Friday
Apr032015

Witness to a Prayer

Vedran Husić


 

Image, distortion, conflation—the knight move of metaphor.
Ivan Borić

Writing is prayer.
Franz Kafka

We are alone and in love, suddenly and too late.[1]
Ivan Borić

 

This biography of sorts is the result of three meetings I had with Vesna Borić, the widow of Ivan Borić, perhaps the greatest prose stylist in Serbo-Croatian literature. A fellowship to Prague gave me the opportunity of arranging these interviews with Mrs. Borić, who has been living in Prague since she and her husband emigrated there from the former Yugoslavia in August of 1992, one month after the death of their only child, Mila. Mrs. Borić answered my questions to the fullest possible extent, even those that caused a new recognition of an old loss in her very large, very green eyes (so often borrowed by the late author and rented out to his female leads). For this I am most thankful. I have tried my best here to translate into a flowing narrative the information Mrs. Borić provided me about her husband; I have tried to give a detailed and accurate, albeit short, account of his life. If I have failed to make this incredible writer exist in the reader's mind, the fault lies solely with me. At one point during our last meeting, I was tempted to throw out the note cards in my square pocket and turn to Mrs. Borić and simply ask her to tell me everything about him, everything she knows and everything that's unknowable too.

One last note on the interviews that produced this small biography: I got lost trying to find our meeting place, a little café on Kaprova, as soon as I got out of the tram, and it felt as though it was my fate, that sly, grasping deity so often impersonated by the author, to follow in the footsteps of his protagonists, those wing-heeled travelers who find themselves blissfully lost in foreign surroundings, never pausing to wonder how they will return home, only to notice a copper inscription on a synagogue or the white lily scent in the city garden, or the dancing iridescence of raindrops against the pavement of some nameless seaside town.[2]

 

1

Ivan Borić was born on April 21, 1955, in the Old Town of Mostar,[3] the birthplace of many former poets. As a mature artist, he would recall many parts of his happy childhood and scatter them throughout his art: the L-shaped balcony of the family house on Fejić, with its square of cramped shade and the cellophane effect of reflected light in the lone window; the dusky basement in which he once found a dead mouse, a foretaste of his mortality; the blurred view of the toilet and sink through the ribbed glass of the shower door, a foretaste of his style; his mother, Enisa, blowing on a spoonful of bubbling sauce in the tomato and mint haze of the kitchen; the thud and flutter of books and typewriter paper, and sometimes just Chopin coming from behind the closed door of the study, where his father, Miroslav, sat in a leather and oak armchair,[4] at a mahogany desk as broad as a sarcophagus, revising by hand his lecture on Hegel or Kierkegaard. It was the study, more than any other place, that fascinated Ivan as a youth (he was an only child). The dense shadows at either side of the bookcase, the blue glimmer of the ceiling fan's rotating blades, and, most intriguing of all, the blazing rungs of light reflected from the wooden window blinds, an abrupt ladder on the parquet floor.

Like many great writers of prose, Ivan started out as a poet. Yet from his first poem, written on 24 January, 1970 (he put a date in the bottom right-hand corner of each emergent poem, to give it a romantic authenticity), to his last, written on 10 May, 1973, he never wrote anything with which he was completely satisfied, and looking back over this short period of verse he only appreciated it as a necessary step in his artistic progression, cherishing here and there a small pocket of brilliance and beauty: here, the slick thump of a leather soccer ball, there, a small girl's elegant tug at a limp sock.[5]

They would meet in Partizan Park, on leaf-dappled benches near statuesque pines, a bunch of student poets, Ivan's friends from the gymnasium, reading their lyrics to each other and the crickets. So many distant mountains! She was among them sometimes, a freshman, Dario Novak's sister, the silent participant in a loud circle, biting her thumbnail or peeling a translucent piece of skin from her upper lip. Ivan barely noticed her, only that she was tall, displaying in her movements that touching discomfort of young women not yet accustomed to their stature, and that there was a long albino scar on her left ankle, perhaps from a slip on beach rocks.

Ivan had known Dario only for a while and they quickly lost touch when Ivan moved to Sarajevo to attend university, and he didn't think of Vesna at all, except that sometimes at night, during intense fits of insomnia, he saw her suddenly reflected against his inner lids, dressed in the thigh-length shorts and sleeveless shirt of her volleyball uniform, vivid, knee-high socks covering her scar. The image recurred throughout his years in Sarajevo, and one especially terrible night he finally tracked down its source, remembering how Dario had once come to pick him up with her in the backseat, how she sat in the middle of the seat quietly until they dropped her off at practice, slouching as much as her tall body would allow in the tight space and looking out of the left-hand window, her profile somber—how, as the car took a steep slow curve, she turned slowly away from the window and met his gaze in the rearview mirror, her big green eyes infused at the moment with the infinite tenderness of human abstraction.

At the University of Sarajevo, Ivan studied his father's trade, though he spent most of his time writing short stories. In the middle of his second year, he dedicated himself totally to the double enchantment of reading and writing. Indeed, late at night, unable to sleep, his eyes open to the motionless shadows on the wall, the snoring of one roommate and the heavy breathing of the other an accompaniment to his fantasies, he imagined that this period of his life would one day be a significant chapter in his future biography.[6] His short stories, so short on story, were often in the form of mock confessions and oblique autobiographies, interpretations on the notion of memoir. In them the reader can already find themes that would recur in his work such as the dual nature of man, the shared sphere of reality and dream, life's subtle beauty and its elegant lack of meaning. Through his prose style he gestured toward the dazzling slits in the mask of everyday life, those sublime hints at the harmony of existence, which a true artist feels like a running shiver down the spine, a leaping flame in the heart that illuminates the hollowness.[7] Ivan's reason for writing had always been an avid desire to describe the world; to impel and aid the reader to imagine a smile, a smell, the play of light at dawn, the voices in the street—all the small, overlooked miracles of life. Indulge in swarming, enthusiastic, narcissistic, veracious description. Embrace the caress and warmth of details. Imprison beauty in a padded sentence. This for him was the supreme pleasure of art. Let the scientist explain and the philosopher interpret­—the artist must bear witness and describe.

Yet what a demeaning struggle it was, and what an intolerable bore, trying to answer the question of why he wrote, especially when he knew or sensed that the interlocutor thought writing a trifle, an adolescent hobby, that there was something ridiculous about a grown man playing quiet games with his noisy imagination. What further complicated his explanation was that in conversation he invariably left one part of his reason unsaid—embarrassed by its seeming sentimentality, its daunting simplicity—which was a desire not only to reconstruct a torn down building, or resurrect a severed tree, but also to relieve the human dead of death and grant them immortality. The dear dead; the immortality of art. But how hopeless it was to relay this desire, the exquisite joy of it, with its ripple of transcendence and blasphemy—to say to an inquiring stranger that he, Ivan Borić, wrote to capture beauty and raise the dead.

At the University of Zagreb, where he obtained his doctorate, majoring in English Language and Literature, Ivan continued to write and publish short stories. But already by the end of the first year, despite his work appearing in prominent journals like Gusla and Rijeć, he was hungering for the wide grazing range and thick concealing undergrowth of the novel. That summer, while at home in Mostar, he began to do the necessary research, filled notebooks[8] with promising scraps of imagery (the purest expression of the abstract bliss of observation), reread his favorite novels, studying in particular their sturdy, weatherproof structure, and tempted insomnia with hazy, half-blind fumbles for pen and paper to obsessively scribble something that in the sober morning became either completely unremarkable or else impossible to read. Such was the urgency of his muse, losing a shoe as she ran to embrace him. He'd long had the idea of an intelligent, ambitious man, Viktor H., a writer without talent, who plans an act of terrorism in the streets of Sarajevo. Yet Viktor H. is no revolutionary, nationalist, or religious zealot, follows no ideologies, has no political beliefs whatsoever, and does not bargain with God; a dangerously superfluous man, he tries to achieve greatness and immortality through destruction and death. He is caught easily, writes a "confession" from prison to prove his sanity and repent, and then takes his denial of life to its stoic conclusion by committing suicide days before his trial. But there must be a doppelganger, a shade, Ivan thought, coming through the tall doors of the humanities building, the protagonist's childhood friend, perhaps, a true artist—though the reality of the artist is as much in the limbo of quotation marks as the reality of the terrorist—who is initially brought along in the hope that he will write a posthumous book on Viktor, a biography of the anti-hero. Ivan went up the broad stairs, which an army could climb, turned left instead of right, and picked up his pace like a man who feels the first ghostly drop of rain on his forearm (he was late for his first class as Anton Kovacević's assistant). What if the childhood friend provides extensive annotations to Viktor's pseudo-confession, an eccentric endnote commentary, as well as an intro and index? Ivan liked that idea a lot. Furthermore—passing the inky blur of the bulletin board and turning a corner—the childhood friend should be called Ivan Borić. And what if[9]—he turned another corner and bumped heavily into a girl coming the opposite way. The collision was severe; the poor girl sprawled on the ground like a starfish. He helped her up, went to fetch the book that had slid down the hall, clumsily kicked it even farther when he tried to pick it up, dropped it as he ran back, and then nearly dropped it again as he handed it to her. The hope of sneaking into class unnoticed had vanished; the only conciliation was the empty hall. The girl, mousy and black-spectacled, pressed the book to her chest, red-faced, her glasses knocked crooked, accepted his apology like she would a toad and scurried away. Ivan just stood there, and it took him a while to distinguish the laughter behind his back from that in his head. He turned, the way one turns in a dream, and there she was, gently and wickedly smiling.

With impromptu grace, Ivan bowed to his audience of one. From the debris of a shared past they tried to build a conversation until she bent her elbow to check her watch. He told her he'd walk her to her class, but she said they were standing right in front of it, causing him to make the long, wide-eyed face one makes when walking in on fate. Later on, when they were already dating, he overheard her relate the story of their meeting and put herself in the place of the gawky duckling he had accidentally trampled. He never called her out on it, for he must have known she'd plainly and shamelessly state that her version of events made for a better story. Indeed, her telling had a more daring touch of fate that gave the story a certain perfection. And perfection, of a kind, is the aspiration of all artifice.[10]

Neither of them had been punished for their tardiness that day because Anton Kovacević arrived even later, a habit of his along with the absentminded brush of pudgy fingers through thinning hair and the distracted tone of voice as he read his notes to Mansfield Park and Bleak House against the quick, cricketlike noise of scribbling pens. Ivan sat in the corner of the auditorium, facing the ascending rows of seats, trying not to be caught staring; Vesna sat in the second row, twelfth seat from the right. They began dating and went to the movies, got coffee and ice cream in those attractive side streets in the city—narrow rows of tables and chairs, shade umbrellas in full bloom—or sometimes just sat talking for hours on a bench in Republic Square, feeding the fat, high-breasted pigeons. They frequently stopped by the botanical garden, walking the pebbled paths, touching bark against their palms, and trying to read the scientific names of the flowers: Helleborus atrorubens, Adonis vernalis, Campanula poscharskyana, which was her favorite, a simple, star-shaped beauty, with arched lavender petals, vaguely tongue-like. Once, while circumventing a pond within the garden, he paused to write down in a small notebook she carried in her purse for him a description of water lilies. Then, with a sweep of his writing arm, a gesture that included the water lilies, the leaf-lined branches replicated in the pond, and the partition of conifers in the sun-shot distance, he told her this was what he meant when he talked about research.

Ivan was renting out a room by Maksimir Park during his time in Zagreb, and Vesna would often stay the night rather than take the long tram ride back toward her dormitory near Jarun Lake. She thought he was too cramped in this room, the back of the chair bumping into the footboard of the bed, but he enjoyed the solitude it afforded him, being far away from the bustle, clamor and kitsch of the dorms. His insomnia was less powerful when she shared his bed, backing into him, his heart beating against her spine as they slept. He drank her in, her breathing, moving, olive-bright skin, the faint chestnut smell of her hollows, the languorous bends of her long body. The transparent blue vein that ran the inner length of her left thigh was like a cousin of the white scar across her ankle. Volleyball injury, she told him, surprised he kissed her there. The tip of her nose was always a little cold and damp, no matter how well he covered her in the middle of night when she slipped out of the blanket. He was absolutely entranced by the sleek upward curve of her big toes. But there was nothing as poignant about her body as some random reminder of its absence: the scratch mark of her eyeliner against the white of a pillow, the smell of her on the sheets, a long mirror-reflected strand of her black hair sticking to his chest.

In May of 1981, Ivan and Vesna married. After a summer spent back in Mostar, including a brief honeymoon on the Black Sea coast,[11] they returned to Zagreb for Vesna to continue her studies and Ivan to start writing his dissertation, God and the Novel: A Problem of Omniscience. The baby was born at the end of October, a healthy girl, weighing five kilograms, named Mila. Ivan defended his dissertation the upcoming September; a year later Vesna passed her final exams. They went back to Mostar, where Ivan got a job teaching at the same gymnasium he himself had attended. They moved into his parents' house, living in the large guestroom across from the study that Ivan now shared with his father.

A Eulogy for Viktor H. was released by Svjetlost on July 26, 1985 and received a rather lukewarm reception from the critics (Ivan did not care to read reviews of his work, so Vesna read them for him), both in independent journals like Petla and Gusla as well as state-sponsored ones like Borba and Brotherhood and Unity, the latter expected since Ivan was not part and refused to join the Yugoslav Communist Party, but the former a bitter surprise despite Ivan's external protestation of complete indifference. Only in Rijeć was the novel unequivocally praised; in those pages Danilo Kiš, one of a very few Yugoslav writers Ivan considered a contemporary, proclaimed the novel a masterpiece, calling its author "a verbal acrobat in clown's garb." When Ivan's first collection of short stories, Life Under Embankment Lights, came out on February 6, 1986, it did so to much more favorable reviews.

 

Immediately after the release of his short story collection, Ivan Borić started work on his second novel.[12] He was writing in the study one morning when Mila twinkled in through the open door. Ivan laid down his pen. She swung from the arm of his chair, leaning away on her heels, arms outstretched, and then leaning back in and pushing up on the balls of her bare feet, a question in her upturned green eyes. Yes, he said, and moved to the sofa by the door, opposite the bookcase. With a foal-like bounce to her step, she ran out of the room to get her notebook. This was all in keeping with the reassuring rhythm[13] of their lives: she coming in on the tips of her long toes to ask a question and the aching pleasure of his new novel fading instantly before the slit shadows of her dimples. Mila came back and sat next to him. He opened the notebook on his lap and marveled at the drawings of dresses, skirts, blouses, hats, and swimsuits. She nudged into him, explaining the sketches over the blue-edged drone of the ceiling fan, and pointing an ink-stained little finger at what to pay attention to. Ivan knew he loved her for selfish reasons, yet he also knew he loved her more than he loved himself. The blinds were up. The pages rustled and lisped. Her reddish-brown hair gleamed like an apple in a sunbeam. A square of light quivered on the hardwood, seeming about to lift itself into the third dimension at any moment.

 

2

It was seven in the morning and Ivan was awake, watching a game of chess between the light and shadow in his room until dawn erased the chessboard. His temporary room. Everything was temporary now. He would lie in bed pretending to be asleep for Vesna's benefit, knowing she did the same. At one point in the night he had seen her winding silhouette against the window, sitting on the sill, her knee raised, one foot resting on the edge of a dark bulky thing. She was asleep now, he could tell by the indelible rhythm of her respiration. He slid out of bed quietly and got ready for his walk. While he washed and shaved, Prague was being staged outside, the buildings and church towers propped up, the Czech sky molded like papier-mâché, the air brushed with the sharp, elusive shimmer of reality.

Back in the bedroom, Ivan disentangled the blanket twisted around Vesna's legs and covered her up to her throat. There was still the undercurrent of chestnuts, but now her skin, her curves and hollows, smelled predominantly of bread. The soft white part, not the orange crust. He stood before the mirror, buttoning his long coat, a little stunned, a little baffled to be here in Dario's apartment on Benediktska Street. The mirror proved only the existence of his reflection. He locked the front door, went down the stairs and out into the deceptive sunlight of a September morning, the collar of his coat turned up. There was a light wind in the cobbled alleys; sparrows and pigeons called from telegraph line to telegraph line. The air was damp from last night's rain, ripe-smelling. The sun in the shop windows made them opaque. He took Dlouha all the way to the Old Town Square, his fists like two stones in his pockets, his steps heavy and imprecise, his body drunk with cold. He remembered the square stack of firewood in the backyard of his parent's house in Mostar, how the logs had turned dark blue in the rain. He remembered Mila walking a few steps ahead of him toward the beach in Makarska, walking barefoot over pebbles and pine needles, the white hairs on her narrow brown back. He hoarded this image against some unimaginable winter. Of the five benches that encircled a large tree on an intersection island, only one was occupied. An old man in a flat cap was reading a newspaper while his dog smelled the leaves on the ground, the dog's hanging tongue as pink as the inside of a watermelon. Ivan passed them, remembering the dark blue logs in their square stack, the sunburned, leaf-dappled shoulders of his daughter. Behind him, the old man sneezed, or the dog barked, and in front of him Mila walked long-legged in bathing shorts, crossing the square, past the fountain in the center, past men in overalls setting up a stage, past the wedge of peach light between two buildings, past the carriages with their black and white horses, past St. Nicholas Church and back into the dream-lit maze of narrow and never-ending streets.

Ivan had written in his notebook, during the train ride from Zagreb to Prague, that for a man on the brink of a cliff, everything is peripheral but the abyss. This is how he felt on his walks through Prague: Everything melted together, the baroque facades and the bottle green puddles in which they were reflected, the beggars and the sidewalk they bowed against. He knew he was on Kaprova because he had passed their café, and he knew that Kaprova would lead him to the Vltava River. The notebook, where was it now? He had no energy to write, no desire. His muse had deserted him, dragging a suitcase behind her like a sled. At night he did not think about writing anymore. The firewood gleamed in the sun after the rain had turned the logs dark blue, untouched. What had he been doing in the study when he heard the explosion? Where had he been in relation to the sound? It didn't matter; the sound had been everywhere and he nowhere where he could have made a difference. But he still needed to chart his location at the moment of impact. Her skin was tight from the sun, her pale lashes even paler. He followed her to the beach, leaf-shaped shadows sliding across her shoulders and rushing down her back.

The small garden across from the Rudolfinum was empty. He shielded his eyes to look up at Dvorak and then began to round the base of the statue for a better angle of his face. Mila could not fully understand that each calm in the bombing did not mean an end to the war and so seemed always as unprepared for the next round as she was for the one that had come before it. Thunder, he had said to make her stop crying, even though it was much larger than thunder. It would end soon, he had said, even though it would never end, because endings were the very thing she misunderstood. He felt a sudden spasm in his chest and throat and sat down on a nearby bench. Regret had a way of startling him. He breathed in and out, slowly, conscious of the effort. A woman bent over him and Ivan gave her a hand gesture of reassurance, vague with exhaustion. He was fine, he told her, in his own language. She patted him on the back and left. He watched her disappear behind a building and his eyes closed almost without his knowing.

He watched Mila sleep in the candlelight. He watched her chest fall and rise among the wavering shadows in the basement.

Ivan sat trembling on the bench; the harder he tried to control it the more he trembled. The edges of his world began to blur, but he shook it off. Sparrows looked for food in the shadow of a dead man's statue. Flecks of sunlight caught in the shrub leaves. The buttons of Ivan's coat heaved. No description could have captured the unreality of that moment: the bright hard burst of sound that had been everywhere as he was nowhere, the humid rubber smell of the alley, the drying firewood in the backyard, gleaming in the sun. She held a purple pinecone in her hands like a baby bird, raising her elbows to show him. Each night he lay awake measuring his own complicity. He could not find himself at that moment, even in the study he was not there. Each night he lay awake, his eyes open, his eyes closed, watching her sleep.

There was pain in his legs as he got up from the bench, pain and a lightness—the dreaming limbs of a hanged man. Sunlight flickered in the shrubs while sparrows chirped at the periphery. Everything buzzed with the insatiable amber of fall. Everything rustled and breathed. Mila would be eleven soon. Mila would never be eleven.

The river was his compass. He walked alongside it to the Charles Bridge. Halfway across the bridge, he stopped to look down at the water. He had fed the logs into the fireplace when the electricity had gone out, and he remembered how the flames climbed but never reached. The smell of rubber, warm as a mouth, and apricot-colored clouds through moon-thin smoke. He flowed seamlessly into that moment from one unremembered. It was colder on the bridge and he could hear more clearly the scarf-muffled voices of the wind. A black-headed gull slanted toward the water. A girl rubbed the bronze plaque on a haloed statue, rising on her tiptoes. Some saint drowned in this river. He heard the wind without listening to it. His arms folded on the stone parapet, Ivan yawned at the water, weathering the first dull sting of tiredness. The water was yellowish-green where the sun hit it, violet and obliquely silver where the shadow of the bridge reached. He heard her voice like a bell whose vibration was still felt even when the sound had ceased. The spires of the east tower rippled in the water. There were only a few vendors on the bridge, but no musicians, and no artists painting portraits that made one's face look like it would reflected in a spoon. He imagined her heart compressing and expanding like shadows in the basement used to do when they passed the candle around from one to another. Her elbows rose to show him a purple pinecone, a flat pebble, a grasshopper in its green armor. He remembered the large red-orange fire, the black column of smoke, thinning out into silver as it rose, the clouds pierced by the sun, colors mixing, blurring, rushing. He did not understand endings either, not after her end, knew them only from books, where nothing really ended. Death and then what? Ivan did not believe in forewords or afterworlds. He did not believe in a God he could not imagine and refused to believe in a God he could. He did not believe in anything that could give him hope except his writing. But he could not write.

Last night he had opened the window of their temporary room on the third floor and stuck his head out. There were no mountains in the distance; only the crickets were familiar, night's EKG. Death and then what? A long, dark, cricketless silence. Ivan leaned his head out more, felt the rain on his scalp and forehead, thought about letting himself fall with the rain. He could not sleep and he could not write. He felt nothing down his spine but fear and regret, and in his heart he was only aware of the night's powerful refusal to yield anything to him.

Mila had been killed by a fragment from a mortar shell that had hit their neighbors' garage as she played with the neighbors' son. Never go outside without my permission, Ivan had told her. From the L-shaped balcony he had seen the army move on the hill. Now he focused on the brassy glare of the sun in the river. Never go outside. Fragment in the chest. Without my permission. Never go. The window of the room in which he forgot himself had been sheathed in plastic. This he remembered, the popping sound the plastic made in the wind. Then the quick blind thack-thack-thack of rifle fire. Then a deep bursting hardness. He did not understand it, the sudden violence of circumstance. Or fate, which he pretended to know the way the neighbors' boy, a sheet around his neck tied in a rabbit-ear knot, pretended. A cobblestone alley separated the garage from their backyard, where the logs gleamed dark blue in the sun after the rain. He remembered the fire in the alley where the children had played climbing into silver but never reaching the gold of the sky. He had held her in his arms bloodied and limp, and the memory of holding her was as feverish and vivid and stubbornly unreal as a dream. He remembered the white hairs on her hard brown back, the blue over her shoulder when they reached the beach. Mila walked into the water slowly, knees bent, back crooked, hands gliding over invisible furniture. He thought about it every night, how easy it would be. She hugged herself, hunching her shoulders, turned her head toward him, made her green eyes big and exaggerated her shiver. Vesna would be the widow of a great love, if not a great man. Something so touching about tall girls. The water up to her waist, Mila began to turn her body, painful and slow, then threw her narrow back against an oncoming wave, her hard narrow back into the wave. All he needed to do was raise his body over the parapet. On the tips of her toes, a bobbing head, with glints of brown shoulder in the blue, she called out for him to come in. It would be that easy. The waves were as sad and inarticulate as the wind. He felt a dark calm beneath the leaden river, the downward tug of a strong inner current. In the water, he picked Mila up shivering in his arms.

The edges of Ivan's world blurred again. Her alert shoulder blades, her small yellow-knuckled fist holding onto something dear, her dimples when she smiled, it was all gone with her and she would not return. Ivan felt like a child at the realization that she would not. He looked at the tower in the water, the wrinkled spires. Mila was no longer in the range of his vision, but he could still hear the echo of her voice. The swans in the river swelled and dissolved. The river burned. She was no longer but he could still.

Instead of taking the stairway off the Charles Bridge onto Kampa Island, as had become his habit, Ivan went back east on the bridge and then walked farther along the river. Feeling tired again, his legs aching, all he wanted was to lie down on damp familiar grass, but he knew his sleep would be brittle, full of the emblematic dreams he did not believe in as a young man. He unbuttoned the top buttons of his coat, took Narodni toward home. The sidewalk filled with the smells of the fast food places he was passing, fleeting voices, the oblique coos of pigeons. The sky was pale and blue, like wet paper. There was a beggar in front of the stairs to the National Theater, genuflecting severely, his hands cupped above his bowed head. Ivan dumped change into his mute palms without looking at him and crossed the street. From the chair, he had been reading to her his latest chapter, Vesna sitting in bed with the sheets tousled around her waist, a swan in repose. She was staring out of the window at a large evergreen bloated by the falling rain, a tinge of melancholy to the loose shape of her open mouth. He stopped reading abruptly and it took her a while to notice. He sat down on her side of the bed, looked where she was looking. Taking his hands into hers, Vesna said what she had to say. Ivan would be a father. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to listen to a live piano from the inside of a café. His eyes closed almost without him noticing and his world shrunk down to sound. Tonight he would go to sleep and never awake again, but now he stood in front of a café, listening to the calm tremor of a live piano. She stared at a tree swollen with rain through large green daydreaming eyes.

Here is where I will leave him, walking toward Republic Square, making his way home. I imagine him nostalgic, thinking about the shy soaring quality of Chopin and the thick piercing smell of mint. I imagine him going back again to that day in Zagreb. Vesna is asleep now. He is happy and fearful. Her breath is shallow. The rain is dark and it gleams. I imagine him walking the cobbled streets through crowds of tourists, past the fleet-footed clatter of plates and the broken arias of maitre d's, trying in his mind to pin down the perfect image of her. This is the last gift I make to him: Mila rising from the basement floor, her shadow rising with her and spilling over the ceiling like ink; Mila on a swing, Mila on a bike; little Mila asleep on the sofa in the study, wind through the open window blowing on her long curling toes; Mila bowing her head to smell a red rose, the pale, whispery hairs on her curved, slender, almost touchable nape.

I have written only for seven years, but I know that if I write for another seventy, my reasons for doing so would not change—like Ivan Borić, I would still be trying to capture beauty and raise the dead.

 


[1] These two quotes are from the last notebook Ivan Borić kept for his planned collection of stories, tentatively called Basements and Other Museums, and they perfectly emphasize his sense of aesthetics as well as his sense of pathos, the balance all great writers seem to possess between the cerebral and heartfelt. Sandwiched between them is the famous quote by Franz Kafka that inspired the title of this piece.

[2] The last example is taken verbatim from page 16 of "Apropos Madeleine," my favorite short story from Life Under Embankment Lights (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1986). The first two examples are paraphrases, approximations of Borić's prose style. I have set out in this piece to deliberately copy Borić's style, his imagery and diction, his syntax and rhythm, his imagination and legerdemain, in an effort to provide a more vivid picture of his experience of the world (though compared to his singing prose, mine is only a hoarse whimper, a card trick to the parting of the sea). I believe, as Borić did himself, that a writer's consciousness is reflected in his style, and in trying to capture the way he wrote, I am trying to capture the way he thought, remembered, and dreamed.

[3] When, as a seventeen-year-old budding writer, I asked my father what Yugoslav authors I should read, Ivan Borić was his only answer. Great writer and from Mostar, my father said with pride. The obvious choices such as Ivo Andrić and Mesa Selimović did not attract me at the time with their robust historical dramas and their soulful neurotics. I wanted something different, more exhilarating and dreamlike, and I found it in Ivan Borić's work.

[4] In Oroz (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1990), the novel's supposed hero, Vedran Vidević, imagines his father, another professor, also sitting in such an armchair, calling it "the emaciated throne of philosophy" (pg. 82). As in the epigraph, all the translations in the footnotes are mine.

[5] These snippets of his poetry, like any other facts of his life, exist only insofar as Mrs. Borić can recall them. Her feat of recollection in general, and her recitation of long-lost poems in particular, remind me of Dragan in "Apropos Madeleine" hearing his future wife, Diana, from the balcony below his, "humming to a melody from the radio, then to the memory of it" (pg. 3). It also reminds me somewhat dejectedly of Dragan's assertion toward the end of the story that "memory is the most unreliable of narrators" (pg.17). The story is partly set in Makarska, Croatia, where Ivan and Vesna Borić often vacationed.

[6] Viktor H., the narrator of A Eulogy for Viktor H. (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1985), also spends nights awake thinking about his future biography and the man he has chosen to write it, "Ivan Borić," mocking in parenthesis "those poor, unenviable fellows, future biographers, always the last to know" (pg. 78). Like Vidević after him, Viktor H. suffers from "the ghostly vigil of insomnia," (pg. 121), a recurring motif, a ridge in the thumbprint of authorial presence. The character "Ivan Borić" will henceforth be written with quotation marks.  

[7] The faint literary criticism in this brief paragraph is my humble opinion of the thematic focus of Ivan Borić's fiction and the metaphysical implications of his style. Mrs. Borić's opinions are quite similar to mine, yet neither her nor my interpretation constitute a "truth" (a princely word that, like reality, must always be attended by its royal guard of quotes) of Ivan Borić's art, or Ivan Borić as an artist.

[8] Here are some of my favorites from his last notebook, which Mrs. Borić allowed me to borrow in Prague: "the dream of childhood from which the war woke her"; "all whispers are urgent, it is the whisper's way of being loud"; "Brodsky's cabin in Archangel, Russia"; "the ghostly oscillation of an abruptly deserted swing"; "equine beauty of Mostar's hills"; "her bruise the color of crushed figs"; "the flame fluttered like a bullfighter's cape"; "pelicans are only swans with venetian masks"; "Rilke, Lermontov, Paul Celan—what is inspiration but the whisper of ghosts?"; "the window frame reflected in his coffee"; ". . . by sleight of fate"; "golden lilies eavesdropped in the wind"; "in memory the rain always falls sideways"; "nothing is more patient impatient than the grave"; "a blood-soaked tissue is not a rose."

[9] I know that in this passage the facts I've been given begin to grow wings, but I feel it is important to evoke his innermost thoughts in order to make him more vivid on the page, to create the intimacy and immediacy usually missing from a secondhand account. See footnotes #2 and #5.

[10] "Ivan Borić," after catching Viktor H. in a white lie, comments on the relationship between life and art, that "all writers merge memoir with fiction and fiction with memoir, creating fusion works, artful hybrids, swarthy centaurs and smiling mermaids. Truth is elusive and not adequate. Even life's most ingenious designs must be more perfectly shaped, even its best-patterned themes further enhanced by the pen. As an artist, I, too, bent the truth to fit my fiction. I invented a better truth, I told the poetic truth, I imagined, I lied. I lied about life and stole from it like from a favorite author. Like Viktor H., I plundered my life for all its silks, and out of these real silks I have spun my web of make-believe" (pg. 142).

[11] Ivan and Vesna Borić shared a love of travel, among other things. The second time we met, Mrs. Boric surprised me with photographs of their trips. She sitting in a gondola with Mila in her lap, behind her shoulder the gondolier's dark glossy waistband, Ivan Borić reflected in miniature in her sunglasses, a flash at his heart; Mila bowing to smell a red rose in the former Royal Garden in Athens, the shadow of the photographer's bent elbow visible on the white gravel; Ivan Borić leaning over the stone parapet of the Charles Bridge the first time they visited Prague, lost in thought, or pretending to be for the camera; the entire family in front of the blurred columns of a wealthy Armenian merchant's house in Plovdiv, taken by a stranger with trembling hands. None of the photos were from the war or after. There are a few photographs, Mrs. Borić said, but Ivan always has his eyes closed in them like a sleepwalker.

[12] Oroz follows my namesake's move into the house of Franz Heinrich, a Yugoslav-born German, a Nazi sympathizer and aesthete, who owns a cemetery in the mythical town of Oroz (the novel is set on the eve of World War II, when the newfound republic of Yugoslavia disintegrated from internal and external pressures). Franz has a daughter, Mila, and Vidević is her new tutor. These are the main characters, but the novel's true focus, its heart and soul, is its narrator/author, a vibrant and verbose spirit that colors the book. The poignancy of the novel comes from the narrator/author trying desperately to connect with the characters he is writing about, to reach them through his imagination, for their actions, or rather the actions of their similar-minded real-life counterparts, will have an impact on the his life later on (the novel was released in October of 1990, less than a year before the second and final break up of Yugoslavia). The narrator/author fails and his failure becomes part of the novel he is writing. The realization of his failure corresponds with Nazi Germany's invasion of Yugoslavia: the two worlds of the novel merge in their destruction. Rather than reading Oroz as a parody of transcendence, as some critics have done, I think it should be read as a transcendent parody.

[13] A scene between Heinrich and Vidević in the former's garden is interrupted by Mila riding by on a bike, then further interrupted by the narrator/author asking rhetorically if anyone has, "in a poem maybe, captured that enduring father and daughter scene, the daughter paddling swiftly, jittery on the bike, the patient father trotting alongside, holding the edge of the handlebar and the rear of the seat, the daughter relaxing a little, softening the tight grip on the bars as she achieves a certain reassuring rhythm, confident, delighted, she turns her head bravely to share with her father this triumph, but there is no father, he is a long way down the street, a gesturing blur, yelling just go on, you are doing good, but all is lost, the daughter fumbles and the bike teeters and they both crash, she scrapes her knee, suspends bike-riding for a month" (pg. 124).