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Let us suppose that even in these dismal times, there can still be a book written for intelligent people, sympathetic readers without any preconceived ideas about what ought to happen. A book, that is to say, beyond genre, so that it is neither novel, nor essay, nor even - heaven help us - an extended prose poem. Just a book, zero-grade writing that keeps discovering itself, making itself up as it goes along, unpredictable to me and, therefore, to you as well.
Imagining the book is difficult enough; imagining readers for it, even harder.
In an enormous house, after a party, I am wandering about in the kitchen, which is equipped with the kinds of appliances one generally finds in hotels and restaurants. The staff seem to be. . . indulgent. They let me know that they don't care if I nibble a little from the huge platters of smoked fish and other dainties. They are not positively helpful, and I can't find any plates or flatware, but they seem not to be troubled even if I eat with my hands. The only worry they have that I am at all aware of is that I may try to engage them in conversation about the family that owns the place. I assure them that I am not interested in the intimate details of the household but am just hungry. They disbelieve me but are nevertheless tolerant, or perhaps even cruelly amused by my efforts to pick bits of smoked salmon and whitefish from the heaping plates and feed myself without getting covered with the oily fish.
A dream, but what is this about? I have no way of knowing. Usually, the worst possible interpretation, the most frightening or distressing, is correct. After all, the mind doesn't bother to repress innocuous stuff. Whatever the psyche buries may be presumed to be unpleasant, if not actually toxic.
Obviously, I am an outsider here, an intruder or an impostor, for otherwise I'd be out with the guests or the members of the family.
I am not even certain that my protestations about indifference to the intimate details of the household are sincere. Am I a reporter? A spy of some kind? Am I looking for nourishing tidbits and, in the effort to acquire them, fouling myself with the oils of the smoked fish?
Something like that, no doubt. We sunder, fly apart, fragment from unified individuals into unruly and chaotic constituencies. Ego, Superego, and Id, or call them, as easily and as accurately, Larry, Moe, and Shemp. Harpo, Chico, and Groucho.
Or are there only the two, the self and the other? Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello. Or our very own Steve and Leo. How many of us have a sibling from whom we are separated, to whom we no longer speak? By their very existence, these alter egos indict us if only because they did not make the mistakes we made, have not committed our crimes, and are not responsible for our failures. Which is why the sight of one's doppelganger is always dismaying.
Look, this is my nose, and that is his nose, a perfect replica of mine. It is never with delight that we make such an observation, but in guilt and fear. Yearning, perhaps, too, but it is a hopeless yearning. Steve cries out, O Leo, Leo, Leo.
Apparently, Steve has had to learn to yodel in these mountains. The only alternative would have been lugging about those enormous horns with which the natives signal to each other to warn of avalanches or send out for more cough drops. At night, you can hear the strange sounds that echo back and forth in the dry riverbeds, Wadi Ya-noh, Wadi Ya-sei, and Wadi Yagonidu.
Dreams are supposed to give way, though, to a reasonable daytime reality. Mine don't. Instead, I find myself walking through a different kind of nightmare, booby-trapped, mined. (The booby-trapped mind?) There are snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings. (Surprisingly good, that Manlicher-Carcano, but then that's why Lee chose it.) I go out on the most innocuous errand, and any little thing can set them off, these attackers who think of themselves, of course, as defenders, partisans, loyalists, heroes! It is like living in downtown Priština, where going out to get a fresh bottle of water is a life-or-death gamble. Stefan and Leo are of course on different sides, as is only too common in a civil war.
Salmon mousse is what they are fighting about, really. There are other issues, the religious and political and ethnic and linguistic divisions between the Bosnians, the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnian Serbs, the Croatian Bosnians, the Serbotian Bosñeros, the ethnic Albanians, and all the other carefree Kosovars. . . But the basic quarrel was over a salmon mousse that Stefan's wife, Blooma, had made for her guests. And Leo was visiting at the time with his wife,
Lumpka, and - wouldn't you know - after they arrived, hungry, thirsty, and tired, having come all the way from Garage-Door, they saw in the refrigerator that nice salmon mousse molded in the shape of a salmon.
"Perhaps we shouldn't touch it," Lumpka wondered.
"Ach, but would my own brother deny me food? [The accent in which I hear this is probably specious, but the last word comes out somewhere between 'food' and 'foot,' and I like it that way.] His house is my house! My house is his house. His foot is my foot."
He is passionate but nonetheless ridiculous, and it is difficult not to smile as we translate his words back to what he means.
"Eat, eat," Leo insists. "Stefan would be deeply hurt to think we had even hesitated."
So saying, he scoops a handful of fish off the platter and shoves it into his mouth. Whatever she might have thought before, Lumpka is now faced with a quite different situation. The mousse, no longer pristine, looks very good, she is very hungry, and there is now less reason not to allow herself at least a little taste. . .
But Blooma and Stefan had been saving that mousse for the visit of the Voivod and his wife, who have promised to drop by for a few minutes before they go together to the annual dinner in memory of the heroic resistance the town had managed for eight days against the invasion of the Visigoths in the eleventh century. (On the ninth day, the Visigoths breached the walls, set fire to the women, raped the horses, and killed the buildings: this was still the early days of the campaign and they were not yet expert in these punitive techniques.)
But the mousse is ruined. Handfuls of it have been scooped out by those pigs! Leo the louse and Lumpka. . . the lump! Blooma scoops what is left of the mousse into a bowl, sets the bowl onto a platter, spreads some crackers around the rim, and brings it in to serve. But later on, she and Stefan give the brother and sister-in-law a piece of her mind, hurling at them the truly eloquent Bosnian curses, which have a mannerist vividness that cannot be translated into other languages. Leo and Lumpka leave, storming out of the house. In a huff. A snit. High dudgeon. In a trice! And for good.
When the war comes, it is only an excuse, a flimsy pretext for doing what everyone else is doing anyway. They drop into their local Army and Navy store and pick up a poncho, a canteen, a collection of impressive campaign hats, a few gaudy insignia to sport on their epaulettes and merit-badge sashes, and a clutch of Kalashnikovs. Also a few cases of surplus American Claymore mines (thoughtfully labeled: "This Side Toward Enemy"). Now they can continue the family discussion in more sincere and candid terms. The causus belly (as it were) seems in retrospect all the more plausible, for after the first few months of the siege, who in Kosovo would not have killed for a handful of salmon mousse?
The populace were squabbling amongst themselves for the emaciated corpses of the animals in their zoo cages. There was an epidemic of jokes about cannibalism, as if their repetition might eventually remove some of the opprobrium that generally attaches to the exploitation of this all too available protein resource.
And on the way to the store for a bottle of dog milk or a tin of pickled goat lips, one heard the chatter of repeating rifles perseverating their Senecan vision of the indifference of the gods and the limitlessness of the horrors mankind can contrive to inflict upon itself.
No, there was no war. My sister and I had no such excuse. Or opportunity. But there was a salmon mousse.
Perhaps that was the fish soiling my hands in the dream? I can understand, at any rate, the reticence of those servants about the family that employed them.
Aspects of the Novel:
David R. Slavitt
Aspects of the Novel: A Novel
David R. Slavitt
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