Levitating above Titanic
I give B. a call at 11:00 in the evening.
We chat a little and I say, “It seems that the weather
tonight will be fine. Lucky you, you can sleep well, I have
to work,” and we hang up. The meaning of the last sentence
is: “They won’t knock on your door tonight.”
It’s 1991 and the war in Croatia has just started. I live in
Belgrade and have a Friday midnight radio show. The military
police have been making night raids for some time. They pick
people up with the excuse of regular training, but we have already
heard the stories: for the first couple of days you stay in some
of the military camps in Serbia, but on a third night, they tell
you it’s a night move, put you on a truck with the rest of the
guys and in the morning you wake up on the front.
Officially, Serbia is not at war with Croatia, so everything
is top secret. But rumours about collective mobilisation are
circulating and every Friday evening before the show I get a
call from my editor, Anica, to tell me if it was expected that
night or not. There is a procedure I would have to follow and
I have to be ready.
My friend B. and I have already decided not to take part in
The Serbian roulette is the same as
Russian, only you don’t point the gun at your head.
We have everything prepared for a fast run across
the border, and my calls to him are always coded. We have lived
in Yugoslavia long enough not to trust the telephone lines.
All three of us live in Canada now: Anica was fired in 1993
for playing a Croatian song on Radio Belgrade and left the country
when nationalists started threatening her children; B. left a
year after that; I came in 1995.
It wasn’t the series of big events that hit the front pages
that made me leave. It was the small, almost invisible change
that happen deep inside people you know and the traces it left
on me. Old friends pull you to the right, or to the left, or
just to plain old insanity, but they pull you all the time, with
every new word. Finally, it becomes so strong that you can only
join, or leave. The real storms never happen under the sky, they
are deep inside us.
* * *
James and I are walking through the York University campus.
“So, where do you come from?” he asks.
“From Yugoslavia ,” I respond.
“Bad guys,” I say.
“Oh, so you’re a Serb!” says James.
“James,” I say, “Try to watch less television.”
* * *
It is November in Belgrade , a cold and depressing night in
1993. Our friends Eka and D.T. just embarked on a night ark for
Canada . It looked like a bus, but no one is fooled by its license
plates. Even before he slowly makes the last circle for the families
and friends waving good-bye on the shadowy shore of the square,
we all know the name of the gentle driver: Noah.
A few of us decide to go to someone’s apartment to throw a small
party. We don’t stay long, it’s late and cold and there is no
heating, not in the public places, nor in the apartments nor
on public transportation. Inflation is over 70 million per cent,
there is no gas, not enough food and we have a chronic fear of
news since every piece of news has been bad news in the past
We leave the party around one in the morning and are standing
at the tram station. Suddenly, from across the street, we hear
someone yelling and then two gunshots. A man runs out of the
darkness into the poorly lit street, jumps across a fence and
disappears again on the other side. Another man, with a gun in
his hand, follows. Briefly, he stops in the middle of the street,
aims at the runner and shoots. He misses.
Late that night Silvija and I decide to go to the Canadian Embassy
the next day to apply for visa.
Months pass by and I notice a slow process
inside me. I’m starting to lose my fears. One afternoon in
the summer of 1994 I enter the lobby of the apartment building
where I live and I hear someone coming after me. My sixth sense
sends surprisingly shrill signal. Maybe because three nights
before that, on my radio-show, I said some nasty things about
one of the right-wing Serbian politicians.
When the guy asks for my name, I know that an attack will follow,
but I am ready. Several months before I would have been desperate
and frightened, but now I’m okay, the application in the Canadian
Embassy has opened another door. I am strong and I don’t care.
I hit him hard and fast and he runs away.
In August 1994 I have a very successful exhibition at the Cultural
Centre gallery in the heart of Belgrade .
For months before the war, street vendors have been selling
cassettes with jingoistic songs, small figures of chetniks with
oversized penises, black pirate flags, small masked uniforms
for kids and other symbols of machismo. I always thought that
it represented a small door for war psychology to enter our lives
and prepare ordinary citizens to become tomorrow’s volunteers
for the battlefield.
That’s what happens to those who travel much: their luggage
becomes so small that no memories can fit in anymore.
After collecting these mines for thought
for a few years, I finally concentrated its poison for people
to see. I believed that only by taking a closer look into it
we could come closer to the catharsis we needed so badly as
a nation. It drew a lot of media attention. I gave interviews
for the BBC, Volkskrant, the Guardian, Reuters...Several months
before, it would have been a delight, but now I felt cold.
It is winter and in the heart of the city
a huge television screen is installed for the public celebrations
on New Year’s Eve. I pass by and they play the Three Tenors, “Nessun Dorma” ( No
One is Sleeping ). It’s snowing, my coat is old, my friends
do not live in Belgrade anymore, and Puccini hurts. I see myself
in a window and I feel that the song does not belong here. It
simply is not true: everyone is asleep here. You have
to, if you want to stay normal.
Almost ten months after Silvija and I applied for Canadian papers,
at the beginning of 1995, we get an invitation to the final interview.
I am nervous, it feels like the time of dying: I am going to
God himself to judge me on what I have done with my life. My
three books, are they worth something? My radio and TV shows,
were they okay? My 2,000 published articles, did anybody read
them? Our friends got refused several months ago; they ended
up in New Zealand . But I don’t want to end up in Purgatory.
They are calling our names and a woman tells us to go to the
back of the building, where a special counsellor is waiting for
us. We’re done, I think, he’s discovered that I’m just a scribbler
and that Silvija’s plays were just unsuccessful trials. But the
Canadian Gabriel has glasses, his name is John and he is friendly.
He goes through our illusions: what do we plan to do in Canada
, are we ready for serious situations, are our hopes too high?
I describe the plans for my next book; Silvija wants to do a
Ph.D. in drama. John is serious, he doesn’t laugh. At the end
he congratulates us. We passed.
Suddenly I see it: I have a license to die in Belgrade and be
reborn in Canada . We have our license to be forgotten and be
anonymous starters in Canada . Am I happy? I don’t know anymore.
* * *
I say quick good-byes. Some friends I don’t even visit. I know
what social death is, I died several times before: when I went
into the Army, when I moved from my hometown to Belgrade , when
I split with some friends. No matter what they say, they always
forget you. I guess that’s what happens to those who travel much:
their luggage becomes so small that no memories can fit in anymore.
It is a murder in self-defence: my brain shoots, without aiming,
at anything that hurts by distancing itself from the circle of
love. I can hear the iron door closing around my emotional centre.
But it also means denial of my identity. Spit on your past, and
you spit on the kisses, hugs, loves, and starry nights. Stomp
on your present and a deep dark hole will open below your feet. Do
you know how to fly, son? Can you, dare you fly over that abyss?
Metaphors turn into reality if you play with them long enough.
On a flight to Paris the storm catches us. The plane drops so
long that for the first time in my life I hear stewardesses screaming.
* * *
Our first month in Toronto is hectic. We rent an apartment and
soon fill it with furniture so that it feels like home. We spend
$300 a month on telephone bills. It is irresistible, it is Tom
Sawyer’s dream: we call our friends over there to hear how they
miss us. Almost like attending your own funeral.
I try writing for Canadian newspapers. I think in Serbian and
translate while writing, but that does not work the way I want
it. Burroughs was wrong, language is not a virus from Outer Space,
it is a snake from Hell: it whirls, it moves, it slides aside.
A writer is supposed to be toreador, but I feel
more like a bull trying to nail the red cloth of idea.
Other things work against me, too. It is the spring of 1995
and the war in Bosnia is still going on, with Serbs accused of
another set of atrocities. I submit an analysis of the Bosnian
situation to a magazine here, and I claim that the war will be
finished by the end of that year (it ended in September). They
refuse to publish it and when I ask for the reason, they say
that I would have to be a well-known analyst to publish such
a bombastic article. I ask myself, did they publish articles
by German writers here during the World War II?
I started publishing when I was 17 and since
then, not noticing it, I developed the stance “I publish, therefore I communicate,
therefore I exist.” Suddenly realising that I don’t publish anymore,
I lose a touch with my identity and it feels like an instant
sunset: the night that falls is condensed, fearsome and palpable.
Anxiety follows. I cannot point my finger at anything in particular,
so I cannot isolate it and help myself. The symptoms are shamefully
symbolic: if I go out, the fear grows with every step further
from home and weakens when I return. I can’t stand the subway,
it is a grave, and when I have to take it (I force myself all
the time to do the things that scare me), I get a feeling that
the platforms are slowly lifting into a steep position and that
I will fall in front of a coming train. I also dare not look
into the sky: it is so high and untouchable I get dizzy. Then
there’s the loop: I develop a fear of that fear, because now
I know how easy it is to slip into madness.
At night, I turn to the west when I
want to sleep. There is a big black hole of memories to
the east and I dare not face it.
I was a half-atheist before I came here. I would go to church
from time to time, but rarely enough to be recognised as a sheep.
I try Serbian churches here, but it just doesn’t feel right.
The churches in Serbia are Byzantine style, dignified; the buildings
here look like warehouses. I cannot find God there and he wouldn’t
recognise me, anyway. But Silvija brought a small icon of the
Holy Mother with her and sometimes I pray at home.
At night, I turn to the west when I want to sleep. There is
a big black hole of memories to the east and I dare not face
it. One night I dream that the wind lifts me and carries me towards
the Atlantic Ocean . I fly and expect to go home, but the wind
stops and I just levitate somewhere above the Titanic.
The only thing I can do is write. But I only published one article
in the Toronto Star. Everything else stays in
* * *
It’s late summer of 1995. I am in the house of a Serbian woman
who lives in the western part of town. She is a psychiatrist
and the room we are sitting in is somewhere between a traditional
Serbian home and the modern office of a Westerner. Reproductions
of the XVIII century Serbian paintings from the era of national
romanticism on one wall, a big library across the other one.
I guess psychiatrists have to have a big library in the office,
it must be written in some secret code of their profession.
She is not trying to help me, at least not
obviously, and it feels good, since I find it difficult to
think of myself as of a patient. It’s not like her-question-my-answer,
in quest of the heart of a problem; it’s more like a chat.
She’s not trying to explain my dreams and I gladly keep my
sexual snakes, naked babes and silent levitation for myself.
She says that the majority of the Serb immigrants
here face a similar crisis at this stage of immigration. “Over 90 percent
of the newcomers have similar reaction. They just keep it secret.
You know our culture: going to the psychiatrist is humiliating.
The old habits never die. But I guess the same goes for all other
immigrants, regardless of their status or culture-the same problems.”
The session is over. I go out and I am satisfied: my
problem sounds noble. Agoraphobia. Good for my biography.
The immigrants from Serbia can be separated into three different
groups: those who came here after the World War II are royalists,
mainly chetniks who fought for the king. Second wave came during
the Sixties and Seventies, mostly for economical reasons. Finally,
the third and the most interesting wave came during the last
five years. They are mostly young, highly educated people, who
didn’t consider this war to have anything to do with them and
did not want to become a part of it, neither as killers, nor
The exact number of the Serbian immigrants in Canada is impossible
to know at his moment, since the Serbian government imposed total
silence on the topic of this brain drain. Some numbers show,
however, that more than 400,000 young people have left the country
between 1991 and 1995. This number is still growing.
Canada was and still is one of the prime targets for the new
Serb immigrants. Anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 new Serbian
immigrants live in South Ontario only.
My doctor belongs to the second generation of immigrants. These
three large groups do not believe each other much. Royalists
still want their king (now living in England ) to take over;
economic immigrants agree that Tito was bad, but can’t see how
the king would be good, and the newcomers think that they’re
all weird. In return, the two older generations don’t like the
fact that we were raised in the spirit of brotherhood and understanding,
and think that our brains were washed by the socialist school
Yet, this woman behind large, dark desk shares the same language
and the same culture with me. Language itself can bring people
together or separate them, but when you miss the same smells
and the same trees, you tend to trust to each other.
We talk about the feelings of profound guilt
among my generation of Serbs. This does not come so much from
the results of war as from the mere fact that it was the Serbian
president and his politics that created an atmosphere of intolerance,
pulling all the ex-Yugoslav countries into a whirl of hatred and madness. “Nothing
has changed over there,” she says, “I had to leave Serbia two
decades ago because the communists banned me to study. My father
was not in the party. Tito is dead, but the communists still
rule, and God knows for how long.”
We both sigh and stare through the window. Different trees outside,
different smells, different colours.
I tell her how I noticed the strong friction
between the Canadian way of life and what Serbian immigrants
brought with them. A new country tends to negate their previous
life (“Do you
have Canadian experience?”), while in return the
new immigrants tend to negate Canada ’s tradition. “The Serbian
roulette is the same as Russian, only you don’t point the gun
at your head,” I say.
“Aha,” she says and takes a note. Maybe she
noticed some suicidal tone in my voice, I don’t know.
“Could it be that it’s the agoraphobia that bothers me?” I
She seems interested in this idea. “Quite possible,” she
The session is over. I go out and I am satisfied: my problem
sounds noble. Gee, the same thing that bothered some ancient
Greeks, what a tradition! Agoraphobia. Good for my biography.
I guess I can’t help thinking as a writer.
I don’t go to her anymore after that. The symptoms slowly disappear.
I know the name of my disease, I know its identity, and its identity
is now my identity. Any kind of name is good when you have none.
* * *
It is a warm summer night, a year later, and D. and I are standing
in front of a building on Gloucester Street . Life doesn’t seem
that bad anymore. I work as a program director at CHRY, community
radio in North York , and he...
I met him first when he was an editor at a magazine in Belgrade
where I started writing. He is a good, a very good writer. We
lost contact and now I hear how he stopped writing before the
war, went into a paper business and earned lots of money. He
came to Canada at the same time that I did, bought a small building
and a small food factory.
Finally, we have to go. “How are you doing? I mean, emotionally?” he
“Good, quite good. I was insane like a table leg, but I’m okay
now,” I say.
“I envy you so much,” he says, “I’m not good.
I miss Belgrade , so much nostalgia.”
The real storms never happen under
the sky, they are deep inside us.
“I thought it comes from fear of failure,” I said, “You
shouldn’t have any troubles with all that money.”
“Not true,” he says, “not true, my friend.”
He gets into his red Ferrari and leaves.
Strange: we usually don’t ask each other how
do we are. When I meet my Serbian friends who live here, we
chat about what’s new in Belgrade , what’s new here; we discuss
everything but our state of mind. I guess there’s no reason
for that-we know
how we are: not the way we wanted, nor the way we feared. Levitating.
Sometimes I think that, if I levitate long enough, this madly
spinning planet will remove the Titanic below my feet and bring
the safe ground instead.
But for now, when the wind is blowing, it brings the sounds
of that long-drowned orchestra, still playing dance tunes down
in the ballroom of the blue crypt.
[ Published in THIS
magazine, October 1997. Nominated for National Magazine Awards.]
Dragan Todorovic, All rights reserved.