Igor Štiks: "W"

1.

The pilot announced our descent. I felt a surge of panic. I cinched my seatbelt, squeezed my eyes shut, clenched my teeth. I couldn't stomach a glance out the window. I knew we were flying over an archipelago just then in whose waters I'd last swum as a boy, twenty-five years ago, as the war began nearby, not far inland. On my lap lay the beginnings of a novel, W, several chapters, notes, and fragments assembled from what Walter Stikler told me. He'd recently been found dead, riddled with bullets, in the waters below. The last thing I'd expected was to be summoned to the island. I never thought I'd be back.

His corpse, caught, perhaps, in an underwater cave for days, finally floated to the surface, decomposing before the eyes of startled fishermen. Nobody had reported him missing. Who'd have noticed? Walter lived in isolation, mid-island, a recluse. His purchase of the house in Dalmatia in the late 1990s was not motivated by a penchant for hot but affordable summer sun. No. I might have been the only person who knew why he'd chosen this particular place.

The closer we came to the landing strip, the more the memories flooded back of a life that was now in my distant past, a childhood that had ended too abruptly–leaving no room for negotiation, delay or farewells. I had buried all of it in memory, broken, warped by what came after. There I was, awash with recollections of all I'd taken for granted as a fourteen-year-old, when I thought I knew what life had in store for me, a future I'd felt was as good as mine, a time I could see so clearly back then, with no clue that what had defined my life would all soon be lost. I watched the countryside as it came into view, ever unchanging, unsullied by what had been perpetrated there, innocent and so familiar that Dalmatian words popped up in my mind, words I'd used with ease in the childhood utopia that the archipelago was for me, with all its smaller and larger islands, canals, fortifications, and coves.

I felt I was sinking, like the plane that was fast losing altitude, into everything I'd walked away from; I'd felt I deserved a life with no losses, or at least a life unmarred by the losses I'd suffered, a life I'd forge for myself, not allowing others to dictate it. And I thought I'd succeeded. Seldom did I reminisce. Sometimes I'd retrieve a detail or something would float to the surface, summoned by who knows what. All else seemed forever buried. This allowed me to live my new life in a new language, a new homeland. I thought I'd made a home for myself in Paris, not the sort of home others build for us but the sort of home we choose, one we ourselves have drawn the blueprint for and built with our own hands. Mine was specially designed to be buffered from the corrosive impact of memories. And until recently, when I met Walter Stikler, I'd felt I had this in hand.

I left Sarajevo during the war and stayed first, as a refugee, with relatives in Zagreb for a while. Then I went on to France for my studies, and stayed on. Once my schooling was over, I published a short novel that received scarcely any notice, there were times when I loved and times when I was loved, or so I believed. I defended my doctoral thesis in political science and worked as an expert on left-wing ideologies, attended demonstrations and protests, edited a journal, and with my colleagues sometimes wrote and published pamphlets inciting insurgency. But once Walter Stikler had sauntered, uninvited, into my home, I was no longer able to push him out. Walter's stories outshone the political unrest in Paris in the spring of 2016. Maybe because compared to Walter's life, the Paris spring felt so irrelevant and ineffectual. Or because the past grabbed me by the gullet and I suddenly found I was no longer in the Paris of the here and now.

 

So who was this Walter Stikler? Even if people hadn't heard of him in the 1970s and 1980s when his caustic criticism of Communist ideology and the socialist regimes of the time–as one of the new philosophers–focused the media spotlight on him, they certainly heard of him when he was abducted in November 2015 and, after a spectacular police search, was discovered alive in the cellar of a house that had been reduced to rubble in an explosion. The abduction was thought to be the brainchild of a man named Wladimir, a once-famous left-wing terrorist, who, as Stikler testified subsequently, had abducted him and locked him up in the cellar and, when cornered, detonated a vast quantity of explosives.

Walter Stikler's abduction was the first time Wladimir had reemerged in terrorist operation since the early 1980s. Despite his retreat from the scene, security studies experts, former secret-service agents, and journalists intrigued by revolutionary terrorism were all convinced that Wladimir had in fact never stepped away but had masterminded–he, or someone very much like him–many of the radical groups who cropped up all over at the turn of the new century. There were also claims that he had been a mystery guest of Latin American leftist regimes, especially the Castro brothers and José Mujica, but also Brazilian President Lula, and that it was he who had sparked, with Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. Rumors abounded that his sway over Marcos was so powerful that Wladimir actually wrote the man's most famous speeches. Still, and about this all the newspapers–conservative, liberal or progressive–concurred, after the legendary operations around Western Europe immediately following 1968 and in the 1970s, the act of the abduction of an intellectual could easily be defined as the action of a desperate man, totally out of sync with the new spirit of the times.

The media took the opportunity to bewail the brief attention span of the public and their lack of awareness of the perils of left-wing terrorism and the psychopathology of those who espouse it, all the result of their obsession with Islamic fundamentalists, who, as some aging new philosophers claimed, were linked to the leftists with their taste for totalitarianism and their hatred of western liberal ideas. The abduction of Walter Stikler was seen as possibly a new strategy: targeted murders or abductions not just of statesmen or prominent capitalists but of intellectuals who had provided the underpinnings and were sustaining, in the terrorists' opinion, the hegemony of the ruling ideology. The financial crisis in the fall of 2008 shook the capitalist order, but did not bring it down. What was needed was a direct blow to the head–at least that was the motive the new radicals' actions seemed to be conveying. After Walter Stikler's miraculous deliverance and Wladimir's disappearance in the blazing rubble, many asserted that all the mindless violence coming to the democracies from the margins of the political spectrum had no path forward.

 

I met Walter Stikler in early April 2016. On the night of March 31, a group of activists decided to bring the calendar to a standstill and spend the night on the Place de la République. Nuit debout! There began a long night with people on their feet, and their reformed calendar proceeded on with March 32, then March 33, then March 34… Popular assemblies, concerts, graffiti, makeshift libraries, debates, public speeches, prominent figures, the inevitable clashes… A carnival atmosphere soon won the day with trumpets, drums and songs of battles, freedom, and the triumphs of the oppressed, about the conflicts we'd won and the others yet to come, the strife and the graves notwithstanding. The place where we gathered every evening was always the same: Place de la République, not far from my rooms on the Rue du Château d'Eau.

I had a broad circle of friends, artists, some more talented than others, living largely hand to mouth, musicians, journalists, doctoral students, international visitors on generous American scholarships, aspiring museum curators, waiters by necessity, militants from any number of groups, legal and illegal migrants, freelancers, the sons and daughters of regime politicians, and the activists of the most recent radical left-wing parties. We marched under the black-red banners of the anarcho-syndicalists, brandishing the insignia of the arching black cat, kept up our ties with Communist factions, elbowed our way through the pro-Palestinian groups, handled the inevitable face-offs with disenchanted members of the unions, socialist or green, left-wing Catholics, feminists, fighters for anti-racist groups as well as the Human Rights League, now on the decline because of the advanced age of its members.

This was one of the things, I believed, that made Paris feel so like home, this readiness to take to the streets, the resolve, also often the naiveté, the zeal, evening after evening, for political debate no matter how superficial, the passion invested in sparring–over café tables, at the university, in the metro. The likelihood, each day, of meeting someone who'd been drawn to the city by circumstances, dreams, or love. I felt I'd found my tribe and that here, in Paris, my past would not overshadow my present, it wouldn't rule my life, I had fled the curse of geography with my decision to settle here. Paris allowed me to be closer to the person I felt was the real me. I'd forged my own life. I was born again.

 

One of those evenings, I'd arranged to meet with members of our journal's editorial board to discuss how we might join the groundswell. I arrived early at our favorite bistro. No need to place an order; there was Momo the waiter serving me my glass of wine. I savored this brief moment of respite before my friends arrived, amid the clamor of voices and clinking glasses, resting my eyes on the street where young men and women were streaming toward Place de la République.

"I used to be just like you," I heard a man say as he took the bar stool next to mine. I wasn't sure for whom these words were intended. I turned toward him briefly, but was reluctant to get involved, until he repeated, "Yes, indeed, just like you, young man."

"Pardon?" I said. "Speaking to me?"

"Yes, you," he answered. "You, indeed."

I assumed he was a drunk or a crank who could hardly wait to trap someone in conversation. I turned away, hoping he'd give up. He'd already spoiled my enjoyment of the rare solitary moment. I took out my cell phone as a clear sign that there would be no further communication between us.

"Yes, I was exactly like you, even before '68, then in May, and then again, later 'Il est interdire d'interdire… Vivre au présent… Soyez realiste, demandez l'impossible…'"–he recited the slogans of '68 with a tinge of irony–"or what about the silly conjugation that amused every foreigner like you in your Intro to French class. How did it go? Je participe, tu participes, il participe, nous participons, vous participez–ils profitent!"

He laughed out loud. Now I was convinced he was a maniac who made it a habit to harass people in cafés. I don't know whether he managed to get me onto thin ice with his derision or by showing that he could see I was a foreigner (my charmant petit accent was always there, though I'd only uttered a few words).

"And then you saw the light and knew your radicalism was nothing but growing pains," I responded curtly to the cynicism, all too familiar, of ex-renegades, "and you found yourself a place in the system you either cannot or do not wish to change. Please, spare me your clichés!"

"Do forgive me if I've ruffled your feathers. Perhaps you're worn down by so many nights spent… on your feet. You've seen right through me. I confess!" he said, raising his hands as if in surrender. I spotted scars on his wrists.

"You do not, sir, interest me in the slightest. Please leave me alone!"

He grew suddenly serious. "My apologies for disturbing you."

"Fine," I said. "If I might enjoy my wine in peace, I'd be grateful."

"Yes of course, of course." He leaned toward me. "You were undoubtedly stung by what I just said. Forgive me. I know your French is superb. Far too good. You wish too ardently to show that you're better, better than the natives."

"You miss the point!" I said, irritated.

"How interesting that once you started living here in France you so quickly aligned yourself with the radical left. How come? As far as I know, in your neck of the woods, socialism was over and done with years ago. And nothing very serious seems to be going on. A few students stir up a ruckus now and then. Fine. People assemble at what they call plenums. Fine. And then it blows over. There seems to be no left wing to speak of there anymore, am I right?"

He looked at me, feigning curiosity. I dismissed this as pompous. Or perhaps he'd read a text of mine published with a photograph, and he recognized me? I did what I could to fend off paranoia.

"I am waiting for friends. I wish you a pleasant evening, sir."

I turned my back on him and tapped at my phone. I felt him still standing there next to me, watching the back of my head.

"Same to you," he said calmly. After a moment of indecision, as if about to say more, the stranger walked away.

 

The next day I'd agreed to meet Emilie for lunch at Le Basile Café at the corner of Rue de Grennelle and Rue Saint-Guillaume, next to the Sciences Po, where we'd both earned our doctoral degrees. We were considering writing about what was going on at Place de la République, trying yet again to address the eternal question of What is to be done? I took a seat under a photograph of Bob Dylan from his 1965 English tour. He was at a microphone, wearing dark glasses, a cigarette dangling from his lips. After a few moments someone paused by my table and sighed audibly, gazing at Dylan.

"And then, only a few months later, he picked up an electric guitar and made history. I heard him live at L'Olympia in 1966. Those were the days! I could go on and on about them."

I was speechless when I realized the man was that stranger from the night before, but before I had a chance to say a word, he spoke. This time in the language of my childhood.

"Maybe we didn't get off on the proper foot," he said, looking me straight in the eye. "Perhaps things might go more smoothly this way."

Instinctively I recoiled. He smiled at me gently, as if to reassure me.

"See, I, too, am a foreigner here, although slightly less so than you, what with the years I have spent in this country. Over half a century. You have been here, what, twenty years?"

I said nothing.

"Yet a practiced ear can still pick up your Balkan lilt. Don't lose it as I have."

"What do you want from me?" I shouted, feeling anger, even alarm. "Who are you anyway?"

He bowed and put forth his hand with a theatrical flourish. I refused to clasp it, so, uninvited, he took a seat at my table, leaned forward as if he feared being overheard, and whispered: "Walter."

"Your name, sir, means nothing to me," I said, leaning away from him. "First that performance last night, and now this… Listen, all I want is for you to leave me alone."

"Stikler," he said, again in a whisper, as if he'd been eagerly anticipating this moment, knowing what impression his surname would leave on me. He seemed to be reading my thoughts, my agitation.

"What?"

"You heard right."

Silence.

"Forgive me, I pronounced my name the way they say it here. Where we're from, in our native city, I was entered in the books as, of course…" and again he leaned toward me and whispered, "Valter Štikler."

Not only had the man confirmed that he was, indeed, Walter Stikler, recently abducted and then retrieved from the rubble of the building where Wladimir was killed, but if I'd heard him right I thought he'd said…

"What do you mean, where we're from?"

"Why, Sarajevo!" he said, without a trace of artifice, delighting in my amazement. I felt my upper lip tremble. Obviously I was ashen.

"Slow down," he said, smiling. "No need for panic. Is it so strange to run into a compatriot?"

I was petrified. The smile vanished from his face.

"I realize this must seem a little odd, confusing, even threatening. But there was no other way for us to meet."

He asked the waiter to bring him a glass of Brouilly.

"Wladimir…" he inhaled after he'd taken his first sip. "I am quite sure you know the whole story and that you've formed your own opinion. Since I know of your convictions, I also know what you think of me, my work and my positions. You are not particularly original here, there are many who think as you do, even here among us, and especially at those evening séances of yours. Some among them also blame me for Wladimir's death and for this I will have to pay. With my head, of course. I have been so warned."

"No surprise there."

"Yes, as I presumed, you concur. I did not expect, of course, that we'd agree on matters of politics. Still, for you, as a writer, it might be interesting to hear that Wladimir and I were acquaintances of many years."

"I am not a writer."

"Really? How odd. Perhaps I misunderstood."

Later, after I'd met with Walter several times, I got used to this sort of comment dropped in passing. "Please tell me, what it is you are after?!"

Not a blink. Walter watched me calmly and sipped his wine.

"Leave!" I said, now more softly.

"Fine, fine…." He finished his drink and adjusted his raincoat. He was elegantly dressed in a suit, no tie, a silk scarf around his neck, his face impeccably shaven; his hair carefully combed. He was a striking man who'd aged well, at peace with himself, and clearly comfortable financially.

"I have never seen someone take so badly to being told he is a writer. Not only is this not an insult, but it is also no secret. Why, you published your romanzo yourself, what was it called… Castello! I bought it at the Morpurgo bookstore in Split. Not bad. You abandoned our little language and, surprise, surprise, wrote not another word. Finding it a challenge to write in French, eh? Well it's not so easy. You turned, instead, to academic work. Laudable, but a tad on the dry side, n'est-ce pas?"

He paused as if waiting for my answer. When none was forthcoming, he said, "Fine. I see you're in no mood for conversation today. I have just one thing to say. I have a story for you. A sizzler." He winked.

"I am not interested in your story or in you, no matter who you are!" I barely spat out. "I have more than enough work of my own," I pointed to my laptop on the table.

"Ah, yes, la lutte continue!" with derision he raised his right fist halfway.

Emilie arrived at that very moment.

"So sorry I'm late." She glanced over at Walter. "Are you alone?"

"No. This gentleman helped himself to a seat at my table."

"Hey, are you okay?"

I didn't take my eyes off Walter, who was donning his hat. "What happened?" asked Emilie.

"Everything is perfectly fine. As it should be," said Walter as he left.

"Who was that?"

"I don't know," I answered, sighing with relief. "But I am very glad to see you."

"Štiks!" his voice thundered across the café. Walter was standing by the open doorway. Everyone turned to look.

"Perhaps you might like to know that during the war," he added before vanishing, "I made the acquaintance of your father."

 

Translated to English by Ellen Elias-Bursać.

Knjiga W objavljena je u sklopu projekta Facing Insecurities in Contemporary Europe sufinanciranog sredstvima programa Europske unije Kreativna Europa.