prose

Wonderland

Sample translation from "Wonderland", a novel by Marinko Koščec, translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović.
Wonderland is an ironic portrait of Croatian academic community, epitomized by a 40-year-old professor of literature. His professional and family-life traumas, midlife crisis and fantasies of escape from the prison of his individual existence, intertwine with the context of syndromes related to societies in transition.
Wonderland was awarded with the prize «VBZ» for the best novel manuscript in 2003.



 

Professor, the moment he steps into the hall, and as he goes down in the elevator, and when he inserts the key into the little lock, is smiling. Pleasantly dressed and clean shaved like every good neighbor. Prepared, should there be a chance, for the temptation of instant-interaction. The thin fog in which the suburban afternoon dozes is lukewarm, almost motherly, one would say. Perfumed fall caresses the lungs. At regular intervals, the sound of scraping metal makes its way from somewhere. Death in the trees is an unvoiced, coloristic happening.

                Twice a week, that’s the optimal measure to visit one’s place of work. And generally, to meet the world. If by chance these were dissolved, what would remain of him? He’d flounder through the bog of time. But he has a path, he’s got a mission. Twice a week he can muster enough mental erection to deliver his litany. Before the audience who, undoubtedly, will not boo at him or torture him with embarrassing questions. Or questions that are different, for that matter. Who will take each and every word of his as if it is the word of God, without reserve or commentary. How beneficial, how invigorating is it to immerse yourself into those fresh, unspoiled faces. Breathe in their youth.

                As he drives to his opening lecture, facing the wind that fondles his perfumed cheek, that ruffles what’s left of his hair, he’s almost singing along the tune on the radio.

                Mother of...! There goes the shoe! Easy, I don’t want to step into this with my bare foot, here it is. Fantastic, I mean really, the mud in front of the college building survives even the dry period. And my talent to find it with my shoe, even if there is one single pond on the whole parking lot. But to let this trifle thing soil your spirit? Allow it to occupy even one cell of your brain? No, an intelligent individual will let no earthly clay press down on his back, he does not walk stooped, his teeth clenched, the suffering cramp on his face. He doesn’t see it at all for his eyes do not plough the soil, no, he lifts his chin up toward the sky, fills his lungs with air and treads forward, always. It’s a good air, no deadly germs in it, almost untouched by industrial poison, homey air it is. Mud’s all right too, when you’re on your own turf. What’s air like in a foreign land? What’s the use of all the riches and brilliant carriers overseas when there’s no air of your own, your own ground under your feet? Every day you have to tell yourself what a blessing it is to be among your own people, wade the mud you were born in, one hundred per cent yours.

 

Professor firmly rushes toward the second floor. Ready for the sixteenth rendition of the course he’d inherited still as an assistant and, with all due respect, barely altered with his own adaptations. It’s considered prestige to teach senior years; the higher the year, the better the lecturer, more acknowledged, better scholar. But, he’s happy to teach freshmen and sophomores.

                He also inherited the custom of dedicating the opening lecture to written expression of motivation for study. This expression will end up in the garbage bin the moment he closes the office door, but he’s happy to keep the tradition going; besides taking half of the time, it allows you to observe, in peace and from various angles, walking among the benches, whatever is worth your attention. During the rest of the year, the role of the lecturer steals your concentration. And there’s always the danger of someone catching your eye.

 

The hottest babes won’t show up for classes anyhow. Perhaps at the exam, but there’s a better chance of seeing them next time on the hood of a new Ford model, in one of those magazines Karmen leaves on the kitchen table. But, what does this generation have to offer? Well, the one with the cleavage in the third row, next to the aisle, with golden hair and magical smile. Marketing potential of every little detail turned to her advantage, a touch of makeup and jewelry, the mini skirt barely covering her ass, nothingness screaming from her eyes. Who knows, perhaps she’ll soar to the semifinals of some local beauty pageant. Perhaps she’ll hook up with some building contractor or a water polo player before her blustering body plastic starts going down the drain. For now she basks in the generousness of nature, with the aura of superiority she sweeps here female colleagues around. She measures them, nibbling at her pencil, tosses her hair back raising her elbows high. The shirt is tight.

 

Yes, Professor has eyes too. Scenes such as this start predictable chemical processes in the body, much less personal than genetically programmed for the whole category of middle-aged human male. Does this make it easier for him? Not at all, but it’s furthest from his mind to cross the barrier of purely speculative relationship with his students or to get stuck among the members of his own species, more or less academic, who voice their drooling after hairdressers and waitresses and in packs of beer brotherhoods ease up their pain by sighing, Check out the bitch! or Look at her eyes, how cock-hungry she is… One thing is certain: Professor knows how to keep his mouth shut.

 

The rest looks mostly—better for them—resignedly at peace with their own plainness: the flood of boredom, humanoid algae. A few pierced noses or eyebrows, a revenge for the low-profit body. But inside, is that a pregnant whirlpool of spirituality, still unsunk into the mire of material world? Here and there a romantic wanders in, convinced that the cobweb hanging over everything taught here is a sign of vitality. Still, monumental majority does not believe or think anything and they enroll in the program with as much vision as they apply peanut butter on their toast. Among the student population one could find a pinch of those who’ve heard of global market, but those do not come to study here. Oh look, one single little male among the nymphs, his eyes piercing from the back of the classroom. This one intends, on behalf of his generation and as the only representative of his sex, to offer resistance. Sprawled in the last row and surrounded by his female admirers, he’ll throw his cynical eye at me and destruct my jokes, he’ll cut girly giggles with his semi-loud You bet or Fuck, I’m gonna pee my pants, I’ll be careful not to hear and not to include him by name in my sarcastic remarks, and he’ll hold his tongue when he addresses me directly. A Brad Pitt face and a grin hanging at the corner of his lips give him absolute power in the chicken coop and beyond; they, without a doubt, eat from his hand. But that just doesn’t do it for him, his ambitions are different. He shaved his head, put on his army boots and a jacket—a tattoo is hiding somewhere under there without a doubt: he’s a skin. So they took over this territory too.

 

Sunken in his chair, for a while Professor stares at the calling card, then sighs and presses the dials on the set. Hello, Mr. Lisica, how was your vacation? Short, yes, short, you’re telling me. No, don’t tell me, you’re already swamped with work. And you have to do all that yourself? They diagnosed you with an ulcer? Ah, don’t say that, your health is most… Just don’t let it get to you, not for your life. Well, I was calling about that money you... That’s what I thought, but you promised you’d get in touch, so I… And what do you think when, approximately… Perhaps in…? Next week maybe? No, no, of course it’s not that urgent, you shouldn’t get in debt, no, not at all. Okay, I’ll wait for you to call me. All the best to you, Mr. Lisica.

                Just as he hangs up, it rings again. Happy birthday, son. First time I didn’t get you anything. And it’s a round one. Oh, sure you need something, lots of things, but what can I…? Did I tell Karmen? It’s important to me what I think and what you know. Me? Never better. Yes, of course we made the decision together. Don’t let this bother you. It’s better this way. For everybody. But, I hoped that you’d come see me today. I know you’re moving tomorrow. But, at least for five minutes…

                It’s better this way. For everybody. Altruism for the uninformed. Even if all of us saw the baby get born in those thirty-three square meters, she’d never offer to leave on her own. In a normal world, your parents kick you out of the house when you turn eighteen if you show no intention of leaving yourself. You see them twice a year and both sides have their smiling faces on. In this retarded country we stay children until we retire, men never learn to take care of themselves, instead of getting their mothers off their backs they find another one, women after they give birth become nurslings themselves, grandmothers get in charge. We build houses three stories high so that three, God willing, four generations could live together in unavoidable hysteria and lack of understanding which diligently calcify into hatred. Yes, Mladen… How long has it been since I’ve heard nothing of him? It was a Sunday in November, one of those when it just doesn’t stop pouring, sometime late afternoon he’s ringing the bell, doesn’t want to come in, he just wants to give me back my stereo, he won’t be here for some time. I can’t really say why, but somehow it didn’t surprise me when he strangled his mother. The drops from the umbrella somehow managed to organize into a trickle in the hall, I took the stereo from him, Sure you don’t want a beer, do you want me to call the police, No, thank you, I’ll do it. Okay, he had a rough childhood, his old man drank, beat both of them. But what had the cat done to him, why did he cut its throat when he’d finished with his mother? Still, that was an exception, other guys from the neighborhood made peace with their destiny much more easily. I mean all of them still live in the same house, with their folks and their children. Under such circumstance, moving to your mother-in-law, three blocks away, is without a doubt a step forward.

 

Does Professor have, while he’s unlocking his car and while he’s burying his fourth decade, the right to be satisfied with himself? Even the least significant nobody has that right, even the worst of criminals, but let’s be realistic: forty years old, people say that’s the peak whose northern slope gently and undeniably descends into eternal darkness. Visions of his own corpse still don’t come up so spontaneously; that’s good. His Škoda is seven years old, but it won’t get him home any more reliably than a brand new Audi. His work is paid the way it’s paid, but at least the salary is regular. The forced life with his wife’s parents, grandmother, brother, his wife and children is a bit hard to swallow, but that’s only temporary, until the new apartment is finished. He’s not particularly proud of putting his mother into an old people’s home, but who’d get all of them in order. Besides, they have TVs there and she’ll have someone to discuss The Millionaire with. And isn’t the joy of having your baby born soon more important than all this? People say a child is the greatest gift. Škoda’s engine answers happily, ready to take him to the suburb basked in sunset gold; joyful and smiling horizon opens up before him. At the end of the day, there’s no slain cat hanging over his soul.

 

Someone stuck in the staircase swears and feels the wall for the light switch. Ah, Mr. Zebić, from the first floor. It takes him a lot of time and space to climb to his door. In the opposite direction, every morning, his step is as light as a feather. In the evening he comes back much more slowly and diagonally. Wars are made for people like him. Before the war he was a nobody excommunicated from the janitors’ milieu. The war, more exactly three weeks of standing guard in front of some warehouse, promoted him into a veteran with disability pension. Temporarily, thanks to the Veterans’ Self-Employment Loan, even into a bee-entrepreneur. Until, drunk as a skunk, he ran his hive truck into a ditch. They extracted thousands of stingers from him and we had to keep our windows closed for weeks, the bees’ revenge hanging over the whole neighborhood.

 

When you give it some thought, Professor is a member of the elite. There’s no doubt about that. Compared to common teachers, especially provincial ones, and how can even one square inch of the land not be a province in a country with eight percent of college educated, he’s elite just as a prostitute with a franchise at Sheraton is elite compared to the one waddling along Svačić Square, or a Hague prisoner to a Homeland War hero who stabs you when you park on his lawn and then walks free because he’s got the PTSD. If, by accident, Professor likened himself to one of his western counterparts he’d have a reason to be worried, but his western counterpart has no need whatsoever to liken with him, so he peacefully goes on with his work the way he always does. While enjoying his elitism, he’s staying clear from trans-categorical comparisons. For professors’, prostitutes’, veterans’ as well as any other elites have their super-elite, politics and showbiz, two sister branches turned green on the golden TV tree. An occasional soccer player makes his way to the sphere of super-elite as well; his ticket, understandably, is not reserved by the goals he scores, only by his talent for politics or showbiz. In case he’s got both, he literally crushes everything that gets in his way.

                But why would that cast a shadow over Professor’s results?! On the contrary, his life fits nicely into what they like to call success. Personally, on the list of all of his successes Professor would put the marital one on the first place. With clear consciousness, he’d call his union harmonious. His maturity chased away all dreams of merging into a hermetic whole. Which would amidst overall grayness of the world spawn the oasis of mutual inspiration; erect the dam against everyday landslide, against the fear that, in a flash, everything would suddenly come rumbling down and the whole precious construction would break down to pieces. Professor, however, knows to appreciate real, accessible pleasures of life. Which ones? For example the voice that at the clack of the front door offers itself like a soft armchair. Ironed shirts. Watching TV together in bed. Faithful, soft hands that know where pleasure dwells. Her breasts going up and down as she breathes while their bodies, sated with lust, lying on the side, perfectly fit into one another like two halves of a shell.

                Indeed, it is as if he finally managed to break free from the calls from the past that for years threatened his fragile anchoredness in the present. From those pestering specters that kept appearing, for example, in the shape of someone’s particularly round and smooth buttocks that by the lake, at the passenger’s seat, in the middle of the symphony of crickets, squishing happily, hopped up and down all over his virile manhood. Or one intensely adventurous, greedy, endemicly expert tongue on a not-all-that-empty night train. Or those pale green eyes in a rare, insane combination with the red hair… but no, that wasp’s nest he shouldn’t touch.

                For although he’d already accepted that slavery to the golden-mouthed past as a cross he’d have to wear until he dies, although like Christ he’d endured the torture of those memories of heavens that spring out suddenly and then get forever lost, and like Prometheus’ eagle every day come back for more and more interest for that speck of borrowed pleasure; ever since he’d decided to definitely settle, all those futile instant-epiphanies one after another had burned down at the altar of monogamy and allowed him to sip the libido from the chalice verified by a sacrament in the peace he longed for so much.

 

But, what’s that! I love Karmen, that’s the only way to say it. More than at the beginning. All the better! What gives itself to the flames of lust in a blink turns to ashes. Karmen and I, indeed, started with way too many burns to allow ourselves to get scorched. And the thing, instead of getting stuck in the mutual addiction and habit, blossomed with time. Besides, under a complimentary angle and light, her breasts are not saggy. The secret of marital success is brought down to finding the favorable light and angle of viewing. With time, according to one’s needs, a person acquires a trick or two, for example to turn the light off at the decisive moment.

                The already tight hall has been split in half by boxes piled up to the ceiling. The living room is under siege as well; even the wardrobes, in pieces, are witnesses of how easy it is to end up at the bottom of a box.

                He-ey, I’m in the tub, the voice comes from the bathroom.

                But we’ve said we’ll finish together when I come home, says Professor.

                It doesn’t matter.

                Would she exhibit such devotion, Professor wonders, and sing in the tub, if we were going to my parents’ house? And what’s this?

                Kitchen table is the site of a mysterious massacre. Dozens of wings and legs, obscenely naked and hairy, sticking out of the pyramid of nylon sacks. One is afraid to peek in there, perhaps there’s a hair pin or a gold tooth waiting…

                Marinko got this for compensation. Last time you asked me why I didn’t take any.

                Perhaps we could have sold the toasters. But twenty kilos of chicken. And now?!

                Thirty. Take them downstairs to Vera’s freezer, I’ve arranged everything with her. Tomorrow they’re coming with us.

                She approaches him, drops of water on the wooden floor. One towel wrapped around her head, the other reaches from her armpits to her knees. She sits on his leg. Chicken in metaphors, how come?! Moisture soaks the fabric. Tepid complexion, sodden, pink, a vision of fritters sizzling in the pan.

                I’m sorry it turned out this way this year. For your next birthday we’ll throw you a party.

                Plastic sacks rustling.

 

Ever since I’ve started living with Karmen, this is the happiest part of every day. It’s almost the only thing that gives sense to my days; waiting on my back, warming up with my hand, while scented overture of almond milk spreads from the bathroom. Is there a better definition of happiness, anything more meaningful than her oiled thighs? And calves, of course, freshly epilated. So what if they’re a little plump. Such folly, to sigh after the leggy ones. Her short legs are perfect for me. Everything is close. Whoop, and the fingers are already in the mouth, the tongue licks the feet, ankles, climbs up, thighs spread, close around the neck. Before that, the ritual bathrobe (flannel, ivory color, 89 kunas on sale at Mercatone) inviting you to stick your hand everywhere before you rip it off. And the panties with inspired inscriptions on the label. Romeo & Juliette. Or Body Pleasure. Or even more pretentious: Satisfaction guaranteed. What will it be today? Wonderland? Ride on, brave cowboy? Thank you for your visit and come again? Oh, I need not be talked into anything, I’ll roll them down with a never bigger appetite which never wanes, such joy, though there are no 166 ways of rolling them down, that’s where the art lies, in finding the finest variations of the same. So many never learn this, so many cannot imagine the lengths where tiny steps can take you, no, they break themselves in half demanding always something different, more, obsessed with what they are missing, because the neighbor has more lovers, or a younger wife, or with bigger boobs, so they reach after a wide spectrum of aids and prosthetic devices that turn them into invalids. At the beginning Karmen was so reserved, you couldn’t get a word out of her, it took years for her to melt, and now she’s overwhelming you with demands and directions, expressions of admiration toward my technique and proportions, declarations of momentary inspirations as of the place and depth of penetration, the ways of ejaculate application. Her mouth is golden. Ever since the old hag’s gone, she can yell all she likes. I love it when she yells, bites, kicks the wall with her feet. Pity we have to leave, we’ve finally managed to relax. Let’s hope the walls there are not made of Styrofoam. The granny is, luckily, as deaf as the night. Perhaps she won’t be much longer. Then we’ll have her room too, for the baby. But listen to me, we’re not gonna stay there forever. Year and a half, tops, before we get the keys, as Marinko said. Let’s hope he’s right. I don’t care for him slurping his vowels and I don’t care what the size of his signet-ring is; the thing eating me from the inside is that whole concept, half of dough we got for the apartment in advance, and we barely managed to talk him into leaving us the other half for the down payment for the loan. Fucking loan, as if I’m not anxious enough, and what if we run out of money for the installments due to unplanned expenses, what will they take first, the fridge or maybe the baby’s crib, My folks will jump in, Karmen says, yes, they’ve been jumping in for us until now, they almost got a hernia from their jumping, they’ve always been showing incredible interest in me, for example, they still don’t know what exactly I do, every time they almost say, Nice to meet you, as if they’ve never seen me before, they don’t treat her differently either, thank God they have a son, eh, that’s a whole different story, everything’s forgiven to him, let him be a lazy ass, let him be a bum, it’s a son, it’s okay to support him even though he’s thirty-five, they even give him the money for gambling, bah, as if I’d accept their money, let them pad their graves with it, They’ll change when the baby comes, says Karmen, that’ll soften them up, eh, that’s what I need, their gentleness, their drooling over my baby, Hey, look at his widdle-widdle hands, eh, I won’t let them hang necklaces and earrings on my young, Darko’s kids can look like a bijouterie stand all they want, that house’s gonna turn into heaven on earth when all three of them start whining, but you can stand everything for some time, as long as we get a place of our own, it would’ve been so much easier if we hadn’t entered into this deal with Marinko, but then again, when would otherwise Karmen see those eight late pays, damn thieves, they know how to blackmail you, first month the money’s a little late, second month it’s gonna be any day now, and whoop, they owe you so much that no one in the right mind would resign and tell them to go fuck, that’s nothing original, our whole economy functions on this principle, Karmen is actually handling this fantastically, At least I have a job, never mind I give her money for a tram-fare to work and back, but on the other hand, there’s something there, what was it like when she was home all day, but did I force her to get a job, not at all, what wholesale, what has that to do with you, is that why you studied art history and philosophy, but Why would you have to stick blindly to your diploma, I’m not a fach-idiot, I know other things, I’m tired of waiting, I want to work, fantastic, that’s how you got introduced to the charms of private enterprise, and there’s your Marinko for you, and me, unfortunately, too.

                Honey? Ooooh… you’re asleep, already? Ooooh, and what’s that we have here?!

 

 

Professor’s life among cardboard boxes. After a few days, there’s no visible progress, although Karmen is just made for such missions, although there are few things she’s better at than putting things on shelves. He, on the other hand, just plays with them; he can’t even find a place for himself.

                He’s oddly torn between two feelings; each in its own way take him back to his childhood. One brings back memories of the first forced move, when they tore down his family house and gave them an apartment in an apartment block built at its place. True, it was falling apart, perhaps they spared it of agony, but even today he cannot understand why they compensated for it with the apartment three times smaller in size, and why it never crossed anyone’s mind to compensate for the yard, for the old walnut trees he climbed, for the old cherry that gave fruit before any other, at the beginning of May. The other is the feeling of return to those same ripped out roots, for here he is again in a house just like his old one, in the same condition of awaiting catastrophe and in the same neighborhood. And his future apartment is there too, paid for with the money from the apartment they sold, plus the loan, plus Karmen’s back salaries, you can already see its naked walls in the complex that her boss, the entrepreneur, is building. Today, although Professor doesn’t see the difference, they don’t call that an apartment block but an urban villa, there will be a few more square feet, but how to defend yourself from the impression of repetition, futile movement in place.

 

The back pain shows no intention of letting up, actually it’s getting worse. In a normal world, for this kind of work you hire someone, but no, Karmen’s old man knows what’s best, his word is the law, why should we spend our money, his truck is right here. This really isn’t his house we’re moving, but You’ll need every penny, what can I say to that, as if I don’t know that, too well, so shut up and carry. Darko, of course, found a way not to be at home, right on that day he started working again, bah every day you get a chance for a new beginning, he’s found out that himself, some twenty or so times until now, every time the position had more and more perspective. As far as we go, the beginning of one beautiful imprisonment, in the basement with the deaf grandma, the parents above their heads, Darko and his brats in the loft, welcome back to a tribal community. Okay, we have to stay positive, what would’ve happened if we got the loft, who would’ve hauled all these things there. But fuck, they could’ve at least fix the yard, I know they were running out of money for saving the house, but how much would it cost to put some dirt into those holes, no, he’s got no choice but to carry the fridge over some planks, and the mud, after every step you have to check whether your shoe is still on your foot, and that’s how it’s going to stay until the ground freezes, until then the rains will pour down into our bedroom, they planned to fix this before they move in, but, shit happens, the axle had gotten busted on the truck, and they also had to celebrate the christening of Darko’s little girl, they know what are their priorities. Maybe we could pay for it, Karmen says, yeah, right, the only thing we need is to dig ourselves in here, cement the rest of our future into the foundations of this shithole, I’d rather sleep in the moss. You’re selfish, Karmen says, and what when the baby comes? But why do I have to deal with everything, was it my idea to come here, did my biological clock got stuck and the things are becoming more and more dangerous. There’s your danger now, the house might collapse on our heads, the slope is gentle, but it’s visibly sliding down, they say an inch a month, eh, it’ll be two a month now that they’ve dug holes in it, the decision to hydro-isolate it and inject concrete into foundations is praise worthy, but typically they cancelled the project half-way through and left the holes yawn. Karmen calmed down for a while, as if she was cured of this fixation, but the thing simply cannot be rooted out, her eyes get all shiny when the TV shows some motherly idyll, and then those eloquent sighs, so eloquent, what should a man be made of to resist that, together with accusations of egocentricity, what’s the use of admitting, true, you live with an egocentric, but think what I’m not, an alcoholic, a bully, I don’t know, a member of a criminal organization, a priest-pedophile, it’s as helpful as a thesis that it is most important to be aware of the problem, and that this ours doesn’t have to be disastrous for our connubial organism because it more looks like a cyst than a metastasis, one can live with it. And you are such a bonus for my life, says who, the cyst?

 

Professor’s eyes get caught in the mirror; unmistakably the sight makes him sad. Still in his childhood, someone lucid dubbed him the Weeping Owl, after a comic book hero. In all modesty, he hasn’t cheered up much since then. Old age’s thrombolysis, turbidity, numbness are showing more and more on his always sour face. Perhaps it might help to decorate it with a smile, but he’s never had the talent. All of his efforts to smile end up in a neurotic grimace, enforced by the rotten teeth complex (next week, definitely, it’s high time to do something about it). Besides, as opposed to most faces, his gains nothing from smiling; only his nose jumps out, shining with grotesque crookedness. The hunched back and the bald head add enough reasons to stay clear from the mirror.

                His health, globally looking, has served him well so far. But, at this age, it has to start letting up somewhere. With him, it was the vertical that gave up first. The whole line from his neck to his feet, everything that keeps him erect is showing the signs of damage, inclination to prostration. His ankles are alarmingly crackling. His calves start shaking even after short walks. Knees swell and droop. His spine has more and more difficulties in finding the position without pain, which often turns into wicked burning. It kills him when he’s standing, but he can neither sit for long anymore, after an hour and a half, two tops, he has to lie down. In short, there are no more comfortable positions except lying, it getting more and more attractive just to lie still on his back.

 

Someone left the papers in the toilet. What do people look for in the papers? What’s so fascinating about them? Do they want them to tell them something about the world they live in, and about themselves? Men are actually most attracted to pictures of cars they are never going to drive and female bodies with which they will never copulate, and their wives are stuck on pictures of clothes they will never wear. But these are all pictures? What can you read in papers? Articles on politics? They fit whole in the title. Sections such as My Garden or Food for Winter? You don’t read those but put them in filling folders, on the top of the pile of the same folders, hoping that once you’ll have the time to dedicate to them completely. Readers’ letters? No one even notices them, although those petty naggings and calls for justice most faithfully depict the content of life around them. Books try to do the same, but they can be a couple hundred pages long, and often without a single picture in it. In the papers, the most visited place is still the daily TV guide. But you’re done with it in a couple of seconds, except if you have the inspiration to go through the daily summary of current soap operas: these are written by true masters of humor. An older person will gladly read the obituaries, and even more often, the crimes and arrests section. Young and older men alike will immerse themselves only in the sports section. What do they have to offer? They give accounts of past games and provide precise amounts paid for the transfer of a soccer player from one into another, and then yet another club. Do you really want to read this? Women do not read sports pages. At least in this respect, they are undoubtedly less underdeveloped than males.

                It happens, although very rarely, that you run into a gem. Let’s say, this headline In front of the Croatian embassy in Madrid a diplomatic van gets stolen – 26 paintings by Lovro Artuković disappeared. The beginning completely uninteresting, it could provoke emotional response only from the painter who carries such a famous name, because the paintings, as the journalist says, were not adequately insured. But later in the article we are given the fortunate news, I mean really, there’s something here to make your day. Namely, with the paintings, sixteen boxes of Mister Ambassador’s personal belongings disappeared as well, probably irretrievably. Personal belongings? Among them, most likely, the most banal desk lamp, purchased in IKEA, at the Embassy’s expense of course. And a porcelain jug from early Ming dynasty, 14th century, also at the Embassy’s expense. And spongy slippers in the shape of the grinning tiger, bought at the Embassy’s expense, and presented to the Ambassador in a colorful wrapping paper with a note saying To my little tiger, for his sixty-second birthday, Cici. Really, sometimes you can squeeze a drop of joy from the papers.

 

Baby, says Karmen, wanna go down to the store and get me 200 grams of bread crumbs?

                Professor is more than willing, he can’t wait, he’s literally jumping out of his armchair, grabbing his finally octroyed sense of purpose, he’s throwing the excuse to wander around the neighborhood a little around himself as if it’s a scarf .

                Cars go down the street in a continuous line a lot like funeral procession. It seems incredible that in his childhood, with his buddies, he’d set up metal goals right in the middle of this same street and if some vehicle appeared by accident it would’ve had to honk and honk before they moved them. One of them would stand right here, in front of Karmen’s house, at the end of the ridge, how many times did Professor run down the hill to catch the ball. Karmen’s head would, undoubtedly, sometimes appear at the window, but even if he did notice her, considering the lateness of his sexual maturity, he wouldn’t know to make her out among flower pots.

                At the bottom of the street, where once his house stood in agony, now urban villas—if that’s how they want to call those concrete blocks—proudly stand, and in them freshly urbanized people with their accents of reinforced-concrete, apartments upstairs, downstairs video stores, home and other appliances shops, car-parts dealerships, galleries of metal ego-prostheses at the parking lot. Autohaus Čuljak stands there, actually corrected into the more pleasant sounding Čuljak Motors, and the furniture store called Za dom! Even the old-fashioned family houses proudly show the marks of entrepreneurship, the signs such as Marijan Imp-Ex Commerce or We Weld Plastic. The house next to Karmen’s turned into a private day-care center, dentist’s office is leaning on it on the other side. In short, an epidemic of general vivacity, the antipode of what used to be a suburb drowsing under the autumn fog, whose peace was disturbed only by the sawyer’s clattery machine while business activities were brought down to chicken coops, from which Professor and his followers stole eggs and from the bushes stalked the cyclists. Karmen’s old man didn’t have his truck back then, their chicken coop disappeared last under the pressure of imported immigrants who occupied the houses at the top of the street, first the UNPROFOR then the diplomats. That’s why, on one hand, although he never stepped out of his neighborhood, no one can say that Professor spent his whole life in the same neighborhood.

 

Here’s my chance to at least try and make up for the nylon bags Karmen uses to fill up the material base of our marriage; it’s a pity that little corner stores get swallowed by King-Kong-supermarkets. Then again, that’s where Karmen is in her own element, her eyes start glowing among the shelves, who wouldn’t give himself gladly to pushing the cart behind her, her enthusiasm is so contagious, the energy she invests into memorizing where rice and where toilet paper is cheaper, and when she walks into the department of kitchen accessories, and starts examining the cutters, colanders, blenders… They look so sexy in her little fingers, delicious little treats she’ll produce instantly appear before my eyes, she’s a gastronomic guru, a virtuoso for dishes made of 47 different ingredients, olfactory and gustatory epiphanies that come as culmination of the day-long ritual, I lament in vain that all I need is a hot-dog, wistfully I revive the memories of her studies, But I love it, she protests, why would I feel sorry for the time. She actually loves house chores, she emanates the joy of life even when she is squatting by the toilet bowl with rubber gloves on her hands, ecstatically she caresses the thing up-down, for hours, looking directly in front of her, there’s no uneven area she wouldn’t smooth with her hand, how can I thank the heavens for sending her to me, so filled with immanent sense, complementary with my collapse into emptiness, with all of my crookedness.

                So many of her traits fascinate me. Precision. She’ll follow the recipe and calibrate the ingredients to the gram, and possible departures she’ll emphasize with every bite, shaking her head ruefully. Method. She’ll read every instruction before usage even if it is written on the pack of condoms. For every trip she’ll make a list, the initial note being Bags, two (three?). Thoroughness. For hours she’ll browse through a clothes catalogue or search the Internet, noting down what she might order when there’s a chance. The ability to turn shopping into a cure against depression. If she embarks on the expedition alone, without exception she will come back with some extravagancy that, who knows, sometime might come handy, an art-set of chopsticks or capriccio with designer’s signature on the theme of champagne glasses. Then her excitement with the magical world of cosmetics and pharmaceutics. With lotions, tonics, balsams, baths, pomades, emulsions, elixirs. Vitamins and minerals. Her treasury of pills is filled with white ones and the ones in color, flat ones and cylindrical, effervescent and silent, oral and anal, fire-fighting and preventive, that calm you down and excite you, that predict a general catastrophe in the system and the ones that fine-tune it.

                Karmen invest enormous energy into perfect functioning of the mechanism. One the other hand, she intensively ignores whatever is not of her concern. Everything in the world Karmen divides into two categories: that what’s hers, and that what’s likely, which, if it really has to, exists somewhere on the border of sheer nonsense. In the first category, the royal place is reserved for her pleasure. It doesn’t have a price, for it there’s no sacrifice that’s too big. Pleasure can come from new shoes, chocolate bonbons, lying in the sun, but nothing, of course, can measure up with sex. As far as she’s concerned, the days should begin and end in sex and in better cases there should be some in the middle. The rest of the day is, in a word, a pause in sex. With Karmen there’s not I’m-not-in-the-mood and there’s no mistake, she’s like a bag of instant orgasm. She capable of creating it from nowhere in two or three moves, or, on the other hand, let it simmer on a gentle fire. No migraine will stop her, nor a friend who gives her a teary confession of her marital breakdown, nor a repairman who if dismantling the television behind the semi-closed door. A well-directed finger under the table will do, while an uncle is giving a toast in the honor of the thirtieth wedding anniversary. And in those super-rare cases when it just won’t happen, she’ll make sure that at least I get satisfied and without fail she’ll emphasize that my pleasure is hers.

 

As every other item of her belongings, Professor enjoys the right to immaculate maintenance. She never stops supervising whether he’s had enough to eat. She introduces novelties to his wardrobe, articles he’d otherwise never even look at. She plucks hairs from his back and squeezes zits. And when she even smells potential danger she sticks her claws out and bares her teeth; instantly she sees him with his pants down in adultery. When they get home, he’ll see, he’ll have to pussyfoot around her with his finest tweezers, sidling up to her in order to soften her up. Which is not all that bad because once she lets up a bit, she’ll throw herself at him more wildly than usual. But later she will torment him bit by bit, Who did you think of, huh, you think I don’t know, you think I didn’t see how you were looking at her, all of you watched her mouth with the same idea, nothing else about her is any good, but obviously that she trained more than well. She’ll crush every, even theoretical, competition; she’s particularly hostile toward short legs and big heads, such forms, understandably, offend her on a personal level. Professor, however, would not change one thing about her. Just like Nick Cave, he’d tell God, if there is one, not to touch a hair on her head. He imagines his life by a woman of brilliant intellect, gentle nature, noble heart, but nasty mouth. How many times a day he caresses her obese, pimply face, saggy like the face of the bulldog, and with a wart on her nose? How many times, out of pure joy, he comes up to her, kisses her greasy brow and thin, streaky hair? But Karmen, he so much loves to watch his Karmen, he cannot get enough of that face, he has to feed his eyes on it one hundred times a day. It’s vitally important for his mental health to be within her arm’s reach, to have her touch his shoulder while passing, graze him with her smile, pat his soul with her voice.

                He even bought an orchid branch.

                And where have you been until now?! Quick, our toilet’s clogged!

                Professor makes haste, determined to mobilize all of his capacities in the clash with the problem. The thing, he learns, happened on the lower level; it materialized in their basement bathroom, which is now swimming in an inch of filth, the smell makes you vomit. The fall on your pipes is screwed up, Karmen’s old man explains, so they can clog, all that toilet paper women dump in there. Eh, when there’s so many of us now, Professor thinks, they’ll clog even more. But if he understands the problem so well, why hasn’t he done something about it? Well, that would mean a thorough reconstruction of the drainage system, demolishing the tiles, digging, calling a plumber, then someone to repair the wall and put the tiles on, do you know who much that would cost you? No, but what can he do?

                I’ll get the cable from the truck.

                It sounds ominous, and it is. The old man explains routinely: I’ll go and push from above, and when it shows up in the hole, you grab it and pull it up and down. Here are the boots? Want some gloves?

                The female population of the house has gathered in the hall, even Darko’s Sanja came down from the attic, the scene is way too attractive, there’s a chance for semi-voiced teasing. Of course, he’s not allowed to say, Why don’t you try, because this is, after all, a man’s job. If Darko were not trial at the newest firm, we could negotiate, but this way. The old man’s voice booms through the staircase, Is it out? How come nothing’s happening? Dig in, I say, dig in!

                Heavy steps on the stairs.

                How come you don’t understand, for fuck sake. Tsk-tsk, what are you made of? Lemme, I’ll show you!

                He exhibits extraordinary guts; he needs no gloves, he sticks his arm in to the elbow, the filth sprays everywhere, on the walls, face, but he doesn’t budge until from the dark abyss comes the sound of obedient glug-glug.

                See how it’s done.

 

Branko, there’s no doubt about that, was the man in his youth. How else would he pick up such a fine catch—that’s how they called it then? He surely didn’t wave about with his origin much, but he did study engineering, and what’s more perspective, even for a medicine student from respectable family such as hers. He rode a motorcycle, among the first in his generation, and sported a rockabilly hairdo, which is still reminiscent in nasty sideburns, shame there’s nothing left on top. There’s nothing reminiscent of his engineer’s calling, supposedly it was sacrificed when Karmen was born. Tereza’s sacrifice is more easily to believe in, although you would say she was born a nurse. Who will, however, gladly remind you that in her student days she saw every important exhibition and that she managed to take Karmen to Paris, although I don’t understand why exactly. Darko was supposed to study at the film academy, and he would’ve surely gotten in at his fifth or sixth attempt had he not been touched by the war trauma, from his cameraman experience with foreign journalists. In the next couple of years he dealt with his trauma exclusively, sure, everyone has the right to do that, but perhaps it is not prime time to conceive a large family. But still it is most important that we are all together under one roof. It is priceless to have someone to lean on when the times get rough.

 

Such times, obviously, will be there in abundance: Karmen at the living room’s door, in mourning.

                Our washer’s not working.

                But it worked before we moved.

                It’s throwing cold water out. Go see for yourself.

                Professor is looking. As far as he’s concerned, the machine is working; it’s buzzing and something is spinning inside, but it is throwing cold water out, something is obviously wrong, but is it the fact that the water is cold or the fact that it is throwing it out? The old man is away, there’s only one solution, however desperate:

                I’ll go call the repairman.

                The repairman shows a piece of something, a lot like a lump of schist covered in shells, it’s called the heater, look for yourself, Professor nods that he sees it. Listen, says the repairman, I’m gonna replace it for you, that’s three hundred and fifty kunas, plus a buck twenty for installation, but I should replace the bearing too, the machine’s at least fifteen years old, eighteen, says Professor, but you see, this means in two weeks something else’s gonna break. If I were you, I’d get a new one, and then you’re safe. You can get one at the Metro Store for a grand, grand and a half. Karmen and Professor retreat for a short consult, peace wins. The repairman leaves, with a hundred kunas for his precious time, his advice is free.

 

proza

Iva Sopka: Moje pravo, nezaljubljeno lice

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Iva Sopka (1987., Vrbas) objavila je više kratkih priča od kojih su najznačajnije objavljene u izboru za književnu nagradu Večernjeg lista „Ranko Marinković“ 2011. godine, Zarezovog i Algoritmovog književnog natječaja Prozak 2015. godine, nagrade „Sedmica & Kritična Masa“ 2016. i 2017. godine, natječaja za kratku priču Gradske knjižnice Samobor 2016. godine te natječaja za kratku priču 2016. godine Broda knjižare – broda kulture. Osvojila je i drugo mjesto na KSET-ovom natječaju za kratku priču 2015. godine. Trenutno živi u Belišću i radi kao knjižničarka u osnovnoj školi.

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Mira Petrović: Bye bye baby bye; Zana

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Mira Petrović rođena je 1989. u Splitu. Predaje engleski jezik iako bi više uživala s talijanskim. Piše prozu, ponekad odluta u poeziju. Objavila priče i pjesme na raznim portalima i u časopisima. Bila je u užem izboru za nagradu Sedmice i Kritične mase 2017. Jedna od deset finalista međunarodnog natječaja Sea of words 2016. Dobitnica Vranca – 2015. i Ulaznice 2016.

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Maja Klarić: Japan: Put 88 hramova (ulomak)

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Maja Klarić (1985., Šibenik) diplomirala je engleski jezik i književnost i komparativnu književnost na Filozofskom fakultetu u Zagrebu, s diplomskim radom na temu „Suvremeni hrvatski putopis“, a radi kao književna prevoditeljica. Vodi Kulturnu udrugu Fotopoetika u sklopu koje organizira kulturne manifestacije. Objavila je poeziju i kraću prozu u raznim novinama i časopisima: Zarez, Quorum, Knjigomat, Poezija, Tema... Zastupljena je u antologijama Erato 2004. (Zagreb), Rukopisi 32 (Pančevo), Ja sam priča (Banja Luka), Sea of Words (Barcelona), Castello di Duino (Trst), Ulaznica (Zrenjanin). Nagrađena je na međunarodnom pjesničkom natječaju Castello di Duino (Trst, Italija, 2008.), međunarodnom natječaju za kratku priču Sea of Words (Barcelona, Španjolska, 2008.). Dobitnica je UNESCO/Aschberg stipendije za rezidencijalni boravak na otoku Itaparica, Brazil, 2012. te stipendije organizacije MOKS za rezidencijalni boravak u Estoniji (Mooste, Tartu). Objavila je tri zbirke putopisne poezije - Život u ruksaku (AGM, 2012.), Quinta Pitanga (V.B.Z., 2013.) i Nedovršeno stvaranje (vlastita naklada, 2015.) te prozno-poetski putopis Vrijeme badema o hodočašću Camino de Santiago, 880 km dugom putu koji je prehodala 2010. godine. Urednica je brojnih domaćih putopisnih izdanja kao što su knjige Davora Rostuhara, Tomislava Perka, Hrvoja Jurića i ostalih.

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Valerija Cerovec: Hotel Horizont (ulomak iz kratkog romana)

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Valerija Cerovec (1993., Čakovec) je vizualna umjetnica i spisateljica. Završila je preddiplomski studij modnog dizajna na Tekstilno-tehnološkom fakultetu i studij komparativne književnosti na Filozofskom fakultetu, a diplomirala na Odsjeku za animirani film i nove medije na Akademiji likovnih umjetnosti. Dobitnica je nagrade “Franjo Marković” Filozofskog fakulteta. Sudjelovala je u nizu skupnih izložbi i jednoj samostalnoj naziva “23. rujna, dan kad se ništa naročito nije dogodilo”. Članica je HDLU-a.

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Luka Mayer: Tko, što?

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Luka Mayer (1999., Zagreb) studira šumarstvo u Zagrebu. Pohađao je satove kreativnog pisanja i radionice čitanja Zorana Ferića.

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Ana Romić: Tjedan dana posutih fragmentima samoće

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Ana Romić (1993., Hrvace) studirala je hrvatski jezik i književnost na Sveučilištu u Zadru gdje je magistrirala s radom Filozofija egzistencijalizma u romanu „Sam čovjek“ Ive Kozarčanina. Velika je ljubiteljica književnosti, osobito poezije koju i sama piše, te psihologije i filozofije. Živi u Zagrebu.

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Matea Šimić: Kuća za bivše

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Matea Šimić rođena je 1985. godine u Oroslavju, Hrvatska. Diplomirala je engleski jezik i komparativnu književnost na Filozofskom fakultetu Sveučilišta u Zagrebu. Piše poeziju, prozu i društvene komentare na hrvatskom i engleskom. Članica je Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop-a od 2012. godine. Radovi su joj objavljivani, između ostalog, u časopisu za istraživanje i umjetnost EuropeNow, časopisu za feminističku teoriju i umjetnost Bona, portalu za književnost i kulturu Strane te portalu za politiku i društvena pitanja Digitalna demokracija. Osnivačica je i urednica dvojezičnog magazina za književnost i umjetnost NEMA. Živi i radi u Barceloni.

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Dalen Belić: Ispovijed serijskog samoubojice

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Dalen Belić rođen je 1997. godine. Živi u Pazinu, a studira engleski i njemački jezik na Filozofskom fakultetu u Rijeci. Objavljivan je u istrakonskoj zbirci Apokalipsa laži te zbirkama Priče o manjinama i Priče o Pazinu u sklopu Festivala Fantastične Književnosti. Osvojio je drugo mjesto na Riječkim perspektivama 2017. godine i prvo mjesto 2018. Jednu njegovu priču teškometalne tematike možete pročitati na portalu Perun.hr.

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Monika Filipović: Ljetna večer u Zagrebu '18.

NAGRADA "SEDMICA & KRITIČNA MASA" - ŠIRI IZBOR

Monika Filipović rođena je u Zagrebu 1996. godine. Studentica je politologije na Fakultetu političkih znanosti u Zagrebu. U slobodno vrijeme bavi se pisanjem poezije i kratkih priča, a trenutno radi i na svom prvom romanu. U svome pisanju najradije se okreće realizmu. Dosad nije objavila nijedan svoj rad.

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