They came from Sarajevo — they conquered Camden Lock....
A half-true story by 'the Ambassador of Atlantis', Miroslav Jancic.
A week ago I happened to be sitting in a Camden Town pub overlooking unromantic Regent's Canal. The weather was warm, I was sparing my half pint of Foster's and playing my fingers over an unlabelled shoe-box as if it were a piano. In the aftermath of market-day, the place was overcrowded and noisy.
As a one-armed boy selling roses passed by, I put my last pound in his pocket and indicated that he should hand some flowers to the two delicately-nurtured ladies chatting over the table next to mine. The ladies were grateful; their smiles were so heavenly that I had to wonder where the hell they learned that skill.
I smiled also, thinking over what had stimulated me into making the gesture. Was it pity for the boy, who might have been a fugitive from Bosnia, or was it the indigenous women? Which might mean that I was still alive, or aware of my own post-mortem.
Then the ladies - Patsy and Helen, as I should soon find - graciously invited me to join them and immediately ordered a pint of beer for me.
—What was the counterpart of my name, Zlatan, in English? It might be Goldy or something, which is quite inappropriate for an elderly and bankrupt Bosnian refugee.
—Was I buying or selling at Camden Market? What's in my box?
—Well, it's a secret, business secret, if the ladies don't mind. I come here every Friday...
I didn't want to sound mysterious, but it seemed I couldn't help it. This was not the first time that I had had to reveal my life-story. Which I always abhorr. But now, as an asylum seeker and DSS customer, I have to oblige the curiosity of the tax-payers.
Helen and Patsy looked to me like inspectors on behalf of some Council, charity or feminist institution; from the very beginning of our conversation they kept insisting on every sort of equality, and I had to be very careful of what I was talking about. I tried to confine myself to mere facts, but the more of them you offer the less convincing they are...
—Why have I come to the UK; is it a secret as well?
—No. Before the war - I mean the war which is raging in Europe nowadays - I used to travel a lot and I discovered that in spite of its uniqueness London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And since the time has come when one can exercise cosmopolitanism only abroad...
But don't ask me anything about that bloody war, please; it's a fight over the wrong causes, it's endless, it's an anthropological collapse. If you are interested enough, I would rather talk about the pre-war life which used to be very rich and fruitful in Sarajevo. There were plenty of chances and choices: I changed seven cars, five good jobs, four flats and three wives; I have six children altogether, ranging from thirty-two to eleven.
—Are they here too?
—The children? No; it would have been too much for the exhausted British taxpayers. Some of my children are in Germany, some in France, some followed their respective mothers, whilst the one who sent me a postcard from Sweden specifies that she is on the spot where the screw of the world stands.
—What do I write to my children?
—Well, I have nothing to advise anybody. Eventually, I say yes, kids, your world has perished but the world is yours. And say that they should not be ashamed of the help they are receiving. The donors might be as guilty as the beggars.
—All right, but how about my numerous wives? Before answering that question, I always have to stress that although I'm kind of Muslim, I'm not polygamous. My first wife, the Croat, settled down in our weekend house on the Adriatic coast; the second one escaped to Israel after her kin had survived in Bosnia for five centuries; while the third and I hope the last ran away to her relatives in
And the Royal Welch Fusiliers are left to fight for my country...
I'm sorry for them, because they don't know what they are fighting for either. I don't say that I'm not responsible. My main fault might be that I'm a product of a mixed marriage - my father was Bosniak and my mother was Montenegrin; I regarded myself as Yugoslav, but when that country split into nationalist cages, the fate of my mongrel sort was sealed.
—But still, my generation lived above our means. Maybe I shouldn't have produced so many descendants. But there is a proverb saying there should be no repentance after a fuck...
Sorry, but don't think I'm sorry for myself, at all - there are many cases which are worse than mine...Yes, we used to have everything and know it all, but Satan came and took away what belonged to him. Just don't say it can't happen here; some Sarajevans still believe they are only passing through an awful dream.
Reality and fiction contaminate each other more than ever, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have an acceleration of history, whose slow circle is turning into a hectic spiral leading to nothingness. It's one of those 'time- breaks'...
—Wow! But tell us more about that Satan.
—Oh, it's an old Bosnian, Manichean belief that Satan dwelt in heaven as an angel until he rebelled against the eternity of perfect order in the Upper Room - hence he is the first known dissident - and until he decided to build a cosmos of his own, which is the Earth. Naturally, God was so furious that he sent another angel called Death to make all of Satan's deeds mortal, including innocent humans...
—'Wow'. The apparently Christian duet sighed in the American way again. Am I not a communist, or what?
—Don't worry, dear ladies, communism is dead as well. I admit I used to be a member of the Party, but fuck the political party I'm affiliated to...By the way, did I mention that, among other things, I was a member of the Bosnian parliament, once upon a time? That is the connection with these tiny brass bells and women's slippers I bought at Camden market today.
—Could I be more specific?
—Of course. Once I hosted a dinner in honour of the British Parliamentary Delegation visiting Sarajevo, and, after a lot of aphrodisiac Oriental food and strong Western red wine the subject of sex was opened. One of the MPs present was kind of envious; since we Bosnians had been dominated by Turks for a long period, he fancied that we must have adopted their ideas about men as absolute masters. But the Right Honourable Gentleman was wrong —
At that moment, Helen started laughing uncontrollably if not hysterically, while Patsy hastily tried to explain the coincidence: the husband of her friend used to be an MP, probably one of those who officially visited Yugoslavia at the time I was talking about. Then, by agreement, both ladies suddenly calmed down, expecting me to finish this funny episode from inter-parliamentary life.
—Where was I? Yes, as a proof of women being actually superior to men, I offered the MPs an item which could have been seen at the Ethnographical Museum the delegation visited that very morning: the so-called love slippers. When a wife wanted sex - love used to be exclusively women's domain - she would go to the bathroom alone, to wash and perfume herself, and to put on her special slippers with lovely bells attached; as she walked towards her apartment her husband would hear the charming invitation, and only then could he enter her bed.
—What a custom! my listeners concluded, proving that Sheherazade is not dead or tired out in Sarajevo even yet. Then came a question why those damn MPs hadn't bought those magic slippers and brought them home as souvenirs. I had to explain that some interest of that kind was expressed on the spot, but the items were not available in shops...
And to tell another truth, being homeless, womanless, penniless, etcetera, and above all idle in London now, I have lighted on the idea of trying my luck as 'slipperman'. Home Office permitting.(More of my dubious English, I'm sure, but I was not corrected this time either).
Before this revelation the ladies had probably been guessing that in the shoebox I was hiding either some fertilizer explosive from Oklahoma or the can of gas which had poisoned hundreds in the Tokyo underground. And finally they had to admit publicly that the strange thing about me was the lack of any despair.
I had to apologise. First, I agree with the late John Osborne who always said that he felt much better after he had lost hope. Secondly, in my homeland it is not decent to show despair. If one is doomed, let one go to one's fate singing; nobody cares for miseries.
It was high time the ladies said something about themselves. Patsy stated that it was getting late and cool, and her husband might be worrying. If I succeeded in developing the business — best wishes and good luck — she would buy a pair of the slippers herself, though she might not need them any more. And she left gracefully, like a bird leaving her friend at the mercy of an old wolf.
I didn't mind. When I analyse matters now, I conclude that Helen obviuosly needed the love slippers or something like them badly, and that Patsy was aware of it. Indeed, after ordering another pint for me and nonchalantly mentioning that nobody would mind if she came home at midnight, Helen dared me to open the fascinating box.
I warned her that this was not a secret commodity any more; the instructions for usage were known, though the product itself was not yet completed; and maybe a thoroughly new creation would be needed - a more colourful one?
Of course, Helen was slightly disappointed in the appearance of the product, though seemingly still enthusiastic about the story behind it and its possible effect. She was not talking much anyway; maybe she had spent most of her words on her husband or lover. She simply asked whether I would prefer cheque or cash.
I said that I wouldn't accept either. Let her have the slippers, together with bells and box, as a gift on my part. It might have been wiser if I hadn't made such an advance, which — I don't know why — offended Helen. Although I know there is no logic in love matters, I hadn't expected to find it out again in Camden bric-a-brac market. Helen said 'thank you' and hurried away. I don't know if she heard me say 'take care' — a wartime Sarajevo salute.
It happened last Friday. I'm writing this at the same time and the same place, waiting for Helen. Luckily enough, joyful experiences are more persistent than sad ones, and just now I remember a colleague in Sarajevo who had a matinée love date. He phoned me to say he would come to the office if he couldn't manage, and he wouldn't come if he could (oh, my bloody English). He must be in Australia by now...
I reckon Helen won't come because her husband could manage, which is to say that the love slippers worked out. I should have patented the device before announcing it. But let other people benefit if I can't - I'm on income support, anyway.
By Autumn the whole of Camden Town may be ringing happily in counterpoint to this traffic and all the other noises. When I was a member of Sarajevo City Council, I used to csampaign for protection of the human environment; we succeeded in obtaining a two hundred million dollar loan from the World Bank for the endeavour. Is there anybody who would invest in the love slippers?
But what's that I hear just now?
—It's not a mobile telephone.
Miroslav Jancic's science fiction How I Betrayed A National
Cause became a best-seller in 1982, when it predicted the
coming breakup of Yugoslavia. Jancic, also a former Yugoslav
ambassador to Accra, is author of the plays Bosnian King,
Sarajevo Supermarket and National Dance, and the novels Oh, My
Black Son and A Fire-fly. His last published book, Spokesman
from Hell, was recently printed in Slovenian and Serbo-Croat.
His unpublished work includes his memoirs, Ambassador Of
Atlantis, and two plays in English looking for a production:
The Owl Of Minerva and Corps d'Esprit.
Miroslav Jancic is the Chair of SACRA — the Sarajevo
Cosmopolitan Recovery Association — a group of Bosnian
intellectuals in British exile linked to European Dialogue
/Helsinki Citizens' Assembly. The SACRA anthology Bosnia
Outside Itself will be published by Janus with an introduction
by Tom Stoppard and pictures by David Bowie, as well as
literature from 15 Bosnian writers now seeking asylum. SACRA
will also be the English publishers of 99, the Sarajevo journal
of free thought.
Back to Bosnia and East Timor Home Page
Miroslav Jancic is the Chair of SACRA — the Sarajevo Cosmopolitan Recovery Association — a group of Bosnian intellectuals in British exile linked to European Dialogue /Helsinki Citizens' Assembly. The SACRA anthology Bosnia Outside Itself will be published by Janus with an introduction by Tom Stoppard and pictures by David Bowie, as well as literature from 15 Bosnian writers now seeking asylum. SACRA will also be the English publishers of 99, the Sarajevo journal of free thought. Back to Bosnia and East Timor Home Page