Is there life before death? I happened to remember this Romanian riddle from the museum of communist black humour a little while ago, and for the first time it made me think seriously.
‘No,’ said my mother decisively. ‘All there is is survival.’
In Croatia the word survival has completely replaced the word life. If we can just somehow survive, sighs my neighbour. The main thing is that we’re alive, we’ll survive somehow, says a friend. In times like these the most important thing is to survive, Mme Micheline concludes positively. Mme Micheline survived the Second World War, the first independent state of Croatia, communist Yugoslavia, the second independent state of Croatia, another war; she knows what she’s talking about.
After being out of Zagreb for several months, I am prepared to tackle the business of survival head on.
‘The most important thing is not to get upset and not to eat pork,’ says my mother.
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘Because people say that butchers have been finding gold chains, rings, tooth crowns, in pig carcasses . . .’ whispers my mother conspiratorially, and then adds calmly: ‘I don’t eat meat anyway.’
‘Because it’s expensive.’
The person who has resolved to survive needs identity papers. After many hours spent queuing for an ID card, I finally reached the counter.
‘Nationality?’ yelled the clerk.
‘Anational,’ I replied.
‘There’s no such thing!’ she bellowed.
‘Don’t you have some heading for . . . “others”?’
‘No! Just tell me what you are and stop making a nuisance of yourself!’ said the clerk addressing the queue this time, exactly as prescribed in Soviet handbooks of totalitarian etiquette.
‘She must be Serbian, and she’s afraid to say so,’ commented someone behind me.
‘Are you Serbian?’ asked the clerk.
‘I’m anational.’ I elaborated: ‘Undetermined.’
‘How can anyone be “undetermined” in this war?’ screamed the clerk.
‘I’m not undetermined in the war, just under the heading “nationality”.’
‘Say you’re Croatian and get on with it,’ whispered the person behind me benevolently.
‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘Not as long as belonging to a particular nationality makes one citizen of this state politically, socially and humanly acceptable, and another unacceptable,’ I explained to the benevolent person, pleased that I had been able to formulate my position so satisfactorily.
‘Listen, I’ve a friend, a Serb, who registered as a Gypsy. Say you’re a Gypsy, that’s OK.’ He was determined to help me.
‘I am – others!’ this time I yelled as well, and for some reason reinforced my position by repeating ‘O-T-H-E-R-S!’ in English.
‘There are people waiting! I’ll write “others” for you and you can go to hell!’ the clerk spoke to the whole queue again, and I finally got my essential document confirming that I was a citizen of Croatia.
Given that I am not a refugee and that I still have a job, my chances of survival are greatly enhanced. I budget carefully for bread and milk. I don’t pay rent, electricity, heating or telephone bills. I don’t buy newspapers, which is no hardship. I don’t eat meat. Instead of fruit and vegetables I chew American vitamin pills (I have a year’s supply). I’ve given my clothes to refugees. I hardly need any shoes as I don’t go out. Instead of cosmetics I use the remains of the real Dalmatian olive oil I bought last year on the island of Brae. I’ve learned not to complain. The other day I mentioned to my neighbour that I couldn’t buy face cream. Look what we’ve come to, I said, olive oil. . .
‘You should be glad that you’re alive, that you’ve got a roof over your head and that you’re not a cripple. Imagine if you had been at the front and now you had to push yourself around in a wheelchair,’ said my neighbour sternly.
‘Or perhaps you would like Miloševi? to come? said my neighbour in a terrible voice, thrusting her face into mine.
‘Goodness no, God forbid,’ I said.
‘Those dreadful Serbs could be raping and torturing you now in some camp. Is that what you want?’ my neighbour got more and more excited.
‘That would be terrible,’ I said. I could feel myself trembling.
‘Or perhaps you’d like us still to be living in the prison of nations?’
‘What prison of nations?’
‘Why, the former Yugoslavia.’
‘Oh no, definitely not in a prison,’ I said.
‘Well, then, if you think about it, we’re really well off!’ said my neighbour.
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
And for some reason I pushed the bottle of olive oil into her hand.
‘Take it,’ I said, moved.
Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’ll come in handy for potato salad.’
I don’t complain about everyday life any more. I’m an expert on Russian literature: I’ve read Zoshchenko, Il’f and Petrov. I wrote my doctorate on Bulgakov. I know totalitarian mechanisms, at least literary ones, by heart. I just never expected to be living them. Especially not now we have democracy. In the former Yugo-communist regime (I’ve learned the jargon), queues were definitely shorter and salaries were higher. And there were fewer ‘Russian’ scenes. But I keep quiet about that. I could be accused of Bolshevism. And we all know who the ‘Bolsheviks’ are: Serbs, Chetniks, Yugo-aggressors, our deadly enemies who got us into this.
I know and accept that culture is not a priority in wartime–I don’t go to the cinema (there could be a bomb) or buy books (there aren’t any)–though in wartime everyone likes to talk about writers. For some reason, all post-communist states like to have writers to lead them. Half the Serbian parliament are writers; even our President doesn’t hide his love of literature. As soon as a writer dear to the regime dies, the President immediately appears on television to express his condolences.
‘We’ll print your book if you bring us 140 kilos of paper,’ says my friend, a publisher.
‘Where can I find 140 kilos of paper?’
‘I don’t know. That’s your problem, you’re the writer,’ says my friend.
I sometimes think nostalgically of a distant totalitarian year I spent in Moscow. My friends – painters, writers, intellectuals – lived in happy opposition to the regime, underground, up to their eyes in ‘samizdat’. What a creative and stimulating life that was! Here, we live on the surface, we voted for a democratic government and – What’s got into me? Am I mad? Do I want icing on the cake? I’ve confused the times: can’t I distinguish democracy from totalitarianism any more?
I’ll survive, I think to myself. I won’t go out. I won’t see anyone. I have noticed with satisfaction that a crust of indifference is settling round my heart. I don’t get upset. If a Serbian house explodes I repeat the responses I’ve heard: What do they expect when they built on our land? And I see that everyone around me approves. If an innocent Serb is attacked, I don’t protest; I say: Let them see what it’s like to be beaten up when you’ve done nothing. And no one frowns, no one comments, everyone nods in unison. It is as though the whole country, my sweet little Croatia, has turned into a school choir, obediently singing in chorus.
I don’t upset myself any more; I’ve decided to survive. I watch the public lynching of people who have the audacity to think for themselves in this ‘most democratic country in the world’ (as its President frequently calls it). I see how Croatian television has become an arena for public lynchings. (The Television Director is the President’s best friend.) I watch monuments being destroyed everywhere: to Nikola Tesla in Glina, to Ivo Andrić in Visegrad, to the victims of fascism on the island of Brae. I don’t upset myself, why should I? Our towns have been razed to the ground, for goodness’ sake, and I’m getting agitated about some monuments. Besides, it’s natural in a democracy that people put up the monuments they want and scrap the ones they don’t care for.
‘We’ve always built – it’s in our genes. We may destroy something along the way, but that’s a habit we’ve picked up from those barbarians, the Serbs,’ says my neighbour.
‘That’s right,’ I say, remembering my decision to survive.
Sometimes I feel sick when I see the mixture of fear and adoration on the faces of the people, and their shamelessly public longing for an autocratic leader. I feel sick when I hear my fellow-citizens calling their democratically elected President ‘father’, ‘dad’ or ‘the old man’, quite forgetting that ‘the old man’ was what they called Tito just ten years ago.
I find survival a little harder when I see on television shots in which all the participants point little crosses towards the camera, like actors in vampire movies. Men with open shirts so that the cross can be seen more easily, women with bare necks and décolletés . . . The crosses signal frantically to the viewers that we are all true believers, Western, cultured; we are not wild beasts thirsty for blood like our enemies. But I’ll cope with that too. I’m not stupid, I know what the priorities are. A little cross here or there is trivial compared to the loss of life. (Though a cross sometimes reminds me of its opposite – the metal identification tags round soldiers’ necks which are put in the soldiers’ mouths when they’re dead.)
An acquaintance of mine developed a serious illness.
I want to survive, he said. I have to live with my illness in order to conquer it. My acquaintance survived, but he changed a lot. He has an absent look, is incapable of being stimulated by the outside world, is forever holding his wrist feeling for his pulse, listening to his own heart beating. Sometimes the shadow of hatred passes over his pale, washed-out face. I hate the healthy, he says simply.
The state of survival is a state of emotional, social and moral autism. People determined to survive are an odd bunch. Perhaps next month instead of bread and milk I’ll buy petrol and set fire to myself on the main square in Zagreb like Jan Palach.
‘Plagiarism,’ an informed passer-by will say. ‘Jan Palach set fire to himself as well.’
‘True,’ someone else will say. ‘What did he do that for?’
Photograph © Mislav Marohnić