Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Where are Yugoslavia’s billionaires?

This fragment has been originally published in “Pisma iz tudjine”, “Znanje”, Zagreb; pp. 89-92. © Borislav Pekic; English translation ©Zdenka Krizman and Maja Samojlov, as “Letters from London”.

One knows in principle who and where the British billionaires are and one could only be mistaken in the number of billions. In any case you are not going to find them in the same place as ours. Where you are going to find ours I will try to explain. For that I have to turn to one of my visits to the fatherland.

K. Malevich - Suprematism-3 There was a dose of vengeance in my desire to observe the English entering my country. For, in my time, I have had to enter England in the face of polite, but considerable, difficulty. Over and over again, I have had to explain my presence in Britain. The question was not unusual. I had been asking myself the same thing all along.

Aboard the plane bound for the Adriatic with a large group of Britons and a few Yugoslavs, I said to myself: your time has come. However, the British breezed through passport control, while I was once more called upon to do some explaining. One thing they wanted to know was why I specifically wanted to visit the coast in August. Luckily, the smooth passage of the British was just a trick, and later they had to pay for it.

The line at the Passport Control moved quickly. Then a cold air hostess appeared with a group of my agitated countrymen, leading them ahead to jump the queue in order to catch a connecting flight to Belgrade which was waiting for them. This we all understood. What we failed to understand was why they were still at the airport when we were already well on our way to the coast.

In the meantime, my fellow countrymen and I had surrendered our passports and were herded into the customs area, to provide the foreign travelers with the instructive spectacle of apparent smugglers caught in the act. I began issuing scathing advice on how to run the airport, the country, and the world. My wife said if I continued that she would divorce me on the spot. Because, she had come to see the coast, not the inside of a prison.

At this point, the customs officer demanded to see my luggage. I told him I didn’t know where it was. He informed me where I might possibly be able to find it. I went to fetch it. In a gloomy corridor, several hundred suitcases had formed three Cheops pyramids.

I returned pale and politely suggested that if he was interested in it, he might like to find our luggage himself. He politely agreed, but soon returned equally pale. Despising male in efficiency, my wife took matters into her own hands. Matters but not the suitcases. She went after the luggage, and she, too, returned pale. Pale and furious. Now it was her turn to begin rearranging the airport, the country and the world, and my turn to threaten divorce.

The passengers’ progressive hysteria had no effect on the progressive working class which, in the shape of four young, healthy and powerful transport workers, sat on a bench by the state frontier, extracting endless enjoyment from the confusion.

When they had been asked whether they would bring the suitcases out onto the counters so that people could pick their luggage out, they declined, and explained that it was no concern of theirs. Their job was only to bring them out of the plane. Logically speaking, they were right. The suitcases weren’t theirs. Why should they carry them?

For a moment I hoped there was a strike on, one which a humanitarian writer was called upon to support. But I wasn’t in England. People weren’t working here - not because they were out to gain or to defend something - but because they didn’t feel like it.

Our journalists are perpetually engaged in a hunt for the 40 000 Yugoslav billionaires. I don’t know about the other 39 996, but four of them were certainly at this very airport. You may wonder how I recognized them. It was easy. I offered them money to find my suitcases. They refused. Only very rich people refuse to earn money.

I went off and made enquiries about the situation by approaching three people dressed in different uniforms, and it was my own fault for assuming that they were engaged in the same task – that of effecting the safe and comfortable transfer of people from one place to another.

The polite customs officer told me that, apart from inspecting their contents, he had nothing at all to do with my suitcases. The polite young woman at the Information Desk had no information to offer about my luggage either, although she did offer to tell me the quickest route to Reykjavik.

The polite Flight Control official informed me that my luggage was a concern for the ground staff, while he dealt with heavenly matters only. I omitted to ask the not so polite policeman at the passport control anything. He had already taken my passport once before.

All things duly considered, apart from the despairing passengers, no-one at that airport seemed to have anything to do with the airport.

It was past midnight. I had stayed behind at the Customs Office as a hostage, while my wife went out in search of a taxi which, by then, was no longer obtainable, since here they are, it seems also billionaires.

Meanwhile my British fellow-travelers, whose busses were waiting, realized that the luggage would not be making an appearance, so they went and fetched it out themselves, laid it out, distributed it to the owners, carried it onto the busses and drove off without a single word of complaint about rearranging the airport, the country or the world.

Left lying in the corridor were my two suitcases, and a little vengeful spite that the Englishmen had to trouble themselves with them. I admit that thit is not enough for all my discontent, but then it was better than if the English passengers had made some remarks, and I had to carry their luggage.

The taxi fare to the distant town has cost me 800 000 dinars. Not a high price to pay, considering all I heard from the driver about running the airport, the country, the world. I’ll be getting paid more than that for this programme. All in all I made money out of it. Well then, why was I angry?

Because I’m not a Westerner, and I’m bad at sums. And since I don’t understand it, I won’t ever be a Yugoslav billionaire. And I never sit on a bench, refusing to carry other people’s suitcases.

I’m not speaking out of any desire to help to organize better our airports, or in general the country, the world. Concerning the British that’s not essential. They don’t come to the Yugoslav coast because we are well-organized, since they have that at home, but because we are so inexpensive.

And I come – because I must.

I’m only speaking to redress some of the damages.

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