Lives Journal 10

Rick Harsch 




Wiec pijmy wino szwolezerowie,

Niech smulki prysna w rozbilm szkle,

Gdy nas nie stanie nikt sie nie dowie,

Czy dobrze bylo nam czy zle.

A gdy cie zdradzi luba dziewczyna,

To ty sie bracie z tego smej,

W milej kompani napij sie wina,

I Bolszewika w morde lej!

I Bolszewika

W morde




As you know, the Spanish Civil War was the war of great songs. I know none of them, yet I give you my best. It isn’t Spanish, and it’s not altogether on the anti-terror side of things when you come right down to it, but I never said I was a Bolshevik, did I?

I Bolszewika w morde…lej…

Tell me, Bogomil, I ask you: are there two sides to life? Is there good and evil? A famous Spanish general was asked on his deathbed, because Spain is a religious country, one that unbogomil-like believes in the supremacy of good while famously entertaining evil, the general was asked if he forgave his enemies. Enemies! He exclaimed, What enemies—I had them all shot! Tell me, Bogomil: is there both good and evil? In Guernica before the war they ate house cats in a sherry sauce. Is there good, Bogomil? Or only evil. In Spain, Bogomil, Miguel de Unamuno, perhaps distorted under the press of a tragic sense of life, supported the Nationalists, and when he changed his mind was arrested and soon died.

In Spain, the civil war had not yet begun when the Nationalists executed Federico Garcia Lorca late in the afternoon. Is there good, Bogomil—or only evil. The rich, Bogomil, is bound to the poor as the wise man to the fool. Cursed are the poor for the avarice encouraged in them by the rich, and the church that gave rise to the Inquisition, despatched influenza to clear out the New World, this church was a landowner supporting the fight against peasants and workers, stubby priests over-aware like pedophilic faggots of their vice and the scorn they inspired in men like Franco, and meanwhile nuns were savaged by Franco’s enemies. Is there good? Bogomil.

To balance evil? In Spain myrmidons retched over displays of intimacy by the left, defending without reflection a miniscule elite that owned all the land—less than one percent owned more than fifty percent and listen to me, Bogomil, this war left in its wake nothing but death and cliché, two coins of the same side, and so you need not answer me, Bogomil, for in this world good is a joke perpetrated by evil.

I don’t think I misunderstand.

It was not so long ago I sat in the Arena in Pula, thinking not of the Uskoks dancing in the streets, nor of their heads on display in Venice—their heads, on display in Rosa’s Venice, during the life span of Shakespeare, of Cervantes, da Vinci. Where do you think they got the idea for those masks? To hide their shame? I laugh in your face. No. Mockery. Soulless mockery of dead Uskoks, decapitated Uskoks. In the city where Casanova discovered the meaning of castrato, faces ever changing, why? Heads are so easily removed.

What I thought about was Spain. Bull fights. The communist bull, Franco with sword. The stands filled with the bankers of the world. Of the world. Stalin had bankers, too, in Odessa, where the gold of the Republic was put for permanent safekeeping. The next morning I included in my knapsack three wedges of jabuka burek and a bottle of water, and set out for the X marking the spot of the Viezzoli ancestral home, as marked by aforesaid Enzo Viezzoli, whom you know as a crazy irredental who squats all day flinging pieces of Piran into the sea. You know who I mean? Sometimes he’ll wear an old brown suit and a fedora, and crouch on the east side of the base of the Jurij ramparts, and bitterly anti-Jugoslav, avidly pro Zone A, remove his former Italy piece by piece to the sea. That Enzo Viezzoli. And his map required me to follow the course of the Bay of Pula north around to an unmarked road, more of a trail, that would skirt the small town of Stinjan, which I bring up to explain why I intended to walk the rather difficult bayside route—imagine, there is no convenient obala, there are sailboat inlets, homes, marshes of obscure (to me) objective—often one would have to walk half a kilometer away from the water to avoid some obstacle before I could return to my only means of bearing—Mine, and Viezzoli’s: the sea, the disguised sea of the Bay of Pula. I’ll tell you how I solved this problem, but what I’m getting at here is this: shortly after I set out I came upon a beach that was a field of mussel shells—I came across there none other than Enzo Viezzoli, picking through the shells, down to the pebbles, which he would fling into the nearby bay. Enzo, I cried, for his appearance to me had more substance than apparition by the ratio of benign spectre to mocking ghost, though of course it was not Enzo, only his double, and his laughter was hateful like an unwelcomed madness as I pressed him for an answer to the question was he or was he not a Viezzoli. Of course he was not.

Neither am I. Nor you. His appearance was what I consider a sort of arrangement, an agreement between coincidence, logic, and yearning. You see, both places, Piran and Pula, like so many other towns along the coast, were infected by the Latin Mare Nostro idea, nothing more than a reversal of the rather insane notion of land ownership when it comes down to it, the notion that one can own land leads to an organization of it, or an organization of the mind that recognizes the shape of it, so clearly etched by the watery two-thirds. The Latins, though, thought from the sea they owned toward the land—if the sea was theirn so then was the land it lapped. Enzo Viezzolis mark the coast with the regularity and desolate whimsy of church towers.

Rome’s first excuse for attacking Istria was the alleged piratical activities of the Istrians as early as 200 years before C. Before that even. The Romans sent their legions after the Istrian gadfly Aepulo in 178 B.C. This is well recorded. Aepulo ambushed the Romans and sent them scurrying from the field of battle, leaving behind the ingredients for what remains the customary Istrian orgy—food and drink. I have been unable to find out where this battle took place, but I know what happened: Aepulo and his men gorged themselves on Roman food and quickly got drunk on Roman wine, and in the afternoon the Romans returned and slaughtered them. The drunken predecessors of perhaps both Uskok and Viezzoli put up feeble resistance, the ancestor of our beloved refoshk transmuting vulgar victory into the elan of defeat. Somehow Aepulo escaped. Shortly afterward, at the battle of Nesactium, the Roman sappers diverted the river—now absent—protecting the Istrian positions. All was lost. The Istrians mistook the bizarre caprices of a fighting empire for the bizarre caprices of God and accepted defeat in a frenzy of sacrifice, murdering their women and children and flinging them over the walls before the Romans. Aepulo ran himself through. Now Istria was Italian, and would remain so, remain so as long as squatting Enzos fling rocks back into the sea. That’s irredentism: being the last of those driven out to survive—of course, plenty of coastal goombahs were driven out, stretches of the coast given over strictly to the Hapsburghs, or Croatians. But there were always Italian fishermen somewhere abouts.

Enzo was one of them, a second or third cousin to the son of one of Viezzoli’s brothers. He didn’t know the family well, and he did not remember ever having met Giordano. At least Ernestini had a memory of Giordano personally: an impossible ruffian, a coarse youth who took many women to bed, never wed, unaccountably popular with girls both Slavic and Latin, yet serious minded, born with a natural intolerance for inequity, perceived injustice. He believed in the internationalism that glued Jugoslavia together, and like most Balkans—and Italians, to be fair—he despised the authority of Moscow, but felt that as Moscow could not conquer all communist countries, that they could be counted on for support if one professed cominternal agreement, that as he lived far from the tundra the Russians were a safe ally. The immediate war was against fascism, not for anything.

He was a smart boy, Ernestini continued, the one who spoke up for his family in disputes. Unfortunately--this Ernestini’s word--Viezzoli’s emotionalism got the better of him. He adopted the task of fixing the broken world—it was a burden that had somehow fallen on his shoulders. He was too impressionable. Once he met a country lad, a farm boy, also in the party, the local reds, and the boy took Giordano back to his farm with him, for a day or a month or a season. What Ernestini recalls so vividly is Giordano’s excitement over the task of decapitating chickens. He and Gordo argued in the Verdi Gostilna, which it was called even back then, you know? On Verdijeva. Ernestini arguing that if civilization has a purpose it’s to prevent those who would rather not from having to grapple with chickens. But Gordo—the task excited him. This man of the fishes apparently considered the netting of fish effete. Whilst to break the necks of chickens was a real man’s work, peasant work. When Ernestini pointed out this contradiction, I mean in Viezzoli’s presumption that fishermen and farmers were of a different class somehow, Viezzoli told him he would never understand until he had broken a chicken neck with his bare hands, that some knowledge must come only from the labor itself—the labor theory of phenomenology—a man what eats chicken must know what is the labor of murdering that chicken—or fish, Ernestini chided him, and the volatile Viezzoli stormed out. This is one man’s version after sixty years. They never talked much after that rather absurd way of ending a friendship, but they were hardly friends as it was, and destined for different, if not opposite directions.

Of course, I had to prod Ernestini to further memory with some facts. Certainly a number of reds were idealistic hotheads as Ernestini suggests was the case with Gordo. Yet events were working on people—an environment was tossing people about, forces tectonic, climatic. In 1929, when Giordano Viezzoli was nineteen years old, the age when one is most apt to solve a cursed love affair by going off to war, the Italians executed an Istrian Croat named, more or less ironically, Vladimir Gortan. The next year four Slovene men were shot in Bazovic. You know where that is? Right next to Lipica, where the Lipizzaners come from. These were innocent Slavic nationalists who had done nothing more than meet and organize. There had been no labor agitating, no marches. Who killed them? The Extraordinary Military Tribunal. There were plenty of Italians who knew what the fascists were. It’s not extraordinary that a number of Mussolini’s opponents saw common cause to be made with their Slavic neighbors.

You remember the case of Vladimir Gortan? I asked Ernestini.

You could see it surprised him that I asked.

He muttered, literally muttered, until he arrived at the word regrettable, which he enunciated. It was not a happy memory. For some Piranese—I’d say Piranesi but that would take us back to Pula, where the Riviera was decorated by dozens of Piranesis.

For some the death of Gortan was a fulcral point. Either one was galvanized, as Ernestini came to admit Viezzoli was, or one realized that it had come time to play it safe, as Ernestini usually admits he did (with a suspect pride). I suppose he earned that pride by surviving. He obviously could not contain his feeling of superiority. Well, Viezzoli’s dead. He feels nothing. You can’t field ideas in war, only men, and if Ernestini never won a war his very survival made of him a winner at war. He argued with me that communism was evil, that Viezzoli was a dupe. I countered with my evidence that communism was never a monolith; in fact, a juggernaut only in Russia and China—and two very different jugs; further that especially during the very time we speak of—to the individual, that is, the lonesome Viezzoli, communism was a minilith, unless you think that in times of occupation and deprivation young idealists sought no more than the languid confines of a club, or a place to spend hormones, and the excess and unnatural angst of commercial spawn…Let us not mistake the whole world for America, now when it is so viciously late, declare every young idealist the dupe of some bald or moustached tyrant. What harm does nostalgia do the devil? Let us torture ourselves with the recollection of man liking man and the idea of man, of a man in true comportment with his own nature riding the bucking minilith, a reverse El Cid, the dead horse, a lipizzaner if you will, leading goodness, honest outrage, brotherhood to slaughter.

I was saying before, I think, explaining how these Italians, where they came from. A point murky, inebriate, true as a thundercloud is in there—in here—if I can find it. In 932, Capodistria, herself Italian—you might say proto-Italian, but not Venezian, Capodistria enlisted the aid of Venice in her battle against highlanders, my point being that she paid La Serenissima in vina, in vinakoper. The obvious connection Venetians to Istrians to wine. Show me a sober Uskok in Pula. What am I driving at. The wine is blood like red—no nothing so cliché. The wine is red like claret, Father Claret, whose red was but the border for his black fascism, the advisor to the nymphomaniac Queen Isabella, forced out by the great General Prim, no kidding, General Prim. In 1868 this was Spain, this was the land calling out for the blood—red/Red—of Giordano Viezzoli. The strangest circumstance requires but the lightest touch of history to make disturbing surreal sense—Primorskan lad gone off to die in Spain. With that rugged, topographically fascinating mug of yours you can not resist your obsession with ethnography. Here’s the interesting point: the Viezzolis were among the many coastal Istrian fisherfolk, the majority from Grado, which is little more than what once was Aquileia, or the first Roman colony on the upper Adriatic. A city grew and flourished as the empire declined. They were scourged by Attila, after which they remained independent of Rome. Only in the fifteenth century did Venice bring them back into the greater Latin fold.

Viezzoli must have wondered how many times he would have to break from Roma. Antifascism was merely another name for the persistent battle against daft and deadly authority. I further theorize that shifting the battle to Spain would have been to these fishermen a breath of fresh fish to fry. Who do I have to kill to sell a fish around here? I hear them asking. The thing is, Vlachhead, to a fisherman, life is simple, if precarious. The sea is dangerous, and it is concomitantly important that once the sea is braved one not have a high authority telling one what to do with one’s fish. Venice was kind enough to tell the Istrian fishtrians they could sell their fresh fish anywhere they chose, but they must reserve the salted fish for La Serenissima, in this context all too much a woman.

Is this getting through to you? I want to say that this rebellion is, not in Viezzoli’s blood, but in his patrimony. And as the Gradezans travel wider and as the enemy bloats, it is only natural that they seek their natural economic allies and ethnic specifications be damned. Perhaps it helped that the Italian Communist Party had jurisdiction. Nonetheless, it was a Slav, Peko Dapchevich, who led Giordano to battle. Ernestini knew little or none of this as it was happening. Communists made him uneasy. Plodnich, of course far too young to know these things first hand, knew only that there was really no Slovene communist party until 1940 or 41. The Comintern had recognized the Slovene right to self-government as early as 1934. Viezzoli would have known that…

Gospod! Slivovich—this much. Another bottle would kill us.

But listen, now. He’s coming.

Listen: what I mean is from here the information is vague, second hand, gaps filled in during lapses in gaps.

Peko Dapchevich came to Piran in 1936 on his way to Spain via Paris. Dapchevich was later to distinguish himself in the Balkan aspect of World War Two. You can read about him in Djilas. The best story involves the Italians. Early in the war the Italians accused the Partizans of atrocities. The Partizans were often quite honorable, enough so to investigate such charges. In one case, Dapchevich and his troops were accused of burning the corpses of dead Italians then herding hungry pigs onto them for to shred them to pieces. No complaint was registered against the method of execution, so it seems a rather absurd charge, a waste of time. Still, the higher command looked into the matter. Djilas himself questioned Peko, who said, yeah, sure, we did this—after the battle we burned the corpses so they would not spread infection in the summer heat. Attracted by the smell, hungry pigs from abandoned villages waited for us to withdraw and then closed in to feast on what we had cooked for them.

It is fact that Viezzoli left Piran in September or early October of 1936 with Peko Dapchevich. How they reached Spain is a matter for speculation. The Austrian border could be difficult. Around that time, a year or two before, Tito was nearly captured crossing into Austria. He was saved when a child pissed on him, so amusing the guards they forgot to check his papers.

Hvala and don’t come back even if I beg you.

Listen: why go through Austria when you’re already in Italy? You forget that this was Italy then. The least of Viezzoli’s fears was getting across Italy. Don’t ask me how Dapchevich managed it. Perhaps by sea: he was recruiting amongst fishermen. So here’s what they did—no need to test the Italo-Franco, I mean the Italo-Spaniard border yet, for they know Tito is in Paris organizing the underground railway of the International Brigades. All they have to do is reach Tito and he’ll get them across.

Now, today, or a few months ago, travelling from here to Berne was a matter of twelve hours: bus, train, train, train, Berne. Back then, various circumlocutions may have been necessary north of Domodossola. Who knows. It could not have been difficult for fascists or those posing as fascists to gain entry into Switzerland. All one had to do was claim a safe deposit number or hint at a pocket full of fillings. So posing as fascists up through Berne, down to Geneva, pavane into France, to Paris, avoiding the wrong crowds, Minhs and Nabokovs, and next thing Josip Broz has got you training in Albacete, east of Madrid. I would not be surprised to learn that from the moment Giordano said ribija derce to this very spot, passed through Paris and on to train in Spain, mainly on the plano, not two weeks had gone by.

The next few weeks one must simply read up on the Spanish Civil War. Giordano Bruno—excuse me—Viezzoli would have trained under a galling embezzler called Vital Gayman, a name which could not survive seven minutes in an American junior high school. And thanks to an homoncular lunatic misnamed Lazar, Lazar Stern, alias Komrad Kleber, the International Brigades would be integral to the defense of Madrid—by the first of November, Viezzoli and Dapchevich would be in Madrid, where the Nationalists had established a peninsula of fascism penetrating across the Manzanares into the University. Ernestini did not know whether Viezzoli fought directly under Kleberstern, or if he was with someone else. It’s all a mess, but so much has been written about it, I’m confident as a disciplined historian I could have straightened it out.

Incidentally, as an aside, Kleberstern is often used by fascist swine to illustrate the moronism of international communist dreaming. I would point out that Kleberstern died in Russia, which was not the place for a Romanian to be carrying out his romances, in other words his hilarious return to Stalinist execution hardly makes a case against the ideals that Stalin betrayed.

The letter came from a Martinet.

Martinez, you mean.

No, Ernestini insisted, and spelled out Martinet.

A Frenchman?

I don’t know, Ernestini said. And there was real sadness in his expression.

The fighting was around a hospital attached to the University of Madrid. The enemy had crossed the Manzanares into what was called University City. Snipers took their positions. They knew who they were looking for. Giordano Viezzoli? No. Durruti. Buenaventura Durruti.

A sniper got him from the Clinical Hospital at four in the afternoon on November 19, 1936. Giordano Viezzoli was killed by a sniper in that area of the University Hospital on that day, too, but probably nobody can know exactly when or where, unless the diary of a comrade survives. From the Clinical Hospital roof one imagines a commanding vista, a sweep of many city blocks. You saw what the snipers did in Sarajevo, altering the city posture from the café slouch to the running quasimoto. A sniper’s bullet requires a target no larger in circumference than its own. A sniper shot Giordano Viezzoli in the head.



(The Skulls of Istria, chapte.5)






Rick Harsch is a writer of vision and talent whose sharp intellect casts the widest of nets. He is a wily contradiction: suspect and detective; philosopher and actor; sensualist and ascetic; provocateur and the man in the cross hairs (as he has the long train of history and the resulting dystopia of our "best" efforts at civilization in his cross hairs). He is a writer whose mind you will want to occupy and through whose eyes you will want to see. The bitter refreshment of the experience will never fail to astonish his readers.


David Vardeman, playwright and novelist, author of "Based on Real Events" and "Atlantis Needs Victims"

Rick Harsch’s tavern confession novel, The Skulls of Istria, is more seamless than Camus’ The Fall and every bit as erudite as Antunes’ South of Nowhere. The narrator is as cognizant of the tragic tectonics of political life as those in Harsch's other books and as feckless in his attempts to navigate the proscribed resultant quotidian. Though the plot is an attenuated thriller, the real thrill of the book is an exquisitely horrific encounter with literal skulls I found either surreal or hyper-real or both. This is a book that tears the skin off the skulls of modern man and butts them against the skulls of history.

Trent Stewart, Author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society



RICK HARSCH, American writer (b. Denver, Colorado), author of a trilogy of novels The Driftless Trilogy (2002) about remote place in the Midwest of USA; since 2001 he lives in Slovenia (Izola), in more recent works he also deals with Slovenian topics. In the Slovenian translation published books: Kramberger with Monkey (2012), Arjun and the Good Snake (2013) Adriatica Deserta (2015), Skulls of Istria (2015). He is represented in the collection From one language to another – Anthology of contemporary minority and immigrant literature in Slovenia (2014).

(Ed. note I.A.) 



Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)