The House of a Good Friend
Author: Andrej Nikolaidis
I could not write a travel piece about Pula. But not owing to the fact that I visited Pula many times, and it welcomed me with open arms, if you can say so when you are determined to flatter the audience that is hosting you, you or your text, whatever. So it became my city, too, a city in which I am not a stranger.
There is no place in which I am not a stranger. This could,in theory, make me a perfect travel book writer- the one who could write a travelogue about the city in which he lives. Or about the city in which he was born. But every refugee could do that. The refugee experience leads to that: you end up writing about visiting your hometown.
I said no.
I could not write a travel piece about Pula, but not because I have heard and read that, in the age of Google Earth and Street View, a travelogue has become a literary form that not only has no future, but also lacks sense. The Internet today is full of travel blogs: hence, the form. The only thing missing is literature.
If you are a (travel book) writer, you do not write about what can be seen, but about what you see. The world that is everybody’s oyster is perfectly hidden, as Poe's The Purloined Letter instructs. Or to put it in the words of Borislav Pekić: that which is obvious, is not true. The fact that writing about cities in which you are a stranger makes no sense, because everyone can, upon pressing their finger on the phone screen, see every part of that city and read every historical and trivial fact about every stone - really has no sense. Or it has: as much as the claim that we are all going to die deprives the literature that talks about death of the reason to exist. By the way, the only thing that could destroy literature is human immortality, but that is another story that we’ll tell, or won't, some other time.
I cannot write a travel piece about Pula or about any other city for the same reason that I was never able to retell a book that I have just read. No matter how short that book was or how simple the plot was, if it had two or thousand and two characters, whenever I turned the last page and closed the book I had no idea what had or to whom and why it had happened, even though I have just read it. I do not know nor did I ever know the names of the Karamazov Brothers, or of the heroes that appear in The Name of the Rose. It helps when the name of the hero/heroine is also the name of the book, for instance, Anna Karenina or The Great Gatsby.
That is the price of my unscrupulous parasitic way of reading, which implies that while you are reading you do not think about what you are reading, you rather think about what you will write, thanks to what you have just read.
For the same reason, I do not know the names of any hotels - in Pula, Brussels, Rome, or Berlin, whatever. I do not know anything about the neighborhood in which those hotels are located, even less about the appearance of the rooms where I lay and changed. Because I had actually not been there, I had been in the associations and reflections which that place/time caused.
I do not know the names of the streets or where those streets I passed lead. I do not remember the floors, or the color or the woodwork of the buildings beside which I had walked. I also have no idea about who, when and why erected all those grandiose monuments of the human spirit, to which I was taken, for God’s sake, what a waste of effort and time.
I cannot write a travel piece because - if it were about Pula - it would look like this.
There is a hotel on the top of the hill. You leave from hotel and walk for a minute or two. In the building on your right, you can find an exceptional restaurant. Inside, at the big table, there are a lot of people: a lot more than I would want them to be. I am sitting in dead silence, wearing my garish red “Marks & Spencer” shirt and to my right is Filip David. To my right is also Magdalena Vodopija. A few chairs away from them is Miljenko Jergović. They are talking about Kiš.
If you continue walking straight ahead, you will pass by the stadium. On the right, some buildings look like a copy/paste of the pavilion on Grbavica Street, in Sarajevo, where at Lenjinova 17, my grandma Jelena used to live. You slip through the gauntlet of memories and you find yourself in front of the church. From there - again straight ahead, down. And there you are in front of Uljanik's wall. There was a miniature copy of that shipyard in Tivat: it was called Arsenal. Today, where Arsenal once stood, there are 200-star hotels and empty apartments of rich Russians and Westerners, in which no one is ever staying. Shipbuilders from Arsenal are at home or under the ground, recalling a better past. There are no more craftsmen, only servants who serve crews of anchored yachts whose masts produce creepy noises when it’s windy: as if the noblesse are fencing with human bones. Con men's sons played punk and metal. I do not know what the butler's kids will play.
And there you are: at the Fair. Here are the books. Here are the dear people. It is only called a fair. Actually, it is the house of a good friend.
And you write emails to your friends, you send them the first versions of the script, you curse their father and mother, whatever, but you do not write a travel piece about your friends.
You are here, it is the year 2009, 2013, 2017, or 2030, people still shake hands, they hug, and they lean over the opened books in the hands of another human being, and you understand: Pula is, in your unwritten but finished text, a garden surrounding the Fair. And the Fair, the Fair is the heart of that garden.