prose

Vladimir Stojsavljević: Pula

In that rested 1995 in Pula I ran a theatre workshop for young literati, to which many applicants applied, high schoolers and perennial college students, and one employee of the Cement factory, then an infamous ecological timebomb. It looks like the idea to call the workshop "Joyce Was In Pula, Too" contributed to the great interest from talented idlers, jokey young men and women, among whom the most attractive was a certain mysterious Una.



That Una warned me straight away she was attracted to older men, and to my comment that it was not unusual for young girls to desire to be different, she replied: "I don't have the desire, I am different." She was fifteen years old and had just finished second grade in high school. She was the hardest worker in the workshop, with her big eyes she stared at every written sentence like an owl that disbelieved the night into which it gazed. When I suggested it would be interesting to put to the test the egotism and individuality of the writer so they'd jointly create a text with the title of the workshop itself, Una, initially quiet, became noisy, with the cleverest observations. A play of forceful energy and sentences wildly swimming in the subject was created in just a month. I think it was precisely her idea to see the novel Ulysses as a giant coded message about the condition of the Austrian Navy, which fell apart so brutally after the pompous declaration of war against Serbia from the terrace of the Officers' Club, where people liked to dance the waltz back when Joyce was here. Interpreting that great prose as a spy report from Austria's main port, what Pula had been turned into in the early years of the past century, went from the tidbit that Joyce was allegedly banished from town as a suspected spy.

 

And from the idea that you can't want what you have, as Una said, and the fact that armies and wars remained the secret code of Pula long after Joyce, this story came about. Of course, the story and the events are fictional, but Una will always look at you from out of them and try to touch you with a touch of melancholy.

 

She doesn't know the yearning for the impossible, nor the lust for the unreachable. She advances through life from one achievement to another. Luna, in the story her name is Luna, observes her worshipped teacher and for a moment forgets about her messy fingernails. The sun, too hot, languishes above the school, it's burned out the scent from the flowers, inside the class it's unpleasant. The heat caught them all, but the teacher is persistent: "Who is the patron saint of our city? You don't know?! Which saint protects our city!?"

 

Pula, the name of the city is Pula.

 

Like the sun above the high school in Zagreb Street, his question languishes in the dead of the class. But he still speaks, speaks, speaks. He wants them to forget about the war for a moment. "The patron of Pula is the apostle Thomas. Doubting Thomas, the one who suspiciously approaches the teacher of faith and asks forbidden questions. His suspicion and curiosity they marked as doubt, and this 'doubting' turned into a trait of those of us who live today in this city.

 

We curiously question newcomers, but don't wait for answers. We don't question to find out something about the other, nor do we intend to remember it, but just so we have something to forget, to release into the abyss of history on which we then feed for years to come. I was fed facts and dates like that as well, and that's just what I want to explain to you. Now, when there's a war on, when you need love, when you doubt it even exists, when you're being killed by the cries of sex, you have to get to know Pula, the place where life is happening to you right now. I say happening to you, and you ought to be living it.

 

You have to get to know the city which has always been settled by someone's armies, and which is no longer in the hands of the military. You remember, you're not that young, they left four years ago. But dead warriors, the ghosts of forgotten soldiers even today joke with random passers-by, luring them into narrow alleys from which you can't get out. If you get to know your city, you will be able to get out. Yes, Pula is a place of dissipation, waste, crumbling, cutting up, but it doesn't prevent departure. Like some giant creature was breaking up the stones of the Arena, so it could be a crumb for a trail to the one who follows it. Don't follow that trail, because there is no endpoint.

 

Yes, I have to explain. Just seemingly, life in an ancient city leads only the ignorant to think that history repeats itself. It isn't so. There are no equal destinies. They may resemble one another, but they are not the same. There, our fellow citizens brag about being the descendants of the Argonauts, but it's not true. Pula was founded by Colchian refugees, not the heroic Argonauts. Legend has it that the Colchians, led by their crown prince, embarked on a futile chase for the ship Argo and the stolen golden fleece. Their prince falls, and the Colchian trackers stop their search. hey lay the prince's body into the marshy ground, make peace with the loss of their treasure, and in fear of the king's wrath over the loss of his son, they found a homestead marked with the prince's grave in a cove on the southern part of a peninsula, from which there is no return. A sanctuary created out of fear, out of cowardice, grows into a city. At first the hunters, they become the quarry, exiles, they become outlaws of Colchis. Still, don't even try to convince someone in Pula that he's not the descendant of Jason's company from the Argo, but the descendant of some chicken fleeing the king's wrath."

 

Does Luna just now notice by accident that the wasp on the outer side of the window has left, given up, abandoned the suffering one flying on the inner side. The one buzzing over her head must be a female, she thought.

 

"Don't conclude I'm talking against your parents! I speak out against war, any war, I speak out against faked documentary footage on the TV news, I speak out against tourism which nurtures an understanding of antiquity as something finished, interpreted and generally known. I say the point is in permeation, the permeation of the ancient and the as-yet unrealised, I'm talking about the sea splashing against the rocks. That shore is the magic place of your existence, the right place for your life. That shore."

 

Luna gets up, mute, gets out of the classroom, with no excuse, without saying goodbye. She's going to the shore because in the classroom it's stuffy. The professor, in his enthusiasm, doesn't notice he's lost his only listener.

 

At the same time, while the fugitive Luna is taking the bus to the very tip of Istra, a darkhaired youth, a senior, is running to Monte Zaro, into the park, the abandoned park in front of the observatory. Every day, in winter and summer, he works out in the open, trying to turn his body into a sculpture. The strength and physical beauty of a well read eighteen year old crazed with phantasies about himself could be glimpsed through winter clothing as well. He nurtures his body - not because he's a descendant of the Argonauts, he knows the legend well - but to spend the suffering that fills him. With exercise he restrains himself, calms himself down so as not to suffer for his personality, he calms himself down so he doesn't have to change or move away. Obsessive and unstoppable in his lust, he's developed the skill of disguise, such a change of form that he'd break all resistance. He'd put on dresses and go to tease idle men, or, in jeans, barefoot and naked from the waist up, he would tempt older women. He could, in the form of a swan, an owl or a bull, penetrate the bodies of the sleeping. One of Luna's class, dishonoured by the swan's follies, sent the senior a postcard begging him to get out of her dreams. He fell like rain into some young woman's lap. Strange, but the victims always forgave him. All except one person who hasn't let up or let him for a long time. Impudence and disguise had failed. The nurtured body dragged him irresistibly towards lust, forbidden and mute, to which travesty is merely a justification and impudent deception of one's own self, the taming of torrents of desire.

 

The senior's name is... No, one doesn't have to say his name until the moment he'll utter it himself, when at this very spot he'll cease to restrain himself, when the observatory on Monte Zaro will be blind to the night sky.

 

No one told Luna she was lovely. Lovely Luna.

 

That day, on the shore, on the tip of Istra, a man unknown to the fugitive softly, without moving his lips, almost accidentally, whispers that sentence: "You are lovely." She stands in front of him, he stands next to his neatly folded clothes. She looks at the firm features of his face and sees the shame welling in his eyes. As she arrived, she first looked at him take his clothes off and carefully fold those worn out, gifted clothes, then for a long time she watched him stand naked on the rock. She knows that now either the rock and the sea awaken or one follows the crumbs of broken, crushed, worn out city stones away from the magical place for life. She doesn't hesitate. Is that "you are lovely" to end a childhood and not begin real life, the rock and the sea? Is she to return to a city that's flaking, crumbling, wasting away and - what else did the teacher say!? She didn't remember.

 

Recently, with a bottle of Coke and red wine, sitting among the ants on the shore, she celebrated her fifteenth birthday, alone. Her Mom and her brother forgot about her birthday. They never told her she was lovely. They wouldn't even touch her poems, which she left for them, they'll do it tomorrow, they couldn't make it, and so on until she gave up asking. Mostly, they ask if she had lunch and if she'll slip through in school this year as well. Yes, mother would sometimes lift her blouse, measuring how much her breast had grown. "It was a smart move to put you in school early, you have a whole year of head start", she'd say. What head start!?

 

Luna had always found it difficult to give names to the scenes or images she saw. Especially to this one, today. This, today, was without premeditation, mute, inchoate, nameless. She simply gathered her courage and approached a man who stood naked on a rock above the sea, with who knows what purpose, because his clothes were neatly folded at his feet. Daring, she approached him with her hand at first, just like that, simple, the way you take or wipe something.

 

She should return home. Soon the night will take the place of the blue twilight and there'll be no more buses.

 

The embers of various thoughts and the fresh, young scent of still invisible lavender flowers flared her nostrils. The forgotten fear of an adventure floated through her lungs again, making her heart flutter. She doesn't have time to lazily seduce herself with the fact that the first shade of pleasure had inscribed itself on her pallid face.

 

In an empty bus, the returning fugitive bashfully recalls he was a lot older than her, and shamelessly says to herself out loud: "He had a big and tasty one!" No, she doesn't know his name, so all she has to remember him by is his body.

 

That evening when he arrived at the hotel opened for the refugees last winter, and its name was Pula, like the city, Mahan, the man's name was Mahan, stopped in front of the building because of the scent of oleander, because it wasn't part of his experience. He didn't even know the word refugee existed until he became its content himself. He didn't completely understand the meaning of that word, so he translated it as homeless.

 

Everything in his life had crumbled and broken up like sand, sprinkled and disappeared.

 

He doesn't live, day in and day out the crusting of everything past and present burdens and presses him like an invisible web, like a weight from God. Wherever he went and from wherever he returned, the lifeless homeless one, cringing in his mind, felt pleasure only by calling up the gentle forests and meadows of his native landscape - the only pleasure that followed him to his temporary address, the hotel Pula on the Veruda.

 

From the moment they stuffed him into a van, tied his hands with wire, from the moment the smell of uniforms made him sneeze and the obscenities of the young soldiers made him blush naively, only calling up that landscape gave birth to pleasure, lifted his feet to a pace, lit the spark in his eye when in the evening, through the window of a boring hotel building he directed his gaze towards the treetops and the freshly awakened lamps in the short street.

 

And now, on the stone plate, on the rock to which he came with a dark, liberating intent, this homeless man, terrified, sees life in the face of an unknown girl, too young and too daring, life in the drops that drip into the sea and the one that sliding quietly from his belly towards her mouth.

 

Returning to the boring hotel that evening, the homeless one carries a fresh memory of something unique, completely different from the memory of his home, from that dull image and dull pleasure. He went to disappear, to drown, and he returns shaky, excited. So much so that he'd raise his hands in ecstasy as well, and dance a kolo in an invisible dance with his fellow villagers. A Serbian kolo, with a meaning and rhythm his faith doesn't allow.

 

Franka, Luna's mother's name is Franka, accepts the invitation to dance although her shoes are too tight, she bought them without trying them on. She agrees to dance on the terrace by the sea, she agrees to everything because she wants to make the deal, although she recognises the reckless courting of a business partner to whom, she herself doesn't know why, she still hasn't lied to about being available. In fact, she hates dancing, she hates summer orchestras and singers on terraces of rundown hotels on the edge of town, she hates the male manner of approach. And yet she dances and giggles, not letting herself think about how long her behavior will lure men to do swinish things to her, lure partners to make her their quarry. It comes, probably, from an unquenched thirst for tenderness, from a yearning to be needed, to have someone helpless next to her recognising her as salvation. And the children grow up and no longer reach out towards her with their hands or their eyes. No one in the house waits for her because of need anymore. In public and in secret, she is lonely.

 

 

 

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