The Afternoon on the Sava
Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.
Invisible Cities Italo Calvino
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 once-stern 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 people 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 invitation 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—Serbians, French speakers, an Austrian, and one 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 perhaps tragically tinged 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 second bridge upriver from the Danube, the Old Sava Bridge, 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. To increase 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. A few hundred yards (five hundred meters?) along the dike, the cars parked and the passengers disembarked. The Author tugged a dark-brown stocking cap over his grey hair. He wore a knee-length black coat, light-blue scarf, black pants that had been twice lengthened by hand, and high-top black shoes. Dark-haired actress Sophie Semin Handke, hobbled by a bad back, wore a long black coat with sleeves colorfully embroidered to the elbows by the Author. Hostess Ljiljane Kapor was youthful in tight brown pants and a matching jacket. Her bright and capable young assistant Marija had neon red hair. Maja Kusturica was elegant in a white coat and a bright blue scarf. The wry and thin-lipped Poet Matija Beckovic had a Sherlock Holmes hat. The Theater Director Mladen Materic was loose jointed under a brown stocking cap and in blue jeans baggy at the ass. The Writer Zarko Radakovic, short-haired, wore no hat but was snug in a brown wool coat. A dark-haired middle-aged journalist and her younger protégé were dressed more formally than the rest. And my old friend, a university professor who would like, someday, to call himself a writer, was dressed in black, from his shoes and levis to his wool coat. His long grey hair was pulled back tightly in a ponytail.
Although the spring had been unusually cold, the first week of April still saw the river at its spring-flood stage. Permanent wooden steps led down the grassy dike to a long walking bridge made of white pipes bound together by clamps and floored with wooden planks. The bridge carried the party out over the flooded bank between tall and still leafless trees whose trunks seemed surprised to be rising out of the floodwater. Where the bridge ended, ten steps turned at a right angle down into the shallow water. Two broad, weathered planks reached from the last step above water to a little platform where three bright new planks overlay their ends and continued the makeshift bridge. Two more of the new planks led to a juncture where older planks turned to the left at a right angle, taking the guests to a small platform of 5 planks set sideways on a pallet across the path. Two narrow planks connected the platform to a gravel bank just above water level. From the gravel bank, more planks led back to the left to two steps which brought them up onto a platform supported by four red 55-gallon drums (or do they call them 208-liter drums? he asked me). Plywood fixed on thick planks offered a wide path from that floating platform onto a long bridge perched on alternating red and blue drums. The bridge, now over the river proper, ended at the door of a black wooden structure that served as a restaurant for boaters on the Sava River—and on this day, for the eleven guests who had approached over the labyrinthine wood path for their afternoon on the flooded river.