Every country has its rivers, he told me. That long afternoon it was the Sava River in Serbia, just a few hundred yards—several kilometers?—from where the river, more vast than any river in the American West that was his home, flowed into the Danube, a storied confluence under the gaze of Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Fortress.
A houseboat on the Sava served as gathering place, a rustic restaurant with no sign to announce its presence. If some actually found their way to the houseboat, as had Ljiljane and her husband writer and painter Momo Kapor (may he rest in peace), they generally did so by boat.
His own call had come in response to questions about a translation, Scott said. The Author had written: “On April 8th I shall be in Belgrade / Serbia. Zarko will come too, also Zlatko. And you??” On the back flap of the envelope, below F-92370 Chaville, was an Arabic word neither he nor I could decipher.
Setting out from the Kapor house in Belgrade, the friends, fellow travelers, distant neighbors, and two journalists—Serbian, French, Austrian, and American—soon formed a column. Mladen Materic’s little Puegot, Ljiljane Kapor’s big Jeep Cherokee, and a taxi wound off the backbone of the white city onto the Gazela Bridge, the third from the mouth of the Sava.
The bridge closest to the Danube was once called the Bridge of Brotherhood and Unity. More recently it has traded its Communist optimism for a name with literary pretensions: Branko’s Bridge. It is not clear, however, which Branko is meant. It may be Branko Radicevic, the Romantic poet who died in 1853 in Vienna. Or the name may refer to the writer Branko Copic, who committed suicide by jumping off the bridge in 1984 at the age of 69.
Between Branko’s Bridge and the Old Sava Bridge, the second bridge upriver from the Danube, stands what is now called the Old Fairground, a complex built in 1938 to host international trade fairs. After the German occupation in 1941, the site was transformed into the Sajmiste Concentration Camp, housing Jews from Belgrade and the surrounding area. The inmates were systematically starved, beaten, and shot. For efficiency, 100 at a time were gassed in the five-ton Saurer truck operated by SS officers. In his novel Götz and Meyer, David Albahari’s narrator thinks his way into the minds and lives of the truck drivers (“Is that what I want to do: to bring Götz and Meyer back to the shadows in the former Fairgrounds camp, to give them life so that, quickly, quickly, I make them die?”).
This narrator, however, has another story to tell, one in which the Jeep bumped up over the curb at the end of the streetcar line in New Belgrade and ascended a short, steep dirt path to the top of a dike. The little Peugeot, skillfully driven, eased tentatively over the curb and up the dike. The taxi followed a more circuitous route, but found the top of the dike as well.