Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Beograd

By nature of the topics he writes about, William T. Vollmann rarely sustains a "happy tone" throughout his writing. His work tends to be about thoughtful people who observe things, fall in love with things, then discover the ugliness underneath them. Wonderful people can turn out to be scary, and so can nature. I'm still waiting for an uplifting Vollmann book but I'm not holding my breath.

This is my way of apologizing for these excerpts from "Rising Up and Rising Down," which all seem to be tragic, cynical, and depressing. The most striking moments are those when Vollmann tempts you with something innocent and beautiful then punches you in the stomach.

I'm reading "The War Never Came Here," written in Beograd during 1994 while NATO forces were bombing the cities. Vollmann, an American, is immediately aware of Serbian hostility toward him; people won't speak to him, they yell insults at him on the street, they won't let him buy things at their stores.

During his first few days in Beograd he grows increasingly frightened of the population. His only relief is Goran, the chief chef at the hotel. When William T. Vollmann, the terrified journalist, tells Goran about his troubles, Goran just sighs and says "Ah, Billy, Billy, Billy."

One night, Vollmann is followed back to the hotel by two ominous men who may be soldiers. Nervous, he walks into the hotel and goes to the front desk.
Ah, Billy, Billy, Billy, laughed Goran, waiting for me behind the desk when I came in.

I greeted him and took my key from the desk manager.

Billy. Billy Clinton. Billy Clinton, he sneered, and suddenly I understood that this stupid joke which he continually made was not a joke at all. That afternoon he had taken a pen and tried to write "CLINTON" on my lapel until I'd pushed his hand away, and even then I'd passed it off.

Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, you will write bad things about us, he said in a jovially terrifying voice while the two desk men looked on, maybe understanding and maybe not since Goran and I always spoke in German, and I knew that my situation had reached a new stage.

Why do you say that? I said calmly.

You are American, Billy Clinton. You are all the same. You all write bad things about Serbs. You are no good.

I'm sorry you think that, I said.

Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, he crooned, stepping forward.

You are not right, I said, turning my back on him and walking away.

I didn't know whether he -- and they -- would let me go, but I did know that the longer I stood there the more this man who last night had bought me vodka and sat at my table would brood upon my face and convince himself that I was evil. No doubt this was how ethnic cleansing worked, how ordinary people who knew each other slowly rejected, withdrew and demonized, slowly cauterized the arteries of friendship and then severed them with the saws of their hatred; and I was afraid. But they did let me go. I went upstairs and double-locked the door as usual. Then I wondered if they would come and do something to me. Probably not in the night, I decided. If NATO bombed Gorazde again then I would be in trouble; otherwise I could probably last another twenty-four hours before Goran and the others became more actively threatening; by then I hoped to be in Sandzak...
Then, the next day, Goran is as friendly with him as ever.


VanillaJ said...

Holy shit, that's terrifying!

Adam Thornton said...

In the following story ("The Avengers of Kosovo") written four years later, he meets up again with Goran (whose real name, apparently, was Misa).

Vollmann recaps the previous event ("Misa very briefly forgot that I had no personal responsibility for the airstrikes. I was afraid of him and of everybody...the next day we were friends again").

This time Vollmann meets Misa while NATO is bombing Kosovo..."And so there was my friend Misa, underpaid and getting old, a good true man, I believe, and also, like all of us, a wall on which life's slogans get inscribed."