Avala Is Falling (an excerpt)

May 21, 2018
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A photograph of a simple wooden bench sitting on a bright green sloping hill covered in grass with trees dotting the landscape in the backgroundf
Courtesy of Pixabay

Translator’s note: Biljana Jovanović (1953–96) is a largely untranslated but highly regarded Serbian feminist writer. Jovanović was a Serbian intellectual who grew up in late Yugoslavia and studied philosophy and literature at the University of Belgrade. She was an early and active member of a number of important human rights groups in Yugoslavia, beginning in 1982. Her public profile was formed by a series of public engagements ranging from her early opposition to the death penalty to her pro-democracy writings, demonstrations, and “happenings” in the 1990s. She was also an organizer and participant in major antiwar campaigns and demonstrations in 1991 and 1992, and she helped found a “flying” (underground) workshop/university in 1992.

Jovanović wrote in almost all major genres; she published poetry, three novels, four plays, and a number of nonfiction pieces, mostly connected to her time in the anti-Milošević opposition of the 1990s. She died in Belgrade at the frighteningly young age of forty-three. Widely known among intellectuals and activists for her feminist and antiwar work, she was also an innovative and courageous writer of fiction and drama. Although her literary work has not yet received its deserved institutional recognition in Serbia, this is beginning to change, with a small but growing number of scholars in Belgrade, and beyond, now taking up her work from literary and theoretical perspectives in addition to celebrating her contributions to civil society.

Although Jovanović was a Serb, she referred to the language in which she wrote as Serbo-Croatian. This was very common during her lifetime (a bibliography of her works with their original Serbo-Croatian titles can be found below). Other than my recent publications, none of her fiction exists in English translation.

In Pada Avala (1978; Avala Is Falling), her smash breakout success, a young woman named Jelena Belovuk challenges the expectations that people from teachers to parents to bus drivers and doctors have for her; this fictional biography is also, in its form and style, a huge challenge to the prevailing standards in the Yugoslav literary world, which centered on realistic description, especially of war-related themes. The “Avala” of the title refers to a mountain south of Belgrade that is home to some of Serbia’s most important nationalist monuments and shrines; it is also the site of the main mental hospital for the region, and its “falling” is the unexpected fulfillment of a prophecy from a traditional Serbian folk song, which can be interpreted as a victory over patriarchy. Jovanović’s use of stream of consciousness in her characters’ thinking and speaking, as well as intertextuality in description and plot advancement, alarmed some critics, but it also heralded the arrival of an innovative new writer who was determined to “break the sequence” of more or less traditional concerns of earlier women writers who basically served the state’s agenda.

This book is now recognized as much more than “jeans prose,” although the fame the book achieved under that characterization (used originally by critics, publishers, bookstores, and the public) eventually pushed the book to cult status. It was recently reissued in a colorful new edition, to considerable fanfare, in Belgrade. Jovanović is now considered a major avant-garde writer, whose stylistic innovations were as challenging as her women-centered themes. – John K. Cox

 

* * *

i

The biographer of Jelena Belovuk, in the manner of all pedantic and responsible biographers, has taken down everything that the flutist Belovuk said to him over the course of their friendship. It is necessary to add here that Jelena’s biographer, although he participated in her life, but of course not in the same way as Jelena herself, was unable to avoid arbitrariness and contradictions, as well as lies. – B. J.

ii

Introductory Remarks by Jelena’s Biographer

What an assignment! Above all, to record. All handbooks worthy of their salt and intended for those who compile the biographies of famous people mention: date of birth, position of the stars, family origins, connections to their surroundings, and telepathic proclivities. I feel that the efforts of people who construct the fame of others are similar to the work of mice and moles: circular burrowing through the earth—canals, precise organization, carefully sealed holes—hiding places. The main thing in this entire enterprise, which is nonetheless less barren than I myself am, one should try to establish the relationship of Jelena Belovuk to Jelena Belovuk; and the relationship of Jelena Belovuk to what isn’t Jelena Belovuk. Above all, dig through a hole, prepare the edges of it well, and then probe the interior structure!

We are obliged to employ the same procedure from the other end, too! To wit: before beginning to form judgments about Jelena Belovuk, throw out all your assumptions about her body or her mind. Query and investigate for yourself and in yourself all the feelings that could be both love and hatred, including in her person (as if the point of this were a general revision of your possibilities). Therefore explore yourself in Jelena Belovuk; and yourself over against Jelena Belovuk.

I feel that the efforts of people who construct the fame of others are similar to the work of mice and moles: above all, dig through a hole, prepare the edges of it well, and then probe the interior structure!

Only then will it be acceptable for you to wonder:

Who is Jelena Belovuk?

Who are the parents of Jelena Belovuk?

Is Jelena Belovuk’s lover an influential person?

What does this Jelena Belovuk really want?

Where is Jelena Belovuk?

And now, really concretely:

My precision is the precision of a watchmaker; but what follows is the vaguest of nonsense, fabrication, falsehood, whispering behind people’s backs and along their backs, along the spine, so to speak, about Jelena Belovuk, the least precise woman in existence on the planet! One has to keep in mind, like money or some little thingamabob in your pocket, this: my responsibility in this regard is void; events are more than truthful; I bear none of the blame for that.

iii

The man who was sitting at the end of the park by the Yugoslav Drama Theater could have been the Chilean, Bautista van Schouwen,[i] judging by his external distinguishing features: oval face, uneven haircut—longish in the front, dark; the plunging, symmetrical sideburns; the nose bent but regular; wide nostrils; with a thick unibrow filling the space between his forehead and nose—most unusual-looking. Bautista’s right arm rested (bent at the elbow) on the shattered backrest of the bench; his fingers were lightly touching his brow—for the most part, this is exactly how Bautista sat. In his other hand (from this distance it looks to be painted dark blue), the man who resembled Bautista holds an unlit cigarette (the way I myself do it) in an awkward way—between his middle and fourth fingers. On his lips (I believe that I see) a crooked smile, but it could also be a wince—a dark edge—the lines of desire on lips make the same shadows—an unfinished arc, bent the same way in a spasm as in a smile, on people’s lips, in Chile.

One has to keep in mind, like money or some little thingamabob in your pocket, this: my responsibility in this regard is void; events are more than truthful; I bear none of the blame for that.

From all of this it still isn’t possible to conclude that the figure of the person on the bench, at one end of the park, is the figure of a thirty-year old man![ii] Bautista’s appearance, however, has also deceived his pursuers, the police and women who came after him in groups.

Viewed differently—I approach the bench flamboyantly if unsteadily—his physique took on more importance: the way his eyebrows met like that was an indication of energy; while the shadow across his left cheek from the base of his nose to its tip was a reflection of mysteriousness—although it was a bit of physical legitimacy; but with Bautista the definite shadow on his cheek is surely (as if it were me with the stationary blue-gray on my face, hands, across my stomach, inside my head, inside my belly) the result of life and amour taken by surprise, in ambushes, in hallways sometimes and in the secret living quarters of well-appointed buildings.

Now I am barely one step away from Bautista’s unmoving body. My purse slips off my shoulder; I wave it around like the clapper of a bell—I make it go in uniform orbits; one amplitude—pure lust from me through the pocketbook touches Bautista’s clenched knees. I observe him: he has attractive lips, maybe a touch longer and curvier than mine; I can see a faint scar, looking like it’s penciled on, coarse, from the edge of his beard over the underside of his chin to his Adam’s apple.

“Can I sit here?” I ask him; and without waiting for an answer I put my purse down by his feet and have a seat, so close to him that all it would’ve taken was a single movement of my head and my lips would have found themselves on his cheek . . . his firm cheek . . . and then with just a twist they would slide over onto his mouth.

In this position I could see his scar clearly; it looked like a cut from a knife; red, somehow more like purple! Maybe they used hot tongs to leave tracks on him, their sign . . . to what end, for what kind of evidence?

I asked him: “Did they try to kill you?”

“No, they didn’t. . . . You know, the scar . . . it’s from . . . a pruning knife . . . you know, back in the village!”

Bautista grinned; he moved his head away a little and let down his arm . . . he appeared to have caught on to my intentions. In our new position, Bautista could observe me. . . . But he didn’t do it! He looked off to the side somewhere, dejected, from under his lowering eyebrows, and smoked his cigarette.

There can be no doubt that Van Schouwen escaped Valparaiso, fled from that prison hospital, banged up as he was, bruised, swollen, half-dead; it was probably during his escape, while he was running, that he fell against the barbed wire strung around the walls of the prison hospital, and that’s what pierced his neck, without touching that knot of life—his Adam’s apple. I noticed that his neck was covered with a sharp, stiff beard, but the scar was uncovered and, what’s more, his face was smooth, shaved clean.

“Did you trip and fall?” I ask him, and while doing so I deliberately touch one of his knees, the knee that looks shattered—like it’s forked and thorny. Bautista moves to the edge of the bench, my hand slides unexpectedly, and my little finger, like a long, bent fishhook, is left hanging on the fabric of his pants—a possibility that contact could be established, gently and with no sound, by subterfuge.

Bautista raises his right arm again and leans his twisted torso firmly on his planted left hand. He turns his face to mine (of course that’s completely the result of my strategy); his eyes, like two bloodthirsty black beasties, rush in the direction of my stomach, the lower part of my stomach, and plunges down (skates by on) my left leg, grazing the side of my shoe, its rubber sole, the ground . . . and it loiters for a few seconds on the purse that lay turned on its side close to his legs. (What did you expect? The slide of his corneas was provided for in my project!)

He snarled: “No, they were forcing me to finish my work before dusk; and in the rush, with me being so terribly worn out and agitated, this . . . accident happened to me.”

“So that means . . . they didn’t chase you? Go flying after you like the Furies? Weren’t there bullets, dogs, guards, daggers, rapiers, lots of people?”

“I ran as if my life depended on it . . . exactly as if they were chasing me!”

“Maybe you saw Ricardo . . . or Jorge? They must’ve been somewhere. Behind you . . . I think they also escaped from . . . Valparaiso?!?”

Not startled in the least by my curiosity, which otherwise, in other circumstances, could have been interpreted as ill-breeding, Bautista declaimed in an ironic voice:

“I lost my head while I was running, and your face came to me in a vision . . . and heaven and earth had transformed into amplified interlocking pulsations and heartbeats . . . and I saw you! As far as I can recall there was you, and nothing but you, before my eyes . . . but . . . Ricardo . . . and someone named Jorge . . . I didn’t . . . didn’t see them anywhere!”

I had again dropped my hand onto his knee (that was, of course, part of the plan); as tenderly as I could I drew it up toward Bautista’s crotch, enthralled, for real, by the wonders of his escape and trying to imagine the equally attractive faces of Jorge and Ricard, who did not make it this far—to this bench at the end of the park by the Yugoslav Drama Theater. I felt under my fingers the hard wool of his sweater, and then his shirt, which was unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest; I fingered a button.

I looked at his profile and asked, pitifully:

“Did it hurt . . . a lot?”

He, Bautista, answered me with scornful movements of his lips: “Only later, when I stopped in the woods, above that weird village. I felt a sharp pain in my lungs . . . and I think my heart started skipping beats—for a moment.”

The things that Bautista talked about! I asked him about his scar! No doubt it hurt him, so what was up with that “only later” business? And it must’ve spurted blood, too, for a long while, Bautista’s blood . . . dark, aromatic . . . but—why does he talk that way . . . about the woods his heart his lungs? Maybe they stomped on him, beat him . . . boots on his lungs . . . so yes, that’s that. Actually it is!

All of a sudden, for no obvious reason, Bautista asked what my name was. Strange! He must’ve known it from before! What is even more odd: my hand rested regally on his shoulder (this detail wasn’t provided for in the script; it was spontaneous and unfathomable); love, on account of sudden intimacy like this, emerges as equally possible and impossible. A few minutes. So indeterminate: hope and betrayal in the bodies and movements (not the thoughts) of Jelena Belovuk and Bautista van Schouwen; it’s all totally straightforward, run-of-the-mill, on a broken-down park bench (the backrest) at the foot of the park! Bautista was an unmoving monument; a statue from an unknown sculptor. (No shocker here: unknown people always deal in famous ones.) An unwound and rewrapped Egyptian mummy, on a bench, in the middle of the Balkans, but from Chile (the international field that is archaeology); I tell him that. He laughs and wants to kiss me.

Love, on account of sudden intimacy like this, emerges as equally possible and impossible. A few minutes. So indeterminate: hope and betrayal in the bodies and movements (not the thoughts) of Jelena Belovuk and Bautista van Schouwen.

“Have you heard of the last name Belovuk, and my first name, the given name Jelena?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it!”

He then abandons the idea of a kiss. That man! That Bautista, the man who looks like Bautista, the Chilean, and anyway he said it so tranquilly. I told him, with my legs asleep up to my belt, that I was Jelena, the Belovuk, a flutist, and I also told him:

“. . . You know, I play at parties, special events, promotional gigs, commemorations, and sometimes I do piano actually (I’m so conceited), and there are the regular old meetings, not always, though, regular old meetings of associations of scouts, hunters, mountain climbers, kite enthusiasts, and the like.”

And Bautista, bewildered:

“What do you mean by promotional gigs . . . and is there music at a commemoration?!?”

I told him briefly about how group members promoted themselves for president, vice president, treasurer, corresponding secretary, recording secretary, etc., especially the ones who were the best in that discipline. But he was even more clueless after my explanation, and he asked:

“What kind of . . . what did you say . . . associations . . . What are they?”

I whispered to him, bringing my lips (they were moist in the corners, and I know that Bautista saw this and wouldn’t be able to resist it) close to him: “People who use various things have banded together, and enthusiasts, exhibitionists, adventurers, in fact everybody, absolutely everybody, you know the ones who love to get undressed, feel each other up, kiss, and pinch one another in grottos and caves, and mountaineers, you understand mountaineers . . . in a shared association, you know, in this country everybody, and I mean everybody, partners up, and music and merrymaking at commemorations, well, that’s the new regulation thing here, d’you see?”

“And Jorge and Ricardo played the flute”—one couldn’t tell which one of the two of us said that. But then I said, more softly than just before:

“Do we wanna . . . hey, Bautista?”

Bautista didn’t wait; he didn’t think twice (and after all, all of South America was flowing through his thin veins); his hand grabbed my right breast convulsively, powerfully, as if it were a Chilean banner of liberty. He clenched and tugged, pulled in the direction in which Ricardo and Jorge had run, a long time ago. Then my breast flashed between us, for a ragged part of a second, but I didn’t doubt my eyes.

I felt a quiver, piercing, like a needle or a thorn (semi-passion), in actuality an asymmetry, for Bautista was pressing the tip of one of my breasts. The experience would have been completely satisfying if Bautista had taken hold with the same force, the same grip (positioning of his hand) on my other breast too, and in the same spot—a fruitful political alliance. Two Chilean hands, dark-skinned, for my two little fires, at their peaks, right on the edge of the nipples (it’s like we were in the Andes); would Jorge and Ricardo have also been this unsymmetrical, if they had been sitting . . . across from me? I pressed my fingers to Bautista’s scar, and just for an instant he grimaced in major pain (this political alliance is indestructible); gruffly, convinced of his power and superiority (an alliance between two member states always works to the disadvantage of at least one of them), Bautista spoke:

“Your nipple is so tiny that it fits comfortably into the gaps between my teeth, and even more comfortably in the gaps where I have no teeth; so spacious! This is unfortunate. Women in Chile have nipples big enough to plug up the mouth of any loser, for good.”

We stood up from the bench absurdly stuck to one another (in the eyes of other countries not party to the agreement, an alliance is always a ridiculous tie, and a bit sad, too), wet and smiling; once again I pressed on his scar (the spoils of the stronger country) and said:

“Bautista, the women of Chile have taken on a really big job then.”

Translation from the Serbian
By John K. Cox

Translator’s note: From Pada Avala, by Biljana Jovanović (Beograd: Prosveta, 1978), 7–9, 28–32.

 

Works by Biljana Jovanović

 

Poems

Čuvar (1977)

 

Novels

Pada Avala (1978 and several later editions)

Psi i ostali (1980 and later edition) [English excerpt here]

Duša, jedinica moja (1984) [English excerpt here]

 

Plays

Ulrike Majnhof (1976)

Leti u goru kao ptica (1982)

Centralni zatvor (1990)

Soba na Bosforu (1994)

 

Nonfiction

Vjetar ide na jug i obrće se na sjever (with Rada Iveković, Maruša Kreše, and Radmila Lazić). Beograd: Radio B92, 1994.

Non omnis moriar: prepiska (correspondence with Josip Osti). Ljubljana: Vodnikova domačija,1996.

 

Anthology

Lazić, Radmila, and Urošević, Miloš, eds. Biljana Jovanović: Buntovnica s razlogom. Beograd: Žene u crnom/Women in Black, 2016.

[i] The thirty-year-old doctor Bautista van Schouwen, member of the political committee of MIR (Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement), was arrested in 1973 and subjected to cruel torture, later transferred to a military hospital in Valparaiso. In February 1975 a photograph of Bautista, suffering and abused but still alive, was taken in secret. The last news we have about him is that a lobotomy was performed on Bautista in the junta’s hospital in Valparaiso.

[ii] 1979, 1980, 1981—and the years following: Bautista van Schouwen is probably no longer among the living.

Biljana Jovanović (1953–96) is a largely untranslated but highly regarded Serbian feminist writer. Jovanović was a Serbian intellectual who grew up in late Yugoslavia and studied philosophy and literature at the University of Belgrade.

John K. Cox is professor and department head in history at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He received his undergraduate degree from Guilford College and earned his doctorate at Indiana University. The History of Serbia (2002), Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties (2005), and translations of novels by Danilo Kiš and Ivan Cankar are among his chief publications.

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