He was exhausted, he told me, after five hours on the houseboat on the Sava River: food and wine and laughter and Mladen’s huge head and big ears and broad gestures and Zarko’s solicitous translations and Sophie suddenly winced at her back pain and another pitcher of wine and simultaneous conversations translated in ten directions back and forth from Serbian and English and French and German and even Spanish and the poet told funny stories about another Serbian poet and soft cheese and onions and tomatoes and hot peppers and pickled peppers and soft rolls and two more pitchers of wine and the Author asked the young journalist if she had a boyfriend and she said yes and the Author asked for his name and she said Vladimir and the Author said Vladimir? Vladimir! and fish soup came and, he told me, he asked Marija with her beautiful sharp nose and neon-red hair about the man in blue eating alone at a separate table and she said he had a factory that made medals like the one the President of Serbian would give to the Author the next day and, she added, he gives away a lot of medals and then he told Marija, he said, that he must be a very good President and she laughed and said oh yes he’s the best there is and he suggested to Marija, he told me, that perhaps the President would give him and Zarko medals and she laughed again after she was sure he was joking and said it would surely happen but that it would probably require that they stay in the country just a few more days and he said that they were leaving on Thursday and would that be long enough and she thought perhaps it might require the weekend as well and another pitcher of wine appeared and the fish soup was followed by thick fish steaks accompanied by potato salad and the Sava flowed as slowly and powerfully as time while swallows dipped and rose outside the window and a photo of Angela Merkel handing a scholarship notice to the son of the houseboat owner hung on one wall and the Author joined the two journalists at another table for an interview and Zarko sat in as the Serbian/German go-between and he thought of his friend Alex’s line, he told me, “would you put me into a trans — later?” and he stared at a photo of a man holding a huge fish in his arms and Marija asked the houseboat owner and he said it was a Sava River fish like the one that lay in steaks in front of them and another pitcher of wine was passed around and it was still early in the afternoon and the spring had been cold so there were no orgiastic frogs croaking the way they had alongside the barge on the Danube that night fifteen years earlier when he and Zarko sat with Zarko’s filmmaker friend Pera and drank Jelen Pivo and pissed through a hole in the restroom floor into the Danube and talked about the war and about propaganda although on this afternoon on the Sava the war was more than a decade gone, he explained, but not the propaganda and he thought of the book he had read by David Albahari, the one called Leeches, and about the nationalist antagonisms and conspiracy theories sucking the nourishment out of the postwar state and then, he said, they ate nicely toasted cream puffs and deliciously oily baklava and lively Maja Kusturica told rapid stories in French while she and Sophie and Ljiljana Kapor shared stilletto-thin cigarettes from a pack that was giving out and he wondered, he said, why so many “j”s are required for the name Ljiljana and then he thought, he said, that when Pera had asked him on the barge on the Danube if there were filmmakers in Utah he mentioned his friend Trent Harris who had made films with Karen Black and Sean Penn and Crispin Glover and Pera claimed to have fucked Karen Black but now, thinking about Ljijana Kapor’s late husband Momo Kapor, he thought about Trent Harris’ book Momo Utah, “the most complete collection of historical weirdness to ever come out of the land of Zion! (Utah),” but he realized he had remembered the name wrong and that it was really “Mondo Utah” and thus what might have been another connection between Trent and Belgrade faded away and the Sava flowed unceasingly and he politely, at least he was trying to be polite, he told me, asked Maja Kusturica what she did professionally and she asked him, in English, to repeat the question and when he did she raised her shapely eyebrows and expelled cigarette smoke through her nose and looked him in the eyes and said “I suffer” and he wanted to laugh but smiled instead and she smiled back and time flowed on and another pitcher of wine came.
He was exhausted, he told me, after the five hours on the houseboat on the Sava River, but back in the city the Author announced an evening appointment at another restaurant and off they went in taxis — the Author, Sophie, Zarko, Zlatko (who had arrived on the bus from his home in Porodin, his face and head tanned despite the cold spring, his demeanor that of a genial host), and himself. At the restaurant they were joined by a publisher of some sort, a French lawyer, an actress who knew Zlatko, and Dragoljub Milanovic and his wife. The dinner was in honor of Milanovic, who had been released from prison after ten years. The Author had written a little book about him: “The Story of Dragoljub Milanovic.” Milanovic had been director of Serbian Radio and Television during the NATO “intervention” in Kosovo. NATO had bombed targets in Belgrade (including, by digital accident, the Chinese Embassy, and by who knows what accident, the far side of the apartment block inhabited by Zarko’s mother Ljubica) and Milanovic had received a typed statement saying it was possible that the tower where his people worked might end up a target as well. He decided to keep his people working and when a missile struck the tower there were 16 dead and as many wounded.
It was a mistake, NATO said. It was necessary to stop the propaganda in support of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO said. It was unlawful, the Geneva Convention said. It happened as part of the war, but not in the part of the war where the atrocities were taking place, the Hague tribunal said, and so it didn’t concern them. There was no recourse, mistake or not, for the families of the 16 dead.
Dragoljub Milanovic, however, should have cleared the building, the Serbian court said, and since he didn’t, he spent 10 years in prison. None of the actual killers were ever tried.
Now the former Director of Serbian Radio and Television sat quietly, even timidly, but certainly sweetly and a little sadly at a long table in the Belgrade night, his back to a flat-screen television on the wall that was broadcasting the fourth match of the Davis Cup quarterfinal between Serbia and the United States: Novak Djokovic against Sam Querrey. Serb players had won two of the three matches already concluded. A third win would send the Serbs on to the semi-final round against Canada. But Djokovic, ranked number one in the world, was having trouble after having won a close first set. He seemed to be injured, and while peopled spoke in Serbian and French and German and English around the long table, Zarko and Zlatko and he, he said, watched the American take the second set 7-6, winning the tiebreaker 7-4. Zlatko pointed at him and announced to the table that “HIS American has just won a set. Djokovic is in trouble.” He felt like a traitor, he told me.
Across from him sat a young and beautiful actress, blond and perfect, he said, with a voice trained to PROJECT. She spoke with Zarko and Zlatko, quick repartee punctuated by lethal machine gun bursts: da!da!da!
He ducked, he told me, when the first round came at him, but got used to the triple affirmation, or, he thought — not affirmation, but belligerence, of the most positive sort.
She was acting, appropriately enough, in a National Theater production of the American play “Killer Joe.”
Did I tell you she was perfect? he asked me. Did I tell you she asked Zarko and me if we wanted to go to a party with her after the long dinner? Did I tell you about our conversation after we dropped her off at the party neither of us was inclined to attend and after we finally arrived at Zarko’s mother’s flat and talked about actors and identity?
If it is your profession to appear exactly as directors want you to appear, if it is your profession to be perfect, if it is your profession to please others through various roles, then who are you?
Does our relationship with the Author resemble an actress’s relationship with her director and with her audience? they wondered, he said. We are here at his whim, after all. His French translator Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt once wondered if he were “Handkes Hund.” Are we the Author’s dogs? they asked themselves. Was it their task to smile and bark da!da!da!? Perhaps the fact that they translated his texts and interpreted his work through scholarly analysis made a difference, they posited.
Djokovic won the final two sets 6-1 and 6-0, and he celebrated, he said, with the rest of the room.