prose

How to tie The Shoelaces

Three excerpts from the novel How to tie The Shoelaces by Nikola Petković, originally published in Croatia, entitled Kako svezati cipele (Zagreb: Algoritam, 2011). It is a short novel divided in three parts that deals with a father-son relationship. It relates a story of a complex, unfulfilled and rather traumatic memories of a child whose father left him when he was seven. Having autobiographical elements to it and being particular in a way it does not shy away from addressing the universal topic both known through the literary history and to the territory where it in fact takes place: a patriarchal country where such episodes are kept behind the veil of silence while culturally understood as something that comes with the territory, and, as such, is perceived experienced, understood and endured as something quite natural.
The three excerpts from the novel have a thin red line of a plot-tracing connected with the three wandering motifs as stated in each of their titles.



 

 

 

EXCERPT 1, ON LANGUAGE

 

I

Dad got the CT results. The cancer had spread affecting his lungs. Officially it says that the findings suspect that there might be secundarisms. Does it mean that the cancer itself is a primarism while the metastases are secundarisms? So, what will in the end cause of my dad’s death, a primarism or s secundarism? And, how precise all this is to begin with? If the cancer is the primarism and the metastases are secundarisms, then the one that inhabited his lungs should be called a terciarism, because he already had the first metastases eating out his liver. And who knows what awaits him next? Usually it goes on; first to bones and then to the brain. Do we then talk of quadriarisam, quintianisms… what is going on here? Or is perhaps the linearity of process not the right way to try to understand the invincibility of cancer?

                                                                                    (Page 65)

                                                                       

 

II

The language is an assholle… a plain crap, a coward that hides behind its own imagined objectivity. And the way it reaches that objectivity is via precision. On its way to precision it does not follow the route of poetry. Instead, it goes for the one of a lie. In so doing, the innocent kids killed on the marketplace in Kandahar, the language calls collateral damage. The killed one it calls the target. Criminals and crooks that in the name of our country robbed our country, the language calls controversial tycoons. A mass killing the language refers to as The Operation Iraqi Freedom. The slaughterhouse that marked the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, it calls The New World Order. The Mafia killings done by bullets and bombs it calls messages.

            The thing that will kill my dad that same fucking language calls secundarisms.

                                                                                                (Page 69)

 

 

III

The abandoned children have a habit to rock their body. It is in fact a harmless thing to do, since, the abandoned are capable of much worse things—like bullying other kids. Some of them, when they get older, even become killers, some rapists, some turn into home tyrants. Those who beat their partners, sometimes even to death, the asshole language that allowed the secundarisms to murder my father, softens the wife beating calling the brutality domestic violence. Thus it locks it behind a family doors making someone’s wounds their own private matter and expecting them to heal inside the house. Some of them even fuck chicken, goats, donkeys…

I knew of a guy who welt up a donkey against the railroad trucks, turned a beer case upside down, hopped on it, and buttfucked the donkey… he got so into it that he did not notice the train coming from behind—and the same way he banged the donkey the train fucked them both up.

Some of the abandoned decide to multiply. Shrinks call it “multiple personality disorder”. There is usually one among the many who is in charge of them and who keeps all the persons that inhabit a body of the abandoned in place... from time to time of course, whenever he is able to control them. He is usually referred to as The Keeper. I remember reading a book about a guy named Billy Milligan. He suffered a severe case of MPD and the funny thing was that his Keeper was a Serb. They were four of him living inside of himself…four dominant persons and a bunch of smaller ones. They used to go wild, and I suspect that the fact his keeper was a Serb made him even crazier. Serbs claim they are a heavenly people, the smart and wise ones, inhabiting the earth from the times that precede The Big Bang, while history, be it recent or ancient empirically proves that they cannot take care of themselves. So, how can one crazy Serbian Keeper take care of a crazy bunch?

When Billy Milligan was a small child, he claims, his father used to dig a hole, throw him in leaving only his head above the ground and piss in his mouth. He raped him too, on regular bases.

            You see how fucked up can those abandoned be. There is all kind of shit they are capable of doing. And they usually do it. So, all being said, this rocking of mine in nothing in comparison what could have happened to me had I gone astray. Therefore I find my rocking to be perfectly acceptable. What’s wrong with it? You are standing on your feet and rocking. You are not in anybody’s way. You do no harm, and if you do not have a grandmother who gets all annoyed by your innocent rocking, you may live your life without even being noticed doing that. You can go on with your life as unnoticed and invisible as you were to the others the day you moved your body from the left to the right and started to rock. As unnoticed and invisible as you were the day you decided to produce your own private ritual music coming straight out of your small hurting heart. Frightened of life the way it changed and turned against you… but not frightened enough to disappear, you started to rock. And you did it hoping that your rocking would create a sliver of illusion of your presence in the world. Perhaps you also hoped someone would notice that change you decided to go for. 

                                                                                                (Pages 131 – 132)

 

 

 

 

EXCERPT 2, THE BAG:

 

I

Dad will die soon. My brother and I are standing by his hospital bed. 

I have never been sick, he says, I used to come here to see the sick. Now I am here, alone, all by myself…, and with you… and you do not need me any more. You are the grownups.

 

 

II        

We indeed are the grownups. My brother is 36. He is a computer wiz. He studied psychology and he dropped it along the line. I have no idea whether he replaced it with anything else. Perhaps he never cared for it to begin with. Seldom we talk. Except for the moments when fathers die. He is married and has a son. I am 45. I am a university professor. Unlike my brother I never had the courage to quit anything. I have a son too. I am married too. We are the grownups; big boys by now. Tall. Dad is not tall any more. He is rather long now.

There are three begs beneath him:

One is full of blood.

One is full of urine.

One is full of nothing. Once he dies, I will place him inside this third one.

                                                                        (Pages 1-2)

 

 

III

I am at his niche. It is all behind me. There is nothing behind me. It is just very different. This is, in some morbid way, so much easier—to come to him while he is the ashes. If it were so easy to visit him while he was at home, alive, I would have been there much more often. Like I am here today, at ease, without worries, without anything more to prove in front of him, alone and calm. I can come here. I want to come here. And, I am allowed to come here. The only thing that is left is that I do not have to come here. No one commands me to come here. There are no requirements, and no imperative-like expectations. There is nothing I have to do any more while I am alive; at least nothing that has to do with him. The same way my son does not have to do anything that has to do with me. I decided once and for all that I would never pressure my child with any patriarchal shit: I love him but I do not dare to imagine that I have any right to posses him. And the confusion between love and possesiveness is one of the fundamental ones in the Balkans, Croatia included. My son picked up all the collateral gain of the cultural dislocation and fruitlessness that is inherent to our very special masculine ‘infinitive’ must.

            There is nothing Nikica must do any more. As of today, Nikica can do and Nikica does whatever he wants. He goes to his dad’s grave whenever he desires, I can hear a child singing inside my grownup body. When I go to him, the child inside me sings. When that child comes home, it unties his shoelaces, and after it returns to its grownup body, they both sit and write it all down—both Nikica and I. We do it like men, using our soft fingertips. Somehow the strongest hits my keyboard suffers come from our middle finger. I do it alone because Nikica, that child that is telling you all this, should not forget—he cannot forget and, despite the fact that the verb must is behind him, he must not forget. And I do it for my own sake too. I do it because I want to sense the pleasure of the sentence: There is nothing I have to do any more! Sometimes I want to write this sentence using all the languages I know but I do not think it would be a proper thing to do now when my father turned into ashes. And, when I think of it more clearly, there are no that many languages I can use to begin with.

            It is time to use that third beg. There were three of them, weren’t they: one full of blood, one full of urine and one full of nothing. Once he died, I promised, I would place him inside the third beg. But he is fried. He is crushed and dismembered, made into particles scattered and crushed the same way my childhood in Bakar was; lost and scattered like my memories of him… nowhere to be found the same way I was lost when my mom and her husband, after they married literally snatched me out of my grandparents’ hands and took me just across the hill to live with them in the city of Rijeka. They said they were doing it for my own sake. They said Bakar was too small for me and I had no future there. But they did not realize that I would not have had the present either hadn’t my grandparents gave me all their love and embraced me after I was abandoned by both, mom and dad. Not the same way, though, my mother and my father did leave me. She came back with another man and I moved in with them but all my life my only real parents remained in Bakar: my grandma and my grandpa, a couple who reconfigured their lives so they could give me everything I needed to survive.

            How comes you never had the keys to your father’s houses, apartments… Jasna wondered right during our wedding preparation. No, I never had them indeed I smiled because, unlike her, I found the fact that I never had any of the keys so natural and normal. This was the way it was and was used to it simply because I did not know of any other way. And what is now suddenly, after thirty or some years, so strange about the fact that I could never enter my dad’s places without ringing the bell?

            Here I go dad. I am going to place you into the third bad—inside the empty one. I was keeping it just for you all the time throughout your illness. It is clean. But wait, it is not empty. It is full of nothingness. And, this is not the same. To be vacant is one thing, and to be packed with nothingness is quite another. If it is empty, it means that there is nothing inside it. Then you can fill it up all the way to the top, and seal it. Well, you don’t have to do it all the way to the top. It may stay half empty. Or half full, depending who is doing the filling: an optimist or a pessimist. But if it is full of nothingness there is nothing else you can put inside it. Not even you can fit there. But, I was saving it for you, not for anyone else… especially not for nothingness to squat it. But, when you were lying in the hospital… blood and urine hanging on the side of your bed… then I saw it the way it was—full of nothingness. And it was then when, probably taken by the scene of you ill of cancer, awaiting the surgery, that I confused nothingness for emptiness. Or perhaps I was so eager to find a place for you after you die that I identified the two—a beg that is empty with a beg that is full. And now, when I see the emptiness inside, I cannot empty it. It is sincere. The third beg is talking to us, right now. It is filled with the same content that inhabited all the begs of our empty lives. It is filled with nothingness.  

            And I am sorry. I am so terribly sorry. I am so sorry that the beg exists—the beg packed with nothing… because no matter how hard I think I cannot recall a single thing that happened between us. Nothing that I could point at and say: this made me sad; this is what makes me feel sorry today. There is nothing between us dad except for the abyss full of things that could have happened, that should have happened between a father and a son but they never did. And this is where all my sorrow is—inside the absence, inside the nothingness. And the third beg is full of it.  

                                                                                    (Pages 124-127)

 

 

 

EXCERPT 3, EARS:

 

I

He is sitting. He cannot stop sitting. He talks. He talks without a proper pause to take a breath between the words… it is just and only him, all he says is about him… he is again the center of our attention: him and no one else. This is how it has always been. And this is how it is now. And this it how it will be until he would be: until the last day— him and just him. His endless flow of words is s big shadowlike curtain spread wide between me and the world. Well, it used to be even worse. It used to be the wall, an impenetrable one. I was undressing him, taking away all the layers of the fabric he was made of. I was dismantling that wall, brick by brick, like the pardoned Stasi spies that were forced to tear down the Berlin Wall with their bare hands. And, once the wall was gone, what did they see? The same stuff I see today when our wall suddenly perished. They saw themselves in the mirror along with the cheap clay and the cardboard the wall was in fact made of.

 

 

II         

He will not stop talking. In a while he will not be able to sit any more, and he will give up sitting. But, he will continue to talk. Then, he will, tired of sitting, lay down. But he will not give up talking. He will not shut up until he stops lying down. He will not zip up his lips until he stops talking once and for all.

 

 

III

            And then, once he shuts up, I will sneak into his bed ant start talking like a motherfucker. I will monitor his breathing, like a machine that counts inhalations and exhalations. And will remind myself of the famous one: they can still hear. Watch out what you are talking about when you find yourself around the dying ones, doctors say. Hearing is the last thing they lose. How do they know that, when everything they touch, in the end, dies? And that statement about the resistance of hearing hurts us who know nothing about the timetable of the dying ears. It especially hurts when one of your own dies, a father, for instance. Did the dead tell them that? The doctors like to know everything. With all due respect, fuck what they say. Despite all, I will still sneak underneath his sheet. And I will talk and talk and talk until the last breath leaves his lungs. I will tell him everything I ever wanted to tell him, everything I could ever have told him, every I needed to tell him— everything. I will tell him everything I, as his son, was obliged to tell him, but, after I got tired of not being heard, after I lost the last hope that even repeating the same words, warnings, wonders… could have any effect on his ears I hade no choice but to become silent. Simply put, I will talk until he finally kicks the bucket. Until he drops dead killed by my words, by my letters that I will, just like the proctologist who pokes his finger in every lubricated hole, shovel deep inside his dead ears.    

                                                                                                (Pages 18-20)

                                                                                               

 

IV

I keep visiting his grave, calm, with a smile, relaxed and armed by the indifference that sometimes a loss can provide. I come here without feeling butterflies in my stomach I used to feel when approaching his place. Those butterflies were ambiguous: they were in search of love but also warning me that I might be hurt once I enter the house—hurt by dad’s rude words, threats, accusations, humiliations… all the facets he used to send me on a continual guilt trip…

            The beg is full but it won’t burst. I know that. Those hospital begs are very solid. They are ship-shape made in order to keep the ill from humiliation, while protecting the personnel from the content of the patients’ diseases. But, hey… I almost forgot. There is still an ear left, his ear. And the bed I promised to sneak in just before he dies. I said I would sneak underneath his sheet. And I would talk and talk until the last breath leaves his lungs, telling him everything I ever wanted to tell him, everything I could have ever told him, everything I needed to tell him— everything. I planned on telling him everything I, as his son, was obliged to tell him, but, after I got tired of not being heard, after I lost the last hope that even repeating the same words, warnings, wonders… could have any effect on his ears I remained silent. I wanted to talk until he finally kicked the bucket. Until he dropped dead killed by my words, by my letters that I wanted to shovel deep inside his dead ears… but I did not.

                                                                                                (Page 128)

 

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