The Good Days is a timely addition to the dialogue surrounding events that took place in the Balkans during the 1990s, discussing the aftermath and effects of those events on a whole generation. The novel offers the perspective of a young Serbian growing up with the consequences of his forebears’ actions. In this extract, we join the nameless narrator aboard the daily “Guest Worker Express” bus as he travels back to Belgrade for his grandmother’s funeral with a ring that he has to return.
My last conversation with my mother before my journey to Belgrade sprang to mind. She’d said my father had flipped out several times, had kept roaring at her, telling her to call me and demand I return his mother’s wedding ring, the ring she’d given me more than ten years ago. As far as I could recall, she’d given it to me on a school day, but I could barely remember the conversation I’d had with Grandmother back then.
Six days had passed since Grandmother’s death and my mother was starting to get frightened. Not so much frightened of my father, rather frightened for him, from what I could tell. I just didn’t get it. She downright begged me to bring the ring to Belgrade in the hope my father would get better, so she said. I wasn’t having any of it. I’m not superstitious by any means, but I really didn’t like the idea of taking the ring off the finger I’d worn it on for ten years. And I certainly wasn’t going to do so for my father, which I made clear to my mother. I didn’t hate my father; I was simply indifferent to him.
Eventually, I agreed to bring the ring to Grandmother’s funeral, on condition that it would be buried with her. By lunchtime tomorrow it would all be over; the ring would’ve been returned to its rightful owner and I could head straight back to Vienna. This made my mother sad, but she did manage to wring this compromise from me. Considering how many years I hadn’t returned to Belgrade, it was a small triumph for my mother. I’d resisted the reunion with my father for so long that I’d unwittingly condemned my mother to my absence as well. She’d long since resigned herself to only seeing her son via webcam. It made her happy to think we’d finally be face to face again after all these years. I can’t remember the last time I saw her so overexcited – perhaps I never had!
But still, I wasn’t happy about it. I could tolerate my mother; over the years she’d become quieter and more sensitive. It was almost as if she had developed a sixth sense and had finally understood what she had let herself in for when she married my father. The subtle aggressions which she had suffered and would then take out on me, had now disappeared. In my eyes at least. But I couldn’t stand my father’s officious, porcupine face. The disappointment in him that had grown within me when I was younger had spiralled into something more akin to pity. It had distorted my thoughts and come to a natural conclusion: disgust. Bringing the ring home was my own personal compromise; moreover, it was a condition dictated by me that left no room for protest. My father seethed with anger but he had to agree. There was no way I was going to give him the ring that belonged to me and my grandmother alone.
Originally it had been my grandfather’s wedding ring. When he’d died twenty-four years ago, Grandmother took the ring as her own and wore it on the thumb of her left hand, right up until that June day. A shiny gold ring just a few millimetres wide with no engraving, embossing, or any other marking. It used to be much wider, my grandmother had once told me.
Long before I was born, my grandfather had piled on the weight. Apparently so much so, that when he died, they had to cut the ring off his fat finger. The severed ring was taken to the goldsmith, melted down, and recast, wider in diameter but thinner. As a result, it had lost its round shape and become oval and angular.
I looked down at my hand and listened to my neighbour’s wheezing, feeling the calming effect it had on me. I barely noticed the ring anymore; it’d been on my finger for too long. I knew it was going to be hard to give it away.
Grandmother had always been something of a role model for me, although I had difficulty remembering her face or her voice. When I called my mother using the computer, she never wanted to come out of her room to see me; she’d started to turn away from us too much. According to my mother, when I moved out Grandmother’s behaviour only intensified. At the beginning, we spoke occasionally on the phone without saying much. I always found it particularly painful. We’d grown distant, even though she assured me time and time again she was happy I’d left for Vienna. She’d always wanted a better life for me, and in Serbia at that time, that could only mean fleeing the country.
In my journal I tried to record as much of her story as possible, or at least what I knew of it. She didn’t know when she had been born, so we never celebrated her birthday. She had to leave school when she was ten because her father had died suddenly of a lung infection. That was still during the war. At eighteen, she married a neighbourhood lad two years younger than her: my grandfather. Then she bore four boys, each one more degenerate than the last. My father was the third. Finally, once the last of the children was weaned, her function in the strict family hierarchy was completed. She spent the next forty years mostly silent and joyless in the shadow of her husband, a resolutely Communist customs officer on the Serbian-Romanian border, who brought the children up according to his beliefs.
I always felt the inner workings of my paternal family were reflected in the village my father came from: at that time a community of some three hundred houses, farmers, and customs officers, with a small shop where you could buy bread and lard. An asphalt road cut straight through the village. At the end of the road stood a Communist memorial to an unknown soldier. If you were to go to my father’s village today, you would find a wasteland plagued by a rural exodus. Only the memorial, I imagine, would be left standing, like a prehistoric monolith against a backdrop of desolation.
Grandmother had always been something of a role model for me, although those few years had hardly been enough to get to know her. That I can no longer ask her about the stories of her youth, her fears, her desires, or her disappointments: this remains my own personal failure and one I’ll never be able to make up for.
Only the ring now remained. When something is melted down, a barely noticeable part of it evaporates and volatilizes, never to return. In my imagination, this lost part of the wedding ring represented our parents’ failures. The total disenfranchisement of my generation had been just a small part of the great moral defeat following the wars of the nineties. And, like a bad joke, the former butchers remained among us, like the monster under the bed that wouldn’t give up its power over our fear, even to save its own life.
The ring’s condition had changed: now that it was returning to its true owner, it had lost its shine. Now that it belonged to a corpse. She’d never wanted it anyway, not back then and surely not now in death, I thought to myself as I watched the flat landscape flash past the bus window in the dusky light.
“You know what? My father’s a bastard!” I said suddenly to my neighbour, who turned towards me as though he’d been awake the whole time, lying in wait.
“Tell me something new. Do you think that’s anything unusual?” he replied indifferently. Something about him had changed: his gestures were coarser and less friendly than before. The harsh lighting had just been turned on and now even his facial features appeared more severe. His whole appearance was downright repulsive.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Don’t you worry about me,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “just make sure you survive this journey. Otherwise they’ll all think you fell on your head.” He can go to hell, I thought. He seemed to be waging a war against everybody and nobody – whatever game he was playing, I wanted nothing to do with it. Inwardly, I was infuriated by him but I didn’t owe him anything.
“So?” he asked abruptly, “your father’s a bastard. Anything else?”
Vienna was now far behind us and Belgrade still lay some hours ahead. There was nothing to do but kill time. I was thrown into a quandary. The lady across the aisle eyed us distrustfully again. Somewhere behind us a child began to protest loudly; a man’s voice was trying to silence him with threats of violence. I looked over the seat but couldn’t see where the combatants were battling it out. Suddenly, a shrill voice rose over the seats. Unimpressed by the threats, the child was yelling at the top of his voice. When I finally caught a glimpse of him, the stocky man was raining forceful punches down on his head. Before he could begin to cry, the child received an extra blow to the mouth which finally shut him up. Only a soft, slobbery whimper could be heard, silent tears running down the child’s cheeks. At that, an older lady turned to him and explained with the underhanded kindness of an aunt that these things happen to naughty boys who don’t listen to their parents.
“Your father’s a bastard, then?” I heard the voice next to me. “You can see for yourself, this bus is full of bastards. The whole country’s full of them. It’s a complete bloody mess, don’t you think?”
“Maybe you’re right,” I replied cautiously, “but my father’s different.”
“How different can he be?”
“How can I explain it? He’s an aggressive person through and through, but not like that arsehole back there. He did hit me and my mother, but it was different: somehow, he down ground everyone around him. His blows were harmless by comparison. He’s an official, you know?”
“Yes, I know,” he shot back. I looked at him disbelievingly. And then I let out a laugh, “How d’you know that?”
“Please,” he replied, “right from the moment I clapped eyes on you, your whole being has been screaming ‘son of an official’. You really don’t see it? The way you’ve been going on about Vienna, all these insecurities, this dreadful indecisiveness you give off as a whole. Everything about you is about running away. Running away from Serbia, running away from your parents, running away from the fact that some things are unnegotiable. Don’t tell me you’re running away from responsibility, it’s yourself you’re running away from. Are you a coward?” I stared at him like a donkey; he just grinned in a self-satisfied way.
“I don’t buy that you’re an electrician. You’re a writer!”
“Please! Don’t let’s get started on me,” he answered, serious again now.
“Alright,” I said. “So my father’s an official. During the nineties, he was involved in a whole heap of shit. My mother once told me that as well as working for the interior ministry, he also worked for the army. I found out later that he passed supply lists, machine parts, food, and so on to one of his brothers on the Bosnian front. Among them were also lists of names. You can just imagine the films that played out in my head! And all that nationalistic crap he brought home with him from work. He and his brothers destroyed the whole family, they poisoned everything that was somehow worthwhile in our family history. My mother and I would parrot back everything he said to us – he had us trained in. Even my parents’ wedding was a joke: my father, the great Communist, the great atheist, didn’t want to swear an oath in a church, so he got married in the little train station in his village. Today he’s a committed Orthodox and crosses himself in front of every fucking church he sees, without really understanding what he’s doing – it was exactly the same with his Communism. He’s a devoted dog who’s spent the last forty years blind to what’s happening in his own fucking country. At some point he switched his brain off and surrendered to the system.”
“Get to the point!”
“The point is” – I was really starting to get worked up – “I left Serbia because I finally realised my father was a criminal! No, not was: is. Still. It’s the same for my friends, they just didn’t have the balls to leave their families and then eventually, they became nationalists too… or alcoholics. He didn’t just support the big state crimes, he committed them within his own family; he was cold, loveless, brutal. He never hugged me, not once, not even as a small child!”
“Oh the wretched hero!” He began to snigger and soon had to cover his mouth with his hand as if to berate himself. I suddenly felt really angry. “You know what? I don’t need this from you! You ask me questions, I give you answers, and then you make fun of me.”
“Young man, you are absolutely right! But you always give me the wrong answers. What do I or anybody else care about your aches and pains? Don’t go thinking that just because we’ve taken a liking to each other I’m suddenly your best mate. I can see the same thing you’re telling me on every face in this bus, man or woman, young or old. Ask your father if anyone ever hugged him. And his father, your grandfather, the same. And don’t look at me so pitifully – whole generations in this country haven’t been hugged! It’s obvious it’s damaged the whole herd, even the leaders. I’ll tell you this: it’s verging on a miracle that nobody’s reached for the explosives belt yet. You’ve seen enough proof that our generation and our fathers’ generation could easily have been terrorists, the way they butchered half the country with their mafia” – off he went again, all the while staring at the seatbacks in front as if having a heated conversation with himself – “but that’s just the consequence of the coldness we war children were brought up with. It’s a heavy legacy to carry but one we ought to wear as armour. In my book, there’s nothing else for it but to brutally face up to the past, that’s what we should be doing; have I already mentioned that? Yet, despite it all – I’m not telling anyone else this so keep it to yourself – sometimes I catch myself thinking about how much I miss those days, I mourn their passing. But at least we learnt to detest our fathers. I count that as a virtue!” He was in full flow again, pausing only briefly to take a gulp of air and collect his thoughts before continuing with his monologue. “People back then were simpler creatures. Today they’re just confused! That’s why I’m headed to Belgrade, to do some research. I watch people very carefully. Today people stand in front of the shelves that are full to bursting, faced with fifteen different types of chocolate, they stand at the petrol station choosing between four different types of lead-free petrol and are simply overwhelmed, both in body and mind. Back then, there was no chocolate or petrol. You took what you could get, even if it said chocolate on the outside of the packet while the contents were just a big joke, and even if the kindly ice-cream vendor sold petrol on the sly, eventually destroying your engine in the process. At least I was lucky enough to grow up in Vienna, able to choose between school or proper training. Someone like you wasn’t born to make decisions. Just because you chose to run away doesn’t mean decision-making is one of your strong points. At the end of the day, it’s inevitable that we’re all victims of this war, no exceptions. Even those who believe they’re only on the periphery of the war, they’re in it too! Whether you’ve stood there with a gun in your hand during one of the countless slaughterfests or you have blind faith in some administration or other, it’s all the same: no exceptions. We all were and are indoctrinated. Up to my eighteenth birthday I was taught to hate Muslims, Albanians, Croats, and God knows who else – that’s a crime nobody’s going to be held accountable for! We can’t even fight back; we shut our mouths and swallow it all, wave little flags and swear allegiance to some idiot whose name we couldn’t even pronounce as kids. My dear boy, we were cultivated for impotence! But still – don’t go thinking I’ve surrendered, never! My guts are entwined with this fucking country, and I can’t run away from that. And neither can you. You’d be bound to end up developing some sort of personality disorder if you even tried!”
Excerpted from Marko Dinić, Die Guten Tage (The Good Days) © 2019 Paul Zsolnay Verlag Ges.m.b.H., Wien.