Fiction Issue #10

The Tale of How I. I. Settled the Quarrel with I. N.

by Srđan Srdić

I wished to be left alone, I felt the need to add and subtract, to perform these operations. I felt I could no longer bear it, I packed and left, they didn’t make any trouble. They seemed not to care, one left, another came, as elsewhere….
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Images: “Dwellings,” from a multiple series of ceramic works by Margie Kelk, 11.5″ x 8″ x 7″ Photo Credit: Steven Crainford

The Tale of How I.I. Settled the Quarrel with I.N.

Krapp the Listener’s New Life                      Soundtrack: Earth – The Rakehell

By Srđan Srdić

Translated by Nataša Miljković

I wished to be left alone, I felt the need to add and subtract, to perform these operations. I felt I could no longer bear it, I packed and left, they didn’t make any trouble. They seemed not to care, one left, another came, as elsewhere. Still, I’d performed plenty of good jobs and done a few serious favors where expected, one would think they would miss me more. I was getting slow and, which is much worse, I was becoming indifferent and slack, and this could prove fatal to the job; perhaps no one else noticed this, but I did, and it was enough.

Rare are those who prepare and leave in peace, traditionally everybody finds it embarrassing, on so many occasions I had seen people leaving the Firm stooped, confused, as if nothing else awaited them. Work wasn’t my life. I don’t know what was, but work wasn’t. I set off on the longest holiday ever, with the intention of never returning to the town. No one noticed my absence, the nature of my job didn’t leave too many friendships, I had done with my family years before, and those idiots neither called nor contacted me. They probably thought that somewhere someone had beaten me all over and buried me, I wouldn’t be the first or the last. They failed to take into account some important little details: I am not stupid, I love myself for inexplicable reasons, and the Firm takes care of its former employees and collaborators, It doesn’t want anything unpredictable to befall them, It attempts to spare them certain encounters and conversations.

About fifteen years before leaving, I had invested part of my savings and bought a weekend cottage on a half-wild estate close to the river. I’d warmed to it the moment I set my eyes on it, the infrastructure wasn’t entirely completed, the owners of the other buildings were people from the towns in which I almost never set foot, so the possibility of recognition was reduced to the theoretical minimum, and after September utter quietude would prevail. Then I could get benumbed to atrophy (or hibernation), let go of any unnecessary vital functions and think about everything, if I felt like thinking about everything. The weekend cottages were far enough from one another, I’d chosen an altogether average prefabricated little house, comfortable and well isolated, sequestered among tall trees, barely visible from the road. About eight hundred meters farther away was the river, on its banks there were stores, a pharmacy and pubs, some of which were open even out of season, which made life in the relative wilderness perfectly agreeable.

I rented out the town flat, had the tenants pay the annual rent in advance, we arranged this with my lawyer, the procedure took thirty minutes or so, they were quiet people, a married couple with two little children, one of those who look forward to everything as if they were at the beginning of who knows what. I informed them that the lawyer was the one whom they would consult in the event of any repairs or misunderstandings with the neighbors, I gave them all the furniture as a present, and I wished them all the best in their later life and work. I sounded correct, openhearted, and well-intentioned. I got to my new permanent place of residence by car, and after a short stocktaking of the situation I decided on the spot to leave the car, with a symbolic compensation, to the owner of a small store that sold fishing equipment. I stopped at this store anyway at least once a week, the guy wasn’t difficult or chatty, apparently aware of the troubles that words could create in a man’s life.

I arrived at the beginning of April, furnished the cottage, made it habitable, adapted it to the current needs, and patiently embarked on the project of automation and routine-making: I got up before seven, did the morning gymnastics, took strolls to the shore, bought three packs of cigarettes and a daily paper, the cigarettes lasted twenty-four hours, and I didn’t bother with the paper, putting it aside unread, this aspect of simulation was necessary because one becomes suspect the moment one gives up the practice of the insane majority. I’d seen enough of such cases, and it made me want to throw up. I’ve always refrained from alcohol, because it makes a fool of a man. While shopping, I uttered courteous remarks of a meteorological nature, so I didn’t get into the trouble of discussing daily political questions and sports results. True, the sales clerks didn’t bother much with my personality and work, shortly they learned by heart the list of foodstuffs I bought, so even the tiniest semblance of our communication was lacking. I had a high-quality fridge with a freezer, I washed, dried and ironed my laundry myself, and I never bought a television, the source of universal retardation.

I can say that the summer was the most unpleasant season for living in the out-of-civilization circumstances, due to the organized mass arrival, from nearby towns, of tourists whom I couldn’t avoid. Still, by the tactical reduction of movement I managed to prevent them from disturbing my painfully acquired harmony: I reduced the number of times I went fishing, I bought a carton of cigarettes in one go, mentioning the summer heat as an excuse, and I even managed to sleep through a larger portion of the day, thanks to the tablets the local pharmacist provided me with. As soon as I had arrived, I’d told her a nice lie about my past, she believed it entirely, which was strategically important for me, I took a large number of medications and a cream for hemorrhoids, and I didn’t feel like going to the nearest larger place. I became most obviously close with this girl, she was dullish and unaware of anything, she constantly bothered me with the story of a world different from the one in which she lived, and this was utterly irritating, but she had a full and pleasant voice to which I wasn’t immune, despite the years spent in the world’s dump with all-around smart-asses.

Thus, the autumn was setting in, I mostly spent time fishing, lying around, I didn’t have a single book because of the notorious fact that books are utter bullshit, I kept scratching myself and forgetting, and this act of forgetting was the priority of all priorities; the world will forget you easily, but how can you forget the world? I spent pleasant evenings on the small balcony, swinging in a comfortable chair and stopping the flow of any thoughts, even those apparently innocent and harmless. This is how a representative of the Firm found me, while I was breathing in the forest resin, in a chair in front of the cottage, a step away from a new dream.

They always look the same, one could say that I myself looked so to the others. People you can neither recognize nor remember, such people are what the Firm needs. He tried approaching me cordially. Good evening. It isn’t good. Why not? How are you? The same as you, with the difference that I don’t steal. They didn’t tell me you were like this. What did they tell you? We’ll talk about that later, take it slow. How are you? None of your business. You won’t offer me anything? No, cut it short. How are you getting on with the neighbors? As always. I don’t know them. Do they know you? Ask them. You know why they’re sending me? No, but I can see they’ve sent you. You have two men near here. I have no one. OK, don’t go too far with that. They are here, three hundred meters farther down. They’re older. Older than you. The season of hunting the retired ones? Everything else is all right, now take care of the mummies? You’re tiring me, the boss sends his regards. You know what it means? Let me hear. The house is bugged. It isn’t like yours, prefab, it’s real. Mine is also real. Theirs isn’t prefab, fuck it. They’re staying here for five more days, as far as we know. I’ve brought you a computer. What for? To listen to the recordings. Why don’t you come over to fetch them when it’s over? I’ll come if there’s anything. You’ll call me. Why would I do that? Because the boss sends his regards. And because you never leave anything unfinished. And because you happen to be their nearest neighbor. Have done with that, and then you can keep on dying in peace. What if there’s nothing? Nothing.

The next day I went on a tour of the surroundings. What did I come across? God save me from enemies of the state and dissidents, utter dumbbells and fanatics with complexes. Two senile old men who wrap themselves in expensive sweaters as soon as the sun starts going down. One of them had already reached the phase of jaw atrophy, he couldn’t open it to allow the passage of a little spoon of vitamin syrup, the other tucked his hand into a plastic bowl full of menthol sweets and left it there. Liberals, that’s what was said. Those who wish to alter the face of the society radically. Anti-state elements. They always end up like this, when they don’t end sooner, with whole-hearted assistance. A writer and a retired university professor, a common combination, charisma and its servant authority. Those who exert themselves in their youth out of naïve stupidity, later they overplay it, they get to like taking a little from the other side as well. They are caught in perversities, paranoia, obsession with total control and transfers of power, whores doing for them at frequent travels. It’s easiest with such people, an intelligent and resourceful photographer is their demon. They never take care, because they are convinced of the absolute morality allegedly innate to their enlightened being. At the slightest suggestion of blackmail they become horribly low and servile, they start offering what is not even requested, shrinking from the public to whom they’d presented themselves falsely and whom they’d educated on infantile premises. The Firm loves them and never abandons them. Dementia makes them even more valuable, in terms of experimental exoticism. These two had become the target of interest because, according to all operative findings, they hadn’t communicated with each other for decades. All significant agents of liberal milieux have tackled this affair, studies and feuilletons have been written about it. The left wing was considered decapitated due to their quarrel, had they successfully settled the conflict, it was thought, the social reality would suffer from drastically fewer imperfections than is the case today. The Firm wanted to fathom the essence of their belated encounter and figure out what such an encounter could mean.

I let five days pass. Once it was confirmed that they had left, on the sixth day I entered the empty house effortlessly and collected the equipment. It was only inside the house, the resplendent, luxuriously furnished building, that I felt quiet annoyance at what I was doing. The boss’s greetings weren’t threateningly intoned, they had nothing to threaten me with, it was an appeal to the conscience of a good and obedient soldier who responds unquestioningly to any, even the most incoherent, command by the headquarters. They flattered the vanity of an old man, setting me the task and letting me prove I was still an efficient executor. Man is a miserable, stubborn dog. A miserable dog. A piece of shit.

I decided to start before going to sleep, hoping there would be some things on the recordings that would cheer me up and alleviate the uneasiness brought on by the unwillingly taken task. I set the laptop on the nightstand and turned up the volume.


"Dwellings" by Margie Kelk, Ceramic, Photo credit: Steven Crainford, Mud Season Review


Transcript 1: 18 IX

I woke up puzzled. It rarely happens that I fall asleep immediately, I stayed awake for a long while, but I didn’t recall a single uttered word. I warmed some water for tea and replayed the recording. When the water boiled, I put a tea bag into a mug. Eight minutes passed, I keep the black tea bag that long in the water. There was nothing. Sounds, in irregular intervals: the shifting of chairs, the toilet flushing, the faucet, coughing, loud yawning, steps. Nothing else. I checked every ten minutes. The same. Nothing. I spent the day listening to their day. Nothing at all. Only in the late afternoon did I catch something of a human voice. From the recording I concluded it was ten past ten in the evening. At first I couldn’t make out what was being uttered. I listened dozens of times. Good night. Good night. Only this.

My first reaction was the feeling of utter nonsense, but it shortly changed to a rare sort of mean satisfaction in returning deceit for deceit: it would be marvelous to deliver five such recordings to them with a plea to send lots of greetings to the boss. Now I wanted to know myself why they would meet after so many years, if they weren’t on speaking terms. I decided to listen to the next recording in bed, too.

Transcript 2: 19 IX

Ivan. Are you asleep? No. We could have raised a revolution, Ivan. You think so? I’m sure. We could have. We could have.

I was fascinated. A series of short utterances, some time before dawn at that, I slept through them, only when I woke up did I manage to find them, hidden on the recording. I continued with the nightly listening technique.

Transcript 3: 20 IX

How do you look on that, after all? You think we did everything that was in our power? I think we did. I wonder more and more often how the future will look upon us. We are the history that has written itself. It seems important to you, what we used to say? Yes, it was important at the time when we talked and wrote. We are history. The world wouldn’t be the same without us. The world wouldn’t be the same without anyone. You’re right, but without us it wouldn’t be, what can you know about a world without yourself? We are the ones. Understand? It’s strange that you wonder about that. We had roles. Those were good roles, carefully written, masterfully performed. Yes. We’ve been alive for a long time, Ivan. A long time, Ivan. You’re tired of it? I don’t know. I’ve read Sartre, again. Me? I don’t know. I read sheer words, not the meanings. I love to observe the letters, this fills me with joy. Then it’s all right, isn’t it? If it fills you with joy? I don’t know. Imagine someone was listening to us now, what would they think? I don’t know. Why would anyone listen to the two of us? There are so many others. But we are history. We are. That’s why. Were you afraid in prison? I don’t know. It was good there. I wanted prison. I believed in the usefulness of experience. Prison is good. Do you believe in anything today? I don’t know, Ivan. I really don’t. We used to lie quite a lot. I don’t know if we can trust anyone, or anything. You live only if you lie. We wanted to live, you and I. Who knows, they will write about this sometime. Who knows what they will be like, whether they will know how to lie better than we did. Those lies of ours, they weren’t for nothing. Do you remember how it all started? No. And you? No. You’d dare to remember if it was possible? I don’t know. It’s all the same now. I cannot get frightened. I wear dentures and I’ve grown accustomed to them. After this it isn’t bad. And the illness? Yes. We’ve been alive for a long time, too long. How was it for you to live? As if I lived. As if I actually lived. As if that were really me.

I couldn’t wait for it to finish. The way they talked was anguished, as befits old age, the words and sentences a few hours removed from one another, they made me sick, people shouldn’t look like that. The despair was all too tangible, I didn’t want them next to me, but they managed to rip out of the recording and occupy my space and time. I was of two minds about hearing the last couple of recordings, but my disciplined instincts sent me back to the listening position.

Transcript 4: 21 IX

Dentures are an obligation, you know? It’s like having a child, you have to take good care and never lose sight of them. Never at all. You had children, Ivan? You know I did. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten. Do you remember them, your kids? Remember at least how many there were? Two. Are they alive? Only this matters, if they aren’t alive they cannot harm you. That’s what I think of children. That’s why I never had any. Now I sleep peacefully. You, Ivan, you don’t sleep peacefully. I’m sorry for you. You always have bad dreams, you say all kinds of things in your sleep. If I talked in my sleep, you couldn’t understand anything. That’s because of the dentures. Shall we eat fish today? Fish is healthy. We should follow the advice. Today’s press is brimming with advice. In the past you had to search for it, and today you have to approach it hermeneutically. Which advice is your advice, it isn’t easy to define. I agree. Remember when we had a mutual woman? Heeheeheeheeheeheehee, we were pioneers. Not even in Amsterdam was it so easy then. We had a really nice flat. We should have stayed there. Nothing stopped us from shutting the door and not allowing anyone in. We had a woman. What else did we need? I sometimes think we were ungrateful, Ivan. We justified our ingratitude with the reasons of evolutionary nature. The constant of dissatisfaction won’t improve the world. If we had that woman now, huh, Ivan? We could… dictate to her. She would keep silent and write, smiling once in a while. What did we want? I can’t remember what we wanted… How did it finish, with that woman? She left. The bed was huge, we slept in it together. You slept next to the wall, she hugged you, I hugged her. You two criticized me for turning on the other side during the night. Subconsciousness proverbially betrays you. Freud is the father of the pseudo-scientific slip. We talked about who we would rather meet, if we could. I said: Freud. You said: Ashurbanipal. She said: “I’d like to get to know myself.” Today I barely know who I am. You think she got married, that woman? Or she found it enough to be in the twofold marriage with us? It was a marriage, Ivan. A genuine community. Who are you, Ivan? Who are you? Bad breath is the worst. The dentist tells you everything’s all right, but the bad breath doesn’t disappear. You make enquiries, but no one wants to know about your bad breath. Or they know, but don’t want to know. Or they know, but they find it strange why you haven’t enquired about it. Bad breath is evil. It perches in the diaphragm, waiting. Then you stop noticing it. The less you yourself notice it, the more clearly the others smell it. This is the irony of bad breath. I missed you. I couldn’t talk with anyone like this. You were my husband’s wife, we know each other well. How many decades have elapsed? I don’t know. I care about matter and substance. Society isn’t what interests me. The law of society is the non-observance of the norm you try to establish. That’s why society is illegitimate. I can imagine an angel. I couldn’t do that in the past. I don’t know. Let’s say, I could go away once more. To see Easter Island and die. I hope I can expect that much. My children went away once. Never to return, but they write. They often write, they both have nice handwriting. Those are old-fashioned letters, unlike these electronic ones. The handwriting is always the same, but I know they both write them. Socialist education had its shortcomings, but it was genetically healthy. Ideologies have their own genetics, too. They must be old, my kids, if they’re alive. I don’t know. The letters keep coming. Who knows who writes them. We are here until tomorrow. Yes. It’s passed quickly. You wish you hadn’t come here? I don’t know. No. Did you invite me, or did I invite you? I don’t know. It’s nice here. You’ve got a nice house. Isn’t this your house? Aaah, yes. Probably I invited you. I don’t know. I don’t know. You think we’ll see each other after this? I don’t know. No.

I was falling into lethargy. I wasn’t ready. My energies were burning off, only limpness remained.

Transcript 5: 22 IX

Komodo dragon! I’ve got it! Komodo dragon! Ivan, Komodo dragon, I’ve been talking to you about it all the while! That’s its name, Ivan, where are you? Ivan? Oh dear… Oh dear, dear, dear… How did that happen to you? You’re weak, that’s what it is. You even bumped your head, that’s what it is. What shall we do now? Does it hurt? No. Not much. Don’t move. I’m here. First I need to lift you and rest you against the bed. Then you’ll drink some tea. We’ll see later what to do and how, we have the whole day before us. And it’s better that you fell now than tomorrow. If you fell tomorrow, we wouldn’t leave. You and I are old travelers, Ivan. Wait, I’ll think about which side is the best to approach you from. You were talking about a dragon. Yes, will you listen while I’m lifting you? Yes. It, this dragon, can live up to thirty years. You think it’s not much? I don’t know. It’s two meters long, approximately like the two of us. It’s the biggest reptile alive, the biggest, you’ve heard of this? No. I don’t know. Varanus komodoensis. It’s like the two of us. However, it cannot live long. Thirty years only. I think it’s still not much for those that are two meters long. Again, some people think that all stories about dragons originate from Komodo Island. As far as I’m concerned, it might be so, but maybe it isn’t. All stories originate somewhere. Peter Ouwens, you’ve heard of him, Ivan? No. He invented Komodo dragons. Don’t they exist? They exist, but he invented them, get it? One wouldn’t say you don’t understand that much. You used to understand everything. This man Ouwens had his own zoo, somewhere in Canada, he deported the dragons there. A dragon zoo, that was the name. Not Ouwens’, but the zoo’s. May a zoo be named after the two of us. At Two Ivans’, that’s a good name. I want to rise. That’s my boy. You’ve always been strong. Willpower. The Komodo Zoo was somewhere in Mauritania. You said Canada. Yes. All the same. Sorry. I’ll take you under the armpit and lift you. The Komodo dragon is a mammal. Most often it dies of bacteremia. Bac-te-re-mia. What are its enemies? The wild boar, raccoon dogs and bison. You’re heavy, I’ll try to lift you again. There, mmmmmmmmmmm, oops. Fine? Fine. I say it’s fine. Bravooooo! There, relax. The female lays eggs. You said it is a mammal. I didn’t. It can overpower a man the size of a boar. If a man dies, the Komodo dragon will eat him. This is the sad side to the story. It bears kinship to a tree trunk. Instincts, climbing, relative safety. That’s it. You’re lost in thoughts? Yes. What are you thinking about? About suitcases. We should pack. We have the entire day before us. Not any longer. You think that much time has passed? I don’t know. Yes. You look nice when you’re thoughtful, enlightened. You’ve always been like that. I used to keep front pages with your photographs. I still keep them, although I don’t know where. I don’t know where. Did we have a thermos? I think so. And a hot water bottle? We didn’t. Why didn’t we bring one?… You’re cold? No. We don’t have the entire day. We have the bus tickets. We had them validated at the station when we arrived. And here, how did we get here? There was a taxi. There used to be a taxi. It has three numbers, that service, the first is nine. We’ll recall the others. We have some time left. I don’t know how good it would be for you to rise from there. I’ll bring you lunch down there, have lunch and then you’ll rise. I won’t. I want to rise. Good. You want to rise. It must have started like this. What started? The quarrel. What quarrel? Our quarrel. We had a quarrel, remember. A small, intimate quarrel, which grew into a large, public quarrel. We used a quarreling discourse, both of us. Yes. We did. It must have been important. For the society. Yes. Don’t let it disturb you, it’s past. It is? It is. It’s no longer? The society? It’s past? What on earth did the two of us do, how did we do it… No, no, no. The discourse is no longer. Uh-huh. It’s nicer that way. For the society. It will tolerate this more easily. The society tolerates even Komodo dragons, despite everything. It isn’t a society. What is? Nature. What is it? I don’t know. Want to rise? No. Shall I bring you the lunch, down there? No. I told you I’d rise. We’ve had a hard time today. We used to cope. Cope. We used to. You’ve taken the medications? No. I’m not ill. You had some medications, I’ve seen them. Those are vitamins. Yes. Hey, how we used to. We still travel, which is fascinating. Yes. Impressive. I’ll miss you, when we get back. I don’t know. I will miss you. You’ve never told me so. I haven’t. No. Yes. I will. I’ve never got used to saccharin. We should have gone to Ecuador or Costa Rica. Imagine, if bananas cost as they do here, how much are they there? Heaven. Does it exist? We had a sledge, in our childhood. There were lots of us. Now only me. We had Christmas tree decorations too, then mother put them in a shoe box and took them to the loft. They were bitten through by mice there. It was no use putting the bitten decorations on the Christmas tree. People are easily disappointed. One should never forgive one’s parents. Milkshake with a bacon flavor. Unbearable. Bourgeois mindset produces nutritional kitsch. I’ll write about this. It’s known: you get silver after you lose gold, and bronze you win. Ivan? Yes. Asleep? No. I love you. You know? I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you. I don’t know. Yes. I don’t know. You really love me? Yes. Ivan? Yes? This Komodo dragon, it’s got wings? Of course. It’s got wings. Good night, my dear Ivan I. Good night, my dear Ivan N.

I took my laptop and headed toward the river. I didn’t stop, and I reached the bank before daybreak.


"Dwellings" by Margie Kelk, Ceramic, Photo credit: Steven Crainford, Mud Season Review


By Srđan Srdić

Srđan Srdić was born in Kikinda, Serbia, in 1977. He graduated from the Department of World Literature and Theory of Literature of the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, where he is currently doing his PhD thesis on theories of truth as applied to Jonathan Swift’s texts. Srdić was editor of the international short story festival Kikinda Short from 2008 to 2011. He is now a co-editor in the literary magazine Severni bunker and one of the editors for The European Short Story Network. He won a prize for the best prose work at the literary contest organized by the magazine Ulaznica in 2007 and the Laza Lazarevic Award for the best unpublished Serbian story in 2009. In 2010 Srdić won the only Serbian literary scholarship from the Borislav Pekic Foundation. His first novel The Dead Field was published in 2010 and it was shortlisted for the most relevant Serbian and regional prizes (NIN Prize, Vital Prize, Mesa Selimovic Prize, Bora Stankovic Prize). Srdić’s second book, a short story collection called Espirando, was published in 2011 (for which he was awarded the Biljana Jovanovic Prize and the Edo Budisa Prize), and his third book, a novel called Satori, came out in March 2013. Combustions, Srdić’s second short story collection, was published in May 2014, and his first essay collection, Notes from the Reading, three months later. Srdić’s prose has been translated into English, Albanian, Slovenian, Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian and Hungarian.