Zupan Vitomil:
Minuet for the guitar

(a segment)

    Meta was the name of the girl I was dancing with, putting on a show for Anton, an enthusiastic and encouraging spectator. Meta, by the way, means ‘target’ in Serbian. The peasants told us they had been out since dawn, burying the dead. The new-born infant was bawling with all the power of his lungs. When the old fellow in the battered hat gave us a loud and lively polka on his squeeze-box, the window panes rattled in their frames.

    Somewhere near this place, a well-known author had passed away. In the war diary of a certain soldier, I had found the following sentence: "We forget the battles, since they are so much like each other, but we remember the eating, drinking, the music, the women we knew in between."

    Life is fine, great, of infinite variety; it is at its best, greatest, most infinite, when crammed into one thrilling moment. It is not good for a man to be on his own. Appetite grows with eating. Nothing lasts for ever but there are moments when we taste eternity. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, carnival’s coming, last year I’d nought to do, this year I’m busy… I cannot really say the first sight of Meta delighted me and when she first took the floor with me, I did not find her very attractive. She was not one of those women who spear your guts with a glance. She needed to be thawed, wormed, given an extra injection of vitality, spurred on to idle fancies, kneaded, shaken, turned into pure sound and rhythm, strummed on with the finger-tips… In the meantime, I would myself undergo a change. Anton believed in me. I had to live for the sake of all those who now lived on in me. I have eaten your flesh and drunk your blood. And you have eaten my flesh and drunk my blood. The ancient Egyptians believed that each man has a double walking the earth. It is perfectly true. My double is stamping his heels on this solid farmhouse floor. He is telling Meta things she has never heard before and will never hear again.

    Anton’s double was there too, watching, with great joy, the transformation which was taking place amongst these people in that festive uproar, with everyone happy that the celebration of Miha’s arrival in the world was such a great success. Afterwards, we had something to eat and drink, talked in loud voices, sang, then danced once more. My double was the devil of a fellow, soon had a toothless old lady doubled up with laughter; she pressed her palm to her mouth but could not smother her giggles. A careful exploration of Meta’s body with finger-nails and finger-pads revealed that she was wearing only a slip beneath her dress. Black down-at-heel shoes went well with her sturdy limbs. I was surprised at her quick response to my advances, but women always have a seventh sense. She ought to have realized I was only joking, but how could she guess that the whole show was put on for Anton’s benefit. She looked fat but her flesh was firm, young, tight. She was one of the women the painter had in mind when he observed that the best models sometimes look like sluts when they are fully dressed. Anyway, just imagine the Venus de Milo in a suburban lady’s Sunday best, or picture those Rubenesque beauties wearing folk costume. Their beauty lies in the hip line, in the curve from waist down to knee, in the motion of their rounded buttocks, in the glowing tips of their breasts, in the dimples around the navel, in the mysterious shifting of their thighs, in the frame of the shoulders, in the line that runs down from the nape of the neck to the parting of the ways at the base of the spine. What generous largesse! What bold exposure! The flesh glows with an inner magic. The skin beguiles and every detail offers something more, something more… But it cannot all be taken in at once and breaks up into parts, parts which fuse again into a new whole, and all is in continual motion, ebbing and flowing in changing patterns.

    Meta’s hair smells of the open country. Her perspiration excites me. Her eyes cloud over and clear again. She would like to plant her teeth in my flesh. Pity she has rough hands; love is not her vocation. Come on, let me kiss your ear. Why are you squealing? Life is not reality, reality admits no day dreams, no ghosts. There are two roads from your knee; that one goes down, down, and disappears, the other climbs up and up… a warm and smooth path to nirvana… but resist me, put up a good fight… in our life and death struggle… which will leave us both victors, both vanquished… most intriguing is that hollow below your knee… a mere detail, and yet there is something marvellous about it… something no one has yet defined… When women still had to keep their knees covered and carefully hidden, that point just below the knee was the first stage on the road to paradise… The ancient Greek sculptors hewed such women in stone… beautiful, cold… of finest stock… I was once in a certain art gallery when they started to put the lights on… Walking round a marble figure, I suddenly noticed the hollows below her knees… for a split second, while the lights were coming on, I half-closed my eyes… the stone came alive and I felt the sudden warmth of a Mediterranean sun on my skin and flesh… I just had to embrace her.. why on earth did I do it? I felt like her, both dead and alive at the same time.

    Anton’s eyes were now glowing like a cat’s in the dark. The best of it was that, although I wanted to live for him, I was now so carried away I was thinking only of myself. Some people in this world have families, build houses, buy plots of land, cultivate gardens, sink wells, breed domestic animals, and so on. Others like collecting mushrooms. Others again rule their fellows, wage wars. Some cure the sick, others plan hold-ups. But I have been walking and walking, until at last I have reached here and found my destination, and I have no intention of stirring from here, since a man cannot travel on after he reaches his goal, or can he? You are Meta, the target, the goal. Like an arrow, shot from an unseen, distant bow, I have landed head-first, plumb in the centre of the black and white rings, your black and white rings, the rings of your skin, your tresses, your teeth, limbs, your hair, your breasts, your laughter, your screams.

    "You two will be getting hitched," said the accordion player. Yes, Anton and I will marry Meta. Kiss Anton, Meta. He is part of me and I am part of him. Kiss him here, by his bandage. Anton smells of Spanish guitars, Anton is a minuet for guitar. Let’s drink from two glasses! Three mouths and two glasses in four-four time; play on, accordion, but play the accompaniment, not the melody. Listen, old chap, it goes like this… Tram-ta-ta-tam… ta-ta… Got it? Right play. We’ll all play. We’re all taut as bow-strings in the air of the valleys. Here is the first stage on the road to paradise. Paradise is surrounded by a high wall with no gates. You need to know how to get in. And no one can tell you how. Just think, Adolf said: "Make this land German for me." The English say he’s a queer, but he isn’t. He’s a globe-shagger, he loves every square inch of this planet. The English are queers. They don’t believe in paradise. They believe only in the Empire. Paradise will remain, the Empire will fall. The Big Three have decided that after the war they will hunt down war criminals. Great sport for them. We shall be looking for those gates to paradise. You draw close, you’re almost there, but rough hands reject you… and once again you’re spinning through the endless void. Why the panic? Sure we’re at attention. What better moment? This is the only banner-raised on the road to paradise, a blind and cunning device. This year, we have managed to survive all the seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter, and now we have the fifth season, meant for those who have no trees to prune, no houses with roofs to repair, but only a night of dreams. You must shed your burdens on the road to paradise; only when you have nothing, can you scale the walls of paradise. Throw it all away. Property is bondage. Power is misery. A crown is a hat it rains on, said Frederick the Great. Glory is froth. Dress is the invention of ugly people. Fate is an idea of cowards. Money was invented by thieves who could not remove cities. That almond cake is super. Why don’t you want to take your shoes off? The war is over. Can you hear the Alps breathing in the center of Europe? The poacher again sets off to hunt the chamois. He smears his face with soot, so that the gamekeeper won’t spot him. The negro smears his face with chalk. Now we’re going to have a quite different dance, my darling. We’re going to dance the minuet. Soon, you’ll see the grace of those noble movements and gentle steps. No one can say what he knows, no one can say what is lurking in him, waiting a chance to get out. We’re not going to live like vegetables, like rotten potatoes, oh no! We’re going to live the life of a river wave, a wave that races into the distance and at the same time remains in place, for it’s all the same whether wave or river moves on; all is both here and at the same time in the boundless distance. No one has the right to take that thought from me. Masterly, is it not, Anton? My double walks about a German concentration camp with shaven skull and downcast eyes; they beat him, kick him, but he feels no pain, for he has nothing to say. But he knows it all, sees it all and will remember. The last flicker of resistance in the prisoner’s spirit must be doused, the camp psychologist instructs the gaolers. He must crawl like a dog on all fours, bark and wag his tail, a11 to order. And how well that cuckoo trick came off. They had to climb up a tree and call out, "Cuckoo, cuckoo!", all day long. All is both here and at the same time in the boundless distance. No one can seize my thoughts with his hand. But I can grab you, Meta. Go on, scream! And scream again! A11 is both here and at the same time in the boundless distance.

    All is here and at the same time in the boundless distance.

    Anton and I got up while the rest of them were still asleep. We quietly set off up the road, while the morning mist still lay on the empty grassy slopes and the trees. In such a dawn, a man is far removed from and untrue to himself. What had risen from sleep and trod the hard boards was a mere robot called Berk. Nothing is happening and there is no existence. I think I know why religious people say their morning prayers. In the same way, a wise driver warms up his engine before taking to the road. In spite of everything, I must think, feel, survey the countryside, know that I am alive. The dead of the past few days have not yet started to decompose. I shall remember the new arrival, Miha, for the next ten or twelve years. Eat and crap, Miha, Does anyone know when the morning begins? This morning presumably began at dawn. Or did it?

    We arrived at the, village when the first sunlight was beginning to break through the mist. The hens were already scrabbling in the yard of the modest homestead. The mules were standing by with drooping heads. How could so many have survived the retreat? A horse ready saddled. The early morning bustle of partisans in and out of the houses. A child in a heel-length night-shirt, apparently male. A sheaf of straw. Doves. A hen with her brood of chickens. A lad with a machine-gun. A peasant woman with a pail of water. For God’s sake! Is it going to begin again? Anything you like but no repetition of the things we already know, please? A cock on a rooftop. How did he get up there? He stretches his neck and crows. This must be the beginning of the new day. Where is the assembly point? Fine, thanks a lot. Maybe, some time after the war, I shall be walking up and down the terrace of a strange house, without belonging to any organization, without having to remember where I am to report, without wondering where I am going to be posted; maybe. We reported, then went to a hay-shed, where we bedded down on a heap of hay, first arranging a comfortable depression and a pillow, then gazing up at the underside of the timbers of the loft; the roof tiles were loose in places and the sun shone in through the fissures. Dare we doze off? Hunger would waken us. Our only worry was that we might miss cook-house call. Or maybe it was not so important; after all, we knew potato and maize flour was to be had from the houses, perhaps even milk and bacon too. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…" - at the half-way point of our life’s road: the opening phrase of Dante’s Divine comedy. Thirty years of age, they say it means. By the lines on my palms I estimate I still have long to live. God knows where and how I shall spend my thirtieth birthday… "Mi ritrovai per una selva occura…" - I found myself in a dark forest… And I am falling into the abyss, into the depths of the void; but why have I also a pain in the guts? I listen to a dull echo of an inner question: what, at that moment, caused me such pain? I thought of that long, long road before me. I would be always groping for the meaning of things, always deceived, always having a feeling that I could not put into words, that I could never tell others of: I exist… I am… but I do not know why, how or wherefore; I do not know from whence I came nor whither I am bound; I do not know what rules my bodily organs, I cannot imagine why I am sometimes depressed and sometimes full of enthusiasm; I do not even know what lies beneath the soles of my feet. A planet? Minerals? There are a thousand answers, - and none. I rise from the abyss with all my nerves jangling. Slowly I calmed down and possibly even dozed off.

    Next day, Anton and I parted for a year and some months. We met again on the morning of the day he died.

    Towards evening, we attended a meeting and afterwards had a drink in a farmer’s house with four ideologists.

    Everything was going smoothly and no one felt like hurrying. The faint light of the sunset forecast worse weather to come. When Anton and I took our seats at the meeting, I still did not know I had a twenty-eight hour journey through the rain in front of me.

    A meeting is a good way to boost the morale of civilians and troops and also serves to bring together both partners in the struggle and weld them into one whole. A partisan army cannot operate without the close cooperation of the local population. The chief speaker was the commissar, Dolnichar, a schoolmaster by profession. After his speech he sat next to us. We sipped brandy from our flask and smoked Dolnichar’s cigarettes. while it was still light, large clouds began to drift across the sky, while down below there were occasional gusts of wind, that tossed the curtains on the makeshift stage. The small village, half demolished, was crammed with people. Ages ago, settlers from the valley had taken refuge here and built their homes. In the paradise to come, their descendants would go down again into the valley. A hundred years back, a hundred years on, - what did this day mean to me? I seemed to be floating in a timeless vacuum. Not so long since, there had been a lake in the Ljubljana basin and at its edge the lake-dwellers had their huts on piles driven into the mud. Then the lake receded and Maria Theresa started to drain the moorland. And I could now see what that plain would look like tomorrow or the day after, with no difficulty 1 could see and realize what had been and what was to be. It was harder for me to grasp what was happening at that precise moment. Incidents, sensations, scenes, words - all fused into a steady, simultaneous ebb and flow within me.

    Dolnichar was a good speaker. He spoke out loud and clear, composed good periods, knew where to lay emphasis, a pretty rare thing amongst us.

    "Once again the enemy has shattered his teeth and claws in this land of ours…" The invader had come with rumbling tanks and armored cars, withdrawing divisions of crack troops from distant battlefields, supporting them with artillery and aircraft… and what had he achieved? Our resistance was firmer than ever, our troops had gained valuable experience from this latest action, and the link between the people’s army and the populace is stronger than ever before.. "We shall smite the invader at his every step, and his lackeys too… until at last the day of victory dawns… The army of national liberation has grown from its units, detachments and battalions into a well-organized regular army, the shock troops of our downtrodden populace; its corps, divisions and brigades incessantly harry the foe, demolishing the roads and railways which serve to transport the enemy’s men and materials to the front; the whole country is a hornet’s nest of furious resistance. The victorious Red Army is driving the enemy back on Berlin. The serpent is in his death throes. Death to Fascism." In response, his hearers roared: "Liberty to the people!"

    An accordionist now began to play, with a guitar accompaniment; both the musicians were partisans. Some distance away, large bonfires were blazing, with men and children collecting wood from all sides. A large tricolor with a red star at its centre was hanging from the hay-frame, tossed and fluttering in the breeze from the mountain tops. Horses stood under the trees, gazing with bright eyes into the flames.

    Did the uncertainty about my future movements spoil that evening for me perhaps? What is it about a human being’s make-up that suddenly turns him, for no apparent reason, from a talkative extrovert into a taciturn introvert? What is it that snuffs out his joyful high spirits? What dark premonitions beset his soul. Suddenly, he finds that nothing is going right. What was said a half-hour ago comes back again to mind but what had then been full of life is now dull and lifeless.

    Anton’s early account of Spain came back to me again, much clearer now then when I had first heard it. The Spanish are one of those peoples, whose particular faults suit them very well. They can sing of death so eloquently that you fall in love with it. They have invented a manner of fighting fear, though they are so much in love with life. Those ceremonies of theirs are nothing other than a yearning to preserve life. They turn everything into a ceremony, though they are, at heart, a most simple people. The Germans, by their nature take courage for granted and for them, so-called heroism is almost a duty. The Spaniards have their own virility rite, which is simply a fight against fear. They love animals. If you say they torment and murder bulls, I will tell you that I would not mind being a Spanish bull destined for death in the arena. At least I would know what was awaiting me. And when I am slain in the arena, every gesture has its name, every movement its technical term, and the death blow is the coup de grace. Elsewhere they rhapsodize about mankind but no bands play when you are led to the slaughter. You disappear without fuss, A bu11 is reared, tended, has his great aim in life. But as for us…

    In Spain, no one would steal your rifle. A Spaniard propped his gun against the wall of the trench and went home to his wife and children. He had something to eat, something to drink, sang a song, beat up his wife, came back again - and there was his rifle waiting in the same spot where he had left it. Blood, death, love, curses, prayers, it is all there tied up in the same sack with a Gordian knot; cruelty, tenderness, pity, ecstasy, love and hate, idleness and industry, all bound up inextricably. What methods of torturing prisoners (on both sides) - and what respect for family, forefathers, children! How they manage to talk of the past, have the present day in view and put everything off till tomorrow! Those devils are never bored. They lie with such style they believe themselves; that mixture of Moors and Latins has produced something other nations find it hard to understand. Here we like things plain, like a new string with no knots in it.

    Why then did you fall in love with Spain, Anton? What? Do you think I fell in love? With that writing with knots on old string? After all I’ve seen and read about, from the conquistadors to the last century? What should I fall in love with? With the sultry Madrid summer… when weeks and weeks pass without a breath of air… when you go to sleep with your hand in this position and wake up to find a palm print in sweat? With that awful retreat across the Pyrenees? With their architecture - in war-time you have as little interest in it as in the landscape. With their songs? With the stench of my own body? It’s true that I always wanted to see Spain… But with my present vision. Have you seen Ljubljana, down there below us?

    As if you could almost touch those lights with your hand…

    A town like any other town in the world but you’ve spent part of your life there. I think that Spain is something similar for us, although its sounds and atmosphere are different. Even the horses there have a different snort.

    I know; my girl’s not like the others - she, smells different, sounds different? Same thing, isn’t it?

    I was sitting there in a wee courtyard, matchbox size, stone, an old olive tree, a vine and some roses, and a small well. Jacinto was playing some stringed instrument with only three strings, we were drinking sweet wine, a canary was fluttering in a cage hung up in the olive tree, there was a lamp, ... really, it all didn’t amount to much… we were eating bread and cheese. Zharko said he would. take the whole place away in his kit-bag as a souvenir. It was very much the same there as here - the war had passed us by, had receded into the background. But Spain is such a large country, I said, I’ve seen most extensive olive groves; why do they build themselves such pokey little courtyards? Our gentry have fine, large gardens around their villas, but you never see them sitting under the trees. That’s the secret. That and the weather, the rocky country and the rest of it… You can melt away in those Spanish nights… and afterwards they follow you. You don’t know how little a human being requires.

    I do.

Translated by Harry Lemming