Will independence bring Godzilla back into my dreams?
Not long ago one of my best friends died. He was a marvellous poet, highly regarded in Serbia, although he published only three volumes of poetry in the 1970s. After that, he devoted himself to editing a magazine for world literature in translation. He was fifty-nine when he died, and I’d known him for more than fifty years.
I’m thinking of him again now, in Calgary, because of another feeling of loss that has crept up on me unexpectedly. It began when I heard the news about Kosovo’s proclamation of independence. I was surprised to feel anything like that. I have always thought that although it is my birthplace, Kosovo means nothing to me.
I was born in a town called Peć, on the Bistrica River in Serbia (now Kosovo). My father, who was a gynecologist, was sent down there after the war because, according to family legend, he refused to become a member of the Communist Party when he got back to Belgrade after four years in a German pow camp. Whatever the reason, I spent only a few months in Peć, and in the fall of 1948 we moved up north to a small, provincial Serbian town.
After that, I visited Peć only once. I cannot remember when it was—at the beginning of the 1960s, I guess—but I do remember going to see a movie there. It was the first time I saw Godzilla, the sea monster, and she has been with me ever since. Godzilla is usually considered to be male, but in Serbia, where all female names end with the letter a, it was natural for me to think of that enormous lizard as a female character. I even wrote a story about Godzilla’s love affair with my father. He died many years ago; Godzilla has also died in a number of movies but she keeps coming back. My father doesn’t. He died once and that was it; he never came back.
In my mind Godzilla still lives in Peć. The name of that town means “stove” or “furnace” in Serbian, and when I was a kid, other kids laughed at me, asking me how it felt to be born in a furnace. Actually, after the Holocaust and crematoria, it must have seemed strange for a Jewish family to live in a town named Peć. Godzilla, on the other hand, could not care less. For a long time she frequented my dreams, walking down the streets of my birthplace, burning bridges and houses, swallowing people alive and having lots of fun. In one dream I saw her frolicking naked in the river, and when she saw me on the bank, she hid her private parts, giggling until she was ready to spit a fireball at me. When I saw it coming, almost touching my face, I woke up screaming.
I don’t dream about Godzilla any more, but when the declaration of Kosovo’s independence took place, I was worried that it might bring Godzilla back into my dreams. It didn’t, but I woke up that night anyway. The house was quiet and even our cat was asleep. I lay in the darkness listening to the distant sounds of the outside world. And that’s when I thought of my friend the poet and remembered two lines about Kosovo from his long poem “Horoscope”: “When celebration of the first and only Serbian defeat is over / a better [Balkan] brother will be born.”
I knew what he meant to say: as long as the historical Serbian defeat is glorified, there will be no peace in the Balkans. No wonder nationalists criticized his poem when it was published in Belgrade in the 1970s. And today he would probably be seen as a traitor to his own nation, somebody to be stoned to death. Not even Godzilla could save him.
The following morning I drove to Kensington. There, next to the Higher Grounds coffee shop, is a place I go when I need comfort, one of those very personal places in the city that we all have. One has to look at it from a special angle—or, I guess, in a special frame of mind—to see what I see there. It is a passage leading down several steps to a small plaza-like opening, where there’s usually a table and a couple of chairs. To me, from that special angle, it looks very Mediterranean. I look at it and it takes me far from here, all the way to the Adriatic coast. I needed that, I had to have a break from the Godzillian world of Kosovo; I had to become the sea for a while.
But this time something went wrong in the small plaza. I didn’t find myself in any city on the coast. Instead, I saw myself in Cambridge, England. It was the summer of 1989, and I was there for a seminar organized by the British Council. The list of speakers was impressive and included George Steiner and the Nobel Prize winner William Golding. After Steiner’s lecture, a group of us walked with him along quiet Cambridge streets. Several people were from different parts of Yugoslavia. When Steiner realized that, he said that Yugoslavia would fall apart in several years. He predicted that there would be some local fighting—but, he said, if there’s a conflict involving Kosovo, it might be the beginning of a new war on a large scale.
We all fell silent. Nobody likes to think about wars. I walked more slowly and decided to drop away from the group. I could hear Steiner speaking but I did not want to listen to him. I thought: What does he know? War in Yugoslavia, war in Kosovo—he doesn’t know what he’s saying. It will never happen.
But the first part of his grim prediction was right. Yugoslavia did break up in a bloody local war and the beautiful Adriatic towns are in another country now. And with Kosovo’s independence, my birthplace is in another country. Suddenly I felt as if I had nowhere to go except to this small magic place in Kensington, Calgary. So I went down the steps and sat on a chair. There was only one thing I could do: wait and see whether Godzilla would wake up in Kosovo. There is always hope that this time George Steiner did not get it right.