20. Parties and Wars
Why do fancy places and fine events always make me feel miserable? They truth is, they don’t. I risk becoming a pill with my ceaseless laments about my miseries, because the truth is, fancy parties and the high life make me angry. They make me angry because I was a diplomat’s daughter, a girl of privilege, deprived by national disaster of my native milieu of fancy parties. By now, that must be obvious to my readers, if not to me.
Yet there is a deeper truth beyond my troubled personal and political history, because, looking back objectively, I must say: fancy parties are supposed to make people miserable. Just as jolly Christmas holidays make the family troubles surface, the ghosts of intimate hatred, rivalry, thefts and perversions that haunt every family, that human beings gamely struggle to deny.
I am sitting in the famous royal hall in Vienna. The famous Vienna Boys Choir is singing, the waltzes are playing without a flaw, the fancy haute society Viennese are dancing: ladies dressed in long dresses, gentlemen in tuxedos. I feel quite fancy myself; I am dressed in my best, I have a nice hairstyle and an elegant suit. I know that I look pretty. Men stare at me and women sometimes even smile. That’s the victory condition at a party, and yet I am the lost soul, without joy, without myself.
It is the beginning of the wars in my country: I am a Serbian Cassandra, but a frightened one. I feel miserable, and I want to get drunk.
I am sitting at an huge, almost empty table. An elderly Viennese couple is sitting with us, we few Serbs from Yugoslavia, that falling empire. We are not even conversing, just nodding amiably to each other. I notice with amazement that other tables are crowded, that people are laughing and congratulating each other. Other people are aware of the oncoming war: wars can be fun for those who are not the victims. We Serbs, the infamous aggressors, are sitting alone in that fancy European ballroom. Because we are doomed.
The nice fancy couple sitting with us seemed unaware of our odor of blood. They started asking us about life in Belgrade. I was describing that life, and my heart was sinking. First I was faking it, then I could not go on lying, and finally I broke down:
- Life is shit in Serbia, in Belgrade! Our men are being drafted, nationalism is soaring, violence is in the streets, our culture is in decadence. We are done for.
The gentleman in the tuxedo politely blinked.
- I know about that, he said, I was a Nazi myself, for fifteen minutes. My father was killed on the Russian front, and I survived the Allied bombings of Vienna by hiding under my mother’ s skirt.
- These fifteen minutes were when Hitler’ s army entered Vienna. My father lifted me on his shoulders and I waved and waved to the Panzer tanks. I felt proud, and never again have I ever felt proud of my nation or my history. After all these years, I became religious. In these times, I pray every day.
I stared at his beautiful kind wife. She beamed at me. She was a humanitarian worker. She knew a lot about poverty, wars, humiliation… and she didn’t fear those things. She was historically ahead of me.
She said simply:
- If you ever need a shelter, a place to survive, you can be my guests. You can count on staying here in Vienna.
I started crying.
- This empire here has fallen too, repeatedly, she said. The Austro-Hungarian empire, then the Nazi empire.
My own grandfather was Austro-Hungarian, I realized suddenly. Were we Europeans always the same crowd of fancy, miserable people: soldiers in gold braid who crushed democracy?
My host was an engineer, and so was my father. My hostess was a humanitarian, my mother a doctor. My misery in this lovely place was the underside of all such places.
I wiped my tears, and had a last waltz with my host. Later, I indeed came to Vienna, as his wife had predicted. We became good friends. We wrote stories to each other.
A very embarrassing matter, to be a civilized European. Very, very. It was during an International Pen Conference in Prague: Vaclav Havel, the legendary dissident president, made a party for the writers of PEN. Activists, literateurs, cultured people who claim they want to make the world a better place.
I am there as well, in my miserable Serb identity, as part of the Serbian writerly delegation, a crowd which is not behaving properly as far as dissident human rights are concerned. They were silent, for instance, about the resolution passed condemning Serbian artillery attacks against civilians in Dubrovnik. I know about that, but I have no power to act: I have no official assignment. I just drink, and observe other, prouder delegates, people with better passports, with better historical circumstances. Does that make them better than us? They think so, especially some of them.
A writer comes to me to inquire about my country. I say: it is Serbia.
- Oh, says he. And what do you do?
I translate books from other languages, I said peevishly, thinking, that’ s safer than admitting that I write, myself.
— And what work did you translate, this insistent delegate pressed.
- Well, I made a Serbian anthology of Italian modern literature.
- It, was you who did that! He jumped to his feet from his chair.
- Well yes, I said surprised that he knew about it.
- I am a translator from Italian too, he said. And I am Croatian.
- That’s fine with me, colleague, I said amiably.
- But are you yourself Italian? he asked.
- No, I am Serbian, though I consider myself half Italian.
- Do you have any Italian blood? he asked, with a slight edge of menace in his voice.
I thought of lying to him, just to cut short this terrible encounter, which I knew cannot end well. I realized that I had read his miserable anthology of Italian literature. I had done my own book in order to show a different perspective.
- I have no Italian blood, I said bravely, and looked defiantly at him. I just grew up in Italy and studied there, for many years.
- Then you are not half Italian! You should never have dared to make an Italian anthology!
There was no “but” for this enraged man. Serbs were shelling his brand-new Croatian country, and, worse yet, stealing his Italian culture.
We began yelling in English, since he refused to speak with a Serbian and I could not manage his Croatian demands. We had a war underway, and a messy scene ensued. Goaded by his insults, I threw a glass of wine on him.
The waiters rushed to him and gave him a handkerchief. He turned on his heel and left.
- Sorry pal, I said, in war and literature everything is permitted.