Do Angels Cry? by Matko Marušić Copyright © 2009 Matko Marušić. All rights reserved. Originally printed in Croatia by Medicinska Naklada, Zagreb, 2002. Reprinted with permission. Original English translation by Graham McMaster. Cover art © Icky A. Ooligan Press Department of English Portland State University p.o. box 751 Portland, or 97207-0751 email@example.com
For a full list of credits please refer to the acknowledgments at the back of the book. isbn 978-1-932010-23-7 Printed in the United States.
PROLOGUE: Why Do People Sing?
n 1950 you didn’t travel from the village to Split by bus but by truck. The truck was covered with a waxy canvas, and you would sit on slabs that were placed on the grate that enclosed the truck’s bed. The passengers waited for the truck from early lunchtime until dusk, until it arrived puffing and blowing from so far away that only my father could hear it. The truck slowly backed up into the mass of people who were anxiously yelling while preparing to board. It was immediately apparent that not everyone would find room in the truck, so people pushed and shoved, trying to reach the best place to embark. My father held me in one arm, and with the other he pressed aside the mass of people. He pushed through to the place where he estimated the truck would come to a stop. Others had impatiently run toward the truck, even before it had stopped, and they could no longer reach the entrance of the truck’s bed. The truck came to a halt exactly in front of us, and my father grabbed the grate, enclosing the bed with his strong arm. That way he prevented others from entering and also made it impossible for them to push him aside. It helped that he was yelling, “With a child! With a child!” so those
who were rushing forward hesitated to attack him with full force. We were not permitted to get on the truck until the driver opened the grate in the back. That was another trap for the impatient, for now even those closest to the entrance had to step back to let the driver come through. My father guessed where the driver would be coming from, and he quickly passed me from one arm to the other, again taking hold of the grate before anyone could even think of squeezing in front of us. With dignity, the driver made his way through the anxious passengers. They humbly made room for him, and the driver passed between me and the truck and skillfully lowered the grate. My father and I were the first ones on the truck. Father glanced around the coach and let me choose a spot. I wanted to sit right next to the entrance, but Father decided on the second row, which was sufficiently close to the opening so I could see outside, yet safe enough so I wouldn’t fall out onto the road. He sat down and held me in his lap, and with his leg and arm he saved places for my mother and for me. That’s when the others scuttled in: they fought over places, called out to the others outside to hurry up, unsuccessfully tried to push my father away, and eventually settled down, holding chickens and vegetables in their hands, and stowing away their packages and bags under the benches. Finally my mother climbed in at her leisure, because Father cleared a path for her through the first row of passengers and those who had climbed into the truck but didn’t find a place to sit. Mother wanted me to sit on her lap, though I wanted my own place. Father, however, didn’t let me leave his embrace.
“Wait a moment. You’ll sit when we take off,” he whispered while pushing away some who tried to sit in my spot; the passenger argued that the kid could sit in his mother’s lap. I wanted to give my seat to somebody whom the driver was chasing from the truck, but my father squeezed me with his iron arm. “Be quiet! There has to be a spot for you! You have to sleep a little on the way. You’ll be tired, my child.” I did not intend to sleep on the journey, and I was sorry for the people whom the driver chased away, but Father’s arm told me that this was not up for discussion. Finally, some managed to sit down, and others unwillingly descended from the truck. The driver had to pull one of them down by force. I was astonished that my father helped him, but others backed Father’s and the driver’s action, maintaining that the unlucky passenger was drunk. “He wanted to sit too close. He could have hit you or vomited on you,” my father said calmly after the passenger was thrown out. I did not know who was right, and I did not like it. But then the truck started its engine and the passengers happily sighed. Even those who did not manage to get on were no longer angry, but waved excitedly to those on the truck. Now I understood the advantages of the place my father had chosen: I could see outside, and I was neither cold nor afraid that I would fall over the grate. It was interesting to look out the back of the truck. This was completely different from facing forward. The road quickly flew away and the trees suddenly appeared over the waxy canvas. The most important thing, though, was that I was not afraid of curves and cliffs, because they came into sight only after the truck had passed them.
Mother fed me and wrapped me into a coat, and Father sat me down next to him, put his arm around me, and told stories about the places we traveled through. At some point it began to get dark, and eventually we couldn’t see anything outside. Some people put down the waxy canvas, and then it was so dark that I couldn’t even see my father next to me. We were riding in a black box, which was rocking side to side. Mother was talking to other passengers so I clung to Father, who embraced me even more firmly. I felt the muscles of his arm on my face and around my back, and his breath, which smelled of tobacco, on my hair. I was no longer afraid of invisible curves and cliffs. I remembered how, until now, we had successfully passed them all. Father was not afraid either, and he knew when one must and when one must not be afraid. Tranquil voices and the sound of the engine mixed with my mother’s familiar voice and my father’s breathing. I was awoken by my mother’s voice. She was singing. Others were singing too, quietly and harmoniously, but Mother’s voice was the closest and most beautiful. Our box was still rocking, but this was no longer terrible. Suddenly I could see in the dark, especially since people were lighting cigarettes and smoking. The children were sleeping, and the grown-ups were rocking with the truck and singing about a pigeon taking a love message to someone’s beloved in the village. Only my father was not singing. He couldn’t sing, and I think he didn’t like singing, because he often complained when Mother did it. He noticed that I had woken up, so he embraced me more firmly and told me to sleep. He tried to silence my mother, but she laughed, kissed me, and sang into my ear. She wanted me to sing too, but I couldn’t sing, nor did I know their songs. But
the song was beautiful and tender, and I was glad that they were singing. I saw that even my father liked hearing the song about the pigeon and the beloved. And then a strange thing happened, something which revealed to me that people don’t sing only because songs are beautiful, but they sometimes mix things into the singing that spoil the songs and divide the people. The song about the pigeon ended, and it seemed that people didn’t know what else to sing. Some started one song, others another, so they obstructed each other. The most obstructive were those who were shouting about which songs should be sung. Some even started talking about different things entirely. That’s when, from the back of the coach, so far away from us that I couldn’t see who was singing, a strong male voice emerged, clear, loud, and melodious, singing a song I had never heard, but which was so beautiful that I, the small boy that I was, felt all the passion with which the man was singing. First he was singing something I didn’t understand, probably because of the noise of the voices that were still debating what should be sung, and perhaps because the voice was so beautiful and unusual that I couldn’t pay attention to the words. Then I understood: “So come, comrades rally, and the last fight let us face…”1 Others joined in, with loud discordant voices that overpowered the man who led the song. I listened, amazed and trembling. The song was lifting me up, making me brave and grown-up. Then my father suddenly let me go from his embrace, stood up —even pushing me away a bit—and with a strong, jarring voice, began to sing a dirty and ugly peasant song, which he never sang, and which he didn’t let others sing when I was present. I wondered
1 So come, comrades rally. The song is Internationale, sung by communists.
why he was obstructing that beautiful song, indeed why he didn’t sing it himself, and I was ashamed of the song he was so awfully singing. Amazingly, some joined him, and he encouraged them with his arms to sing uglier and louder. “Marinko, shut up! You’ll get in trouble!” a neighbor told him quietly but clearly, and Mother cringed and tried to silence him. But Father scoffed, pinned her to the bench with a quick and forceful push, and howled until the others howled along. That’s when he stopped singing, sat down next to me, embraced me again, and laughed with satisfaction. “You just be quiet. This is not your business,” he told my mother, embracing me firmly. The singing stopped soon after. They didn’t restart that beautiful song, and fortunately they didn’t continue the ugly one. Some were shouting something from the dark, and then Father yelled, “We’re in Split!” People looked outside, raising the waxy canvas, but it was apparent that there were no city lights. That’s when they started discussing when we would arrive in Split, and they forgot about singing. Father did not want to explain to me what had happened, and Mother was embarrassed by his behavior so she didn’t want to talk about it. While disembarking in Split, I tried to see the man who had sung so beautifully, but I couldn’t recognize him by his speaking voice, and Father told me may the devil take him. I remembered that song and I always liked to listen to it, but I didn’t tell my father about that. Many years passed before I understood why he wouldn’t let it be sung. I understood his reasons and his ardor, but I was sorry that the song was so beautiful and we weren’t allowed to like it. Eventually, I grew up and realized that
things were even more complicated. I came to understand that there are many beautiful songs that one shouldnâ€™t sing after all. And that fit with the sad fact that there are many beautiful things that must be renounced in order to be rocked in some dark box until arrival at oneâ€™s destination.
My First Mission of the War When the war started in 1991, there were no Croatian books on war surgery. And so we translated the NATO manual Emergency War Surgery. We didn’t ask for permission to do so because it would have taken far too long. In return, the book didn’t say who the translators were (and more were involved than are mentioned here), nor was it sold, but was it distributed to the surgeons in the battle zone.
y whole life I dreamed that one day we would see the liberation of Croatia, and that I would be a soldier and take part. But when the war started in Croatia, I was 45, spectacled, with a small potbelly and not much hair, and no one wanted me for a soldier.1 I advised powerful friends that they could count on me, watched television all the time, and devised strategic plans for Croatia. But then came the handsome young guards and clever new ministers, and it seemed that no one was actually counting on me at all. And so I went on teaching my students and writing and reading about things that had no connection with either the war or Croatia—things that were not at all difficult or dangerous. At least Vjeko had gotten himself a fabulous looking pistol, and that was something of a comfort to him, because no one had called him up or needed him for the war either.2 We were 45, had glasses and potbellies, and that was crucial. No one gave a hoot that we were the bravest and most loyal Croats in the whole wide world, or that we were intelligent, industrious, tractable, ready for anything, and had been put to the test at the hardest of tasks. And then somehow I found out that Mr. K was seriously involved in the Croatian defense effort, even
1 Croatia. Since 1918, Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia which was dominated by Serbs. In 1990, with the weakening of communism, free elections were held in Yugoslavia, and Croats elected a government that called for more national freedom. The Serb minority in Croatia, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Federal Army, started armed rebellion which grew into a large-scale war. The war started on Easter 1991 with a clash between Croatian police and Serb paramilitaries at the Plitvice National Park. The war ended in August 1995, when the Croatian Army liberated occupied parts (24%) of the country. 2 Vjeko. Author’s best friend and the main character from author’s first book, The Snow in Split.
though he was older than me and had a bigger belly and thicker glasses. I explained to him that I was a true Croatian soldier, and that I wanted to fight for Croatia. But he was mysterious and very important. He sighed wearily and flapped his hand dismissively. I then offered him Vjeko as well, for Vjeko was an even better Croatian soldier than I was. But Mr. K hardly listened to me, and flapped still more vigorously. But I had sensed my chance, and wouldn’t be brushed off. Mr. K finally lost his patience and demanded to be left alone (being very much involved in the struggle for Croatia). He said that I was already doing enough for Croatia by being a decent teacher and researcher, and by doing my everyday work. I realized that he did not understand me—this work of mine counted for nothing. Now I had to fight on the battlefield. I had dreamed of it all my life, and now was the time. “Just do your job,” flapped Mr. K patronizingly. As for Vjeko, he wouldn’t hear a word of him. But I was a Croatian soldier, and wouldn’t be put down. Soon Mr. K relented. He made inquiries in a place about which I had no need to know, and then brought me my mission. The mission was odious. I was scared of it at once, and terribly disappointed. First, it involved no danger, weapons, or struggles, but actually consisted of what I was already doing. Second, it was terribly large, and it had to be done in just seven days. I thought it would take at least a month, even if I worked at it day and night. “You wanted a mission—now you’ve got one,” said Mr. K coldly. “I don’t care how you get it done. That’s your business. You’re the best at this in your college, aren’t you? Get it done in a week. You’ve got Branko and Zoran to help you. What else do you want?”
He still had no interest in Vjeko. But a Croatian soldier like me could do anything. It was not that anything was wrong with Branko and Zoran, but I doubted whether they were hard-working enough. I would give the two of them half of the job, and I would do the rest in seven days. I called them up, ready to give in and take on more than half—it was my responsibility, and I couldn’t take any risks. Branko and Zoran were happy to get their mission and didn’t put up a fuss at all about having to do it in seven days. Branko also had a powerful desire to be given some mission in the battle for Croatia. His story was just the same as mine and Vjeko’s, and I was suddenly put out and confused, because I thought that Vjeko and I were the only Croatian soldiers who had been passed over. Zoran already had a mission (he didn’t want to say what), and he was a bit less fired up. He told us what he would like to do, and it was just what would have been the hardest for me. He told us how he would go about it, and his plan was fine. Everything was easily settled in a moment. Then Branko said what he would like to do, and it was also something I was very happy to let someone else do. He had thought things out properly, and I was happy to agree. It turned out that the two of them took on more than half of the mission—which was all the parts that didn’t suit me. I was left with what wouldn’t tire me, and what I loved doing, especially if it was for Croatia. I felt that I could easily finish it in six days and prove that I was a Croatian soldier to be counted on. My wife Ana and I usually went home together. Ana had a very particular pleasure in asking me what I had done during the day. Nothing could be hidden from her or passed over in silence, even if it was completely
unimportant. And so I told her everything at once. Interestingly, she did not ask me about trivial details, but got down to the specifics of my mission. She said she was proud of me and that she would like to help me if she could. Women are seldom proud of their husbands, so I was rather happy and said that of course she could help me. It was as though the job was made just for her, and there was no reason for her not to do a little of it. After we had kissed Stjepan hello, lunched, and had coffee, Ana put a very benign expression on her face and suggested that Stjepan and I go out into the garden to pick up some windfalls for Granâ€™s apple strudel. In the meantime, she would start working on the mission. Pursuant to the rights of children, Stjepan had picked me for garden, apples, and strudel. It didnâ€™t seem to me particularly important if Ana worked on the mission at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Stjepan and I went to pick apples, and we also took our swords, because we were Croatian soldiers. Picking the apples took quite a while because after every two or three apples, Stjepan and I would fight the enemy, armed with swords as Croatian warriors. As the day went on, I began to get concerned about my first wartime mission. Unfortunately, Gran then decided that there were no bread crumbs or cinnamon for the strudel, and that they had to be obtained at once. I knew that this was just an excuse, and that Ana and Gran had a secret agreement about the cinnamon and bread crumbs, because Gran is Anaâ€™s mother and never roots for me. So they packed off Stjepan and me on foot to some faraway shop, because our shoes were dirty, and we were already dressed, and it would only take a few minutes. I had my suspicions when Stjepan and I were let into the house with our dirty shoes on to
kiss Mommy, and I became still more suspicious when I heard Ana through the window, explaining to Stjepan that she couldn’t go to the shop with him because she was doing something awfully important for the Croatian Army. But since Stjepan had an unbounded love for the Croatian Army, he agreed to be separated from his Mommy and go off to the shop with me. And no one asked me anything anyway. On the way, Stjepan and I pretended that we forgot what we were supposed to buy, and worked out that we would go into the shop and ask for three tanks and three caps, and the shop lady would be surprised and wouldn’t know what to do with us.3 I deliberately didn’t repeat what it was we were supposed to buy, wondering if Stjepan would remember everything when we got to the shop. It was a hot afternoon in summer, and the shop lady was alone. I loudly ordered three tanks and three caps. Stjepan, however, got serious, and explained first of all, that a cap was a Croatian Armored Personnel Carrier, and that secondly, what we actually wanted was three bags of bread crumbs and three packets of ground cinnamon. The shop lady took up the game, and said that all she had was tanks and caps, and that she had no idea what bread crumbs and cinnamon were. Stjepan explained that cinnamon gave a special flavor to Gran’s strudel, and that bread crumbs were to soak up the apple juice. The shop lady was impressed by the expertise of such a small boy and produced the cinnamon and bread crumbs without any further ado. Outside, I asked Stjepan how he knew about the bread crumbs and the cinnamon, because I hadn’t known the bit about soaking up the apple juice. It appeared that Gran had told him
3 CAP. Croatian Armored Personnel Carrier. Unarmed, Croats tried to produce armored vehicles by welding iron plates around trucks. People called them CAPs. However, they proved useless.
4 National Guard Corps. Until the state of Croatia was officially recognized, its Army, mostly composed of volunteers, was called the National Guard.
the day before—when they had bought cinnamon and bread crumbs. It became clear to me that Ana was going to do the majority of my first wartime mission. We got home just in time for the news. Ana kindly offered to let me watch it in peace, while she and Gran kept Stjepan amused. I couldn’t miss out on any news about Croatia, although I knew that it was Gran who would keep Stjepan amused while Ana went on with my mission. Ana worked on the mission all afternoon. By the evening she had done more than half of it. And of course, since she had done so much, it would have been stupid for me to spy on her as she worked, or heaven forbid, spoil anything that was so important for the Croatian Army. And I could have spoiled it too, because Ana and I work a little differently, and when you start off one way, it’s a bad idea to finish in another. And so Ana finished my first wartime mission on her own. On Monday, Branko and Zoran proudly announced that they thought they would accomplish their mission on time, and I showed them that my part was already done. They went white with fear, and sat down to work. They, too, finished in a mere eight days. Mr. K was pleased but did not fail to mention that he thought I was an unrecognized madman. This didn’t bother me, because Branko and Zoran looked at me with awe and trembled. And the National Guard Corps got what it needed in seven days in only eight, and it might well have been done in a month.4 Ana kept quiet and smiled happily, Stjepan was little, and Gran seldom went out. Thus nobody really knew what I did in my first wartime assignment. And I wasn’t all that upset, because it brought my loved ones a lot of joy and pride. I only found it a bit hard to take when
Stjepan would tell our visitors that Mommy worked for the Croatian Army, while he and Dad were Croatian guardsmen with wooden swords. Luckily, he never mentioned the three bags of bread crumbs and three packets of ground cinnamon for Granâ€™s strudel.