prose

Damir Karakaš: Perfect Place for Misery

LIT LINK FESTIVAL 2017

An excerpt from the novel translated by Marino Buble.

The novel is about a young Croatian writer in Paris. Through his everyday struggle emerges a whole new parallel world of Parisian underground marked by immigrants literally trying to survive. He meets a girl from the Arab neighborhood in Paris, signs up for the university studying French language so he could have more success with the publishers as well as to get residence permit... The novel paralelly follows his adventure and his search for a publisher and success which ends with no positive result.

Damir Karakaš was born in 1967 in the village of Plašćica in Lika, the mountainous region of Croatia. He is the author of nine books, out of which there are three short story collections and four novels. His books were translated to German, Czech, Macedonian, Slovenian, Arabic... In 2008 a movie made according to his short stories collection Kino Lika was released, directed by Dalibor Matanić, winning numerous awards in Croatia and abroad.



 

 

PART ONE

 

1

 

«Madame!», I display a caricature of Woody Allen above my head. «Caricature!»

That was my ad caricature.

At first I didn't have it, then I saw almost all the caricaturists in front of the Pompidou had one.

Most of them cunningly use photocopied caricatures from magazines; I drew my own. First I bought a movie magazine, read it carefully, looking for a suitable photo of someone famous. I couldn't decide between Gerard Depardieu and Woody Allen, their prominent noses. However, Woody's photo in the magazine was a lot clearer, more expressive, so I ended up choosing him.

«Excusez-moi!», I shout at the couple with huge red backpacks, who were studying a city map as they walked. «Vous voulez un souvenir de Paris?»

They didn't even look at me. They kept pointing at the map to each other, like they were rapping. I looked around, and the other caricaturists were doing too well either; I tried a few more times, and still nobody turned around.

Then I saw a woman, a man, and a boy arriving from the Rue Rambuteau. I walk up to them, point at the boy, start drawing in the air with my finger. I point to Woody.

The man stops, looks at the boy, then asks me: «How much?»

«We'll settle it later», I offer a chair to the boy.

«Where are you from?», I ask them while drawing the boy's profile.

The man said: «From Canberra.»

«Ooh, Australia's a lovely country», I said.

I stop, ask the boy what he wants to be when he grows up: he's silent.

I draw him a cowboy hat, two guns; in the background I draw the Eiffel Tower, sign my name, write the month, year and in big letters underneath – PARIS.

The caricature is a complete success so I show it off to them. Normally, like most caricaturists, I quickly roll it into a tube, so the customer doesn't change his mind. The man asks. «How much?»

Some guy was also looking at the drawing from the sidelines.

«Here», I point to the chair, «You're next in line.»

The guy looks at me and walks away.

I turn towards the Australian.

«Thirty euro.»

The wife gives me a vicious glare. The man gave me the mentioned sum right away.

I take the money, shove it into my back pocket, acting like money is something I don't care about at all, then I ask them, Would you like a caricature as well?, simultaneously point to the free char, press the tip of the charcoal stick to the paper, strain my body.

I acted like they had said: yes.

«No!», the woman categorically said.

I look at her, slowly get up and put on a polite smile.

«Have a pleasant stay in Paris», I said.

 

 

2

 

At the bridge in front of the Notre Dame I'm drawing a caricature for a redheaded bodybuilder from California.

He had that cropped haircut that reminds me of an airfield, so I drew a little plane on his head. A girl from the audience, in a tight black skirt that shows off her lean body, starts to laugh. A few days ago I'm drawing some guy: when two little Gypsy boys behind my back started laughing at him, he began to sweat and fidget in his chair, thinking probably that I was making fun of him, so I shooed the Gypsies away.

The bodybuilder from America isn't bothered at all by the laughter.

On the contrary, he thinks the laughter is a sure sign that the caricature is good: because what kind of a caricature isn't funny?

When the guy left, satisfied, I ask the girl in all seriousness if she would like a caricature as well: she starts to laugh. After she finally stopped laughing, we talked, standing: she said her name was Maud. She said she worked at her father's design bureau, I told her I was a famous writer from Croatia.

I tried to speak French slowly, without mistakes, but it was hard to pull it off.

I also added that I was waiting for my novel to be published in Paris and that I was drawing caricatures only temporarily, which was true. But, she looked at me suspiciously, with a smile, so I pulled that novel of mine, «Perfect Place for Misery» and give it to her. She took the novel, started browsing through it, then laughed again, like she understood Croatian and had just read something really funny.

 

**

 

The night is lovely, clear, the stars shine brightly. We're leaning on the steel fence of Charles de Gaulle Bridge, stargazing, you might say it's a romantic scene. Maud starts dancing with her hands in the air, then lies down slowly at the deserted road, melding with her shadow, and says: «I feel so happy, I could kill myself.»

Fascinated, I still stare at the stars, which are shining like they've never shone before, then my eyebrows connect. I slowly rewind my thoughts. «I feel so happy, I could kill myself…», I keep repeating in my mind.

No, no sense there, that sentence has no sense at all.

Cars. The headlights are multiplying. Panicked, I jump and pull Maud off the road. She's still doubled over with laughter, her hands covering her belly like armor.

 

**

 

Maud lives next to the Les Volontaires metro station. We climb the shallow steps.

The apartment is on the sixth floor, the carpets red, soft, pleasant to walk on.

But… that damned sentence… it's in my head again.

I could barely get rid of it by the fifth floor.

Maud unlocks the door, gets in, spreads her arms wide.

At that moment, animals started to run towards her from all sides. Dogs, cats… Some of the animals I've never even seen before: some sort of running fish. I stand petrified and count five dogs, ten cats, two iguanas which I initially thought were running fish. Then two rabbits and a hamster, who's the only one caged.

One of the dogs, a furball she called Samson, is huge and hostile. I turn around, look through the window: the Eiffel Tower shines. I really wanted to pull it up and shove it straight up Samson's ass, that's kind of how I felt. Still, my mood was somewhat improved by the obedience of the animals. When Maud finally fed them all, she ordered them to move away. Only the iguanas were still walking over her.

Soon, they too moved to a piece of wood, which was growing out of the wall.

I thought this whole animal thing isn't much of an issue, the apartment is huge, there's enough room for everyone.

Besides, this country's the cradle of democracy, we'll get used to each other.

See? Samson's already approached me, peacefully wagging his tail.

I go to Maud, kiss her, only the nightlight is on, so I ask her: «Where do you turn on the light?»

«Next to the door», she said. «But you have to buy lightbulbs.»

«If you want to use the toilet», she said, «There's a flashlight in the living room.»

I take the flashlight, go to the toilet, shine a light on the bowl, take a piss.

Meanwhile, Maud has rolled a joint.

We smoked, sipped wine, kissed.

I take off her shirt, start licking her breasts. Her nipples are pierced and red, like they were bleeding just now. The taste of her pert nipples, cold metal, and her skin which smells enticingly of chamomile made me dangerously horny.

When I put my hand between her thighs, she said softly: «Don't, I'm not much in the mood.»

I take an imperceptible breath, hiding my anger, and keep gently kissing her neck and cheeks.

A little later she reaches over me and puts on a CD.

It was some sort of jazz.

I think of Morana.

We listened to jazz a couple of times in those cramped clubs on Chatelet. As always, things went fine with the jazz listening until the musicians on the stage started enjoying themselves more than I did, going delirious. That always annoys me a bit with jazz. I take out the money, pay for the ticket, and as the concert goes on, fuck it, they start enjoying it more than I am. You feel tricked, somehow.

«How do you like this?», she asks.

«Okay.»

«You like jazz?»

«Occasionally», I said. «I think it's better to play jazz than listen to it.»

«My father hates jazz», she said, «He says it's a sport.»

«What's he into?»

«Nothing.»

I shrug.

My father also didn't like music.

Whenever he came into the house, he'd turn the radio down.

I never understood those people.

Once, for my tenth birthday, he gave me his bike and told me it was still his bike.

My father?

I feel sick when I remember him.

 

Shortly after, Maud rolled a new joint.

When we finished it off, we lay embracing each other under warm blankets, listening to jazz. Maud fell asleep, I couldn't do it, probably in part because of the animals.

Their eyes glow in the dark.

I was afraid they'd crawl into bed.

Cats and dogs, fine. But iguanas?

I didn't know what I could expect from them in bed.

I get up and move around the apartment.

The animals are asleep, only Samson is looking at me, lying down in the center of the apartment and wagging his tail. I pet him between the ears, don't know what to do, so I go to one of the rooms.

It's terribly stuffy, I barely manage to pry open a closed window and slump into the red armchair.

On the wooden shelf near my head there's three rows of books. I tilt my head and look at the spines: Voltaire, Rousseau, T. S. Eliot, Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, a couple of books on film, something about medieval painting.

On the wall is a poster of Virginia Woolf.

I don't know why people keep posters of people who've offed themselves on their walls. I could never do that, it scares me. Then I pull out a couple of Nina Berberova novels, just to keep my mind off Virginia Woolf. I browse through them, try to imagine I'm holding my own novel, still hot and just published by some prestigious French publisher. I try to imagine the title in French. It'll say: «UN FORMIDABLE ENDROIT POUR LE MALHEUR.»

I get up, go back to Maud who was fast asleep, only to find Samson lying where I was just a few minutes ago. I wasn't planning on going back to bed, didn't even know where to go, so at one moment I was trying to move in three different directions.

Finally, I go to the bathroom.

I sit on the lid, waiting for Maud to wake up. I wonder if I could live here, with all these animals? Still, better here than in Hristo's apartment, which doesn't even have a bathroom, so we're forced to shit into nylon bags and surreptitiously throw them into garbage cans on the street.

 

I remember the unpleasant days immediately after I broke up with Morana, when she threw me out of her apartment; I had no place to stay, but that was easy because winter hadn't yet arrived. Hristo told me how thousands of the homeless die on the streets of Paris every winter. He told me about those bars on the sidewalks above the metro stations through which warm air flows. Whole teams of hobos descend upon them, but it's tough to find a free spot.

I dozed off on the toilet seat, woke up after a while, pissed into the bowl and missed a little. I find a rag, crouch down and start wiping.

Then I heard Maud, laughing.

I was wiping the floor with the rag, listening to her laugh.

Maybe she can see me and is laughing, maybe she's a witch, maybe she can see through walls.

I listened carefully.

I get up, walk slowly to the door.

Yes… that was no longer laughter. She was crying, I heard right. She was sobbing loudly.

I got out and sat next to her, confused, carefully nudging Samson away.

I ask quietly: «What happened?»

«Maud… what's wrong?»

«Crazy», she sobbed. «I'm going crazy.»

She buried her face in her palms, started crying louder.

«I'm crazy!», she cried. «I'm crazy!», she shouted.

«Maud», I said, hugged her and swallowed some saliva.

I whispered: «Calm down. It'll be okay. Calm down.»

 

After a while she finally did calm down.

She looked at me, her face was crumpled and wet.

«I'm sorry», she said. «I've been feeling kinda bad all day yesterday.»

«It's the weather», I said. «Same with me. When it rains, I feel lousy too.»

Then I remembered it was sunny yesterday.

I looked outside, the sun was shining again.

«Calm down. It's fine.», I whispered.

She hugged me tighter.

We're lying like that, hugging, in silence.

Animals observe us with curiosity from all sides.

«Want to have something for breakfast?», I said. «I could bring croissants.»

«Sure», she said, barely audibly. «Merci.»

I got out of the hug, put on my shoes, went to the baker's shop.

I never returned. 

 

3

 

Transparent plexiglass pipes through which pass escalators full of tourists, red, upright pipes through which pass levators full of tourists, blue pipes, a colorful mix of pipes; the sunlight glints off the glass cube, the central part of the Georges Pompidou Center: it's like looking into a kaleidoscope.

The tourists keep coming, mostly from the direction of Les Halles, pouring down towards the tilted square of the Pompidou.

It's the only place in Paris where you can freely draw, play, juggle, eat razorblades in front of tourists, perform all sorts of tomfoolery… I stand next to two folding chairs, trying to catch one of the tourists and draw him a caricature.

My eyes constantly dart, at one point I shrugged in helpless frustration.

The problem is, a whole bunch of caricaturists already tried to work them before I did; this shitty position of mine is the problem. I'm luring them at the center of the square, and all around it is occupied, swarming with greedy caricaturists. «Hey, Sir!», I run after a sprightly old man. «Would you like a caricature?»

He stopped, changed his glasses and like an experienced collector observed monsieur Allen.

«Not bad», he said. «Not bad at all.»

By his accent I assumed he was French.

«Would you like me to draw you like that as well?», I ask him.

«I haven't the time», he said with a polite smile.

«I can do it standing up, in a couple of minutes», I walk beside him and draw.

He looks at me, takes a deep breath and waits for me to draw him. He put on those glasses through which he looked at Woody again and smiled. He asks: «Do you work with color, too?»

I touch a packet of wooden color pencils in my pocket. I don't work in color, it takes a long time, especially when you do the face, eyes, hands, which is pretty complicated… But, if someone insists, I can color in his coat, shoes, hat and tie a bit, and charge it all extra. «Yes», I said. «But it'll cost more.»

«How much for the black and white?», he asked.

«Fifteen euros», I said.

«No, thank you», he said and gave the caricature back.

«Alright», I ran after him. «How much would you give?»

«Don't, I said I don't want to.»

«How about ten? Seven?»

He stops, pulls out ten euros, gives me the money and takes the caricature.

Then he says: «This is only because I am a caricatureist too.»

I never saw him, neither here nor at the Notre Dame. I know of a couple of Frenchmen who draw portraits and caricatures at the Place du tertre on Montmartre, but there you have to have a licence, and it's not cheap. I ask him: «Where do you draw?»

He says «Au revoir» a bit angrily and walks away.

 

In the next two hours I only drew one more caricature, made ten euros.

Sometimes I give it away for five euros, sometimes I don't out of principle. If someone's arrogant, cheap, I'd rather tear it up in front of him than give it to him for a few euros.

Sometimes, the tourists wouldn't take the caricature, they weren't happy with it.

That always makes me feel bad; when you draw, you're already counting on the money ending up in your pocket, and then it all sours.

Last week I got a hundred and seventy euros in one day, at this very spot.

It all depends on the day, on luck, but somehow the most important thing is the position. Even when I get a hundred euros in one day at a bad spot, I could earn twice as much in a good one.

As for drawing, here you don't really need to draw very well, and I – even as a kid I did a lot of drawing, painting, carving wooden statues. Grandpa always told me not to use up the pencil, because a pencil is for writing; father on the other hand ordered me to paint drains and fences, at least make myself useful somehow. It especially annoyed him that I rather took up a pencil than a farm tool. Father always said: «He'll never amount to anything!»

For a while I hanged my paintings on trees in the woods.

Those were my first exhibitions.

Then I started drawing caricatures.

Even in high school, I published them in newspapers. In the first one I published in the sports newspaper I drew a couple of runners at a race track: the fourth one was running, thinking about money, the third one was running, thinking about women, the second one was running, thinking about gold medals, the first one, who got away far and was at the finish line, was thinking about getting to the toilet as soon as possible.

 

 

**

 

A guy is persistently buzzing around the main entrance to the Pompidou, like a fly: in a suit and tie, he's got a long scar on his neck. Some people say that someone in his country (no one knows where he's from) tried to slit his throat: others say that a long time ago, back in his home country, he escaped from the gallows, and that's where the dark red scar comes from.

Whatever was the case, the guy with the scar is standing by two folding chairs: he's holding drawing tools, puffing on a pipe. But he can't draw at all, and the position isn't great either; when tourists get out of the Pompidou, where they've just seen some world-class exhibition, they want to be drawn by Kokoschka or Klimt personally.

Oddly enough, the guy in front of the Pompidou is successful.

He knows English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese.

Calls himself Coca-Cola.

When he grabs a customer, he quickly calls an available artist, and afterwards they split the cash.

«Croat!», he calls me.

«In a minute!», I shout back while trying to persuade a Black guy wearing a Panama hat.

The Black guy's suspicious, he's having second thoughts.

He asks me: «How much?»

«Have a seat.», I point to the chair.

«Croat!», Coca-Cola's yelling impatiently.

«I'd like to go shopping around town and come back later», says the Black guy. I grab Woody from his hand, run off to Coca-Cola; I drew for him once already.

«Great artist», Coca-Cola points to me, sets up the chair.

He's clasped his hands, stood aside with a dead serious look, like he's awaiting a great work of art that will change the world.

Seated opposite was a freckle-faced English woman, she had a huge nose.

When women have a large nose, you draw them en face, so the nose doesn't stand out too much. With women, you must always watch out for wrinkles, cunningly smooth them out, always and everywhere, make the eyes bigger; tourists love it when you draw their eyes big. During drawing it's desirable to communicate with the client, try to achieve as much closeness as possible in those five to ten minutes. If there's family standing nearby: «You've got a lovely family.»

If there's a child in the chair: «You can already tell the child'll grow up to be a good person.»

Sometimes it's good to crack a little joke. «When you show the caricature to your wife, she'll think it's Mick Jagger, ha ha ha.»

With women it's not recommended to joke around or laugh while you're drawing; men are sensitive about their penis, women about everything. Coca-Cola is, when a woman's caricature is being drawn, always dead serious. Sometimes he'll comment to some ugly broad: «Oh, la, la, what an interesting face!» Besides, women don't like caricatures, they mostly want portraits.

This English woman was pleased.

Coca-Cola managed to persuade her friend, showing her the chair in some classy way that didn't suit him at all; every word was followed with a profound arching of eyebrows.
«The next Picasso», Coca-Cola praises me again.

I took some new charcoal and started, because the old one had shrunk so much I couldn't grasp it anymore.

I managed to get that other English girl right too, did both of them up like a plastic surgeon.

Coca-Cola pats me on the shoulder, gives me half the money.

The only people making more money than Coca-Cola, here on the Pompidou, are the Pakistanis, but they have by far the best position: down by the huge white ventilation pipe. That's the mouth of the square, that's where the frontline is. But, not everyone is allowed to draw at that spot; you have to be Pakistani, and you have to give half your money to the boss who gave them the spot.

If an intruder shows up, he can easily get a dagger in the back.

When the sun rises in Paris, right behind the Pakistanis the artists from Russia, Ukraine, etc. set up camp. They took or inherited those spots from someone back in the October Revolution, and are now holding on to them for dear life. It's well known who sits where, where are the footprints of someone's chair, everything is known down to the last inch. If someone tries to butt in, the Pakistanis'll help them out too, they're the ones who least want the rules of the game to change. Third line and onwards, that's a mix of Chinese and all other caricaturists and portrait artists.

 

I'm lying under a tree that grows from concrete.

I put my hands under my head, listening to Shota the Georgian playing «Moscow Nights» on the accordion. He has unbelievably long arms. He can play the accordion on his back, a special attraction to tourists. Now he's also playing it on his back, the tourists are listening in awe, watching, taking pictures with him. Shota makes the most money from those photos.

When he was done playing, he sat next to me with a sweaty face.

«Found an apartment yet?», he asks me in English and puts aside a checkered suitcase in which coins are cheerfully rattling.

I said: «Yeah… At Hristo's.»

«I asked that old lady, but it's rented out», Shota says.

«I'm staying at Hristo's for now», I said, «Then I'll see.»

Shota's sleeping free at the home of his cousin, who plays rugby in the French League Two.

«Some people still toss in francs», he says, examining a coin held above his head.

He reached into the suitcase, coins were clinking, then he sifted it through his fingers. He counted the earnings: fifty seven euros in coins, fifteen euros in bills, a make-up removal cream and five cigarettes.

«You want this cream?», he asks.

I said: «What do I need it for?»

He left it by the garbage can.

Then he asks me: «Want some cigarettes?»

I take a cigarette, put it behind my ear, maybe someone'll need it.

«Imagine that», Shota says, «this morning some Dutch guy dropped a bag of weed into the suitcase, all factory packed and everything. Imagine the cops came by and found that in the suitcase, I'd be in trouble.»

«And where'd you put it?»

«Threw it away. Ran to the first garbage can and threw it away.»

I said: «Hmm.»

Although I only rarely smoked, I felt sorry for the trashed bag of weed, it was probably good.

«A pity», I said.

He looks at me.

«Never mind that», he says. «I could have been screwed.»

Then he pulls out his wallet, puts the paper euros inside. For a moment he took out a color photo of a girl with long, straight black hair. Her name is Kathaven. Last month, Shota wandered the streets of Paris, asking everyone to write «I love you, Kathaven» in their own language. I wrote it for him in Croatian. He collected «I love you, Kathaven» in thirty seven world languages and sent it to her, back to Tbilisi.

She was thrilled, he says.

«Give these twenty euro to Hristo», he says. «I owe him that, and you'll see him sooner than I will.»

I put the coins into my pocket.

«I'm off to play a bit on Saint Germain», Shota says.

He said goodbye with a pat on my shoulder, left.

You might say Shota is kind of a friend of mine, we don't hang out except when we occasionally see each other on the street, we don't have much in common, but it's always good to meet him. But, if I was in Croatia, I wouldn't say a word to most of the people I've been associating in Paris, let alone be their friend. Although, I don't have a lot of friends in Croatia either, for the record.

 

It was getting dark, only a couple of Chinese artists were left, withdrawn into the circle of light coming through the gigantic glass panes of the Pompidou building. I get up, go inside to the men's room. A businessman in a suit and tie, with a laptop, is standing in front of the mirror, slapping himself and crying softly.

I'm pissing, looking at him: he's buried his face in his hands, started choking back tears.

I shook off my dick, washed my hands and said. «Sir, can I help you?»

He flinches, like he woke up from a bad dream, looks at me and says:

«Mind your own business, you hobo!»

He quickly washed his face, grabbed his laptop, gave me another look of contempt.

«Blow me!», I told him in Croatian as he was leaving.

I stood in front of the mirror, took a good look at myself.

I admit, the «hobo» thing hurt me.

Why did he call me a hobo?

I'm clean shaven, my clothes are clean.

I sniff my sleeve, armpit, to check if, perhaps, I smell. I don't. Maybe the idiot saw me outside running after tourists, to him all those people are obviously hobos. Maybe I ran after him, who knows. I get back in front of the entrance to the Pompidou Center.

Pong, the longhaired Chinese guy, is just finishing up a caricature of a young American under a cone of bright light, the boy's father is standing at his side. Pong, however, can't draw at all.

At the moment when the father begins to ponder taking the boy's hand and grabbing him off the chair, something that looks like a caricature of the boy is finally finished.

Then Pong, while the American is still thinking, pulls out an ace from his sleeve: above the caricature of the boy's head he makes a comic book speech bubble and writes. «I LOVE YOU, DADDY.»   

(translation: Marino Buble)

 

 

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Numerous festivals, shows and exhibitions are held annually in Zagreb. Search our what's on guide to arts & entertainment.

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A History of Eastern European Matchboxes

Although they were produced under strict state-controlled production processes; that were aimed at exploiting them as a means of publicizing political initiatives, promoting public health and safety, and selling the communist ideal both at home and abroad, the artists used them as a vehicle to experiment with various imaginative ideas and artistic techniques, achieving truly stunning results.

Authors' pages

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