The Way of the World
The Way of the World
A cult classic, The Way of the World is one of the most beguiling travel books ever written. Reborn from the ashes of a Pakistani rubbish heap, it tells of a friendship between a writer and an artist, forged on an impecunious, life-enhancing journey from Serbia to Afghanistan in the 1950s. On one level it is a candid description of a road journey, on another a meditation on travel as a journey towards the self, all written by a sage with a golden pen and a wide, infectious smile. It is published here for the first time in English with the Vernet drawings which are such a dynamic part of its whole.
‘Nicolas Bouvier’s passionate and exhilarating travel stories have in- spired generations of young Europeans onto the road.’ - Rory Maclean
‘Bouvier is that rare author who alerts the reader to the transcendent dimension of travel, by which the genuine traveller is transformed. This courageous alchemy, transmitted on every page, is what makes The Way of the World a masterpiece.’ - Jason Elliot
The Way of the World: Two men in a car from Geneva to the Khyber Pass
Translated by: Robyn Marsak
Format: 328pp demi pb
Place: Turkey, Pakistan & Afghanistan
Nicholas Bouvier was born in 1929 near Geneva. Although he was an exquisite traveller and the greatest Swiss travel writer of the 20th century, he was not a restless character. Without waiting for the result of his degree, in 1953 he left for Yugoslavia with no intention of returning. The fruits of this journey of a year and a half, were published some eight years later, as The Way of the World. Bouvier continued, through India to Ceylon and thence to Japan. From his experience Japan, where he was to live for more than a year and to revisit in the 1960s and 1970s, came a distillation of experiences, The Japanese Chronicles, which were published in their final version in 1975. He died in 1998 in Geneva.
Extract from Chapter One
Belgrade. Midnight was chiming when I stopped the car in front of the Café Majestic. A friendly silence reigned over the still warm street. Through the lacy curtains I saw Thierry sitting inside. He had drawn a life-size pumpkin on the tablecloth, and was killing time by filling in tiny pips. Obviously the Travnik barber hadn't seen him very often. With his side-burns over his ears and his little blue eyes he looked like a jolly, if worn-out, young shark.
I gazed through the window for a long time before joining him at the table. We clinked glasses. I was happy to see this old project taking shape, and he to have a companion. He had found it hard to tear himself away. At first he had walked too far, without being in training, and weariness made him gloomy. Trudging along, sweating, through a countryside populated by incomprehensible peasants, he had questioned the whole enterprise. It seemed absurd, idiotically romantic. In Slovenia, an innkeeper who noticed his defeated look and his top-heavy rucksack hadn't helped matters by saying kindly, ‘Ich bin nicht verrückt, Meister, ich bleibe zu Hause.’†
The month he'd spent drawing in Bosnia, however, had restored his balance. When he arrived in Belgrade, his drawings under his arm, the painters of ULUS had welcomed him as a brother and unearthed an empty studio in the suburbs, where we could both stay.
We got into the car, as it was quite a way from the city. After crossing the Sava Bridge, you had to follow two ruts along the river bank as far as a patch of land overgrown with thistles, where several dilapidated houses stood. Thierry made me pull up in front of the largest. In silence, we lugged the bags up a dark staircase. The smell of turpentine and dust caught in our throats. The heat was stifling. A powerful humming came through the half-open doors and echoed round the landing. In the middle of an enormous, bare room, Thierry – a methodical tramp – had settled down on a bit of swept floor, well away from the broken tiles. A bedding-roll, his painting materials, a gas-lamp and, leaning against a primus stove, sitting on a maple leaf, there was a melon and a goat cheese. It was frugal, but so natural that I felt it had been waiting for me for years.
I spread my sleeping-bag on the floor and went to bed without undressing. The umbels of hemlock climbed right up to the casement, open to the summer sky. The stars were very bright.
Loafing around in a new world is the most absorbing occupation.
Between the tall arch of the Sava Bridge and the confluence with the Danube, the suburb rose in clouds of dust in the fiery summer. It owed its name – Saïmichte (the fair) – to the remains of an agricultural show-ground, turned into a concentration camp by the Nazis. For four years, Jews, resistance fighters and gypsies had died there in their hundreds. When peace returned, the municipality roughly restored these lugubrious ‘follies’ for artists on state bursaries.
Ours – with its warped doors, smashed windows and capricious toilet flush – numbered five ateliers, ranging from the absolutely bare to the opulently bohemian. The poorest tenants, those on the first floor, were to be found every morning, clutching their shaving brushes, queuing for the washbasin on the landing. The concierge would be there too, his cap pulled down tight over his head; he had been wounded in the war, and his skin had to be stretched at the chin by some helpful soul while he carefully shaved with his one hand. He was a sickly man, more suspicious than an otter, with nothing to do but watch over a nubile girl, and pick up bits and pieces from the toilets – built in the Turkish style, so one emptied one's pockets before squatting down – handkerchiefs, lighters, pens that distracted users might have forgotten. Milovan the literary critic, Anastasia the potter and Vlada, a peasant painter, occupied the ateliers on the ground floor. They were always ready to help us, serving as interpreters, lending a typewriter, a bit of mirror, a handful of rock-salt or, when they had sold a watercolour or an article, inviting the whole house to a noisy feast – white wine, peppers, cheese – followed by a collective siesta on the sunny, bare floor. Heaven knows they lived on meagre rations, but the black years of occupation and civil war had taught them to value the good things in life, and Saïmichte, although stark, had a bonhomie all of its own.
It was a jungle of poppies, blueberries and wild grasses which had laid siege to the crumbling buildings, and drowned in its green silence the shacks and stray encampments that had sprung up all around.
A sculptor was living in the house next to ours. Stubble on his chin, his hammers slung from his belt like .45s, he used to sleep on a mattress at the foot of the statue he was working on: a bare-chested partisan, fist clenched round a machine-gun. He was the richest man in the neighbourhood. Times had been kind to him; with monuments to the dead, red granite stars, effigies of resistance fighters battling against 125 m.p.h. winds, he had at least four years of commissions. It wasn't surprising; at first the business of secret committees, revolutions become established, ossify, and rapidly become business for sculptors. In a country like Serbia, which was constantly in turmoil, there was already a large heroic repertoire on which he could draw: horses rearing, swords brandished, comrades-in-arms. But this time it was more difficult. The liberators had changed their style; they went on foot, their hair cropped short; they were wary, unprepossessing, and the spoonful of jam that the sculptor offered when we visited him, as was the Serbian custom, suggested a less martial, gentler world.
At the other end of this wasteland, an ice-box beside a bar served as post-box and rendezvous for those who lived there, between the sky and the undergrowth, with their chickens and cooking-pots. One could take away solid, gritty blocks of coarse ice-cream and sorbets made from goat's milk, their sour taste lingering in the mouth until evening. The bar had only two tables; when it was hottest, the rag-and-bone men of the area gathered around to sleep or sift their pickings. They were old men, with red, roving eyes; because they'd always sniffed the dirt together, they were like ferrets from the same burrow.
Behind the ice-box lay the domain of a Ukrainian secondhand dealer, who had made a very clean niche for himself amidst his treasures; a big man, sporting a cap with ear-flaps, he owned a mountain of worn-out shoes, another of light-bulbs (some of them burning, others fused), and conducted his affairs on a large scale. A heap of battered flasks and empty oil-drums completed his stock. The astonishing thing was the number of clients who left his depot with their ‘shopping’ under their arms. Past a certain degree of poverty, there was nothing that couldn't be sold. In Saïmichte, one shoe – even with a hole – could make a deal, and the Ukrainian's mountain was often scaled by the bare-footed, scanned by the sharp-eyed.
Westwards, along the Zemun road, Novi Beograd rose up above a sea of thistles, the foundations of a satellite city that the government had been determined to build, against geologists' advice, on badly drained soil. But even so august an authority could not prevail against spongey land, and Novi Beograd, instead of rising out of the ground, persisted in sinking into it. Abandoned two years before, its false windows and twisted girders stood between us and the countryside. It was a frontier.
At five o'clock in the morning, the August sunshine pierced our eyelids and we would go off to bathe in the Sava, on the other side of the Saïmichte bridge. Soft sand beneath our feet, a few cows among the scattered bushes, a little girl in a shawl watching over goslings, and a tramp asleep in a shell-hole, covered with newspapers. When day broke, the bargees and inhabitants of the area came to wash their clothes. We cheerfully scrubbed our shirts together, squatting in the muddy water, and all along the river bank, across from the sleeping town, there was nothing but the sound of clothes being wrung out, brushes, and snatches of song as masses of soap-suds floated away towards Bulgaria.
In summer, Belgrade is a morning city: at six o'clock the municipal watering-cart sweeps away the refuse left by the market-garden trucks and the shops' wooden shutters bang open; at seven, all the cafés are jumping. The exhibition opened at eight. Every other day I would go along to hold the fort while Thierry badgered recalcitrant purchasers all the way home, or went sketching in town. The entry was twenty dinars, for those who had it. The cash-box contained only a handful of coins and Valéry's Variétés V, left behind by the last exhibitor – its mannered style took on an exotic attraction in those surroundings, which added to the pleasure of reading. Under the desk, half a melon and a flask of wine awaited the friends of ULUS who would come along at the end of the afternoon and suggest a dip in the Sava, or translate a few lines of a review that had appeared in the evening paper.
‘…M. Verrnett'e … has certainly seen a lot of our countryside and his sketches are amusing … but he is too sarcastic and lacks some … lacks some… – how would you say this?’ said the translator, clicking his fingers. ‘Ah, I've got it, he isn't really serious!’
Indeed, seriousness is the preferred mode of people's democracies. The journalists of the Communist press, who arrived very early in the morning to work on their paper, had enough and to spare. They were young officials with squeaky shoes, who had mostly emerged from Tito's resistance and whose new importance gave them legitimate enough satisfaction, though it also made them both arrogant and uncertain. Frowning, they would move from one drawing to the next, severely disapproving yet puzzled, for who was to say whether irony was retrograde or progressive?
Between eleven and twelve the poster at the door – a yellow sun in a blue sky – would attract all the kinds from Terazié Avenue, on their way home from school. An exhibition of bread and jam couldn't have been more successful: urchins with gap-toothed grins hopped along the picture cordon; dusty gypsy kids paid up with a scowl, and ran yelling from room to room, leaving their tiny bare footprints on the polished parquet floor.
From five to six, the blank hour would bring some ghosts from elegant neighbourhoods. Pathetic, gentle ci-devants, whose fluent French and retiring, respectful manner betrayed their bourgeois origins: old men with quivering moustaches carrying enormous shopping-bags, and matrons in tennis-shoes, as tanned as peasants, would draw up chairs to the cash-desk, extend a dry handshake and carefully sound us out, searching for an echo of their melancholy ruminations. Many of them, having returned after the October 1951 amnesty, were now living in the smallest rooms of their former residences, and in totally unforeseen circumstances. A music-loving former lawyer was copying out parts for a jazz orchestra, and an erstwhile muse of the salons would cycle off at daybreak to teach solfège or English in distant council flats. They would merely glance distractedly at the walls and, too lonely to go away immediately, but too proud to say so, they would launch into exhausting monologues – prone to last until closing time – on the tomb of King Alexander or on the ruined convents of Macedonia which we, who would understand, absolutely must see. And they would linger there, pressing, wearisome, confiding, giving more and more advice. But their hearts were no longer in it. They made an effort of will, but the spirit had gone out of them.
At dusk the whole street would go past the exhibition. The inhabitants of Belgrade had too few amusements to let any slip. Life was still frugal enough for people to be hungry for everything, and this appetite led to all sorts of discoveries. Theologians followed motor-races, peasants – after a day's shopping in Marshal Tito Street – would come along to discover watercolours. They would leave a sack of fertilizer, a new halter, or a sharp, oiled billhook at the door, peer at the tickets and take money from under their belts or caps. Then they strolled from drawing to drawing, with long strides, hands behind their backs, gazing at each one, determined to have their money's worth. Used to the pasty clichés of the Mostar Daily or the Cetinje Echo, at first they were hard put to understand line drawings. Then from a familiar detail – a turkey or a minaret, the handlebars of a bicycle – they would work out the subject and would suddenly laugh, or look thoughtful, craning their necks to see whether they could recognise their station, their hunchback, their riverbank. Faced by someone sloppily dressed, they'd check their own flies. I liked the way they related everything to themselves, looked at things slowly, patiently, weighing up the work. Usually they would stay to the very end, quite at ease in their baggy britches and farmyard aroma, then they would come politely to the cash-desk to shake the artist's hand or roll him a cigarette, which they stuck down with a single sweep of the tongue. At seven o'clock Prvan, the manager of ULUS, would arrive with the news. No, the state purchasers who constituted his main clientèle had still not made up their minds.
‘Oh well,’ he'd say, ‘tomorrow we'll go and chew their ears …’, and he would take us off to eat spinach flan at his mother's.
If we didn't have customers, friends sprouted from under our feet. There was an immense store of personal generosity in Serbia, and though lacking so much, people were warm-hearted. France may well be – as the Serbs liked to tell us – the brain of Europe, but the Balkans are its heart, and there can never be too much of that.
They invited us into dark kitchens, into little, ugly, comforting sitting-rooms for enormous bellyfuls of aubergines, kebabs, melons which sprayed open under a pocket-knife. Nieces and frail old relatives – because at least three generations would be sharing these cramped quarters – would have already, excitedly, set the table. There would be introductions, low bows, phrases of welcome in charming, old-fashioned French, and conversations with these old bourgeois who were passionate about literature, who killed time by re-reading Balzac or Zola, and for whom J'accuse was still the latest literary scandal from Paris. Spa waters, the ‘colonial Exhibition’ … when they reached the end of their recollections, there would be silence, and then the friend who painted would go off in search of a book on Vlaminck or Matisse. All the dishes would be cleared from the table, and we would leaf through the book while the family looked on in silence, as though a ceremony they couldn't participate in was taking place. This gravity touched me. During my years as a student I had earnestly potted ‘culture’, done my intellectual gardening, analyses, glosses, taken cuttings; I had dissected various works of art without grasping their dynamic value. At home the stuff of life was so well cut, distributed, cushioned by habit and institutions that there was no space for invention, it was confined to decorative functions and only thought of as something ‘agreeable’ – that is, immaterial. In Serbia, things were quite different; being deprived of necessities stimulated, within certain limits, an appetite for what was essential. Life was still demanding and greatly in need of form, and artists – by which I mean any peasant who knew how to hold a flute, or daubed their wagons with sumptuously mingled colours – were respected as intercessors, or bone-setters.
Thierry had not yet sold anything. I had written nothing. As frugal as our life was, our dinars were rapidly diminishing. I went to the newspapers in search of work and, thanks to our Saïmichte neighbours, was able to place a few jottings. The editors didn't pay much, but they gave me a warm welcome. I was swiftly put at ease by finding in most of their buildings a grand piano, prominently placed with its lid up, for emergencies – as though the need for music was as imperious there as any natural need – and a refreshment room where, in the bracing aroma of Turkish coffee, one could freely discuss things. There was no prior censorship, and in principle the most heterodox opinions could be published … and sanctioned. The editor-in-chief, however, would prudently remove from the press anything with a whiff of heresy, and at least half the copy was never used. Sometimes, in order to create a good impression, the people in charge recklessly exaggerated the latitude they were given.
‘In your country, women don't have the vote. Give us a page on that – your feelings. Be quite blunt about them.’
I had no firm opinion, nevertheless I wrote that the situation was fine as it was, perhaps because after several weeks in Yugoslavia I could have wished to see the women a little less militant, and a little more intent on pleasing. I even called La Fontaine to my aid: ‘grace, which is something even more than beauty’. The ladies – it was for a women's magazine – were certainly flattered; if they weren't all beautiful, they were certainly graceful, but it wasn't the kind of writing they were looking for.
‘We had a good chuckle,’ the editor said to me, somewhat embarrassed, ‘but the line you take is rather … how shall I put it … frivolous. There might be trouble.’
I suggested writing a fairy-tale.
‘That's an idea: a fairy-tale without a prince.’
‘With the devil?’
‘If you like – but not a saint. I've got to keep my job.’ She shook her black locks, laughing amiably.
Belgrade is nourished by a rustic magic. Although it's in no way a village, an influx of country-folk pass through it and make it mysterious. It's easy to imagine the devil behind the features of a well-off horsedealer, or a waiter in a threadbare waistcoat, wearing himself out weaving his weft and setting his traps, constantly thwarted by the formidable candour of the Yugoslavs. All afternoon I wandered along the Sava, searching for a story on such a theme, without success. As the deadline was tight, I spent the evening typing up a little fable in which the devil didn't figure at all, and went off to deliver it to the editor, on the sixth floor of a dilapidated building. Although it was late, she let us in. I can't recall the conversation at all; what struck me was that she wore high-heeled mules and a superb red dressing-gown. In Belgrade, such things were eye-catching. I was grateful to her for such a pretty outfit because, of all the aspects of poverty, one of the most distressing to me has always been the way it makes women ugly: cheap shoes as big as surgical boots, chapped hands, flowered materials whose colours run and blur. In that context, such a dressing-gown was a triumph. She warmed our hearts, like a standard flying. I wanted to congratulate her, to drink a toast to frivolity. I wouldn't have dared to be so explicit. We left with such profuse thanks that she seemed rather surprised.
Four thousand dinars. We needed ten times that before we could leave the city, but it was something towards our hoped-for retreat to Macedonia. We needed to go away in order to work; Belgrade was beginning to overwhelm us.
Little factories lined the quays on the Sava. A peasant, his forehead pressed against a shop-window, endlessly contemplated a new scythe. In the upper town there were white buildings crowned with the red Party star, and onion domes. There was a heavy smell of petrol from the evening trams, packed with wide-eyed workers. A song floated out from a café, sbogom Mila dodje vrémé (goodbye, my darling, time is flying …). Haphazardly, as we became used to it, dusty Belgrade got under our skins.
There are cities whose histories are too pressing to allow them to be carefully presented. When it was promoted to capital of Yugoslavia, the big fortified town was suddenly enlarged by entire streets, in that administrative style which was already not modern, and didn't look as though it could be ancient. Up went the main post office, parliament, acacia-lined avenues and residential areas, where the villas of the first deputies sprang out of ground watered by bribes. Everything had gone ahead too fast for Belgrade to evolve the hundreds of details which make urban life enjoyable. The streets seemed occupied rather than inhabited; the mesh of incidents, gossip, encounters was rudimentary. There were none of those shady, concealed nooks that real cities provide for love or meditation. Elegant objects had disappeared along with bourgeois customers. Shop-windows displayed merchandise that was scarcely finished: shoes gaping open like split logs, blocks of black soap, nails by the kilo or talcum powder wrapped up like fertiliser.
Occasionally a diplomat would drop by the exhibition and invite us to dinner, enabling us to rediscover that city patina which the town so lacked. Around seven o'clock we dumped the day's dust in the Sava, hastily scraped our faces in front of the mirror on the landing and, dressed in faded suits, we strolled blissfully towards the handsome houses, their chrome taps, hot water and cakes of soap, which we'd make use of – under pretext of having to leave the room – to wash a stock of handkerchiefs and socks. When the person charged with this task eventually returned, beaded with sweat, the hostess would say maternally,
‘You aren't well? It's the Serbian food … nobody gets away with it, all of us … and recently …’
‘I myself –’ the minister would add, raising his hands.
We only half-heard the conversation, devoted to bad roads, incompetent departments, in short to the trials and tribulations which didn't affect us at all; all our attention was focused on the smooth brandy, the texture of damask napkins, the scent of the lady of the house.
A traveller's social mobility makes it easier for him to be objective. These excursions beyond our suburb enabled us, for the first time, to form a dispassionate judgement of that milieu; one had to be at a distance to distinguish its contours: its conversational habits, its absurdities and humour, its gentle ways and – once one had passed the test – its naturalness, a rare flower in any soil. It was sleepy too, and lacked curiosity; its life was already furnished in every nook and cranny by preceding generations, who had been more avid and inventive. There was a world of good taste there, and often of goodwill, but basically it was a world of consumption, where the heart's virtues were certainly maintained but, like the family silver, were reserved for special occasions.
Returning, we would find our shack white-hot from the day's sunshine. Pushing open the doors, we came down to earth. Silence, space, just a few objects and those very dear to us. The virtue of travelling is that it purges life before filling it up.
We had a new neighbour – French, of Serbian extraction. Anastase found life in Montparnasse too hard, and chose to return to Yugoslavia. He had just settled in with a sweet Parisian wife, whom every one in the house secretly hoped would be a pushover, and who wasn't. Anastase knew scarcely any Serbian. He had difficulty adapting to Saïmichte and its ways. A strong Parisian accent and a sort of shyly cheeky humour served him for aplomb. For fear of seeming bourgeois, he wouldn't discard his scruffy jersey and his wife made herself a sackcloth dress of an austere cut that was very surprising there. She wasn't able to wear it for long. After a week, papadaci (the fever-mosquito) had bitten her, and there she was lying on her bed, melting before our very eyes, in floods of tears, surrounded by gruff, helpful neighbours.
In short, Anastase went from one unexpected setback to another. Even the women completely disconcerted him: confident that his French style would make him irrestible, he had gaily assailed the concierge's daughter in the shower. She had practically knocked him out.
‘If I'd got my hand between her legs …’ he said resentfully. Milovan laughed at him.
‘Haste will be your downfall, Anastase. Poor girl … French, French … she must have expected something wonderful, a little courtship, sweet nothings, a siege! And you fell on her to make love on the spot, just like everyone else!’
For the first few weeks, Anastase felt the ground give way beneath him. Everything was so different, right down to the politics. At the beginning, in order to pass the test and show he was right-minded, he gave vent to ferocious criticism of the Vatican – without raising the slightest interest. Why the Vatican? No one asked him much, and the subject concerned no one in Saïmichte; journalists in the extreme left-wing press in Belgrade were paid to do that sort of thing, so why do their work for free? His listeners regarded him with an astonishment that cut him off in mid-flow, and kindly invited him to calm down and have a drink. Confusion and loneliness are things the Serbs recognise at once, and they immediately come forward with a bottle, a few shrivelled pears, and their kindly presence.
Like us, Anastase benefitted from their generous dispositions; Milovan, Vlada the naïve painter and the ULUS people had fraternally kept his head above water. When he realised the kind of gang he'd stumbled on, he threw himself on them with frantic gratitude. Then he desperately wanted to distribute the coffee he'd brought back from France. You'd see him going down the corridors, carrying a steaming tray: this would earn him love. At last he'd hit on the right thing; coffee was rare, and Anastase made it perfectly. People did like him. It was as simple as that.
Friday service in the little church concealed behind the post office: a few sunflowers against a worm-eaten fence, and rabbit-skins stuffed with straw propped against the sacristy wall. Inside, a dozen old people in dusty sandals chanted the liturgy behind a screen. Two candles stuck in a bucket of sand feebly illuminated the altar. It was gentle and shabby. The dimness, the quavering, frail voices made the scene almost painfully unreal; I had the impression that a careless stage designer had flung it together a few minutes beforehand. This church seemed moribund: it would not be able to adapt, it could only suffer. The role it had played in the formation of the Serbian kingdom and the help it had given to the resistance prevented its being persecuted, but if the Party had done nothing to finish it off, it had done even less to succour it. Everyone knew that assiduous church attendance would do nothing to advance their careers.
At least it could flourish among the dead without fear of harm. In the cemeteries of Belgrade, families would go to place crosses made of purple beads on the tombs of partisans surmounted by the red star, or on Sundays to light tiny candles, their flames guttering yet not extinguished. The competition between emblems was carried on in silence, even as far as this. The Party's emblem was flaunted everywhere: at the very least on fences, at the entrance to shops, stamped on gingerbread; sometimes even in villages in the depths of Bosnia, where a squad from the neighbouring headquarters would come and put up a ‘co-operative triumphal arch’ right opposite the mosque, a gross cardboard fake which rapidly lost its fresh paint and fell into peeling decrepitude. At the end of the week the peasants would hitch their wagons to the uprights; soon they would dismantle the arch piece by piece to patch their broken roof-tiles, the varnish sparkling under a leaden sun, and the clumsy totem would wilt like a cutting that hadn't taken.
It's very odd how revolutions which profess to know the people take so little account of their sensibilities, and fall back on slogans and symbols that are even more simple-minded than the ones they're replacing. Although designed by the most brilliant Enlightenment minds, the French Revolution rapidly deteriorated into an inane parody of the Roman republic, with its Pluviose, ten-day ‘weeks’, the goddess of Reason (a street-walker being chosen to personify her at the ceremonies in the Champ de Mars). The same deterioration was observable passing from the warm, thoughtful socialism of Milovan to the Party machine: loudspeakers, straps and buckles, Mercedes full of ruffians, bouncing over the potholes – the whole apparatus already curiously old-fashioned, and as arbitrary as the heavy stage-machinery which brings down the flies at the play's end, with dead gods and clouds in trompe l'oeil.
Nobody in Saïmichte talked about the past. Doubtless it had been difficult everywhere. Like old nags with short memories, the little inhabitants of the area drew from their forgetfulness the courage to live again.
In Belgrade, influential people were silent about the past, as though it were a dubious old man whose trial had brought too many people's actions into question. Nevertheless, there existed a glorious Serbian history, Croatian and Montenegrin chronicles, Macedonian epics full of Machiavellian prince-bishops, conspiratorial philologists, partisans with many notches on their blunderbusses; there were splendid individuals, shadily employed, still unfit for consumption – like meat that needs stewing for a long time to lose its bitter taste – since they had generally profited from the brief respites allowed them by their Turkish or Austrian adversaries to fall on them in their turn.
While waiting to recover this patrimony, still ‘under seal’, official history began with the Nazi invasion. The bombing of Belgrade that had killed twenty thousand, the partisans, Tito's insurrection, the civil war, the revolution, the breach with the Cominform and the development of a national doctrine had all occurred in less than nine years. It was from these brief, violent episodes that all the examples, words and myths necessary to nationalist sentiment had been taken. Obviously that period had not been lacking in authentic heroes, or in martyrs; there had been enough of both to re-name all the streets in the country, but nothing resembled one partisan so much as another, and eventually we got sick of perpetual references to the resistance – especially as the Serbs hadn't waited until 1941 to acquire the qualities we found so attractive.
When we missed this truncated past, it was enough to open our Manuel de conversation franco-serbe to be sent right back to a bygone world.
Let me take this opportunity to malign these little tourist phrase-books. I had several of them during my travels, all equally unhelpful, but none went as far as the Manuel de conversation franco-serbe by Professor Magnasco, published in Genoa in 1907. It was anachronistic to a dizzying degree, and its playful dialogues were of the kind imagined by an author who dreamed of hotel life without stirring from his own kitchen. It consisted entirely of phrases about ankle boots, redingotes and minute tips, plus unnecessary remarks. The first time I went to use it – in a barbershop of the Sava quay, amongst cropped heads and workers in overalls – I opened it at: Imam, li vam navostiti brk? – ‘Should I wax your moustaches?’ – a question to which one was supposed to reply promptly: Za volju Bozyu nemojte pustam tu modu kikosima – ‘No, thank heavens! I leave that fashion to the ladies' men.’
If that was already a glimpse of the past, the splendid antiquities in the Belgrade museum offered plenty of other resources for historical inquiry. It's true that you paid for the pleasure by first walking through a gallery devoted to the works of the old sculptor Meštrovič, all on heroic subjects or in heroic attitudes: tormented, hopeful, stunned. The musculature was Michelangelesque, reinforced by a diet of double fat and cabbage, tensed to the very temple as though to expel that little kernel that would prevent these athletes from thinking.
After that, however, there were astonishing things: a series of busts from Hadrian's era – consuls, prefects of Mesia or Illyria – with a wonderful presence. Classical statuary is so often rhetorical and frozen, I had never seen it this explosive. To make them life-like, the sculptors had marvellously rendered the sly precision of the Romans, their acidness and cynicism. Bathed in honeyed light, a dozen wily old magistrates, lively as tom-cats, revealed themselves in silence. With set foreheads, sarcastic crows-feet, and the lower lips of men who had lived well, they paraded sickness, slyness or greed with fantastic impudence, as if their sojourn in these foreign hills had relieved them forever of the burden of pretence. Even so, despite the wounds and scars collected on the Danubian frontier, these faces were basically serene. One felt they had come to terms with the twists of a life to which they must have clung, avidly, and the Mithraic altars found in southern Serbia showed that nothing had been neglected in order to get the supernatural on their side in this struggle.
Then we would find ourselves outside in the sunny street again, with the scent of melons, the big market where horses bore children's names, and houses scattered in a disorderly fashion between two rivers – a very old encampment, which today is called Belgrade.
In the evenings, to preserve some essential moments of solitude, I would prowl on my own. I would go past the water, a book under my arm, and climb up Nemanjina Avenue, dark and deserted, as far as the Mostar, a pleasant café, lit up like a steamer, where all the Bosnian natives gathered to hear their magnificent music on the accordion. Scarcely had I sat down than the owner would bring me a pot of purple ink and a rusty pen. From time to time he would come and peer over my shoulder, to see how I was getting on. He was amazed to see a page being covered at one sitting. I was too. Since life had become so entertaining, I was hard put to concentrate. I would jot down some notes, rely on my memory, and gaze around me.
There would be bossy Muslim farmers' wives, snoring on the banquettes among their bags of onions; truck-drivers with pock-marked faces, officers sitting ram-rod straight in front of their drinks, fiddling with toothpicks, or leaping up to offer a light and trying to engage in conversation. And every night, at the table by the door, four young whores would be chewing melon seeds, listening to the accordion player caressing delirious arpeggios on his brand new instrument. They had lovely, smooth, tanned knees, a bit dirty when they had just come in from practising their trade on a nearby embankment, and well-defined cheekbones where the blood throbbed like a drum. Sometimes they suddenly fell asleep, and sleep made them look extraordinarily young. I would look at their sides, covered in purple or apple-green cotton, lifted by their regular breathing. I found them beautiful in a harsh way, and troubling, until they shook themselves, cleared their throats with an abominable sound, and spat into the sawdust.
On my return, the sentry on the bridge would sometimes pick a quarrel. Although he knew perfectly well who we were, our insouciance made him bitter, and he would take the only revenge he could: delaying passers-by. He would shake his cropped head, breathing garlic and rakia, and demand imaginary permits. My foreign passport enabled me to get round this and to cross the bridge, but his rage would not be subdued and Vlada, who crossed much later and often tipsy, would suffer the consequences. He would be leaping from one strut to another, like a boy, thinking about the marvellous picture he could paint if he weren't Vlada, if he hadn't grown up here, if … when the sentry's voice brought him rudely back to earth. They would both get angry and their quarrel echoed as far as the atelier.
‘Five hundred dinars fine,’ the soldier would yelp, and Vlada would yell back, suggesting he return to his mother's belly. The world was too tough for the soldier to leave it at that. We'd hear him shout ‘Five thousand!’ A dead silence would follow this figure, then the slow footsteps of Vlada, sobered up, returning to the house through the high grass and coming to knock at our door. He cursed his temper; with what he earned in a month, he'd never be able to pay. Tomorrow he would have to go back to the sentry-box, apologise, make an idiot of himself, arrange things with a peasant's finagling and a bottle of plum brandy in his pocket.
We would comfort him after a fashion, but on those evenings the city weighed us down. One would have liked to sweep away with the flick of a hand the miserable shacks in the area, the militia's bad breath, the tragic squalor of the one and the wary torpor of the other. We suddenly needed happy looks, clean nails, urbanity and fine linen. With a stencil, Thierry painted two crowns on the enamel mugs we clinked together. It was our only form of sedition. Hence-forth, we would be kings.
† ‘I'm no fool, Meister, I stay at home.’