Century
Hundred and one stories of one century

AN AILING FAMILY

the Ritih family’s last evening in their homeland was peaceful. They sat in the closed warehouse eating salted herring from mismatched plates, and the shells of 120mm German grenades lay scattered all around the table. It was leap year day 1920 and Sevastopol harbor, overcrowded with small steamers, was rocked by menacing detonations from Cape Sarich and Balaklava. Somewhere beyond, on the Crimean narrows, stood Wrangel’s soldiers and as dead as, like the Peloponnesians, still awaiting orders. And down on the sea the docks were overflowing. The strangest procession of refugees was flowing towards the harbor: exquisite automobiles, each drawn by six horses, furnishings from entire households, ladies with little dogs, officers on peasant wagons with suicidal eyes. Just about everything was passing by in that column…

Aleksandar Sergeyevich Ritih had until recently been the minister of agriculture; three years ago in the capital he’d managed the state’s grain purchases and spoken at the last session of the Fourth Duma, and now he was eating in silence, cultivating just a little of his prewar hypocrisy and good manners. That same afternoon as he was vying for a place on the boat, the unruly crowd on one of the docks had pressed against him and almost pushed him into the pitch-black water. Then he’d thought how nice it would be to leave the world, which had reached its end anyway, to fall into the icy sea, be pulled under the hull of a boat and drowned there in the all-consuming peace. He tried to lean over dangerously, commending himself to the blind mass that was tramping and shouting, but without success. He did not fall in. At the last moment the crowd pulled him back and cast him aside like a cowardly suicide. At dinner he reproached himself for still being alive as he disloyally fed his weak and disappointed organism, worn out by war and poverty.

Some time after midnight he was to embark with his sons on the steamer “Constantine” owned by the Russian Steamship and Trade Company, heading for Constantinople. On the Turkish cobblestones next to the small fountains and palaces, Aleksandar Sergeyevich Ritih would ask the old questions, “What’s to be done? Who is to blame? Where do we go from here?” and it would sound ridiculous, like a tiny, faded echo. He would walk next to the waters of the Bosphorus, be overly considerate, so rudely kind, and would never find out that back at the table in the Putilovski Company’s warehouse his younger son Aleksey Aleksandrovich had thought of killing him. Had he suspected that his son intended to do him in, he would almost have offered up his gray head there at the table with a fatherly euthanasic blessing; but he did not know it. His son was eating in silence at the time, breaking off pieces of salted herring and thinking that this respected imperial creature, this former member of the State Council who did not remove his redingote even on Sunday, should have been strangled out of compassion long ago. Among the scattered shells of German grenades, Aleksey Aleksandrovich had thought of bringing an end to this fatherhood, of raising his hand against his father like Oedipus, of jumping across the table and strangling him, but he drew back at the last moment. Strangely enough, just then the former major staff officer of General Denkin remembered the words of Nikolay Fyodor whom he had read long ago. The spirit of brotherhood, wrote Nikolay Fyordov, should not be restricted to people living here and now. Mankind comprises a whole, and the spirit of fraternity must be broadened to include the dead - “our fathers”. Whether it was Fyodor’s devotion to reviving the dead that actually prevented him from killing old Ritih, he did not know. He choked on a fishbone that got stuck in his throat. Some three years later, in the darkness of the dimly lit Kazbek restaurant somewhere in Paris, Aleksey Aleksandrovich would dance the kazatchok between the tables, thinking about this night. He would already know about the depravity of the democratic century. He would sink deeper and deeper into the mire of Parisian life, earning 25 francs a day and feeling sorry that on leap year day 1920 he had not killed his father, thereby opting for infernal scorn, since he had not opted for life...

He was to say this to himself in three years, and now he cowardly coughs up the fishbone that almost strangled him and deprived him of new torment in exile. His mother pounds him on the back, his older brother Nikolay Aleksandrovich commends him to God. Then there is silence once more. The Ritih family’s last meal continues calmly. Beyond the locked wooden door comes the murmuring of people along with new menacing explosions around Sevastopol. Something howls far away in the snowy, wolf-filled Caucasus highlands. Nikolay Aleksandrovich, the elder son of Aleksandar Sergeyevich Ritih, gulps large mouthfuls of food like a man who has not eaten in a long time. He was once a monk. Silence, flickering candles and prayer were his companions, and tonight he is simply hungry. Like a little cheat he hides various crumpled bills in his pockets: imperial rubles, Cossack rubles, Duma rubles. He grabs a salted herring with its peculiar odor and at that moment is deeply aware of the power of evil. In any case, Solovyev had predicted that the followers of Christ would be reduced to a persecuted minority without the power to impose their will on others. All worldly powers would thus shift into the hands of the Antichrist. What did it mean to him this leap year day 1920, sequestered in the Putilovski Company’s warehouse on the docks of Sevastopol, that Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyev predicted the union of all Christians at the end of the twentieth century and final earthly triumph? Nikolay Ritih is a coward who is to end his days the next year in Belgrade, in the Russian refugee hospital. The metastasis that he now feels like a pleasant pain will spread over all his tissue like pernicious lilies, and the doctors in the White Cross sanatorium on Topcider will not even try to cure him. Behind the white screen that encloses his death rattle, he will remember this evening when he ate canned herring indifferently, the same way his father used to sign imperial decrees. The old questions will cross his mind, too, and he will not know their answers either.

The Ritih family’s last evening in the homeland passed in silence. At times it seemed that someone wanted to say something, but then changed his mind. The crooked forks and rusty spoons just clinked against their plates. They were eating salted herring from mismatched plates and scattered all around the table lay the shells of 120mm German grenades.
For leap year 1920

THE MEAL

In 1941, when troops from the 12th German army were within reach of Belgrade, goldsmith Carlo Ferfera still had his jeweler’s loupe under his shaggy brow. Until the last moment he had refused to believe in the defeat of the army to which he had sent both sons. He was happy, in any case, that they had not been in Belgrade during the bombing; although the jewelry shop on Garashanin Street had remained untouched and not even the display window had cracked, a direct hit by a German shell had leveled the family house in Neimar. Karlo always got up early and left for the shop, but his sons had been accustomed to sleeping until noon. Now they would have been dead...

But luckily they were now far away, perhaps in captivity, and Ferfera stayed in his jewelry shop. He was among the last to hear about the fall of Nish and the rapid demise of the defenders of Kragujevac. He cleaned the gold in the shop window, deceiving himself with vague hopes in the British armed forces, musing about a joint Serbian-Greek-English front in Macedonia and Thessaly. On Tuesday he learned - again among the last - that the German army had entered Bitola and Ohrid and he realized that this was the end. There would never be a joint front, or a retreat through Albania, or the breakthrough of a new Thessalonika Front. He finally decided to flee all alone. He put the bracelets and delicate little chains, the pawned ring and the new collection of signet rings into a little bag and set off. The bell above the door to the jewelry shop jingled and the old man stopped. He was not thinking just then, as many others before him, about whether or not to lock the door. Something else crossed his mind. There was certain to be someone out there waiting to rob him on the dirty, obstructed roads or in suspicious train compositions.

So he returned to the shop, holding onto the bell as he once did to keep it from jingling, and sat in his old chair. This time, however, he did not put his loupe back in place. It was evening and Karlo Ferfera was hungry. He turned the little bag inside out; strangely aware that his old life meant nothing anymore, he began to swallow the bracelets and delicate chains. With trembling hands he tore off the precious and semiprecious stones from the signet rings and ate them like a man who has not dined in a long time. Then he went out and did not close the door. He had to hurry. He had no time left.

He managed to get onto the overcrowded night train for Uzice. None of the passengers believed they would actually reach the Uzice hills, nor did anyone notice the old man huddled in the corner of the stuffy freight car. A bit before midnight - only several hours before Germany’s Prince Eugene motorized brigade marched into the city - the train reached Uzice after all. Right there on the platform, Lady Luck smiled at the old Jew. His stomach contorted with pain, barely stopping himself from vomiting, he almost collided with his younger son right next to the train composition. Elijah Ferfera’s unit had been dismissed. A bullet had hit the boy’s head, injuring his sight and hearing. Elijah was greatly surprised to hear his father’s jumbled ravings about the gold, about the fact that after his death he, his son, had to slit open his father’s stomach with his own hands. The old man repeated over and over that he was then to find his brother and escape with the treasure somewhere, anywhere... Eliahu thought that the old man was suffering from typhoid fever and took him to the military hospital tents, where Karlo Ferfera quickly passed away. Soon after came the screeching sound of German tanks. Sergeant Eliahu Ferfera had just enough time to bury his father in peace.
For plain 1941

SELF-PORTRAITS

Today we will talk about Mladen Sharbinovic’s self-portraits. He painted seventeen of them and returned to them throughout his life like pages in a diary. On the very first one, painted in 1921 during his school days, we note the sharp contours, clearly shaded and bordered surfaces that give the painter’s face a note of severe restraint. There we can already discern a thin, barely visible line. It begins right under the lock of blond hair, goes down the middle of the forehead, follows the crease of the pouch under the eye and ends with a slight fissure at the bottom of the cheek. On the first self-portrait it seems as though the paint has slightly cracked in those places, like a fine crack on porcelain.

On the next portrait we can already see the influence of Paris and the private school where Sharbinovic spent the days of his youth between February 1925 and October 1926. His face is now radiant, turned towards the observer in an unobtrusive half-profile. This portrait does not have the clearly bordered dark surfaces as in the previous one from 1921. The coloring is optimistic, Cezannesque, with smells from the eternal city; the line is there as well, changing its course somewhat, but persistent, slightly thicker, drawn with more shading...

All self-portraits from between the war respire with thick, nubby expressionistic layers of paint. The works Self-portrait in Mushicki’s vineyards, Self-portrait next to an old Armenian church, Self-portrait with reflections from the Danube, Self-portrait with a black cat and Self-portrait at the entrance to the churchyard of the Church of the Assumption are the history of a facial line that is already thick and starting to forewarn. From this period, Self-portrait from the Almash cemetery deserves special mention. On it, a damp, bleached wooden cross from a grave is placed above the artist. The surprised observer will note that one-half of Mladen Sharbinovic’s face is in shadow, while the other half is in bright morning sunlight. And the dividing line is once again that mysterious artistic scar that meanders down the middle of the pale forehead and sinks into the soft paint under the left eye. Even then many had begun to examine this curious feature on the artist’s self-portraits – for his face truly had no scars - but the real answer as to where it came from was not to be given until four decades later... At that time poet Rastko Petrovic wrote about the washed face without scars painted with a shadow over it. And many others became interested in this curious feature of Sharbinovic’s self-portraits. When asked where that persistent incision on his self-portraits came from, the painter replied mysteriously: “I don’t know exactly,” he said, “all I know is that I always paint it in the same place. That might be my end, my final departure...”

And he continued to paint it. On the next four self-portraits originating before the April war of 1941, the line on painter Mladen Sharbinovic’s head is no longer hidden. It resembles a serious gash, a dangerous scar like those after bloody barroom fights with broken bottles. On Self-portrait next to an open French door balcony on McKenzie Street, painted just before the war, we see the painter with swirling storm clouds behind him. His back is turned towards the lightning that flashes low over Belgrade rooftops. The line is also strange. It is painted on the artist’s pale and illuminated face in bright red paint like one of the veins from an anatomical atlas showing the course of the arteries on a man’s face. That slash on painter Sharbinovic’s face announces, without doubt, the approaching war, capitulation and collapse... The painter saw the first German soldiers on the streets of Belgrade through that same French door on the McKenzie Street balcony.

During the occupation he painted very little, not only because muses are silent while cannons roar but also because he was one of the first to joint the Chetnik movement; he fought between Stublin and Jabucje in the detachments of major Zvonko Vuckovic. Only one pencil drawing is noted from that time, probably originating before the dissolution of Dragoslav Mihailovic’s forces. On it we see a tired Mladen Sharbinovic, though it seems he is not tired from battle or the recent defeat of the fatherland’s forces, rather from the line that persecutes him and splits his face.

Right after this self-portrait, which is somewhat of a rough sketch done quickly in a state of agitation, came the collapse, capture and trial of Sharbinovic’s favorite general. The painter went abroad and nothing more was heard of him in Belgrade and Novi Sad. A lot has happened since that time and the present: examining the self-portraits, we can nonetheless speak about life and a tragic end - an end forewarned by the line probably back in the 1921 self-portrait... As an émigré, Mladen Sharbinovic shared the same blood type, the same anemic and melancholic traits as other political refugees. He often changed his place of residence and wandered aimlessly, adopting the look of the persecuted who are attacked by the forces of darkness and old memories. Toledo, San Sebastian, Lisbon, London, Dauville and finally Paris: his last address was no. 92 Avenue Philippe Auguste. The painter took part in many emigrant organizations, but still called himself a “man of the twenty-fifth hour”. During those years he painted with a heavy brush and somewhat refined but dry palette. Three small canvases, painted between 1948 and 1956, show all the tragedy of his tormented, abject life with one line. Self-portrait in the midday heat of Toledo, Self-portrait with London pigeons, Self-portrait next to abandoned ships in the Dauville harbor verify his return to the technique of his youth of alternating uniform ochre surfaces. The fissure, however, is no longer just a thin line as though the paint has slightly cracked in those places. In the three self-portraits in exile, the line opens up like a festering wound. The scar progresses shamelessly across the face; the painter’s interior, his diseased thoughts and all his indistinct fears seem to protrude along it.

Mladen Sharbinovic did not paint any self-portraits for ten years after this. He started his last one on the day he was killed. The mysterious visitor, undoubtedly sent through secret channels from the fatherland, surprised him as he was finishing his last portrait, this time clearly split in two halves. The visitor brutally swung an axe and hit the painter on the face as if it was not real life, but the outline for a book. After this terrible murder he turned on his heels and left without a word. The French police found a bloody body on Avenue Phillipe Auguste. They noticed an unmistakable scar on the face: it started right under the lock of gray hair, went down the middle of the forehead, followed the crease of the pouch under his left eye and ended at the bottom of his cheek. The last canvas was still on the easel. The model and the face were identical at last.
For plain 1966

(Translating: Alice Copple Tošić)