Alida Bremer (born 1959 in Split, Croatia) studied in Belgrade, Rome, Münster and
earned her PhD in Comparative Literature in Saarbrücken. Since 1986 she has lived in
Münster and has been writing in German since 1993. She has published stories, poems
and essays in German that have appeared also in Croatian, Albanian, English, Macedonian,
Romanian, Dutch and Russian. Bremer was awarded with sev- eral German and international litetary prizes as a writer and also as a translator.
A gigantic fish lay stretched on its side atop a heap of fishing nets. Its belly glinted mother-of-pearl in the dawn, its black fins coming into ever sharper relief the closer Antonio got to the monster. His footsteps were slightly uncertain. He was pleasantly drunk, infused in carefree joy until a few minutes ago, having spent the night in the best company the city had to offer. Suddenly, he felt the breeze blowing off the land towards the sea. That’s life, thought Petrinelli, almost sober now from the stream of cold air. One day you play trešeta and briškula all night long, served tripe in tomato and onion sauce courtesy of the cement factory director, with red wine alongside for your blood count, and the next day death can wipe you out, no matter what you do for your health.
He thought of his mother; he always remembered her when he thought he had grounds for a guilty conscience. He could be glad she wasn’t waiting for him now, calling for him through the half-open door to her bedroom, asking if he’d got home safely and how he was. Despite that relief, loneliness overwhelmed him for a moment.
He slowed his steps, focusing on the enormous fish. Strange that the fishermen had just left it there. They’ll surely come soon to take it to the fish market, he thought, sobering up slightly. The oily black sea washed against the quay walls and there was a clatter, whirr and screech, the sounds of anchored ships that Antonio Petrinelli had never paid any attention to before, despite being born right there in the port city. They seemed particularly loud to him now, though.
He was only a few yards away from the heap of fishing nets. They had cork floats attached around their edges, which looked like dried figs. My skull is a camera obscura, he thought, reminding him he had to turn everything he saw upside down. What he’d thought was the belly of a fish was suddenly a man’s belly, his white shirt in stark contrast to an unbuttoned black suit jacket. The tail fin was clearly a pair of trousers ending in black patent shoes, while the fish head was actually a white face with traces of blood and wide eyes beneath dark hair combed back off his face.
He felt as if in a dream, except he knew he wasn’t asleep but swaying through Split harbour on his way home. And he had to hurry; he could feel his stomach contents rising into his gullet. The juicy tripe, brown sauce and rich red wine – he really couldn’t get away with it. Not in the middle of the city at this early hour; he couldn’t just vomit here.
Those damned movies! Ever since his mother had died he’d fallen for the new fashion and was never out of the cinema. Now look what it got him. His mind was conjuring up film scenes before his very eyes.
As a consequence of a spontaneous ruling by the Royal Interior Ministry in Belgrade, the city’s brothels had been closed for three years now. Their owners had gone all the way to the capital in person to protest, explaining that a port town without brothels was like a brudet stew without fish, a Splitska torta without raisins or a steamship without a chimney, but it was all in vain. The biggest city on the new kingdom’s coast was to be chaste and virtuous, at least officially. The women merely relocated to the dark doorways of the dank stone houses and the dive bars in the old town’s back alleys, where the seamen and other clients kept an eye out for them.
Karlo Cambi, the police officer in charge of that sector, had said in an interview with the local paper Novo doba: ‘Not much has changed for us in the vice squad. Except the waiters in the harbour bars are less friendly than the madames used to be.’ The interview didn’t make it out of the censor’s office, so the general public never got to read his sober analysis. The chief of police, still new to the job, warned Officer Cambi about his laid-back approach to journalists but that didn’t seem to bother him. The chief tried to temper his words by adding: ‘You take care of the refugees and their helpers in the port instead, that’s more important to us right now than the whores. And keep a lookout for communists meeting up in the night bars.’ Karlo Cambi’s eyes were fixed on the wall behind his boss, rendering it impossible to read what he thought of such instructions.
Three young men striding across Prokurative Square that morning were discussing this and other grievances. Their quiet curses filled the dawn: ‘porca miseria,’ ‘porca Madonna,’ ‘porco Dio’. They went on indulging in vilifications of various ministers in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – ‘rimbambiti cretini,’ ‘teste di cazzo,’ ‘faccie di culo’. In the end, the three of them – actually only two of them, as the middle one was silent – called the whole government ‘figli di puttana’. Then they put their arms over each other’s shoulders and walked on. From behind, it looked like the trio were putting on an exotic folk dance.
The men had all sorts of other reasons to be unhappy with the politics of the state they lived in, and once they reached the square by the theatre they gave vent: It was an undisputed fact that after Italy’s soldiers had performed heroic feats in the Great War, their homeland had been cheated out of important territories, to wit: Istria and Dalmatia, including their own city. It was a proven truth that Benito Mussolini was the best politician of all time. He had made Italy great again and seen through the English and Americans’ foul play. It was an undeniable veracity that the Italians were a far more civilised and cultivated culture than all the Balkan nations put together.
At the last words, they patted the shoulders of the man in the middle, who they were holding up on either side. ‘We don’t mean you, Mauro, we know you think like an Italian. But you’ll forgive us for telling the truth. Everyone knows the Italians are superior to all other nations in Europe and the world, not just the Slavs. The ancient Greeks, they were pretty good. The French too, now and then, and maybe the Germans as well, but you can forget all the rest. The Spaniards ruined the language of the Romans and mixed their blood with Arabs and gypsies. The English are stuck up and have terrible food, just like the Scandinavians with their raw polar-bear meat.’ They meant to continue the litany but they couldn’t think of any more nationalities, so they stopped.
It was a dead hour. Even the colonnades, arches, paving stones, shutters and walls, which otherwise heard and saw all, had nodded off. The three men walked on in silence, but when the one on Mauro’s left began to whistle, the one propping Mauro up on the right joined him in quiet song:
Primavera di bellezza
Nel Fascismo è la salvezza
Della nostra civiltà.
The city was still asleep, the passenger ships in the port dozing too. The fishing boats had not yet returned, but had someone stood by the quay wall at that hour and looked out to sea, they would have noticed the flashing lights on the horizon between the islands.
Translated by Katy Derbyshire