Those Who Come Later by Ivna Žic
At the Festival Neue Literatur, a Crash Course in Contemporary German Literature
This year’s Festival Neue Literatur runs from November 11th to 14th. To reserve your seat, click here. The following excerpt was translated by Alta L. Price
YEAR YEARS GRANDFATHER
She’s snoring. The woman below me is snoring, she’s snored all night. Pale calves poke out past the edge of her bed, dotted with mosquito bites. She’s sweating, I’m sweating, her bug bites have been scratched raw, the soles of her bare feet are bandaged yet bear welts from her sandals, blue veins, and stubble. The roomette smells of bad breath and sour armpits.
It’s no longer night.
I sit up. The blanket is too short, but after awhile it stops mattering how much my body has to bend, I’ve been en route for almost twelve hours already, once again having hardly slept, once again taking this trip that neither ceases nor resolves a thing, aside from its own repetition, aside from its duration—these twelve familiar hours—and where do they all accumulate, anyway, these ever new, nearly twelve-hour trips? They must be piling up somewhere in this bent-over body, I think, trying to think them away, brushing them off along with all these trips. A hundred times, or has it been five hundred times already, or just a whole lot? For one lone body maybe it’s already too much. Once it was just three times a year, then four, and then came the years when only summertime and Christmas trips were possible, so these hours and their almost exact same quantity grew inevitable, determining our movements toward and away from one another once again, ever since the day we packed our bags, closed up our place on the top floor of the apartment complex in Novi Zagreb, as the second generation became the first to leave, and my mother put me in the yellow-striped skirt, strapped my brother to her belly, and we boarded the flight. Well packed, well prepared, well organized: an apartment, job, and kindergarten awaited us, and we traded all that was familiar—the streets, the complex, the entire neighborhood, my grandparents, my aunt who lived in the city, the many parks and green getaways, the sarma and stuffed peppers, the little animal-themed chocolates with collectible wrappers, Zagreb, the city, and the whole country, which was a different one back then, one that would soon change—for all that was new: a new degree of distance and its value, the recollection that from now on everything would be different, bilingual dreams and vacations that flew by too fast, always too little time for our many relatives, always too little time for real conversation and connection, always run, run, run! Easter, Christmas, Easter again, already Christmas again—and in between, beforehand, and usually afterward a bad conscience, a tangle of language, and a howling somersault, meanwhile a childhood by the seaside far away, anke for butter, back home it was putar, and Grüezi, Ade, Merci, Mrs. Rüedi, the Nadines and Stefanies and Chrigis and Sämis at Chindsgi and in school, meanwhile a course of study, now even farther away, all beginning on that day my mother put me in the yellow-striped skirt, strapped my brother to her belly, and we boarded the flight. A short storm, a spilled Coca-Cola and then touchdown in Zürich, where father awaited us, a snapshot for the family photo album, in which just behind us you can make out the partial words KUNFT ZU, the end of the city’s name, Zurich, obscured by someone’s head in the background, the beginning of the word ankunft, “arrivals,” cut off by the camera. Switch those bits around and you get Zukunft, “future.” This marks our ground zero, from which everything then sprouted out in two directions. The hours in between and the hours always missing must be piling up somewhere, into a stack so high that it can no longer be carried away.
Outside it’s now the suburbs, the countryside is gone, the morning sun shines brightly, grey concrete blocks rise up, suburbs, the big city, it will all become a ghost town, the train now half empty. In a seaside country, by August everyone has left town. The ground is ablaze, dusty, almost all the windows in the concrete blocks are open, and AC units, as well as the occasional satellite dish, dot the exteriors.
I turn around.
Three days ago, yet another train.
I turn around.
It starts three days prior, I turn onto my stomach, onto my back, onto my side, and it ceases, I turn around, in a train to Paris, three days ago, I turn around, in a purple-and-red high-speed train, body ablaze in an ice-cold compartment, silence surrounding me, I turn around, and through this silence slink out to the bathroom, change, in the hope that no one will notice, as if anyone would even care whether I had changed, whether I now looked better, or worse, or simply different, an insecurity that, all in all, mattered to not a single person on the train, aside from him.
I’m lying on my back. I’m lying still.
And yet his hands and eyes know every inch of my body by heart, they know the dips between my shoulders, in the crooks of my arms, around my collarbones, even deep asleep they could trace the outline of my chest, my ears, my throat, hands that have penetrated so deeply, that have disassembled and then reassembled my body over and over again, I changed, as if such a small decision were capable of determining all the others, as if it were armor in which I might step out feeling fully secure, or at least a little more secure. If I could come to a clear decision while on this too-cold train to Paris, then it must mean I’d be able to reach yet another one again after my arrival. And yet there was no such thing as secure or insecure when I thought back to our encounters and embraces, there was just me, and him, and there was no armor with which I might fight for the one or the other, and so I invoked this act of changing, I invoked my underwear, my shirt, my pants and socks, I invoked every part of my body to protect this encounter. I could do no more in that too-cold train compartment three days ago, as I headed for Paris, perhaps in order to come to a decision. And yet I already knew. I had already known for awhile now. I knew that we never said goodbye, not after any of our encounters, and so we wouldn’t this time either. I knew we’d never find an end, and that nevertheless, for some time now, in a certain way it was already over. I nevertheless went, three days ago, just as everything else had nevertheless happened over this entire year.
As the train arrived in Paris, I left my invocations in the compartment. We’ve taken no vows and have no timid trysts.
I turn around.
Now Zagreb Zapadni Kolodvor.
Now the West Station.
Now the Westin Hotel,
which we go past, heading right.
Now it’s early morning, no longer night.
Now she says, up close: Where have you been off to again for so long?, with a hint of reproach. As she says this, my grandmother carefully strokes the stinking, wrinkled shirt lying on my suitcase: Where were you again? And: Aren’t you tired? Sure, of course I am, but I don’t say so, as all my ancestors come in, greeting me, slowly pushing in one after the other. They sit down all around me, and soon fill the entire compartment. Their voices carry a hint of reproach, but I know just the same you’re all happy to see me again. With you all. Us all, with one another. Shortly before arrival, language twists around on your tongues, you all say: Now you’re here again, now you can say “us” again, not “you all.” All of us are us, anyway. But what “us”? You’re all dead! There’s my cross-eyed aunt, who never found herself a husband and was one of the few daughters allowed to be buried, or maybe forced to be buried, in my great-grandfather’s family plot in the tiny cemetery on the windswept island. And there’s my hunchbacked great-uncle from the same windswept island, his hands smell like he’s been working the fields, his skin has been wrinkled by the same winds sweeping the island itself, he has no teeth left. Next to him are four more siblings of my island grandmother, then countless more siblings from my island grandfather, then my grandmother from the city, the pianist in high heels with curlers in her hair and freshly manicured nails, then my mother’s great-grandma, then her great-grandpa, then my aunt the milliner, and finally, off in the corner, sitting still and utterly silent by the window, watching the landscape go by, my grandfather, who’s from yet another, third place, somewhere between the island and the city, with no other family connection but my grandmother, whom he still looks at lovingly and who turned him into my grandfather from the city.
This placeless grandfather holds himself steady with one hand and awaits our arrival even more impatiently than I, since, as soon as the train doors open, he’ll light a cigarette the moment his foot hits the platform. His silence develops into strength, taking up the entire space and making the others look smaller. He waves hello, now sits down next to me, and we’ll arrive in this city together.
And, like always, he doesn’t say a word. And it gets ever louder.
A little over half a century ago, my grandfather himself traveled to Paris. Back then he made the opposite journey, from the south, from the east—from here, where I’m about to arrive, he left, from what was a fairly new country at the time. Deda, I say, since you were never really grandfather to us, you were our chain-smoking Deda, and when you spoke no one could believe a single word. And now you’re mum. Before, you’d tell one story after another. Now you don’t say a word but you still smoke, he always smoked all day, he’d sit in grandmother’s kitchen separating the egg whites from the yolks for the cakes she baked every Sunday, he’d separate the whites from the yolks just to spend time with her. In the wintertime he’d stitch sections of sweater patterns grandmother had knitted for us grandchildren together into sweaters, also while sitting in the kitchen smoking, yellow fingernails, long grey hair, white beard, long grey hair combed back, bushy eyebrows, pitch black, and even in the coffin those eyebrows stayed bushy, full of life, they kept growing, and his mustache ends turned yellower. When he was my same age, grandfather went to Paris, from Zagreb, but he never told us about it. I can only try, can only begin to recall how your daughters and nieces told me the story, which is how I’ll tell it to you, the way the images came to mind, since words from any and all sides were scarce, so if you have any objections then just let me know. I was told, or, once upon a time, twice, thrice, five times upon a time there was my grandfather, who was young, maybe he was even a little younger than I am now, but back then Zagreb was already called Zagreb and back then the Sava also flowed right by the city and back then at noon sharp each day a cannon shot was fired from the heights, shaking the entire city. The country was really the only thing that had just changed its name, and he went to Paris, maybe his trip to Paris was an attempt at forgetting this country with a new name, at least for a little while, since it was where a war, a bombing, and an exodus had taken place—three hefty words, too strong, three fingers, too clear, forming a salute that didn’t belong to him, a false symbol, a new country, it was one of the untold journeys, the journeys with no stories, and now I whisper, I carefully whisper into his ear: Look, and we’re already insecure, just how are we supposed to talk about all that, above all: How am I supposed to tell you, Deda? Are you listening, or looking away? Are you looking out the window and seeing what Zagreb and its surroundings look like now?
I see a young man back then, a little younger than I. Was he still called an orphan boy, or already considered an orphaned young man, when one of those three hefty words destroyed the rest of the family, blowing it into a thousand bits? Learn, go to school, grow up, I hear the aunts who now have to take care of him say: one more mouth, one more burden, but in the end we’re family, here’s some money, there’s a room, probably about as big as this train compartment, and his aunts press some money into his palms and keep mum, just asking every once in a while if his studies will be over soon, since he’s pretending to study architecture while actually studying art, and who’s going to pay for an orphan, a penniless young man, this dark-haired, adolescent orphan to study painting? In that light, in between, you needed something, anything for you yourself: A year in Paris. You hide a bit of money in a bar of soap, in a train compartment like this one, heading the opposite direction: To Paris.
My grandfather had painted, just like this man who isn’t my grandfather and who no longer paints used to paint but stopped painting, just like my grandfather, shortly after he’d returned from his Paris. There’s no doubt about such stopping points.
It’s too hot, I should get up, climb down the little ladder and open the door, get a crosswind going, let some air in to waft over my ancestors, but the swollen feet of the reeking woman below have fallen out of her bed and block the way. It’s always the people closest to the door or window you’d like to open who fall asleep, those closest to the exit or the heat you’d like to turn up. I could softly ask her if I can get by, or gently push her feet aside, or both. Don’t make such a fuss now, I hear my grandmother say, you’ll be there soon, as my great-uncle in the corner starts to stand up, you’re far too polite, he calls over with a laugh, I don’t say a word, don’t move a muscle, don’t move an inch, the only touch I feel is that of my own sweat. He never once touched my body, nor I his. And I won’t go to the island where my parents, my grandmother, and all my other island relatives are now sitting in the heat waiting for me like every other summer. But that’s not right, I hear murmured at me from every corner of the compartment, you’re never there anyway. I’m always there, I counter, and you all are always there, I never travel alone, but it’s not always easy to be there and there and there, there’s always just too little time together. And the ones who never complain about it are the worst: Go, then, if you have to, they say with deep sighs, and their Go-if-you-have-to begins to sound like Gu-il-ty, which stings. But I do miss you all. Mostly. Now tell us about you, they murmur, you’re always busy telling all our stories, but none of us here know what’s going on with you. I think up a few excuses but, before I can even answer, a trilingual, stilted, monotone voice interrupts me to announce that in just a few minutes we’ll be arriving: Welcome to Zagreb, Willkommen, dobro došli.
TURQUOISE, NO PLACE
Upon awakening I grasp at the breast that’s still there, that was gone, that in my dream was gone, cut off, no, but like an old, shrunken balloon, deflated, just hanging off my body, the smell of winter moths strikes my face and outside the evening sun is already sinking, the apartment hasn’t been aired out for weeks, bare feet on old parquet floors, the only floorboards that move with me are the ones worn down by the tread of sole after sole, the overlapping parts giving way, emitting sound, no one has more stories to tell than a floor like this one, which has carried everyone here, including me, with a span of memory in my bare feet. Don’t go around barefoot is an oft-cited phrase, not by me, but once the neighbor, Mrs. Marijana, rang the doorbell, she needed some butter and a bit of conversation, I opened the door barefoot, whereupon she forgot the butter and insulted me, calling me a Bosnian, why are you walking around the house barefoot, she asked reproachfully, implicitly condemning my violation of even the most basic, civilized ground rules, I closed the door, what do bare feet have to do with belonging, in this country some danger lurks in every single bit of one’s body, in every gesture a sign that might betray it as wrong. Everyone has bare feet that, especially in the summertime, just might want to walk across some old wooden floor, good morning, gorgeous summer, good morning, darling houseboat, there’s a creaking somewhere far behind me, you can walk fairly far through this family boat, each night the old sighs gather in the corners and loudly converse with the floor. There had been several others here before us, I push the curtains aside and open the old, double windows by their brass handles, air, stifling heat, even hotter air, the sun is already low, nevertheless, good morning anyway, I say, the fridge is empty, the pantry half full, wine and schnapps, Christmas decorations, empty cookie jars, blankets and in the corner old lamps, a quick thought, the skipped lunch and empty fridge could be resolved by my parents’ liquor cabinet, but I leave it be, and let the water run a bit, as it must before becoming drinkable, chlorine, calcium, it’s high in both, and tastes exactly the way I remember the city.
On the living room wall hangs a picture, a painting on an overly small canvas, done in an overly dark palette, showing a seated woman with a serious gaze, or maybe just a very calm look on her face, and as she sits she props herself up on her right hand, reclining ever so slightly, very calmly gazing straight ahead, at the viewer, at the painter, hello, Deda. It’s one of the few paintings of yours I know, but just who is this woman, who looks startlingly similar to grandmother, or is that just because there’s some turquoise in the picture, and that was her favorite color? This woman cannot be grandmother, simply isn’t her, she once told me so, in passing, she said so, but I never asked you. I hadn’t seen this picture, didn’t even know about it, when you were still around. Grandmother told me she didn’t know who the subject was. But grandmother knew everything. Always. No fairy tales, no hide-and-seek. Beauty doesn’t come easy wasn’t just a saying: the high heels, curlers, freshly manicured nails, stockings, tight bodice, tight skirts, the sweaters she knit herself, the jewelry. The fur coat. Every day. No exceptions, no breaks, no rest from any of it. Not a single sentence was uttered that wasn’t meant.
Had she perhaps said it with a tinge of jealousy in her voice, as she stood so close to me, her eyes on the image?
This image exists and it doesn’t. This grandfather who painted the turquoise woman doesn’t exist, never did. He made himself disappear, this grandfather who painted the woman, he made himself and almost every last little bit of this grandfather, almost every picture he ever drew or painted, disappear.
And my grandmother says, standing near me, much shorter than I despite her high heels and despite her tall perm, without looking at me, focusing only on the picture: I don’t know.
I don’t know how he destroyed the paintings, I remember his workshop, and his workbench even better: it was a small room in my grandparents’ apartment, and I remember a table with piles of paper, pencils, ashtrays, cigarettes, graphite, and more paper—in an apartment that was otherwise so impeccably organized, so clean, the smallest apartment in the smallest complex of the entire city, kept clean and orderly, almost elegant, through sheer discipline. It would’ve been easy to set something on fire there. Or did he cut them up into shreds? Set them near a radiator? Or in a damp corner?
The grandfather who appeared never to do anything by force, the grandfather who jumped at the sound of thunder, who considered everything too loud, who never learned to drive but could scare both himself and grandmother as she drove that they actually did get into accidents, the grandfather who never changed a lightbulb, grandmother did that, too. The grandfather who sat in the corner, smoking, and could easily disappear into the crowd, how had he made everything disappear? How had he destroyed it all? There was one word that no one in the family every uttered. He—quit. They say. The words one grows up with when it comes to the unspeakable: quit. As if he just woke up one morning, strolled out, and simply decided for himself: I quit. Quit for—say it, softly: for grandmother, for us. So things could be more secure, our income, our lives. And I ask: Is that not the same as—gave up? Destroyed? Annihilated? Eliminated? He came to a decision that called for action. There’s almost nothing left from before. That’s more than just quitting. There are only three paintings left. One: The woman in turquoise. She, who had known him, the man I would never meet. The man who never said a thing, never told a story. Who did crossword puzzles in pencil. Word by word. All afternoon. That was his new pace. The only hand gesture he made was when he was holding a pencil, one thing that was still there.
Where is this turquoise woman looking? What time period is she gazing at you from, as you paint her? As the canvases kept getting smaller, as if you were already steadily annihilating everything—your movements, your painting practice—with your very choice of dimension, ever smaller. Maybe there was no destroying. Maybe the canvases just kept getting smaller until, at a certain point, they were no longer there. And your movement faded away, came to a standstill, finally. Until the present was calm.
Maybe we see so little of this partially reclining turquoise woman because she’s listening more than she’s looking, maybe she’s sitting here before me, turquoise, and listening in, listening away, still today. Doesn’t quit. And maybe this partially reclining turquoise woman is a portrait of my young grandfather, who I’d never be able to imagine as such, as if he had already begun brushing things off here, too, as if in this very moment he had rendered all previous moments deaf, blind, and dumb. No paintings, no noise. But not entirely. Maybe he painted her in a moment of understanding. Of acceptance. Of acceptance that this moment was one of tenderness, togetherness, a moment that should last. Standing before someone, painting, in that moment: an understanding of one another.
And behind me the old man, who I knew, long white hair, always long, always combed back, pleated pants, shirt, tie. And his cane. You’re smoking again? Good, now you’re allowed, but tell me, please: how long can one hold out, grandfather? How long can one listen in and how long can one hold out? Where does the path begin that’s mine and mine alone, that engulfs me, that demands more and more and ever more from me, a path I can share with almost no one, how long will that work out? Even if the stories are different, my slice of time has come so long after yours, so much time has passed, so many people stand between us, and yet I always notice you first, and then the others, the ones who come after, there are already so many breaking-off points, so many endings: One no longer paints, another has given up theater, another has given up acting, too, and another has left the country, always around roughly the same time, at about this age, the age my body is now. Did anyone in my grandfather’s family ever quit something so completely that the echo still reverberates today? And I’m about to.
And these quitters ask: Are you still writing?
They ask: So, where are you living?
And they ask: Is there a special someone?
And they don’t ask anymore. They quit asking quite some time ago, since their questions always lingered in the air unanswered, since, compared to their paths, mine struck them as one long detour. On the phone and in the living room we talk of any and everything else, and those questions remain, continuously. From those who chose not to continue. And now I’m asking you, Deda: Just tell me, how long can one hold out?
Quitting—you broke it to me too gently, Deda, you let the others wrap it quietly up into a word, softly, almost painlessly, and then you devoted yourself to solving crosswords. You lured us into the fairy-tale forest and whiled away the days, and when we were finally grown-ups, more grown up than you, and wanted to talk, you got tired, and before we could even begin, you had given up entirely. You told me nothing about jealousy, nor of quitting. Which is what’s next. And enough. It’s enough.
I walk out, down the street and into town, into the nighttime. Finally, this orange light—a little air, finally.
One doesn’t say much.
One is awake, until she goes to bed.
The rosary she’s fallen asleep with presses into her chest.
By morning her skin is full of cross-shaped impressions, deep grooves in old skin.
One says, every now and then:
I’m so tired. All I do is sit, and I’m tired.
And nothing hurts. Or everything.
One suddenly says, just once:
Kako život može biti kratak i glup.
Ne moj. Ne moj.
How short and stupid life can be.
Whose life, Grandmother?
Not mine. Not mine.
And morning is just a new number, not a new day.
About the author
Ivna Žic was born in Zagreb in 1986 and grew up in Zurich. She studied Applied Theater Studies, Theater Directing and Dramatic Writing in Giessen, Hamburg and Graz. Since 2011 she has been working as a freelance author, lecturer and director at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, Schauspielhaus Vienna, Lucerne Theater, Theater Neumarkt, Schauspiel Essen, Theater St. Gallen and at uniT. Žic has received numerous scholarships and prizes for her work. Her debut novel Die Nachkommende was nominated for both the Austrian Book Prize and the Swiss Book Prize in 2019. Ivna Žic lives in Zurich and Vienna.