Literature as Future history and the Power of Fiction.

In 1999 I began work on my very first novel. It took me four years to complete; a 93,000 word epic about 6 friends coming of age in a small French town I’d fallen in love with many years before. I edited the book now and again, but overall it seemed far too intimate to do anything with. I printed a copy and put it on a shelf. “A Perfect Place,” takes place years from now, the world at war with America. a virulent nationalist fervor, led by a particular demagogue and championed by a criminal sweeps through town, observed by a dying university professor who believes all human history can be described and predicted using the template of the French Revolution. Dusting off the novel late last night I was stunned at how closely I described what is happening to our nation, and what may lay ahead. In this excerpt two of the characters are faced with going off to war:

He was waiting for Antonio and David. Rather he was waiting for Antonio and having doubts whether David would actually show after the other day. The note they left at his door went unanswered, but David had always been a little flighty in Bastien’s opinion, so anything was likely to happen. Bastien, however, was not placing too many hopes on David showing.

Antonio arrived first, climbing up through the skylight, waving when he saw Bastien. He scooted onto the ledge beside Bastien, and asked where David was. Bastien only shrugged, watching the curious characters in the alley below. Antonio looked as well, the bottoms of his feet tingling as they dangled so high above the ground.

“What’s the show today?”

“Josephine Baker.”

“Oo-la-la. Even I would tune out for her.”

“Why, like to borrow one her dresses?” Bastien grinned. Antonio was suddenly flustered, searching for something to say. Bastien patted his leg before Antonio could get the words out. “Good comeback. I’m only just kidding.”

“Are you always going to torture me with that?”

“You kissed me, Goddamnit.”

“Once.”

“And you said you loved me!”

“I, uh…” Antonio stammered.

Bastien could see that his friend was hurt and embarrassed. He threw an arm around Antonio’s shoulders. “I love you too, man.”

“You do?”

“Sure, for all the years we’ve been friends. You’re my best friend in the whole world, man. Even if you are a queer bird.”

“I didn’t say I was queer.”

“Well, someone who kisses other boys might want to start asking some questions, don’t you think?”

“Just confused.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out, right. Not important though, right now we have bigger things to worry about.”

Of course he was talking about the war. They were quiet for a moment, that new worry creeping into their thoughts. Antonio sighed, looked out across the hazy jumble of rooftops and power lines, catching only a glimpse of the greenish-brown river beyond.

“Ever wonder about dying?” he asked.

“Only about dying here.”

“Here or anywhere?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“Hmm.”

“Don’t think about it. It will just make you sick.”

“How is that possible? Maybe we will be killed or crippled, come back as hopeless as these others.” Antonio motioned to a table of veterans throwing catcalls at Bastien’s blushing Sister.

“Maybe you’ll get cancer tomorrow.”

“Maybe.”

“You could get hit by lightening, or drown in the river. Do you worry about those things too?”

“I worry about things you cannot even imagine, my friend.”

“Do you worry that I will throw you from this roof, if you don’t shut up?”

“I am now,” he grinned.

“Look there’s a rat,” Bastien pointed out the furry creature scurrying through the tables. An elderly man and wife saw it and smiled at one another. Both boys could see the holo-tech modules in their ears.

“I bet the holo-tech program will make that old couple there think that it’s an adorable poodle.”

“Disgusting. I’d rather have a rat.”

“A rat?”

“They know how to fight, how to survive. With a rat you know he is out for himself. Nobody will mess with him unless he wants a real fight. That’s who you get behind, protect his ass. In the war, I intend to be a rat.”

“I’ll be behind you, Little rat,” Antonio nudged with his shoulder.

Bastien looked at him for a long moment, judging him in a way that almost made him want to retreat for it. Instead, he rose to meet it, felt himself becoming a man.

“I know you will. And yes, I do think about dying.”

Antonio thought to say something, to ask him, but the effort just seemed too small. It was enough that Bastien was thinking about death that made Antonio not feel so alone any longer.

“And David?” Antonio asked.

Bastien could only shake his head.

“I went by his flat earlier,” he said. “The note was gone.”

“Maybe he saw it?”

“I spoke with his crazy mother. Well, spoke at her while she stared at me like I was speaking English or something.”

“Will we be the three Musketeers?”

“He will not come with us,” Bastien said recalling their last time at the chateau.

“I had that impression, too.”

“David is on another road, perhaps more deadly than ours, and certainly more dangerous for the soul.”

Antonio nodded in reluctant agreement, looked admiringly at his friend. Bastien pretended not to notice, looked off across the town. He tried to imagine the two of them at war, wondered what it would be like for each of them, but could not quite form proper thoughts. The war was too real now to ponder, to imagine themselves in the news images from the frontlines, or to think that they could soon end up like those wretched souls in the Hotel des Invalides, or upon that hill at St-Cirq Lapopie. It came to them as this undefined monolithic thing, something which could neither be understood or reckoned with, only faced as confidently as their untested hearts could manage.

A Mystery of Languages Solved?

After more than two decades studying and travelling in the Balkans there was one recurring question. I can honestly say that I had the same vexing conversation with dozens of people throughout the former Yugoslavia over the years, from acquaintances at cafes to various professors, intellectuals, artists, historians and a philosopher or two. Is it possible that the answer lay right under our noses, or more specifically, under our tongues?

For all of my Slavic friends, family and acquaintances: I have long wondered where the Serbo-Croatian and overall Slavic languages designation for German and Germany come from, Nemački, Nemačka, respectively in Serbo-Croatian. travel back in time to the 3rd through the 6th Centuries AD when Slavic tribes migrating into Europe came into fuller contact and competition with Germanic tribes whose language they could not understand. The S-C word for mute is Nem or Nemy. Possibly the term was a bit of a perjorative by Slavic nations as they came into contact with Germanic tribes. It is the best theory to the origin of the word whose derivations extend to the Hungarian német, who arrived in Europe around the time of the Slavs, the Turkish, Nemçe and Almanca, who borrowed from the Bosnian/Serbian in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Ottoman Empire occupied souther Europe to the gates of Vienna.

STORMS: A Poem

We are storms and banks and reeds

Whipped by the wind, we rise to bluster and succumb to our own floods

We are fear and desperation and pointlessness

Cold, we huddle for fear of being forgotten, yet that is our fate.

We are hope and need and desire

Dragged from our homes, Our cries lost to the tumult of the world

We are tragedy and sickness and alone.

And if there is any redemption left to us it lies in the sacrifice of love

                                                                                       WC Turck

Liberal Literature

Preparing for my first trip to the Balkans in 1992 as the siege of Sarajevo was beginning, I consumed what little Yugoslav and Balkan literature was available at the time. It gave me a decided advantage over journalists. At the end of the war I was able to immerse myself more fully in in literature from the former-Yugoslavia. One of those was perhaps the most overlooked. under appreciated and misunderstood writers, at least outside of what once constituted Yugoslavia; the late Mesa Selimovich (Pronounced: Mesha Selimovich).

This piece isn’t really about Selimovich (26 April 1910 – 11 July 1982), who wrote seminal and iconic world like Dervish and Death, and The Fortress. Although you can now stun and impress Balkan friends by knowing his name. it is a lesson to all true writers who aspire in transcending to literature, just as the would-be artist aspires to become a master painter like Picasso, Titian or whomever. But here is the key, it is impossible to properly be on the side of Kings and despots, presidents, dictators and oligarchs, because theirs eschews all that the writer must stand for-justice and ultimate freedom of expression, which are antithetical to power. To do so is to engage in the censorship of systems and society. Be outside all of those.

The writer, whether overt and consciously, or intuitively and purposefully, is by definition subversive. Anything less is a betrayal or worse, a capitulation. Dervish and Death was, in part a postscript regarding his brother’s execution while they were both partisans during the Second World War. The Fortress, while set during the Ottoman Occupation, was an indictment of life during the post-war Communist period. each writer must find their own period and speak real and eternal human truths. It is far less about being partisan; liking this administration, hating that one. The test and filter must me how it exalts that which binds every soul regardless of race, national origin, religion and politics, though those are certainty ample stagecraft and kindling for the pyre of light and passion and love upon which your story is crafted.

This, by the way, is what I think of while walking the dog, and as an outsider, I am always happy for his feedback…

Prayers for Bowie. Sucks to be a Squirrel in Heaven…

Oh, sorry, I’m talking about the dog, not the pop star. My bad. Still, I wanted to relate a conversation yesterday with my friend, Joe, who after 13 years lost his companion and beloved pet, Bowie. Understandably, and properly, Joe was grieving. He had made a heart-breaking decision most pet owners must make. With emotion in his voice Joe found solace that Bowie was someplace better now, chasing squirrels for eternity. I’ve said the same thing about pet cats, wishing they were someplace where they could chase birds and mice to their hearts content. That got me to thinking.

It must suck being a squirrel in that other place. It finally gets a chance to chill with an endless bowl of acorns, and here comes all these freakin’ dogs, spoiling eternity. Heaven for cats, hell for mice. Valhalla for hyena’s, torture for, for…whatever it is that hyenas eat. As for the roadrunner and coyote, forever must truly be frustrating and exhausting!

Of course, if we extrapolate that in another direction, when it comes to all of the bullies I faced in high school, god, I am so screwed. I can’t take a forever full of swirlies, when what I was hoping for was an eternity with a perfect and eternally cold beer, my wife sitting beside me without being on Facebook or Pinterest or emailing work on her phone for a change. I hope to hell(see what I did there) eternity is not about hunter and prey. Instead, I think I’d prefer it to be, at least for Bowie, an endless chew toy, an unending string of butts to sniff and a pair of testicles that always tastes like bacon. That is my prayer for Bowie, and the squirrels too…

Much love, Joe.

Travels in Tuscany: Happy Hour, Tuscan style

The single best bit of advice I can offer for truly enjoying Tuscany is that you’ve got to know someone. A friend will open the door to an Italian world normally unseen to the average visitor. If you don’t have a friend, this would be the time to dust off those social skills, practice that smile, appear a little-but not too-sympathetic and make a friend. Not as hard as people think. I’ve done very well by that gift-of-gab Ana says I get from my father. For Americans it can be a fairly big hurdle to get over, given our culturally imbued suspicion about other people and cultures. In the States we are bombarded with terrifying tales of pickpockets and thieves, terrorism and all manner of criminal masterminds out to victimize wayward Americans. The truth is, in every country, the vast majority of folks are decent and honest and as curious and hospitable towards you as you would be to them-how you answer that question will mean a lot for your international travel experience.

Rick Steeves I think has done the greatest dis-service to travelers with constant warnings over thieves and crimes in his books and videos. Truth is, Europe, and most of the world is far less dangerous than most of the US. It comes down to a simple rule; If you have your head up your ass, church can be a dangerous place.

So, as I was saying, Ana and I had spent a couple days wandering around Venice. Well off the beaten paths we were curious over folks gathered at these little bars-not like American bars, but sort of cafes that serve wine, beer and cocktails and something to eat. Neighbors and friends would gather at these dark-wooded bars, snacking at small plates of appetizers or finger sandwiches, having a drink and chatting up the afternoon. We passed curiously, unsure just how that all worked, settling at cafes where we could more familiarly be waited on at a table, as we are accustomed.

For a friend anywhere, but particularly in Tuscany we could hardly have done better than Shevko. In Mostar, barely 18 years old he knew everyone and everyone know Shev. How could anyone imagine that 8 or so years in Italy that anything would change? Leaving the hotel that first night in Caprai, we headed back across the river into Montelupo Fiorentino to his favorite bar, the Cafe Centofiori, comfortable hidden from view in one of the new apartment blocks along the bright and spacious Viale Cento Fiori.

We followed Shevko inside, like a court to some blue-collar King, leaving the afternoon heat behind. Instantly, amid Shev’s riotous entrance, greeting friends, flirting with counter girls, Ana and I were engulfed by the smells of humbly prepared gourmet sandwiches and snacks. Our would-be sovereign directed us to a corner table and returned to the bar, laden with platters of mouth-watering food. Returning a moment later with fat goblets of a local red wine and a plate of food, Shev proceeded to pronounce the obvious, that everyone knew him there. Indeed, all that was missing was everyone shouting “Shev!” when he enter, ala Norm from Cheers.

“Sort of Italian, how do have in the US, happy hour,” he said. Shev explained that the food was free for the taking if you were having a drink. Most folks would congregate at the counter, catching up with old friends or chatting the owner up. He was a young guy, who, I was told worked the counter dawn until late into the night 6 days  week. Helped by a couple of counter girls, all the pastries and sandwiches were his own recipe, hand-made there in the café. Nothing went to waste. Whatever was left from the day was  cut up for the afternoon crowd.

Taking in the crowd, smiling and stumbling through Italian introductions Ana and I savored every bite as if our lives depended on the fresh and simple flavors before us. Lifting a thin wedge on homemade Italian bread, adorned with a bit of prosciutto and  fresh mint leaf, sitting with friends and Ana with a lusciously dry glass of red wine,  I wondered how it could get any better than this.