A grand sunset. The west is covered in pink hues, and the forests look as if they were engulfed in flames of most vivid colours.
Đorđe read until dusk, and then he went out to the garden to rest and enjoy in the most beautiful time of day.
He recalled Turgenev’s descriptions of nature’s wonders, so he started observing each little cloud, each nuance of the magical colours of the sunset, the forest, the sky showing here and there through the trees, and the rays of the sun piercing through as if there were a red-hot mass of blood flowing behind the forest. He looked at the branches lightly trembling, and the leaves fluttering in the wind.
It seemed to him as if the whole nature possesses a soul, boundless and magnificent, and that his soul had blended with it, and surrendered to silent, sweet longing, and mysterious, grandiose serenity.
Suddenly he heard hooves stomping and he looked up the road. Two horsemen rushed towards him in a cloud of dust, and dismounted before his house.
Another scribe from the county seat, accompanied by a gendarme.
– Good afternoon! – muttered the scribe through his teeth, all dignified and pompous, looking almost over Đorđe’s shoulder, and not even waiting for him to greet them back, he asked in a sharper, more official tone:
– Are you Đorđe Andrić, the philosopher?
– I am – said Đorđe, looking astounded at the scribe and the gendarme strolling back and forth by his side, frowning seriously.
– Are you the one distributing books that are against the current state of affairs and the government?! – asked the scribe, full of authority.
– Me?! – asked Đorđe, shocked by such an unexpected question, and he just could not believe what was going on.
Gendarme made a slight cough, but with such an air of importance as if he were saying: “Beware, I am also standing before you in this uniform, in all my power and might!”
– Kindly come inside the house! – ordered the scribe. Gendarme approached him with his chest forward.
– But I don’t know what it is you want, I don’t even know who you are!…
– Now you’ll get to know who I am! – shouted the scribe as he nodded at the gendarme.
Gendarme grabbed his arm, pushing him forwards, and uttering in an even sterner tone:
– Get in when you’re spoken to, quit playing the fool! – pointing at the door.
Đorđe went in.
Only his mother and his three-year old nephew were in the house, while others had gone to work in the fields, where they will stay the whole night.
When the scribe entered, the poor lady bowed, and approached meekly to greet them, but he didn’t even look at her, he just followed Đorđe into the room.
Gendarme followed them inside with the same important air.
The search started. They collected all the books and papers. Night fell. They lit a candle and ransacked the house and the basement, they even raised the icons from the walls to check if there was something behind them.
The moon was shining and the stars were alight. Windmills are clattering and work songs were echoing in the air. It would’ve been such a pleasure just to stand and watch all the beauty surrounding them.
The old woman sat alone in front of the house and cried, praying to God, while young Ivica was sitting on the doorstep playing, unwinding a ball of yarn from his grandma’s basket.
At the same time, far away from home, Đorđe was walking in front of the gendarme.
Deep in thought and shaken by the strange event, he could not enjoy hearing his favourite work song:
Shine, oh moon, shine, cold light!
Only a young dreamer could have felt the weight of Đorđe’s thoughts and emotions.
In front of them a farmer was driving a cart full of wheat. Cowbells on the oxen were clanking in the rhythm of their gait, and the farmer was singing out loud:
Oh, dark night, cold till the morrow,
Oh, my heart so filled with sorrow!
Never before has Đorđe felt and understood so vividly and so strongly this song that was forged by suffering from the hearts of the common folk.
The next day, having spent the night under surveillance in the tavern, by the mercy of the chief inspector, Đorđe was now standing before him bareheaded, pale, and tired of the sleepless night and strange thoughts.
Chief inspector started interrogating, and an apprentice clerk was taking notes.
– What is your name?
– Đorđe Andrić.
– What is your occupation?
– I am a student.
Chief inspector must have counted this to be an aggravating circumstance.
– How old are you?
– Twenty one.
– Have you ever been convicted?
– I was put in detention during my first year in grammar school.
– What for?
– For calling a friend ‘beanpole’!
Chief inspector thought about something for a second, searched through the books and muttered to himself:
– Right, defamation! Who sentenced you?
– Class teacher did!
Chief inspector winced, and it looked as if he were ashamed of himself.
– Have you ever been convicted by a civil court?
– How could I’ve been when I’m still a student?!
Chief inspector fell silent, mulling something over, and at long last he mumbled:
– This is an urgent matter – he coughed and continued the interrogation after having finished a whole cigarette and drinking a glass of water, just like a man preparing to embark on a serious undertaking.
– What did you read yesterday?
– The “Demon”!
– Write that down! – shrieked the chief inspector. – Did you read it to anyone else?
– No, but I could recommend it to anyone as very nice reading.
– You are standing before authority, think well before you repeat that it is nice, very nice reading!
– Very nice!
– You dare say so?! Write that down, he read it, and contrary to civil laws still claims that a forbidden thing is nice.
– In the name of God, Sir, what is so horrible in saying that Lermontov’s “Demon” is a nice thing? Do the laws forbid that?
– Who are you trying to deceive? Who’s asking you about Lermontov? Don’t tempt your fate by trying to play tricks with the chief inspector!
– That’s what you’re asking me about!
– About what?!
– Well, the Lermontov’s “Demon”, whether it is a nice thing!
– So I’m saying that the poet is a genius and rightfully celebrated.
– Don’t give me this nonsense, tell me what is it you like in that book, that is what I want, understand! – shouted the chief inspector thumping his feet which made the whole building trembled.
Đorđe was astounded, but he had to quote, so he chose verses randomly:
By the first day of our creation
I swear, and by its final night
I swear by evil’s condemnation
And by the triumph of the right!
– Enough! Don’t you make a fool of me with this nonsense! – shouted the chief inspector slamming his hand on the table angrily.
– Well you asked for it!
– I know what I’m asking for, speak up before I show you what I can do!
The clerk was picking his teeth, eyeing the chief inspector and the student, dumbfounded by the proceedings.
– But I assure you that is the “Demon”! – said Đorđe, all sweating from anger.
Chief inspector sat still for a moment, and then he asked:
– So, it’s in a poem?!
– Yes, Lermontov is a poet!
– Don’t you mislead me!
– Well he wrote it!
– Who did?
Chief inspector rang his bell, and ordered to have Lermontov looked up in the Police Herald.
– It’s Zmaj’s translation!
– What translation?
– Of the book.
– Who is that Lermontov?
– A-ha, so he is Russian?! – said the chief inspector, gawking at him, lost for words.
The clerk returned and said that there is no such thing in the Police Herald.
It took a lot of explanation for the chief inspector to come to his senses, to understand that poets are not photographed for warrants in the Police Herald, and that this is a book publicly available to anyone.
He even ordered a copy of Zmaj’s “Poems” to be brought from the bookstore, to make sure it is in there.
Eventually his tone softened, and became almost cordial:
– Alright, alright, sir, we will see about this; I will keep, you know, just in case, that Russian book, until I’ve inspected it! Our job is hard, you see. We step on people’s toes, and all that because of our work. And people do not understand, they think it’s all my whim!
– Farewell, give my regards to your family, we did put you on a bit of a rough spot, haven’t we?
This may have happened somewhere once, some time ago in some strange land, and it may not have even occurred on Earth, if perchance there are people inhabiting the Moon. It is most likely to believe this to be a dream of mine. Dreaming feels so sweet, and I do not want to become disappointed like Đorđe. Already he thinks somewhat differently now, and he stopped dreaming only about poems.
Belgrade, 16th September 1898
Published in “Novi Odjek” (New Echo) on 20th September 1898
For the “Radoje Domanović” Project, translated by Vladimir Živanović, proofread by Linda Hopkins.
English translation of Lermontov’s verses taken from: Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin and by Mikhail Lermontov, Random House, New York 1983, translated by Charles Johnston.
Remark: Although the author states that events from this short story had most probably only occurred in his dream, they also would not be entirely unlikely. The end of the XIX century saw Serbia under an oppressive, reactionary regime of the Obrenović dynasty. After a defeat in war with Bulgaria and serious domestic difficulties, in 1889, King Milan abdicated in favour of his only son, Aleksandar, and left Serbia for Paris where he joined his then mistress. However, during certain periods of his son’s reign, he still exerted a significant influence over domestic politics.
In October 1897, Milan returned to Serbia and was appointed by his son to be commander-in-chief of the Serbian Army. Sometime after this appointment (late 1897 or early 1898), a young Belgrade lawyer Ljubomir Živković wrote a 20-page pamphlet against the ex-king, called “The Demon of Serbia”, which was printed abroad in 50,000 copies, and circulated illegally in Serbia, describing the ex-king as a gambler and a philanderer, full of hatred towards the Serbs, and willing to ruin the army and the whole country for his own personal gain. Although the pamphlet was banned and destroyed by the government, a couple of copies of are still extant.
It is also interesting to note that this story is the first satirical work written and published by Radoje Domanović, who had just moved to Belgrade around that time, having been dismissed from his teaching post in Leskovac in July 1898 due to his membership in the opposition People’s Radical Party, and further diminishing any possibility of working in the public sector after proposing a resolution against the government on the Tenth Assembly of the Teachers’ Society in August 1898.