5 décembre 2005
A letter, without the signature of its author, which I found in the Library of Cacak, although nobody seems to know how it got there.
It’s a warm day. Sultry weather hooked onto this part of Serbia. We are several kilometers away from the town of Cacak, in the garden of a former tavern which once belonged to the Petkovic family, and where the administration of the municipality of Zablace is currently situated. The administrator served us with food and cold water
from the near by well (the latter being the better of the two). Afterwards, he set down to join us as he waited to hear news about those who run the estate he is now administrating. It was no small task bringing together all those who were close to Dis. I have been trying for years, through various documents, to put together his life, but many parts are missing. Ruzica is very excited, if only by the fact that she is once again on the very spot where she was born. Sweat comes down her forehead, it finds its way through her eyebrows, her eyes are moist. I don’t know if she is crying or if it is only the sweat that makes her face look that way. Maybe she is happy to be in Zablace again, or maybe she is mourning for her lost brother, or for her whole family, which was gathered here once, a long time ago. I am so hot, I have the feeling I am burning ; I am all wet. While I look at Ruzica, I see behind her the silhouette of fields intersected with orderly lines of black locust trees, and I know that the Morava River is close by. She starts talking of her brother. I try to follow her exposition, but it seems that his spirit is present, and that makes me feel sleepy. Everything seems to be in drowsiness. I strain myself to stay awake. I will never forgive myself for neglecting to jot down with a pencil all that she and the others spoke of Dis, because now everything is just a pale memory of this sultry day. Maybe Dis wished that it remain so, that many things about him never become known, that other people should see him in their own way, so that he remains in everybody’s eyes, the same, yet different. We are quiet, but nature can be heard. Ruzica wipes her eyes with both hands and says :
Maria is carrying him into the mountain, and with them the whole family, with Dimitrije at the head. While the others are helping to cut the wood for the fire, he, from her hands, looks at Cacak, which can be seen clearly, as a prediction that life will take him away from there forever.
I clearly remember those first sentences Ruzica uttered, speaking of her brother, but I also remember that Miloje Jovanovic, Dis’ friend from school, merged his memories. Of high forehead, of knotted brow, he appeared serious, but when he started talking of Dis he, too, became moved, so that his face appeared as sweet as that of a child, and one could feel in it the sorrow for all the years that had passed ; feel sorrow for a lost friend.
Krakov was sitting directly opposite me and it seemed that he didn’t want to talk at all, as though he, too, were eager to listen ; because it is a well known fact (and I bore this in mind), that he wrote a lot about Dis, and of his encounters with him. And, since the world is so small, almost all those who were around him were somehow connected. Some were connected by the war, and some were parted by it, but all of them knew a lot about Dis, although nobody knew him sufficiently enough.
Pavle Stefanovic took up my invitation because he was interested, since he grew up in Jagodina. This difference, the thing that set Dis apart, maybe it was the difference in roots, or even of cultures, or simply that he was different in his own particular way. At the end of the conversation, and on the basis of what he had heard, he only added quietly, as though to himself :
I must say that now nothing is clear to me.
Of certain events that were talked about, I remember some clearly and some less so. Some of the people tended to add things, described him from their point of view, placing those things into the period of time they spent with Dis.
Pandurovic was also there. From him I learned a lot about his friends from the literary circle, about his affairs, about the literary critics and their way of thinking, but he didn’t manage to explain to me why they parted as friends, although there were some rumors in the intimate circles of their friends in Belgrade.
Dragisa Vasic spoke of his encounters with Dis during the war.
I only listened.
Jaa Prodanovic hadn’t come to share his memories of Dis with the others. I tried to find him in Belgrade, but as is the case with all great statesmen, ministers, envoys (and he was all that), he was impossible to meet.
Milan Vukasovic didn’t come either. He remained in Paris with his fables.
On that afternoon, in our thoughts, Dis was with us.
May 23, 1928.
It is now exactly six hours since we set sail, five o’clock in the morning, May 18, 1917, on the steamship “Italy” which is sinking, having been hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine. Consequently, for some time now we have not moved. We stand still. The night is blissful and so quiet that everything sinks into sleep. Masses of stars are scattered over the sky, which cannot be separated from the water, because there are no signs of life in the sea. It is moving and it is alive, but I have no sense of it, not even a feeling of foreboding, knowing that death itself is moving through the depths of the Ionian sea in the form of a submarine, which upsets this silence with its torpedoes, as it has many times before. Just as any death, it arrives cruelly, unexpectedly, from the deepest quiet and without warning. I already knew death comes like that, so it hasn’t taken me by surprise. It has been too close all these years. I know death well and therefore I am not surprised in any way. I watch this horrifying scene without excitement. As soon as it exploded the people started running over the deck, but all is quiet again now, at least in my head. If there were not fifty people who came running to me to tell me we were sinking, there were none. To every single one of them I explained that I knew. Nobody upset my thoughts, not even as they dragged me by my sleeve into the rescue boat ; only the memories are in disarray. Many things remain unfinished ; and I do not know how they might end.
It is the hardest moment now, I have to climb over the rail of the deck and insert my foot into this pleated ladder. I insert my foot exactly as needed. I can hear some coins rattling in my pocket, representing all the possessions I have with me. Some people who are down below get on my nerves, insisting on explaining to me all the things I know I ought to be doing.
Get into the boat, don’t you see the ship is going to sink.
Hurry up, are you mad, we shall all get drowned.
The night is quiet. We are few in the boat. It is very strange that six men are rowing harder than they ever have before, desperately trying to separate us from the ship and from death. The veins on their necks are bulging from all the shouting and straining. The voices and desperate cries for help break through my quiet night. Cries in my boat. Cries in the boat next to us. The water is hissing under the oars. I can hear the ship behind us cracking ; the whirlpool around our boat becomes as good as the best whirlpools on the Morava River. It is evident we are going to sink together with the ship ; as though the former life, the return to images both important and trivial, won’t allow me to separate from the ship of death. All that went through my mind whilst on the deck would have little meaning to anybody but me. In the sea of human destinies, this ship sinks and the whirlpool it makes brings me to the conclusion that I am not too special or unusual. What does feel unusual, for myself as well as for the others, is that we will never know how things will develop in the lives of our closest relatives and friends. I am returning to the source of life, to water.
I feel that I am all wet and I feel a great quantity of salt in my mouth. The sky and the water have merged and everything is black. I have to close my eyes. I realize that meaning cannot be found in trying to defeat death. At the bottom of this sea there are millions of leaves of grass that Gilgamesh was looking for ; one should be indifferent, blissful, and wait quietly.
Dandelions are in blossom in the fields of Zablace. I walk slowly, trying not to tread upon any of these little suns, these scattered yellow crowns, and I admire the green cosmos I tread over. Millions of suns in a vast green field.
At the door of the house in which I was born, my mother stands, dressed in a white robe. She cries :
Vladislav, get into the house, don’t you see you are all wet. You are ill. This strong spring wind will pierce you through. Don’t you see how it comes in a loop from the Morava River and sweeps over the field, how it bends down the walnut trees. Get into the house, come, all those dearest to you are here, waiting for you. Hurry up.
(Opening and final chapter of Aleksandar Jugovic’s book DISHARMONIA, a biographical novel on Vla(dis)lav Petkovic Dis, one of the most prominent Serbian poets killed in the Great War. Published in Belgrade by “Filip Vinjic Publishers” in 2005. Translated by Djordje Krivokapic
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