English translation by Pina Piccolo, courtesy of the author, from “La cena – Avanzi dell’ex Jugoslavia” Italian translation by Alice Parmeggiani, Marotta e Cafiero 2021.
Yes, all this had happened at an earlier time.
In the present time, of this Sunday in December, the Old Lady cannot sit still. Pacing up and down, as though in a prison cell rather than a room, she says, “That woman said they will keep Beki, as long as needed, in…” Here she freezes, leaning on the edge of the dresser. I whisper to the Old Man, “Where?” The old man answers me almost inaudibly, “Maybe, in the morgue refrigerator… Until the Canadians get there too, and…” Then we all fall silent.
At an earlier time, Uncle’s second long stay at our home, seven years later… I was preparing for the science high school exit exam, Seka was finishing middle school. We had just moved into our house in Rizzi, in an outlying area of Udine. “This is going to be Beki’s…” said the Old Lady, and she furnished that little room in the attic all by herself. Strangely enough, the Old Man did not object. Did he think that Beki’s roads no longer led to Udine? At that time he was happy: the chair factory where he had worked had been relocated to Romania, but he had found another job. He was doing well, installing mosquito nets. Soon, next to the small bed room there was also a bathroom. “Small, but adequate,” said the Old Lady, and he agreed that it was indeed adequate.
Uncle showed up before the Easter holidays, with a woman. “My friend Zuzanna is leaving tomorrow,” he told my parents. Tomorrow lasted five days. The Old Lady liked that Polish woman, of few words and discreet. The Old Man did not desist from commenting:
“She is older than him…”
“It doesn’t matter, as long as their stars get along!” the Old Lady sighed. The Old Man opened his mouth wide like a crocodile in a fit of silent laughter. He was sure that as far as this uncle was concerned it was only the collision of an asteroid with some other celestial body. All I heard was the Old Lady sighing again, “If only Beki would settle down!” But the stars did not agree; the asteroid did not know that Zuzanna was married. After the holidays she returned to Rome, where she was the caregiver for an old woman. “Things like this do happen…,” said our uncle. The Old Man later told me in secret that Zuzanna had not brought us luck; he was alluding to the meaning of her name and the missed opportunity for our uncle to go with her to the Eternal City and stay there, if not forever, at least a little while.
“Modest, Spartan…” was what our uncle had to say about his small quarters.
“The Spartans? At least they were soldiers!And what about him? He praises our salad and spring onions, but wouldn’t dream of hoeing the garden…” But the Old Lady defended him from all that criticism: “He’s older than us, what if he gets a backache? Maybe he is allergic to mosquitoes. There are whole clouds of them in the garden!” But our Old Man believed that our uncle was only allergic to work. However, when with the help of Malik’s relative they found him a job, he initially agreed. In that cooperative tasked with loading and unloading mail, he lasted from half past four to seven in the morning. Uncle Beki described everything, in detail. How the shift leader (“a real donkey!”) had told him he was slower than a snail and ordered him to sweep the endless clearing around the hangar. And our Old Man, impatiently urged, “And did you do it?” Our uncle went on, recounting that he had replied that he was a porter and not a garbage collector, and then that guy ( the ‘wicked one’) had taken him in front of a skyscraper of pallets in the middle of the yard, ordering him to move them two meters further (“as if they weren’t doing well where they were!”), which was impossible without a forklift, and so then he had just wandered around, drank tea from his dear sister’s thermos, and had even eaten a brioche, and then pissed on the pallets. By that time, that perfidious individual in charge of supervising him had reappeared and told him that he was incompetent, and that he was not hired to eat and drink… “So, what did you say?” cried the Old Man, as if he could not wait to hear the end of that tale. Uncle said he hadn’t done anything (“I just nudged all those pallets”), and the Old Lady was horrified, fearing the supervisor had been buried under them, but he reassured her: they had just flown all over the place like feathers, and the guy had shouted at him that he was mad, but he had refrained from replying (“to that worm!”), “beautifully highlighting the differences between his creeping normality and the sublime dignity of a righteous man.”
“This is how a righteous man today suffered injustice, through no fault of his own! That’s all — shall we play a game?” Without saying a word, the Old Man brought the chessboard, but then he inquired whether there was any other job Beki would like to do, perhaps outdoors. “For instance, in the Andes…” he replied. Our Old Man fell silent. “Yes, because there the Indios work for each other, and not for money…” The Old Man merely sighed, “It’s time to go to sleep… Tomorrow, perhaps, it will be another day!”
At that earlier time, I was still preparing for the high school exit exam. That afternoon Uncle Beki entered my room for the first time. In fact, since his first visit he had not paid any special attention either to Seka or to me. “Don’t take it wrong, he’s not used to children: he doesn’t have any of his own. And, besides, everyone has his own problems,” said the Old Lady. The Old Man then hissed that it was better for her to keep, diplomatically, quiet. That day Uncle asked me if I had glue for the inner tube (he didn’t have a driver’s license, and our Old Lady had bought him a bicycle). No, I didn’t have glue; I would throw away the tires whenever they got punctured . He looked at the title of a book on my table, then quickly flipped through that dozen I had on the shelf as well and said, “Garbage!” Offended, I defended the authors of fantasy and noir novels and my habit of resting my mind with those readings.
“It’s no use for you to keep on talking, nephew!” Then he mocked the Internet. Dissenting violently, I said that the net broadens one’s horizons. “Whose? And what horizons does a net broaden, if you are entangled in it like fish that think they are free? And what about life, where is that?” I stammered something meaningless. And him? He just stood there, tapping his foot on the ground. Did he mean that any reality is truer than an artificial one, offered to us ready-made?
I had a driver’s license, and we drove to buy the bike tire. Seka was also with us, so we spoke with Uncle in Italian. On the way back, he took us to a bookstore. He stopped at the shelf displaying the ten best-selling titles. “Read only a third of the first page of each of these…” Seka was surprised at our uncle’s request, but obeyed. “What did you notice?” Rolling her eyes, she just stood there, silent. “Nothing at all?” he wouldn’t let it go. “Hm, it’s almost all the same. Did one author write it?”
On the way home, he said that long before, in Marseilles, he devoured Maupassant for breakfast (so we learned that he had been there, too). Seka thought it was a kind of croissant. He, however, had words of praise for her, she had at least ventured to respond, but criticized me (“You, Neanderthal man!”). I was annoyed, here I was, about to finish high school and had to hear those remarks; and on top of that, from someone I had never seen with a book in his hand. “It’s not my fault!” I said in my defence. “You don’t know that we spent a whole year doing nothing else but analyzing Dante, and then Manzoni! And whatever else could fit in an anthology: a few short stories and, for the most part, excerpts from literary works by Italian authors!” In response, he quoted a writer who claimed he had never let school get in the way of his education.
Then, for the first time, he asked me what I was going to study at the university. “Stomatology? Why? Do dentists make good money?” There was some truth in that, but the truth hurts, and, again, I muttered something in defense of my choice. “Are you going to treat everyone’s teeth?” The question seemed funny to me but I said, “Sure!” He looked at me narrowing his eyes. “Even those of bums, and…?” He did not complete his sentence. Me? My mouth turned to lead – never before had such a thing occurred to me.
From that day until his departure for who knows where, Maupassant, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Mann, Chaucer, Buzzati, Gogol’, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Carver, Pavese arrived in my room… He would find books for a couple of euros, on the second-hand stands. No works by writers from the former Yugoslavia: perhaps too much of the world had migrated inside of my uncle?
“And now – the king of all books!” Two tomes of Don Quixote were slammed onto my table. “Here is also the answer to the trash you read!” But I kept reading that trash, it relaxed me even during my stomatology studies. At that time I was secretly writing a noir novel, which later disappeared from my computer memory, with a click of relief when I read Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. The King of All Books I never read to the end, but I did read (and more than once) the episode in which the friends of the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure throw chivalric novels on the stake. When I asked my uncle if he ever wrote, even just short stories, he replied, “No, because the longest road is the one from thought and images in the mind to words on paper…” But from time to time he would let slip some thoughts about writing short stories.
Born in Visoko, Bosnia, in 1956, Božidar Stanišic holds a degree in philosophy and worked as a teacher until 1992, when he fled the civil war that broke out in his country. He moved to Italy, where he still lives with his family. In 1993 he published I buchi neri di Sarajevo (MGS Press); in the following years he published three collections of poems Spring in Zugliano, Non-poems, Metamorphosis of Windows, then the collection of short stories entitled Three Short Stories. One of his pieces is featured in the anthology of Bosnian-Herzegovinian fiction of the 20th century Tales from Bosnia, edited by G. Scotti. He then resumed his prose production with Bon Voyage, The Winged Dog and other short stories. In 2011 he published the children’s book La cicala e la piccola formica, in 2012 Piccolo, rosso e altri racconti. He has various prose pieces and poems scattered in numerous Italian and foreign anthologies. Some of his short stories, essays and poems are translated into French, English, Slovenian, Albanian, Japanese and Chinese.