In Belgrade, on the fourth of June, 1998 (the day after what would have been my brother John’s 47th birthday), the Serbian writer Zarko Radakovic introduced me to his friend, the Serbian writer Dragan Velikic, and to his partner, the Serbian academic and writer Branka Arsic.
Branka gave me a copy of her book Recnik / Dictionary—”For Scott, in friendship.” I later took from her book (brilliant dual-language essays about dreams, sculptures, migrations, love, cities, mirrors, night, and libraries) the title for my “dictionary” half of our book Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary. (She is now a professor of English at the University at Albany: State University of NY, with books about Melville and Emerson and forthcoming work on Thoreau.)
Dragan gave me two books, German translations of his novels Hamsin 51 and Via Pula (“To Scott, with all the meanings, freundlich, Dragan”).
Fifteen years later, in Belgrade on the ninth of April, 2013, Zarko and I met Dragan for dinner in a small restaurant, the street outside lively despite the cold rain. We ate, at Dragan’s recommendation, bruschetta with cucumbers and cheese, spicy grilled meat and vegetables. A Portuguese red wine was tasty with the meat and a second bottle accompanied a chocolate dessert.
Dragan handed me a third book, his novel The Russian Window in German translation. “Für Scott,” he wrote in the front, “zum zweiten Treffen in Belgrad, im GULI Restoran, Freundlich, Dragan.”
We spoke in German, and for the most part fluently. Dragan had served as the Serbian Ambassador to Austria after the wars and I was once a professor of German studies. Zarko, who has lived in Germany for what must be three decades, was the most proficient grammatically and with the largest vocabulary. He was also the quietest of the three. Dragan’s gestures were as large as his appetite, his stories as lively as his face.
The work of the two Serbian novelists could not be more different. Zarko’s work eschews stories, sets narratives aside, follows thought as language and language as thought as they constitute character (“I went out to a newsstand to buy cigarettes. I am not normal. I don’t smoke, but I regularly buy cigarettes.” –from Vampires). Dragan’s work is rich with stories and characters whose lives unfold in carefully plotted novels (“‘My grandfather was no Frenchman,’ Rudi said, while he lit two cigarettes and handed one to Sali.” –from The Russian Window).
And yet they are more than colleagues with contrasting interests. Zarko swears by Dragan as a generous friend who, over the decades, has come to his aid repeatedly. Dragan is a genius at practical matters, Zarko told me on the way to the restaurant. And he is always ready to help.
We left the restaurant and, at Dragan’s invitation, accompanied him to his apartment. We sat in a large, well-appointed room with a small, modern adjoining kitchen. The walls were lined with books: philosophy (some with Branka’s name inside) and literature (whole sets of Austrian writers in German and dozens and dozens of Serbian writers). Zarko pointed to his own books in a prominent place and told about the time he visited and couldn’t find his books anywhere. Dragan finally pointed to a high and distant shelf and Zarko insisted his books be more prominently displayed. And here they are, Dragan said, right next to my desk.
Dragan poured a wonderful Cabernet Franc. It is the last of a case of wine the vintner gave me, he said, after I arranged, as the ambassador, for his wine to be sold in Austria. A sharp goat cheese followed, along with a spicy sausage.
Let me play some music, Dragan said. What would you like to hear? Bob Dylan? He played Dylan’s new album and retold the story of the title song, “Tempest.” We talked into the night — about his work, about Serbian literature, about his son (now a physician in America), about Zarko’s new book with David Albahari.
At 1 a.m. we finally left Dragan’s apartment, walking into rain cold and heavy enough that we hailed a taxi. Symphonic music was playing on the cab’s radio. Zarko asked the driver (who looked like a grey-haired professor moonlighting in a taxi) if he liked classical music. Not especially, the driver answered, but there was a massacre earlier in the day, a man killed his son and then several of the neighbors, and now all the stations are playing symphonies in mourning.
. . . And why, you might ask, does a story of this pleasant but unremarkable evening deserve retelling? Because, I might reply, it is another in a series of events that began in Tübingen, Germany, in 1984, when I met Zarko and we began to talk about the work of Peter Handke. Later, we travelled together into the landscapes of Handke’s novel Repetition and wrote our own Repetitions in response. Never again was I the singularly focused academic I had trained to be. Something about Zarko and the other Serbian and Croatian and Austrian writers and painters he introduced me to spoke to me, and speaks to me, in ways I was and am hungry for.