Slavoljub Stanković – The Box
”What's to be packed here?” I ask, turning full circle.
“Everything,” Vladan responds.
“Everything ?!” I'm flabbergasted.
“Everything,” Vladan repeats.
“And we'll pack everything by ourselves?!”
We move things.
“Heck, bro, look at the size of this room...”
“...look at the speakers...”
“...what a bed, bro?!”
“How do you sleep on this thing?!”
“That's a Biedermeier... you sit on it.”
“...I can't believe it...”
“...and here's its cousin...”
It's the early 1990s and Yugoslavia is well on its way to breaking up into its ethnic parts. War is coming. It's in the air; the rats are deserting ships, and their possessions need to be boxed up and transported out of the country. Enter the narrator of Slavoljub Stanković's The Box (trans. Vladimir Radonjić), named Cvrle or Zwerle depending on who is talking to him, a wannabe rocker impressed with the Seattle grunge scene makings its way on to underground radio stations and in trendy bars. He will work as a packer until he becomes a rock star – that, at least, is the plan.
But Central European politics have another idea. Stanković introduces us to the narrator by way of a mini-essay on packaging and boxes, what it means to box one's possessions and ship them away, what is kept and transported and why, and what is left behind and why, and how, exactly, our items are catalogued, identified and packaged. The cause of all this packing up and shipping out is the coming outbreak of sanctions and possibly war, and the people having their lives packed up are embassy officials from around the world. We follow the packers from the Indian embassy to the Australian to the American to the English, each offering Stanković's very Serbian perspective of the many different nations who had an embassy in Belgrade, all filtered through the grunge-culture obsessed narrator who, while absorbing the cultural mores of countless nations, wishes only to be with his band, working on that one hit single which will turn them from a joke into a sensation.
The packer's lingo is a language of its own. It's like programming language: it looks and feels like English, but isn't. Books refer to everything that's made of paper. Furniture refers to everything that's made of wood. Iron is everything that's made of iron. Glass refers to everything that's made of glass. Pictures are all the things that hang on walls. Toys refers to all children's stuff. Papers refers to everything that's in and out on a desk.
It's all very neat – calming, even. How nice to put one's life into boxes, neatly ordered, printed carefully on their tops with what's inside. This is appealing to Cvrle, who sees in all this order a kind of methodical sanity missing from his own life. But it's frightening, too – can we really just pack ourselves up like that?
It turns out we can. Each ambassador's home provides an examination of that country from a young 1990s Serbian perspective, and often the ambassadors themselves are home, which allows them to observe the Serbs in kind. Both parties are aware that there is a distinct and troubling reason for these diplomatically immune (and thus, one would assume, uncommonly safe and secure) foreigners to suddenly all-in-a-rush leave – but nobody says a word. Instead, they examine. Instead, they watch. Instead, they exchange gifts, or kind words, or the ambassadors provide overlarge tips. This technique of Sanković's is exceptionally effective in deconstructing then-contemporary Serbian culture both as seen from the inside and out, with each of the paragraphs providing a different nation's perspective. This is how Serbia knows these nations; this is how Serbia was known to these nations.
Embassies are states within states. Boxes within boxes. Embassies have their own organisation. They have their own police, their own army, their own administration. Inside they drink their own water, they eat their own food, listen to their own music. The furniture is made in their factories, the appliances are manufactured by them, the walls are built according to their regulation, painted with their paints...
An embassy, then, is distinct from the country in which it resides. As Cvrle spends more and more time in these “other countries”, he begins to assess his own country with a more critical eye. He loves, perhaps too fondly, the English and American rock bands from the 1970s and 1980s, and will often sprinkle his speech and particularly his thoughts with song names, references to lyrics, and metaphorical comparisons to musicians. He has no time for the Serbian folk music his parent's enjoy, but nor does he wish to waste time on “hyper-folk” or “turbofolk” music, which is seen by the young and hip as being manufactured cool music from the state (it was). To begin with, Cvrle compares the furniture, food and music of the ambassadors with his own, and then he starts to criticise Serbia, and then, as war breaks out, everything starts to collapse.
For all that this sounds rather heavy, it's really not. Cvrle is a fun narrator; he's enthusiastic about music, exuberant to a fault, serious about philosophy and the use of the box as a metaphor for, well, a great deal of things (some more tenuous than others), rowdy, prone to drunkenness, prone to drug-taking, prone to illicit sex and unfortunately timed masturbation. In short, he's fun, and throughout Stanković never stops the good times rolling. While the story turns serious, and the themes grow dark, the narrator himself remains charming and pleasant without becoming dull or contrived, and even when he's caught in the midst of drug-taking and indolence, he's still interesting.
Box (Chapter) 26 is something of a miracle. After the narrator has been told that “no problem” is the catch-word of the Serb, after his music dreams seem lost, after his friends and himself have become packers and nothing more, Box no. 26 is opened, and begins with – No problem? Stanković provides a list of 20 ambassadors from all over the world who have been moved out in recent weeks by his team, and eight names that have been moved in. The new names come from international aid groups, charities, and United Nations departments. In short, the world has left Serbia and the international cleaning-up community has moved in. Belgrade and Serbia have become a basket-case, their potential on the world stage over for now. Cataloguing the names in two discreet lists over a two-page chapter allows for the full impact of what has gone before to settle in. These pared away sentences highlight in stark relief the about-face of Belgrade's fortunes in the 1990s.
And then it all breaks down.
The sanctions are proving to be like prohibition. A perfect tool for crooks. Crime is flourishing. Thieves are prospering. Socialism has been replaced by a new social order – corruption.
Change, but for the worse.
When I listen to that new reality, the new truth, I hear the following: you're from Serbia, you're a Serb, a packer from Serbia, you're under sanctions, you're outside of Europe, you're outside of the world, you're a voter, you're a soldier, you have to defend the Serbs, you're a citizen, you have to change the regime...
And not sing.
The last 100 pages of the novel feel loose and baggy, unfocused, and at first this is disorienting. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Stanković is showing us that his characters have become even less anchored to any sort of permanent stable society, that they are rootless and shiftless, lost in the world, lost to the world, and forgotten by the world. They are Serbs, on the wrong side of a war increasingly gaining international attention, and even though they, specifically, aren't fighting, and even though they, specifically, don't want to fight, they are Serbs so they have been tarred with a heavy brush. If it doesn't matter to the world, then why should it matter to them? Stanković's writing becomes looser, rapidly moving through many new Chapters/Boxes, with these Boxes comprised of thirty or forty short, sharp paragraphs, the effect of which is to dilute the story, disperse it, make it gauzy and dreamlike.
At times, Stanković comes close to losing control of his narrator. His fellow packers, to begin with so sharply drawn, become indistinct, and some vanish entirely. The last half of the novel sees them featureless, characterless, superfluous. The novel entire becomes about Cvrle's dissolution, and through that, Serbia's. We remember his cry, early in the piece:
I'm a musician who can't play a single instrument!? I'm a singer who hasn't appeared anywhere so far?! I'm the writing of one song?! I'm a rock star and no one's ever heard of me?! I'm an undiscovered musical talent at the age of twenty-one?! I'm the man. I'm a junky. I'm a student of philosophy. I'm a son.
And we apply it now to Serbia, broken, unsure of itself, in the wrong according to its youth, fighting to the death according to its political class. The packing up and boxing in The Box offers an excellent metaphor for the sudden disengagement the West inflicted upon Belgrade as the region exploded into war and chaos, a neglect that was to be rectified a few years later with thousands of tonnes of bombs dropped on civilians and buildings. For some – for Cvrle – those years are dead years, wasted, spent half the time dreaming dreams that can now never come to fruition, and the other half earning money that was to become worth less every day, until it didn't make sense to do anything, ever. Ambition requires reward, and if there isn't any – why bother? Drugs, alcohol and other people's music. But ah, it was to be my own and not theirs that we would hear on the radio. Sorry, Cvrle.
Please note that this novel is not easily available outside Serbia. When it is available for purchase outside Serbia, I shall update the page to reflect its availability. The Box continues the fine collection of Serbian literature Geopoetika is attempting to distribute within the English-speaking world. Another title to anticipate.
(Based on the screenplay by Andrijana Stojković and Slavoljub Stanković)
Titles that fall within the Geopoetika Serbian prose in Translation series under review include:
---Basara, Svetislav - The Cyclist Conspiracy
---Novaković, Mirjana - Fear and Servant
---Ognjenović, Vida - Adulterers
---Valjarević, Srdjan - Lake Como