In what strange edifice of the imagination do you find a condemned cell, a hotel room and a hospital room? What kind of hotel offers a zinc mine, a meat-packing plant, a weapons factory and a cemetery of famous artists among its attractions? Why do four people commit suicide in the same bathroom and why does a literature professor cut up several of the greatest works of literature into a confetti of letters? In this wildly imaginative, wildly funny satire on Art and Death nothing is quite what it seems and the maze of symbols grows more complex with each encounter.
- Polaris (Serbian and English, 2004)
- Laguna (Serbian, 2005, as a part of the Nemoguće priče 2 omnibus)
- PS Publishing (English, UK, 2009, as a part of the Impossible Stories II omnibus)
- Kurodahan Press (English, Japan, 2010)
- Admiral Books (Serbian, 2010)
- Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Nemoguće priče / Impossible Stories omnibus)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of the Impossible Stories II omnibus)
- Zavod (Serbian, 2017, as a part of the Nemoguće priče II)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:
1. The Cell
A knock was heard on the door of the cell.
I stopped playing the violin and laid it on the dresser next to the couch.
The door opened without a sound and the guard appeared.
“You have a visitor,” he said, smiling at me.
I nodded and he moved aside to let the visitor in. I didn’t immediately recognize the large figure in a dark suit that almost filled the doorway. Gloom permeated the cell, while neon lighting brightly illuminated the corridor in front of it. The contours of the man were drawn like an eclipse of the sun edged by the corona, making it impossible to see what they surrounded. It wasn’t until the visitor spoke that I realized who it was.
“Good evening,” said my lawyer as he walked inside. The guard closed the door after him. Once again the cell was lighted solely by the lamp with a large green shade on the desk.
“Good evening,” I replied, stepping forward to greet him with outstretched hand. We shook hands warmly and then I indicated one of the two armchairs facing us.
“Please sit down. I hope you find this one more comfortable than the other, which wobbles a bit.”
“Oh, it will be fine, don’t you worry,” said the lawyer, settling himself in the armchair as it groaned under his weight. He placed the large black briefcase he always carried with him in his lap and laid his hands on top of it.
“Would you care for a drink?” I asked. “I’m afraid the choice is rather limited. All I have is orange juice.”
“I’d prefer something a bit stronger, but it can’t be helped. Is it chilled at least?”
“Yes, it is.” I opened the little refrigerator at the other end of the cell, took out a container and poured thick orange liquid into one of the four glasses. They were sitting on a tray on top of the refrigerator, covered with coasters. I put a coaster on the coffee table between the armchairs, and placed the glass on it.
“Thank you,” said the lawyer with a brief nod.
I went back to the couch and sat down.
“I’m sure you’re not aware, of course,” said the visitor after drinking half the glass of orange juice. “You’re a young man, it’s ancient history to you. But when I started my law practice, many years ago, the conditions in jail weren’t anything like this pleasant. All right, I agree, the choice of drinks might not be very discriminating, and the furniture could be of better quality or at least better maintained, but those are merely details that are easy to fix. You would be horrified if I were to describe the first visits to my incarcerated clients. I myself was shocked. It almost made me change my profession. But now I’m glad I didn’t. I’m not fishing for compliments, but if it weren’t for people like me we’d still be in that barbaric period.”
He stopped for a moment and took another sip of juice.
“It was particularly difficult,” he continued, “for inmates on death row, such as yourself. It was tacitly understood that prisoners’ surroundings during their last hours were more or less unimportant. Considering what they had in store for them, it allegedly made no difference. The trauma caused by the inhuman conditions would not be of long duration. Pure cynicism. Shouldn’t the same criteria be used for those of us who, after carrying out your sentence, retire to the warmth of our homes, convinced that we are lucky not to be in your shoes? But who among us can be certain that they won’t be joining you shortly? No one knows what the day may bring, or the night. And the statistics are inexorable: there are far more casualties outside of prison than inside.”
I nodded. “That’s true.”
The lawyer’s face expanded into a smile. “There, you see. I must admit, though, just between you and me, there’s one thing I miss from the old days. I know it’s a little selfish, but it can’t be helped. I’m no saint, I have vices too. Can you guess what it is?”
“No, I can’t.”
“Smoking,” replied the lawyer diffidently, opening his arms with a shrug. “Before, no one would hold it against you if you lighted a cigarette in a cell. Actually, no one paid any attention. You’d offer one to your client, of course. Now if I even flicked a lighter or struck a match, the alarm would start wailing the very same instant. I’d be debarred in no time flat. It’s not just visitors who are forbidden to smoke, though, the condemned can’t either. Not even one last cigarette. And that’s going too far, I think you’ll agree. Even hypocritical if you ask me. All right, tobacco kills, that’s beyond all doubt, but in the given circumstances that one cigarette couldn’t possibly do much harm. The antismoking lobby, however, is completely deaf to the voice of reason. They stick blindly to their principles and are powerful enough to put them into effect. Do you smoke?”
“Smart man. If you did you’d be in a terrible fix right now. I don’t know how I’d make it through such torture. Even this short time in here with you without a cigarette is hard for me. But there’s a good and bad side to every profession. Is there something else you miss?”
I thought it over briefly. ”The limited number of channels on the cable television bothers me. It’s almost entirely sports, action films and quiz shows. There are practically no programs on art or culture.”
“Why, that’s unacceptable!” The lawyer opened his briefcase, took out a notepad and pencil and wrote something hurriedly. “This is a violation of basic human rights. You have my word that we’ll put an end to such mental tyranny. It won’t be easy, not in the least, the members of the board who make the regulations in this place are as unbending and conservative as the church fathers. But we know how to get around them. We’ve been locking horns with them for decades. I promise you that the very next man on death row will have complete freedom to choose whatever cable TV channels he wants.”
We spent a few moments looking at each other in silence, both of us smiling.
“You don’t hold it against me, I hope?” he said at length.
“For losing the case.”
“Oh, no. Certainly not.”
“You are very kind. Such understanding is rare among people who share your fate, unfortunately. They expect lawyers to be miracle workers, and when there is no miracle they shift the entire blame onto us.”
“You did everything you could.”
“I really did. I’m glad you realize that. It’s critically important in my line of work to part with my client as friends, regardless of the outcome. Nothing distresses me more than a dissatisfied client. No matter how unfounded his dissatisfaction may be, it’s always a heavy burden on my conscience. And believe me, it isn’t at all easy to live with a troubled conscience.”
“I believe you.”
The lawyer’s face lit up again. He nodded, then picked up the glass from the coaster and finished the juice.
“A little more, perhaps?” I offered.
“No, thank you. I’m actually quite fond of orange juice, but I have to watch it. Stomach acid, you know.”
“I have problems with it too.”
“Not much fun, is it. But it can’t be helped. You have to live in spite of adversity. All right, then. Let’s get down to business. I’m sure you wonder why I’ve come.”
“To say goodbye, I suppose.”
“Yes, of course. But not only for that reason. I’m here to tell you a story.”