return lena ruth

“At the moment you are no longer an observing, reflecting being;
you have ceased to be aware of yourself;
you exist only in that quiet,
steady thrill that is so unlike any excitement that you have ever known.”
May Sinclair

Podgorica is my private Biblical Egypt, I am enslaved here, I spend
my days in self-imposed isolation, in a mental prison of the highest
security where I’ve locked myself up voluntarily. At night I am afraid,
the fear attacks like a crazed demon, overwhelming me: a silent, sinister, cruel fear and I do not dare to fall asleep because I know that I will
have nightmares that will painfully resemble reality.
When I lie in my wooden bed, I do a kind of teshuva, repentance
and return, rewinding and going through each scene of the previous
day, every conversation, all the parts of books I read, the texts I put out
on the Internet, every little thing.
When rewound, my day goes like this: I comb my hair and wash
my face before bedtime, every time I brush my hair I feel guilty for
dying it blond; naturally blond hair is one thing, it is a burden which
one must live with, but in this part of the world women with naturally light-colored hair are a rarity – this is the Balkans, women here
are swarthy and dark-haired – at least that’s what they say; I did not
dye my hair to attract the attention of rutting males, I am actually a
natural blonde who was accidentally born with dark hair, that’s really
how I feel, as if the dark pigment was accidentally planted at the roots
of the hair that grew on top of my head. My skin is quite pale, almost
transparent and I have almost no body hair – only a thin blond strand
of hair, here and there; quite unexpected for such a fair complexion
and hairless body, my hair is jet black. (These are my thoughts as I
brush my bleached hair before going off to sleep.)
I think a mistake has been made. In the middle of the mix-up, at
the moment of my birth, when I was accidentally given dark hair, I got
something else that did not belong to me by birthright – an old, tired
Jewish soul. I don’t know how it came to that, but because of that
mistake, both my soul and I suffer a lot.
The chances for something like that to happen were minimal, you see, my mother’s mother had seemingly left the tribe of Israel. This
was not spoken of in my family, not because it was a dark secret of
some sort, but because we lived in a communist state and because it
was nobody’s business any more. My grandmother, a hidden Jew, a crypto-Jew prayed to God in her own words and never went to church,
and to be honest nobody really noticed because in the communist
times no one went to church anyway. My grandfather was a Partisan
and was shot during the war under horrendous circumstances which
were actually noted down in one of the good novels about it, even if it
was only as an episode. When that book appeared, some of our family
members were happy because the memory of my grandfather did not
die in 1942 with him, but I thought it unfair that the tragic epopee of
his fate should be reduced to a mere couple of paragraphs. My grandmother never married again, she wore a long black dress and tied her
hair up with a black scarf for the rest of her life.
My parents, for their part, had their own polytheistic pantheon,
they believed in the holy trinity of Marx, Engels and Lenin who
brought forth Tito, the hallowed deity who, though sprung from the
loins of the trinity, was in fact its forerunner. I continue to rewind my
day. Before going to bed, I read my prayers, kabalistic prayers that cannot be found in the siddurim in the synagogues. The rabbi who composed this prayer book was ostracized from the Jewish community,
though that is a little known fact.
I wonder if the prayers can be all right if the rabbi is no good? So
what if he was banished? What happens if the soul, like in soccer,
receives a red card? What happened to the excommunicated soul of
Baruch Spinoza? Who has the right to give the soul a red card? Rabbis
in this world decide who is Jewish, but are their decisions legal in the
upper world or does God have his own standard? Exhausted from
wandering around the hinterlands of convoluted religious laws, my
mind moves on to another topic.
That afternoon, Chikyo came to visit me. That is his spiritual
name which, in one of the languages spoken at the foot of the
Himalayas, means “mirror of wisdom”. Chikyo belongs to one of the
four streams of Buddhism that differs from the others because its followers, as they meditate, keep their eyes wide open and breathe
through their mouths; the others close their eyes and breathe through
their noses, while the story of the historical Buddha and the Eightfold
Path is, according to them, true to the last detail. You will say, big deal,
some people kiss with their eyes open, some with them closed, some
people breathe only through their mouths when they’re asleep, some
people go through their whole lives as if their eyes were closed even
though they are wide open, so what, you will say – that doesn’t change
the fact that people pass through life, kiss and sleep, right – well, there
you see, in Buddhism it seems that this changes things a lot, to the
extent that its adherents are even divided into different groups. I wonder how the historical Buddha feels about that in his everlasting existence.
Before Chikyo’s visit I shuffled the tarot cards – I’ve become fairly
skillful at that, like an experienced card-dealer with years behind me,
who mixes the cards with a practiced hand, flipping them and riffling
them from hand to hand, then drawing out two cards, I placed them
face up… The Pope and the Devil, what a pair! The latter is familiar
to me, I experience him as my sparring partner, my personal trainer if
you like, an opponent I have chosen in order to train the strength of
my will and physical stamina, but the role of the Pope in my life is not
clear. I looked at the cards, the stocky Pope in luxurious robes lounging on his throne, two priests with shaved heads are kneeling before
him, the Pope’s left hand is hovering above them, the index and mid-
dle fingers extended while the others are point downwards – this sign
represents a blessing, I suppose, but it reminds me of a child playing
with shadows on the wall, when a child puts his fingers in this position
he actually wants to cast the Devil’s shadow; the Pope’s head seems to
be weighed down by the golden crown above which the Roman
numeral five is impressed, the number five, the Pope’s number in the
Tarot deck, looking like a naughty child has put up rabbit ears at the
moment when the picture was taken, but so that the Pope doesn’t
notice it. In his left hand, significantly larger than the right in the
picture, the Pope is holding a crosier, a symbol of his sacred power, and
on his left forearm, quite heretically, there is a tattoo of a Greek cross,
while his gaze is directed to the left, at the Devil.
As opposed to the Pope, who is looking away, the Devil looks me
straight in the eye while standing on his throne – yes, he’s standing
because, I reckon, he’s bored of sitting, the Pope is eventually replaced
by another but Satan has been on his throne since the beginning of
eternity, with no fear of being replaced (although they say that there
have been those who pretended to the Devil’s throne), he sat long
enough and decided, for a change to stand for a while on his throne;
two naked followers are chained to it, all three are wearing cute little
hats decorated with plumes, the Devil has wings and is holding a sword
in his left hand, while his right hand is waving in greeting – a devilish
business. The Devil’s number is fifteen, written with a block form
Roman ten and a slanting five – identical to the pope’s; the block form
Roman ten, without the addition of the five, is the number of the card
of the so-called Wheel of Fortune, which Tarot experts claim to represent the will of God, but that card did not come out in this deal.
I think about the two priests kneeling in front of the Pope, one of them
has what looks like a bishop’s hat slung over his shoulder, while his
arms are spread out as a sign of surrender; I wonder how strong his
faith is and what it is based on, if he has personal experience and his
own mind, or does he blindly believe the man hovering over him, the
one whom he considers to be God’s representative on Earth? The way
the bishop, with his back to us, is kneeling and hunched over the Pope’s
kirts (the Pope is still looking away) leads me to think that Sigmund
Freud – who said that the human religious drive is the pure sublimation of the sexual libido – was perhaps not so far from the truth.
I go on rewinding my day, moment by moment. In the afternoon
I stood by the window of my living room which looks out on the
Greek Embassy. As I watched the blue and white Greek flag being
beaten by a raging Podgorica north wind, I reflected on the idea that
the licentious liberalness of the Hellenes did much more damage to the
Biblical Israelis than the tortuous slavery of Egypt ever did.
At the beginning of the story, Abraham the Babylonian says his
historical “no” to false idols; his belief in one God, naturally, is adopted by his son Isaac who, then, passes it down to his son Jacob; Jacob is
blessed with twelve sons of which one, Joseph the clairvoyant, ends up
in Egypt via the mysterious ways of the Lord. The other brothers soon
follow Joseph’s path, as free men who will, after a dramatic change in
the leadership of Egypt, end up as slaves. In the incredible history of
the Hebrews, the time was now ripe for the appearance of a new super
hero, Moses, who agrees (upon God’s insistence, after a lot of naysaying – he’s already eighty, he’s never been a leader) to lead his people out
of Egypt. For forty years they wander around the desert and, even
though they see many miracles, some of the weak-hearted are fairly
homesick for Egypt…
Here I make a cut in the further history of the Jews and my
thoughts race to the future Greeks who, long ago, about eight hundred
years B.C., while still a barbaric tribe from northern India, take the
road to Macedonia, mercilessly slaughtering native peoples along the
way; after many adventures, they arrive on Crete, where the local
population is already settled, the cultivated Semitic Cretans… Another
cut in the historical seam, and I will testify that the Kingdom of Israel
fought bravely against the Assyrians, while the Greeks were founding
Athens, Sparta, and Corinth, preoccupied with scholarship, philosophy and literature…
As opposed to the mostly illiterate pagans, the literate monotheistic
Jews took great pleasure in reading Greek philosophy, scholarship and

literature, and the Jewish God with his lessons and morals must have
begun to seem somehow old-fashioned when compared to the sensual
Hellenic gods who, seemingly, spent most of their time enjoying orgies
and bacchanalias. The Jews absorbed the intellectual achievements of
the Hellenes, the fashionable spoke Greek among themselves, calling
each other by Greek names, they were childishly overjoyed by the
Greek dramas and, to the horror of their Jewish mothers, they wrestled
naked in the gymnasiums. However, it all went sour when the high
priest, Jason, threw the doors temple doors in Jerusalem open wide to
the idol worshippers and foreign pagan-types, strutting around in
Greek robes; the enraged anti-Hellenes cried out to the heavens,
slaughtering the problematic pro-Hellenes and toppling their statues,
thus beginning the first nauseating religious war in the history of
civilization. That’s what I was thinking about as I stared through my
living room window at the Greek Embassy.
In the afternoon, I read, as usual. I read Doris Lessing and completely identified with Martha Quest, I felt her painful duality, that
deep dichotomy between intelligence and everything else, the obsession with that which is widely believed to be Jewish thought, but at the
same time with fashionably tailored robes. I compared the Sports Club
with the clubs in Podgorica and the similarity is obvious, Doris put her
own thoughts in the third person and ascribed them the attractive,
semi-rebellious, semi-snobbish Martha, and I wondered why I don’t do
something like that, why in heaven’s name I write in the first person,
again they will ask me if my writing is autobiographical, while I tirelessly repeat that it is all a product of my imagination. No matter what
person the writer uses, the writing is always autobiographical – the
feelings and thoughts of heroes and anti-heroes are all equally the
writer’s, they belong to one of his numerous personalities which are
contending and competing in him, one repressing the other.
Doris Lessing is simultaneously the rebellious Martha and her
mediocre mother and her hypochondriac father, and the bright Jewish
boy Sol, and the brave leftist Abraham Cohen who dies in the Spanish
Civil War. The various personalities of the writer, in accordance with
their characters, live out the destinies they deserve – the melancholic,
pill-popping father will remain forever (that is till the end of the novel)
on the veranda watching the naked embrace of heaven and earth – her
choice of words again convinces me that indeed everything has been
written already and that there is nothing left for me to do – and from
that thought I digress and ask myself why in heaven’s name do I write
when I can hope for nothing profitable from those efforts; it is forced
work, my own numerous personalities are connected only by the
manic need to be heard and to express their opinions in writing; writers, it seems to me, no matter how consciously they cling to a single
choice in life, at the same time flirt with all the other available
thoughts and opinions, skillfully ascribing their own, contradictory
ideas to various literary characters…
The benign, cute and not-so-bright English girl Maisie entangles
her fate with the completely uneducated and pathetic but influential
and intermittently tyrannical first typist, Mrs. Bess; Doris Lessing is
also the oppressed group of blacks who are arrested because of misdemeanors, at the same time, she is also the shallow, spoiled young man
from the Sports Club, and his mother, the British lady who became that
through marriage; Doris Lessing is also the paranoid Polish Jew who
changes his surname to King, and the Judeophile Martha and the anti-Semite Donovan and the Jewish Stella and her dark-skinned native and
the Greek merchant and the Dutch housewife – all of that simultaneously. I wonder how it is possible that my city, where I’m living and
writing these words, is so painfully reminiscent of a British colony in
Africa just before the First World War, and I wonder if we, for heaven’s
sake, are living in a sort of black hole where time has stopped and in
which the people Doris Lessing described have gone on living.
Perhaps all of these people, her heroes, drank a sort of magical
youth potion and never grow old or even change here in my town –
they have just changed their names, the slogans they use in conversation and the places where they meet, however, have remained completely the same… A small group of leftists, to the horror of the majority in society, goes on supporting unpopular opinions, already conscious that they will be banished, and there are also those who think
about nothing and live like marionettes manipulated by social conditioning, the latter are in the majority. However, the hypocritical conservatives, whom I recognize in the modern politically correct employers, are not exploiting African resources and natives, but rather their
own country and fellow tribesmen, and I wonder – is the sin of our
times, that they are oppressing their own people, is it greater and less
forgivable; I remember the blank faces of the oppressed cashiers in the
nearby supermarket – their working hours and salaries have absolutely
nothing in common with the laws of the European Union about
which so much noise is made on the news…
Later I read Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and felt that I had met another kindred literary spirit who, in the character of the narrator Chick,
flees from people into solitude, into nature; I follow the thread that
winds through the spiritual evolution of Abe Ravelstein that Chick is
narrating – the wisdom loving, eccentric and brilliant professor, a
great respecter of Jerusalem but also admirer of Athens – all great
philosophers were atheists, weren’t they? – while slowly, infected with
AIDS, he loses his physical strength, his body loses its domination over
his Jewish soul and the latter begins to reign over him. His future
posthumous biographer, Chick, in spite of the extent to which he is
hindered by optimistic American English, unsuitable for absolutely
black Jewish thoughts (Chick himself is a believer, but not a fanatic),
follows Ravelstein’s final transformation just before death, predictably
(for me) turning his back on Athens and turning his gaze to Jerusalem.
For me, reading is quite a special ritual, to which approximately half
of my entire waking day is dedicated, not wasted on other, when compared to reading, fairly banal activities. Even though I put Ravelstein
away, one thought from the novel kept haunting me – you will admit
that occasional thoughts from certain novels continue to preoccupy
readers after the book has been placed forever on the shelf; the thought
was that even God rests when in Paris, since the French are so irreligious, so that God can relax there like any other tourist. It occurs to
me that, if this metaphor at least partially describes the true state of

things, then it is possible that some of it in that great novel is the
skewed thinking of another Jew, Yehuda Leyb Schwarzmann, better
known (though still not very famous) as Lev Shestov, a philosopher of
despair whose existential philosophy (infinitely paradoxically) is lacking in systematization and coherence, including his theoretical explanation of philosophical problems, and whose work is aimed at generating metaphysical problems instead of solving them. Fleeing the
October Revolution, Yehuda-Lev settled in Paris where, they say, he
had an influence on Sartre, who after all had a notable influence on
the formation of the thoughts of many Paris intellectuals in the twentieth century; I think about how this philosophy of despair rose from
the Ukraine, arrived in Paris and infiltrated the Sorbonne; via the
Sorbonne, quite expectedly, it arrived at the Faculty of Humanities in
Belgrade where it strengthened and gained momentum on the fertile
soil of the reigning socialism and the proverbial love of the Serbs for
the French; this, by definition tragic, philosophy was absorbed by
some of the Montenegrin intellectuals getting educated in Belgrade;
later this thought will become tragically evident in their personal destinies as they turn away from their Montenegrin origins and ultimately deny them completely, as it is known; the historical influence
of French thought and diplomacy has often been fatal for Montengrins
and their statehood.
During the day, I don’t remember exactly when, I wrote something
like a poem: I was born in a magical circle which the cursed tram
number two outlines, around the innards of a city that used to be
completely white, quite near the Synagogue on a street named after
Marshall Biryuzov. However, we only lived there briefly. Then we
lived in Sofia, on the very transition from socialism into communism,
when everyone got what they needed and gave as much as they could,
or something like that. Most of what they could was quite humble, and
their needs were politically correct – like the Biblical Adam and Eve,
the people were naked, barefoot and happy as long as they lived far
from the temptations of the snakelike West. Yet, this idyll did not last
long, the serpent of western propaganda offered a can of Coca-Cola to
the girl with the sickle and she forgot her partisan name and bargained
off her badge with Lenin’s face for a McDonald’s hamburger. For a
while I lived in Moscow, a long time before the young man with the
hammer broke up with the girl with the sickle. In Moscow I was, quite
properly, sad. Most of the time most of the people were drunk on
cheap vodka because reality was too painful when we tried to look it
in the eyes while sober, so that my memories, by my own choice, are
fogged by vodka fumes and the breath of the icy winter frost.
The last event of that day which I remember was my morning walk
on the hill called Gorica and the small hidden meadow that carefully
guards an evergreen forest in its loins; there I speak with my country;
this is our chat-room, here I pour out my despair, and it sometimes
comforts me, and often criticizes me. My country tells me that I don’t
feel enough gratitude that it adopted me and gave me a chance to start
life over, it says that I destroyed and gambled away my life in other
countries, giving them much more than I give to it, my homeland, I
shower it with a neurosis that it did not cause, it says; like a wounded
mother, my country reminds me that those other countries are not
flawless, far from it; my country, scolding me, says that it would have
rejected me long ago if it did not pity me so; my country knows, it says,
that my intentions are honest and my heart pure, insofar as that is
possible, but – my country goes on – it is high time for me to grow up,
whatever that means, to part with my idyllic vision of myself and of it,
and to leave it and its other children alone, because they defended it
and died for it long before I came around… I retort that I am not to
blame because I didn’t have a chance to die honorably for its freedom,
it snipes back that I would not die for it but because that would be a
legitimate cover up for a long-planned suicide, our conversation does
not die down, but some other people are approaching the meadow, I
see them from afar and I know that it will soon want to attend to them
as well, I know that I must share its love and still I ask what advice it
would give me (I don’t like the council of other people, but I believe
that it is all right for me to ask for the advice of my country), and it
answers in a shoot-like whisper that I should finally see that light and
darkccness are inseparable, and that I should finally understand that
there is no ultimate answer, that I have to live with my questions in
the absurdity that is choking me and that – it adds in the end – like any
mother manipulating her confused child, I must discover joy and happiness precisely in such a way of living.

Lena Ruth Stefanovic

Contemporary Montenegrin Short Stories
[Edition Katedrala,2010.]

For the Publisher Varja Đukić
Editor Zoran Paunović
Translation into English Randall Major | Terence McEneny