Anyone who knew Oklop's work would recognize his writing voice in one of his last messages to me, from San Francisco: "Things are tough, okay? WE WILL SURVIVE," followed by a link to a pop site called Hello I'm Special. In just this much we have his characteristic gee-whiz American idiom, the challenge to the reader to take "a straight answer"; the capital letters parodying the optimism he knew to be misplaced but felt; the brave-but-haunted air, the implied critique, the determined playfulness; the sense of the intrepid, the romantic, the contemporary, the doomed, the broken-hearted.
And then he was gone.
Milan Oklopdzic (d. July 1, 2007), popularly known as Mika Oklop, was a writer of legendary stature in the former Yugoslavia, but remains sadly unknown in English. Born in Belgrade in 1948, graduate of the highly selective Belgrade Academy of Art in Drama, already in 1974 his "I love you when you are eating an apple" won Best Radio Play, and was selected for Sir Richard Burton to perform for the O.R.T.F. (Organization Radio-Television France) Festival opening. Oklop did his graduate studies at the University of California at Davis on a Fulbright Foundation grant; after completing his MFA in playwriting in 1976, he returned to Yugoslavia, where he became a leading literary figure. His 1981 novel, CA Blues, was considered the first truly modern novel in modern Serbo-Croatian; it was printed in four editions, won the prestigious Milos Crnjanski Award and went on to become nothing less than a cultural phenomenon that retains its cult status today. Although the four novels that came later didn't have the same overwhelming national impact that CA Blues had, they enjoyed a wide readership at the time, and boast an enthusiastic following even today. Well beyond his own country, Oklop's radio plays in particular were also much recognized in, for example, Italy, France, Ireland, Sweden and Germany. He had roughly 12 of his plays produced, and translated works by both Kerouac—he called Kerouac "Dad"—and Ferlinghetti. He was co-owner of a small publishing house, Subterranean Press, and jazz critic for newspapers Politika and NIN (the cultural equivalent of The New York Times). He was a prominent figure for more than a dozen years at Television Belgrade, where he produced numerous plays of significance, the television series "Not That Long Ago," and other cultural programs such as "The Stronger Sex" and "Jazz Documentaries," among many others. Overall, through Oklopdzic's many writings, his visibility in the media, his documentaries and interviews, his work dealt with a dynamic range of intellectual and political ideas.
In 1992, Oklopdzic became part of the Serbian diaspora resulting from the tragic Balkan War (1991-2001). Coming to the United States with his wife and two children, he joined the cultural exile suffered by so many artists to avoid being part of the brutality taking place at home. His family was awarded political asylum in 1993. Over the next seven years, in recognition of his contribution to modern Yugoslavian literary culture, Oklopdzic went on to receive grants from PEN American Center, Writers Guild of America and the Carnegie Foundation. In the following years in America, in spite of the ill health that plagued him, Oklopdzic wrote prolifically in English and continued to be an important cultural and moral voice in the Serbian media, in publications such as NIN, Politika, Borba and Gloria. He died at his home in San Francisco, from complications following surgery. Six months later, in December of 2007, the capitol city of Belgrade laid his ashes to rest with full honors in the mausoleum reserved for their most eminent cultural treasures.
Theodore (Ted) Shank, Distinguished Professor of Theatre at UCSD, and whose name appears in The Former Future, sent in an email:
…A sad story of a sensitive man who came to the US with great hopes and a love of the culture and, like many of us, became disillusioned. An important writer in Yugoslavia who, because of the violence there, brought his family to the US, and in time realized this country was capable of even greater violence. And, perhaps because of his despair and attempts to escape it… his body gave out."
Oklopdzic has left behind a rich trove of writings—virtually unpublished in English—that gave voice to a generation of Yugoslavs in the 1970's and '80's, and then a generation of post-Yugoslav artists-in-exile from 1992 until his death.
Without a full translation of CA Blues, English-readers can't know the urban, Beat-inspired novel that rocked his nation, beyond what can be gleaned from the multitude of messages, forums, websites, blog entries, Facebook pages—and T-shirts!—that have emerged in his name as news of his passing has spread. Here is an especially lovely tribute, from Viktor Markovic's Belgrade blog:
Even though it is a bit late, I feel I need to mention a man who passed away ten days ago—Milan Oklopdzic, also known by his nickname Mika Oklop. Mika died in San Francisco, far away from his hometown of Belgrade, at the age of 59. His book, Ca. Blues, published in 1981, is nothing less than a phenomenon, not so much among the younger generation in Belgrade, but most certainly among their parents. It's a book that broke through the grayness of the communist Belgrade of the time, managing to change and influence thousands of young people at the time with its unusual style, setting (California) and theme. Oklop never repeated the success he had with his first book, which sold over 100.000 copies, a remarkable number for Serbia. This book alone, though, was enough – older folks who read it remember Mika as one of the best writers Belgrade ever had. …By the influence it left on my parents and on many others belonging to their generation I can clearly see that it was significant just by listening to them talking about it.
Having known Mika and his work in the 1970s, I became his editor when he and his family arrived in the U.S. in 1992. Since his death, I have been introducing his works in English: In 2008, the curated World Poetry Festival (SF) included my first reading of one of his poems; San Francisco's Ambush Review became Oklop's first U.S. publisher with two of his poems in their inaugural issue in 2010, and has a piece of his short prose in their current 2011 issue; under the auspices of Ambush, I have given public readings of Oklop's poetry and short prose at San Francisco's 2010 and 2011 Litquake literary festivals and at Bird & Beckett books-and-jazz venue, with more readings scheduled. On October 3rd, 2011, producer Rica Anderson sponsored the first full evening of Oklop's longer pieces in her Actors Reading Writers series held in the beautiful Berkeley City Club (architect Julia Morgan, 1929); actor Jerry McDaniel and I read to a full house: Oklop's admirers from the wider Bay Area, some of whom had known him, or known of him, in Belgrade braved a terrible storm to come and give his work the inspiring reception it has earned.
This is the first publication of the longer expatriate writings of Milan Oklopdzic. By turns chilling and charming, his U.S. writings tell the story of his wrenching journey from the former Yugoslavia to California (The Former Future, below), and leave us the troubling and delicious legacy of his surreal commentaries on Bay Area life (Amerika for Beginners, Scene4, March 2012).
Many of Mika Oklop's writings in English tell his own calamitous story: that of a prominent man in the arts and his family displaced by a war in our time. His is the moving story of a man of culture cut off from his culture, a man of letters cut off from his language: a timely story of an "America" that became Oklop's "Amerikaka," irreconcilable with the golden U.S. his family and friends were imagining back home. From his background in the classics, you may notice the beautiful construction of his stories; from his love of the Beats, listen for the writings' underlying, forward-moving pulse. From his Surrealist influences, note the disruption of time, words that are invented or used in mystifying ways, and sentences that begin to make sense and then devolve. From Absurdism, note the absurdism. Being a man of our time, Oklop's writings are sprinkled with media and pop culture references. Phrases sometimes surface more than once, giving us the uncanny sense that each piece of his writing is part of a larger, fully realized whole.
In The Former Future, Oklop asks: What is the felt texture of escape from one's country? What does it smell like; what is in your pocket; what is on the radio? As he answers these questions, Oklop uses sensory details such as these to build two tragically inextricable realities. One is a world in which trauma has burrowed in and formed borders for which there are no visas: a hungry child eats French fries today because a starving man ate a potato during WWII; a friendly blue eye today only creates an opening for revisiting a violent experience from long ago. Pitted against that reality is a world where the tiniest impulses of knowledge, pleasure and hope consolidate into irrepressible surges of humanity: an eager hand tearing a cellophane wrapper, a nose breathing music into a flute, a tired glance falling on the rung of a garden ladder: these are the small gestures that, all added together, constitute a big psychic punch in the nose to the humorless, the joyless, the rotten, the haters—gestures that remain collectively poised to stand by "any human being who… would help you out with a glass of water."
Lissa Tyler Renaud, Editor
THE FORMER FUTURE
By Milan Oklopdzic
The Former Future
A Serb killed a Croat
And a Croat slew a Muslim
And a Muslim slaughtered a Serb
My cousin Savo had smoked glass
On his VOLVO.
We used to drive around the towns
Watching a cheerful humanity.
They all seemed skin-close
Through the smoked glass.
After my cousin got shot
I took over his vehicle
Placed his corpse next to me
And we drove all the way
Howling silently into new frontiers
Against the wind with a broken windshield
On we advanced into the keen morrow.
I never thought I'd come to such a decision. I'd always taken it as an accomplished fact that literature and writing were for remembering. That they were like precious streams of human kindness, wisdom and love.
And that people write to be remembered—that is, any personality large enough to be embroidered in the reader's imagination. It was like that with Tolstoy, with Kafka, with Hemingway and Camus… with most of the authors I've read and admired. That is why I can still summon up names, scenes, passions, vicissitudes.
--But I am not here for a Comparative Literature exam.
I have now decided that I should write in order to forget, to be forgotten. Neither my past nor my future should be remembered. I will use writing to erase every single good and ugly recollection that is nesting in the chips inside my head. From now on, my typewriter will serve as a huge blot-out generator. Once I forget everything, I can start to breathe again. I can begin to open my eyes, my pores, my veins. I might even lift my eyes to the sky. Or talk to people. Conversation is a great way of communicating, once you have no memory. You don't have to explain where you come from, because you cannot. No one asks about my plans, because I don't have any; I am continually in the present state. I hope I can reach that level. I'll work hard at it, write as much as I can, just to be able to start my life at 45.
This is not an apology, but a statement: I cannot dedicate my book to anyone. By the time I'm done with it, I will have forgotten everyone, and the memory of me will have been deleted from everyone's minds and hearts.
I don't feel bad about this. On the contrary, I am eager to start writing.
It is Saturday today. But not the same year, and not that same place. It is any Saturday today. Followed by a Monday, and preceded by a Friday. The cycle that is taking us all into the 21st century.
Before I write anything else, I'd really like to get rid of that smell.
The suitcases were heavy that Saturday morning. It was chilly, I had shaved, the kids were excited. We could have been any happy family heading out for a three-day vacation in Hungary. I'd chosen the Easter break; the "limes" were more lax around holidays.
I don't know who ever thought of calling the border police "limes." But I've always liked the expression.
Of course we could only have two suitcases. Even two were more than necessary for a three-day absence from the country. What's in there? One is for the kids. The larger one belongs to their parents and is full of fear. It's ten o'clock in the morning. The train leaves at noon. We do have our tickets.
"Are the tickets with you?" Ghena asked.
The smell was coming from the seventh floor. We lived on the eighth, but the elevator hadn't been working on the even-numbered floors for months. We sauntered to the seventh floor and loaded the lift. I prefer "lifts" over "elevators." They're faster. Anyway, Ghena is my wife: we've been together for 19 years now. Then.
I triple-checked before pushing the button for the ground floor. The smell of stew, goulash, paprikash… that was puissant. The man was preparing his Saturday lunch at 10 a.m. One might think that this seventh-floor neighbor was doing this out of diligence. I doubt it. When I had a fear of going hungry and no money in the bank, when it seemed to me that there would be no food the very next day, I started fixing the grub at midnight. Fear of hunger is THE fear, and the smell on the stairs was that consternation in olfactory form.
I knew that neighbor quite well, knew he'd been receiving his retirement check every other month; the government no longer had money to pay out to people who'd worked hard for forty years. He himself had an idea that the government people were poor, and he shouldn't be a glutton by eating meat twice a month—it might even make someone suspicious. I never forgot for a moment—and I hope he didn't either—that we had two policemen in our twelve-storey building. One was on the ninth, right above me, and the other one was on the ground floor.
Now, that's exactly the one I feel afraid to face once the lift door opens. He would see what? Ghena and me, our two kids AND our pair of bags. Where to, Gentlemen? At some point, a well-known Communist writer introduced "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" into everyday speech. He did it on purpose, of course. After a while, every policemen, agent, security officer and doorman would use it in a mocking tone. It started going around, fashionable. No "comrades" anymore.
So, Mr. Mika, Gentleman, what are your plans, with your kids, this luggage, and even Lady Ghena?
A very simple idea: if you're not a member of The Party, you have to be distinguished as a "Gentleman." It would be really hard to explain this to an Englishman, even if I were to enlarge my vocabulary. He was born a Gentleman, and could change to a Comrade if he chose to.
Luckily, the ground-floor policeman was not an obstacle. I carried the suitcases out to the boulevard, Ghena and the kids followed, and I managed to get a taxi to the railway station just by waving to the Gentleman driver.
April 24, 1992
I got your fax last Sunday. I think I wasn't clear enough in my last fax: I will be coming to the States WITH my family. There will be four (4) of us. So please think again about your having us all stay in your apartment. We take a train to Budapest tomorrow. I tried hard to get a US visa here in Belgrade: no luck. There were ugly demonstrations in front of the US Embassy last week. Very sad.
I sent a fax to Ted in San Diego, but he's in London now on sabbatical and I don't know his phone # there. Could you please try to find it and either call or fax it to my Milan address? I don't know the prefix for Milan, Italy, but here are the numbers. FAX: 29005686. PHONE: 29001741.
Don't think that this is a mistake—those crazy Italians have eight digits. I need Ted's letter of recommendation so I can be sure of getting a visa in Milan. Sundays are good for crossing borders because most of the officers are asleep then. We will surely have problems with the Austrians, because they don't let any Yugos in. I feel doubly pressured because I promised Ghena we would make it. We ended up leaving over 3,000 German marks in the bank; they didn't have the money for us to withdraw. Once I get to sunburned California, I WILL tell you everything.
As you have probably noticed by now, I am not using my own fax to send this. The number in the upper right-hand corner belongs to my friend Kimi, who's an independent producer for media events here in Belgrade. He's Ultra Cool. Anyway, you won't be using his number, since I am really hoping we'll be in Milan this Sunday afternoon. I'd love to see your fax waiting for me there.
You mentioned the UC Davis Drama Department. I don't think I have anyone left there. Since Ted left for San Diego, I don't think I've been in touch with anyone on the faculty. Dan is an exception—but then, I never thought of him as a Professor, but rather as an Artist. We'll see. Any suggestion you can make will be more than welcome.
Do you want me to bring you something from here? Food is "verboten," but it could be a book or a small painting… You'd better not ask for anything large anyway; you'll have four (4) of us in your small Oakland apartment pretty soon (I hope).
"What's Hungary like?" asks Evan.
We are on the train, which doesn't have the slightest intention of departing on time. I am nervous… Why am I so nervous? Because I have tons of papers in my pockets. Passports. Train tickets. Fake hotel voucher for three nights in Budapest. A false Yugo permission for three days out of the country. Two suitcases. The smell on the seventh floor.
We don't talk much. I am afraid that I might be asked something that would require a straight answer. I cannot tell the kids that we are leaving Yugoslavia for good. Why? Because of my deep fear that we won't be able to cross the border. Because I am afraid that the U.S. consulate will not grant us visas. What if Lissa never finds Ted's address in London? I am sure that Scott will send his Letter of Guarantee directly to the Consulate in Milan.
"What's okay about it?" my son pressed. "Is it bigger or better than MY city?"
Scott is an old buddy of mine: we studied together at UC Davis, back in the mid-'70s. We both graduated in Drama. He's married, lives in Noe Valley now, and has two beautiful kids. I am godfather to his little boy.
"It's about the same."
This "it's about the same" means: MY DEAR SON, WE'RE ONLY GOING TO SPEND A COUPLE OF DAYS THERE; THEN WE WILL MOVE ON TO AUSTRIA, FROM THERE TO ITALY, AND THEN TO CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. PLEASE DO NOT BE IMPATIENT, AND DO NOT RUIN THIS SHORT TRAIN TRIP TO HUNGARY BY ASKING QUESTIONS THAT I CANNOT AND WILL NOT—WILL REFUSE TO—ANSWER. OKAY?
A large question is: which of the four of us left behind the most precious memories? Ghena left her parents. They are old but still alive; my parents were buried years ago. The kids left their friends at school; we all left our neighbors. Ghena left her job with the furniture company; I had been fired long ago. I worked for a TV station. G.O. G.O. stands for "Government Owned," but it also means GO. Go where? It's damned cold in this train to Budapest. Excuse me, can we get a discount on our tickets since the heat's not working?
Sure. If I'd ever asked an attendant such a question, I'd have been asked to leave the choo-choo right there, in the middle of the field. The northern parts of both Yugoslavia and Hungary are all flatlands. Anyway, we all left behind our apartment. Furniture. I had 1,200 jazz albums. 700 books. Ghena had 240. I left my sister to be continually married to that Montenegrin guy. Ghena left her best friends. She beats me there: by the time I've made up my mind to flee the country, I have two, maybe two-and-a-half friends. Most of my pals had joined the Socialists in order to survive. They started calling me Mr. Mika, Gentleman. So I stopped calling them anything at all. It was too sick.
"Do they have ice cream in Hungary?" Dana asks.
I also left behind five published novels, a Volkswagen and some used typewriter ribbons. At one point, I got paranoid that someone would re-wind them and read them. Ghena also left behind something she calls Gemütlichkeit. That was the "clubby" feeling we had in our home. She enjoyed having people over regularly, sometimes more than twenty of our fidus Achates scattered around our small two-bedroom in-law flat.
"Sure, kid. Tons of it."
Ghena is Catholic from a German family. She speaks very good German. I am Serbian Orthodox, and did four years of Latin at the Classical Gymnasium—the C.G. I had to. I think my father wanted me to become a doctor, so that one day I'd be able to say: "GENTLEMEN, I HAVE RATHER A SEVERE HEADACHE—ANY CHANCE OF YOUR HAVING TWO 325 MG ENTERIC-COATED PILULES OF ACETYLSALICYCLIC ACID IN YOUR POSSESSION FOR MY CONSUMPTION? Instead of saying: hey, got any Tylenol on you? Well, he missed out. I understand that my father's greatest disappointment was when I was thrown out of the C.G. for turning in a homework assignment on President Tito, entitled "You Did It, You Did It!" He was not unhappy about my essay, but with the idea of my being a writer instead of a doctor. He hated all of Tito's guts.
"Why are you thinking about ice cream when it's so cold outside?" Evan was trying to be considerate.
My father spent three long years on Naked Island. That was for one sentence he spoke out loud in a restaurant in 1948. The island was called "naked" because there wasn't a single tree on it. Just stone, sun and more stones. So it was my fear that I would somehow inherit my father's fate. He was released in 1951, completely gray-haired at the age of 35. Maybe that's why I'm nervous now about the questions my kids are asking me. No: I'm fearful because we're approaching the Hungarian border.
"Can I see your papers, please?"
Ghena worked as a Senior Interior Designer. She spent seventeen years in one company and did some fine furniture designs over the years. We left behind a dining room table and chairs, five pieces of virtu for which she received First Prize at the Copenhagen Fair. We used to eat a lot of fish, and it was a very nice feeling to have it served on this 4-inch thick round, pine beauty. We'll have fish again, I guess.
"How long are you going to stay?"
In addition to the table, we owned a charming king-sized bed. Solid pine with a graceful headboard and some odd patterns arranged on it in a rectangular shape. And this was much before the industry introduced washed pine.
Was it? Whenever I think or speak of time, I do have a problem fixing it or locating it in any way. It's not trouble with temporal coordinates that I'm having, but rather with a mosaic of events that do not occur in any fixed order. This may be a good time to apologize to my readers: please allow me to use the future and past tenses at the same time. I do not do it on purpose; I do not need any literary gimmicks, believe me. I feel that I am responsible enough to say, "I will woke up the next day." That doesn't mean I am asleep now. It's simply that there's no border between my day and my night. As you will have noticed from further reading, the bulk of my work may turn out to be inventing a language in which verbs have no tenses. If I can do that, if I can learn how, there will be no future, present or past. That is the only chance I have to live l o n g e r.
"Why did you choose Hungary for your vacation?"
What you leave behind are items. Some of them have sentimental value, some are just pieces of your former material life. Do I have more feelings for a solid pine bed than for an s.p. dining table? That is precisely what the future decides, not the past. Emotional ties come from above, not from here below. And what are the real contents of our suitcases? Clean underwear? A shaving kit? A camera? Several of my books? Four toothbrushes? Folded photos of Ghena's parents? A copy of NIN Magazine? Three sweaters (which I never wear)? A dozen letters for Yugo émigrés in Canada, Australia or Amerika?
"I'd like to check your luggage, please."
I've always liked it: "Amerika"—with a "k"—instead of "America." Abroad, the country is rarely called "the U.S." The song went: PRETTY SOON, HEY, PRETTY SOON, AMERIKA AND ENGLAND WILL BE PROLETARIAN COUNTRIES. If anyone in the second grade didn't feel like singing it, he or she was supposed to just move his/her lips and pretend. Pretending was one of the Communists' proven models: we pretend that we are rich, then we pretend that we are honest, now we pretend that we care about the populus.
Anyway, what was painful when I was packing… I did not want to take my notebook with phone numbers and addresses. I did go through it. I did recollect all of the names, the numbers, all the street addresses. Every street number was attached to a certain face. Each phone number was a part of an honest conversation. Everything was there—45 years of writing them down, memorizing them—and I couldn't take it. It's not that the suitcase was full. It wasn't the color of the notebook. None of it brought me any deep sense of unpleasantness. I just did not want to have it with me. And that was long before the seventh floor effluvium broached my nostrils.
"I need to see your hotel vouchers."
It began to rain. Right then. Inside that train to Budapest. Literally, it started dripping from the ceiling of the compartment. Then. We live in Pacifica now. But the train was then. Built in 1952, it was repaired in 1972. Freshly painted in 1982. But no one had ever climbed onto the roof to check for those little holes. Oddly enough, the benches were looking good and solid. Then. That was April 25, 1992. And I will write about it when I get to Pacifica, CA in the Fall of 1993.
Our connection at the Budapest train station was strictly Italian underground. A fellow with a small rainbow pin on his coat lapel. He didn't speak, but I knew that his name was Endre and that he worked for a Milan-based tourist agency called ARCOBALENO; that solved the puzzle of why it was a rainbow he had on his tiny badge. He grabbed our suitcases and led us to the front exit, where a van and driver were waiting for us. I wondered how Mitsubishi could produce a vehicle and a video recorder at the same time. It would be like Coca-Cola adding washers and dryers to their line.
"Are you tired?" asked Endre.
I told him we had just woken up. I started to feel cheerful after we were some miles from the station. Kilometers. Then. It's "miles" now.
He took us to a restaurant. He asked our kids to wash their hands before eating. I ordered a beer and two packs of Marlboros. When the kids got back, he insisted on their having veal and French fries and salad. I understand now that he somehow knew then that there had been no meat in our country for months. The kids had veal cutlets, ice cream, seven colas each, apple pie and for the finish, a large order of fries. Why do they always eat fries for dessert? They did it then; they do it now.
Before being imprisoned on Naked Island in 1948, my father spent three long years in a German concentration camp during WWII. He lived for days, months, years on potatoes—never got sick of them. Even after he got out and had boiled meat, he still ate potatoes with it (cooked separately). For a change, he'd put some horseradish on top of the potatoes, then mash them together with a fork.
Endre took us to his house after dinner. It was a four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Budapest. The driver left without saying goodbye. We decided the four of us would sleep together in one room; the kids were in the bed, we set ourselves up on the floor. That was then. Endre did not object. He was there to help us in any way he could. I know now that he'd been paid more than enough for his services.
Ghena and I didn't get much sleep that night. I wanted to make love to her because I loved her and looked forward to having a third child. She had always thought I'd make do with one birth and then leave her in peace. After I finally fell unconscious at about 4:00 a.m., the smell woke me up at 7:00. Endre was doing a similar goulash number early in the morning, thinking we mustn't leave Hungary hungry.
"Good morning, Endre."
I remember now that, then, he was cutting large mushrooms into tiny slices, and was so deeply involved in it that he didn't hear me. He was there; the olfaction was there. The sliced fungus made its way into a huge red pot. Finally he spoke, saying he was making sandwiches for the road. His house was… and his backyard was even… but the building's honestatum… I wished then that I were a young Gustave Flaubert, who could spend hours and days describing nothing more than the third rung on the 75-year old ladder that was standing upright next to Endre's shed. I couldn't and I didn't; I wanted to leave. I wanted to depart. Split. Without breakfast from the red pot, thank you.
Once I get over my fear, I may start functioning.
April 25, 1992
Dear Mika Mouse,
I indeed tracked down Ted (in a couple of hours!). His London address is as follows:
42A Chalcot Road
London NW 1 8LS, England
Phone: 44 71 722-1150 Fax: 44 71 483-2891
If you call him now, you'll have his letter in time. Don't hesitate to call—I'm positive he'll help. Act fast. My small apartment is looking forward to looking smaller. And I'm sure you'll make it. Be what you are, yes?
He turned his clean-shaven face to me, and his big-bigger-biggest blue eyes opened so I could see through them. Endre was neat and honest, an unlocked-to-the-world person. I believed in his willingness to help, and there was a flow I couldn't resist that carried me on a trip to the other side. The stream took me through his eye-blueness all the way to 1968, to a cold room on the eleventh floor of the Belgrade City Police Headquarters—the CBPH. I was there again, thanks to Endre. I had to thank him for that, because it would cure me of it, right? Go with it, Mika. The Inspector was short and bald-headed. The street was… the 29th of November. He handed me a glass of water.
It was hot water. All right. He asked me three thousand questions but my mouth was dry.
I was twenty years old then. I believed that any human being who needed an answer to his question would help you out with a glass of water. I supposed that he was about twice my age and that he was there to ASSIST. But this midget was there to hate me. My youth, my father, my friends and me.
"So, you got this chance to be ON THE AIR, Comrade? Did you use this chance CORRECTLY?
"I played some music; it couldn't hurt anyone."
The bald-headed creature grabbed the glass of hot water and impatiently spilled it over my face. I was twenty, and had already been shaving for quite some time. The hot water on my cheeks warned me that I had been too impatient in starting so early. It didn't hurt, really, but the idea of HIM THERE and ME HERE being a part of the same society nearly killed me. I hoped that he, as my elder, would at least provide a towel. Not a clean towel, but a towel.
"You played something that WE didn't like."
Once I knew there was an US and a YOU, I didn't bother to ask for explanations. I was in the best years of my life anyway, waiting for the world to reveal itself to me under my feet; I was singing and dancing.
"What does your father think about THE demonstrations?"
Instead of saying that my Dad just hated the idea of any demonstration, I made a mistake.
"What demonstrations? My Dad is at the soccer game."
The bald-headed enemy went wild. I tried to cover my head with both hands, but he somehow hit me with a club and broke my nose. I did have a handsome nose for a full twenty years.
"Did he tell you to play that song?"
I was bleeding and I was thirsty. They had picked me up at 11:00 the night before; it was now 4:00 in the afternoon. What day? November 29th is the street address, not the date.
"He rarely listens to music, my Dad. He's half deaf after…"
I couldn't mention Naked Island. And I didn't even know where my Dad was at that moment. One floor below me?
"After the car accident."
My Dad had never had a car. I was bleeding and had just lost my youth on the eleventh floor of the CBPH. I didn't make any decision. I didn't hate him. I couldn't. He was someone's father, too. He was channeling his power towards producing enemies; my energies went to producing friends, creating friendships, being what the world wanted me to be. He forbade my father to be a part of that world, and he wasn't about to see me as a member of any global community. But I didn't know that, then.
"Why did you play THAT song?"
That was stupid: THEY don't like accidents. They want you to tell them almost anything else--that you did it on purpose because you thought it would straighten out the system. That it would help the youth. That it would bring the workers out for six days of volunteer bridge-building.
"Why THAT song?"
I had played a tune by my favorite jazz musician. It was entitled YOU DID IT, YOU DID IT! and was played on a nose flute. I remember people calling up the radio station and asking me to play it again instantly. A nice piece of the world's music. Someone had translated the title for a nervous editor.
"Who chose that?"
"He wrote an essay with the same title for a homework assignment once."
"Don't you think he could be arrested for this?"
I remember now that then I walked down the longest hallway of my life, checking in rooms that had doors open, to see my father. I was looking for him. I walked down the stairs, from the eleventh to the ground floor, and didn't find him. He wasn't there, but he's never been more present in my life than on that day.
Hungary has blue skies only if you look at them. Otherwise, grey is all around you, blending with the shut windows of the small peasant houses. It is Sunday, and you can tell from the smoke pouring out from the solid, brick chimneys that lunch will be ready on time. How long will it be before we have our own home-cooked meal? And who cares anyway?
I like asking myself such questions: they don't require an answer. At some point we will approach the Austrian border. I think of Joe Zawinul, leader of the band WEATHER REPORT, who was originally Austrian and later "made it" in Amerika. We drank a brotherly plum brandy on the terrace of the Yugoslavia Hotel some years ago. He looked happy. Why did he leave Austria? It was an empire once.
Yugoslavia, too, was once a strong kingdom, made up of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. My father was an officer in the elite Royal Guard. Could this be the reason that I'm here with my family in a van heading for…?
I've always loved fairy tales, because of the way they start with "once upon a time." I couldn't start this Reminiscence Erasure that way. Once upon a time there was a better time that could not progress into any NOW because there is no time here and now. Or: Once there will be a time that was. No. Once there was a time that will be. Nonsense. Once, the time that could have been never happened because it had already exhausted itself in the future. Used time. Not exactly second-hand time, but rather vanished time. Are there lucky people who have stored their time in safe-deposit boxes? Who can go to their local banks, give the passwords and open their time boxes?
"What time is it?" Evan asked.
I am too tired and frightened to answer. I hate my fear of crossing the Austrian border. Endre has put his passport on top of ours. His is blue. Need I say that ours are red?
It is questionable why Hungary and Austria have borders at all. The Ausgleich had worked perfectly since 1867. Dual monarchy isn't quite the thing these days, I guess.
There are two officers cooling their heels on the Austrian side. God, how they hated to be at work on a Sunday! Well, they may wake up when they see our red documents. In case they decide to stop us I can always tell them that… I can tell them Guten Morgen. No, I'll tell them that we have a lunch appointment with Peter Handke. Tell them that Handke is fixing us sour cabbage with sausages and that we wouldn't dream of missing it for the world. Who else do I know in Austria? Michael Wilding. Not exactly. Michael lives in Australia. Is it possible that Austria is so small that I don't know anyone besides Handke? I can always say that I have come to attend Johann Strauss's funeral, but then he died in 1849, when I was minus 99. I could also stop making these jokes, which I'm making to overcome my fear of crossing the border. In case they don't allow us to utilize the land surface of Austria to reach Italy, we might try a shortcut via New Zealand. Or paint our passports blue—spray paint them in the men's room.
Really, should I ever visit Austria under normal circumstances, once we stop running? Would I? If it's for Handke or those two lethargic officers, there isn't enough reason there. But for the beauty of the country itself? An escapee never does see much of the surroundings. None of the interior, of course. So where would I return to? To a still picture of the two German-speaking officers who let us pass because it's Sunday and because Endre's van has Hungarian license plates? I'd rather think of Austria in moving frames, twenty-five cuts per minute; I'd rather think in connotations than in circular statements.
Why is it so?—that a person with an existential shyness directs himself inward where he feels safest and most effusive? I cannot explain the degree of my fear to my family; it is unaccountable. At times, especially now driving through empty Austrian villages, I feel as if we're looking for the new family CAMPO SANTO with no markers. The name of the country we're in does not mean much to us: it is speed that counts. It is rather the destination which has a name: Amerika, right? Why? And why has it been so for two centuries now? And does it work vice versa, too: when it is America you are leaving in a hurry, do you still remember its name when your new destination is the mountains of Calabria?
You do ask yourself most of these questions while gazing out into space through the small window opening of a van with Hungarian license plates.
I ask Endre to play some music. It may put some life into our deathly silence. Some music that might kill our fear, fatigue, noiselessness and trickery. I hope he doesn't find something on the radio; when it comes to music, I don't like listening to it on the radio. There is that insane talk that interrupts the music, and the DJ's taste rarely matches mine. Besides, there is no depth in radio; it is one-dimensional. It does leave some space for the imagination, but only in radio plays. Music requires imagination but only in radio plays. Music requires…
"What would you like to hear?" Endre asks. He speaks English clumsily, and it reminds me of the way the Turks speak—the Turkish black market Sales Associates.
"Music." I hate to say "Anything" because there is no request in that.
"Der iz lot of music on Austrian radio."
Well, it doesn't necessarily have to be Austrian music; I didn't have THAT in mind.
"Some rock-and-roll would do a great job now, Endre."
He looks astounded.
"You like rok-end-rol?"
I love it. My kids are used to it, too. There is a lot of energy there. We may be needing some.
"You see, Endre, my generation was vaccinated with a gramophone needle. Some of us were even put in jail for playing this strange music on the air. I was arrested for playing the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk's tune, YOU DID IT, YOU DID IT. Some government beagles found it offensive in reference to Marshal Tito."
Endre is good enough quickly to provide a local rock station on his BLAUPUNKT. I hardly recognize the sound. It is in English, but I am far from being able to recollect the name of the group or the singer. My generation's nipple was the Stones, Van "The Man" Morrison, jazz heavyweights such as Miles, Mingus, Gillespie, Kirk, Coltrane…That's where we sucked our high-potency, nurturing milk. But I do not want to abuse Endre with my asymmetrical list of musical greats. Anything's fine, my dear confederate.
"Do you like it?" he is inquiring.
"I love it," Evan responds.
"Who is it?"
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS.
Endre smiles at having satisfied both Evan and me. To me, the name of the group sounds like a spice without a meal. That's probably because I was getting hungry. That feeling of being famished comes without fail each time you cross an uncrossable border. Once you're here, and you're nowhere, you have to eat, shave and take a whiz.
© 1994/2007 The Oklopdzic Estate
© 1994/2007 Lissa Tyler Renaud, Editor
The title poem, "The Former Future," and the foreword, "Forepast,"
first appeared in Ambush Review,
editors Bob Booker and Patrick Cahill, San Francisco,
in issues 1 (2010) and 2 (2011).