Tag Archive | Elections

Abolition of Passions

We Serbs, praise be to the merciful Lord, have settled all of our affairs, and now we can, just like that, in leisure, yawn to our hearts’ content. We can doze, lounge about and sleep, and once we are bored even of that, we can, just for a lark, drop by to see what’s going on in other unfortunate countries. They say – deliver us, God, from all misery and temptation, and keep them away from us! – that there are countries where people still bicker and quarrel about some rights, about some freedom and personal safety. It makes one’s hair stand on end to think about such poor folk that still haven’t dealt with their internal affairs, while we already had the time to set China and Japan in order. Each day we go further and further from our country, and if it goes on like this, our journalists will start bringing reports from Mars, Mercury, or, at the very least, from the Moon.

I am also a member of this fortunate nation, so, in order to go with the fad, I wish to tell you about what happened in a far, very far away non-European land, a long, very long time ago.

It is not known exactly where this country was, what was the name of its people, but in all likelihood, it was not in Europe, and the name of the people could have been anything whatsoever, just not Serbs. All earlier historians agree upon this, and modern ones will maybe claim the opposite. Anyway, that is not really our job, so I will leave it at that, even if I have to run afoul to the custom that one must speak even about the things one does not understand, and do the job for which one is not suited.

It is known for certain that these people were very corrupt and wicked, hearts packed with vices and filthy passions, so I will entertain you with all that in this little story.

Of course, my dear readers, you cannot even believe at first that such corrupt people could ever have existed, but you must know that I wrote all this based on ancient manuscripts which I have on me.

Here are, accurately translated, a couple of tip-offs sent to different ministers:

Today, after ploughing, husbandman N. N. from Kar dropped by the tavern, where he drank coffee and passionately read the newspaper which attack incumbent ministers…

Teacher T. from Borak, the moment he leaves school, gathers the peasants around him and tries to persuade them to form a singing band. Other than that, this teacher plays tip-cat[1] with apprentices and tossing buttons with his students, which makes him very harmful and dangerous. He had read books to some peasants and offered them to buy the books. This evil can no longer be tolerated, as he debauches the whole county and incites peaceful and honest citizens to ask for freedom; while in fact it is only he himself who keeps saying that freedom is sweeter than anything else. He is a passionate smoker, and spits while he smokes.

After church service, priest Đ. from Sor went to a political rally in the nearby town.

There, you see, what disgrace occurred in the world!

Look here:

Judge S. cast his vote today in the municipal elections. This disgraceful judge is subscribed to an opposition newspaper, which he reads passionately. He dared telling the court that a peasant who had been accused of slander and defiance to the government was not guilty for saying in front of witnesses that he will not buy anything from magistrate[2] Gabor’s shop. Apart from that, the same judge always looks pensive, which clearly proves that his mind is packed with vices, and must be plotting some major conspiracy against the current regime. He must be accused of lèse-majesté, because he couldn’t possibly be a friend of the dynasty, since he drinks coffee in Mor’s tavern, and Mor’s grandfather was a good friend with Leon’s blood brother[3], who incited that turmoil in Yamb against the aide-the-camp on the court of current ruler’s grandfather!

There were even worse people in this misfortunate land. Have a look at these reports:

Barrister from Tul represented some poor soul whose father had been murdered last year. That barrister passionately drinks beer and goes hunting, and, worst of all, he founded some society for helping poor people in our district. This impertinent degenerate, who says that government spies are the worst of men!

Professor T. was running around town with all sorts of kids stealing pears from the grocer, and yesterday he shot at pigeons with a slingshot and broke a window on a public building. This could still be forgiven to him, but he also attends political rallies, votes in elections, speaks with citizens, reads the newspaper, discusses the state loan, and what other disgrace does he not do to the detriment of education!

Peasants from Var started building a new school, and, it would seem, this vice will infect the whole county. This nasty trend which is detrimental for the country must be suppressed as soon as possible!

Craftsmen from Var have established a reading room and gather therein every night. This passion has become very deeply rooted, especially among younger folk, and the older ones are considering to establish also, besides a reading room, a retirement fund for craftsmen! This cannot be tolerated in our district, as it leads astray all the decent people who do not bad-mouth ministers!… One craftsman is even advocating for division of labour!… Horrendous passions!…

Peasants from Pado are demanding municipal self-government!

Citizens of Troy want free elections.

Multiple local clerks perform their work conscientiously, and besides that one of them plays a flute and knows how to read sheet music!

Scribe Miron passionately dances at parties and eats salted nuts with his beer. He must be sacked so that he could be cured of these passions.

Teacher Hela buys flowers each morning and scandalises the neighbourhood. She can no longer be tolerated, because she will spoil our youth.

Who could enumerate all the disgusting passions of these poor people? Suffice to say that there were only ten decent and honest people in the whole land, and the remainder, both male and female, both old and young, corrupt, as they say, to the marrow.

What do you think, how could these ten good and decent people feel in this rotten land?… Difficult, very difficult, especially because they were forced to watch their own country, which they loved so dearly, go to ruin. Worries kept them up on days and nights on end: how can they rectify their sinful compatriots, how to save the country from demise?

Filled with ardent patriotism, virtues and nobility, they were ready to suffer all and any sacrifice for the fortune of their homeland. So, one day they clenched their heroic hearts, bowed their heads before the will of the bitter Fate which imposed such a heavy burden on them, and became ministers, to undertake the noble task of cleansing the country of sins and passions.

All of them were learned men, but still, it was not easy to accomplish such a difficult undertaking.

In the end, the dumbest (which among those people meant wittiest) of them, came to the idea to convene the National Assembly, but to have foreigners make decisions in it. Everybody accepted this wonderful idea, so they rented, at state cost, two hundred people, and they rounded up the same number of foreigners who happened to be in that country by accident, on business. They pleaded and protested, but might makes right!

Thus, they gathered four hundred foreigners to be members of parliament and solve various issues for the fortune of the country, and to express people’s wishes.

Once they have finished this and found a sufficient number of people whom they appointed as members of parliament, they called an election for parliament immediately afterwards. Don’t be amazed at it, since such was the custom of that country.

Parliamentary sessions started. – Decisions, speeches, debates… it is not easy to complete such an important undertaking. Everything went smooth and quickly, but the moment it came to passions, difficulties arose immediately. Right up until someone came up with a suggestion to make a decision to abolish all passions in the country.

– Long live the speaker! Long live! – joyous shouts from all present echoed throughout the hall of parliament.

Everybody accepted the proposal with elation, and the decision was made:

People’s Assembly, seeing as passions hinder popular progress, finds itself prompted to introduce also the following point in the new law, which will read:

„Starting today passions are to cease, and are abolished as perilous for the people and for the country.“

Only five minutes had passed since the law on abolition of passions was enacted, and only the parliamentarians had known about it, but lo and behold what occurred among the people in all counties equally.

Suffice just to relate just a translated segment of one person’s diary.

Here is the diary verbatim:

…I used to be a passionate smoker. The moment I opened my eyes, I would reach for a cigarette immediately. One day I woke up, took the snuff box and (as usual) rolled a cigarette. I felt somewhat uneasy (that was the moment when the MP was putting forward the motion), until I suddenly felt my hand shaking all by itself, and the cigarette dropped to the floor; I glanced at it, and spat with repulsion… “I will never smoke again” – I thought to myself, and tobacco looked so disgusting to me, I could not even look at it. I was astonished what happened and I went out into the yard. And there was a sight to behold! There stood my neighbour, an old drunkard who could not keep away from wine even for one instant, standing there sober, with a blank stare, scratching his head.

– Here’s the wine – said the servant and passed him the bottle, as usual.

My neighbour grabbed the bottle and smashed it into the ground, breaking it into a hundred pieces.

– Bah, nasty thing! – shouted he in disgust, looking at the spilled wine.

He stood for a long while in silence, and then asked for slatko[4] and water.

Servants brought it, he took a spoonful, and went to work.

His wife cried tears of joy seeing her husband’s sudden change for the better.

Another one of my neighbours who passionately read newspapers was sitting by the open window, and he also seemed somewhat transformed, with a strange look on his face.

– Did your newspaper arrive? – I asked him.

– I’d never look at a newspaper again, I’m so disgusted by them! I was just thinking to myself to take up archaeology or Greek grammar!… – he replied, so I passed him by and went into the streets.

The entire town was transformed. One passionate politician had set off to a political rally. He was walking down the street and then all of a sudden, he turned round and ran back, as if he were being chased.

I was surprised at his change, so I asked him what made him go back so abruptly.

– I was heading for a rally, and all of a sudden it came to my mind that it would be better to return home and order a book on agriculture or cottage industry, read it and develop my skills. What is there for me at a rally? – he said, and ran home to study crop farming.

I could not stop wandering to all these strange and sudden occurrences, so I went back home and started browsing through a book on psychology. I wanted to read the part about passions.

I reached the page titled “Passions”. Only the headline could still be seen, and the remainder had paled away, as if nothing had ever been written there!…

– Oh, what is all this, in the name of God?!

Not a single person that was wicked or passionate about anything could be found anywhere about town, even the livestock had become smarter!

Only tomorrow did we read in the newspaper about the act of Parliament on the abolition of all passions.

– A-ha, that’s what it was! – everyone shouted. – We were all wandering what had happened to us, and, there you see, Parliament abolished passions!

This diary is sufficient to show what had happened among the people at the time when Parliament was enacting the law on abolition of passions.

Later it had become known to one and all, so there was no more amazement, and when it came to passions, teachers taught their students like this:

Once upon a time, passions also inhabited human souls, and that was one of the most intricate and most difficult aspects of psychology; but, by an act of Parliament, passions have been abolished, and thus they became absent from psychology, as they are from human souls. Passions were abolished on such-and-such date, such-and-such year.

– Thank God we don’t have to learn these! – students whispered, happy with this act of Parliament, because for the next lesson they only needed to learn:

On such-and-such date, such-and-such year, an act of parliament abolished all passions, thus they no longer exist among the people!…

Once a student recites this unerringly, he gets a top mark.

There you go, thus were these folk abruptly saved from passions. They changed for the better, and, some legends say, it was these people that became angels!…


In Belgrade, 1898.
For the “Radoje Domanović” Project translated by Vladimir Živanović, proofread by Adam Levon Brown.


Remark: In the last decades of the XIX century, Serbia was in political turmoil. After the abdication of king Milan Obrenović in 1889 and fall of the Radical Party-led government in 1892, the reactionary Liberal Party came into power again, cancelling the otherwise few steps towards democratisation that were taken by the previous government, which eventually lead to Goračići uprising in 1893. Due to the uprising, sixteen-year-old prince Alexander proclaimed himself to be of age, abolishing the Regency and taking authority into his own hands. This was followed by a new, “neutral” government, whose main purpose was “to appease passions”. Appeasing of passions has become a motto of the reactionary forces, and it was invoked regularly while in the background regime persecuted opposition politicians, shut down opposition-leaning newspapers and disbanded political parties.

At the time when this short story was written, another “neutral” government by Vladan Đorđević was propped up by the regime in 1897 with the same goal of “appeasing passions”, and, due to his open allegiance to the People’s Radical Party, Domanović himself was targeted by the government, firstly by transferring him from one city to another, and eventually discharging him from public service in 1898. After his discharge, Domanović moved with his family to Belgrade, quickly becoming one of the leading voices of the opposition in literary circles.



[1] Tip-cat (Serb. клиса/клисе) is a traditional pastime (or folk sport) which consists of tapping a short billet of wood with a larger stick; the shorter piece is tapered or sharpened on both ends so that it can be “tipped up” into the air when struck by the larger, at which point the player attempts to swing or hit it a distance with the larger stick while it is still in the air. There are numerous local variations of the game in Serbia and worldwide.

[2] In XIX century Serbia, a magistrate (Serb. кмет) was usually a rich, reputable villager who was elected or appointed by the government to arbitrate legal disputes among the peasants in the county. Magistrates were abolished in 1934.

[3] Blood brothers (Serb. побратим) here stands for men that are not related by birth, but have sworn loyalty to each other.

[4] Slatko (Serb. слатко) is a thin fruit preserve made of fruit or rose petals. Traditionally, all guests are greeted with a spoonful of slatko and a cup of water as soon as they are seated.

Au fer rouge

J’ai fait un rêve affreux. Ce qui s’y passait ne m’étonne guère. Par contre, je me demande comment j’ai pu avoir la témérité de rêver des choses horribles, moi qui suis un paisible et honnête citoyen, digne rejeton de notre malheureuse et bien-aimée Serbie, comme le sont d’ailleurs tous les autres fils de notre chère patrie. Si encore je faisais exception et me distinguais des autres, mais non, grand Dieu, je me comporte exactement comme tout le monde. Et pas un détail ne m’échappe. Tenez, un jour, dans la rue, je remarquai par terre un bouton qui brillait, tombé de l’uniforme d’un sergent de ville. Son éclat enchanteur me mit aussitôt dans d’aimables dispositions. J’allais passer mon chemin quand ma main fit d’elle-même le salut militaire; ma tête s’inclina avec révérence et sur mes lèvres s’épanouit ce sourire courtois que nous avons habituellement pour nos aînés.

«Le sang qui coule dans nos veines est décidément bien noble!» pensai-je incontinent. À cet instant précis, un malotru qui passait par là marcha par inadvertance sur le bouton.

Ayant gratifié le susdit d’un hargneux «Espèce de rustre!», je crachai avec dégoût sur son passage avant de poursuivre tranquillement ma route. L’idée que les malotrus de cet acabit sont en très petit nombre me consolait, et j’étais fort aise d’avoir, moi, par la grâce de Dieu, un cœur sensible et le noble sang de nos valeureux ancêtres.

Vous savez maintenant la belle âme que je suis, que rien ne distingue de ses honnêtes concitoyens, et c’est à votre tour d’être intrigués: pourquoi faut-il que cela m’arrive à moi, justement à moi, d’avoir en songe des idées aussi affreuses qu’idiotes?

Ce jour-là, il ne se passa rien d’extraordinaire. Je fis un bon dîner, sirotai mon vin, me curai les dents. Après quoi, ayant si courageusement et si consciencieusement accompli tous mes devoirs de citoyen, je me mis au lit avec un peu de lecture, histoire de m’assoupir. Mes vœux furent exaucés: le livre me tomba bientôt des mains et je m’endormis comme un agneau, la conscience tranquille.

Tout d’un coup, je me retrouvai sur une route étroite et boueuse serpentant parmi les monts. Nuit froide, nuit noire. Un vent coupant hurlait dans les branches dénudées. Ciel sombre, hostile, muet. Une fine neige m’entrait dans les yeux, me cinglait la figure. Pas âme qui vive. Je me hâtais sur le chemin plein de boue, glissant à droite, à gauche, trébuchant, tombant; je finis par me perdre. Toute la nuit, et Dieu sait si elle fut longue, interminable, j’errai ainsi à l’aveuglette. Mais sans désemparer, j ’avançai sans savoir où j’allais.

Cela dura de bien nombreuses années et me mena bien loin de mon pays natal, dans une contrée inconnue, un pays étrange dont personne n’a jamais dû entendre parler et qu’on ne saurait sûrement imaginer qu’en rêve.

Sillonnant ce pays, j’arrivai dans une grande ville grouillant de monde. Une foule considérable s’était rassemblée sur la vaste place du marché d’où s’élevait un tapage effroyable, à vous crever les tympans. Je descendis dans une auberge juste en face du marché et demandai au patron la raison de pareille affluence.

— Nous sommes de paisibles et honnêtes gens, commença-t-il. Nous vouons à notre kmet fidélité et obéissance.

— Parce que chez vous, un petit magistrat communal, c’est l’autorité suprême? l’interrompis-je.

— Chez nous, c’est le kmet qui commande, et c’est l’autorité suprême; juste après vient la milice.

Je me mis à rire.

— Qu’est-ce qui te fait rire? Tu ne savais pas? Et tu viens d’où, toi?

Je lui racontai que je venais de la lointaine Serbie et que je m’étais égaré.

Murmurant par devers lui «J’ai entendu parler de ce célèbre pays!», il m’adressa un regard plein de considération avant de poursuivre tout haut:

— C’est comme ça, chez nous. Le kmet commande avec ses hommes de main.

— Et ils sont comment, eux?

— Eh bien tu vois, il y en a de plusieurs sortes, ils se distinguent par leur rang. Il y a les miliciens de première classe et ceux de deuxième… Nous, ici, nous sommes de paisibles et honnêtes gens, mais des alentours arrive toute une canaille qui nous déprave et nous corrompt. Pour qu’on ne nous confonde pas avec les autres, le kmet a ordonné hier à tous les citoyens de se rendre devant le tribunal communal, où ils seront marqués au fer rouge sur le front. Voilà pourquoi le peuple s’est rassemblé: il faut se mettre d’accord sur la suite des opérations.

Je tressaillis et pensai à m’enfuir au plus vite de cet effrayant pays: bien que je fasse un noble Serbe, une telle bravoure ne m’était pas coutumière et j’eus la chair de poule.

Souriant avec indulgence, l’aubergiste me tapota l’épaule. Plein d’orgueil, il déclara:

— Alors, l’étranger, tu n’en mènes pas large!… Il faut dire que notre courage est sans pareil à mille lieues à la ronde!…

— Et qu’est-ce que vous comptez faire? demandai-je timidement.

— Comment ça, qu’est-ce qu’on compte faire? Attends seulement de voir quels héros nous sommes. Notre courage est sans pareil à mille lieues à la ronde, je te l’ai déjà dit. Tu as parcouru d’innombrables pays mais je suis sûr que tu n’as jamais vu de peuple plus héroïque. Allons-y ensemble. Je dois me dépêcher.

Au moment où nous sortions, on entendit une cravache cingler devant la porte.

Passant la tête au-dehors, je ne fus pas déçu par le spectacle: un homme coiffé d’un magnifique tricorne et vêtu d’un habit bariolé[1], à califourchon sur un autre homme portant un classique mais riche costume de ville, s’arrêtait devant l’auberge et descendait de sa monture.

L’aubergiste sortit et salua jusqu’à terre. L’homme en habit bariolé entra dans la salle et s’assit à une table somptueusement dressée. L’homme en costume de ville resta dehors à attendre. Il eut également droit aux prosternations du tavemier.

— Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? demandai-je, perplexe.

— Voilà, m’expliqua l’aubergiste à voix basse, celui qui vient d’entrer, il est milicien de première classe, et celui-là, c’est l’un des plus éminents citoyens de notre ville, un homme fort riche et un grand patriote.

— Mais enfin, pourquoi est-ce qu’il accepte de porter l’autre sur son dos?

De la tête, l’aubergiste me fit signe et nous nous éloignâmes de quelques pas. Un sourire vaguement condescendant aux lèvres, il déclara:

— Ici, chez nous, c’est considéré comme un honneur dont bien peu sont jugés dignes!…

Il me raconta encore toutes sortes d’histoires mais j’étais trop ébranlé pour comprendre ce qu’il disait. Les derniers mots, par contre, je les entendis parfaitement: «Ce n’est pas donné à n’importe quel peuple de pouvoir et de savoir apprécier un tel service rendu à la patrie!»

Nous arrivâmes au lieu du rassemblement; l’élection du bureau avait déjà commencé.

Comme candidat à la présidence, les uns avaient désigné un certain Kolb, si je me souviens bien du nom; les autres, un certain Talb; un troisième groupe, à son tour, avait son propre candidat.

Dans un branle-bas indescriptible, chaque clan cherchait à imposer son homme.

— Pour présider une assemblée aussi importante que la nôtre, je suis d’avis qu’il n’y a pas de meilleur candidat que Kolb, dit quelqu’un du premier clan. Ses vertus de bon citoyen et sa bravoure nous sont en effet bien connues. Personne parmi nous ne peut se vanter d’avoir été chevauché par les notables plus souvent que lui.

— De quoi tu causes, glapit quelqu’un du deuxième clan, personne ne t’est jamais monté dessus, même pas un stagiaire!

— On les connaît, vos vertus, cria quelqu’un du troisième clan, le moindre coup de cravache et ça se met à pleurnicher!

— Frères, mettons-nous d’accord! commença Kolb. C’est vrai que les hauts dignitaires me montaient déjà souvent sur le dos il y a dix ans, c’est vrai que j’ai reçu leurs coups de cravache sans me lamenter, mais il n’empêche qu’il peut quand même y avoir des gens plus méritants. Il y en a peut-être de plus jeunes et de meilleurs que moi.

— Il n’y en a pas! Il n’y en a pas! entonnèrent ses partisans.

— On ne veut plus entendre parler de ces vieux titres de gloire! Ça fait déjà dix ans que Kolb leur sert de monture! hurlèrent ceux du deuxième clan.

— Place à la jeunesse, les anciens, on les a assez vus! clamèrent ceux du troisième.

Tout à coup, le vacarme se tut; les gens s’écartèrent pour laisser passer un homme d’une trentaine d’années. Dès qu’il apparut, toutes les têtes s’inclinèrent profondément.

— C’est qui? murmurai-je au tavemier.

— Le champion de notre bonne ville. C’est un gars très prometteur. Il a beau être jeune, le kmet en personne lui a déjà grimpé trois fois sur le dos. Sa popularité est sans égale jusqu’à présent.

— C’est peut-être lui qui va être élu? demandai-je.

— Il n’y a pas l’ombre d’un doute, parce que les candidats qu’on a vus jusqu’à maintenant sont tous trop vieux, ils ont fait leur temps, alors que celui-là, pas plus tard qu’hier il portait le kmet sur son dos.

— Il s’appelle comment ?

— Kleard.

On lui accorda la place d’honneur. Kolb prit la parole:

— Je suis d’avis que ce n’est pas la peine de chercher un meilleur candidat que Kleard. Oui bien sûr il est jeune, mais nous les vieux, on ne lui arrive pas à la cheville.

— Exactement! Exactement!… Vive Kleard!… s’exclamèrent toutes les gorges à la fois.

Kolb et Talb l’escortèrent jusqu’au fauteuil de président.

Tout le monde s’inclina de nouveau profondément puis le silence se fit.

— Merci à vous, mes frères, merci de m’avoir aujourd’hui, à l’unanimité, témoigné de si grands égards et rendu un si grand honneur. Je suis plus que flatté d’avoir désormais entre les mains vos espérances. En ces jours décisifs, présider aux volontés du peuple n’est pas une tâche aisée, mais je mettrai toutes mes forces dans la bataille pour justifier votre confiance, défendre partout vos intérêts avec dévouement et maintenir ma réputation au niveau qu’elle mérite. Merci de m’avoir élu.

— Vivat! Vivat! Vivat! entendit-on de tous côtés.

— Et maintenant, chers frères, permettez-moi de dire quelques mots sur cet événement capital. Il ne sera pas facile d’endurer les souffrances qui nous attendent; il ne sera pas facile de tenir bon pendant qu’on nous marque au fer rouge. Non, supporter de telles souffrances n’est pas à la portée de n’importe qui. Que les poltrons tremblent de peur! Qu’ils blêmissent! Quant à nous, n’oublions pas une seule minute que nous sommes les descendants de vaillants ancêtres, que dans nos veines coule le sang noble et héroïque de nos aïeux, ces preux chevaliers qui n’ont pas même grincé des dents à l’heure où ils mouraient pour notre liberté et notre bien à tous. Les souffrances qui nous attendent ne sont rien à côté des leurs, et ce n’est pas maintenant que nous vivons dans le bien-être et l’opulence que nous allons flancher et nous montrer lâches! Le vrai patriote, celui qui ne veut pas que son peuple se couvre de honte à la face du monde, celui-là supportera stoïquement la douleur.

— Bien dit! Vivat! Vivat!

Quelques autres orateurs pleins d’ardeur vinrent encourager la foule apeurée, en usant à peu de chose près des mêmes termes que Kleard.

Un vieillard livide, à bout de forces, demanda alors la parole. Il avait le visage sillonné de rides, les cheveux et la barbe blancs comme neige. Ses jambes ployaient sous le poids des années, son dos était voûté, ses mains tremblaient. Sa voix chevrotait, ses yeux larmoyaient.

— Mes enfants, commença-t-il, et les grosses larmes qui roulaient sur ses joues pâles et ridées tombaient sur sa blanche barbe, je me porte mal et vais bientôt trépasser, mais il me semble qu’il vaut mieux ne pas tolérer pareille infamie. J’ai vécu pendant cent ans et je m’en suis bien passé… ce n’est pas pour qu’on vienne maintenant frapper du sceau de l’esclavage ma tête chenue et exténuée…

— À bas ce vieux misérable! aboya le président.

— À bas! criaient les uns.

— Vieux lâche! criaient les autres.

— Il devrait encourager les jeunes, au lieu de quoi il vient effrayer le peuple! criaient les troisièmes.

— Honte à ses cheveux blancs! Malgré sa longue vie, il faut encore qu’il ait peur de quelque chose! Nous, les jeunes, nous sommes intrépides! criaient les quatrièmes.

— Sus au couard!

— Qu’on le jette dehors!

— Sus! Sus!

La foule des jeunes intrépides, au comble de l’excitation, se rua sur le cacochyme vieillard et, fulminant, se mit à lui taper dessus et à le traîner dehors.

C’est tout juste s’ils finirent par le laisser partir, à cause de son grand âge; sans cela, ils l’auraient lapidé.

Tous firent le serment et donnèrent leur parole que, le lendemain, ils couvriraient de gloire le nom de leur peuple et se conduiraient en braves.

L’assemblée se dispersa dans l’ordre le plus parfait. On pouvait entendre dire:

— Demain, tout le monde saura de quel bois on se chauffe!

— Demain, on les verra, les fiers-à-bras!

— Il est temps de montrer qui vaut quelque chose et qui ne vaut rien! Il y en a assez que n’importe quel minable se vante d’être un héros!

Je m’en retournai à l’hôtel.

—  Tu as vu de quel bois on se chauffe? demanda fièrement l’aubergiste.

—  J’ai vu, répondis-je d’un ton absent.

Je n’avais plus de force et des impressions étranges bourdonnaient dans ma tête.

Ce même jour, je lus dans leurs journaux un éditorial rédigé en ces termes:

«Citoyens, l’heure a sonné! Les temps des vains éloges, des forfanteries des uns ou des autres, des paroles creuses dont nous usons à satiété pour exalter nos prétendues vertus et nos prétendus mérites sont révolus! L’heure a sonné de faire nos preuves une fois pour toutes! De montrer qui vaut vraiment quelque chose et qui ne vaut rien! Et nous comptons bien qu’il n’y aura pas, parmi nous, de ces infâmes poltrons que les autorités devraient traîner de force à l’endroit où le marquage au fer rouge aura lieu. Celui qui sent couler dans ses veines ne serait-ce qu’une goutte du sang valeureux de nos ancêtres, celui-là aura à cœur de venir au plus tôt s’exposer aux souffrances, il aura à cœur de supporter la douleur avec calme et sans fléchir, car cette sainte douleur est le sacrifice qu’exigent la patrie et le bien commun. En avant, citoyens, la grande épreuve est pour demain!…»

Ce jour-là, mon tavernier se coucha tout de suite après la réunion; il devait se lever tôt le lendemain pour arriver aux premières heures devant le tribunal. De leur côté, nombre de ses concitoyens s’y rendirent sans attendre afin d’y prendre la meilleure place possible.

Au petit matin, je pris à mon tour le chemin du tribunal. Toute la ville s’y pressait, petits et grands, hommes et femmes, et jusqu’aux petits enfants que leurs mères portaient dans leurs bras. Eux aussi, on allait les marquer du sceau de l’esclavage, haute distinction qui leur donnerait, plus tard, un droit prioritaire aux meilleurs emplois dans les services de l’État.

On se poussait, on jurait (à cet égard, ils nous ressemblent un peu, à nous les Serbes, cela me fit chaud au cœur), c’était à qui parviendrait le premier devant la porte. Il y en eut même quelques-uns pour en venir aux mains.

Vêtu d’un habit de cérémonie immaculé, le fonctionnaire chargé de procéder au marquage chapitrait gentiment son monde:

— Doucement, que diable, chacun aura son tour, vous n’êtes quand même pas du bétail pour vous disputer comme ça!

Le fer était rouge, l’opération commença. Certains hurlèrent, d’autres ne firent que gémir, en tout cas personne, tant que je fus présent, ne réussit à tenir bon sans broncher.

Je ne pus longtemps regarder ce calvaire et m’en retournai à l’auberge. Un petit groupe s’y était déjà attablé, qui buvait et cassait une petite croûte.

— Ouf, le plus dur est fait! dit l’un.

— Pardi! nous, on n’a pas tellement pleurniché, mais Talb, il a braillé comme un âne!… dit un autre.

— Ah, le voilà bien, ton Talb, et dire qu’hier vous vouliez qu’il préside l’assemblée!

— On ne pouvait pas savoir, personne ne le connaissait!

Tout en discutant, ils geignaient et se tortillaient de douleur, mais ils le dissimulaient tant bien que mal: chacun d’eux aurait eu honte d’apparaître comme un lâche.

Kleard se couvrit d’indignité pour avoir gémi tandis qu’un certain Lear[2] se distingua par son héroïsme: il exigea qu’on lui fît deux marques au fer rouge et ne laissa pas échapper le moindre son. La ville entière ne parlait que de lui, avec le plus grand respect.

Il y en eut quelques-uns pour prendre la fuite; ceux-là furent couverts d’opprobre.

Quelques jours plus tard, celui qui portait deux sceaux sur le front se promenait, la tête haute, drapé dans sa dignité et son orgueil, auréolé de gloire, respirant la fierté; où qu’il passât, absolument tout le monde s’inclinait et mettait chapeau bas devant le héros du jour.

Hommes, femmes, enfants, tous couraient après lui dans les mes pour voir le très illustre citoyen. Partout, un murmure de vénération se répandait sur son passage: «Lear, Lear!… C’est lui! C’est le héros qui s’est laissé marquer par deux fois, sans une plainte, sans un soupir!» Les journaux l’encensaient, le glorifiaient passionnément.

Il avait bien mérité l’amour du peuple tout entier.

Ces louanges résonnaient de tous côtés, tant et si bien que l’héroïque sang serbe se mit à bouillonner dans mes veines. Nous aussi, nous avions pour ancêtres des héros qui, eux aussi, étaient morts pour la liberté, suppliciés sur le pal; nous aussi, nous avions un héroïque passé et notre héroïque Kosovo. Ivre de fierté nationale, exalté à l’idée de couvrir mon peuple de gloire, je me précipitai devant le tribunal où je m’écriai:

— Quels sont donc les mérites de votre Lear?… De vrais héros, vous n’en avez encore jamais rencontrés! Attendez seulement de voir la noblesse du sang serbe! Marquez-moi au fer dix fois, pas seulement deux!

Le fonctionnaire en habit immaculé approcha de mon front le fer chauffé au rouge. Je tressaillis… et me réveillai.

Inquiet, j’ai tâté mon front; grâce au ciel, je n’avais rien. Quelles histoires saugrenues ne va-t-on pas rêver!

«Il s’en est fallu de peu que je ne ternisse la gloire de leur Lear!» Sur cette pensée, je me suis retourné avec contentement dans mon lit, mais j’avais comme un vague regret que le rêve ne fut pas allé jusqu’à son terme.


Source: Domanović, Radoje, Au fer rouge, Non lieu, Paris, 2008 (traduit par Ch. Chalhoub).


[1] Référence à l’uniforme de la milice qui dépendait du kmet: tricorne, veste et pantalon de couleurs différentes. (N.d.T.)

[2] Ce nom imaginé par Domanović (et qui se prononce Lé-ar) ne doit pas évoquer le roi Lear de Shakespeare. (N.d.T.)

Abolition des passions

Grâce en soit rendue au Seigneur miséricordieux, nous sommes serbes: notre besogne lestement accomplie, nous avons désormais l’entier loisir de rester vautrés à bâiller, à rêvasser, à dormir tout notre soûl. Et quand nous en aurons assez, il sera toujours temps d’aller voir ce qui se passe chez les autres, histoire de se distraire. Il paraît qu’il y a d’infortunés pays où les gens ne cessent de batailler et de s’entretuer à propos de je ne sais quels droits, de je ne sais quelle liberté et quelle sécurité des personnes. Dieu nous garde de jamais connaître pareil fléau, pareille calamité! À la seule pensée de ces déshérités qui n’ont pas encore réussi à régler leurs problèmes domestiques, on a la chair de poule. Nous qui administrons déjà la Chine et le Japon! Et qui poussons chaque jour un peu plus loin! Bientôt nos journalistes pourront rapporter des correspondances de Mars ou de Mercure; et dans le pire des cas, de la Lune.

Pour rester dans le ton, moi qui fais partie de ce peuole d’heureux élus, je vais vous parler d’un lointain, fort lointain pays, au-delà des frontières de l’Europe, et de ce qui s’y passait il y a longtemps, fort longtemps.

On ne sait pas exactement où il se trouvait, ni comment s’appelaient ses habitants. Selon toute vraisemblance, ce n’était pas un pays européen et il était peuplé de gens qui étaient tout sauf serbes. Tous les historiens des siècles passés s’accordent sur ce point; quant aux modernes, ils diront peut- être précisément l’inverse. Au reste, ce n’est pas notre affaire et je ne me prononcerai donc pas sur cette question, dussé-je déroger à la coutume: parler de ce qu’on ne connaît pas, faire ce qui n’est pas dans ses cordes.

On sait de source sûre que ce peuple était totalement dépravé, profondément immoral, infesté de vices, habité d’innommables passions. C’est le sujet de la petite histoire que voici qui, j’espère, vous divertira.

Naturellement, vous avez du mal à croire d’emblée qu’il ait jamais pu exister des gens aussi lamentables; sachez pourtant, chers lecteurs, que je me suis appuyé sur des documents authentiques, que je tiens entre les mains.

Voici la traduction exacte de quelques lettres anonymes expédiées à divers ministres:

«X, cultivateur à Kar, est passé à l’auberge après le travail des champs pour y boire le café; il y a lu avec passion des journaux qui attaquent les ministres actuellement en fonction…»

«Dès qu’il sort de l’école, l’instituteur T… de Borak rassemble autour de lui les paysans pour les exhorter à fonder une chorale. En outre, il joue au bistoquet avec les apprentis et au jeu de puce avec ses élèves, ce qui en fait un personnage hautement nuisible et dangereux. Il fait la lecture aux paysans et leur propose même d’acheter des livres. De tels méfaits ne sauraient être tolérés car ils pervertissent l’entourage. En prétendant que nos paisibles et honnêtes citoyens veulent vivre libres, l’instituteur leur impute un crime qu’ils ne sauraient commettre, quant à lui il ne se gêne pas pour répéter sans cesse que la liberté est plus chère que tout. Il fume comme un sapeur; ce faisant, il crache.»

«Après l’office, le prêtre C… de Sor s’est rendu à un meeting politique dans la ville voisine.»

Que de turpitudes n’y avait-il pas dans le monde, comme vous voyez!

Mais poursuivons:

«Aujourd’hui, le juge S… a voté pour la municipalité. Ce magistrat ignominieux est abonné à une feuille d’opposition qu’il lit avec frénésie. Au tribunal, il a osé innocenter un paysan qu’on accusait d’outrage et d’insubordination aux autorités pour avoir déclaré, devant témoins, qu’il n’achèterait jamais rien dans la boutique du sieur Pou, kmet de son état! En outre, ce juge a un air pensif, preuve évidente qu’il n’est qu’un scélérat qui ourdit certainement un vaste complot contre le régime. Il faut l’inculper d’outrage à la couronne. De toute manière, il n’est sûrement pas favorable à la dynastie, vu qu’il va boire le café chez le cafetier Mor dont le grand-père était un proche du frère d’élection de Leon, celui-là même qui a provoqué l’incident de Jamb contre le deuxième personnage du régime, au château du grand-père de l’actuel souverain!»

Mais il y avait pire engeance dans ce malheureux pays. Lisez seulement ces lettres de dénonciation:

«Un avocat de Tul défend les intérêts d’un pauvre diable dont le père a été tué l’an dernier. Cet avocat est un buveur de bière patenté et un chasseur invétéré. Pis encore, il a fondé une association de secours aux indigents des environs. Ce déchet, cet impudent prétend que les mouchards à la solde de l’État sont des gens de la pire espèce!»

«Le professeur T… courait aujourd’hui par toute la ville avec une bande de mioches qui ne sont pas de chez nous. Il a volé des poires au marchand de quatre-saisons. Hier, en tirant au lance-pierres sur les pigeons, il a brisé la fenêtre d’un bâtiment public. On aurait encore pu le lui pardonner, mais il va à des réunions politiques, vote aux élections, discute avec ses concitoyens, lit les journaux, fait des commentaires sur l’emprunt d’État, sans parler de tous les autres troubles qu’il fomente au détriment de l’instruction!»

«Les villageois de Var sont en train de construire une nouvelle école; au train où vont les choses, les alentours vont être entièrement contaminés par ce vice. Il faut le plus vite possible mettre un coup d’arrêt à cette tendance ignoble, nuisible aux intérêts de l’État!»

« Les artisans de Var ont ouvert une salle de lecture où ils se réunissent tous les soirs. Cette passion a pris profondément racine, particulièrement chez les jeunes. Quant aux aînés, ils sont d’avis qu’il faut fonder, en plus de la bibliothèque, une caisse de retraite des artisans. C’est intolérable! Cela pousse au crime tous les honnêtes gens de la région qui, eux, ne passent pas leur temps à injurier les ministres!… L’un des artisans va même jusqu’à exiger la division du travail!… Abominables passions!…»

«Les paysans de Pado réclament l’autonomie de la commune!»

«Les habitants de Troja veulent des élections libres.»

«De nombreux fonctionnaires locaux font consciencieusement leur travail; l’un d’eux joue même de la flûte et connaît le solfège!»

«L’employé aux écritures Miron danse avec fièvre lors des réjouissances; il grignote des graines de potiron en sirotant sa bière. Il faut le révoquer pour qu’il guérisse de ces passions.»

«En achetant des fleurs tous les matins, l’institutrice Hela soumet son entourage à la tentation. C’est inadmissible, elle va corrompre la jeunesse.»

Énumérer toutes les ignobles passions de ce peuple dévoyé, est-ce bien nécessaire? Disons simplement, et cela suffira, qu’il n’y avait dans tout le pays qu’une dizaine de braves gens; les autres, hommes et femmes, jeunes et vieux, tous étaient, selon l’expression consacrée, pourris jusqu’à l’os.

Et cette dizaine d’honnêtes citoyens, à votre avis, comment supportaient-ils la situation dans ce pays à la dérive? Mal très mal… Pour eux, le plus atroce était d’avoir à contempler la déchéance de leur propre pays, qu’ils aimaient d’un amour ardent. Ils n’en dormaient plus de la journée ni de la nuit tant ils se faisaient du souci: comment remettre dans le droit chemin leurs concitoyens égarés, comment sauver le pays de la décadence?

Brûlant de patriotisme, pétris de vertus, débordant de noblesse, ils étaient prêts aux plus grands sacrifices pour le bonheur de la patrie. Et un jour, en effet, ils firent preuve d’un dévouement héroïque: s’inclinant devant la cruelle loi du destin, qui leur adjugeait ce lourd fardeau, ils acceptèrent de devenir ministres, de prendre sur eux l’auguste tâche de purger le pays de ses péchés et de ses passions.

Tout instruits qu’ils fussent, mener à bien une entreprise aussi ardue n’alla pas sans difficultés.

Finalement, une idée passa par la tête de celui qui était le plus bête — ce qui, chez eux, voulait dire qu’il avait le plus d’esprit: il fallait convoquer l’Assemblée nationale, mais seuls des étrangers devraient y siéger. Tout le monde accepta cette merveilleuse idée. On embaucha, aux frais de l’État, deux cents étrangers. On en captura deux cents autres, un par un, parmi marchands et négociants qui se trouvaient par hasard dans le pays pour affaires. Ils eurent beau résister et se débattre, la raison du plus fort s’avéra la meilleure.

C’est ainsi que quatre cents étrangers furent présentés à la députation; ils seraient l’expression même des aspirations nationales et statueraient sur toutes sortes de problèmes pour le plus grand bien du pays.

Aussitôt après qu’on se fut acquitté de cette tâche et qu’on eut trouvé et désigné le nombre suffisant de représentants du peuple, on organisa des élections législatives. N’y voyez rien de bizarre: telle était la coutume dans ce pays.

La session de l’Assemblée s’ouvrit. Délibérations, discours, débats… Il y avait du pain sur la planche. Tout se passa vite et bien jusqu’à ce qu’on en vînt aux passions. Là, on tomba sur un os. Quelqu’un finit par proposer de voter un texte qui abolirait toutes les passions dans le pays.

Un tonnerre d’exclamations enthousiastes résonna dans toute la Chambre:

— Vive l’orateur! Vivat!

Transportés, les députés acceptèrent la proposition et adoptè-rent la résolution suivante:

«Constatant que les passions entravent le progrès de la nation, les représentants du peuple sont amenés à voter ce nouvel article de loi:

«À dater de ce jour, les passions n’ont plus cours; nuisibles au peuple et nocives pour le pays, elles sont définitivement abolies.»

À peine cinq minutes après la promulgation de la loi sur l’abolition des passions, qui n’était encore connue que des seuls députés, il se passait déjà toutes sortes de bizarreries aux quatre coins du pays.

Voyez plutôt ce témoignage, dont je vais vous citer — en traduction — quelques pages.

Les voici mot pour mot:

«… Je fumais comme un sapeur. Dès le réveil, il me fallait tout de suite une cigarette. Un jour, au saut du lit, j’ai pris mon pot à tabac pour m’en rouler une comme chaque matin. J’ai commencé à me sentir mal à l’aise (à cet instant, le député était en train de soumettre sa proposition). Subitement, ma main s’est mise à trembler et la cigarette est tombée; j’ai craché dessus avec dégoût… “J’arrête de fumer” ai-je alors pensé. Le tabac me faisait vomir, rien que d’en voir j’en avais la nausée. Qu’est-ce qui avait bien pu se passer tout à coup? Bizarre… Je suis sorti dans la cour. Et là, je n’ai pas été déçu par le spectacle! Mon voisin, un ivrogne patenté qui ne tenait pas trois minutes sans boire de vin, était là devant la porte à se gratter la tête, point soûl, pour une fois fort convenable.

Le commis, qui venait d’apporter du vin, lui a tendu la bouteille, comme d’habitude.

L’autre l’a violemment jetée par terre; elle a éclaté en mille morceaux. À la vue du vin répandu, le voisin a crié écœuré:

— Pouah! Quelle horreur!

Après un long silence, il a demandé gentiment qu’on lui apporte de l’eau.

Après s’en être servi une bonne rasade, il est parti travailler.

Sa femme en pleurait de joie. Son mari s’était amendé en un clin d’œil!

Mon autre voisin, qui lisait toujours la presse avec avidité, était assis à sa fenêtre; lui aussi semblait vaguement transfiguré et avait l’air bizarre.

Je lui ai demandé:

— Vous avez reçu les journaux?

Q m’a répondu:

— C’est terminé pour moi, ça me dégoûte! Pour ma prochaine lecture, j’hésite entre un manuel d’archéologie et une grammaire grecque!…

Passant mon chemin, je suis sorti dans la rue.

Le bourg tout entier était transfiguré. Un politicien invétéré, qui s’acheminait vers une réunion politique, a fait demi-tour subitement; il s’est mis à courir, comme s’il était poursuivi par quelqu’un.

Quelle mouche l’avait piqué? Pourquoi s’en retournait-il sans crier gare? Comme je lui posais la question, il m’a dit:

— Je venais juste de partir à la réunion quand tout à coup; ça m’a traversé l’esprit: je ferais mieux de rentrer à la maison, de me procurer un ouvrage sur l’agriculture ou l’industrie nationale, de le lire, de me perfectionner. Qu’est-ce que j’irais bien faire à cette réunion?

Sur ce, le politicien a couru chez lui se plonger dans l’étude des travaux des champs.

Toutes ces choses qui arrivaient si subitement… Je n’en revenais pas. Rentré chez moi, je me suis mis à compulser mon manuel de psychologie. Je voulais lire le passage sur les passions.

A la page “Passions”, justement, il ne restait que le titre, tout le reste s’était décoloré! Comme s’il n’y avait jamais rien eu d’écrit sur la page!

— Ça alors! Sapristi! comment est-ce possible?

Dans toute la ville, impossible de trouver où que ce soit le moindre vice, la moindre passion; même le bétail était devenu intelligent!

Le surlendemain, les journaux annonçaient la mesure d’abolition prise par le parlement.

— Ah, ah! c’était donc ça! On est tous là à se demander ce qui nous arrive et en fait, c’est très simple: l’Assemblée nationale a aboli les passions!»

Ce témoignage éclaire parfaitement les événements bizarres qui survenaient dans le pays au moment même où les députés votaient l’abolition.

La nouvelle loi fut bientôt connue de tout un chacun; aussi cessa-t-on de trouver bizarre l’extinction subite des passions. Les maîtres d’école enseignaient à leurs élèves:

«Autrefois, l’âme des hommes était habitée par les passions. C’était l’une des branches les plus compliquées et les plus difficiles de la psychologie. Mais elles furent abolies par une résolution de l’Assemblée, de sorte que cette branche de la psychologie n’existe plus, et l’âme des hommes est désormais exempte de passions. L’abolition fut prononcée le…»

— Ouf! ça fait toujours ça de moins à apprendre! chuchotaient les élèves.

Ils étaient bien contents de la décision prise par l’Assemblée, car pour le cours suivant il leur fallait juste savoir par cœur:

«À la date du…, une résolution de l’Assemblée nationale a aboli toutes les passions, qui n’existent donc plus parmi les hommes!…»

Il leur suffisait de débiter ce passage sans aucune faute pour obtenir la meilleure note.

Voilà donc comment ce peuple échappa subitement à l’empire des passions et s’amenda. Il serait même devenu, paraît-il, un peuple d’anges!


Source: Domanović, Radoje, Au fer rouge, Non lieu, Paris, 2008 (traduit par Ch. Chalhoub).


I had an awful dream. I do not wonder so much at the dream itself, but I wonder how I could find the courage to dream about awful things, when I am a quiet and respectable citizen myself, an obedient child of our dear, afflicted mother Serbia, just like all her other children. Of course, you know, if I were an exception in anything, it would be different, but no, my dear friend, I do exactly the same as everybody else, and as to being careful in everything, nobody can quite match me there. Once I saw a shiny button of a policeman’s uniform lying in the street, and I stared at its magic glow, almost on the point of passing by, full of sweet reminiscences, when suddenly, my hand began to tremble and sprang to a salute; my head bowed to the earth of itself, and my mouth spread into that lovely smile which we all wear when greeting our superiors.

—  Noble blood runs in my veins — that’s what it is! — This is what I thought at that moment and I looked with disdain at the passing brute who carelessly stepped on the button.

— A brute! — I said bitterly, and spat, and then quietly walked on, consoled by the thought that such brutes are few; and I was particularly glad that God had given me a refined heart and the noble, chivalrous blood of our ancestors.

Well, you can see now what a wonderful man I am, not at all different from other respectable citizens, and you will no doubt wonder how such awful and foolish things could occur in my dreams.

Nothing unusual happened to me that day. I had a good dinner and afterwards sat picking my teeth at leisure; sipping my wine, and then, having made such a courageous and conscientious use of my rights as a citizen, I went to bed and took a book with me in order to go to sleep more quickly.

The book soon slipped from my hands, having, of course, gratified my desire and, all my duties done, I fell asleep as innocent as a lamb.

All at once I found myself on a narrow, muddy road leading through mountains. A cold, black night. The wind howls among barren branches and cuts like a razor whenever it touches naked skin. The sky black, dumb, and threatening, and snow, like dust, blowing into one’s eyes and beating against one’s face. Not a living soul anywhere. I hurry on and every now and then slip on the muddy road to the left, to the right. I totter and fall and finally lose my way, I wander on — God knows where — and it is not a short, ordinary night, but as long as a century, and I walk on all the time without knowing where.

So I walked on for very many years and came somewhere, far, far away from my native country to an unknown part of the world, to a strange land which probably nobody knows of and which, I am sure, can be seen only in dreams.

Roaming about the land I came to a big town where many people lived. In the large market-place there was a huge crowd, a terrible noise going on, enough to burst one’s ear-drum. I put up at an inn facing the market-place and asked the landlord why so many people had gathered together…

— We are quiet and respectable people, — he began his story, — we are loyal and obedient to the Mayor.

— The Mayor is not your supreme authority, is he? — I asked, interrupting him.

— The Mayor rules here and he is our supreme authority; the police come next.

I laughed.

—  Why are you laughing? … Didn’t you know? … Where do you come from?

I told him how I had lost my way, and that I came from a distant land—Serbia.

— I’ve heard about that famous country! — whispered the landlord to himself, looking at me with respect, and then he spoke aloud:

— That is our way, — he went on, —  the Mayor rules here with his policemen.

— What are your policemen like?

— Well, there are different kinds of policemen—they vary, according to their rank. There are the more distinguished and the less distinguished… We are, you know, quiet and respectable people, but all kinds of tramps come from the neighbourhood, they corrupt us and teach us evil things. To distinguish each of our citizens from other people the Mayor gave an order yesterday that all our citizens should go to the Town Hall, where each of us will have his forehead stamped. This is why so many people have got together: in order to take counsel what to do.

I shuddered and thought that I should run away from this strange land as quickly as I could, because I, although a Serb, was not used to such a display of the spirit of chivalry, and I was a little uneasy about it!

The landlord laughed benevolently, tapped me on the shoulder, and said proudly:

— Ah, stranger, is this enough to frighten you? No wonder, you have to go a long way to find courage like ours!

— And what do you mean to do? — I asked timidly.

— What a question! You will see how brave we are. You have to go a long way to find courage like ours, I tell you. You have travelled far and wide and seen the world, but I am sure you have never seen greater heroes than we are. Let us go there together. I must hurry.

We were just about to go when we heard, in front of the door, the crack of a whip.

I peeped out: there was a sight to behold—a man with a shining, three-horned cap on his head, dressed in a gaudy suit, was riding on the back of another man in very rich clothes of common, civilian cut. He stopped in front of the inn and the rider got down.

The landlord went out, bowed to the ground, and the man in the gaudy suit went into the inn to a specially decorated table. The one in the civilian clothes stayed in front of the inn and waited. The landlord bowed low to him as well.

— What’s all this about? — I asked the landlord, deeply puzzled.

— Well, the one who went into the inn is a policeman of high rank, and this man is one of our most distinguished citizens, very rich, and a great patriot, — whispered the landlord.

— But why does he let the other one ride on his back?

The landlord shook his head at me and we stepped aside. He gave me a scornful smile and said:

— We consider it a great honour which is seldom deserved! — He told me a great many things besides, but I was so excited that I could not make them out. But I heard quite clearly what he said at the end: — It is a service to one’s country which all nations have still not learned to appreciate!

We came to the meeting and the election of the chairman was already in progress.

The first group put up a man called Kolb, if I remember the name rightly, as its candidate for the chair; the second group wanted Talb, and the third had its own candidate.

There was frightful confusion; each group wanted to push its own man.

— I think that we don’t have a better man than Kolb for the chair of such an important meeting, — said a voice from the first group, — because we all know so well his virtues as a citizen and his great courage. I do not think there is anybody among us here who can boast of having been ridden so frequently by the really important people…

— Who are you to talk about it, — shrieked somebody from the second group. — You have never been ridden on by a junior police clerk!

— We know what your virtues are, — cried somebody from the third group. — You could never suffer a single blow of the whip without howling!

— Let us get this straight, brothers! — began Kolb. — It is true that eminent people were riding on my back as early as ten years ago; they whipped me and I never gave a cry, but it may well be that there are more deserving ones among us. There are perhaps younger better ones.

— No, no, — cried his supporters.

— We don’t want to hear about out-of-date honours! It’s ten years since Kolb was ridden on, — shouted the voices from the second group.

— Young blood is taking over, let old dogs chew old bones, — called some from the third group.

Suddenly there was no more noise; people moved back, left and right, to clear a path and I saw a young man of about thirty. As he approached, all heads bowed low.

— Who is this? — I whispered to my landlord.

— He is the popular leader. A young man, but very promising. In his early days he could boast of having carried the Mayor on his back three times. He is more popular than anybody else.

— They will perhaps elect him? — I inquired.

— That is more than certain, because as for all the other candidates — they are all older, time has overtaken them, whereas the Mayor rode for a little while on his back yesterday.

— What is his name?

— Kleard.

They gave him a place of honour.

— I think, — Kolb’s voice broke the silence, — that we cannot find a better man for this position than Kleard. He is young, but none of us older ones is his equal.

— Hear, hear! … Long live Kleard! … — all the voices roared.

Kolb and Talb took him to the chairman’s place. Everybody made a deep bow, and there was utter silence.

— Thank you, brothers, for your high regard and this honour you have so unanimously bestowed upon me. Your hopes, which rest with me now, are too flattering. It is not easy to steer the ship of the nation’s wishes through such momentous days, but I will do everything in my power to justify your trust, to represent honestly your opinion, and to deserve your high regard for me. Thank you, my brothers, for electing me.

— Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! — voters thundered from all sides.

— And now, brothers, I hope you will allow me to say a few words about this important event. It is not easy to suffer such pains, such torments as are in store for us; it is not easy to have one’s forehead branded with hot iron. Indeed, no — they are pains which not all men can endure. Let the cowards tremble, let them blench with fear, but we must not forget for a moment that we are sons of brave ancestors, that noble blood runs in our veins, the heroic blood of our grandfathers, the great knights who used to die without batting an eyelid for freedom and for the good of us all, their progeny. Our suffering is slight, if you but think of their suffering — shall we behave like members of a degenerate and cowardly breed now that we are living better than ever before? Each true patriot, everyone who does not want to put our nation to shame before all the world, will bear the pain like a man and a hero.

— Hear! Hear! Long live Kleard!

There were several fervent speakers after Kleard; they encouraged the frightened people and repeated more or less what Kleard had said.

Then a pale weary old man, with a wrinkled face, his hair and beard as white as snow, asked to speak. His knees were shaking with age, his hands trembling, his back bent. His voice quavered, his eyes were bright with tears.

— Children, — he began, with tears rolling down his white, wrinkled cheeks and falling on his white beard, — I am miserable and I shall die soon, but it seems to me that you had better not allow such shame to come to you. I am a hundred years old, and I have lived all my life without that! … Why should the stamp of slavery be impressed on my white and weary head now ? …

— Down with that old rascal! — cried the chairman.

— Down with him! — others shouted.

— The old coward!

— Instead of encouraging the young, he is frightening everybody!

— He should be ashamed of his grey hairs! He has lived long enough, and he can still be scared — we who are young are more courageous…

— Down with the coward!

— Throw him out!

— Down with him!

An angry crowd of brave, young patriots rushed on the old man and began to push, pull, and kick him in their rage.

They finally let him go because of his age — otherwise they would have stoned him alive.

They all pledged themselves to be brave tomorrow and to show themselves worthy of the honour and the glory of their nation.

People went away from the meeting in excellent order. As were parting they said:

— Tomorrow we shall see who is who!

— We’ll sort out the boasters tomorrow!

— The time has come for the worthy to distinguish themselves from the unworthy, so that every rascal will not be will not be able to boast a brave heart!

I went back to the inn.

— Have you seen what we are made of? — my landlord asked me proudly.

— Indeed I have, — I answered automatically, feeling that my strength had deserted me and that my head was buzzing with strange impressions.

On that very day I read in their newspaper a leading article which ran as follows:

— Citizens, it is time to stop the vain boasting and swaggering amongst us; it is time to stop esteeming the empty words which we use in profusion in order to display our imaginary virtues and deserts. The time has come, citizens, to put our words to the test and to show who is really worthy and who is not! But we believe that there will be no shameful cowards among us who will have to be brought by force to the appointed branding place. Each one of us who feels in his veins a drop of the noble blood of our ancestors will struggle to be among the first to bear the pain and anguish, proudly and quietly, for this is holy pain, it is a sacrifice for the good of our country and for the welfare of us all. Forward, citizens, for tomorrow is the day of the noble test! …

My landlord went to bed that day straight after the meeting in order to get as early as possible to the appointed place the next day. Many had, however, gone straight to the Town Hall to be as near as possible to the head of the queue.

The next day I also went to the Town Hall. Everybody was there — young and old, male and female. Some mothers brought their little babies in their arms so that they could be branded with the stamp of slavery, that is to say of honour, and so obtain greater right to high positions in the civil service.

There was pushing and swearing (in that they are rather like us Serbs, and I was somehow glad of it), and everybody strove to be the first at the door. Some were even taking others by the throat.

Stamps were branded by a special civil servant in a white, formal suit who was mildly reproaching the people:

— Don’t hum, for God’s sake, everybody’s turn will come — you are not animals, I suppose we can manage without shoving.

The branding began. One cried out, another only groaned, but nobody was able to bear it without a sound as long as I was there.

I could not bear to watch this torture for long, so I went back to the inn, but some of them were already there, eating and drinking.

— That is over! — said one of them.

— Well, we didn’t really scream, but Talb was braying like a donkey! … — I said another.

— You see what your Talb is like, and you wanted to have him as the chairman of the meeting yesterday.

— Ah, you never can tell!

— They talked, groaning with pain and writhing, but trying to hide it from one another, for each was ashamed of being thought a coward.

Kleard disgraced himself, because he groaned, and a man named Lear was a hero because he asked to have two stamps impressed on his forehead and never gave a sound of pain. All the town was talking with the greatest respect only about him.

Some people ran away, but they were despised by everybody.

After a few days the one with two stamps on his forehead walked about with head held high, with dignity and self-esteem, full of glory and pride, and wherever he went, everybody bowed and doffed his hat to salute the hero of the day.

Men, women, and children ran after him in the street to see the nation’s greatest man. Wherever he went, whisper inspired by awe followed him: ‘Lear, Lear! … That’s him! … That is the hero who did not howl, who did not give a sound while two stamps were impressed on his forehead!’ He was in the headlines of the newspapers, praised and glorified.

And he had deserved the love of the people.

All over the place I listen to such praise, and I begin to feel the old, noble Serbian blood running in my veins, Our ancestors were heroes, they died impaled on stakes for freedom; we also have our heroic past and our Kosovo. I thrill with national pride and vanity, eager to show how brave my breed is and to rush to the Town Hall and shout:

— Why do you praise your Lear? … You have never seen true heroes! Come and see for yourself what noble Serbian blood is like! Brand ten stamps upon my head, not only two!

The civil servant in the white suit brought his stamp near my forehead, and I started… I woke up from my dream.

I rubbed my forehead in fear and crossed myself, wondering at the strange things that appear in dreams.

— I almost overshadowed the glory of their Lear, — I thought and, satisfied, turned over, and I was somehow sorry that my dream had not come to its end.

Source: Yugoslav Short Stories, Oxford University Press, London 1966. (Translated by Svetozar Koljević)

Last year, when we were preparing for the publication of this story on our website, we contacted our esteemed academician Mr Svetozar Koljević to ask if he would give us the rights to publish his translation. In a short and cordial phone conversation, Mr Koljević expressed his agreement and support, saying that “it is a great step for our little Radoje”. Recently, we learned with a great deal of sorrow that Mr Koljević had passed away, at the age of 85, after a long and fruitful academic career spanning over 50 years. We publish this work in his honour. May his memory be eternal! Editors.

The Leader (1/3)

– Brothers and friends, I have listened to all your speeches, so I ask you now to listen to me. All our deliberations and conversations aren’t worth anything as long as we remain in this barren region. In this sandy soil and on these rocks nothing has been able to grow, even when there were rainy years, let alone in this drought the likes of which none of us has never seen before.

How long will we get together like this and talk in vain? The cattle are dying without food, and pretty soon we and our children will starve too. We must find another solution that’s better and more sensible. I think it would be best to leave this arid land and set out into the world to find better and more fertile soil because we simply can’t live like this any longer.

Thus an inhabitant of some infertile province spoke once in a tired voice at some meeting. Where and when that was does not concern you or me, I think. It is important to believe me that it happened somewhere in some land long ago, and that is enough. To be honest, at one time I thought I had somehow invented this whole story, but little by little I freed myself from this nasty delusion. Now I firmly believe that I am going to relate what really happened and must have happened somewhere and sometime and that I could never by any means have made it up.

The listeners, with pale, haggard faces and blank, gloomy, almost uncomprehending gazes, with their hands under their belts, seemed to come alive at these wise words. Each was already imagining that he was in some kind of magic, paradisaical land where the reward of backbreaking work would be a rich harvest.

– He’s right! He’s right! – whispered the exhausted voices on all sides.

– Is this place nea…r…by? – a drawn-out murmur was heard from a corner.

– Brothers! – another began with a somewhat stronger voice. – We must follow this advice immediately because we can’t go like this any longer. We have toiled and strained ourselves, but all has been in vain. We have sown seed that could have been used for food, but the floods came and washed the seed and soil away from the slopes so that only bare rock was left. Should we stay here forever and labor from morning to night only to remain hungry and thirsty, naked and barefooted? We’ve got to set out and look for better and more fertile soil where hard work will yield plentiful crops.

– Let’s go! Let’s go immediately because this place is not fit to be lived in anymore!

Whispering arose, and each began walking away, not thinking where he was going.

– Wait, brothers! Where are you going? – the first speaker started again. – Sure we must go, but not like this. We’ve got to know where we are going. Otherwise we might end up in a worse situation instead of saving ourselves. I suggest that we choose a leader whom we’ll all have to obey and who’ll show us the best and most direct way.

– Let’s choose! Let’s choose somebody right away, – was heard all around.

Only now did the arguing arise, a real chaos. Everybody was talking and no one was either listening or able to hear. They began splitting up in groups, each person mumbling to himself, and then even the groups broke up. In twos, they began talking each other by the arm, talking, trying to prove something, pulling each other by the sleeve, and motioning silence by their hands. Then they all assembled again, still talking.

– Brothers! – suddenly resounded a stronger voice which drowned out all the other hoarse, dull voinces. – We can’t reach any kind of agreement like this. Everybody is talking and nobody is listening. Let’s pick a leader! Whom among us can we choose? Who among us has traveled enough to know the roads? We all know each other well, and yet I for one wouldn’t put myself and my children under the leadership of a single person here. Rather, tell me who knows that traveler over there who’s been sitting in the shade on the edge of the road since this morning?

Silence fell. All turned toward the stranger and sized him up from head to toe.

The traveler, middle-aged, with a somber face which was scarcely visible on account of his beard and long hair, sat and remained silent as before, absorbed in thought, and tapped his big cane on the ground from time to time.

– Yesterday I saw that same man with a young boy. They were holding each other by the hand and going down the street. And last night the boy left the village but the stranger stayed here.

– Brothers, let’s forget these silly trifles so we won’t lose any time. Whoever he is, he’s come from far away since none of us knows him and he most certainly knows the shortest and best way to lead us. It’s my judgment he’s a very wise man because he’s sitting there silently and thinking. Anyone else would have already pried into our affairs ten times or more by now or would have begun a conversation with one of us, but he’s been sitting there the whole time quite alone and saying nothing.

– Of course, the man’s sitting quietly because he’s thinking about something. It can’t be otherwise except that he’s very smart, – concurred the others and began to examine the stranger again. Each had discovered a brilliant trait in him, a proof of his extraordinary intelligence.

Not much more time was spent talking, so finally all agreed that it would be best to ask this traveler – whom, it seemed to them, God had sent to lead them out into the world to look for a better territory and more fertile soil. He should be their leader, and they would listen to him and obey him without question.

They chose ten men from among themselves who were to go to the stranger to explain their decision to him. This delegation was to show him the miserable state of affairs and ask him to be their leader.

So the ten went over and bowed humbly. One of them began talking about the unproductive soil of the area, about the dry years and the misery in which they all found themselves. He finished in the following manner:

– These conditions force us to leave our homes and our land and to move out into the world to find a better homeland. Just at this moment when we finally reached agreement, it appears that God has shown mercy on us, that he sent you to us – you, a wise and worthy stranger – and that you’ll lead us and free us from our misery. In the name of all the inhabitants here, we ask you to be our leader. Whereveryou might go, we’ll follow. You know the roads and you were certainly born in a happier and better homeland. We’ll listen to you and obey each of your commands. Will you, wise stranger, agree to save so many souls from ruin? Will you be our leader?

All during this imploring speech, the wise stranger never lifted his head. The whole time he remained in the same position in which they had found him. His head was lowered, he was frowning, and he said nothing. He only tapped his cane on the ground from time to time and – thought. When the speech was over, he muttered curtly and slowly without changing his position:

– I will!

– Can we go with you then and look for a better place?

– You can! – he continued without lifting his head.

Enthusiasm and expressions of appreciation arose now, but the stranger did not say a word to any of it.

The ten informed the gathering of their success, adding that only now did they see what great wisdom this man possessed.

– He didn’t even move from the spot or lift his head at least to see who was talking to him. He only sat quietly and meditated. To all our talk and appreciation he uttered only four words.

– A real sage! Rare intelligence! – they happily shouted from all sides claiming that God himself had sent him as an angel from heaven to save them. All were firmly convinced of success under such a leader whom nothing in the world could disconcert. And so it was decided to set out the next day at daybreak.