The Five Wonders of the Danube

On five bridges over the Danube, five strange and remarkable tales are told: tales of the sacrifices that are made for Art. For the painter, the sculptor, the writer and the composer, creation is inextricably entwined with violence, suffering and the darkest reaches of the psyche, and the bridge to enlightenment is the hardest of all to cross. Yet through the innocence of a dog all can be redeemed, in the miraculous climax of this complex and exotic fable.

Editions:

  • Zavod (Serbian, German, Slovakian, Hungarian and English, 2011)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, hardcover, 2016)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, softcover, 2017)

The Five Wonders of the Danube_English_Japan


An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:

First Wonder

Black Bridge, Regensburg

1.

The painting was found on the Black Bridge in Regensburg on Sunday at 06:12.

Although large (243 x 171 centimeters, as it was later established), it could have passed unnoticed at that early hour. The guard making his first round was interested in the lower parts of the bridge. Birds alone had access to the upper parts and they posed no threat. They fouled the metal and stone, but that was not part of his responsibility.

He didn’t like the river gulls because of their filth and—even more—because their shrieking jangled his nerves. But if their cries hadn’t suddenly resounded, he would certainly have missed the painting. Just as he reached the middle of the bridge, they began to shriek. He raised his eyes and was doubly amazed.

The mysterious appearance of the painting should have been the greater surprise, of course, but what primarily astonished the guard was the gulls’ unexpected agitation. They usually stood on the bridge’s tall railing, but not one was there now. A dozen birds were circling low and shrieking so insufferably that he would have covered his ears with his hands had he not been on duty.

When the painting finally caught his attention, once again a further consideration prevailed. His first thought was of what awaited him when he reported to his supervisor at the District Bridge Administration. He would certainly be accused of sleeping in the guardhouse and such an offence would have to be severely punished. He might even lose his job. It would do no good to swear that he hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night long. The fact that he had not fallen asleep in the thirty-seven years he’d been on the job would also be of no help. He could almost hear his supervisor’s thundering voice: “If you were awake, how could someone have hung such a big painting on top of the bridge?”

He had no answer to that question. How, indeed? And without being heard or seen? At least, he hadn’t heard or seen anything. The bridge was illuminated and there’d been almost no traffic that night. In any case, no one had stopped. And this couldn’t have been the work of just one person. One tall ladder wouldn’t have been enough, plus tools would be needed to attach the painting. There were no hooks up above from which to hang it.

Then there was the question of why anyone would do such a thing. Who hangs paintings on bridges? True enough, river crossings attracted various eccentrics—hadn’t he met a few of them over the years?—but they were always crazy loners, and this would have required the work of several people. Was it some sort of plot? Fear filled the guard. What if it was a political stunt? Then he would be in even greater trouble. He would naturally fall under suspicion as an accessory. Not only would he lose his job, he’d end up in jail.

He threw back his head and stared anxiously at the large unframed canvas as though suddenly realizing that something was painted on it. The foreground showed the downstream side of the bridge, the side on which it was placed. The scene beyond the railing on the canvas was the same as that beyond the real railing: the meandering course of the river through a plain to the distant hills in the east where the sun had recently risen. Looking past the painting, the guard squinted at the sun which hung in the same place as on the canvas. The painting seemed to invoke this very moment, an impression that was reinforced by the flock of river gulls flying in all directions. They were depicted so faithfully that it seemed the shrieking was coming from the painting too.

He felt a little better. Nothing on the painting was politically incorrect. At least he wouldn’t be accused of taking part in a conspiracy. Other motives were behind this. He didn’t even try to grasp what they might be. What did they have to do with him, anyway? It could be the teamwork of madmen or jokers, it made no difference. Let those who were in charge take care of it. All that interested him was how they’d done it. He would have to answer to his superiors for that. And what could he tell them? That he had no idea? How nice. Something as serious as this happens on the bridge he’s guarding and he’s unable to offer any explanation.

He was suddenly struck by an idea that seemed to be a life-saver. Indeed, this would be the first time he breached the regulations that required he report every unusual incident, but now that would be the lesser of two evils. He would get out of trouble by removing its cause. No one else had seen the painting. If he managed to take it down and hide it, no one would be the wiser. The best thing would be to drop it into the river. Then no trace would be left. The water would quickly wash the paint off the canvas and turn it into an ordinary rag.

The guard’s conscience pricked him. What a shame, it was such a pretty painting. Perhaps he could keep it. He wouldn’t take the risk of having it framed and had no wall large enough to hang it on in his small apartment, but he would keep it rolled up under his bed and take it out from time to time to look at it. Particularly after his upcoming retirement. It would be a pleasant memento of all the years he’d worked there. The guardhouse where he’d spent almost one-third of his life could also be seen at the edge of the painting.

He was not without mementos. Above his bed were three rows of photographs taken from the bridge, thirty-seven in all—one for each year of service. He appeared in them too and liked to look at them, following them back as he got younger and younger and the snapshots faded. He was not in the painting, however, but this was a work of art. How many guards could boast of having a painting of the bridge where they worked, particularly one as big as this?

Yes, but how was he going to get it down? He would have trouble doing it by himself and didn’t possess a ladder tall enough. As he feverishly considered all the difficult and unfeasible ways of reaching the top of the railing without a ladder—at which point he would see how to deal with the canvas—the inevitable happened. A car headed across the bridge. Catching sight of the guard standing in the middle looking up at something, the driver’s curiosity got the better of him. He stopped and stuck his head out of the window.

The guard turned around and motioned angrily at the driver to move on, then headed for the guardhouse at the end of the bridge to make a call. He no longer had a choice. It was pointless to remove the painting now that someone else had seen it. He would have to make an official report of the incident. That might be better after all. Losing your job hardly compared with losing your life while climbing up the bridge’s metal superstructure. In any case, memories should be personal. If he’d been in the painting, he might have taken the foolhardy risk.

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