Blesok no. 29, November-December, 2002
Of us three friends, Leo was the only one who never claimed that he was going to kill himself. Now, on the other hand, him turning out to be the one who thinned our numbers just seems logical. Unlike Osvald and me, Leo never went around flaunting his suicidal drive, he just saved it, so that he could bring it out easily, undented and fresh. When it came to threats of suicide, Leo was the quietest among us, Osvald was the loudest. When Osvald complained—whether it was to do with suicide or anything else—that wasn't sentimentality, but his last chance for lamentations. I had long enough to discover that at the construction firm in Karaburma, where the two of us met. And now: while Osvald said that family and life in Perast had killed Leo, his voice trembled. I never expected him to be so troubled by Leo’s death, just as I had never expected Leo to kill himself. I’m not in the least surprised, however, that Perast turned out to be the place where Leo put the full stop on his life. I too spent part of my life in Perast and I know that some people kill themselves so as not to have to live in Perast. Born in Belgrade, Leo moved to Perast two years before he killed himself; Osvald went back to Perast a few months after Leo’s migration. If Leo moved to Perast for love, Osvald went back there for poverty. Perhaps that was why Osvald incessantly belittled that ‘city with no options and village with no tranquility’. It becomes clear that there really are no options in Perast if you compare Osvald and Leo’s close companionship in the last stages with how they related to each other in the beginning: from the moment they got to know each other, in Belgrade they spoke only through an intermediary, and entrusted that role to me; in Perast, they couldn't avoid each other. The most beautiful details of Perast (the wonderful colours of the sky and the waves in the bay, the baroque church, the narrow and from some perspectives even ancient streets, the houses with joyful figures of lions on their stone walls…) made no difference to that, and the fact that it’s wise getting out of there as soon as possible is indicated by the tendency of the seemingly peaceful esplanade to always receive more cars than passers-by. At least half the unmarried women of Perast follow the cult of the beautiful female body, as do the local passers-by and drivers. However, the most devoted followers of that cult are mariners, and the majority of young men in Perast go out on the sea almost all year round: those men of the world and good chances are not even able to find time to admire their voluptuous neighbours. Not counting a few bizarre types and, as I said, the mariners, the only ones left are the aggressive drivers, men who are not daring enough for sailing or for harmless courting. So it is hard for any pretty woman in Perast to find one man worthy enough to court them. The buttocks of the local señoritas have practically been sculpted in vain. Unlike Risan and the other little towns in the Bay of Kotor, that’s what Perast is like. On the other hand, Risan and the other hamlets nearby are predominantly inhabited by a world which has degenerated because of their ancestors’ incest, the eternal custom of those and all other extremely closed little communities, here around Perast and elsewhere. Anyone who spends even a few days in those places notices his jaw starting to become squared off and his eyes taking on a savage expression. To protect themselves from disfigurement, the people of Perast are left with no other choice than escaping from the entire bay or diving into Perast. At the other end of the telephone line, Osvald was not just berating me (Although you’d been told about it, you didn't come to your friend’s funeral!), but also some young guys who had told Leo’s father that they had traveled a long way to Perast just for Leo's funeral and asked him to reimburse their travel expenses and a per diem. As it happened, the more modest ones did without the per diem. They did mention that their friend, or so they called Leo, would himself have insisted that they should be compensated for their travel costs (and perhaps the per diem too). After the funeral, Leo's father really did pay these malicious jokers from Perast, and maybe also from Risan. Apparently he had not known that — besides Osvald and myself — Leo had had no friends at all, although he was inclined to get close to almost anyone who was inclined to listen. I met him at the second-year exams for our postgraduate degree in Serbian literature, and I myself gladly listened to his frank criticisms of the curriculum, which was driving him crazy with its superficiality. As soon as we got to know each other better, he moved on to a blazing critique of his parents, who were fanatically bourgeois. He was irritated by quite a long list of their faults: their inability to remember the name of the faculty where he studied, their habit of chatting to his friends, shaking their cigarettes into his ashtray: “These people are experts at disturbing you and there’s nothing you can do!” A couple of months after I got the job at the construction firm, I incautiously proposed to Leo that, if he was so eager to get away from his parents, we ought to share a few costs. The first days of our life under the same roof he spent job-hunting. I put him in touch with Osvald, but Leo didn't like the idea of working with a man like that at a clerk’s job in a construction firm. Equally, he wasn’t up for re-selling hard currency, gasoline from Romania, Chinese silks and white goods, or women from Ukraine, who were better known in Belgrade under the name of Russian dancers. In other words, taking up a lucrative job, and therefore supporting himself, was completely out of the question. That realization, and the scenes of the dank ceiling and worn-away linoleum floor of our little house in Batajnica, strengthened the throb in his nerve-center for sadness. He wailed all the louder and his energy began to seep away: he started cutting classes and, because his parents decided to pay for a flat on condition that he get help, reluctantly went for psychotherapy: “The enemies cover all my expenses, they’ve even started to stuff me full of pills, well, that’s intolerable!” Unlike Leo, I never had, nor could I have, anything against my father (he died early), and even less against my mother: I rarely go to visit her in Perast, at what used to be the little weekend cottage that my father built, which she’s completely moved into over the last few years; she still supports me, seeing that I’m incapable of earning enough to feed myself. Apart from that: during the vacation after my second-year postgraduate exams, she helped me bring an end to my life as a subtenant, although Leo was responsible for that as well. If I could have endured his delirium, I wouldn’t have deluged my mother with letters during the summer holidays begging her to sell the large family house in Bačka and use some of the proceeds to buy an apartment in New Belgrade. Until a month or so before, it had seemed that I was going to hold out: Leo's daily monologues were still tolerable. Soon the relative daytime peace in our rented house showed itself to be the lien for the madness I witnessed at night. He would use enough pills to stupefy five solid madmen for putting off his daily depression into evening nightmares which ended in furious howling. It’s heartless, what I say. In any case, I moved to a studio apartment in New Belgrade, which I’d bought with my mother’s money after she sold the big family house in Bačka; Leo wasn’t doing his degree any more, but he used the money from his enemies to keep on renting rooms. Then Osvald heard that at the office of some private psychiatrist Leo had met a girl who’s six years older, unreasonably generous, her name was Valentina, and sometimes he also called her Valya. With a craving to get away from her parents, for a milder climate, fewer crowds, and simpler people, Valya would recognize simplicity in Leo (and in Perast!) and decide that they should both leave their hometown and move to the hometown of her father (and, at the same time: the hometown of my late father!). They moved to a weekend cottage built during the 70s (when my late father too had built his own weekend cottage in Perast!) with one of the kind of loans that had seriously undermined the state (my late father took one out as well!). We predict the development of the same events in many different ways; if we boast about getting assessments right, it would be appropriate for us to also mention our wrong and much more numerous assessments to do with one and the same thing. But, as easy – and above all as senseless – as it is to claim that we predicted something, I have to say that it occurred to me many times that Leo’s decision to establish married life in Perast would probably not have a happy end. I realized that above all because he often criticized the idea of travel, turning particularly on travelers to little towns on warm seas. Nine months ago, the last time I was in Perast, that little town on the Mediterranean – after I’d heard the story of incest in the hamlets and villages around Perast – the married couple turned up to the restaurant, late but with no apology. While I listened to Leo, I was observing his six-years-older wife. Unfortunately, it was easy to predict his approaching end and discover Valya’s nervous instability. Her grimaces as she followed the loud musings of her husband were eloquent enough: what could a man as handsome, smart and sensitive as that actually do, without ruining himself. Perhaps I couldn’t have realized that precisely nine months later, sent mad by his monologues, Valya would throw Leo out of the house and indirectly kill him, but now, unfortunately, I can estimate that she too will be quick to go completely insane. It’s hard for a woman whose mental health was knocked off course a long time ago to survive the mixture of guilty feelings and negative energy that Valya received from Leo’s outbursts and tirades, and his continual mocking of Perast: the place where she had sought salvation. Leo’s feelings towards the little hamlet were, however, more pleasant than those he directed towards Belgrade, particularly the feelings that had seized him while we were sharing an apartment. Before that, he had been disgusted by the physical proximity of his enemies, the fanatically bourgeois, apparently not knowing that they would be the ones to pay for his funeral, even the supposed travel expenses of some hoaxers from Perast (and maybe Risan). And if he did not avoid being buried by his enemies, it would have been a consolation that they respected his last wish and did not bury him in Belgrade. On a bedside table in his father-in-law’s weekend cottage, he left a request to the municipal authorities that he should be buried in Perast (“… rather here than the city I ran away from during my lifetime…” “While Belgrade is an unpleasant place, Perast is nothing, so not even unpleasant. The most unpleasant thing about Belgrade is that it is a city of two million inhabitants, and patriarchal!!). “At Leo's funeral I was reading the names on children’s gravestones”, when Osvald said that, his sister’s illegitimate little son burst out crying. Perhaps Osvald was tormenting him, carried away by the story of Leo, while still impressed by talking about Leo, who mainly let loose at the expense of his nearest and dearest. Doesn't matter: Leo really was my friend, because he didn't abuse our friendship in order to give me advice: that was exactly why he was my friend. (Perhaps it is true that the better man always dies first.) However, it became clear to me that monologues are a kind of advice as well. Yet I am grateful to Leo, because every attempt of mine to convey that I was a candidate for suicide got rebuffed by his monologues – and what doesn’t get talked about practically ceases to exist. I am grateful to him: because of his madness, I quickly had to convince my mother to buy a flat for me. When I left Perast, I was pushed towards thinking about suicide by memories of my previous life in Perast: I am grateful to Leo, because if I hadn’t listened to his tirades and mockery, I’d still be thinking of Perast and of suicide. And I wouldn’t have convinced my mother to buy me an apartment. When Osvald went back to Perast, once a week he would send me a letter, in which, also in monologue form, he would bitterly describe his unavoidable walks with his friend Leo, and Leo's tiresome monologues about the general uselessness of anything and everything, particularly literature and family. Leo would also add a verbal salvo or two against his father-in-law, who, having finally realized that Leo was exploiting him, started goading his daughter against him. A letter of tirade requires no answer, and Osvald’s were like that, as were Leo’s, which, to be fair, reached me more rarely. Well, those two guys could hardly tolerate each other; they were on the verge of a quarrel they were both avoiding. Especially Osvald, who, simultaneously, spent more time thinking about breaking up. Leo did not have time for such idle thoughts – he had sunk deep into his own problems. “Say out loud whatever crossed his mind,” was pretty much everything Leo had to say about Osvald. Unlike him, Osvald complained in detail in his letters that in a small town it was impossible even to have a proper quarrel. “For fear of loneliness,” Osvald complained in his letters to me, “people in small towns shun conflict more than in big cities. Aren't things miserable enough for it to be worth staying on good terms at any price? The man who avoids quarrels is meaninglessly active, just like the man who gets himself into them.” While I was living in Perast, between the ages of twenty-something and twenty-something, I tried not to think about all that, so as not to go truly mad; in order to escape such thoughts as far as possible, I had to get out of Perast. But Osvald’s letters from Perast made my escape from Perast somewhat meaningless. Like Leo, Osvald placed the most burden on his nearest and dearest: the only two people Osvald wanted to talk to were Leo and me. But Osvald wanted to talk with somebody, and Leo to talk to somebody. Osvald too reached some lenient listeners, actually. After going back to Perast and turning to his family, he had to find one more person to more or less get on with. He chose his mother, whom he straightaway told that he had not the slightest intention of doing any work whatsoever, that he was only up for lying around and reading, and, if push came to shove, going for a walk on the beach. He used every opportunity to throw the blame for his wandering the world of the falsely alive at her sexual impulses, which would absolve him from any responsibility. He warned her that, if she didn't use her lunch-break at the textile factory to rush home and make him a sandwich, he would cross her name off the pre-printed invitations to his funeral, which is inevitable one way or the other. For his own part, Leo didn't care who would go to his funeral: he was seen off only by his semi-conscious wife, mother, father, then Osvald, Osvald’s sister, mother and father, the workers at the local graveyard and a few bored people from Perast (and maybe Risan). The only person to protest against the aforementioned hustle by this handful of buffoons and petty tricksters was Osvald, which must have looked funny, given the athletic build of the drivers around the bay and Osvald’s typical look of a skinnier and skinnier four-eyes. “I'm sorry I didn’t have an even better relationship with Leo,” Osvald sobbed again. “Even better? Or even worse,” I tried to console him a little, which I wouldn’t manage. I also told him I wouldn't give my condolences to Leo's father, but I might go back to Perast once, to meet him, Osvald, because I hadn’t been able to the last time I was in Perast. But I wanted to help him feel useful, and listening through to the end of his verbal outbursts and then saying some commonplace word to him was usually enough for that. Unlike him, Leo would meet words both of comfort and of ridicule (if he even heard them) with the same ill-tempered sneer. It turns out that in our group Leo was actually the misanthrope, while Osvald—although you'd have said it of him first, because he barked around a wider perimeter—was just burned out by his monotonous experience. (I can’t say anything about myself: I’m simply not capable to.) Osvald was crying for Leo, but I am sure that Leo would never have cried for Osvald; knowing Osvald and Leo, I never even realised that one of them dying could ever have touched the other one. But, still, the tears just poured out of Osvald. What was more, this disappointed moralist and my friend sometimes was often doubting what he stood for. It even seemed to me that, if Osvald got himself together, he would give up the choice of suicide, even the choice of suicide as the spontaneous act of a desperate man. Unfortunately he will find that act hard to avoid, because life in Perast will never let him sort himself out. I see that here I’m missing buzzwords like: I thought, I said, I was thinking. It doesn’t even matter: the only thing I still care about is saying that Osvald and I are both sorry about Leo. He was, all things considered, quite unbearable, but he needs to be mourned. This isn’t so much because of his suicide rather the way he killed himself. He did it, I mean, in a way he would never have chosen, given his hatred for family, his own and his wife’s, the Mediterranean, and the sea in general. The words “Leo drowned on the open sea of the Adriatic, which he had reached in his father-in-law’s boat,” were the last I ever heard from Osvald.
Translated from Serbian by A.B. Nedeljković & William Bain
1. Karaburma and Batajnica are parts of Belgrade.
2. Bačka is an area of the Pannonian plain. It is divided between Serbia and (a smaller part) Hungary.