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A tender and revealing set of stories by the uniquely delicate Bosnian writer, Alma Lazarevska. Avoiding the easy traps of politics and blame, Lazarevska reveals a world full of incidents and worries so similar to our own, and yet always under the shadow of the snipers and the bombs that we know are out there and that occasionally impinge on the story in shocking ways. One of the finest works to have emerged from the tragedy that was the siege of Sarajevo. The Award for "Best Book of 1996" from the Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina • Translated by the award-winning Celia Hawkesworth (short-listed for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize & winner of the Heldt Prize for Translation, for Dubravka Ugrešić's 'The Culture of Lies')
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Death in the Museum of Modern Art
By Alma Lazarevska, Celia Hawkesworth
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2014 Alma Lazarevska
All rights reserved.
DAFNA PEHFOGL CROSSES THE BRIDGE BETWEEN THERE AND HERE
At last the crossing was agreed. The young man who brought the good news did not bang roughly on the door. Nor did he shove her small, thin person arrogantly aside, as all the others before him had done, barging into the fat without taking of their boots. He had timid eyes, which she recognised, and he bowed before she confirmed that she had understood when and how the crossing would take place. She opened her mouth to offer him a glass of water and a sugared rose, but he was no longer outside the door.
'What a sweet cop,' she murmured.
Everything had to be done quietly, with as few witnesses as possible. Crossings of this kind were prohibited.
Months had passed in anticipation since the day when telephone links were severed between this side and that. The bridge between the two banks of the river was now crossed only by an occasional stray cat or street dog. But she had known that her family on the other side would do all in their power to bring her over, bless them. And even now, the night before her crossing, when she thought of them and touched the ring finger on her left hand, she felt ashamed. Just as long as she was not responsible for anything going wrong this time too. Not that! Even if it meant staying on this side forever.
In the darkness, the antique clock ticked on the wall. Only the beating of her elderly heart responded. Had the smouldering candle not been so thin, and had Dafna's eyes served her better, she would have laid out the cards and foreseen the coming day in them.
Throughout her long life, her late mother had often said: 'The last half-kilo of coffee in the house was burned, as Dafna was coming into the world.'
The great lady had had a long and painful labour. Suppressing her screams, she had clenched her teeth so hard that it had made her left incisor crooked. Since then, whenever she laughed her lovely feminine laugh, whose sound adorned the light-filled house, it had seemed like a lost sign. As Dafna did, in that large, contented family with its good fortune, enough for at least three more generations.
The maid who had been roasting the coffee that morning was alarmed as she heard the ever more piercing screams reaching her from the big room, from the mother-to-be, her lovely mistress. She forgot herself, staring blankly at her helpless hands. When she was aroused by the smell of burning coffee beans, it was too late. Knowing that their lovely mistress was sensitive to bad signs, someone tried to think up a more satisfactory explanation. But despite the fact that when her youngest daughter first showed the world her large eyes, that seemed clouded with a dull membrane, the last half-kilo of coffee in the noble house had burned, a good sign had after all carried the day: the song of a rare bird which sang three times from an early flowering cherry in the family's garden.
In the afternoon, as every day, the great gentleman had come back from town. A serving lad ran up before him with bags full of offerings and even two kilograms of coffee beans. The gentleman was informed that a little girl had been born. Loving his wife's beauty, he loved in advance the beauty of his female descendants. There were enough men in the household already.
Nevertheless, it happened! Although for a time everything was forgotten and that bad sign stayed out of sight.
But all of a sudden the lovely lady noticed that Dafna was ugly. She had already taken her revenge when she chose her name. The day after the birth, when they brought the silver mirror to her in bed (it is not appropriate on the first day and does not bring good luck), and she noticed the crooked tooth under her full upper lip, she knew. She had given birth to an unlucky child. She named her out of spite. Dafna! And she glowed with contended malice when everyone in the house listened, baffled, to the collision of the two syllables in that strange name which was not to be found in any calendar.
When Dafna's first blunder occurred, followed by ever more frequent and serious ones, usually marked by the sound of the family's precious china breaking, her strange name acquired its special surname as well. Dafna was registered in the book of births under her family's surname, long and resonant. This surname recalled proud days. It was spoken at the long family table, accompanied by the clink of the family silver and the china with the gold trademark Alt Wien.
When the first piece shattered, when it cracked along the very centre of the gold trademark, the lovely lady's uncle remarked briefly, not out of ill-will, but rather in an inspiration left over from the days when he was a young man in Budapest and Vienna:
That is how Dafna acquired her special surname. It was given her in a word, the short and only word her handsome uncle had spoken, in the days when he still had youthful sideburns and fire in his eyes, like an extra in the last act of a Viennese play. There were already five dead bodies on the stage when he came on with a halberd in his right hand and announced in a booming voice:
This time with no halberd, with no lush sideburns or fire in his eyes, but in the same booming voice, he had stared at Dafna, still squinting in confusion at the ruined Alt Wien piece, and announced:
Everyone present had looked at Dafna. As in the solemn silence when the priest pronounces the name of a child. And they saw that her large eyes had lost their dull membrane, but they themselves remained fat and without depth. Not beautiful. Worthless, round tokens left over after a lost game.
Whether it was because of her eyes, or something else, Dafna remained unmarried. Her special surname became known even outside the house.
It was not that she did not have admirers. But they were always beneath the standards of the house. They did not measure up to the surname that took two intakes of breath to pronounce. When Dafna was approaching the age of an old maid, the great house agreed silently to lower its standards. At least until Dafna was married. In the meanwhile, time, and not just Dafna's unlucky influence, had deprived it of many of the signs of its former prosperity. There was still a long table with heavy chairs round it. But the very last piece of Alt Wien had gone, not this time due only to poor Dafna's butter-fingers.
So, it was decided that Dafna should marry. That a young man should come to the house, introduce himself and sit down. Everything would be done without a fuss unworthy of that house, all the more so since it was an old maid who was to marry.
Spring was already well advanced and the early cherry tree in the yard was bearing fruit. But the day had dawned cold and damp, straying by mischance into the calendar.
The household sat, Dafna sat and the young man, a bank clerk of low rank, sat. If his origin and surname were unworthy of the house, at least his brow was high and pale. His eyes were suitably shy. His fingers fine and long.
He took the cup of coffee graciously, although it bore no famous trademark. The minor bank clerk nodded his head politely. He said 'Yes, please!' And 'No, thank you', nicely. He did not blow on his hot coffee. He did not slurp. He drank exactly the appropriate sip. When he lowered his cup onto the tray in front of him it clinked just as in the days when the Alt Wien had clinked in the house. He took the sugared rose meekly without licking the little silver spoon. He made a nice arc with his hand before he placed the little spoon in the crystal glass from which he had taken a sip of water. After that he gave a quiet, noble sigh.
The members of the household gazed contentedly at the little silver spoon as at an exotic fish in an aquarium. Just two or three more sighs and a nice full stop, worthy of the house, would have to have been placed on this scene. But it was just then that Dafna's eldest sister came into the room, the one most abundantly endowed with her mother's beauty. Here came the unpractised extra to confuse the order of images and scenes and wave a halberd at just the wrong moment.
The water in the glass became cloudy and the little silver spoon lost its sheen. The sister came in with the ill-humour of a former beauty. She looked somewhere over his pale brow and, with barely a greeting, asked:
'Whose is that dreifirtl on the hook?'
The end! Dafna no longer wanted to see the minor bank clerk nor was she able to answer the household's insistent persuasion and questions as to why. That dreifirtl just kept ringing in her ears. And the minor bank clerk appeared before her inner eye in a coat, which reached only three-quarters of its full length. As time went by, she was increasingly certain that on that ill-fated day, her sister-the-beauty had been carrying a halberd in her right hand, while down her pink cheek hung red sideburns, although admittedly not lush ones. When Dafna began to read cards, her sister-the-beauty appeared as the knave of hearts. Dafna forgot her long dead uncle who once, to earn some pocket money or for the love of a capricious actress, had been an extra in the last act of a theatrical performance.
So the modest book of expectation closed over the girlhood of Dafna Pehfogl and an old maid's cards were laid out on the table. Dafna learned to read signs in the cards and through them to reveal the coming days. A dark shadow was already sprouting on her upper lip. It was too late for marriage negotiations. That day the little silver spoon had fallen to the bottom of the crystal glass like an anchor dropped in vain. When the minor bank clerk left, and the heavy front door closed behind him, smaller now in his three-quarter coat, Dafna had drunk the remains of the tepid, tasteless water in the crystal glass. Later, in her clumsiness, she had broken the glass. All that was left her was the little silver spoon. Since that day, it had rested like a silent secret among the trifles from Dafna's girlhood.
Misfortunes of one kind and another continued to befall her. Even when the sound of the name Alt Wien had faded from the proud house. The worst had been the one with the electric coffee mill. Even now, the night before her crossing to the other side, when she thought of it, Dafna hastily clutched her left hand with her right.
She fell asleep just before dawn. She was roused by the ticking of the antique clock.
When the rigid frontier was set up between this side and that, and the only one of the family left here was Dafna, they had held an anxious consultation. The former beauty had said ill-temperedly:
'Out of all of us, it had to happen to her.'
The others said nothing, then someone sighed and murmured:
But no plush curtain fell onto the stage. They did everything they could to bring Dafna over to their side.
At six-thirty, two young men with weapons and uniforms led Dafna to the bridge. One was tall, with a sharp nose from which a little drop hung. When the young man snified the little drop fell off, but was quickly replaced by a new, larger one.
'Damn autumn weather,' the tall lad swore.
The other one said nothing. He was small and dark. When she turned to him, just to try her luck, he looked at her irritably. And at her old-fashioned raincoat and little old-fashioned hat and fat eyes. Three yards away from the bridge, Dafna sensed the enemy and a bad sign. The knave of hearts had come up, although all this one had in his hand was a rife.
They led her to the bridge and left her. The sneezing one gave her a push and hissed:
'Go on now, quick!'
Dafna stepped out as though in the large room where the children used to make living pictures during the winter holidays. She was always the one who practised longest and she was always the one who, sniffing, coughing or stumbling, spoiled the living tableau. But now she was on a bridge over which she had to move. The bridge between there and here. She clutched her little bag tightly to her.
She stepped boldly and decisively. Freed from other people's gaze and lengthy sighs. Her feet were light on the deserted bridge between there and here. She was already approaching the middle of the bridge and the other bank seemed quite close.
But, the time of the living tableau was not yet over and she felt a tickle in her nostrils. She had as fast as possible to bow, to make a charming curtsy, and garner the praise of the household.
Her heart was beating irregularly, although no longer in response to the sound of the antique clock. She could smell the aroma of burnt coffee in her nostrils. Had he come up behind her, she would have hurried and escaped him. But he was coming from the bank to which she was drawing near. That was where the gleam of the crooked incisor beneath the full lip was, and the golden trademark cracked through the centre, the ill-fated clink of long-ago china. Perhaps, if she hurried, she could anticipate the shattering of the fine trademark. Perhaps she could avoid the eyes of the man with the halberd in his hand who was watching her from behind.
She would turn round and curtsy. She would escape him. She was half-way across and she would try to appease her destiny. Maybe she would no longer be Pehfogl. A blunder – a matter of a fraction of a second and you pay for it for years.
She turned. She raised her left arm. (Of all of us, she had to be the only one who was left-handed, her sister-the-beauty used to say). The one who was looking askance at her had lost at cards the night before, he was as incensed as a hungry wild beast and was sniffing the air to catch the scent of bad luck. Dafna had not yet had time to smile. And the latest little drop had not yet slid of the nose of the one who was sneezing. And he waved his pistol.
"Why kill the old thing, you brute?" asked the taller one, beginning to sneeze repeatedly.
'Did you see the sign the old bat made!'
This time Dafna Pehfogl was fortunate in her misfortune. The bullet hit her in the heart. Perhaps she expired convinced that there was just a brief interval, a short pause before her life crossed from the unlucky to the happier track. In the big room, the children ended one living tableau and quickly arranged themselves to form another.
Dafna Pehfogl lay in the middle of the bridge. To the guards looking at her from each bank, she seemed like a large, strange bird hit by a stray bullet and there was no hunter to claim it.
They carried her over after a lengthy, difficult procedure. The woman who was giving her the ritual wash, paused for a moment. Passing the wet sponge over the shrivelled old body, she came to the ring finger of the left hand, vulgarly crooked and stiff. Like the finger of a man trying to make a rude gesture.
'Whatever next,' muttered the woman who washed the dead and went on with her work.
No wedding ring had ever found its way to this finger, yet it, the second to last finger on Dafna Pehfogl's left hand, had found its way into an electric coffee grinder. That day in the big house one of her beautiful nieces was getting married. Wanting to be useful but avoiding glass and china, Dafna had offered to grind the coffee. As she held the electric mill in her right hand and pressed the red button with her thumb, her eye was caught by the pattern on a porcelain dish which someone had put down on the kitchen table. With her left hand she absentmindedly removed the lid of the grinder and in an instant, along with the half-ground coffee beans, her ring finger slipped inside the mill. She was taken to the clinic half-conscious in the car intended for the bride and groom.
The wedding somehow came to an end. The young couple left in a more modestly decorated car. After two years of bad marriage, the niece was divorced. Her sister-the-beauty said:
'Dafna was a pehfogl again.'
From that day, Dafna had a vulgarly bent finger on her left hand. When she was laying out cards, it looked like a strange ill-fated hook.
They buried her on a day that was, amazingly, quiet. No shots reached them from the other side. It was autumn, and the day bright and warm, as though it had strayed into the calendar. Family members wept over the freshly dug grave. The women sighed and pressed handkerchiefs to their noses and eyes. It was only on the way back from the cemetery that someone noticed that on the announcement of her death, from which her large fat eyes looked out, alongside her surname with the two in-breaths, instead of Dafna, it said Danfa.
'How can you expect people in this chaos not to get such a strange name wrong!' someone else responded.
They sat in the large room of the family house. They drank tea instead of coffee which had not been available for a long time, ever since the town was divided into there and here. After taking their first sip, they set their cups down on the tray together. They clinked in the old, long since forgotten way. And there was a special, solemn silence. Had anyone entered, they would have thought they were looking at a living tableau. Then there were two or three long sighs.
Excerpted from Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska, Celia Hawkesworth. Copyright © 2014 Alma Lazarevska. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents
ContentsDafna Pehfogl Crosses the Bridge between There and Here,
Greetings from the Besieged City,
The Secret of Kaspar Hauser,
Thirst in Number Nine,
How we Killed the Sailor,
Death in the Museum of Modern Art,