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.Then, the next day, Goran is as friendly with him as ever.
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...