Zoran Žmirić, Croatian writer and poet born in Rijeka is without a doubt one of the most interesting authors whose work deals with (though by no means exclusively) the Croatian War of Independence, especially with the toll it took on the generation of young men and women who were called upon to leave aside their adolescence marked by rock'n'roll and Hollywood movies to pick up arms.
Not to be mistaken, all of Zoran's war novels are in fact anti-war novels, and his poetry is a poignant document of deep spiritual search, as well as an organic extension of his prose.
Zoran's 2009 debut "Blockbuster" in particular has attracted considerable attention in its translation to English, Italian, Polish and, most recently, Ukrainian.
Here we present a brief, but potent insight into his work, courtesy of his translator Snježana Dananić.
On my thirty-eighth birthday, I peed myself in bed. I don't remember ever having done that, not even as a child. It simply poured out of me. Just after wetting the mattress sufficiently, I was aware of what I had done. That was my first time. Since then, I would pee myself every once in awhile, but that first time happened on my birthday. My thirty-eighth, as I said. Nineteen years after my nineteenth birthday.
On the nineteenth one, I was in some village. It was no one’s village then…... today it is ours. It wasn't mine then, nor is it now. Nobody knew it was my birthday. For some reason, I didn't think it would be appropriate to mention it, even though I had thought that my nineteenth birthday would really be special. They say it's the eighteenth one that's groundbreaking, but nothing spectacular happened to me then. My old man told me: „Now that you are an adult, if you fuck up, you will be going to jail, not me. “ Until then, my biggest fuck up was just singing too loud after having too many beers. Surely, it was the nineteenth birthday that was supposed to confirm my manhood. The eighteenth one is overrated. You get a feeling of being a reborn man, but on the nineteenth you show some maturity already.
The only real experience I had becoming nineteen was fear. I wished I had gotten to the village sooner to get accustomed to the new people, new surroundings, and new atmosphere. They got me dressed one day prior, and undressed one day later. Yes, it's bizarre. I didn't stay there longer than twenty four hours, which happened on the day I turned nineteen. There just wasn't enough time to cope with the intense emotions that overwhelmed me.
My first recollection of that day is the smoke. I had felt something similar once before, at the Sisters of Mercy concert in Ljubljana. The stage had been covered with fake smoke; you couldn't see the band or the audience in the front rows where I was pushing my way around. You could only hear some unbearable noise ….. But still, I was at the concert. I told myself: You are here, because you want to be here, nobody forced you. I was enjoying the music surrounding me, yet feeling uneasy. Imagine then, what it felt like being in that village on my birthday. I was there against my will, and instead of music, there were screams and cries, and I could barely see a finger in front of me.
It is interesting how a person deals with unfamiliar situations. In my mind, I was recalling my eighteenth birthday. I remember standing in the middle of a café calling for more drinks. Beers, wine and whisky are coming. I am paying for all, and my friends toast me. Then I climb on a marble table top, lift my arms up to heavens, and sing along to the Sisters of Mercy song Dominion, while the crowd cheers.
However, a sudden cry snaps me to a different place: I see myself underneath the table as if it were a gravestone with the same days but different years carved in, showing a lifespan of nineteen. This is when my fear subsided, leaving room for rage. If you think fear blocks your mind, you should see what anger does, especially if you hold some power in your hands. This mix of emotions turns you simultaneously into a super-human and a sub-human. I kept seeing the carved numbers: 19.11.1972. – 19.11.1991. All were ones and nines, except a seven and a two. And if you add one and nine, with seven and two, you still get nineteen. I had that figured out later in the evening.
Nineteen people for nineteen birthdays. Nineteen obituaries on nineteen different walls, fences, doorways and monuments in towns that I will never visit. Nineteen eulogies in newspapers that I will never read. Nineteen holes within me that I have been trying to mend since then, however unsuccessfully.
I had put those people out like candles. Later I was taking off their clothes as if unwrapping presents. Defiantly and without remorse. It was easy, and seemed even easier than singing drunk from the top of my lungs.
Not that I got away with it easy. I got three gunshot wounds. But that was insufficient. Nineteen to three and I don't feel victorious. Maybe because everything happened too fast. I tell you, it is bizarre, I came there one day earlier, and left one day later I have been reliving my nineteenth birthday since then, every year, on that date. My palms itch, my hands shake, as if I am trying to control an automatic weapon firing.
I guess you are wondering now, why have I done this after that many years? O.k. I don't blame you. It is your job. See, one time after class, long ago, my school mates and I got drunk. Someone had brought a ruler and suggested we measure whose is longer. I measured nineteen. You get all kinds of ideas while lying in bed warmed by your own pee. You know it is not normal, and you are aware that you can no longer control your basic functions. So I revisited my nineteenth birthday: nineteen people whom I blew away like birthday candles, and I remembered those nineteen centimeters marked on a ruler. I concluded that it would be much easier, if I found a quick way to somehow….someway… just remove it all.
At first it seemed appropriate to slice off a centimeter for each one killed. I was thinking about it: I could arrange the pieces geometrically, put candles on them, and then bleed out for the occasion. Or, having been separated from my manhood and reborn as a woman, I could join the Sisters of Charity and dedicate my life to helping people. From that moment on, I could celebrate my new birthday.
Funny, how it didn't occur to me that I could still pee, even with my genitals mutilated. But I gave up the idea. It is not only that I cannot control other people's decisions, like say, the one to have me sent to war as a child, but also that I am unable to control decisions I myself make as a grown man. So I chose an easy way, and with one cut solved everything.
So doctor, what would you call such a person? See, I know. Now at least, when I look at myself in the mirror on that day, I can say with additional reason: „Happy birthday … bitch! “
Translated from Croatian by Snježana Dananić