Dragan Todorovic's first book written in English won him a literary prize for non-fiction and predictions from readers that he was a novelist-in-the-making. The readers were right, as his exceptional first novel proves.
Diary of Interrupted Days is playful, blazingly intelligent, occasionally erotic and ultimately tragic, unfurling from the cliffhanger scene that opens the book: a lone exile, returning to Belgrade for the first time since he fled to Canada in the mid-nineties, is stranded on the only bridge into the city that hasn't been destroyed by NATO bombers as air raid sirens sound. He should be focused on getting off the bridge, but he seems unable to calculate the risk . . .
The war that dismembered his country still haunts him, but what has him frozen is that the disruptions of war allowed him to steal happiness for himself from his best friend, with the likelihood that he would never be caught. But lies, even artful ones told by someone adept at incinerating the past, have a way of catching up to you. As the man on the bridge is about to find out.
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Random House Canada
March 09, 2009
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Excerpt from Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Todorovic
An Der Sch?nen Blauen Donau
Return. April 22, 1999
Most people believe that their endeavours define them. Their striving becomes a symbol of who they are. But that is only half of the picture. We search for some public grail to avoid a deeper, unconfessed compulsion. In some secret place in our memories, carefully covered, unlit, lies the truth about us: you are what you run away from.
Underneath he scratched the date and added "T.O." in his hurried, slanted handwriting. He liked to locate his ideas precisely, to know where he was when they first came to him, and his notebooks read like maps that traced his every move - a geography of ideas.
The light in the plane toilet turned his skin into parchment. The man in the narrow mirror ran his long, bony fingers from the back of his shaved head down his forehead and face to pull at his goatee, sharpening it, then did the whole motion backwards, as if voiding his face, and then reshaping it. He had a silver signet ring on the index finger of his right hand. He took a closer look at the man on this side of the mirror and said, "You look like a ghost, friend."
The captain's voice interrupted him. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent to Budapest Ferihegy Airport. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. The local time is 9:11. The weather in Budapest is good. The current temperature on the ground is ten degrees Celsius, and the skies are clear. Thank you for flying with Mal?v. We wish you a pleasant stay in Hungary."
Of course - he was not in Toronto, he was in midair. He crossed out "T.O." and wrote "Hung.", closed the notebook and put it back into the pocket of his black jacket. He washed his hands and returned to his seat.
From a plane most cities look like deserted beaches: the boulders of storage hangars and factories in the back, the tiny houses like pebbles that fell off the business monoliths, the hotels lined up near the water like sand castles. He watched out the window as the plane flew over the Danube, a spacious park, and then another stretch of pebbles towards the airport.
The passengers started buttoning up and putting their shoes back on. Some were combing their hair, or fixing their makeup, as if everyone on the plane had been engaged in an eight-hour debauchery and now needed to cover it up. Soon, they would all line up according to the money they had spent on their ticket: first class ahead, then business behind them, and the oh-shitters at the back. Then the door would open and everyone would be flushed into the city from this flying bowel. He gathered his magazines, folded them and pushed them inside the seat pocket in front of him. The same hysterical rant about the just humanitarian war was everywhere he did not want to carry any of it with him.
He put his right hand in the pocket of his black leather vest and took out two passports. He opened the blue booklet and looked at his photo, then flipped the red passport open and put the images next to each other. Two faces. Two men. Two worlds. He put them back, then touched the envelope full of money tucked in the inside vest pocket. He'd brought almost everything he had with him. He would need it all. For the funeral, for the posthumous meal, to bribe the officials so they didn't grab him and put a uniform on him after the burial, to pay for the return tickets - or just in case, and there would always be a case.
When most of the passengers had departed, he stood up, opened the overhead compartment, and pulled out his old brown leather bag.
The customs officer was a young man with watery blue eyes. "Boris Bulic? What is the purpose of your visit to Hungary, sir?"
"I'm just passing through."
"Serbia? You won't be able to get across the border with your Canadian passport. And it might be dangerous - your country is bombing them, too."
"I have my Yugoslav passport with me."
"Are you going there to fight? Because you should hurry up. Your side will be defeated in no time."
"You don't know what my side is."
The blue eyes narrowed under the cap brim, regarding him, then flicked down and back, comparing the passport photo with the passenger. The passport picture showed softer features, framed with a dark untidy mane, eyes slightly amused.
"You don't look like your photo."
"I'm getting old."
"You know I could ban you from entering?"
"Under the circumstances, that might be a favour," Boris said.
The officer stamped the passport and handed it back to him.
The terminal was crowded. Boris noticed that the majority of passengers had children with them, which struck him as unusual. Most of the kids were well dressed but too quiet for their age, trailing behind their parents who pushed airport carts loaded with multi-storied piles of baggage. Bits of conversation wafting out of the crowd were mostly Serbian. Boris stopped to buy a coffee at one of the less busy stands before he went in search of the minibus to Belgrade. If it was still running.
At the door, he had to stand aside and let a group of hurried people enter before he could come out. A red stroller pushed over his foot. As soon as he stepped out of the building, he lit a cigarette. The sky was cloudless as promised. "Clear days are the worst," his mother had said on the phone from Belgrade. "When there is a storm, the planes don't come at all." He removed the lid from the cup and took a sip. An older woman in a green coat came up to him, confidentially asking, "Room, sir?" He ignored her.
The entrance to the departure hall was swarming with people. Cab drivers made short stops in front of the terminal, idling there as tired parents pulled out their offspring and their giant bags. All flights from Belgrade were suspended and Budapest was the closest airport for Serbs fleeing the war. Most people had someone drive them to the Hungarian border, then took a train or a bus from there.
Several big buses idled in the parking lot across the road, but no minibus that he could see. His friends in Belgrade had told him there was only one still making the trip between the Budapest airport and Belgrade, and that one was grey. It was up to Boris to find it: the driver didn't have much in the way of return fares and would not hang around for long at the airport after delivering his load of refugees. He'd simply refill the tank, take a short break, and drive back before nightfall.
As Boris turned back towards the main entrance, he noticed a person sitting on the pavement, leaning against one of the big pillars. His face was hidden by a baseball cap, and a cardboard sign was propped in his lap - "Budapest--Belgrade." Boris knelt beside the man and said, "Can you drive me?" In response he received a short snore. Boris decided to let the man sleep. He could finish his coffee in the meantime. There was an empty bench a few steps away. The seat was still warm.
The flow of people continued in one direction: into the building and towards the departure hall. Away. He was going back to Belgrade, but Belgrade, it seemed, was leaving. For a moment, he let a thought of finding that woman in the green coat and taking her up on her offer flutter in his mind - maybe a night or two here would help him get over jet lag and arrive fresh in Belgrade - but then he dismissed it. He knew what it was, and there was no time for weakness. Swimming against the tide, again. Good.
Boris finished his coffee and another cigarette. He couldn't wait any longer. He bent down and prodded the man, who raised his cap, wiped the saliva off his chin with the back of his hand, and looked around, confused. His dark eyes had violet shadows underneath them. Boris figured he was probably in his mid-thirties, but he looked so tired that it was hard to be sure.
"I need a ride to Belgrade," Boris said, slipping into Serbian.
"I need a coffee. Wait for me."
Boris stared after him as he entered the terminal. He thought he recognized the man. Another circle was closing. Boris liked that feeling. When circles close in one's life, when small parts of private history are repeated, it brings a sense of order and comfort. A moment when one could almost believe that there is some harmony in this cacophonic, screaming world.
The driver remained silent while manoeuvring through the busy streets of the capital, and Boris did not feel like talking, either. Sitting up front in the passenger seat, he watched the street names through the windshield, trying to remember them. He had been to Budapest several times in the old days, mostly to attend rock concerts. He and his friends would drive to the centre of town, spend some time on V?ci Street, eat quickly, get high, and go to the stadium. He had once known the promenade by the Danube well, but it too had faded. Everything had faded. He wasn't even sure how Belgrade would look to him after five and a half years in Canada. Not because of the bombing. Bombs explode, but they are too big to comprehend. Devastation on a large scale never affects you in real time, even when you watch it live. Your brain refuses to take it in. You do know that something horrible is happening, something that will change you forever, but you shut down in the face of it, and just watch it, and eat, drink, sleep, fuck. Later, when your brain realizes that you are still alive, your emotional space opens and the pain comes.
He wasn't thinking of the bombs dropping on Serbia now, blowing holes in the fabric of his past, but of how different home was bound to be. That is the trouble with home - step out of it for even a second, and it will hurl itself towards other people.
He looked over at the driver, who finally seemed to be waking up and was scratching some spot between his shoulder blades with the tip of a long screwdriver. He had removed his cap in the meantime and Boris noticed a scar high on his forehead. Yes, it was him. The stubble on his cheeks was on the edge of becoming a beard. He was dressed in jeans and a corduroy jacket that used to be brown but now was the colour of wheat. Boris felt a surge of gratitude to the man for bringing him home.
"I remember you," Boris finally said. "You drove us out of the country in October 1993. But it was a different bus."
"No, it's the same one. It was red then, which was good for business. Now it's better if it's grey. To melt with the road. Us?" He glanced Boris's way, checking out the silver earring that gave Boris's shaved head the look of either artist or thug.
"My wife and me."
"She's not coming back with you? Too dangerous?"
"No, she's not afraid. Sara's . . ." Boris searched for the right words. "She's dealing with some inheritance business."
"Inheritance? That can't hurt."
"This one's messy."
They both fell silent for a while, watching the road. The last houses on the outskirts of Budapest were already behind them, and the factories, and they were driving by some small village. There were no hills in sight, and the highway appeared to curve just because it was a proper thing to do.
"My pickup point was on Slavija then, right?" the driver said.
"People loved it when I drove that one last circle around the square. I guess it felt good to leave home from the heart of the city. Now I park in front of Saint Marcus's Church - any help I can get." He laughed.
"How often do you make the trip?"
"Every day, rain or shine. Rain or bombs, rather. You've probably heard - they don't bomb on rainy days. Some say it has something to do with the electricity in the clouds. Screws up their instruments. I think it has more to do with the locators."
"Their spies have placed small boxes close to the targets that send signals to the satellites. I think they're trying to avoid hitting civilians. So when it's cloudy, and they can't receive the signal from the ground, they don't fly."
"Have you seen any of these . . . locators?"
"They've shown a few on television. Small black things, hard to find. The heart of darkness."
A bus driver quoting Conrad? "What did you do before this?"
"I studied journalism at the Faculty of Political Sciences. Did some writing, too, before the war, mostly for some student magazines. Then it all went to hell. You left in 1993? Then you remember how it was: what Milosevic didn't want, he destroyed. The whole profession started sucking, if you ask me. They dug trenches and disappeared into them. From time to time someone would run from one hole into another, and that was all."
" 'Your hole is our target,' " Boris said.
"I saw a truck in England once - it belonged to some company that specialized in drilling holes through walls. That was their motto."
"Rats. It was the time of rats, when Milosevic came to power. Underground, negative selection, running in packs, bathing in shit. When the West imposed sanctions against Serbia in 1992, all flights from Belgrade stopped, as you know. Still, people were leaving this dump in hordes. That's when I decided to do this for living. I thought what the hell, I'll borrow some money, get a minibus, drive people to and from Hungary. I figured I'd make some money in the short term, because it can't last forever. Here I am, still driving. Mostly to Hungary."
He scratched his scar, then continued:
"Maybe this bombing will change something. The noise, if nothing else. They are dropping some large ones, you know. Every time a bomb explodes, I think, 'There's another wake-up call.' Maybe after this I'll go back to journalism - if people wake up and change something. What do you do?"
"Is that where you live?"
"I'm an art director for an ad agency."
"And before you left?"
"I was a conceptual artist."
"Really? Tell me something you did, maybe I'll remember."
"Okay. The Ice Cream Idol."
The driver pursed his lips. "Nope."
"I made a statue of Milosevic out of ice cream. It was in a big cooler truck in the Square of the Republic in Belgrade for one day only. You could destroy the idol by licking him, but then you'd have to taste him."
"Did you put a stick up his ass?"
"I felt something was missing."
"Musical Gallows. I built twelve gallows and hung dummies on them, and the ropes were harp wires, all different lengths. They each played a different tone when plucked."
"It was in the Student Cultural Centre, right? There was a fuss about it."
"It was banned. The gallows played the national anthem."
"That's why I remember it."
As far ahead as Boris could see the road going their way was empty. All the traffic except their minibus was headed towards Budapest and away from Belgrade.
"Are these cars -?"
"Yes - all escaping to the north. Some Hungarians who live on the border are moving, too. The other day a stray bomb fell on some house in Bulgaria. It's crazy back home, you'll see."
The cigarettes and coffee hadn't removed that plastic aftertaste from the plane food in Boris's mouth, and he reached for a piece of gum in his pocket. There wasn't any. "Have you had any breakfast?" he asked. "If you want, we can stop somewhere and I'll buy for both of us."
"Then we'd better do it now. The closer you get to the border, the uglier the people you meet. Some Hungarians see our misery as their chance to get rich. Farmers have converted their stables into bed and breakfasts, and they charge an arm and a leg. You go to a gas station anywhere on this road, and you pay ridiculous sums for gasoline if your vehicle has Serbian plates. By the way, I'm Misa."
Ten minutes later, Misa slowed to turn right onto a side road. They entered a village, and after taking the first left, they pulled into a parking lot in front of a small caf?. It was in a picture-perfect house, with white walls, green shutters, and flowers in window boxes. Misa switched off the engine and they went inside together, and took a table by the window. A petite brunette with large green eyes took their order.
"How did you find this place?" Boris asked.
"I had a flat tire once and limped in looking for a garage. The owner borrowed a spare for me, and didn't even charge. The waitress - she's the owner's daughter."
"She's sweet," Boris said.
"She is. But I come for the food. My wife hugs me each night when I get home safe, but I know that it's also so she can sniff me. And she checks my clothes for hair. It's just too complicated to stray and I can't be bothered."
Sunlight reflected on the white facades of the houses opposite the caf?, red and blue flowers on their windowsills. The food arrived and they ate in silence. When they were done, Boris offered Misa a cigarette.
"Which route do we take from here?" he asked as he extended his lighter.
"The usual: Szeged, Horgos, Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade. It's about two hundred miles, give or take, and a little over fifty from here to the border. I always aim to get to Belgrade before five. They attack after sunset mostly, but sometimes they come sooner. In Hungary, I take it slow and steady - if the cops catch me speeding, I'm in for some serious money. After we cross the border, we'll go as fast as my bus can stand."
"Is that what you do if the planes come?"
"That's what I do. Amateurs park on the side and hide under the trees. But mice don't lie down hoping the cat won't see them." He suddenly remembered to ask: "Did your plane arrive on time?"
"No. We were an hour late. Why?"
"Fuck. Let's go."
Boris paid the girl and ran after Misa, who was already turning the vehicle around. "What?" Boris said as he closed the door and the bus veered onto the main street.
"You know how planes have to fly through certain corridors? There are roads up in the sky, just like down here. Some of those roads are in the way of the bombers. When a plane is late, it usually means that its normal corridor is closed and the bombers are coming sooner. We have to hurry."
Sara had already been gone when the bombing of Serbia started, and Boris's world had turned surreal. As an artist, he deconstructed reality and reinserted pieces intended to create a shift in perception in those who saw his art. But now nothing seemed real enough to deconstruct. He would turn up every morning at his job on the twenty-ninth floor of a building at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, and he would try to work, concentrating on shapes and colours, lines and shades, and then find that hours had passed as he stared out the window at the CN Tower. A similar tower had already been destroyed in Belgrade. Sometimes he envisioned a giant condom covering the whole edifice, turning it into a colossal penis aimed at any deity allowing this nightmare to happen. Whenever he put his headphones on and inserted a music CD into his Mac, he ended up searching instead for radio news on the Internet.
When he pulled into the big underground garage in his apartment building at night, he judged its merits as a shelter from air raids. On the supermarket shelves, he only had eyes for canned foods. He returned from a trip to the drugstore to buy shaving oil with band-aids and antiseptic cream. He melted sedatives under his tongue several times a day, and took Saint John's wort before he climbed into bed, but slept only a few hours each night.
He was safe in Toronto, far from the fury of metal that was happening in the Balkans. He also knew that his parents would be fine. His father was a retired general, after all, with access to the best shelters. Still, he felt that everything was being destroyed. He had been abroad long enough to start perceiving his homeland as an idea, not a set of particular people and buildings - still it was an idea buried in the foundation of his being. Each building the NATO bombers hit was part of the idea. Every time he heard of another bombing, he felt physically ill. His neck and shoulders turned to stone.
Boris thought of going back to Belgrade, but he knew he would be drafted immediately. He talked with his mother almost every day on the phone - he always expected to hear bombs exploding in the background, but never did. They had moved to their cottage an hour south of Belgrade for the duration. They had enough food and his father had brought his whole collection of weapons and ammunition with him, even a sniper rifle he obtained through channels. His mother sounded upbeat and he had no doubts about his father's mood, although, of course, they never spoke.
For the first time in years he made a steady stream of phone calls to his old friends in Belgrade, who all talked fast, describing crazy things - how terrific all-night parties were taking place in several of the larger shelters, how people brought drugs with them, and booze, how people had sex and made jokes about the bombing, how everyone had a badge with a target drawn on it. How everyone prayed for their enemies to come on foot, so they could give vent to their frustration.
In the beginning, the bombing victims were just people, somewhere, just numbers. Then, during the second week, they were people with names, people friends of his friends knew. By the third week, they were colleagues.
Boris's mentor died. The old artist was staying with his family in a city that had not been bombed at all. One night, the raptors finally came to destroy a factory on the edge of the town. The artist was three days short of his ninetieth birthday, and during his lifetime had seen both world wars and the Balkan wars. He was almost completely deaf and mostly blind and did not hear the first few explosions. But then they dropped a large one, and a trace of that horrific sound reached what remained of his hearing. Jolted out of his silence, he asked what the noise was. "It's a bomb, Grandpa!" his granddaughter replied.