Miljenko Jergović

Translator's Introduction

“Nora, Like Ibsen’s” is one of the darker stories from Miljenko Jergović’s new collection Mama Leone (Archipelago, 2012), picking up where those of Sarajevo Marlboro (Archipelago, 2004), a book widely regarded as the most significant literary reckoning with the war in Bosnia, left off.

The story’s anti-hero, Mahir Kubat, is a Bosnian Muslim refugee who has managed get himself ever so slightly westwards to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. With no papers and only fifty German marks (the de facto currency of the day) in his pocket, he’s simply looking to put as much distance between himself and the former Yugoslavia — his former life — as he can.

Translating the story, the geographical coordinates struck me most. Like Mahir Kubat, I too have stood alone in front of Zagreb’s Central Station, facing off with the statue of King Tomislav on his horse. And I’ve also had beers in a couple of the bars in the underground shopping centre to the left of the station, not recognizing a single face among the passersby. In 1999 and 2000, when my life floated between Munich in Germany and Sarajevo in Bosnia, Zagreb was always an inbetween stop, a departure point in either direction.

It’s best I leave the similarities there though. I was traveling with the luxury of a New Zealand passport in my pocket, and cash and a couple of bankcards in my wallet. My behaviour and speech had no need of “that excess courtesy characteristic of people who walk the world without papers, bereft of a single document bearing their name and photo, anything to prove their existence.”

Susan Sontag once reminded us that, “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” Having encountered Yugoslav refugees like Mahir Kubat all over the world, for me the privilege of translating Mama Leone was often the privilege of being able to translate compassion into action. - by David Williams. 

The story is excerpted from Mama Leone published by Archipelago Books, 2012. 

It was the beginning of January, the year the war ended, and Mahir Kubat found himself at Zagreb’s Central Station with no papers and fifty German marks in his pocket. The story of how he got to Zagreb, and why Zagreb and not someplace else, would take too long, it’s enough to know that Mahir Kubat had left for good and that he had no particular country in mind, but was pretty set on not hanging around anyplace too close.

A fine snow was falling, you couldn’t actually tell whether it was snow or mist, people were waiting for the tram in front of the station, Mahir had a white Adidas bag with his spare sneakers tucked under his arm and was looking at the king on the horse, who appeared to have especially positioned himself to look right in his direction, as if Mahir and the king formed part of a larger whole, having waited for God knows how long to stand here together on an early-winter evening, one across from the other, both with pretty much no show of riding off somewhere, or at least for there to be any point in doing so. 

Mahir Kubat wasn’t easily panicked; he had these two Clint Eastwood frown lines on his face, and he was well aware of them, it could even be said that he relied on them; a man with these kind of furrows isn’t easily rattled, he doesn’t surrender to despair, even when as night falls he finds himself in a city without a single number he might dial.

One foot in front of the other, he headed off toward the underground shopping center to the left of the station. Down below the advertising neon blazed, from the sound system the jabbering voice of Oliver Mlakar, kids with shaved heads drank beer in front of the supermarket, and Jehovah’s Witnesses sold magazines with apocalyptic headlines. “Find Jesus Before the Catastrophe,” that’s what it said under the face of some penitent crone. She tried to look Mahir Kubat right in the eye so he might see the face of God in hers. Mahir gave her a wink and a smile. He was on the lookout for a bar where he could have a beer and not piss the whole fifty marks up against the wall. If he were someone else, and not Mahir Kubat, he would have already figured out there’s no such bar anywhere in the world. 

An Ožujsko if you will, he tried it on like a local, but it came out bearing that excess courtesy characteristic of people who walk the world without papers, bereft of a single document bearing their name and photo, anything to prove their existence. He poured his beer, folded his arms on his chest, stretched out on his stool a little, and just sat there watching the people rushing by the glass window. The melody of a song from the mid-eighties floated around his head, something like I can’t explain the feeling of a slant-eyed girl in the snow. He’ll hang around in here long enough for something to happen. Mahir Kubat thinks it’s like he’s in a film and that there isn’t a film where resolution doesn’t come of its own accord. The trick is to not leave the theater before the film ends, because then you just roam the streets like a deaf whore, going from one film to the next, and then finally the panic wears you down.

Around nine there was barely a stool free. Only Mahir sat on his own, surrounded by three of them. Some whiny little homo came over, may I sit here, then nothing happened for ages, until a shaven-headed kid and a girl with a mohawk came in, both in leather jackets and high boots painted with British flags. You’re not waiting for someone? the kid asked, sit down, said Kubat through clenched teeth, sharpening those frown lines of his as much as he could.

He held his gaze on the passersby and just waited, not paying the kid and his girl any mind. Sorry, the girl took him by the elbow, do you maybe have a loosey? . . . Do I maybe have a what? . . . A loosey, you got a cigarette? . . . No . . . You’re not from Zagreb? . . . Why’s that, that bother you? . . . No, it’s just you don’t sound like it . . . No, I’m not from Zagreb . . . And where are you from, if I may ask, and it won’t cause offense, the girl chuckled sweetly, and Mahir Kubat thought she was okay. The crew-cut kid was okay too. He kept quiet and let the girl do the talking. I was from Zenica, and now I’m not from anywhere . . . Aha, Mister Nobody . . . No, my name is Kubat, Mahir Kubat, he said, offering the girl his hand. Nancy, she said, crooking her head, Sid, said the kid, aren’t you two supposed to be dead? said Kubat grinning. Why do you keep looking out the window, the kid asked. I’m watching out for someone . . . Someone important? . . . Yeah, he has to come by, ’cause if he doesn’t I’ve got problems . . . If it’s not indiscreet, may I ask who that might be? The girl leaned across the table to catch Mahir’s gaze. No idea, but someone has to come by . . . But you must know why you’re waiting for him . . . That I know . . . How long are you going to wait? . . . Until he comes by . . . Do you know anyone in Zagreb? . . . No, but I know maybe a million people who’ve been in Zagreb, so maybe they’ll come by tonight . . . Well, now you know us too, the kid banged his hand on the table. Mahir Kubat turned away from the window and looked at him, icy as he could, straight in the eye. Sid had these childlike green eyes that turned yellow just before the pupil. And you, little man, what would you know about all that? . . . Nothing, just what I see . . . What do you see then, wise guy? . . . I see James Bond who doesn’t have anywhere to sleep and probably left his checkbook at home, so he’s a little anxious . . . I’m not anxious, I am never anxious, Kubat turned toward the window again and folded his arms. Whatever, but if you want you can come with us, we’ve got a place where we all crash.

The night tram was heading toward Novi Zagreb. Sid was laughing like crazy, Nancy sitting in Mahir Kubat’s lap. You’re so cute and grumpy, a real stooge. At that moment Mahir felt like crying.

They arrived at a tower block in Sopot and took the lift to the eleventh floor. Whose apartment is it, asked Mahir, Nora’s…Who’s Nora? What’s she going to say…Nothing, she’s probably asleep, and when she wakes up, just tell her my name is Kubat, Mahir Kubat, she’ll like that. The kid took a key out of his pocket, Mahir had no idea what was going on anymore, he took off his shoes in the hall, you don’t do that here, so what, they’re already off, he tiptoed, the two of them were being a bit loud, like no one was asleep, they snuck a glance into the living room where a girl was asleep on the three-seater, we’ll crash here, said Sid, you’ll have to crash on our sleepodrome, Nancy took Mahir by the hand, fuck this is like Hansel and Gretel, and led him to a big bedroom where almost the whole floor was taken up by the bed, the biggest bed Mahir  Kubat had ever seen in his life. A chick with long blond hair was asleep at one end, and in the middle, almost a meter away, there was another one, the same long blond hair; now Mahir Kubat really had no idea what was going on. There were two and a half meters of empty bed, but it seemed more appropriate for him to go back out in the hall and lie down on the floor. But he can’t do that, they’ve told him it’s normal to sleep here, so presumably that’s what he needs to do, he must be cold as ice, a man who heads out into the world with fifty marks in his pocket has to be cold as ice, otherwise he’s finished at the outset; he thought of Mahatma Gandhi who slept surrounded by women to prove the resolve of his abstinence, or maybe he slept like that for some other reason, it doesn’t matter. 

He dropped his trousers, took his jersey and shirt off, and in his boxers and a Unis Tours T-shirt with the slogan “East and West Kiss Best” on it crept over to the bed. He lay down, the girls didn’t flinch. In the darkness he saw the face of the one closest, so still, her lips closed, the face asleep as if dreaming of nothing or maybe she wasn’t even there. She’s not there, thought Mahir Kubat, I’ll never see her again because in the morning I’m gone. He didn’t feel anything in particular for the sleeping girl, but the idea of her and the image saddened him. It was an image far from his reach, in itself of no importance, but nonetheless an image he would never see again, from which he would soon be so far away that he would never know if how it remains etched in his memory is how it really was, or if someday it might just escape him altogether. At that moment, on that bed, Mahir Kubat felt like someone who leaves forever, leaving behind everything his eyes have ever seen, and more than anything else, things he has only seen once and can’t even recall anymore.

He turned onto his back and gazed at the ceiling, letting sleep slowly slip up on him, his thoughts imperceptibly sliding away, like the loved ones of a dead man after the janazah. He felt the tears rolling down his cheeks, dripping into his ears, flowing like the Buna and crashing down like the waterfall at Kravice; he was in the seventh grade when they went swimming there on a school trip, he stood beneath the waterfall, the water heavy and strong, and his tears fell, just like they are now, without a sob and without sense, for he knew the water would never again fall from such a height, hitting him straight in the head, in the seventh grade on a school trip to Kravice.

He opened his eyes and it was like someone in a film had drawn broken roller  blinds and with a crash and bang introduced a new scene. Maybe he’d slept for just a minute, maybe he’d been asleep for hours. He lay on his side, the girl’s wide-open eyes right in front of him. Her face was as it had been while she was asleep, only now her eyes were open. You are . . . he whispered, and remembered that he should have started with I am . . . but now he didn’t know how to swap the words. His lips were stuck on the m, clasped shut like an aquarium fish when it catches sight of a soft kitty paw on the other side of the glass. I’m Nora, said the girl, Nora, like Ibsen’s Nora.

He didn’t dare move; she thinks she’s still asleep, he needs to wait for her to close her eyes and then quietly slip out, he needs to keep quiet and not be from this world. What do you want to do now? she said, very, very slowly. Nothing . . . You want something, you want it, because you wouldn’t be here otherwise, that’s for sure . . . No, I’m just about on my way . . . Who kisses best? . . . East and West . . . I’m dreaming and I won’t remember. Please, you remember, please, please, please . . . Nora closed her eyes and repeated please until her sad face fell back into a deep sleep. Mahir Kubat didn’t move a muscle. He waited until he was completely sure Nora was asleep, and he thought that maybe he’d stayed on in her dream, that maybe everything was not yet lost. Nora might dream of him even when he’s far away, even when he’s gone.

He slid off the bed, crouching he checked if Nora and the girl next to her were asleep, then he grabbed his clothes and tiptoed out into the hall. He closed the bedroom door, a door he’ll never open again, and immediately it ceased to exist. He got dressed, took his suitcase, and headed for the front door, and then he stopped, fixed his two Clint Eastwood furrows, scratched his head, and started rummaging through his jacket pockets. He took his keys out and tried to get the key ring off with his fingernails. There was a metal pendant on it, a black-and-red ball with the words “FK Čelik Zenica.”

He snuck into the living room, Nancy and Sid were asleep in a hug, her naked, her right leg straddling him; they looked like octopuses in a lover’s embrace, their tentacles inseparable. Mahir Kubat went over and put his pendant down beside Nancy’s head.

It was freezing outside, the dawn breaking behind four high tower blocks, on the other side the sky still in complete darkness. Mahir Kubat held his suitcase in his right hand, in his left the keys he’d taken off the key ring. He needed to toss them somewhere,  but not on the street because someone might find them and think some kid lost them. Mahir Kubat looked for a trash can, but there wasn’t one in sight. When he finds one, nothing will stand between his life and his departure. 

Miljenko Jergović was born in Sarajevo in 1966. A poet, novelist, and journalist, he wrote for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje and served as the Sarajevo correspondent for Dalmatian Weekly. His first book of poetry, Warsaw Observatory, won two prestigious awards in 1988. He has written several novels, including Mama Leone, Sarajevo Marlboro and Buick Riviera. His work has been published throughout Europe.
David Williams translated Dubravka Ugrešić's Karaoke Culture (2011), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. He holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Auckland. His first book, Writing Postcommunism: Towards a Literature of the East European Ruins, will be out with Palgrave Macmillan in summer 2013.