Photo: Robert Gojević
Marko Dejanović was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1982. From 1992 to 1998 he lived as a refugee in Frankfurt, Germany.
He studied journalism at the University of Zagreb and has worked for ten years for RTL Televizija as well as for news, commentary and satire portals. Currently he is head of agency at the Newsroom information service.
Since late 2014 he has been performing as a stand-up comedian.
He is an alumnus of the Academy for Political Development, generation of 2015.
In the same year, his novel Tickets, Please! won the Janko Polić Kamov Award for literary excellence and innovation (the only prize in Croatia open to all genres of writing).
In june 2016. Književna radionica Rašić published Tickets, Please! in Serbia.
Belzebubov notes (Beelzebub’s Memo Pad, short stories, Čekić, Belgrade, 2011.)
Translation rights also available from:
Sandorf, Severinska 30, 10110 Zagreb, Croatia
Phone:+385 1 7898457
( 5 Books from Croatia, HDP, Zagreb, 2016.)
Space-time travel for people and their stories: A gripping novel about crossing borders–and the baggage that remains
Unlike Central European trains with their cosy compartments, the seats on Dejanović’s Belgrade-Zagreb line (which used to carry a lot more trains than today and was a symbolic lifeline between former Yugoslavia’s two biggest cities) are arranged like in a bus. After this matter-of-fact remark, which is actually of key significance for the story, nothing is superficial or as it seems in this short novel of minimalist ef- ficiency. An accident – which can be read as a metaphor for the bloody conflict of the 1990s – separates out worlds into the conscious and unconscious, and four passengers with the names of the evangelists reveal their surprising, surreal, bizarre and unsettling stories to Dejanović (the main character has the same surname as the writer). In the course of the inquest into the accident, Dejanović takes them before an inspector and a doctor, and that masterful shifting of frameworks, where plots gain and lose meaning, makes the novel an enticing adrenaline experience. Skilfully and unsentimentally, Dejanović brings to life universal emotions such as love, the desire for revenge, and the fear of death, and sets them in today’s Croatian reality without recourse to stereotypes. These are unique and at the same time archetypal stories of postwar tragedy, rooted in wartime events and trailing behind like a vow of vengeance despite the amount of time that has passed since.
The stories speed along the Belgrade-Zagreb line, and even when derailed they seem to defy reality and keep travelling towards their punchline. The plot of this phantasmagorical and somewhat brutal novel is shot through with an undertone of existentialist despair, an almost nihilistic awareness of the powerlessness of lonely, displaced individuals to break through the wall of isolation separating them from other, equally forlorn and alienated individuals. Steeped in an awareness of the inexorable givens of space and time to which we are condemned, and with the exception of a few ‘real’ spaces, the plot develops somewhere in the interstices of waking, sleep and deep coma in indefinable, hallucinatory or ‘altered’ states of mind. Precisely this skewed perspective allows the writer to speak in a different way about neuralgic points of the recent past that our present is still imbued with, as people try to ‘patch up’ the torn fabric of their lives and return to a more or less normal existence. He also warns of the danger of history repeating itself because of unhealed wounds and the activities of criminal postwar businessmen. In this sense, we should wholeheartedly agree with the narrator who concludes: ‘I ought to wake up.’ Because visions of pain and suffering live on in the psyches of people injured in the ‘accident’ although the scene has been cleaned up and the physical wounds treated.
Marko Dejanović’s novel Tickets, Please! is a breath of fresh air from the youngest generation of Croatian prose writers, who are unburdened by the stylistic and genre-defined divisions of the past. Also socially and politically aware, they seek their own forms of expression while experimenting with the heritage of various literary directions, from surrealism and existentialism to postmodernism. Tickets, Please! is an intuitive novel by a young, cool-headed writer: in dissecting the tidal forces of social and interpersonal relations, he also dissects himself – his prose is a reflection on his own refugee experience – at the very origins of artistic creation, where the ethical and the aesthetic meet and mirror each other.
Excerpt from Tickets, Please! (Sandorf, Zagreb 2015.)
MATTHEW’S SLAP IN THE FACE
‘I’ve used up a lot of time. Quite enough, I reckon. I didn’t keep any aside, although I’m frugal by nature. Then again, the two of you are right: can a person really save time? Is there any point in trying? I don’t know. I only know we can use it up. And I have used up, you see, twenty years and more. I frittered it away just like that. I spent time seeking revenge. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, perhaps it was time wasted. But I had to use it up like that.
‘I don’t know if it’s the same for you two, but I can’t let things go and just put them behind me. That’s how it is even for small things, let alone something like this… If you humiliate me, I have to get my own back. Every day without revenge is like a new spit or slap in the face. A slap is humiliating: you punch someone who’s your equal, but a slap is to put someone in their place.
‘My twenty years began with a slap. If it had just been the slap, I might have been able to forget. Or maybe not… You know that joke?’
We didn’t know it, or at least I didn’t. And I couldn’t even answer if I knew it or not since he didn’t say which joke he meant.
‘Which one?’ the conductor cut in appropriately.
‘The one about the peasants and the Germans.’
‘Go on,’ the conductor said. I couldn’t remember a single joke about peasants and Germans.
‘The Germans are searching a Bosnian village in World War Two. They drag a peasant, his wife and two daughters out of their house and interrogate them. The peasant is helping the Partisans because he is an honest man, but he refuses to say anything.
‘“Speak! Where are the Partisans?” the head Kraut yells.
‘“I don’t know,” the man says with an air of defiance.
‘“Tell us where the Partisans are, or we’ll kill your wife!”
‘“I don’t know!”
‘And the Kraut pushes his wife to her knees and puts a bullet in her head.
‘“Where are the Partisans?” the head Nazi goes again.
‘“I don’t know,” the peasant continues to lie.
‘“Tell us, or we’ll set fire to your house and property!”
‘“I don’t know!”
‘And they set fire to his house and property. He stands there, his daughters too, watching the house burn. Finally it collapses into a fiery heap and the head Nazi asks again:
‘“Where are the Partisans?”
‘“I don’t know,” the peasant says calmly, as if they haven’t just killed his wife and burned down his house.
‘“Listen, we’ll kill one of your daughters if you don’t tell us.”
‘“I have nothing to say,” he answers, as if not fearing for his daughters.
‘And the Kraut takes one daughter and points his pistol at her head.
‘“Where are the Partisans?”
‘“I don’t know.”
‘The pistol goes off and kills the girl. The peasant stands there motionless with his surviving daughter. As if they haven’t destroyed everything before his eyes.
‘“Where are the Partisans?” The head Kraut is angry by now, but the peasant is not.
‘“I don’t know.”
‘“We’ll kill your other daughter if you don’t tell us. We’ll stamp out your bloodline! Where are the Partisans?”
‘“I don’t know.”
‘And they drag the other daughter up in front of him. They don’t shoot her but beat her to death with their jackboots and rifle butts. The peasant can do nothing but look on. He stands there, and in front of him the head German.
‘“Speak! Where are the Partisans?” screams the Kraut.
‘“I don’t know,” the peasant says calmly, which completely infuriates the Kraut.
‘“Speak!” he shouts and hits the man on the cheek with the flat of his hand. The cheek goes red and the peasant holds his fingers to it; his eyes flash and his voice betrays the desire to sink his teeth into the Kraut’s throat:
‘“Oho, so now we’ve started slapping!”’
The conductor burst out laughing; I merely smiled. The joke left me cold. But I nodded to say I understood, while Matthew, still laughing, asked if we realised the full significance of a slap in these parts.
‘You see, Dejanović,’ the conductor remarked when he managed to subdue his laughter.
‘Good point! This joke explains the whole anti-fascist movement and why it was so successful. It’s all in the punchline. It even explains Tito’s legendary “No” to Stalin.’
‘Quite,’ added Matthew. ‘You can walk all over us, burn our land and kill our families. You can do all sorts of things, but don’t slap us. Don’t you dare… You know, a man once slapped me in the face. He didn’t stop at that, but that’s how it started. And I don’t know if I would have ignored the slap if that was the end of it, although I doubt it. It still hurts me today. It was in ‘91. I was living with my parents in Osijek. Now I’m living in Zagreb. But that’s not important. My father was a retired officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army. My mother had retired too. They, my sister and I all lived in the flat. I was about seventeen. My sister had just come of age.
‘I come from a mixed marriage. My old man was Croatian, my mother Serbian, and both as Yugoslav as could be. I didn’t even know their true nationalities until it all started; then I found out my sister and I were half-breeds. Our father assured us it would all blow over, that people were just a bit “brain-fucked”. He brought that word with him from the village in Bosnia where he was born. When someone is brain-fucked it means they’re upset, but their distress is meaningless and won’t have any real effect. Yeah, our father held that people were a bit brain-fucked. Our mother didn’t say anything. She didn’t state an opinion now, nor was she ever in the habit of speaking her mind because her husband was an officer. It was his right to command.
When things started to seethe and churn and people became brain-fucked, my old man remained calm.
‘“I’m a pensioner,” he joked, and then added seriously that he had no intention of getting mixed up in anything stupid, and that this would all blow over; the army would take up position if needs be and say, “Enough!” when it saw that it really was enough. There were those who asked him why he didn’t join in, but my father answered that he wouldn’t get mixed up in politics, and that, if someone were to attack his Osijek, he’d defend it. Until then, he explained, he would have no truck with anything. “I’m a pensioner,” he concluded, half joking, half serious. Then came ’91 and the break-up of the country; no one asked my old man anything any more, and he no longer said anything. Only at home, to us, he’d sometimes repeat that people were brain-fucked, but now even he wasn‘t sure any more. That’s probably why he was mostly silent. He didn’t know what to say, or what to command. Neighbours who we used to be on friendly terms with now avoided us. A cool exchange of “Hello”, “Hello”, was the most it came to. There was no having coffee together, no one asked my parents over, nor did my parents ask anyone to visit. Sometimes the phone would ring. My old man always insisted on answering it himself. He didn’t tell us who called or what they wanted, but we knew they were calling to insult him. Once my sister answered it when he was out. A man asked for dad, and when she said he wasn’t home the man told her to give him a message: that he’d cut his throat and those of his “Chetnik bastards”. We told our father, and he said he’d arranged with a friend from Zagreb to rent his flat. The friend travelled abroad and left the flat empty. My sister was due to start university anyway.
‘“He’ll be vacating the flat some time before summer. Take your brother with you and stay there until all this calms down a bit. Mum will go with you to help you settle in. I’ll stay here to look after the flat here,” our old man ordered. But the friend didn’t vacate his flat before summer; there had been complications and now he didn’t need to leave until sometime in August. My sister went to sit the entrance exam, passed it and returned to Osijek to wait for the beginning of the academic year. Having nothing to do, she just met friends and hung out in cafés. The old man’s orders were postponed until August. He wasn’t happy with the situation, but he didn’t seem worried. The only thing he couldn’t hide was his age. All at once he began to look old, and you could see he was a pensioner.
‘It wasn’t long after we celebrated my sister’s acceptance at the Faculty of Agriculture – a little party at home – that I had to endure my slap. It was early in the morning. Only our parents were awake. A group of men came to the door. Five of them. They squeezed in through the hall. None took off their shoes, although that was a custom.
‘The noise woke me up and I went out. My sister stayed in her room, only opening the door to see what the fuss was about, but our father gestured to her to shut it.
‘The five men were standing in the lounge room: they were young, only a few years older than me. My parents stood opposite them.
‘“Guys, I’m Croatian,” I heard my old man say.
‘“You’re a dickhead, not a Croatian,” the shortest of the five answered; later I found out his name was Darko. He was holding my father’s pistol. They had come to search for hidden weapons, they said, and had found the pistol my father kept as a memento of his career. “What do you want with this gun? You, Yugoslav – what’s with the gun?” Darko was shouting and hitting my old man in the chest with the grip of the pistol. He didn’t react, but I rushed up to stand between the two of them. Darko shifted the pistol to his left hand and slapped my face with his right. I was boiling over with a seventeen-year-old’s fury, but my old man stopped me from pushing in front of Darko again. My mother held on to me.
‘“Where do you think you’re going, little Chetnik?” Darko remarked to me and then turned again to my father. “Were you keeping this gun for him? To fire at us?”
‘“No. It’s a memento. I’m a pensioner.”
‘“A pensioner? And where did you work. Eh?”
‘The old man was silent. He realised they knew he’d been in the Yugoslav army. They obviously knew all about him, and his wife and children as well. Now Darko slapped him in the face too, and he didn’t look up, so Darko wouldn’t see his eyes. Then one of the others in the group came up in front of Darko.
‘“We’re confiscating the gun. We can’t let everyone in town be armed.”
‘“Alright,” the old man answered, his gaze fixed on Darko, who had gone up to the door of my sister’s room.
‘“All of you – it would be best for you to leave town. We only came to search the place. But there are those who come for other reasons.”
‘“Alright,” the old man replied, still watching Darko, who opened my sister’s door, went inside and shut the door again.
‘“Are we agreed?” the polite one asked.
‘“Yes, we’re agreed.
‘“Look at me, so I can see we understand one another.”
‘My old man shifted his gaze from the door of my sister’s room and looked at the polite one.
‘“Good, now we’ll search the flat for any other weapons and then we’ll leave you to pack your bags. While we’re searching, you sit down here nicely and drink your morning coffee,” he gestured towards the table.
‘We sat down, and the four young men began to rummage aimlessly through our drawers and cabinets. One went into my room and dug through everything there. Another made a mess in my parents’ bedroom. The other two rummaged around in the lounge room and the kitchen. No one went into my sister’s room. Neither did anyone come out.
‘It all lasted maybe another ten minutes, and then Darko opened the door my father had been staring at all the time without even blinking. The young men gathered together and left. The polite one, as he left, remarked to my old man to “be smart”, but he made no reply. He was still staring at my sister’s door. Finally she came out, white-faced and with shaking legs, and went to the bathroom. She didn’t speak to any of us, and none of us asked her anything. Ever.
‘We slept in the flat for another two nights, and then we all went by car to Zagreb. My father’s friend let us sleep at his place until he left for Germany.’
Matthew fell silent for a moment; the conductor was looking down at his knees, and I didn’t quite know what to say. I wanted to ask him about his sister but couldn’t pluck up the courage, and at the same time I couldn’t resist.
‘Did you ever ask your sister what happened?’ I cut in, ignoring the reproachful glance of the conductor.
‘No. There’s nothing to ask. It’s obvious what happened. Tijana is a strong girl. She finished university and got a job. She has a daughter and a husband… We’re not really in touch. We haven’t seen or called each other for a few years now… I never asked her anything. I used to start talking about that day, but she’d stop me. The first few times she changed the topic as if unintentionally, but later she told me I got on her nerves by constantly reminding her of it. I never spoke about her or wanted to find out anything. Mostly I spoke about myself: about the slap, and a bit about my father and the stroke he suffered less than a year after we moved to Zagreb. And a second one that finished him off a few years later. I told her I thought the old man had been broken by the slap he was unable to respond to. I tried to tell her that I too felt the burning shame of my slap even years later. It’s not like I didn’t care about everything else that happened, but from that day on I began to concentrate on the slap. Probably I’ve exaggerated and embellished it all this time. I’ve stewed over it so much I could tell you exactly where each of Darko’s fingers contacted my face. I could plot every position of his hand as it swung towards me. But it would be hard for me to guarantee that’s how it really was because I went over and over the slap as if I was playing Chinese whispers with myself.
‘Every thought of my parents or Tijana on that day would take me back to the slap and I’d grasp it like a baby gorilla holding on to its mother as she jumps from branch to branch. Instinctively I reduced that day to the slap and all the twenty-two years since to paying back that debt, plus interest. I knew at once I’d have to wait. I didn’t know it would be quite so long, but I knew I’d wait a while to get any sort of revenge. It was on my mind the moment after the slap. And it’s good my mother stopped me because my revenge would have failed just then. I didn’t know that, being so young, and I didn’t behave well towards my mother from then on. I know my mother wasn’t thinking about that when she stopped me, but she did me a favour whatever her motive.
‘In Zagreb I began to mix memories of the slap with scenarios of revenge. I made childish plans in my head, and a long time went by like that. I imagined going to Osijek armed to the teeth, passing by the sign with the name of the town, hiding behind the bushes and pouncing on Darko. Sometimes I knifed him there and then, other times I took him hostage and spent days listening to his pleas and lamentations, only to put him out of his misery with a bullet in his head.
‘I had all sorts of ideas. Once I started to tell my old man one of them, and he was furious and threw the tube of mustard at me that he’d been squeezing onto his plate next to his frankfurter. He missed, but after that I never said a word about it. Neither to him nor my mother, who I never spoke to anyway because I considered her a coward. But the incident with the mustard made me realise I’d have to wait at least until I moved away from my parents’. Little did I know that the old man would soon be crippled with a stroke, and then dead.
‘My mother needed longer to die. It’s true she didn’t find any friends in Zagreb, but she identified with my sister’s life and kept well, living through her. Women generally don’t die as quickly after the death of their husbands as men do after the death of their wives. It’s not fair, but that is the way it is. My mother began to deteriorate after Tijana moved out and started living with her boyfriend, who soon became a husband and father. My mother tried to transfer her concern for my sister to concern for me, but I didn’t let her. I went in and out of the flat, sometimes not speaking to her for days. I ate what she cooked, but never at the same time as her. Her questions and advice got on my nerves. I didn’t want to mention that day to her, to humiliate myself and rehash the slap she hadn’t let me avenge. And so the years went by.
‘The slap didn’t leave me, but my ideas for revenge were looking ever more unreal. I didn’t yet know the names of any of the five who had raided our flat. We heard that a man moved in, but he didn’t stay for long. There was a succession of tenants for a while. In the end, one lot stayed and are still there today, but they have no idea we ever lived there.
‘In particular, I knew nothing about Darko, not even his name. All my ambitious plans consisted only of executions performed one way or another, but there were absolutely no preparations. I was afraid the only moment for reacting to the slap had been immediately afterwards. And my mother had prevented me. If she hadn’t, maybe Darko wouldn’t have gone into Tijana’s room at all. He might have killed us all on the spot. Who knows.
‘By now I had a nightmarish mess in my head. I mixed memories of the slap with fantasies of revenge and the realisation that all this was crazy. I didn’t know how to stop, and I didn’t want to give up my plans for collecting the debt. I have no idea what would have happened if it hadn’t been for a bit of luck.
‘Three or four years had passed. I met an old school friend from Osijek at university, and he started talking about what happened there in ’91. He said he’d heard about the raid on our flat. He mentioned it apologetically, and then, as if wanting to redeem himself, said he’d heard that one of those involved was Darko Kontić, later a local entrepreneur and owner of an Osijek bar.
‘“He’s not exactly a tycoon, but he’s not doing badly. He’s expanding – and importing something. He must be into black marketeering. No one knows exactly what he does. He’s not a big fish, but he’s definitely a fish,” my friend explained. Darko Kontić wasn’t mentioned in the newspapers. There were no photos of him so I couldn’t check whether he was truly one of the five. But still, I had a lead. I had to find out if I really had uncovered one of them. If I had, he’d lead me to the others one way or another. I memorised the name Darko Kontić. But I couldn’t go to Osijek immediately because of my mother, however much she got on my nerves. I knew she’d waste away if she heard I’d gone back. Maybe she’d die of fright. I didn’t need that. So I waited and went through the papers; every day I bought Glas Slavonije, the local paper from Osijek, to see if there was a photo of the young local businessman Darko Kontić.
‘My mother died seven years after my old man. A few months before her death, I finally came across the story I’d been seeking in the paper. Darko Kontić, the successful entrepreneur from Osijek, had become the exclusive importer of Serbian kajmak cream for Croatia. It wasn’t much, but Slavonija took pride in its young man’s success. Well, Darko wasn’t so young any more, but he was still youthful-looking. In the photo he seemed only a little more mature than in my memory. He was smiling and posing in front of a fridge full of kajmak.
‘“I heard about Darko having been in your flat because he’s become well known in Osijek. Word about him spread, and we heard that he’d started business during the war. Mostly there was talk about him trafficking across the border with whatever he could find, but others say he raided houses, too, and was part of a team that used to intimidate people. That’s how he earned his money before he started black marketeering. He and some others got names and addresses and proceeded to drive people out of their homes. They say he operated in our area, and I heard he raided your place too,” my university acquaintance told me. I remembered every one of his words when I saw Darko’s photo in the paper. Smug and successful, in a suit, with a serving of kajmak in one hand. He has no idea, I thought to myself.
‘I quickly realised I had to concentrate on Darko and that it was pointless to dream about the others until I’d dealt with him. My mother was still alive, but you could see she wouldn’t last long. I managed to be on good terms with her again before she died. I sat next to her bed and listened to her stupid plans for me. And I didn’t say they wouldn’t eventuate, although I knew they never would. I told her I’d try; I nodded and let her ruffle my hair. I was waiting for her to die and making my own plans. I was no longer a day-dreaming teenager. I knew I first had to find out all I could about Darko, and only then work out the next step.
‘A week after my mother died, I travelled to Osijek again for the first time. I found Darko’s bar and had a drink. He wasn’t there. I visited old friends to re-establish contact. I was careful not to mention Darko to anyone for a long time.
‘I went to our block and found out who was living there. I knocked on the doors of neighbours, greeted them with a smile, even sat and drank a glass of rakija with some and listened to their justifications.
‘“Politicians are shit. They set people against each other so as to make money,” explained the neighbour who had been one of the first to take Tito’s picture off the wall and put up Tuđman’s instead. He left Tito under the wardrobe just in case; you never know. Now he didn’t have anyone’s picture on the wall.
‘I began to roam around Osijek, gathering information bit by bit. I felt I should do things slowly so no one would notice. Osijek is a big city, but small enough that too much haste would draw people’s attention. They would hear I was asking questions. The news would reach Darko, too, and I didn’t want that to happen. That’s why collecting information took so long.
All this time, Darko flourished. It may not have been the mushrooming prosperity he wanted, but prosper he did. He drove a good car, had a wife, two children and a lovely house, and travelled regularly. He owned several companies and had wound down two or three more. From time to time he bought land, property or a share of a new building, and then resold them. He made money on everything, a bit here and a bit there, fucked a few people over, but no one badly enough that it would cost him dearly. He was unintentionally clever; strong enough for people to know him, but weak enough that they didn’t feel threatened. He wanted to be bigger and stronger but couldn’t quite make it. He joined the regional party, but they didn’t take much notice of him either. He paid them protection money like a middling entrepreneur, and they didn’t trouble him too much with inspections and audits. He opened a restaurant with a delivery service, and the city councillors ordered čevapčići, patties and kebabs – with free kajmak.
‘He tried calling himself the Croatian King of Kajmak, thinking the title would bring extra status and money, but the nickname didn’t catch on. Kajmak didn’t come to Croatia solely through him anyway. It’s not the kind of product that can have an exclusive chain of distribution. He began going to Serbia more often in recent years. He was trying to find someone to invest in the production of kajmak using their recipe, but in Croatia. Darko would be the local boss, and that person a sleeping partner and financer of things from there. He was offering production of all sorts of things, not just kajmak, but he believed kajmak would be the best way to enter the local market. He hadn’t yet found anyone to accept his offer, but no one had declined either. They were procrastinating, but Darko didn’t know. He thought he was the one in control. And he liked going to those meetings; it was nice to wear a suit and sit opposite another man wearing a suit. He realised he enjoyed being in the company of people with more money than him. He didn’t know that they only accepted him, and wined and dined him, to curry his favour in case by some odd chance he became more important.
‘I knew all this about Darko by keeping track of him and his affairs. In the last few months I began to follow him on his trips to Belgrade. He went by car, I by train. He stayed at the Hotel Slavija. I wasn’t far away.
‘Last month I even went up to him and talked to him. I noticed he ate every day at a fast-food place right next to Slavija Square, near that huge roundabout. Mostly he ordered a gourmet hamburger with chips and a soft drink and sat on the small covered terrace, eating his lunch surrounded by young men and girls. They were noisy; he was in his suit and quiet.
‘I‘d grown a beard and was wearing a baseball cap, so I was sure he wouldn’t recognise me. He wouldn’t have recognised me without them either, but I had the option of shaving off the beard, removing the cap, and disguising myself once more.
‘I went out onto the terrace and sat at the table next to Darko’s. He was eating and took no notice. You could see he was enjoying the hamburger. Then I saw for the first time that he had an extra serving of kajmak. He slathered every piece of hamburger he cut off with kajmak before putting it into his mouth. He was enjoying the food. He even dunked his chips in the kajmak.
‘“You’ll mess up your suit!” I warned him. He started, as if I’d wrenched him out of deep thought.
‘“No, I won’t. I eat here often,” he told me.
‘“I’ve never seen you. I’m here often, too,” I said to him. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wearing a suit so relaxed, and enjoying kajmak. If it drips, you can say goodbye to the suit!”
‘“Ha ha, don’t worry. I know how to manage kajmak,” he replied. “I’m the Croatian King of Kajmak!”
‘“I didn’t mean to disturb Your Majesty,” I smiled too, and raised the beer I’d bought solely so as to drink to his health at the right moment. He had a cola and was forced to raise it to return my greeting.
‘“You’re not disturbing me. I like eating here. In the business world we’re always looking for luxury restaurants to do deals at overpriced lunches. Actually we would prefer to sit at this sort of place and eat honest hamburgers or čevapčići with kajmak. All of us are really still working people as far as our stomachs go, so from time to time we need honest food.”
‘I raised my glass to him again and let the conversation die.
‘There was a reason I went to talk to him. I don’t know why, but I needed to know why he always ate there. I’d already chosen that place for tallying the two decades of cold debt. Plus interest. I had to be sure there was nothing about the place that could mess things up or even stop me. A far from proletarian sentiment.
‘And that brings us to the present day. Darko left again for Belgrade, with me following behind. I knew no one would check my bag at the border. I’d wrapped a pistol in a plastic bag at the bottom and, as I expected, I entered Serbia without any problems. I went to Slavija Square this morning freshly shaven and with my hair cut. Darko soon arrived. He ordered a gourmet hamburger, chips and a cola and took it all out onto the terrace on a tray, sat down and began to eat. I ordered only a large serving of chips, and no one noticed that I didn’t take off my gloves when I carried it out to the terrace. I sat behind Darko’s back and watched him eat. I planned to liquidate him as soon as possible and then disappear. But I changed my mind as I watched him. He was enjoying every mouthful, so I left him to it. I let him cut up his hamburger, spread it with kajmak and wash down each mouthful with cola. I was feeling strangely benevolent, even though it wasn’t smart for me to sit there any longer than necessary. The longer I sat, the more time people had to notice me for some reason, to look at me and remember me. When he spread the last mouthful with kajmak and put it in his mouth, I took out the pistol and rested it on my knee for a moment, just to catch my breath. Then I stood up. Darko swallowed his mouthful, and even though his back was to me, I know he enjoyed the combination of hot minced meat and kajmak. He swallowed it but didn’t have time to regret that he’d finished his lunch. I shot him in the back of the head. He fell forward, and there was a commotion on the terrace. There were screams and the sound of tables being overturned. People went all brain-fucked, and I left the terrace and walked quickly around the corner, and then another. I put the pistol back into the plastic bag and caught a taxi to Zemun on the western outskirts. There I took the first bus to Nova Pazova. I got rid of the pistol and the plastic bag, calmed down and waited for this train.’
‘How did you get rid of the pistol?’ I had to ask.
‘I took it apart and threw it into a sewer. If anyone ever finds it, they won’t be able to link it to anyone. And if they connect it to Darko they’ll find it very hard to link it to me.’
I sat there, not knowing what to think. The fellow had just told me how he’d killed another man.
‘All nicely planned, all traces hidden – and then you tell me everything,’ I quickly summarised.
‘I’m not worried. I’m sure you sympathise. I’ve told you everything and I’m sure you understand. I had to tell someone. For a long time I planned to first remind Darko, to tell him who I was and why I was killing him. But then I realised it would bog me down. It would lead to arguments, pleas and denials. He’d offer to let me return the slap. He’d insist he only went into my sister’s room to search it. He’d go on and on about it. No, I knew everything I needed to know. And then again, something in me makes me want to tell the whole story as best I can. That’s what I’ve done, and the rest is up to you,’ Matthew concluded, raised his hand in farewell, and left me alone again with the conductor.
Translated by Coral Petkovich
Statement by the judges on the novel’s shortlisting for the Janko Polić Kamov Award:
‘Skilfully and unsentimentally, Dejanović brings alive universal emotions – love, the desire for revenge, and the fear of death – and sets them in today’s Croatian reality without recourse to stereotypes. Unique, remarkable and at the same time archetypal stories of postwar tragedy speed along the Belgrade-Zagreb line, and even when derailed they seem to defy reality and keep travelling towards their punchline.’
‘Dejanović’s novel is more than just the tale of a forlorn, despondent individual. John, Luke, Matthew and Mark are four passengers whom the conductor brings before the main protagonist like modern-day evangelists. Their stories, which contain a range of situations alluding to biblical motifs and metaphors, allow the author to open discussion of various social problems.’
Večernji list newspaper:
‘In his novel Tickets, Please! Dejanović convincingly plays with prejudices, meanings, knowledge, beliefs and taboos. He is not keen on description but likes to ask questions and provoke answers. Short and sharp, like a well-trained boxer who knows no mercy and has no time for literary affectation.’