ZWISCHEN NERA UND KARASCH (Between the Nera and the Karash)
By Dragan Aleksić
Translated into German from Serbian by Mirjana and Klaus Wittmann
Mattes & Seitz: Berlin 2013
Originally published as Između Nere i Karaša
Narodna Knjiga-Alfa: Beograd, 2003
The narrator of Dragan Aleksić’s novel was named Aleksa, his daughter Gina writes in an epilog, adding that she has grown up with her uncle and aunt who have a son named after her late father.
The narrator tells his story in a drunken and suicidal rage while lying under his ex-wife’s bed in her parents’ house, shooting wildly at anything that moves in the house. He has lost his beloved wife through his own jealousies, his debilitating alcoholism, and as a result of her own unfaithfulness. Between shots his mind wanders through a disjointed history.
He recounts a lovely story about a lovely village in the Banat region between two rivers, the Nera and the Karash. It is a border region, ruled successively by Ottoman Turks, by Austrians (of the Habsburg Monarchy), by the Serbs (of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), by Nazi occupiers, and by Tito’s Partisan Yugoslavs. The village and region is inhabited by a rich mixture of Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Romani, Russians, Partisans, Nazis, Yugoslavs and others. Village life is simple and peaceful, focused on agriculture and family and neighbors and romance and knit together by religion. The landscape is beautiful and fecund. The people are industrious and warm hearted. It is, as I said, a lovely, romantic story about the inhabitants of a lovely village.
Village life is also vicious, its multi-ethnic character rent by the Nazis, who murder 130 Jews and Hungarians, who execute 50 Partisans as retribution, and who then kill 50 more. Village life is volatile, and the resident Germans, Volksdeutsche, are subsequently massacred by Partisans. The violence is intimate, perpetrated by one neighbor on another. A Partisan about to help kill a group of Germans lets the 14-year-old son of one of them go because the German had given him aid and wine in earlier times. Invited into their house by local Russian settlers, liberating Russian soldiers humiliate and rape their hosts. A Partisan officer who knew and was rejected by a German woman before the war offers to take her from the prison camp where she and her family are kept and when she refuses again, he rapes her.
The narrator’s wife has left him, he is losing his 5-year-old daughter, he lives in a drunken and confused and desperate and angry state, hoping to forget in order to continue living:
Heute Morgen um neun (verdammt, wie sehe ich aus, ich kann mich nicht rasieren, wie soll Gina mich streicheln und küssen) habe ich schon das erste Glas Birnenlikör getrunken (ich dachte, besser Likör als Schnaps, der Likör steigt weniger in den Kopf): damit ich vergesse, nicht denke, besser gelaunt bin.
This morning at nine (damn, look at me, I can’t shave, how is Gina going to pat me, kiss me) I drank my first glass of pear liqueur (I thought—better liqueur than brandy, liqueur doesn’t affect the brain so much): so I could forget, not think, be in a better mood.
He wants to live normally, and so he drinks:
Meine Arbeit interessierte mich immer weniger, im- mer öfter verließ ich das Büro, um in dem oder jenem Wirtshaus einen Schnaps zu trinken. Im betrunkenen Zustand ging es mir besser: Das Schwarze sah weniger schwarz aus, das Hässliche weniger hässlich, meine Ehe machte zwar eine problematische Phase durch, aber ha- ben denn nicht alle Ehen Hochs und Tiefs, die Ehekrisen werden doch gemeistert und das Leben geht danach wieder seinen ruhigen, normalen Gang. So tröstete ich mich selbst. Betrunken war es mir leichter: Mit trüben Augen sah ich alles klarer und schöner.
My work is less and less interesting to me, I leave the office more and more often to drink brandy in this inn or that one. Drunk, things were better for me: black seemed less black, ugly less ugly, my marriage was going through a problematic phase, but don’t all marriages have highs and lows, marriage crises are overcome and then life goes on quietly, normally. That’s how I comforted myself. Drunk, it was easier: with bleary eyes I saw everything more clearly and more beautifully.
He wants clarity, beauty, order, continuity, stability. On his wild march through the night that will end with him under the bed shooting a revolver and then hanging, a suicide, from a mulberry tree, he takes refuge in a pantry:
Ich legte die Pistole auf das Brett, ergriff die Flasche, entkorkte sie und nahm einen ordentlichen Schluck. Wie rotes Blut rann der Rotwein in meinen Mund, durch meinen Hals, in meinen Magen; ich fühlte mich sicher in dieser Speisekammer und verspürte keine Lust, sie zu verlassen, dort war alles an seinem Platz (dort konnte ich mich vor dem Chaos verstecken), dort war es still, dort hätte ich ruhig einschlafen, mich ausruhen, alles aus meinem Kopf löschen und alles vergessen können.
I lay the pistol on the board, grabbed the bottle, took out the cork and took a good drink. The red wine ran like blood into my mouth, through my throat, into my stomach; I felt safe in this pantry and felt no desire to leave it, everything was in its place (I could hide there from chaos), it was still there, I could have fallen asleep peacefully, could have rested, could have erased everything from my head and forgotten it all.
The novel came alive for me the moment I began to think of the narrator’s wife and daughter as stand-ins for the village, for the region, for everything rich and beloved in the narrator’s life.
The intimate violence, the infidelities, the instabilities both personally and historically, are finally too much, and the narrator flees, as had his two friends earlier:
Ich machte mich aus meiner kleinen Heimatstadt davon, als hätte man mich verstoßen, dabei hatte ich alles von mir gestoßen, mich von allem losgesagt: Ich hatte die Grenze überschritten, und konnte und wollte nicht zurück: wie einst Rašajski, wie Tibor.
I took my leave of my little hometown, as if I had been forced out, whereas I had driven everything away, had declared myself free of it all: I had crossed the border and could not return, nor did I want to: as had Rašajski, as had Tibor.
Emigration from a dear and troubled home is the theme of this fine novel. Its author, like its narrator, is an emigrant. They share the name Aleksa. They share the sorrow of all emigrants, the losses, the self-doubt, the guilt, the hope. They share the beautiful and tragic memories of home from their new homes in Germany and Canada—and North Olmstead, Ohio.
In troubled times there is, perhaps, no other solution. In tragic times, the various losses of emigration (lost language, lost family, lost landscape, lost tradition) are preferable to suicide at home.
[The inverse of this story of emigration is, perhaps, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In that novel, of which Aleksić’s novel repeatedly reminded me, the Bundren family is congenitally unable to leave their inverted lives, to emigrate to possibly better circumstances. It takes them 9 days to make their way with their dead mother and wife to the county seat, from which they retreat as quickly as possible, back into stagnant and troubled lives.]