a complaint.”
“I didn’t mean right now.”
“When then?”
“When you get out.”
“I’m getting out now.”
“So go.”
“When I get my fountain pen.”

‘I keep repeating stupidly that I had it, that I expect to get it back, that I will do whatever it takes to get it. I show no intention of budging without it. That fountain pen is now my raison d’etre. What’s the use of freedom without a fountain pen? What’s the use of living without a fountain pen?
‘They become impatient.

“Listen’, says one of them. “All your things are here.”
“Not my fountain pen.”
“Fuck your fountain pen!”
“It’s mine”, I replay as though thereby definitely siding with the pen.
“Fuck it!”, he now says with enjoyment. “Fuck your fountain pen!”

‘The other one has better nerves. He realizes that I won’t leave without the pen. He opens the desk drawer and takes out a fountain pen.

“Here’s your fountain pen! Satisfied now?”
“No”, I say, “That’s not mine.”

‘I describe my pen. Gold, with a shiny black and green cylinder. I don’t get to give any details. They throw me out. One throws out my things, minus the fountain pen, the other my person, again minus the fountain pen.
‘The gate creaks open and I come out – and go in…’

‘Sign the warrant’, says the older of the two, handing me a small form.
It is a warrant for my arrest. It already has one signature on it. Mine symbolizes the gigantic progress made by the judicial system and an awareness that the individual is inviolable.

Habeus corpus (I have the body)! Indeed I have. That is what they are about to lock up. The body that is inviolable without my consent. The body whose foot is hurting me because it is injured, although I didn’t ask anyone to tread on it. Namely, no one can be deprived of his liberty until he personally approves the act. I, of course, do not personally approve of it at all, I am wholeheartedly against it. But this has not the slightest effect on my arrest, which simply takes its course. Up to this point I have been in some disagreement with the people, but since the people are not here, it is a rather moot debate. My signature disposes of the disagreement (although the battle continues). And so the people and I now agree. We are both for my arrest.
The actual warrant looks like a receipt. I am presenting myself like a piece of merchandise, to be used by another owner.[10]I am renouncing my own liberty. I am, in fact, arresting myself. I no longer have the body.

‘Let’s go!’
I step into the glaring light of the kitchen.
Have I taken a good look at my mother? Have I remembered everything I will need to remember? For a long time to come, probably.

My friend ( ) called my mother Marie Antoinette. Because of her gray hair on her young-looking head and the slight trepidation with which she would open the door. Have they arrested him as well?

Through the hallway, as through a tunnel steeped in half-shadows, I see my father. His head held high, he is sitting on the piano stool[11]. He has thrown a housecoat over his pyjamas. Standing beside him is our next-door neighbour. He is in his pyjamas and a housecoat too. The third police agent is standing off to the site. This one finally looks the way he’s supposed to. He is dark. His jaw is square and stained with a beard that can never be shaved off. His leather coat is unbuttoned.

The scene looks unreal. But it tells me that they have probably not searched the place yet. The neighbour will attend the search as a witness. An impartial, neutral witness, in keeping with the law[12]. And the neighbour comports himself accordingly, quite impartially and neutral. As though he has been transported in his sleep to another planet whose customs he has yet to learn. As though he neither understands nor recognizes anything here. Least of all – me. He makes no move to shake my hand. He gazes into some obscure distance, that of his safe planet probably, there behind the dark windows. I don’t think it’s deliberate. He feels uncomfortable. Like an accomplice in this arrest, which, after all, is better than having to feel like my accomplice, like an instrumental part of the arrest, which again is better than feeling like a part of my conspiracy. I know he has been planning to go abroad for some time, and has been having problems with his passport, problems that are universal. I am sure that tomorrow he will be attacking them with renewed vigour.

A recent scene floats eerily through my mind.

I am walking down a street in the Čubura part of town, going to visit my close friend ( ), a medical student. The iron gate is opened by a man in a leather coat. He’s very like my man in the leather coat. Knitted out of the same human fabric. As impersonal as a machine. Just – functional. I realize my predicament. I try to convince him that it’s nothing urgent. I can just as well see my friend tomorrow. It depends which one, he says. I don’t know who is being arrested, ( ) or his brother, And on that depends my answer.

It’s idiotic to have a friend who is being arrested. And only slightly less idiotic to be the friend of someone whose brother is in prison. I’m confused. I like to say – neither. I like to say I made a mistake, it’s the wrong house. The wrong street, the wrong town. It’s the wrong country, that’s for certain. I am so sorry I am not an Englishman or American, whose views sit in the Senate not in prison, and opposing views, even when not in the Senate, are not in prison either. (I am not so sorry any more; now I am sorry I am not in my own country, whatever it’s like, which just goes to show how impossible I am to please.)

The inner betrayal was as quick as lightning. And futile. I had to go in, no doubt to gratify the police’s logic that a friend of an enemy is an enemy himself, which in principle is stupid, but in my case happens to be true. As I step in, I try to conceal my betrayal behind the fact that I have a secret of my own, that the scene I am about to witness may be an advance on one in which I will be starring in myself. In the drawing room, whose glass door look out onto the arboured veranda, my actual friend is sitting on a chair. They plonk me on another. Name? Address?

Moving between the two police agents with robotic assuredness, his older brother ( ), an architecture student, is packing his things. His wallet, his watch, his fountain pen. The third and last question is: whose friend am I? I almost say: not his, not the one who is packing away his wallet, his watch, his fountain pen. Their amazingly calm mother, Mrs. ( ), asks whether her son can take his shaving kit with him. No, replies the agent. I stand up. Why not? Why can’t he? And anyway! (This is primarily a point of class and political delineation: if they don’t care how they look, we do. A good upbringing and decent manners are our weapons. To look civilized is a matter of political conscience and class consciousness[13].)

I realize that, by making a fool of myself, I am now atoning for my cowardice at the front gate. And that I am not made of the same stuff as those who work for the underground[14]. And I am too concerned with the moral side of things. With having clean hands. With how I will appear to myself in my own eyes. I know that in the eyes of the police agent who led me in, I look like a moron. He eyes me with sympathy, he seems to be saying: Sit down, you fool!

I sit down. The hell with razors! The hell with morals! But when they take ( ) away, I offer him my hand and give his a strong squeeze. I am with him. I am wrong. How wrong I am! No one is with him any more. He’s alone.

Like me now. Like everyone before me. Like everyone after me.

My father stands up. His face is drawn. We shake hands. It is a reconciliation. The past year has been hard for both of us. I was insufferable. Irritable, worried, intolerant. Now that it is all over, I am calm again. There is still no real relief, the relief that will come only after the verdict; many uncertainties still lie ahead, the most fateful of which concerns not my fate but rather the answers to the question: who am I, what am I like as a man; but the main uncertainty is gone. I haven’t got the time to tell him that. And there is no need. He understood it all tonight, remembering perhaps his own dilemmas before joining the irregulars in the Great War. We always understood each other well. Even when to others it looked as though we were no longer capable of it.

I say good-buy to my mother. My uncle is out somewhere. She does not cry. I am grateful to her for that. But I expect no less. She is strong. She has always been strong. Strong and rational. She slips a couple of clean, impeccably ironed handkerchiefs into my pocket. One must always be neat, no matter what. Whether paying a visit or dying. (Good manners are our only defence against barbarians, I was once told by one of the more prominent pluperfects of my counter-revolutionary youth. Bayonets are better, sir, I replied. At the time I was not distinguished by any particular love for humanity. Nor, as evident, by any manners.) She brushed my collar clean of hair from my last haircut. She does what she always does whenever I leave the house. Finally she passes me my coat, altered from my father’s official coat which he had worn with his parade uniform as provincial head in 1936.

Two of my mother’s oils hang in the front hall. 'Landscape at Dusk’ and ‘Mountain Stream’. Two forbidding Drobnjak landscapes seen through the terrified eyes of a Panonian woman. They have been in the house since my earliest childhood. Like two gentle mementos of times gone by, never to return again. Like sentries at the grave of one’s last memories.

I feel an elbow poking my ribs.
I feel – the future.
The door of the past closes behind me.


End 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.
[9] B. Pekić, Odabrana dela; Tamo gde loze plaču, ‘Partizanska knjiga’, Beograd 1984, Vol. 12, pp. 389-390.

 The receipt does not have a clause saying that I must be returned in the same condition. The police would be in trouble if arrest warrants contained such a proviso. Mind you, less so if they were required to return the merchandise in approximately the same condition. After all, to enter prison on two legs and leave on one is approximately the same.

 The piano itself, like most of the things left behind in Cetinje after we were expelled from Montenegro (for being, to quote the press, ‘Belgrade toadies’), went to the popular fund for the new redistribution of goods. Since my father was not tried after the war – on the contrary, he was immediately given a high position in the federal administration – his property obviously did not fall subject to the multitude of reasons for confiscation and expropriation. But it did fall subject to the rudimentary possessive cravings of the anti-possession class. The end result was that we wound up with the piano stool instead of the piano.

 Under the law I was supposed to attend the search as well, but being obviously partial, I didn’t. Even before, I had known that every law has a loophole. Now I had learned something more important: there was none for me.

 Later, under detention, the effort to maintain a decent appearance and civilized behaviour, as a means of struggle, had to be more or less abandoned in the face of a more serious struggle, the struggle for bare survival. We were seldom visited by people presented to us as barbers. All that hair-plucking in the corridor outside the attic cells at Obilicev Venac left no room for personal requests regarding hair style. Later, in prison, we had our heads shaved, and sometimes more than that, because beards were not allowed. (When I grew one after I got out, becoming one of the first bearded faces in Belgrade, the favourite question of activists still active at the University was: ‘What’s that you’ve got there? The beard of a prophet, a wit, or – a shit?’ Most disillusioned people sport beards nowadays, perhaps in mourning. But even that doesn’t help). The need to individualize the gray prison physiognomies could be satisfied only by indulging in every possible shape of moustache.

 Many years later, when I became more interested in prison and the historical, psychological and anthropological phenomena of its perennial prisoners – the police – I wondered when, how and why the modern technology of arrests had been established. Why had it not really existed until around the French revolution (although traces of a progressive concept of the individual and his reactions could already be detected in the acts of the Inquisition)? Romans were not, in principle, arrested at night. Rome’s forces of law and order found the daylight good enough. Admittedly, in the age of decadence a Caligula or a Nero might, even at night, send certain kinds of people submissions for their arrest or suicide – both alternatives being terminal – but they were basically the exception, notable for their number not for the time of day. Until modern times, no one gave any serious thought to what would be the best time, first, to arrest a person, and, second, to execute him. (From what we know today, the best time to arrest someone is after midnight, at the end of his first sleep cycle, and the best time for execution is dawn, right after his last sleep cycle). Nor were the other canons of modern arrest observed. No general technical procedure was established. Nothing was programmed. If a Greek arresting a Greek stepped on the latter’s foot with an iron shoe, it was either accidental or personal, but it was not to make a point. There is no record of any Assyrian police agent who, upon being asked the natural question: ‘Why are you taking me away? What have I done?’, replied: ‘You know better than anybody’. What happened in the long interim, while we advanced towards the stars? Why did we suddenly start paying attention to the when and the how of it (worrying least about the why of it)? Why, when and how did we invent a procedure which, despite fundamental differences, technologically links the police of democracies and dictatorships, tyranny and relative liberty, totalitarianism and liberalism? Danton was arrested at night. Robespierre was arrested (truth be told) at dusk. Marat finished in the light of day, but he was not arrested, he was duly killed. The Soviet Cheka did its arresting at night. The NKVD, its successor, arrested people at night. The Yugoslav UDBA did its arresting at night. Until I came to London I thought that the English, at least, did it by day, that’s to say when they’ve got the time. I was wrong. They like the dark too. You can be hauled away in broad daylight in only two cases: if you get drunk and impede circulation on the pavement, or if you plant a bomb by the pavement and manage to await the police, who in this country are always late. What happened? Science I think. It was only with the Renaissance that man started taking a real interest in himself. He started studying himself the way he had once studied other natural phenomena – scientifically, objectively, impersonally – until finally he reached the positivistic, rationalistic, materialistic (political-socialist) conclusion that man is first a social and only then a biological (and, in terms of prejudice, often also a godly) being, that his famous free will lies not within himself but within the circumstances that surround him, that these circumstances, and hence man’s own development, can be controlled, and, by scientific extension, that in order to achieve maximum effect he must be arrested after his first sleep cycle when he is enjoying his sleep the most, that his foot must be trod upon so that he understands what awaits him and confesses in order to forestall being stepped on again, and lastly that he must not be told why he has been arrested, because he either knows, in which case such information is superfluous, or he does not know, in which case, given the requirements of scientific investigation, it is more superfluous still.

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