(Excerpt from the novel)
I’m sitting in the old cottage on my grandpa’s “ranch”. The night had barged into the valley and splashed its darkness over the wood covered hills. I’ve been here for a while and there’s no longer any restlessness in me. I feel like a man who once wanted to write some kind of story but didn’t succeed, because the story took control over reality. It no longer remained clear what was real, the story or my life. Was it life that wrote the story, or was it maybe the other way around?
A rat rummages boldly around in the attic. One night I woke up and saw its tail bobbing up and down above the edge of the shabby couch where I was sleeping. It disappeared into the hole in the wall under the cornice.
The bulb on the ceiling flickers off and on, probably from a faulty contact. The walls of the cottage are full of holes where the plaster has fallen off. Underneath you can see the boards the cottage was initially made of.
The “ranch” is a big field, seven and a half acres, that grandpa bought when he retired, and where he planted a plum orchard. I remember it all, but that’s not important now. Grandpa and mother (that’s how I used to call my grandmother) aren’t around any more, and neither is my old lady, their daughter. The “ranch” is gone, too. It is now merely an orchard imprisoned in thickets and oblivion. The property belongs to aunt Zika who lets me stay there for as long as I want.
I don’t know exactly when I got there, but summer was nearing its end and the plums were rotting because there was no one to pick them. During the day, the hornets would buzz around in battle formations and stuff themselves with the juice of the overripe Hungarian plums. Birds of all sizes and colours were squawking while hopping around in the uneven fields, alternately picking at the fruit and at each other. Some overgrown grass-hoppers came rushing onto the scene, as well as those tiny, unbearable flies that always fly straight into your eyes.
I’m telling myself the same story innumerable times, as if hoping that once I will come up with a better ending. The story may start on that October afternoon, two years ago, when I fell into the river Sava.
I came out of the river onto the slimy shore. While I was climbing up a steep muddy path, I slipped, fell on my ass and slid half a meter back towards the river. When I finally climbed to the top of the embankment, I took off my jacket and T-shirt. Steam rose from my body.
I sat on the ground for a while expecting something. I thought maybe I would start crying and, like in some sentimental B-movie, let the tears flow down my cheeks there on the riverbank. That I would then calm down, wipe the tears from my face and smile. Then get up and set off with light steps into some sort of future. Any future. But I didn’t. I sat on the shore, half naked, and watched my nipples stiffen.
I’ve been hearing voices for a while now. There are several of them. Some of them I can identify, and I know that they belong to a “me” of sorts. I’m not so sure about others. They emerge as if from an abyss, they utter something once or twice, then disappear forever.
One of the familiar voices taunts me, saying he is not really sure about that so-called drowning attempt. To him it seems that I just slipped clumsily and splashed into the shallow muddy water. Spitefully he insists that I don’t have the guts for such a thing and I, albeit reluctantly, admit that he’s right.
I see myself standing pensively on the shore of the Sava holding a cigarette. I’m watching the river; the cawing of crows can be heard around me, my heart starts pounding in my chest. It feels like the cigarette smoke is suffocating me, and I know that one of theses fits, the ones I have been living with for years, the ones I don’t know what to call, is about to seize me. Panicking, I throw the cigarette into the mud in front of me and put it out with my sneaker. I see my foot wiggle and the soil underneath it give way. I realize then that I’m falling into the river.
The contact with the cold water brings me back to consciousness. I swim like a maniac towards the shore half a meter away, before I realize that the water barely reaches me to the waist.
I sit in the cottage, light a match and count to five. The flame is licking the tips of my fingers and the pain is there. You can always count on the pain.
I am waiting for the hoot of the owl that can be heard every night from the hollow pear tree nearby.
I tried to recount to myself what had happened over the past two years, but I didn’t succeed. The story changed depending on which of my voices would tell it. Some of the voices would forget some episodes completely, while others would give exactly these episodes the central place.
But I had too much time for thinking there in my grandpa’s cottage. I started to believe that everything that is going to happen has actually happened already. I made myself believe that by analysing the past, I could predict the future.
That day in October two years ago, I got up from the muddy ground, wrung out the wet T-shirt and slipped it on. My nipples could still be seen through the sodden fabric. I thought again of my ex wife and her boobs. They were barely bigger then mine, but they had a completely different form and poetic power. With pointy hard, nipples like the spikes on World War One Prussian helmets. When you bite them, your teeth crack, and if your fillings aren’t good quality, it’s enough to make them fall right out.
During that period I was trying not to think of her, to forget her like every other unpleasant memory. “I didn’t love her, I really didn’t love her anymore,” I kept telling myself.
– The question is whether you’ve ever loved her – a voice would add from some dark nook of my consciousness.
– No, the question is whether he’s capable of loving anyone – the hoarse voice of some psychiatrist could be heard from another corner.
– He loves himself, he loves only himself. Only himself! – squawked a new, unknown voice.
– He loves himself least of all – answered the psychiatrist calmly.
The voices had started haunting me after she left me. I endured life for a while in Oslo working at the University, but then, after the winter term, I packed my backpack, withdrew all the money from my account and fled to Brazil. For a while I roamed around with no specific aim, until I finally, after several months, settled on the little island Morro do Sao Paolo in the north of the country. There I fell in love with a girl who could have been my ex wife’s double. When I first saw her I couldn’t believe my eyes. The same high forehead, the same insolent eyes, full lips, her lithe body twisting with the music´s rhythm, and the same skinny, almost nonexistent bum. Only she was black. We loved each other for over two months and the voices inside me went silent. I had already started fantasizing, even planning how to stay on that island forever. I saw a bunch of dark-skinned children, all mine, chasing each other along the endless sandy beaches. And then one day she came to me in tears and said that she needed to move on. She explained through the tears, that seemed genuine, that her husband was in jail and that she needed to take care of her three children, who were waiting for her in a small town in the remote Mato Grosso region with her mother. I couldn’t understand a thing, tried to calm her down with kisses and tender words in bad Portuguese. Finally she became hysterical, started yelling that Brazil was a disgusting country and that I was stupid and should go back where I came from. When she calmed down, she asked for money. I gave her whatever I had. She kissed me, thanked me and left.
That’s when the voices returned to my head, and I to Oslo again, after several more months of roaming Brazil. At the University I was welcomed by a notification that my contract was terminated because I had disappeared for more than half a year without informing anyone. Maybe things could have been sorted out; professor Pettersen, my mentor, liked me, but there was no point. I knew that I would disappear again at the first opportunity, as soon as I got together enough money.
I somehow made it in Oslo until the fall, mostly working all day long. As a translator when there was work, otherwise as a construction worker. In the fall I got restless again, and so I left once more, first to Croatia and then to Bosnia. I was thinking about what it would be like to jump into the Sava River and disappear, but it´s not that easy. That’s when I slipped and fell into the muddy river.
That time, two years ago, I left the river Sava behind. I also left the house, the street and the small town where I had spent my childhood, and where I had once been closer to myself than I would ever be again. I left behind the ruined walls, the withered gardens, cemeteries and graves scattered across neglected fields.
After that fall into the Sava, I still felt some vague hope, a feeble and pitiful flame started burning inside me. I didn’t know what to do yet, nor how, but as a start I changed my wet clothes, sat in my grandpa’s car, his old, green Zastava from the Yugoslav days, that we used to call “Greeny”, and set off towards Split. Grandpa had left me Greeny in his last will. It came to a halt on the road close to Mostar and wouldn’t move any further. I left it with the keys in the ignition and set off down the road, with the backpack on my back, trying to hitchhike. No one stopped, of course. People drive like crazy on that road.
I wake up abruptly before dawn, covered in sweat. At first I don’t realize where I am, my heart pounds violently in my chest. Remnants of a dream dance wildly around grandpa’s cottage and I get up hurriedly and spread the curtains, hoping to let reality into the room. Pale as death, the light oozes through the window, insufficient to chase away the horror of the dream.
The dream: I’m an evil ghost, chased by three good ghosts. We fly like comets inside a huge building that resembles my childhood elementary school. They chase me the way furious hounds pursue their prey, a prey which has already escaped them by a hairbreadth many times. I know that if they get me, everything is over. As we fly frantically through the long corridors, up and down the stairs, around the familiar classrooms, they threaten me and tell me what awaits me when they get me. I mostly giggle and swear at them and taunt them as best I can. One of them follows me like lightning towards a closed window. I make a turn, he hits the window. I open the window, push the good ghost out through it. Then I close it and whiz away like a bullet through the school gym where we used to keep honorary watch next to Tito’s picture. The remaining two good ghosts are contorted with pain and rage. They scream and howl, swear and curse wickedly. I shower them with profanities, but I can feel fear overwhelm me, panic overpowers my immaterial body and I feel that their threats will sooner or later come true.
These sorts of awakenings are usual when I stop smoking hashish. I’ve been smoking every day for ten years with occasional breaks. Sometimes I would stop because I couldn’t get my hands on the stuff, and sometimes because I wanted to clear my thoughts. In recent years, whenever I stopped smoking, I would sweat at night. A sweat that is sticky and has a sweet-sour smell. Then the dreams would start coming back. When you smoke, you don’t dream. When you stop, you do.
That October two years ago, I flew back to Oslo. In the airplane I tried not to look at the faces of the people around me, nor listen to their voices; I’m not interested in their boring stories about how they spent their holiday, how much they paid for accommodation and how much for grilled squid in some tavern on the island of Hvar. I grab the can of beer, open it and clumsily spill half of the contents onto the pants of a young Norwegian man who sits next to me, elatedly telling something to his girlfriend. She is unhealthily skinny, with pads in her bra and tiny red pimples on her face that she unsuccessfully tries to cover with makeup. The young man looks at me, first with surprise, and then with anger. He starts to clean the foam from his pants with the palm of his hand, swearing loudly in a North-Norwegian dialect. I keep silent and watch him the way one watches a nit that is going to drink half a litre of his blood once it becomes a louse. I take a sip of beer, swallow a Valium and turn away.
Before I sink down into a blissful unconsciousness, I think that the best thing would be for the plane to crash after I fall asleep. Somewhere in the Alps, if possible.
I wake up just before the plane is about to land at the airport of Gardermoen, some fifty kilometres from Oslo. A wave of fear flows through me, one whose real source I don’t know, but which I am all too familiar with. It has always been like that, the fear has always been there, a dissatisfaction with myself and with the rest of the world.
It was tragicomic, really. When I was in Norway everything would get on my nerves: Norwegian music and musicians, literature and authors, newspaper headlines, TV news, the Norwegian language and all the dialects, Norwegian history, geography, nature, mountains and fjords, the dark, endless Nordic winters as well as the endless summer days, Norwegian laws, government, the king, the queen, the prince and the princess, people on the street, the boring, precocious boys and the conceited girls, the frustrated young women with bulging bums and pushed-up tits, the gaunt, self-conscious young men, not to mention football and politics.
At the same time, everything related to the Balkans felt like a fairytale: the people were spontaneous, warm and rebellious, there was none of that Norwegian sheep-like obedience, you were not bound by a cobweb of laws; sloppiness, negligence and chaos rule the day: that prolific gipsy mentality which for all its fault, and in spite of all its negative aspects, is still closer to human nature than the cold, metallic social structure, perfectly organized and carefully controlled in all its parts. “Chaos is life,” I would think in one of my rented small rooms on Oslo´s east side. I’d light joint after joint and conclude: to organize chaos means to strive for nothingness. I would listen to Balkan, Oriental or African music, read books in my language, buy Balkan newspapers, follow the Balkan news.
There was a kernel of truth in all this bullshit, but no one was forcing me to stay in Norway. I could go back to the Balkans. And it wasn´t like I hadn´t tried. But exactly at such moments my internal mechanism would get jammed. Whenever I went to Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, a week would pass, filled with wild parties and encounters with friends, but after that everything would assume a different shape: both the indented Norwegian coastline and the mountainous Balkans. Then I would wake up one morning, in Rijeka, Split, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, Belgrade, Novi Sad, regardless, usually hung over and exhausted, my mental capacities seriously diminished by some drug, and all of a sudden everything would turn upside down. I would be overwhelmed by a mixture of disgust and panic, a sense of total failure. After two weeks I would retreat into solitude, start listening to Norwegian music, read books in Norwegian, and should I by chance get drunk, I would bore people with the beauties of Norwegian nature, the country´s refined culture, its developed democracy and peace between social classes and other trifles.
The end of the dream: The two remaining good ghosts catch up with me, I feel their fury, I hear their enraged growling, they are already reaching for me with their hands, trying to grab the thin, gaseous tail trailing behind me as I fly, changing directions non stop. I lose hope, feel like I’m losing strength, that I might even have deserved everything they’re threatening me with. Maybe I would even stop, but all I want is to know: why? All of this is terrifying only because I can’t make out why I am the evil ghost and they are the good ones, why I am running away and they are chasing me, why I am the one who’s scared, while they are haughty and confident. We fly on, I no longer recognize the rooms or the building, we reach the top, I fly out on the roof, there is a big chimney there, and I feel like maybe I can hide in it and rest for a moment. I sneak into it silently, shoot through the dense, sooty darkness and that’s when I wake up covered in sweat.
With horror I realize that this world is just a dark chimney, in which I hid for a moment from the chase.
I remember how I walk off the plane, still numb from the Valium, and pass through passport control, yawning. Tears run down my cheeks. The policeman greets me kindly, looks at my red Norwegian passport, asks me where I’m coming from, I answer him slowly, through my nose. He slaps the stamp down on an empty page and says – Welcome home! – I look at him with wonder, I search his face for traces of sarcasm, but see only sincerity, health and happyness. I trudge on. I collect my luggage, an old blue backpack which I stole one night a long time ago in the University of Oslo student´s dormitory, and I head for the exit. At the customs check point, a policeman stands with a dog, whose breed I can’t determine with any certainty, and on the other side of the passageway, a policewoman. The dog sniffs people as they pass by. When I come up to him, he becomes visibly excited and starts to wag his tail and run around me. I think it might have been a Labrador, actually. The policewoman asks, would I please come with her into a room on the right side. I start off without a word. She asks me to put my luggage on the table and to open both the small backpack and the large one. She asks if I know why they stopped me. I say that I do.
– Do you know what kind of dog that is?
– I do.
– Why did it react to you?
– Maybe because I kept weed in this backpack until recently – I reply, yawning.
She acts delighted, quietly repeating my sentence word for word. She starts to dig through the small backpack which I had brought as a carry-on. She asks if I have anything similar on me.
I look at her and remain silent. She repeats the question. I ask her if I really look that stupid.
Then I have to take everything out of both backpacks, mainly dirty laundry and the odd book. She asks me if I smoke hashish, which I confirm.
– Really? – she exclaims, and for a moment she stops rummaging through my toiletry bag.
– Really – I reply, and I feel a mild yet fulfilling satisfaction because I am so fucking unaffeceted. I know its because of the Valium from the plane, and that my “phlegm” is fake, but I don’t care. The policewoman ask when was the last time I smoked weed.
– At the airport in Split.
Then the other policeman comes, he leads me away to the small room next door. There he kindly orders me to strip naked. I strip without any shame at all, for a moment I even think how I could use this moment to do a little dance.
The policeman is used to this procedure making people ill at ease, and tries to start a conversation. While he is shaking out my jacket, trousers, socks and shoes, he politely asks where I´ve traveled, what I did, what I do for a living, those sorts of things. I take off my briefs and give them to him, now I am completely naked. I tell him that I do not feel like talking, he can do his job and I will do mine.
– Okay? – I add loftily.
– Okay – he replies calmly.
He looks in my mouth, in my armpit, and in the end all that remains is for him to shove his finger into my anus. But I see that at the last moment he changes his mind and gives it up.
– And all the better for you – I think maliciously. – I wouldn’t look up there either.
The doors open with a sharp electronic noise, I pass through them. I step over the green lines on the ground and I enter Norway. A throng of people are waiting for someone they know. A girl passes me, a young man with a bouquet of flowers comes towards her, she runs into his embrace, they don’t kiss, they just stand there embracing for a long time, she whispers into his ear. I stand with one backpack on my back, and with the other in my left hand, I let my gaze wander, pretending to look for someone who is waiting for me.
– Norway… – I think as I slowly trudge off. A rather short man with a mustache holds a piece of paper in his hand with the word “Helena” written on it. In the other hand he holds a little Norwegian flag.
I walk slowly forward, expecting something, maybe a rush of feelings and memories, I wait for someone to call out my name, to catch me by the shoulder… I pause, turn around. Nothing. Even the voices in my head have gone silent. I see people around me walking, struggling with their luggage. Others are waiting for them, full of joy. I see how they talk, their lips widening into smiles, caught up in emotion, waving their arms. Everything is in slow motion, the voices become deeper, I turn around, feel the voices change into distant echoes that disappear slowly in the back of my head. My legs go weak, the black marble floor seems to turne into mud, like that of the Sava, and I start to turn around, already completely lost, like a catfish in a fish trap. I hear one of the voices coming from somewhere deep down in my spinal cord, hear it mention with a sneer the years I wasted in Norway, as it laughs and belts out a gypsy tune, mockingly and provocatively. I try to supress it, but it just sings on without paying me any heed. A desire to faint comes over me as I continue to spin around slowly, an older couple pass by me, looking me straight in the eye, I can see that clearly, my knees finally start to give, I see the mustachioed man with the flag, a tall blonde approaches him, she could be Russian, he holds out the flag, she takes it and it’s obvious that she doesn’t know what to do with it, or with him. I think how I could have taken a scrap of paper and written “Helena” and waited. I think: Norway…
I feel cold water on my face, someone is splashing it gently on my cheeks, and I gradually come to. Above me several heads nod knowingly, happy to have witnessed something out of the ordinary, to finally have experienced something beyond everyday life. I catch hold of the hand that is splashing water on me, it belongs to the middle-aged kiosk lady in front of whose kiosk I had collapsed. On her left breast is a name tag saying «Cathrine». Cathrine is blond, with bangs, and she is mumbling in a southern Norwegian dialect, seemingly worried. First I thought she was talking to me, but then she bent down, thrusting her boobs right out in front of my nose, splashing water on my cheeks, then I realized that she was just talking to herself. I move her hand away, and the only thing I succeed in uttering is:
– Sugar, give me some sugar…
She gets up, goes to her kiosk and takes a coke out of the fridge.
After I had drunk a bit of the fizzy sugar water, I stood up, and the people standing around me started to disperse. The performance is over. Cathrine goes back to her kiosk counter, a man is already waiting impatiently to pay for his newspaper.
I come up to her after he´s gone, I thank her for her help, I want to pay for the coke, she waves it away, says it was nothing, she was worried, she had seen me staggering from far away. I finally lift my glance from her boobs to her face. From behind the mask of her fifty-plus years, a sad little girl looks out at me. I’m well acquainted with these looks, and to be honest, I´m afraid of them.
I thanked her, hoisted the backpack onto my back, turned around and left.
While I was leaving, my eyes fell on the headline. “Princess Mette-Marit, the belle of the ball”, “How to shave a thousand kroner off your electricity bill”, “40 dead in Iraq”, “Big Brother-Kristine gets breast implants”…
I boarded a train for the city, got off at Oslo Central Station, left the station building and stopped. It was already evening, neon lights flashed on and off, trams rattled past, the traffic lights went from red to yellow to green, people walked or stopped by their command, met and parted again, returned from their boring jobs, went home, went to pick the kids up from daycare, sat down at tables with ready-made food, talked about what they did that day, put the kids to bed, turned on the television, waited for their favorite show to come on, then slept.
Left of the main station building is «Plata», a spacious lawn where the local junkies gather. They tottered around in groups, got together, then dispersed, prepared their merchandise, exchanged profanities and other information of importance to them, called out loudly to each other, bummed money aggressively off passersby, quarreled with the police who would disperse them from time to time.
I descend into the darkness of the subway and catch the train to the eastern side of Oslo, to the station called «Tøyen».
Translated by Ilvana Čišić