Mirko Kovač

CAUGHT IN THE UNDERTOW
(short story)

         

Mirko Kovac (born December 26, 1938 in Petrovici village near Bileca, Drina Banovina, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, now in Montenegro) is a Montenegrin and Croatian (formerly Serbian) writer. His works are mainly novels like Vrata od utrobe (which won him the NIN Prize in 1978), Gubilište and Kristalne rešetke. He lived in Belgrade but moved to Rovinj, Croatia, his wife's hometown, after Milošević came to power.

Mirko Kovač
(Short story)

CAUGHT IN THE UNDERTOW

D. was a friend of mine, middle-aged, big, burly, unmarried and a heavy smoker. He always reeked of tobacco: he smoked cigars, a pipe, gauloises, and cigarettes which he rolled himself, mostly with fine, golden Herzegovinian flora. D. was cultured, well-read and very knowledgable about literature, but he was unsystematic, he always dropped whatever he started, and never tried to pick up what he had dropped. Such was his life, such was his career.
He had come out of the war a young man with the rank of captain and by 1948 was already a colonel in UDBA.  He seldom made arrests himself; what he enjoyed was conducting the interrogations. He was intelligent and witty, and liked meeting his match in a prisoner. He could not stand those who immediately gave in and knuckled under, but he did not torture them, he simply turned them over to someone else. Cowards disgusted him, but intelligent pro-Stalinists he would try to convert. I met many of his victims during our years together. They all respected and spoke well of him, even though his interrogations were gruelling. He never raised his hand or his voice, and he was not one for extracting confessions. His role was to deluge them with facts and dazzle them with his exposition. He warned against ideological bigotry, liberated people from blind faith in authority, and considered obedience to be the source of inhumane acts. His way of thinking was dangerous to any authoritarian system.
D. was one of the first to start demolishing the myth of Stalin in front of the many arrested Stalinists who passed through his hands. He had a gift for comparisons that made even his victims laugh. »I don’t know how anyone can be for Stalin, for that dormouse, that mustachioed old bag«, he would say, and then, continuing in the same vein, would finish off with a few choice swearwords. He spoke Russian and a smattering of Ukrainian, and would cite or read passages from books to his prisoners. There were always a dozen books on his table, and some he would lend to selected inmates. At the Central Prison in Belgrade or the prison at Ada Ciganlija they were still reading Z. Pavlovich’s The Reckonings Of A Soviet Thermidor, M.Z. Ninkonov-Smorodin’s Krasnaya katorga,  I.L. Solonevich’s Rossia v kontslagere, etc.
D. was an open-minded investigator, but a rigid soldier. Although no stranger to misfortune and pain himself, he had a duty to perform and it entailed making his own contribution to pain and tragedy. As a poet he compared wounds to the stars, but as a state security officer he knew how to scratch open those same wounds. This selfcontradictory duality was tearing him apart and by the end of 1949 he asked to be relieved of duty. He was shattered by the arrest of some of his wartime comrades, saying that the torture to which they were being subjected was a Stalinist method. D. was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior but there he dispelled all doubts, especially those that he might share the opinions of his arrested friends. He was given three weeks rest at the spa in Vrnjačka Banja which, admittedly, stretched out to three months. During that time he enjoyed excellent hotel accommodation, the supervision of doctors and a minder, but he had trouble sleeping and a growing penchant for drink. After three months they came for him, put him in a mental hospital in Belgrade where he was given a complete check-up and then sent to Opatija to convalesce. He took it all in his stride, and it was without a trace of sarcasm that he told the minister: “If it suits you for me to act crazy in order to justify the diagnosis, that won’t be hard.”
He spent two months in Opatija and then learned that he had been assigned to the International Trade Commission there he stayed a full sixteen years, and after the fall of Ranković in 1966 was handed his retirement papers. Throughout his time in international trade he was probably working in the double role of exporter and UDBA agent.
By the time we became friends he was already a garrulous pensioner, overbearing and incorrigibly derisive. He tended to draw into his ambit the disgruntled and shiftless, and in their presence was bold and loud, always railing against officialdom. In the course of taunting and breaking down others, lie had a kind of break-down himself. He suffered increasingly from persecution mania. He claimed that he was being bugged and followed, he did not trust even his closest friends, whom he accused of informing on him. Many of them he dropped, and some dropped him. One by one people started deserting his table at the Mažestik cafe. He sat there alone, hating others, hating the world which was conspiring against him. Strangely enough, it was around this time that he came to accept me, to confide in me, although always reservedly.
Our conversations invariably started with literature. He recommended Remizov to me, was ecstatic about P!atonov, gave me Contemporary Russian Short Stories published in 1940 by the Professors’ Cooperative in Belgrade. He drew my attention to B. Pilnyak’s story Old Cheese. He gave me Vsevold Ivanov’s novel Parkhomenko in Russian. These books are still in my library today.As far as he was concerned, all things Russian were inimitable. He went to the Soviet Union as a tourist and came back enraptured, never failing to say that all the marvels he saw there were the work of Stalin. His pet name for Beria was: “the Great Lavrenti’. For him, communist society could be homogenos only if subordinated to a supreme authority, ideal only once all sources of conflict had been abolished, and free only if the orders of the supreme authority were properly implemented. This man, who as an intenogator had vilified Stalin, wound up an idolater, an admirer of his statue. He once confided to me:
“I’ll tell you something: all the people I converted disgusted me. I reeled off a speech I knew by heart, I was an actor, a small-time actor who found it easy to shatter even the most hard-core ideological convictions. In preparing for my role, the more I read books against Stalin, the more I came to admire him.”
On Saturdays we would meet at the coffee bar of the Park Hotel. If one of us could not make it, he would have to find a way to let the other one know. One Saturday I waited a whole hour for him, but he did not show up and he did not leave a message. Nor did he appear at the Mažestik  the following day. I dialled his number but there was no answer. I complained to a friend of his who was on good terms with him one minute and bad terms time next, but he knew nothing either. He said that D. would do better to keep his big mouth shut, he was spitting at the leadership too much, and Internal Affairs had its eye on him. But on Tuesday, I caught sight of him at the Mažestik, he was sitting at a table alone, reeking of tobacco. He looked morose. Since I thought he would refuse me a seat at his table, I just stood there, glancing around as if looking for someone. He beckoned me over with his finger because he was in the middle of a coughing fit. He coughed and dribbled into his handkerchief, and at one point spat onto the floor. I sat down and said:
“Where were you on Saturday?’
“1 only got back from Moscow last night”, he said. “I had dinner with Brezhnev.«  He said it as if he always dined with Brezhnev on Sundays.
“It’s time we laid our cards on the table”, he continued in the same serious vein. “I'm not hiding anything”, I said.
“Both of us are hiding something”, he said. “You know that I work for the KGB, and I know that you work for the Intelligence Service. It’s time we exchanges information”.
I thought he was joking, but his stern expression compelled me to wait for the punch-line. If he had decided to break off with me, he could have found a better reason for it. If he was acting, surely he would not keep me in suspense for long. But this time it was serious. D. said we should meet in the coffee bar of the Park Hotel the following day, at a time when no one would expect us, and have our first exchange of information then.
“We have to be careful. We’re being followed. Now to work, I have to get ready”, he said rising from the table, and he departed.
All I could do was get ready myself and show up for our meeting. I augmented my paltry knowledge of intelligence services with equally paltry facts from the General Encyclopedia. I arrived at the appointed time and found him sitting at a table, looking demented, red in the face, nostrils flaring.
“What’s the matter?”
“Look at him over there”, he said. “That pig is shadowing me. I’m so mad I can’t think straight. And you, you’re dangerous, you could pull a fast one on me.”
Sitting at a table was a smallish man, about thirty maybe, with a swarthy complexion and thick, curly hair. He was sipping a lemonade and watching us. Suddenly D. angrily rose from his chair and marched over to the man’s table. He asked him on whose orders was he following him, when had he been assigned to the case and what were they waiting for, why didn’t they liquidate him? The man looked at him in astonishment, not understanding a thing. He was a guest at the hotel, a Greek. D. briefly calmed down, later saying that Greece was strategically important to them, especially since it was an Orthodox country.
The next day we met at Kalemegdan park. It was getting dark already. D. took a small transistor out of his bag and put on some music. He looked around and even walked a twenty-meter radius around the park bench. We had just sat down, huddled together to exchange our information when, as chance would have it, and chance always favours the narrator, a policeman stepped out of the bushes and asked for our I.D.s. D. was shocked and shook his head.
‘To choose a public park of all places!”, said the policeman. “Beat it!”
We headed down the slope to the train tracks. D. suggested that we get on the tram to cover our trail.
‘For a moment there I was in a cold sweat”, he said. “I've got two letters to Brezhnev in my bag. But there’s also a gun inside. If that ass had told me to open my bag, I would have killed him!”
We got onto a half-empty tram. D. told me to sit behind him. For him, natural everyday occurrences were traps. There was no such thing as happenstance, or the unexpected. In nature, everything was connected. For him the world was coded, but he had the gift of being able to decipher the signs, and hence was always tense and mistrustful. Riding the tram I wondered: am I getting caught up in a dangerous game with a lunatic? When the tram stopped at the Faculty of Economics, he suddenly got up, signalling me to follow. We jumped off the train and hurried towards the steps that lead up Kamenita Street to the Zeleni Venac Market. He said we had to split up; we could give them the slip under cover of darkness. And then suddenly he disappeared, I never even noticed how. For two weeks he was nowhere to be seen; to be honest, I did not try very hard to find him. I reproached myself for abetting a sick man.
One morning I saw him in front of my building. He was pacing back and forth nervously, chain-smoking. I went down and invited him in, but he refused, saying that my flat was bugged just like his and suggesting that we meet at the Russian cemetery. He explained how to find it and which path would take me to the grave of Boris Aleksandrovich Chistogradov, where there was an open book in marble with the name Ana Smirovna Vassilyevna inscribed on it.
“Wait for me there”, he said.
He seemed to have gathered flesh in the fifteen days that I had not seen him. He had huge circles under his eyes and his face was puffy. When we met at the cemetery I told him that he had changed, that he looked pale and tired. He waved my comments away as irrelevant.
“My health doesn’t matter’, he said. “I couldn’t care less about life. What I want us to do here is to discuss global strategies. You know that the Soviet Union watches Yugoslavia with one eye, and winks at what it is doing with the other. For us Yugoslavia is a prisoner whom we allow freedom of movement. We monitor only the areas your service supports. All your generous handouts go into pockets we have already ripped open. What we want is to block the other side, not to change the situation in the country. Neither of us cares how this system works, just which of our two sides wins or loses. You want some kind of federalist revolution here, and we want an October revolution. Now tell me the methods you use to neutralise our influence and kill our chances?”, he asked, his eyes fixed on me as he stood glumly at the grave of one Boris Aleksandrovich Christogradov. “I know you think I’m crazy”, he went on, “and you’re not the only one. If it makes you feel any better, I can be that too. But the fact is that I know too much and that it cannot be erased from my memory.”
“l’m sure you do”, I said. “I just don’t know why you picked me for the other side.”
He smiled as warily as a fox, training his eyes on me like an interrogator waiting for the suspect to change his statement.
“Apart from being close to Mrs. Trevisan, a British subject from a bourgeois family, with a Serb father and a Croatian mother, you also see a CIA agent”, he said.
“And who’s that’?”, I asked.
He ripped open the seam of his jacket lining and took out a tiny notebook; this was where he kept a coded record of my meetings with foreign correspondents.  He had something to say about each and every one of them; all of them were in the employ of one intelligence service or another. He pronounced Dan Morgan, the Washington Post correspondent, a double agent. Even Franco Petrone, Unita’s Belgrade correspondent, was not spared. As far as D. was concerned, West European communist parties had sold out to the ruling bourgeoisie anyway.
“If you refuse to see me and collaborate with me, then all I can do is put a bullet through my head”, he said.
This man of keen observation and bold gesture, this great admirer of literature, raconteur and conversationalist, was now weighed down by international worries as well. Was it that or something else which had aged him so quickly that you could see him deteriorate by the day? All I could do was persist in the role of a sick man’s accomplice.
“Now then”, he said, “tell me briefly about your strategy.”
“Our goal is destabilisation, it is not to destroy the system, at least not for now”, I said. “We undermine the foundations of your influence by encouraging national communism and weakening the monolithic party. Loosen its hold, and you’re half-way there. We stir things up, you put them back the way they were; it's an interesting game. We work systematically and with a view to the long term, financing the press to develop the kind of criticism that is bound to bear fruit one day. We have been saying for ages that Stalin was a murdering maniac and that communist mythology is turning a thick-skulled leader into a genius. Student newspapers have no compunction about calling Brezhnev a rhinoceros.«
»Yes. yes,«  he almost groaned. He kept chain-smoking. He wiped away the sweat, but his lips were moist. His hands were shaking, I saw. I hoped that his quick-witted, flippant side would break through now, that he would laugh and say it had all been just an exercise in self-irony.
“Yes, yes, that’s all true, except we can always wring the chicken’s neck”, he said, and then calmly proceeded to discuss human relationships as a striving for annihilation; hence, revolution was the will of the masses. Stalin was the embodiment of the popular will. He was fair, he did not spare even those closest to him. In cleaning up the world, he brought hope in the New. Revolutionaty rule was no better than what it overthrew, but revolution fulfilled the dream of blood. If the blood of the righteous and innocent was spilt, it cried out from the earth, asking God for justice. Revolution was a utopia of ideal brotherhood rooted in blood. Brotherhood was the age-old dream of the new man. D. cited time Bible, quoting from The Book of Genesis: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. We parted. He was satisfied, I was exhausted and demoralised.
We saw each other four or five times more, always in different, out-of-the-way places. He did not ask me for any facts. I can safely say that he no longer even listened to, or answered my questions; he was conducting a monologue. He quoted fewer and fewer figures about weapons, or facts about military bases and Soviet supremacy in outer space, and produced more and more muddled ideas about “the totality of the created«, about towns and wastelands where a new unity was being forged.
We are all now in a state of anticipation”, he said in parting.
I did not hear a word about him for six months, nor did anyone else from our old circle. Then one day, in front of the Interior Affairs Ministry in 29 November Street, I ran into an old school-mate I had not seen for at least ten years. He had finished law and was now working at the Interior Ministry. He asked me up to his office, there was something he wanted to tell me. When I walked into the stuffy room, the heavy, musty air knocked me back, even though the window was half-open. Two office workers were sitting across from each other, hunched over their desks, engrossed in their papers.
“Do you know who this man is?”, my old school-mate asked.
Raising their heads, the two men looked at me. One was cross-eyed and the other as pale and thin as a hermit.
“He's the one who works for the Intelligence Service”, said my friend, offering me a seat.
“Now all we need is Kardelj and we’ve got them both in our hands”, add the one who looked like a recluse.
We laughed, and then they explained that my friend D. had written to the Interior Ministty denouncing me as an agent of the British Intelligence Service. He had sent them a similar warning about Kardelj. They told me that he had disconnected his phone, locked himself into his flat and was writing letters to Brezhnev.
That same afternoon, as if by telepathy, he appeared at the supermarket in Jovanova Street. He had become heavier, cut his hair short and was unshaven, with puffy circles under his eyes. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him avariciously pile the items into his basket. He was choosing the bread when he turned around and saw me. His eyes opened wide, as if he had just seen a vicious beast. Foaming at the mouth he shouted:
“Don’t come near me, you spy!«
Dying of embarrassment I immediately moved away, dumped my shopping basket and left the supermarket, my shopping undone.
My friend D. wound up in the prison mental hospital. There he wrote the novel Words  Uttered In A Groan. I saw the manuscript at the lawyer Barović’s, a common friend of ours who visited him occasionally. D. had bequeathed him the manuscript, saying: “To be sealed until my death.” It was an illegible mess of a manuscript, with page upon page where all you could make out was the number 1948; that was probably the year in which the novel was set. Only the last sentence was legible: caught in the undertow. t the end he had signed it, then crossed out Iris signature and put in an X, like an illiterate.
He died on December 19, 1974. It was snowing that day and the ground had turned white. Only a handful of people attended the funeral; most of them I knew or had met somewhere. Standing by the bier in the chapel was a large woman in mourning, a transparent veil covering her face. Next to her were two vacuous-looking, disinterested men. When the coffin was lowered into the ground, no one said a word, or even tossed in a flower or handful of earth. Night was rapidly falling and the small group quickly dispersed. I ran towards the tram, away from the cemetery and the spreading darkness that was so rapaciously devouring the snowflakes. As I huddled in my seat, someone placed a hand on my shoulder and said:
»We know nothing of one another, and many secrets will go to the grave with us!«
I saw the man who had been lingering around me at the funeral, he had brushed by me two or three times and even wanted to strike up a conversation. I was in the mood to discuss anything now, including death; I wanted to invite him to sit down, but he was not on the tram any more. That stranger's hand, which had rested on my shoulder only a moment before, weighed on me the entire time like a heavy tombstone. Who was that man?

 

Translated by Christina Pribicevic