Fiction, translation

Free to be slaved

by George Djuric

What I’ve felt

What I’ve known

Never shined through in what I’ve shown

Never be

Never see

Won’t see what might have been

Metallica – Unforgiven

 

Years ago, I read about drinking problem Russians face daily – not much change there – and a sharp looking psychiatrist said something like, one Russian, not a threat, two, could be handled – but when three Russians get together we have a micro society, and there’s nothing doctors can do, government can do, or God himself. I wonder if the good doctor had ever seen the Orthodox Almighty in person – a long beard, those reddish cheeks, purple nose, watery eyes… Do you really think Michelangelo would ever be able to finish the Hand of God in the Cappella Sistina if he had to deal with this guy and his shaky index finger? After painting 12,000 sq ft of the chapel ceiling, you think he’d have enough patience for this addict?

Same with Serbs, for a good reason: it’s one of those disheveled Slavic customs that stretch across the totem post, transcending alcohol abuse and morphing into a wicked monster of new order. Like a vein of gold ore runs this idiosyncrasy deep through the blood vessels and gets delivered to the farthest capillary outpost with the precision of an atomic clock. I’m talking about the tribal trait of drunken manly bewailing.

The first time they tried to force me into military duty, I sold everything saleable, invited all my friends and enemies in a well known glass breaking pub – ‘They don’t consider that an issue,’ said my chief advisor, Papa – and then we started. Hours and hours later, with my enemies long gone and my friends under the table, my old buddy Alex looks at me, his face sticky with tears, ‘Georgie, we forgot the fuckin’ ashtrays!’ He had a point, those were made of glass as well.

Sparkling crystal ashtrays aside, those tears have a long beard: wrapped up in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (act 4, ‘Forest, near Kromy’) and Andrei Rublev’s icons for ambiance and ‘aha effect’ – ending with the Holy Fool staying behind, mourning Russia’s bleak, uncertain fate – this perpetual lament is merely an elephant walk toward the inner soft spot for the times gone and opportunities missed. Quite naturally, irreversibility  becomes darling of the day, keeping our beloved past at safe distance, without need – god forbid! – to actually take any action; other than spitting on the sidewalk for good luck.

Slavs carried this peculiarity like a worn out, right arm fallen off wooden saint from the forgotten homeland, a talisman bargained for at some East Trzciniec flea market back in the 6th century, invariably refusing to let it go. By modern standards, the idea of an ‘original home’ is absurd. Even early narratives always speak of origins and beginnings in a manner which presupposes earlier origins and beginnings. But the single point of departure lives on. The widely circulated Times Concise Atlas of World History perpetuates a map showing the Pripet Marshes as the Urheimat of the Slavs; that vast swampy home is ringed with outward-pointing arrows marking Slavic emigration. The silliness of this image does not keep it from being unforgettable.

Wasted, vomiting, you name it, yet our binges were always a dialogue, an exchange of toxins and facts with scant relationship to reality – helping us overcome soliloquies and avoid the cien años de soledad of LSD or heroin, keeping us alive past the age of 27. That’s where our gratitude, if any left, should lie. My first voracious bet was to gulp down half a liter of cheap brandy in five minutes, which I did. Had I done the prodigy by myself, I wouldn’t be writing this. Luckily, I had my compadres take care of me once my reason expired, overruled by my Slavic ego.

A word of caution here: when dealing with Slavic mythology, one cannot be too careful or too critical about the authenticity of sources. One of the best examples of overall confusion and complete misinterpretation is a fake deity of love, Lada, constructed from meaningless exclamations in Slavic wedding songs. Gods such as Koleda and Kupala were ‘invented’ from misinterpreted names of popular folk festivals. Unfortunately, nobody crowned a god from the 1972 Ljubljana Boom Rock Fest – the Yugoslav Woodstock – so  we missed a chance to have Sonic Boom as the god of speed. Even more hilarious are deliberate forgeries: faking evidence of ancient mythology became almost a hobby among various social groups, often with the purpose of promoting their political agenda. Statues of ancient Slavic gods were ‘discovered’, inscribed with Germanic runes, folk songs and stories were ‘recorded’ with half of the Slavic pantheon described as picking flowers or merrily dancing around a bonfire.

Never worshipping at the altar of ratiocination, Slavs found their niche by drilling into tribal subconscience in search of the holy antimins; forgetting that one doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. Floating for centuries in a somnambulant ghost ship circled by horizon, the tribe learned to enjoy the feeling. However, as soon as anybody discovers exactly what his meaning is and why he is here, this will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

I owe enough tribal loyalty to throw in another angle here. Living in the past, as debilitating as it is, brings up one edge: you get to be at the first name basis with your gods, your mythical heroes, plebs hanging around for the good measure, and from that precious well you drain the ultimate esoteric enlightenment, your PhD in metaphysics.

There were five of us at The Stables one day, all in early twenties, comparing some lesser gods to the Knights of the Serbian Order – in a herculean push to finally resolve the topic – when Steve Rakovic stood up, pale under the layers of alcohol. I’ve never forgot the hue, a mix of blood and milk, and every time I think of Steve it pops up – the heraldic badge of his essentials. ‘Brothers, we spill our brains and tears after virtually dead individuals. Just the other day, I underwent through a healthy reaction from the myths of my youth; they had become for me not so much a possession as an obsession, which I was trying to throw off, and this iconoclastic tale of an imaginary tribe was the result.’

Steve took a sip, staring at each of us with the glare of a haunted psychopath. ‘A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction. All religions have based morality on obedience, that is to say, on voluntary slavery. I’m giving this speech so it can haunt me from now on, reminding me who I once was. I don’t think I’ll see you guys ever again. I just can’t stand the picture of us fifty years from today splitting the same irrational hairs from our ancestors’ asses – it comes to me at night, calls my name, asking me to take one for the team. Fuck the team! Needless to say, I will always love you, hermanos.’ He walked around the table, gave each one of us a hug and a three-time kiss, and left the beer garden.

Afterwards there was silence. For some reason or other we did not begin that game of poker. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.

According to his mother Natalia, Steve picked up few things, told her not to wait for him, and was gone. None of us saw him again. His legend immediately sprung up with the speed of a bamboo stick sprouting from horse manure – everyone had opinion and none had facts.

Our gatherings never tasted the same – time shifted sideways as its levee broke and swept us into awe. Certain topics vanished from the menu, our vigor came overcooked, nobody was there for dessert.

Cheers! with a shot of well aged Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

 

*****************************************************************************

In 1989, George Djuric publishes the very first – and ironically the last, since the country falls apart just two years later – flash story collection in Yugoslavia, The Metaphysical Stories, sending ripples through this otherwise inert literary milieu. Never blamed for being shy when it comes to belle etrès, and with the help of numerous radio, TV, and literary evening appearances, Djuric sells the initial print within the first two months.

One of his early stories, Taming of the Shrewd, is featured in the September 2012 issue of The Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

 

Art by Sheila Lanham

 

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