David Vardeman Reviews Skulls of Istria

Skulls cover shot


Skulls of Istria, review by David Vardeman


“Skulls of Istria” is the spoken account of a disgraced historian in search of redemption, which comes to mean, in any sense that matters to him, an appropriate subject.  He tells an uncomprehending drinking companion (the companion doesn’t speak the language, but drinks are free) how he stole his deceased mentor’s work, improved it, and passed it off as his own, to his financial gain but ultimate humiliation when the plagiarism is detected.  A fugitive from the law and the bloodhounds of academic and publishing standards, the narrator escapes with his lover Rosa to Venice, a city that he loathes for its opportunistic role in history, and from there to the Istrian peninsula where he stumbles upon his subject:  one Giordano Viezzoli from Piran.  Viezzoli fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  “So this man, this 26 year old man, had left his home, gone directly to Spain and almost immediately been killed.”  He would use the meaninglessness of this young man’s sacrifice on principle to an anti-fascist cause, his freedom to choose, as an arrow “aimed straight into the skull of the Fascists.”  He sees Viezzoli’s “commitment against powerful forces” as “enough to bring down the moral scaffolding upholding Western Civilization” depriving “Western empires of their right to govern.”  In the course of doing footwork research, the narrator literally falls into the underworld.  He meets the dead, skeletal remains in a mass burial site, presumed by him to be Uskok victims of Venetian reprisals in the 17th century.  Despite a strong identification with death, world- and history-weary, hunger drives him back to the world of the living where he learns that an act of charity on behalf of a new lover’s “brother” has allowed this man, whose real identity he subsequently learns is that of a war criminal hunted by Interpol, to elude capture.  His principles betrayed, having ignorantly aided The Enemy, his rage turns back on himself.

For someone whose passion is for the truth, or for a fidelity to truth, which might not be the same thing, the narrator has a checkered past, given his propensity for the theft of intellectual property.  But now he is nothing if not unsparing in his judgment of himself, his fellow students and historians, the empires that have laid waste their conquered provinces, preyed on, betrayed decency, fair and honest interchanges since the historians first sang their accounts of what they’d witnessed or heard.  He has always been not merely suspicious of romantic love but actually contemptuous of it while enjoying the benefits that accrue to him from indulgent Rosa who supports him through the lean years that run into decades and then flees the country with him in his disgrace.

Stripped of nearly all illusions by his close reading of history and observation of his fellows, the narrator spares no one his clear-eyed assessment.  Clear-eyed, yes, except that he allows his passion for “gypsy” lover Maja finally, fatally to cloud his vision.  He doesn’t see what’s coming.  What’s that about knowing history so that you won’t repeat it?  He is being used and betrayed for his resources as surely as any of the empires he loathes betray and steal from whom they will.  Though he has “witnessed” indecency (mild term) countless times in reading history, in reading newspapers, none of that prepares him to encounter something similar on a personal level.  He is a man of thought, not action, as he admits, and when given the opportunity to act, he makes all the wrong choices.  He does not know with whom or what he is dealing.

“Skulls of Istria” is a tour de force of compact rage that is brilliant in every sentence, in every description and nuance of character and movement.  Everything is noticed, and everything means something beyond what it appears to mean.  Whom can he trust in this volatile region of the world?  Everyone plays his or her cards close to the chest.  This novel contains some of the wittiest and most incisive observations of human behavior and human foibles one is likely to find between the covers of a book.  The author is a playful linguist but rarely allows his playfulness to become an end in itself.  Harsch masterfully describes thought life as beautifully and clearly as he does lived life, to the extent that I found myself reading slower and slower and marking sentence after sentence that leapt out at me for sheer rightness and poetry.  No one describes a landscape, topography and the difficulty of traversing it better than Harsch.  No one can write a funnier sex scene than Harsch.  It should give one pause to be able to say, these days, that he or she has run across an original sex scene, given the overabundance of the same in daily life.  But search these pages for just that.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is short but profound, angry but funny, truthful as only the fallen one can speak the truth.


This Review Is Not For Amazon: Dan Hoyt’s This Book is Not For You


This Review Is Not For Amazon

Dan Hoyt’s This Book Is Not For You

It’s time to stop talking about fiction categorically, time to shut the fuck up about metafiction, postmodernism, experimentalism. It’s time to remember Rabelais and Petronius, Burton, Arlt and that other guy (women? I suspect they are in the vanguard—I wish I could experience the genderrific thrill of having a lady named George enter the man’s world just to show them how easy it can be if you take your genitalia just a little less seriously). The history of fiction is a very long one, a history of free prose winnowed suddenly into a conformism commodified into an embarrassing self-regard—mirrors previously used to perform tricks became instruments of judgment. How it happened is not my concern, other than to say it took a great deal of cowardice, collaboration—in the shave their heads sort of way—and competition. Okay, yes, I AM disgruntled, but as things stand I am far happier that I am me and not Dan Brown, not Frank Conroy. I’m glad I’m not Dan Hoyt, too, but that’s because we never enjoy our own books the way we delight in the inspired works of others. And Hoyt is inspired, red hot, boiling—he’s a mad phalanx of lobsters with felt-once tip claws; and I’m going to let other reviews discuss his innovative moves—I’m going to tell you that I can’t remember the last time I came across so many memorable lines with such frequency, especially from a young first person narrator. It’s not only the descriptions, but the wisecracks, the attitude, the violently ambivalent truths of a man in the contracting idiocy of his time. Hoyt’s Neptune is an amazing literary creature, a narrative drive unto himself. And this is where I recall an obscure writer like Desani and his mad Hatterr and slide him into the review like an asshole, but I wouldn’t do that to Hoyt. I would do it to you, but not Dan Hoyt. The very notion is absurd—we need to shut the fuck up about other writers when we’re reviewing the current victim (every review is a violence done to the work of the author, every review). This may seem odd, but it is even about time we review the photos authors let their puppeteers attach to their books: and I’m damn glad a bald Hoyt with sleeves rolled up is looking at me, telling me he absolutely does not care what I think of his book. No sweater. No dog. No living room floor. Back to the book, the word choice is unparalleled, deft, but that goes without saying—if it wasn’t deft I wouldn’t be reviewing because I leave the reviewing of shitty books to others; no the word choice is consistently inspired: ‘burlap crackers’! See if you can top that. See if Joyce Carol Franzen can top that. It’s a work of literature and it has a plot, too, and you actually read it as fast as the narrator tells you to, tells you are, and unless you’re an asshole you will take your first origami lesson. As for the content of the book, I mean otherwise—the cover is great but for the five blurbs, all of which are right in praising the book, all of which fall short of sufficient praise, and each of which has at least one remarkable idiotic aspect (Listen to this shit: ‘A page-turner experimental novel.’ I would rip the head off anyone I caught putting that on my novel.)—the content of the book doesn’t matter in the least because the narrator is the book and it wouldn’t matter what he was going on about in his way. I probably should tip one of my Midwestern hats to Dan Hoyt, a lesser Pacino, phelt you can afford: the environment of his novel is up to date and survives, the characters what has been done to them, wires and everything…
Maybe one reason I like this book so much is that the narrator directly tells the reader a lot of what I think, but that passes because I have to get on with what I am writing—I like directly telling readers uncomfortable things and I don’t get to do it often enough. This book revels in it. I have spent far too much time writing for the one or two or three people who pop into mind as I write—P will like this, B will laugh at this, T will get this. The fact is, however, that we could not possibly have the detrital bloat of commodified cornholery that passes for literature without a plethora of morons not getting our books, not caring to get books, not advancing their selves through art, surrendering their selves lest art, merely paying lip service to art without even swallowing. Which brings me to my only problem with the book, not an uncomfortable one for me. I love great literature, and I read a lot of it, and I’m damn grateful for the current writers of it…But this is the first time I’ve ever read a book and felt that it might change my writing in some way in the future. It has an urgency that may finally lead to a necessary coherence in literature given the world that Arlt described is in its late menopausal stage. I might have to learn from Hoyt to maintain my relevance to myself. I might have to speed up to keep the urgency in sight.

Katabasis, a Theme for Trieste II





By Rick Harsch


With Photographs by Jan Skomand




KATABASIS: a Theme for Trieste



Humans are evanescent; cities are an attenuation of that being-tainted evanescence, a smart ape-group’s struggle against disappearance. Cities outlast us, and that is by nature mystifying, and we know that nothing about the city is humanly known on that very level which is the only one where what it is exists. So we haunt them with their own pasts, pasts of which they are well rid, as cities are the best humans did at approximating nature, which abhors an eternity. Cities are born to die, are ready to die, and they do—all—eventually die. Yet it is no paradox that in their dying cities produce great bursts of life–the metaphor brought to mind is rats taking torches to the armories—the humans in the cities have no urge to measure their currents against the crepuscular flex of the city. Mirrors don’t reflect honest decadence. And if humans be the strangest of earth’s creatures, and they certainly are, and if each city harbors tortoise-like lunatics (always men, for some reason) who persist in splendorous pigeon-cursing pique, insistent that the city must die first, the simple truth is the city will survive them all.

Nature perhaps as well coerces writers into anthropomorphicizing cities, as I have just done. The worst and most often inaccurate example is to call a city less vigorous than it once was a dying city. I need no other example than the subject of this book, Tergeste, Trieste, Trst, a city that has been associated famously with nowhere, and is considered internationally to be a dying city, if not a dead city. This should come as a surprise to the quarter of a million residents of Trieste—a number, after all, great enough to succumb to holocaust—but it is a cliché they live with; or live beside, for in their quotidian it is doubtful Triestini give much thought to the morbidity of their city. I am not a Triestini, but as a New Istrian living nearby in Izola, Slovenia, working in Trieste, visiting often, I am truly sick of the lack of inspiration behind the common misperception of Trieste. I would go so far as to call it inhuman.

The reason for the persistence of an insipid human myth is the lack of a vibrant newer myth. That, simply, is my diagnosis of the problem of humans and Trieste. Once the fevered, international port lost its hinterland—political economy turning a cold shoulder to geography–the city naturally changed dramatically. That it had also become something has been strangely overlooked by outsiders. Every city has its character, every neighborhood its character, and so every city its mischaracterizations. Thus I will make no attempt to determine the character of Trieste. I intend only to posit a theme for a city visited famously, and inarguably, by a unique and violent wind, the bora, a katabatic wind, Alpine air sucked down to replace languid Mediterranean vapors, knocking over old ladies and bicyclists, occasionally flinging a roof tile through a neck (Prague has its defenestrations, surely exaggerated; Trieste its decapitations). This wind is yet more powerful in metaphoric state, as witness the case of James Joyce, the most internationally famous historical Triestine, whose Trieste Katabasis is legendary and was of such force he put the protagonists of his final two books through much the same—Bloom, of course, as Ulysses had no choice whatsoever; and nor did Finnegan, the legendary drinker who went so far as to die so as to get himself a decent splash of whiskey.

I must immediately take a sword to that last paragraph. Off with Joyce’s head—that, too, is katabasis. The finest book on the phenomenon is The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, who leaves the reader deceived into a state of static euphoria, mopping the forehead with a handkerchief, the journey having gone well. It wasn’t his fault, for Miller knew that katabasis was very much like a carnival ride assembled by the drunk, blind and demonic. For some descent was arduous and rewarding, of course: for others it was a headfirst plunge into a karstic hole, a foiba…And we will indeed get to that perpetual katabasis in time, smrt fascismu! and pace nel mondo.

Meantime I cast ahead of myself, having heard from Mac, the gent from Ghent, who inadvertently warned me off the ratlines to the buried magazines. ‘I have been re-reading the text you sent me more carefully,’ he wrote, referring to just the first three paragraphs; ‘Katabasis was for me, monomaniac mariner, only a wind, a dangerous one, but predictable in its unpredictability, like a Venturi. But that was too easy…I suspected. And suspicious I looked up Katabasis and found that it firstly meant going down (to the underworld) or toward the coast…as opposed to the Anabasis of Xenophon’s fame…’ Naturally, all that Mac suspects of my intentions is true enough…true enough: strong words for modern man. Yet there is also simply Trieste mundane, tramontane, adamantine: within the shell of the turtle, one might say…particularly as my photographer and I began this venture with the intention of violating a minor law for luck (Mac: ‘Chronos castrated his father with an adamantine sickle.’). This involved transporting an invasive species across national lines and releasing the animals in the pond of the Giardino Pubblico at the end of Via Battisti, a park featuring the finest chapter in Claudio Magris’ Microcosmos, in which not only did I learn of the turtles in the pond but also the many busts of writers in particular, Italo Svevo in magnificence, his head having been stolen several times. I read the book more than a decade ago, probably about the time I bought the first turtle, Captain Michalis, for my son. At the time the creature was about the size of my thumb, the shape it would be if it were pounded with a mallet. A year later I bought Bouboulina for my daughter. Gradually the turtles outgrew my capacity to make for them a paradise; though the children did their part by losing interest in them within weeks, one assumes that peace and food security comes to less than that which nature invests within desires of the testudinatal race. A fair amount of swimming, the hunt…But Captain and Bouboulina ‘swam’ eventually in the largest plastic tub I could find, the fresh waters of which began turning green within a day of changing, turbid within a week, and too often were again changed only when a stranger to our balcony noted the smell. It could have been worse: Izola was until recently a fishing town, a tin cannery town, a place that smelled like fish. There’s little doubt that a degree of nostalgia drifted off my balcony as the turtles lived on as we presume reptiles do, they and their odd limb-tips half flipper/half claw, unseen under the muck layer more often than not. I know I know nothing, yet assume that the smaller-brained creatures express stress by dying: and these two always harbored great vigor. Perhaps I merely lack the culture to grow a proper disease. So I cleaned them in the shower, put them in a cloth bag, put the bag in a fittingly plastic shoulder bag, and my photographer and I drove to Trieste and made our way to the public garden. The busts stood in still heft amid more jungly verdance than I recalled, and the pond itself was fed by a spring and narrow falls surrounded by bamboo. This was going to be easy, I thought. Just above the falls was a rounded clearing over-filled with benches, where two Serbian bums were passing the day. The first asked my photographer for a smoke and disappeared once he got it. I decided not to wait for the other to disappear, particularly as he seemed to be taking some kind of interest in what I was doing, having clambered into the bamboo and down a couple stages of rocky aquadescent. I quickly removed Captain and placed him on a stone over which water ran rapidly. He remained withdrawn and the flow did not carry him to his better life. Still the second Serb observed. I took out Bouboulina. What was he looking at, really? The last thing you want when doing something wrong is to appear to be doing something wrong, so I held up Bouboulina for him to see, a gesture he mistook for an offering—‘Ne, hvala’—and I put Bouboulina in the falls, she emerged spry, and was soon out of sight. I nudged Captain a couple times with my foot as if across asphalt, and he, too, was relocated…within the safe confines of Trieste, safely apart from native species.



Goodbye, Captain.

In his prescient classic The Folk from the Earth (my translation), in the chapter “Katabasis Monterno”, the early 19th century Freiburg philosopher von Schlag (sic?) argued that prison had become the one true church of modern man, the last refuge of hope for redemptive process. As I understand the fragment (as presented by a Danish philosopher of minor repute whose name I no longer recall), von Schlag (sic?) meant to suggest that the lurch of modernity toward industrialization, away from nature, was a permanent shift, and that among the manifest changes in the totality of the life of humans was a deterioration in all aspects of the incorporeal, a degradation of myth, an interment of lore along with banishment of all mysterious in lives of the night. Yet the surpassing need for this incorporeal required that some sort of maladaptation was necessary, and so as regards katabasis, we would have prison. Sparking through intellectual history, with matted coats and corded ruddering tails, ideas provoke an excitement akin to that of the finest poetry, even if their application is a slippery matter. I’m reminded of Spengler’s unforgettable line: you can take the man out of the city, but you cannot take the city out of the man. The very sighting of a truth in that line excites me in precisely the same way I’m uplifted upon sudden glimpse of a hedgehog, or a nutria. And there is no doubt that indeed a prison sentence is an invitation to an exploration of katabasis, even on the mundane level of rehabilitation.


The Coroneo Perp Walk, Trieste Central, or where a passaggio connects the justice building with the jail.

The resonance was not accidental, for the very process of making this book began as a visit to Coroneo, Trieste’s prison, as an act of homage by my photographer and I to a forgotten wreck of a man, dead three years, likely having committed suicide by mixing heroin with an enormous litrage of alcohol. Štranzo was much despised and more feared, having a penchant and talent for fighting, a dark spirit, a drug habit, and a sensitivity to slight keener than an albino’s to desert sun. He was all the more hated socially for having squandered talents bestowed upon a very few in life: he was a rare artist, the kind of whom it is said perhaps one in a generation passes this way, with an incisive, comprehensive mind. He was invited from his home in Capodistria (Koper) to study fine arts in Ljubljana, where his impact was felt immediately, remaining even as he himself quickly vanished into a life of wandering, heroin, and brutal assaults. By the time I met him he was a new man; his time in Coroneo was enough to prevent him from beating strangers to a pulp for having the nerve to turn their eyes from him as they passed in the street. His sentences often ended with ‘…don’t want to end up back in jail.’ His attraction to me is of no importance, as my whole life I have been singled out by the odd, the lame, the demonic, the deranged, the needy (I could provide example after example: the one guy on that plane, that train…the oddity places me in a class of some sort with a speculative Jesus: For instance, over the span of my 58 years, at least 20 people have had me touch their head injuries, most recently a former Yugoslav reporter who had been shot in Prague by Russians in 1968. That was not yet two weeks ago.). Importantly, I did not fear Štranzo; that was surely one pre-requisite. Another was an interest in literature. My photographer shares these, and he, quite separately, had been a friend to Štranzo. In my apartment, Štranzo was gentle with my children, physically loving to my dogs, and could not help but exude the atomized stigmata of one often forced to leave. He never wanted to be unwelcome in my apartment, and even if he was not one to yield to anything at all he could not prevent my knowing that. Perhaps that has nothing to do with his scattershot tendency to bear gifts—often spectacles of nature like giant donkey ear seashells that washed up one day, impossible plants that, like him no longer could manage an effort to take root. And one night, it was past three in the morning, he buzzed me awake and arrived up the stairs with a holiday display size Italian flag and these words I will never forget, ‘I thought you might want this.’ Humans disguise an incomprehensible nature by a surface complexity, yet when it comes down to it we are no different from dogs sniffing each other’s asses.  On the great dogwalk of life, Štranzo and I sniffed each other and found a short couple years of simpatico available. But he was never happy, and he spoke to me too often of suicide. He was off heroin but hooked on morphine and the last year of his life he kicked morphine but needed all the more alcohol. Suffice to say what would have been required for him to live as an artist was beyond his means. For Štranzo, katabasis was welcome torture from which he emerged with terrifying eyes he covered with sunglasses. Coroneo was easy by comparison. He simply did not want to return and so only engaged in violence far from crowds. He described one of these fights, at a house out in the foothills inland—a butcher knife and another two appliances were involved and he had to restrain himself from killing the man. I am not certain, but I think a woman who didn’t much care who lived through the battle was in the bedroom in a state of low alert at the time, and I think Štranzo intentionally provoked the other guy by having sex with her, that in fact he had sex with her entirely for that reason. He wasn’t a saint. So when he died not many people cared and too many were simply glad of it. A detail from his life that was surely more important than any other was that when he was 21 his twin brother, Branimir, by all accounts a talented and kind young man, leapt from the bells of the campanile in Capodistria in Tito Square. That, too, is katabasis.


The people will decide if this is a hall of justice or not.

My photographer and I visited Štranzo’s favorite spots in Izola and Koper, but also felt that no day of homage would be complete without also seeing Coroneo. Our directions were vague enough to bring us to the intersection from where this photograph of the hall of justice was snapped. We asked for directions, unaware that were actually at our destination—the prison connected to the building at its rear. The grandeur of the building was lost on me, putting me off only so that I wished to hurry on, and we did, finding ourselves on the other side, where the ‘entrance’ to the prison is hidden behind a row of trees. We found a guard, and as my photographer speaks Italian, ‘we’ asked about Štranzo, who had been out for at least seven or eight years by then. Describing Štranzo’s loose-limbed build began the process of remembrance, but it was the combination of his wild nature and loud voice that finally did it. The guard smiled. Sure, he’d had to club Štranzo a few times. There was genuine affection in his recollection.

I got to thinking and we got to talking. Trieste had been of interest to me since I had seen the last page of Ulysses at a time when the city had far more poetic meaning to me than locational precision; but it was that building, its grandiosity not grandeur, the conceit of any building allowed to label itself justice, it was that more than anything that was the final lure to writing another book about a place. And of course I had never been comfortable with the title of the Morris book, the tendency of Trieste to be known so little for so little and still gotten so wrong, and…I have no wish to be immune from the charms of urban history. Yet the incipient fascination of a naïve writer, in that last exalted stage of any author of profane books, remains an immeasurable lure, a powerful if mundane loci, a bottom toward which to plunge having found myself living on the Gulf of Trieste for reasons having nothing to do with this city that had taken on a mystique particular to my inchoate yearning. Earthly connections are available as stars, and it was a simple constellation for me to label: Joyce, upon landing in Trieste, was arrested within two hours having inserted himself somehow into a melee in Piazza Unita. He did not find himself held in the Coroneo, but neither are the stars of Orion actually neighbors. Another way to express what I am trying to suggest is that nothing arose to prevent the momentum that was gathering toward my writing about Trieste.


Why did I forget about Zurich and Paris?


Last night my daughter, Bhairavi, and I took one of our dogs, Sultan Suleiman, for a swim, on the way running into an adolescent rat just in front of our apartment that our hound had trouble focusing on as he is a creature of habit. The rat was running along the curb of an island of flora where Suleiman tends to relieve himself, and though the creature was scooting along with elaborate ratleggery, Suleiman missed it. Only when the rat sensed my vigilance did it begin to consider the need to escape, and, being a rat, it made a maze of the matter, turning abruptly and running back the way it had come. Only then, at excessive urging, did I get Suleiman to notice. He chased the rat from the labyrinth of its eventual demise, the creature leaping the curb and disappearing into undergrowth. At the beach I found the usual beached-home shell and bit of sea-polished glass with which to decorate the photo, which includes the type of book that I have no desire to write simply because so many already exist. Which is the reason that I asked Juan Vladilo, astrophysicist working in Trieste, if he would give some thought to places in the city that are of some interest yet generally not already covered in books. He promised to do so, and maybe feeling a measure of gratitude, I finally, after knowing him nearly ten years, asked him where his observatory was located. ‘Near San Giusto.’ ‘Where’s that?’ I asked in all my innocence. His eyes widened, which probably came naturally to him as one learns early not to squint when looking through binoculars and telescopes. ‘You’re going to write a book on Trieste and you don’t know where San Giusto is?’

His words had the effect of a sudden flaring match light in a darkened warehouse. Oh yes! Absolutely. Thank you, Juan, thank you, went my silent exuberant writer brain. Yes, that is precisely the way to write about San Giusto. Every book about Trieste includes San Giusto—they must—for San Giusto is indeed among the most important locales in the city, historic, palimpcestual, enduring! Central! Yet this city I love and with which I have now been by degrees intimate for seventeen years has kept San Giusto hidden from me. Certainly Morris wrote of it, though it would not be odd if my intermittent disgust with Morris’ love of empires had me yawning just at that point. And my extensive reading about and around Trieste would have been more focused on questions like why this armpit and not the other (Genoa)?, antipathies from Guelph and Ghibelline to Brit and Yugoslav, motifs like Trieste as serendipitous non-island in Venezian sea and bandits and banditry awash in bandit sea, not to mention the city as one flashpoint of horrors in the 20th century.

With extra attention I proceeded to read all three of Italo Svevo’s novels. What did San Giusto mean to Trieste’s greatest novelist? I had prepared myself for the answer without realizing it, for after six years outside a classroom as a result of a modern drought, what the world of cities calls an economic crash, I had just last year been hired to teach mariners English in a Habsburgh structure on Piazza Hortis, where a full body statue of Svevo presides, and every time I passed him I patted him on the shoulder. The man of the city is as fond as the preceding agrarians of speaking of fate and arguing whether coincidence exists or not. I weigh in here only to mention my luck: teaching in the same square that was chosen for Svevo’s statue! Oddly, I think, in three novels Italo Svevo never mentioned San Giusto. In fact, if Svevo were one’s guide, Trieste was the Corso—and no one seems to know where that now is—the public gardens, and the bourse, not to mention the boudoirs…This, of course, was the answer I sought, which is not to say that Giovanni Vladilo was wrong.


Dear Italo.


The acrobat of impermanent emotion given the illusion of permanence is appreciated by the author.

Particularly as there are other explanations. Consider this: when reading about the 4th Crusade one is likely to recall the image of the blind 90 year old doge, Enrico Dandolo, stepping ashore onto a bloody Constantinople rock to the deafening (he was not yet deaf) noise of thousands of men clashing, screaming, heaving, swiping, swearing, dying, bemoaning, of women screaming in terror, or future explosions the battle insistently beckoned, or immediately look up at the wily, acrobatic Venezians, there masts makeshift boarding planks, or mathematically oriented, determine the number of dead required to successfully storm and take a certain tower…What you will not read of is the goings on in the Hagia Sophia. And so when Dandolo began this bizarre, revolting venture by calling on subjects of the Istrian peninsula and citizens of Trieste and Muggia in a panic sought to pacify the old murderer with elaborate shows of humble adoration, one is not likely to imagine the scenes so far as to include San Giusto, even if there is actually some chance that, if the doge were indeed invited ashore to be feted, San Giusto may have been the chosen site for a banquet and obsequies.

And unlike Hagia Sophia, San Giusto does not stand out to most self-sufficient visitors to Trieste. If it did, I would have seen it and asked after it. It is an old castle near shore after all. Quite likely when it was built, this problem was not foreseen. But over time, especially concentrated Hapsburgher time, numerous buildings of bulk and height came to line the shore of the port and move towards the hills, surrounding San Giusto entirely, so that by now the castle is far closer to the sea (where the riva runs a line sw to ne) than to the eastern boundaries of the city. I’ll illustrate this in a moment, but first, to supplement the nature of such oddities I offer this photo for consideration:


Trieste seen from the first Servola off-ramp.

Cities of broad shoulders and industry, cities of industrial birth and skyscraping adolescence, even premature sulfuric old age, suffer little aesthetic damage from incongruity. After admiring the finest skyscapers of Chicago, one does not find the related conglomeration of plants built to convert raw materials into gold turning the skies of Gary, Indiana, death-greened colors that mirror Lake Erie’s cast just before the fire breaks out. Old cities don’t have that luxury. The modern stands out as in the above picture of the back of a grocery store, a plain brick building, sports stadia with their lights, apartment blocks, a relatively modern hospital in the back ground. It is by no means a pretty picture. (Fear not entirely for the vagaries of the sea plump for the ghosts of their land structures, imbue them with ghostly wonder.) Yet ugly that picture may be, Servola is integral to Trieste, as I found when I began driving there three or four times a week to meet people whose son and my own engage in an obscure rite I am not at liberty to reveal.  But that particular picture is here in relation to San Giusto for it includes a remarkable structure I only recently identified. That brick building is the Risiera di San Sabba, the only operative crematorium in Italy during World War II. This is upsetting to many Triestini, quite naturally. In fact, one necessary acquaintance, Normanno, became highly agitated when I explained that I had procured the photo, taken by my photographer. ‘I will invite you and your entire family to dinner and then take you to San Giusto…’ he objected. He did not understand, he claimed, why this building had a place in my book. Interestingly, two days later I just happened to discover that he had once taken his daughter to Risiera di San Sabba as an object lesson of some sort. (You think your life is bad…) Of course, I had read much about Risiera di San Sabba, and knew it was somewhere within a couple miles of where it is and had intended to visit at some point, when this book dictated. After all, the worst sort of katabasis may be either dying in such a place or surviving confinement there. Yet I found out it was part of my routine in a sense during the whole time I was meditating on San Giusto and what it meant that I had never focused on the place. Normanno argued that Risiera di San Sabba may as well not have been there at all. ‘The Germans did that, not the Italians.’ Now this is sensitive topical territory we will negotiate often in this book. For now, I will say that yes, Germans did, predominantly, ‘do’ that; but they did that with their own SS, Ukrainian SS, Austrian SS, and Italian SS. Why so disturbed so nationalistically? The gauleiter of the littoral at the time was Odilon Globocnik, a murderous swine who was half-Slovene and half-Hungarian. I can’t speak for Hungarians, but I know that no Slovene feels shame or complicity because of the involvement of the bloodthirsty Globocnik’s paternity. The engineer in charge of building the crematorium at the old rice husking plant was German, a serious man known for his many human-killing ovens, chiefly in Polish territories, Erwin Lambert. I suggest that for Normanno a walk through the Risiera di San Sabba would serve as a healthy katabatic experience, and given the torments endured at the risiera, the child’s skull kicked in, the elderly man beaten to death, the slaughtered, gassed, humiliated, rat-bitten, burned alive, the permanently traumatized,



A necessary pause for beauty that survived all the monstrosities visited upon Trieste and those people in, out and throughout the town.


the raped, stabbed, shot, beaten to death with shovels, gun butts, bricks, the cremated, partially cremated, the gassed, Normanno might come to distantly if perhaps only subconsciously understand what the Dante he certainly has memorized once endured.

Clearly, then, cities all have their secrets, multitudinous, and selective in the subjects who will receive their revelations. I showed the photo of the Risiera to a French Triestine who had somehow, despite a restless and exploratory nature, not yet been to see it in nearly ten years residence in Trieste. ‘That is the Risiera?’ he exclaimed. He had seen it more often than I had and yet had never seen it. This is a very simple explanation for my own ignorance of San Giusto, as you can see. I was told that on Molo Audace, the nearest pier to Piazza Unita, you can see San Giusto, but even there lies a problem.


The Ugliest Building on the Riva.                                                                                                    I have yet to decide whether to expose the hideous frontage of the building seen above facing the sea. The orange and brown monstrosity is so ugly that it has become for me the most recognizable lump of Trieste. The Audace pier lies off the riva perpendicular to that building, and it is between that building and its neighbor that one can spy sections of the castle of San Giusto. Yet such is the hideous nature of that building, its dull brown haircut and bland, not to say uninspired, façade, that the eye is either drawn to it perversely—directly–as the stomach churns or seeks desperately a sight far off in any other direction. This is perhaps the only time when one such as I could appreciate Mussolini’s victory phallus to my left, or, the other direction, the more humble lighthouse near the old train station. The last possibility is that my eyes would linger on the building, retaining their sensitivity, their desire, in order to alight on some wonder beyond.






















Letter from Uzbekistan: Sex Tourism


Stockhom Terror

Dear Rick,

Iv’e been anxiously waiting your letter fixing my letter to President Donald Trump about the centerpiece of our vamp (vamp is right?) tourism. And I have to admit to you Ricky that I was maybe a little angry because you were so slow. Then this horrible truck driving in Stockholm. I tell myself maybe Mr. Harsch knows more than he tells me or maybe Rick is right to wait, to move slowly. You are very wise. Please if you could make the letter bigger enough that you can expose yourself to Mister President Trump that this terrorist is a bad actor. He was a pimp who overbeat girls and one even could have died (his name is in other registered envelope–youse your own discreet). Yes, boiling alive is bad. But is it better to beat alive to death? Mr. Trump should know two things: one, that in concordat with his policy of exluding bad actors this perp (is good, no?) was only recently shown Ubekistan door, denied visa from United States (Bravo Mr. Trump), and now look what is happening to liberal country with open door policy? Of course you see how very much we are in alinement with Trump policies and ideas and desires.

Thank you and looking forward to your letter,

Arslan Levantinov

                                                          Minister of the Interior,                                                                Uzbekistan

Letters from Uzbekistan

My curiosity incited by correspondence with the aforementioned Arslan Levantinov, he middling bureaucrat detained by fate in a country that boils its citizens alive at the same time he has a particular fear of being burnt that stems from a childhood accident at a stove, I thought I might start by checking Wikileaks–I know. it’s hard to take an organization with such a Lewis Carrolesque title seriously, yet what follows is a genuine document regarding tortures that include those Mr. Levantinov most fears:

(As will virtually all to do with Uzbekistan, comedy persists, here commencing with ‘The report includes recommendations to the government of Uzbekistan to end
torture, and urges the Uzbek government to:’

We must assume many a belly laugh at this point among the official readers of the document, imagining the fox baby-sitting the hen house instructed to be sure lights out and quiet by 7:30 p.m.)

Uzbekistan: Torture Endemic to Criminal Justice System

For Immediate Release

Uzbekistan: Torture Endemic to Criminal Justice System

UN Committee Should Press Tashkent to Publicly Condemn and End the Use of

(Geneva, November 7, 2007) – Uzbekistan’s government continues to allow
torture and ill-treatment in the criminal justice system without holding
perpetrators accountable, Human Rights Watch said in a report released

Uzbekistan’s record is coming up for scrutiny before the United Nations
Committee Against Torture (CAT) on November 9, 2007. November also marks
the five-year anniversary of the visit to Uzbekistan by the UN Special
Rapporteur on torture, who concluded that torture in Uzbekistan was

The 90-page report, “Nowhere to Turn: Torture and Ill-Treatment in
Uzbekistan,” documents widespread torture that goes largely unpunished.
The report finds that torture and ill-treatment are ignored and overlooked
by investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and generally hushed up by the
media and the government.

“Uzbekistan wants to make its multilateral partners believe that it has
put an end to torture,” said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch’s Europe
and Central Asia director. “But official statements simply don’t square
with reality.”

The report details the cycle of abuse that starts at the time of an
individual’s detention and continues through conviction or beyond to
compel confessions or other testimony. In cases documented by Human Rights
Watch, police agents manipulated and prevented detainees from having
access to counsel of their choice. They beat, kicked and threatened
detainees soon after they were first detained, when detainees are cut off
from access to third parties or avenues where they might seek redress.

Police and security agents abuse detainees and threaten witnesses,
detainees’ families, and sometimes even lawyers to deter them from
pursuing accountability.

“This is no marginal problem,” said Cartner. “The Committee Against
Torture needs to recognize that ill-treatment in Uzbekistan is endemic to
the criminal justice system and not just a problem caused by a handful of

While the Uzbek government has given examples of police held accountable
for torture, no one was held accountable in the cases documented by Human
Rights Watch. Judges did not investigate torture allegations that criminal
defendants made in court testimony, and instead alleged that the
defendants were lying or told them they should have filed a complaint
during the investigation. A 39-year old defendant in one of the trials
monitored by Human Rights Watch explained why he could not do this: “I
never had a confidential meeting with a lawyer. I know that the pressure
would have increased if I had complained. I am a human being. I am not
made of iron. Even animals scream when you beat them. I was scared. That
is why I did not complain.”

Common methods of torture and ill-treatment include beatings with
truncheons and bottles filled with water, electric shock, asphyxiation
with plastic bags and gas masks, sexual humiliation, and threats of
physical harm to relatives.

The report includes recommendations to the government of Uzbekistan to end
torture, and urges the Uzbek government to:

. Take immediate and concrete steps to comply with its obligations
under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment;

. Implement in full the February 2003 recommendations issued by the
UN Special Rapporteur on torture following his visit to Uzbekistan;

. Publicly acknowledge the scale of torture in Uzbekistan;

. Conduct a robust, nationwide investigation into the practice of
ill-treatment and torture;

. Declare what measures it will be taking to ensure the prohibition
on torture and other ill-treatment is fully enforced and respected in

. Make this information available and accessible to the local
population, through the media and other appropriate forums;

. Ensure that detainees are informed of their rights, that they have
access to confidential meetings with a lawyer of choice, and can
communicate unimpeded with their lawyer at trial; and,

. Hold perpetrators of torture and ill treatment accountable to the
full extent of the law and ensure that detainees can make complaints about
torture without fearing retribution.

The report also calls on the Committee Against Torture to make full use of
the opportunity provided by its review to express concern about the
continuing widespread use of torture in Uzbekistan, and to call on the
authorities at the highest level to publicly condemn the use of torture.
The committee should also emphasize the crucial role played by civil
society groups, independent media and international organizations in
efforts to combat torture and ill-treatment, and call on the government to
ensure that these actors are able to function freely and effectively in

Human Rights Watch also called on the international community to support
the work of the UN’s anti-torture bodies by advancing the implementation
of their recommendations as part of their relations with the Uzbek

“International actors should take a principled stance and make ending the
use of torture a key component of any dialogue with the government of
Uzbekistan,” said Cartner.

To view the Human Rights Watch report, “Nowhere to Turn: Torture and
Ill-treatment in Uzbekistan,” please visit:


For audio testimony by Uzbek citizens who were tortured in detention (with
English translation and voicing), please visit:


For more information, please contact:

In Geneva, Andrea Berg (English, German, Russian): +44-163-760-9963

In Geneva, Veronika Szente Goldston (English, Finnish, Swedish, Hungarian,
French): +1-917-582-1271 (mobile)

Kramberger with Monkey, Ch. 34-37

images (15)

Chapter Thirty-Four

Nobody Likes a Master Stylist

At dawn as they headed out to the fields they found him, a bent black shape slumped against a tree. Just as the hops were tied to their posts, he was tied to his. Marko Medved first identified the odd shape as that of a man, and his predator eyes, honed by years drinking his own pelinkovec on the balcony watching for an event to approach his horizon. He covered his wife’s eyes. ‘This is something you must never see,’ he told Ljudmilla with great portent. ‘You mean that dead guy?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay husband, I will return home and prepare a vat of soup for our lunch.’ So she saw him, all right, but she didn’t see the black stain that had run from his seed source to form a delta of death on the fecund earth before him; nor would she ever know that the pipe in his mouth was not a pipe, but his own penis.

The police had no clues, not even to his identity. He had been spotted in Celje, and only one man at the tavern called the Dvojina Dolfe was found who had spoken with him. ‘He said he was a master stylist. I don’t remember anything else.’

Chapter Thirty-Five

He Never Writes, He Never Calls

You remember the one about the nun raped by the gorilla in Central Park?

Yeah, I never knew why it had to be Central Park. Wouldn’t it be better if it started with a gorilla escaping from a zoo?

Sure, probably, but it’s that damn punch line, that stupid fucking punch line that gets to me every time.

Me too.

Who visits her in the hospital?

Depends who’s telling the joke. I like it being the Mother Superior.

Right. I like it being a psychiatrist called in by the Mother Superior after several months of lingering despondency.

Yeah, that’s good.

So then what?

Well, he simply says I know you’ve been through a hell of a trauma, but a long time has passed, and you refuse to speak, you hardly eat. We want to help you, but you have to begin to open up, at least a little. She lays there silently. Can you put into words what’s bothering you? And she turns to the shrink, tears in her eyes, and says, He never writes, he never calls.

Funny as hell. Gets me every time.

He never writes, he never calls. God, I love it.

Why’d they have us put it here?

Don’t know.

Can you indulge in conjecture?

Safety in numbers, though at this point…

That last one was pretty gruesome.

The man over-reached, why fret?

True enough, but it was pretty gruesome.

So is this bit.

Among the worst.

Like Stambulov, only apparently not politically motivated.

Very funny.


Anyway, who keeps a gorilla for a pet?

Dead transvestites, as far as we know.

But in Ljubljana of all places?

And in Ljubljana’s high places.

Talk about quashing an investigation.

So what do we know?

Famous surgeon, worked on the elites, managed to keep a pet gorilla for a few years without but a few in her circle finding out. Hopefully a smaller circle engaged in sexual intercourse with the gorilla while it was drugged, some even—

Not so willing like the one in the joke…

I love that joke.


So the autopsy showed signs of remarkable sadism, not only the enlarged and torn rectum and torn tunnel, but badly healed broken bones. Some really sick shit was going on.

And that old report about the gorilla attacking a young girl—

Who irony of ironies is now a nun.

It says right in the report, his giant thing, something like that. Pink of course. The power of pink when it’s not where things should be pink. I mean, not that the penis itself was in the wrong place…

Right, anyway, now that’s our gorilla from the joke.

Unproven, little speculated on, but yes, it would seem so.


Well, I think we know the gorilla’s.

The doctor. Are we to accept that it’s merely another instance of human perversity? Is that acceptable?

It happened. The only thing is, to start with, the doctor is a woman who thinks she should have been a man. That alone is either fucking nuts—

I like that.

Yeah, me too. Where was I?


Maybe its nuts enough to be a woman and think you should be a man. It stands to reason that someone with such feelings would just become a lesbian. Why, if a sort of alteration of nature, further alter your nature?

Good point.

But she does, probably because at the time a few famous cases existed. In a little way, so to speak, it was the thing to do. So she gets her cock—

From a factory and a surgeon, not a gorilla.


I am, believe it or not—I know we have to get this done—I am on the verge of fucking pissing myself.

All right, let’s finish quick. But the cock is an early model and…

No, no, fine, get it out of your system…



Look, now you’re spitting up.

Okay, okay, I got it. Control, I got control. But a dollop of piss actually did come out.

That may be for the best. In our circumstance little we do can be considered odd.

In comparison.

Nothing compares. But the prosthesis didn’t work, no better than an elongated limp penis. It was supposed to work, so it didn’t have proper…stiffness. So the theory is she is remarkably frustrated, and the leap from there to what she did is a fucking chasm, a broad and hideous fucking chasm, onto this side of which we must remain far from the edge.

You said it.

Police report?

Neighbors heard banging. Presumably she was already dead, but the gorilla was definitely going to have his fun. When the cops finally arrived—it wasn’t reported as an emergency—it was quiet, so they knocked. They knew whose house it was. They were about to walk away when they heard something knocked over in the garage, a bicycle I think. The door was unlocked. They walked in, saw blood and limbs everywhere, the bitch was fucking skull flensed, not a typical gorilla maneuver—even some toes and fingers were bit off and spit out. Her tongue was half torn out, leading to the belief that the gorilla showed aggression—he woke up, perhaps having grown too used to the usual dose—she began to scream, he went after her tongue. The gorilla had a very minor bite mark on his right hand. And he was right handed. So the cops see this, and a fucking gorilla—imagine the surprise—

Right, just like the nun in the joke.

Absolutely. They see this contrite giant ancestor having backed into a corner, knocking over a bicycle—he heard them outside and assumed they were coming in after him. He was finished, ready to turn himself in, but the cops were in a state of grievous alarm, shock, and they emptied their revolvers into him so fast he died right there in the corner.

Which is why he never writes or calls.

That’s funny. Really.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Wow! What a Fucking Assassination!

Get the door.

You get the door.

Sounds like the door’s going to get us.

What a bunch of hyped up, triped up, and unfortunately typed up, nonsense. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes emphatically fucking yes fucking yes fucking yes, while Todd Fullmer was in Ljubljana a bizarre incident happened. But not to anyone anyone knew, and it wasn’t a fucking gorilla. A mastiff killed its owner. End of fucking story. And to think those two were going to go on about…Well, just to think they were going to go on.

I won’t say whether I followed him or not, as it has already been established that the first person can pass for omniscient and the character nihiliscient. The point is simply that he followed up immediately, by taxi, license plate LJ 77Z4, all the way to Predjamska Grad, where he was surprised at so little ado about—just one kiosk, where three euros were required for entrance, just 150 meters ahead, passing benches on which several visitors rested.

As he walked, reading the brochure about Erazem’s taunting of the Austros and the Austros sending of Ravbar to besiege the castle and Erazem’s secret tunnels that led to the land above, where he hunted, often tossing fresh dead carcasses down to Ravbar’s starving besiegers, and the eventual betrayal of Erazem, someone placing a flag in a window to alert Ravbar to Erazem’s retreat to the toilet room, off to the left of the façade, an easy enough target, a cannonball, the end, about a 37 second read, a paragraph in Valvasor, Fullmer saw a little car, yes—a 65 GTO—scooting in front of him. He stopped, smiled, then went and picked up the car…a child cried out, a father pounced, recovered the car with his left, raising his right in threatfist, a befuddled fullmer apologizing to thin air, a family of three looking over their shoulders at the rude man on their way to the parking lot. The kind of asshole who’d kick your little white dog if it barked at him.

A dejected Fullmer trod on, head down, sardonically flagellating himself, ‘Birdy num num.’

‘Birdy num num,’ responded Z, Beograd rules in force.


‘Sheer coincidence.’

‘I suppose we don’t need it here, anyway.’

Z sat on the next to last bench, looking out at the layer of cloud on the hills, watching the rise of mist from the valley far below.

He pulled the 65 GTO from his pocket.

‘Of course we do. Move down a little’, he said, for Fullmer had sat at a natural distance.

Z spoke into the hood.

The car veered and slipped through two bench slats.

Fullmer retrieved it and opened the trunk, which said, ‘What’s this diversion all about?’

Fullmer manipulated the four-wheeled device.

The car told Z, ‘Assassination—long before Kramberger.’

Z told the tiny engine, which trapped the words in the trunk for Fullmer, ‘That was no assassination. It was war. And they cut off the rebel army at the top. Interesting and all that, but no goddamn assassination.’

‘I hate to argue through a car,’ the car told Z, ‘but I beg to differ. It sounds like one of the most magnificent assassinations in history. Better than von Webern’s.’

Z pocketed the car. ‘Well, anyway, here you are at the scene of the crime. Have at it. Maybe you can figure out who betrayed him.’ Z pulled a bottle from his coat. ‘Meanwhile, I brought this for you from Beograd. Home made šlivović, the best. Get a hotel down in Postojna, eat some meat, take the bottle up to your room and try to think of your editor. And b…’ Z pulled the car out again, opening the hood. The trunk told Fullmer, ‘Be careful, I think you’re being followed.’

Chapter thirty-seven

The Smoking Cigar

As an author I have no interest in belittling any characters, much less the relatively protagonal Fullmer. But I would be less than honest were I to allow such a reference as Fullmer’s to Z, who didn’t bat an eye, regarding the death of von Webern, which is known by history to be an accident, partly because the shooter, an American soldier, is said to have become depressed by the incident and died just ten years later of alcoholism. First off, if you could die from alcoholism at such an early age (the guy was 33) there would never have been a Yugoslavia. Second, the circumstances were clear, there were witnesses—soldiers everywhere. Salzburg, 1945, the allies are trying to prevent a second Vienna in the city of Mozart. A curfew is on—composers not omitted. Old Anton steps outside after dark to smoke a cigar. He lights it, the light attracts attention, a shot rings out. The ‘great’ von Webern is dead, the cigar lies there smoking.

And Fullmer? He posits total serialism, as opposed to the other monikers it has, the sudden addition of total, as in attrition, codes, Webern was anti-fascist all along, and now with the war over the Americans want fascists, not lefties like von.

Drivel? Twaddle? Claptrap? I will subject you to but one published passage by Fullmer on the subject:

“I was naturally quite curious when I came across the fact that his son-in-law had been arrested—for ‘black market’ activities that same day. And I began to wonder, why Salzburg? Why not Vienna? He had gone to school in Vienna, but had never worked there, the place to be for an Austrian artist of any kind. So I thought, let’s see where he did work, see if some reason emerges. Klagenfurt. Fine, normal enough. Stettin. Odd choice, that, but not the outpost that Ischl was. Ischl? A fucking resort, a little known resort. Teaching British travelers or what. Now I knew I was on to something. Danzig—strange, again the Baltic. Arnhem, must like the climate. Teplitz? Another resort, or maybe a Napoleon fetish. Prague—a feint. Augsburg, big deal, could happen to anyone, but then, get this: Aarhus. Three As. Who do you know who has ever even visited three As. Finally, and doesn’t this say it all: Linz.












See it? See the anagram?











I would call that Total Serialism! He lived out a code!…”

Enough? Insane, right?

Kramberger, chapters 15-18


Chapter Fifteen

Some Really Secret Monkey Business


The amazing thing about an assassination like the Kennedy business is that secrets are so hard to keep, yet the conspiracy remains un(entirely)resolved. Nobody really knows for sure, not even Skip, though he thinks he does. The only known instance of monkey assassination, revealed right now for the first time, was actually recorded by Jane Goodall, herself a victim of assassination, by human hand we have no reason to doubt, but suppressed for fairly obvious reasons. The only other human witness was an internee who was beside her when a rival chimp speared the head chimp from a tree, with a spear stolen from a nearby human forest tribe. There was no question it was intentional and planned. Goodall swore the student to silence, and the student kept silent. She had written a few lines summarizing the event before Goodall discussed with her the implications of the assassination becoming public knowledge, but she forgot to destroy the notes. Somehow, someone gained access to the notes, and without bad intentions forgot about it until the moment when she found it irresistible to say, Promise you won’t tell anybody this…And word eventually got around to one of our most reliable sources who broke into the student’s (she was by then a professor at Drake University) house and photographed the notes which were by then under lock and key. Eventually this woman had the determination to burn the notes, but we have seen the photo of the entry and have no reason to suspect its validity, veracity, or the virginity of the note.

Chapter Sixteen

Slovenia’s Got One!


Assignment Minsk: journalists dropping like flies, Lukashenko berserk.

Todd Fullmer’s flight landed in Beograd, but before he could see much of the city he was at its oddly decrepit and small train station, waiting for a train to Sarajevo. He had always had a vague desire to see where the archduke got shot, see where Gavrilo Princip was standing when he fired the bullets that provided the excuse for World War Two (not a misprint—for would we have two if not for one? Idea taken from the notes of Todd Fullmer). Not for a minute did Todd Fullmer buy the notion that that assassination was the spark that set off the war. The station at Sarajevo was quite different from that at Beograd, not decrepit so much as abandoned, at the edge of town it seemed, whereas in Beograd it was like a little dirty lot in the center of the city. He stopped for coffee at the one coffee shop that seemed opened, a small shop facing the city itself. The proprietor was an old man who moved slowly and had a gentle ease about him, a desire to talk coupled with an awareness that most people were not the least interested in what he had to say. Todd Fullmer was interested in what everybody had to say so it was without much discomfort that they had begun a conversation. Fullmer was surprised that the man, Samo, assumed he, an American reporter, was not there to see about the famous assassination, rather to take the tour of the remaining evidence of the shelling and sniping of the 90s. Yet Samo didn’t seem appalled at the new phenomenon of war-damage tourism. Todd was, at least initially, but when the conversation turned into a monologue and Samo talked about his personal role in the ‘war’, Todd began to understand. When a nightmare happens during the day you want it to end but you don’t want others to forget you had it. “See up on that hill? The Serbs were shelling from there. Every window in the city was gone. What was it…I think the UN had to buy 5 million windows for us. Snipers were everywhere. If we knew where they were it wouldn’t have been so dangerous. In the best of cases we knew where they were likely to target. That’s why everybody has the image of us crouching at a corner and then running across an open space. But some places we couldn’t run. The place where I had to get water every day three or four people were killed—every day.” He told it all with a sort of resignation. The story had its own pathos; Samo didn’t need to add any. Yet Todd Fullmer was struck at his lack of bitterness. He would have been bitter. Samo was diabetic and had to spend much of the ‘war’ without insulin. He nearly died several times. The war added twenty or thirty years to his appearance. He was in his early fifties but Todd would have believed him if Samo had said he was 83. He had fought, too. Every two weeks he went out to the battlefields or returned to the city to take care of his family. Apparently a lot of people did that. While it’s true that the Muslims press ganged a number of people, they were also quite understanding about family members. When Samo had returned to the ‘front’ once, he had their full trust and was allowed to come and go as he pleased as long as it was in two week intervals. They talked about how the station itself seemed abandoned. Before the war, Samo told him, there were thousands of people there at all times of the day and night. He had run a highly profitable clothing store, selling clothes he bought in regular runs to Italy. “I had to pass through Slovenia. Have you been there? It’s a beautiful place, and I always liked the Slovene people…” At that point Samo began rambling along a confusing story about two young Slovenes who had recently broken his most important beer mugs is a row that had started over their obscene comments about a waitress he had who wore a miniskirt to draw customers. Todd couldn’t tell if this was before, during or after the war, for aspects of the story clearly placed it in all three time frames. The story ended sadly with the Slovenes paying for the glasses in tolars, Slovene money—which means during or after the war—something Samo had never seen and mistakenly valued at quite too high a rate, as he subsequently found out on a trip to Budapest: “Not even enough for a coffee”. “We had so many customers then” (before the war?), “but those two were so arrogant—yet they didn’t know the difference between me and a Serb. Vuk Drašković had been shot in Montenegro (long after the war) and they were telling what barbarians we all were south of the Kolpa. I said you wait—see what happens to your great Kramberger (shot during the war). Of course, Kramberger wasn’t great, but I knew he was in for it. I had met him in Ljubljana on one of my last trips through. He gave me a spin in his Bugatti.” And seeing this obscure reference intrigued his listener, Samo dropped the story of the rowdy Slovenes and the tragedy of the glasses—something which, perhaps combined with the business about all the broken glass in Sarajevo, Todd was haunted by, labeling it in his mind as Samo’s personal Kristallnacht–and went on to report what he knew about the assassination, which had happened soon after he predicted it would.

Truth be told, there isn’t a lot interesting about a street or a street corner where an archduke was shot 80 or 90 years earlier. The event simply doesn’t resonate. Todd wandered into Baščarčija and became a war tourist, marveling at how the copper smiths turned shells into objects of ambivalent beauty, pounding intricate, classical designs onto these weapons that were trying to destroy them not so long before. He didn’t buy one, though. He was just killing time before the train back to Beograd, in a state of insuppressible excitement over the prospect of investigating this obscure Slovene assassination of a self-made millionaire—something with dialysis machines in Austria or Germany, Samo wasn’t sure—who drove about in a Bugatti he had put together himself, selling his own books, speaking with a monkey on his shoulder, head of the Homeland Peasant Party, which had received a significant—20%?, 30%–of the vote, and been killed by a ‘drunken hunter’, before Slovenia’s first elections as a free nation.

As soon as he returned to Beograd he wrote his editor, admitting where he was, and exclaimed, Slovenia’s got one!

Meanwhile, we should point out, guess who was sitting at the coffee shop at the train station in Sarajevo listening in on the conversation Todd Fullmer was having with Samo?

Did you guess Mandrake Pizdamonavić? Wrong. Just some shambling shell-shocked shoe shiner with out any shoes to shine. Mandrake Pizdamonavić was at that very minute stirring an espresso diligently at the Hotel Balkan in Beograd, sitting by himself, minding his own business (let that phraseology carry the weight you choose.)



Chapter Seventeen

The Consequences of Passing up Minsk


Transcript of the exchange between Todd Fullmer and his editor:

Slovenia’s got one!



So I’m paying for a story about dead journalists in Minsk. What’s the matter, are you afraid you’ll become one of them?

Don’t insult me—besides, that’s not such a bad motive for avoiding Minsk, not that there aren’t plenty of others. No, listen M_______, this Slovene thing is perfect for us. Nobody knows about it, the victim was a colorful guy—he went around with a monkey on his shoulder, for christs’ sake—the story, I mean the cover up, is obviously bogus…the whole thing—it’s virgin territory.

Virginity isn’t news. Whores are news. Lukashenko’s a whore, so forget this Slovak thing and get up there now.

Slovene, not Slovak.

Fast, slow, Czech, Moldovan, I don’t give a shit. You’re not yet bigger than this magazine and while I’m still editor you will go where I send you.

I’m not saying I won’t go. I’m saying I’ll stop in Slovenia for a while on the way.

No, you’ll stop in Slovojvodina after you’ve reported from Minsk.

Look, M_________, Lukashenko will be killing journalists for the next ten years. What’s the hurry? Arguably, the longer I wait, the more there will be to report.

I’m not going to argue anymore. Get your ass to Minsk or you’ll find yourself working at the New York Times!

Don’t get nasty with me. How many times have you followed my hunches and it turned out I got a scoop. Like with Yushchenko.

You call that a scoop?

Given that the story was unscoopable, I call it a fucking miracle that sold magazines.

We sold more magazines when you wrote about why you weren’t writing about Lady Die.

That was because of the ingenuity of your typesetter or whatever they’re called these days.

Still, it was brilliant and it sold magazines. Yushchenko didn’t sell magazines, not like we expect your articles to.

You ever eat a goldfish?


What about a fresh eyeball? They say Ante Pavelić popped them like olives.

What are you getting at?

Don’t demean my work. No way, no fucking way you would have touched that face.

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Chapter Eighteen

Yushchenko’s Face


Ukraine is one of those restless countries that moves around now and then, hides, moves again, emerges fresh and strong, kills some enemies within, some without, moves around a little more, hides again, emerges fresh and strong and chaotic, kills mostly within but occasionally by rocket without. For some, such a country is a refreshing change. Aren’t you little bored with, say, the borders of the United States? How long has it been since they changed? On the other hand, for the people in a city like, say, L’viv, change can be disorienting. One day it’s Lvov and it’s Polish, next day it’s got an apostrophe and it’s Ukrainian. Even central Ukraine can be fickle. One day it’s a breadbasket, next day a slaughterhouse; or a famine riddled grim place where no one vacations—all that bread and people dying of hunger…it can be very confusing. Then there’s the rain: one day water, next day acid (as they say). One day an historic city of the Pripet Marshes is bustling, next day a ghost town. And of course there are the people. Every country is heterogeneous by nature piled upon nature. So Ukraine had all these Jews and now where are they? In Pinsk, you say? Maybe, but they lost Pinsk to Belarus, which had to have Minsk, and if you’ve got Minsk and a loose Pinsk, the logic of politicals and rhymes says you needs to combines. You may not believe it but there are people on this Earth who are missing their Pinsk.

O sad Ukraine

O sad Ukraine

You lost so much and what did you gain?

And what didn’t you lose? Moskva, Moscow, Muskovy. The smarmy grappler Putin. Putting his nose in where he just can’t get that it doesn’t belong. Can’t he tell a Lukashenko from a Yushchenko? Not at first, but then western media broadcast Yukashchenko’s handsome grass roots face all over the tubes all over the world and next thing you know Ukraine has a fifty fifty itch for ‘freedom’. Stop laughing. Death threats delivered against Yushchenko, Yushchenko meets secret agents, ‘ex’-KGB, has a bowl of soup and his dioxin level multiplies by thousands. What is dioxin? Ask some Vietnamese peasants. The point is, Yushchenko developed a mysterious illness that should have killed him (What the fuck do we have to do, for Val’s sake!). The problem for Todd Fullmer was that the media was crawling all over the Yushchenko story like maggots in a rotting gut before the poisoning. So when he got poisoned, there was no original angle, no uncovered angle, no scoop, for Todd Fullmer and PS. Doctors in Vienna said we don’t know what’s wrong, but there’s hardly an organ in his body that isn’t deformed, swollen, and crawling with something not maggots. Reporters were on the thing day and night for months. Yushchenko put on a brave face, but it was a mask, a distortion of his own face, mislabeled pocked by a baffled press. Pitted, some said. As if burned, said others. It had turned gray, sometimes shading to Pripet green, boils gaping with enlarged pores. It looked like Chernobyl. It looked like the kind of thing that you expect will rub off on you if you touch it.

If you touch it…if you touch it…If you touch it! That’s the scoop. Todd Fullmer would be the only reporter to actually touch it.

As things turned out, Todd had no problem at all. Yushchenko advertised his grotesque face, he wanted all Ukrainians to know what the old guard had done and would continue to do—my face is Ukraine, he said—if he weren’t elected. Ukraine needed new blood, no matter the dioxin level. Nervously, Todd Fullmer visited Kiev. Nervous because it’s hard to believe how close the capitol is to Chernobyl (I’d have let Belarus have Chernobyl and moved the capitol to the Crimea, Todd wrote). He got an appointment with Yushchenko, brought along a photographer, told Yushchenko straight out he just wanted to touch his face, Yushchenko thought it was a good idea, Todd reached, pulled his arm back, gathered courage, reached again and…Yuk! It wasn’t one of those things that looks like it will rub off on you if you touch it—it did rub off. Slime. If you’ve ever picked up a Mediterranean snail, the kind with beautiful racing stripes on it, which you can only see when it’s crossing the street looking for its shell, dropped it off on the other side of the street only to find out that fifty percent of the snails body weight is slime on your hand that does not wash off—it has to be scrubbed and scraped and washed over and over again for at least an hour—well, that was what it was like touching Yushchenko’s face, except the slime had that same ashen color…