Drago Jančar - The Prophecy
In a few short weeks, Anton Kovač's military tour will be complete, and he can go home again to his family. The military life had never interested him; as a conscript in Marshall Tito's Yugoslavia, he is forced to serve at the pleasure of the military, and is acutely aware that, though the end is in sight, any minor infraction could see him punished by beatings, prison time, an extended tour in the army, or death. This patriot, who loves his country and, when asked, loves Tito, lives in deathly fear that he will be unable to go home.
His troubles, which begin “[o]ne peaceful August morning”, come to a head whilst he is in stall 17, the cleanest, least-used of the bathroom stalls. He goes there to read the newspaper and, while settling in, he notices the following graffiti:
You'll eat grass, King of Yugoslavia
Donkeys will fuck your fat ass.
His first thought: Leave. His first thought: Get out. His first thought: What if they think it was me? His first thought: who wrote this? It is not until some time later – after slinking out of the stall hoping nobody watched him leave, after avoiding his normal routes so as to remain unnoticed by the other soldiers, after returning to the library where he worked, after avoiding telling his friend, Professor “Rotten”, about what he had seen – that the second thought enters his mind: “he thought about the courageous lunatic who had dared to write the bathroom verse.”
It is a sad truism that in an authoritarian state, the mantle of fear settles heavily on the shoulders of everyone. The people are afraid that their husbands or their wives or their children or their friends might inform on them, the military are afraid of those above, who see subversive elements in both the soldiers who slack off and the ambitious ones seeking promotion, the rich are afraid the government will take their wealth, and the poor are afraid the government will take more than they have. But you can't be caught looking over your shoulder, for that would be anti-your country, and we can't have that! So there's a paralysis of positivity, a brave face put on everything, transforming smiles into grimaces.
Anton Kovač wants simply to serve out his time and return to his family; his friend, Professor Milenko Panič – Professor Rotten – wants the same, but on top of that he wants to be left alone, and no longer teased. The Professor is treated horribly by the other soldiers, from his nickname, to the small tortures he experiences while sleeping, to the general disdain he is shown for daring to be an intellectual in a brutal regime. Drago Jančar understands that in the hyper-competitive and ultra masculinised military, the addition of authoritarianism and the fear that comes with it serves to infantilise the soldiers, reverting their behaviour to the crudest, the meanest, the most childish and ill thought-out. These people are, simply put, horrible to one another. And why? They are a nation of children, and their father, Tito, possesses a heavy hand.
The graffiti is discovered. A search for evidence occurs. It plays out as you might expect. Anton Kovač wishes he had told his friend the Professor about the graffiti, but at the same time he is glad he didn't, because then the Professor would be forced to reveal the information under questioning. Of course, there isn't anything to reveal – he saw the graffiti, he didn't write it – but this is the way one thinks when living in the belly of the beast. The tension and the guilt and the possibility for extreme punishment at the slightest provocation instills a fear of everyone and an unwillingness to forge proper friendships. The shared confidentiality of mature friendship cannot exist where the necessary soil required for the fostering of trust has been salted.
Soon, though, Anton Kovač is discharged, and his time in the army becomes a memory best forgotten. Jančar writes,
Who could really understand Anton Kovač and his distress in those last days of his tour? And so he was happy to forget the whole thing – he wanted to forget it. And besides, there were new things to worry about: the world was out of joint for a while. The Marshal died and soon after so did the country itself. The army that was supposed to protect it collapsed...he sometimes thought about the officers of that glorious and triumphant army. Where were they now, what uniforms were they wearing?
Anton Kovač, like many who were forced to serve, wilfully forgets his time in the army. It was, for him, a period of forced affection for the government and for Tito just as it was, for him, particularly in the last days, an unbearable wait for the freedom he was continuously told he always had. Kovač, looking back at his time there, views it as the experience of someone else, living, perhaps, in another country and another time. With Tito now dead, these memories can vanish in puffs of smoke, and though his hair may be gray now instead of black, his life is more his own.
Drago Jančar's story, The Prophecy, ends with the Bible, from which the crude message concerning the “King of Yugoslavia” was inspired. Jančar uses the Bible not as a tool for religion but as an example of a message – or a type of message – which cannot easily be placed under the thumb of authoritarian rule. Literature – culture – the collective memory of the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, Europe – cannot easily be stamped out; the force of compassion, intellect and a sense of justice still has a voice, even in a place where most are voiceless. Jančar ends his story on a positive note, all but affirming the oblivion that awaits the memories of Tito's time as dictator, and then confirming his own. It may seem like small comfort, but there it is.
Title by Author is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
---Lichtensteiner: Sprenger, Stefan - Dust
---Latvian: Ikstena, Nora - Elza Kuga's Old-Age Dementia
---Italian: Candida, Marco - Dream Diary
---Irish: Barry, Kevin - Doctor Sot
---Irish: Dhuibhne, Éilís Ní - Trespasses
---Icelandic: Eiríksdóttir, Kristín - Holes in People
---Hungarian: Krasznahorkai, László - The Bill
---German: Schulze, Ingo - Oranges and Angel
Index of Best European Fiction 2010 under review
Index of Best European Fiction 2012 under review
Index of short stories under review