A story from the “The Giant Suitcase” collection of stories, by Ivan Dodovski.
Me, poor me, I know his story best of all. From the moment he first took me between his fingers to my fateful flight over his head, I was his constant companion: true, sad, and silent. And as I lie dying, swooning in Faulkneresque nostalgia, I am fated to tell his tale.
The whole flood of first feelings rushes through my head and I still recall his first lascivious touch. It was in the bazaar, in the old art supply store that’s no longer there. I remember as if it were yesterday: he enters the store with remarkable zest, looks around the shelves, and then turns to me. The first glance! Then everything took its inevitable course—elemental passion held sway. Our life together was one of love and conflict like everyone else’s. The passion of the early years gave way to the sober mania of midlife, and finally old age came and put an end to his agitation. Over the years his once youthful fingers relaxed and instead of their pressure I felt an ever gentler touch. Later his fingers just guided my slow, aged movements. And then, finally, he left me unexpectedly and senselessly—after so many mutual endeavors he deserted me in the moment of his last creative verve to embrace another. But I have to tell it differently, without sentimentality.
I first heard his name in his atelier: Marko Redstarski. “One passionate embrace with you and I can paint the ultimate death of capitalism!” he declared to me when I first entered his garret lined with red oil paintings. That is how our love actually began. Hidden from the eyes of history that was being written around us. No one knew about our special, intimate relationship. Only he and I knew that we were inseparable and together forever. Whether resting between his fingers or clinging to his chest—I still remember the supple hem of his breast pocket under his jacket, so close to his heart—I was always with him, everywhere. From the glittering days of fame in galeries and hotels, at receptions with the President, at festive functions on Victory Day, Republic Day, and Day of the Army, but also in the time before that, when he declared himself a Communist dissident, and up until his death, when he hastily fled and left me old and spent—I was the only reliable witness. I watched, I listened. Now, when I’m telling the story, it all sounds so pale and disjointed.
No one can explain his lasting mania. It was like an unknown potion that, once imbibed—you don’t remember when and where—causes life-long inebriation. Such was his belief. He often spoke to me about it. But words can’t tell everything.
This is what I found out about him: he grew up in poverty in the middle of the century, a boy with bony hands and pronounced temples, a high brow and inquisitive eyes, that looked into the face of the war that had come. Yes, you can say it all began with the war. He greeted the occupying soldiers with a wry smile in the narrow lanes of his neighborhood and graffitied their profiles with charcoal on the white walls. They were clearly caricaturesque. The elders of the quarter wondered who depicted the fascist soldiers of the east Balkan kingdom so provocatively. And they trembled with shame at the thought that this art could be seen as a form of resistance and mockery—resistance through ridicule. It was all just a game of a juvenile hand, a probing and testing of boundaries. But what began in this way soon became an entrenched habit of the hand: it started to settle ideological scores, it drew and drew, and until just a moment ago it held me and made me part of this inspirational, maniacal defiance. But now, like I said, the hand has reached out for its last grab. It did not paint its own death but embraced it. But now back to the story.
The first war years slowly passed. The Turkish bagels and childhood games became ever fewer. The exoticism of resistance became an obstinate obsession. With a cap perched on his head and a serious mien he stole into a secret meeting of the elders of the quarter, longing for the revelation he had sensed: “Revolution!” It was there that he heard the word for the first time. It aroused a mania in him, something like the carnal yearning for the body of a woman. Yes, you could say it was love, passion, a mighty libido, which all his dreams flowed into and from which, in turn, vitality sprang. In short, he felt this was the name for the meaning of life and that’s why he repeated it feverishly his whole life long.
Then came his time with the Partisans. On green mountainsides, beneath centennial trees, he sketched the immortal faces of his comrades-in-arms with a stunted pencil on a lined notepad from the general store. Those were the first moments of love, of embracing the revolution. There was death and dying, of course, pain and suffering, and many a hardship. Marko Redstarski drew all this meticulously, fanatically, in his little pad. I learnt two more things about this period of his life: that he tore leaves out of the pad every day and gave them to the Partisans for cigarette paper, so not one of these drawings remained from the early days of his spirited love; and that he suffered a wound in the left shoulder during the final assault to free the city; but the war ended with him alive—terminally intoxicated by the sweet smells of the new age.
As you know, we met after the war in an old art supply store in the bazaar. From that point on I know about things first hand.
The city council allocated the meritorious Partisan and artist an atelier in the bazaar quarter. It was in an old, two-story house with a yellow facade and narrow windows, with shops on the first floor like most of the buildings in the bazaar. A long, steep staircase of oil-painted wood led up to his atelier on the second floor. That was the dark entrance to a new realm. Up in that dismal garret, surrounded by cobwebs and mold, Marko Redstarski pursued his obsession even more ardently than he had in the expanses of the mountains and forests. He made his atelier a strange den indeed: he covered the decrepit walls with red canvasses, and on these he painted and painted his love.
Only two others came up to this den: a penniless young journalist and a musician, a little older, whom the new times had forced to take on a job as trumpeter in the city’s Party brass band. A remarkable bond developed between the three of them, and that was what brought them together in the atelier. All three of them were in love, in a way. But each had a nagging urge that is hard to convey in words. It was like a drill that ate into them over the years. The simplest description is perhaps that it was like an abyss, a gulf between their dreams and real life.
Their friendship first aroused suspicion when a certain watchful ministry discovered that Marko Redstarski had stopped painting emaciated Partisans. They soon learnt that he was working on a monumental female nude and painting her body bright red. Both the journalist and the musician were summoned to the ministry and questioned while the work was in process. The officials wanted to know how far the painting had progressed and what the friends thought of the artist’s work. This marked the beginning of a deep disquiet in Marko Redstarski, the journalist, and the musician.
“They’ll never understand my love,” Marko Redstarski told his two friends one afternoon.
“I understand you entirely,” the journalist said.
“Me too,” the musician nodded.
“And they think I’m practicing sabotage!” the artist went on. “They want to rob the revolution of its charm, its beauty and mysticism, its solemnity…”
“We were on the Party’s agenda yesterday,” the musician explained. “They told me our meetings are suspect. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘They smack of decadence and cast a shadow on our glorious achievements,’ they said. A comrade took me aside and told me in confidence: ‘It’s in your best interest to stay away from the artist. You should know, you have a job as musician. Just follow the line and stick to the score…’”
“Same here,” the journalist said, lighting up a cheap cigarette. “I was given ‘a friendly word of advice’ at the editorial office.”
“Comrades—,” Marko Redstarski suddenly spoke in a loud voice, pouring rakia into three glasses, “a toast!”
The journalist and the musician were rather taken by surprise; they rose from their stools and both took a glass. They glanced now at the artist, now at the nude behind him. The raucous red beset their senses and their heads reeled from the smoke of the journalist’s cigarette.
“What are we drinking to?” the journalist asked.
“To the correct line!” the artist announced.
“To the five lines I’m meant to forget so I can follow the correct line!” the musician cried; he shifted his heavy body, giggled, and blushed.
“Long live our red Revolution, splendid and immortal, that no brickheads can sully,” the journalist said in a strangely distended and fanatical voice.
Their glasses met with a clink. They were never to toast again. The journalist died one or two years later on the prison island Goli Otok, breaking rocks for not toeing the Party line. A different fate was in store for the musician: he “repented,” became a regular visitor at the ministry, and as a good informer recited the conversations from the cramped room with the red paintings. Thereafter he played the trumpet for the rest of his working life, and now he is a pensioner. He gives private trumpet lessons and has an astonishing number of young students, including the son of the mayor who won office in the first democratic elections in our country. In any case, Marko Redstarski lost his atelier. For several years he was under a kind of house arrest and fell out of touch with almost everyone. I was his only comfort.
All the years after that event were filled with pitiless stuggle for Marko Redstarski. “Revolution!” he exclaimed to himself again and again. And painted with tenacity. Monumental canvasses took shape with glowing figures of people prepared to die in the name of the ideal—pictures full of fire, blood, and sun. When he was rehabilitated in the late seventies these pictures sold for large sums of money and were hung in important civilian and military institutions of the country. Some of them were bought by the government and ended up as presents in Cairo, New Delhi, and other cities of the “peace-loving and non-aligned countries.”
I need to clarify one important thing. The pardon and favor that Marko Redstarski received, the fame he gained, and the money that changed hands did nothing to alter his vigor—they just made him more nervous. Something gnawed at him more than ever before: “Have I sold myself to dishonorable Freemasons, to sinister enemies of the revolution?!” he asked at the back of his mind. This agitation never let go of him again. He turned into a living critique of the system. This mania, after all, was a noble offshoot of the lucid love of his youth. The country’s turn to the West displeased him—he longed for a return to the clean, uncorrupted dawn of pure order.
When the system collapsed in the early nineties he fell ill. One of his legs packed it in—some gangrenous critter wanted to undermine his long march on the shining path of the Idea. When he realised after the operation that his left leg had been amputated, his face contorted and his hair fell out. All he had left were his eyes, and they spoke volumes. I remember one day he hauled himself to the central square, hobbling on his false leg and crutches. The square was abuzz with people. Marko Redstarski straightened up and yelled:
“You’ve got it coming to you with this new capitalism!” A few people turned round and Marko Redstarski was going to say something more, but he choked on his tears. He started to cry like a child, he tottered, and almost fell over. Several passersby steadied him and sat him down on a bench.
“They caught up with me in hospital… Think I haven’t noticed? The CIA… While we were building Communism they were working against us… They think I’m finished because I’ve just got one leg…”
A young man stopped beside him in astonishment.
“D’you say something, Pop?”
“It’s not all over yet…,” Marko Redstarski continued, more to himself.
“What?” the young man asked.
“The world revolution is not over!” Marko Redstarski screamed at the top of his voice and began to brandish his crutches with a fanatical gleam in his eyes: he was beaming with joy, alive with revolutionary zeal.
I am a witness that his ageing body was later taken to hospital; they gave him a fat jab and he lay down peacefully on a bed. Marko Redstarski slept long. I don’t know, I really don’t know whether he dreamed—and what. No one knows. But I do know that in the days that followed his words turned more and more to drivel, he rarely got up, and they put cold compresses on his head. He seemed to be living on the edge of another world—he stared goggle-eyed as if expecting a revelation. No one, not even me, who at his insistence was allowed to stay nestled against the breast pocket of his hospital pajamas, could quite make sense of his rambling words. I just had an inkling because he spoke about himself. I think he wanted to say that he was dreaming of an upright life and that he had a right to this dream. Maybe he was also speaking about passion, the inextinguishable flame… Red dreams, I said to myself.
It was the last evening at around midnight. Unexpectedly for me, he slowly got out of bed and lowered himself with difficulty into the wheelchair, which stood within arm’s reach. I heard the rubber wheels turn and the wheelchair squeak faintly under Marko Redstarski’s small weight. He wheeled himself out into the corridor and then on toward the office where the night-duty doctor and nurse were. There in the dim corridor of Marko Redstarski’s hospital I felt a strange sensation—like a moment of soothing calm. In the near-silence I heard noises behind the closed door of the office. I tried to identify them and realized that they were coming from a television, and that it was the moaning of a woman in orgasm. To my amazement Marko Redstarski moved up to the keyhole and peeked through.
Could he see the screen and the naked woman climaxing? I don’t know. But I do know how it all ended. Marko Redstarski, strangely radiant, took me in his fingers and flung me up toward the ceiling, while he himself tried to stand up erect on his one false and one healthy leg.
“Revolution!” he screamed in wild glee and hurled himself into the air, flying out of the wheelchair with outstretched arms as if heading for an embrace.
I—an ordinary wooden paintbrush and faithful witness of a lonely, fanatical life—fell to the floor and shattered. In the end, my only consolation is telling this story, although no one is going to believe it.
Translation: Will Firth
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.