Lives Journal 5

Ivo Antich

 

COCKROACHES 

 

As Emona expanded southwards, it was decided in the city council that between Grad and Barje, i.e. on both sides of the concrete canal of the tamed River Equrna (in ancient Slav times it was called the Ljubljanica), they would build a housing estate »for our intelligentsia«. The purpose of this new estate was particularly emphasised and it was referred to so often that the abbreviation BLOZANI was coined and its pleasant melody meant it was soon on the lips of all the people as a kind of magic formula for solving all manner of problems and especially those connected with city-planning.

When the decision to begin construction was formally announced in the main hall of the city council which had been specially decked out for the occasion (a giant laurel wreath with fairy lights was placed around the Admiral’s portrait above the speaking platform), Mayor Wolfgang Karamehmedowitsch explained the decision with the following introductory words of his speech, which lasted precisely five hours:

»Dear city councillors, we are all very clearly aware that today is a very special day of celebration both for our city as well as for our whole country because BLOZANI, this monumental, melodically sounding, symbolic summary of our currently most important task, is our past and present unique historical emblematic slogan with which we manifest before the whole world the unbreakable European harmony of our homeland with the imperative of global democratic awareness, in the victorious working practise of patriotically fulfilling the enterprising will of the summit of our power, that concrete and evident progress must be realised in surpassing the traditional, universally fatally harmful interior division of inhabitants of our capital into so-called grashchaki and so-called barjanci, i.e. with highly educated consequences for humanomistic and technomistic intelligence while at the same time safeguarding the possibility of productively distinguishing, through the delicateness of our common awareness, the value of the evident proof of the authentic vitalistic diversity of social wealth, which in a particularly important sense means the class of intelligentsia, for whose education all working citizens contribute a certain drop of sweat in the form of taxes for the will of the summit of our power is at the same time our common will, i.e. the will of each and every one of us, no longer to surrender our hum-tech-intelligentsia to the unsupervised poor quality housing that has been inherited from the ancient Slav scorners of the intelligentsia, but that it should as soon as possible be united in a select and properly furnished city space …«

Each time the mayor mentioned the »summit of our power« (everyone knew this referred to the Admiral who could not be directly mentioned as a mark of special respect) the city councillors rose from their seats and interrupted the speech with five minutes applause and march-like foot-stamping.

In the snack-bar »The Golden Cage« (that is how it was unofficially named due to its unusual metallic fittings consisting of many gilded tables, columns and meshes) in the Institute for Humanomistics-Technomistics (IN-FOR-HU-TE), a group of researchers listened to the mayor’s speech during their work break via a large screen on one of the walls. Apart from the director’s office, the snack-bar was the only place in the palace where all employees could meet and was separated into two halves with separate entrances. Of the about thirty male and three female scientists present, two of them, dr. Johannes Schwabitsch and dr. Janez Shvabić (the latter insisted on the so-called »soft« ć« at the end of his surname, claiming that it was a matter of respect for the individual identity and memory of his father Jovan who was supposed to have been a »true Serb« from Lusatia), also stood up at a high table. The atmosphere here was more relaxed than in the city council, no-one was obliged to listen to the speech and when the mayor mentioned »the summit of our power« no-one clapped or stamped their feet. Johannes and Janez stood out from the other employees of the Institute not only as a result of their names and surnames but also by their similar appearance and their uninterested demeanour. But even among the other employees there was no lack of all manner of unusual character traits typical of highly qualified scholars.

They had known each other since childhood; according to family tradition, which was respected by the parents of both men, they were even distantly related as Johannes’ father Johann too came from Lusatia, but claimed that he was »a true German from one thousand years ago«. Johannes was a linguist and literary historian, i.e. a humanomistic scientist while Janez was a mathematician and expert for rocket turbines, i.e. a technomistic scientist. Johannes’ family lived in Grad while Janez’s lived in Barje, and they only became better acquainted when they were in the same class in grammar school for their families did not associate with each other because in the time of their youth, i.e. in the ancient Slav period there was antagonism or even animosity between the permanent inhabitants of both banks of the River Ljubljanica, the present-day Equrna. Those living on the right bank below Grad and within Grad itself were known popularly as Grashchaki, for they were considered to be a more or less fictitious city elite, while those on the left bank and further on across Barje as far as Mount Krim were known as Barjanci, and this had rather more rural-proletarian connotations. The children especially liked to tease and insult each other; one of the provocative songs sung by the children of Grad began like this: »Barjanci marsh-dwellers, Barjanci Siberians, marshland Siberialand, beyond Krim the Russian winter …« And the reply from Barje: »the Grashchaki are idiots, the castle burns, the castle-dweller flees and holds his butt …«

Those children that went to study at university also chose their field study in keeping with this separation: the Grashchaki chose mainly humanomistic subjects while the Barjanci chose technomistic subjects. And only very few members of either group chose a biomistic subject; the vast majority of biomistics came from other parts of the city.

The animosity between the two sides became particularly clear each year on the feast of Saint Vid, 15th June, when they organised battles between boatmen from the municipalities of Grad and Barje; these battles were not innocent affairs as the brawlers fought each other with oars while standing in the boats and some did not get away with it lightly, some even drowned. These battles, although they had been enacted for centuries as a ritual preservation of martial psycho-physical competence, left their marks on people; Johannes and Janez had more reason than other people from the opposing banks to associate with each other due to affinity by marriage. They had both married one of two Chinese sisters who were immigrant cooks in one of Emona’s many Chinese restaurants – there were between three and five in each city quarter. The sisters were twins and Johannes and Janez, whose wives measured only up to their waists in height, were never entirely sure which one they had married. Their wives consoled them by saying that for Chinese people too »all white people look alike«.

»That sounds like the mayor,« said Johannes with a slow and absent-minded voice while staring into the glass of mineral water in front of him.

»I too would say that sounds like the mayor,« said Janez with an equally slow and absent-minded voice while also staring into the glass of mineral water in front of him.

»It is awkward if you are so short-sighted that you hardly see anything even with glasses,« said Johannes.

»It is awkward if you are so short-sighted that you hardly see anything even with glasses,« agreed Janez like an echo.

At the neighbouring table stood the lone figure of dr. John Gril, researcher at the Institute for Hygiene (IN-FOR-HY), which was housed in a special building not far from the IN-FOR-HU-TE. The Institute for Hygiene included all the sciences that could not really be included either under humanomistics or technomistics: these were mainly different branches of biomistics such as biology, biochemistry, biophysics, biogeology, biogeography, bioecology, biogenetics, biohygiene, bioeconomics, biomedicine … Gril was very proud to have been born in the USA to an émigré family which later returned to the homeland while he went to school in Emona and retained his American name; he became a doctor of medicine and to the surprise of all his acquaintances took a job at the IN-FOR-HY. »I don’t understand why he is wasting time in this God-forsaken hole of ours if he is an American?« wondered many people, but when he heard anything like this he always replied in a somewhat jokingly mysterious tone that it was simply a case of a »superior mission«.

Many people found strange the nickname Cyclo which only his colleagues from the IN-FOR-HY addressed him with; some of the men at the bar »who know everything« claimed he was blind in one eye like Cyclops while others said his nickname was like a kind of not entirely legal operative code for Gril’s professional specialisation but no-one took any of this particularly seriously, one of the reasons being that John was sociable and friendly with everyone.

Gril was fit as a fiddle and was of particularly good sight and hearing. He was currently on an official visit to the IN-FOR-HU-TE and after finishing his business he stopped at the snack-bar. Being a man of cheerful and boldly open character he could not restrain himself when he heard the conversation between Johannes and Janez. He laughed out loud, stepped up close to them, placed a hand on one of either of their shoulders and exclaimed:

»Ha-ha, lads, you really are funny … OK, boys, cheer up, after all we’re not zombies, ha-ha … You’ve forgotten that when we were at the meeting with your director this morning he announced the mayor’s speech … You were in the director’s office, I was there too … And it would do you no harm if you went to the optician some time again soon …«

Johannes and Janez who were both taller than he was stared downwards at him from close up, as if they wanted to examine their sudden interlocutor, but they did not say a word.

Gril was a little confused by their almost grave-like sinister silence and he felt uncomfortable; he even thought they might be the special external agents of Estek (Secret Accounting Service), so after some time he blurted out in a rather more subdued voice:

»Yes, it was about time this was sorted out … After all this is very good … new houses for you humanomistics and technomistics … Well, you were pushed away a little also due to your left-right division … We hygienists have of course already settled the matter …«

Johannes and Janez still failed to utter a single word; Gril inaudibly clapped his hands together with a look of surprise on his face, then excused himself with a slight bow for having disturbed them, and went over to the bar to pay for his drink.

»The mayor says they will build these apartment blocks as soon as possible so we won’t wait too long for our new flats,« said Johann after a while in a dull, monotonous voice.

»Yes, the mayor says they will build these apartment blocks as soon as possible so we won’t wait too long for our new flats,« replied Janez in the same tone of voice.

After fifteen years, following serious, even entirely criminal entanglements with various Slovenian and foreign investors and construction companies, long three-storey blocks (they could not be any higher due to the marshy ground), made of bare concrete slabs at last grew up amongst the old houses and villas on both sides of the river.

Although the blocks were obviously prefabricated, almost temporary in nature, their residents, and especially the children, were very proud of their status and looked down on the residents of nearby dilapidating houses as on a »lower caste«. The blocks had several entrances from the staircases; in order to both surpass and keep to tradition, the apartments on either side of the staircase were allocated in such a way that on the right side (seen from the road, from the courtyard it was obviously the other way round) lived the humanomistics, and on the left the technomistics.

As soon as they moved in, each on either side of the staircase, Johannes and Janez, known to all as extremely peaceful friends, had a frightful argument over the Admiral’s portrait, which hung in the middle of the intermediary wall on each floor. Johannes being a determined humanomistic claimed the portrait was absolutely not necessary in that place, that this »primitive idolatry« was entirely superfluous, while Janez, being a true technomistic said that the »social order must be equal for all,« so the portrait was an essential warning against humanomistic anarchism. One of them took down the portrait and shouted furiously while the other hung it back up; when their Chinese wives joined the daily disputes, there was such a commotion that it soon became unbearable for the other residents of this staircase. Some even thought it was the wives who were the first to fall out over the portrait and then transferred the dispute to their husbands for whom the portrait was only the trigger which released the genetically determined hatred that crossed the Equrna and had been smouldering for many years. Someone called the police but the visit by two uniformed policemen had no effect whatsoever; it was no different when two Estek agents in civilian, tightly girded leather coats and with hats over their eyes spoke to the two quarrellers. Then one day, a white van with dark windows pulled up in front of the block; the invisible driver stayed at the wheel and dr. John Gril stepped out with a black bag over his left shoulder. He stepped briskly through the entrance and climbed up to the third floor. He looked at the empty metallic frame that was standing on the floor and leaning on the wall between Johann’s and Janez’s flats; he rang both doorbells. When they both opened up on either side he said to them:

»Lads, you really are funny … One of you puts the portrait up, the other takes it down … There isn’t even a portrait in the frame any more, you haven’t even noticed you’ve destroyed it ... But anyway, I’ve come to inspect your apartments … You know, we must disinfect … Disinfection, disinsection, cyclonisation … Cockroaches are spreading through the building … Those ones, anyway, some people call them Shvabi …«

 

 

 

 Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich

 

 

 

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(BLOZANI – abbr. for: a housing estate for our intelligentsia; Grad, Barje – the parts of Ljubljana; Grad – Slov.: castle, manor; Barje – Slov.: marsh, moor; Grashchaki Slov.: lords of manor; Barjanci Slov.: marsh-dwellers¸ Shvabi Slov.: pl., a sort of cockroaches, also derog. for a German. – The text of Cockroaches is taken from the manuscript collection of short stories Golden cage; note by author) 

 

 

 

Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)