A short story collection by Aleksandar Prokopiev
Translated from the Macedonian by Will Firth
Published by Istros Books
This fairy tale is to be told to artists in their youth
It all began with a rather unusual encounter in a first-class compartment of the Belgrade-Skopje express train. An hour and a half or two hours south of Niš, when the end of the journey was drawing near and the train began to change speed sporadically due to the rickety track – faster for one stretch, then slower for another – a young lad appeared opposite me in the empty compartment like a bolt from the blue. Out of nowhere!
I travelled to Skopje in Macedonia fairly often, almost once every two months, because I was part of a team of Belgian builders and engineers doing surveying work there. The aim of this international project was to determine whether the main city square in Skopje could withstand all the new buildings going up on it. There was concern that it would collapse, and then the River Vardar would burst its banks, or the excavations would disturb the watercourse, and then the river would first flood them and then the whole square. For those frequent visits to Macedonia I took the train, or rather several long-distance trains: from Brussels to Paris, Paris to Belgrade and Belgrade to Skopje. There was one simple reason for me choosing the railways – I’m afraid of flying. Although an aeroplane is a highly complex and effective machine, it’s as if all my fear of unpredictability and chaos has become centred on flying. As a boy, I was afraid of lifts, and today that same sense of alarm and discomfort comes out as agoraphobia at the thought of an aeroplane. I’m afraid of being trapped in the plane up in that expanse of sky and dying without being able to do anything about it. I know as well as everyone else what the statistics say: that it happens very rarely, and that car crashes and even train accidents are a much more common cause of fatality. But I also know that if it does happen – you’re a goner. Aeroplanes are so fast even when they’re taking off, and they fly so high up. Who can help you if something goes wrong up there?
And so, despite all the stops and waits, I became used to travelling by train. I felt secure and comfortable, and I enjoyed the leisure of leaning back, nibbling at a sandwich, and reading an interesting book. I was a particularly avid consumer of detective stories. That day, too, I was engrossed in reading a murder mystery about Inspector Maigret. I must have been quite carried away because that scraggy, big-nosed and above all terrified boy turned up in the compartment without me noticing when and how. His sweat-beaded face was contorted with fear, or rather terror. He gaped around like a little animal caught in a trap, and each time he glanced towards the window, where trees and village houses flitted past beside the track, his mouth let out vowels of distress resembling a distended shriek. His hands tightly gripped a small bag tied with string, while his legs were braced against the base of the seat opposite, as if he was trying to slow down the train. Between yells, the lad repeated an incomprehensible word ending in ‘-shte’.
‘Calme-toi, gamin. Tout va bien,’ I tried to calm him.
‘…ishte… adishte…,’ he stammered.
‘Il n’y a pas de raison d’avoir peur.’
‘Qui es-tu? D’où viens-tu?’
The unhappy lad, all a-tremble, stared now at me, now out the window of the carriage. It was clear he didn’t understand my French and that I had to call for help.
But when I returned as fast as I could with the conductor, the compartment was empty and the window was wide open. I thought the poor lad must have jumped out because he had been so agitated, and I mentioned that suspicion to the conductor. We both looked out the window, and of course all we saw were the stones and trees beside the track, and green fields with blue mountains in the distance. Even if he had jumped, we would long have left that spot behind us.
The conductor, who was clearly less alarmed than me, said the boy had probably run off to another carriage and suggested I check if any of my things were missing. I considered that rather unfriendly because the lad had had a completely honest look about him, even if he had been so confused. Still, I decided to take a glance in my travel bag, and just when I opened it the regular rattle of the train was interrupted by a screech of the brakes at a bend. The conductor and I both lost our balance for a second, and some of my clothes and my toilet bag fell out onto the seats and then onto the floor together with something else. It looked like cobalt blue powder and had spilt from that little old leather bag, which the lad had clenched tighter than tight and had left behind in the compartment in his panic. I tried to brush the powder into a little heap with a moist paper towel, but every movement of my hand just spread it further over the floor in a lighter blue stain. I felt clumsy and realized it was some kind of pigment that was increasingly dying the floor the more it came into contact with water.
Oh, as usual, when I start doing something superfluous, I groaned. The conductor had departed the compartment with an undisguised sneer, leaving me to pick up my things, so fortunately he didn’t see my mishap with the pigment. Then, as I was bending down and making a mess of the floor, I saw that something else had also fallen and ended up under my toilet bag. The stiff yellowish bristles of a fine paintbrush peered out from beneath it. I picked it up – it was evidently well used. The pigment powder and the brush suggested that the poor lad was in some way connected to the trade of painter – but how?
This awoke the detective spirit of Hercule Poirot in me because, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not just a lover of detective novels, but a Belgian myself, and after women’s tennis players and comics we are best known for Poirot and Inspector Maigret. The former is a Belgian made up by a typical British lady and the latter a stocky Parisian invented by a typical Belgian. So I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to delve a bit into the mystery of the strange lad in the compartment. The name ‘Papradishte’, which he had repeated several times, remained in my head and was hard for me to pronounce with the right accent, and later, when I arrived in Skopje and began to inquire where the place was, my Macedonian colleagues laughed at my pronunciation. They told me it was a village seven kilometres from Bogomila, another strange name reminiscent of the ancestors of the Cathars, the Bogomils – a dualist sect that originated in this part of the world. I was surprised that most of my Skopje colleagues were unaware of this interesting historical connection. And then an unexpected turn of events opened up a new page in my investigation. In the Turkish tea shop Galeria in Skopje’s old bazaar, where I dropped in one January evening to warm up with a hot drink, I met a recently graduated painter from the Academy of Art (I imagine the tea shop was a meeting-place for artists, judging by its name and the collaged murals adorning its walls). In the course of our chat, I noticed that people there liked to talk about all sorts of things, and Iko, the young painter, enthusiastically shared my interest in Papradishte. He told me in English better than mine that the first noteworthy Macedonian painter, Dimitar Andonov, had been from that very village and had added the corresponding adjective, ‘Papradishki’, to his surname. That was the name he later became known by. In his youth, Papradishki had helped his father and his group of zografs… I asked him what a zograf was, and he explained that it had been the name for icon and fresco painters since the Byzantine Middle Ages. Iko, who with his red beard had begun to look to me like one of those young icon painters, was evidently both knowledgeable and passionate about the matter, so I couldn’t restrain myself from recounting my incredible experience on the train. Iko was greatly intrigued by the story and suggested straight away that we finish our tea and that he take me to see the large, retrospective exhibition of Papradishki’s work, in honour of the 150th anniversary of his birth, which was being held in the nearby former Turkish bathhouse, now a national gallery. This was too much of a coincidence to be accidental. ‘As if there was some higher purpose,’ the young painter said with a smile, and I felt a heightened excitement reminiscent of the thrill that seized me when I used to explore the cellars of deserted buildings on the outskirts of Brussels as a boy.
From the tea-shop, we walked along cobbled streets through puddles of dirty slush to the old stone building, which time seemed to have forgotten. The Papradishki exhibition was in the two large, rear rooms of the former bathhouse. His works were very numerous, in different formats, with many portraits and landscape paintings. And in the central space his painting utensils were exhibited: an easel with his self-portrait in profile as a ninety year-old, a low table with his paintbrushes, pigments messily packaged in paper, linseed oil, and an old wooden stool with a very worn, flattened cushion on it. Iko told me that Papradishki died painting.
‘But… this is the same paintbrush and the same blue pigment as in my compartment!’ my voice echoed through the acoustic space of the bathhouse.
Almost simultaneously, Iko and I realized that the next step had to be to visit Papradishki’s native village.
Iko offered to drive me there, but I proposed we go by train, which would be more interesting and more in tune with our mystery. And, sure enough, we found out there was a local freight train via Veles and Bogomila to Papradishte.
The train chugged along the uphill track, creaking and pulling, and the journey of less than a hundred kilometres took almost three hours, which even for me as a railway enthusiast was a bit too slow, but the carriage, which rocked sluggishly, crowded with all sorts of passengers and the occasional startled chicken in its owner’s sack, was not at all boring for me and Iko as we talked energetically or stood in silence at the windows in the corridor, looking up at the snow-covered mountains that passed us by. We got off the train in Papradishte together with several hillwalkers, whose Sunday excursion would take them to the top of the nearby mountain, whose name, as far as I remember, begins with ‘Ch’. But Iko and I headed straight for the church, which rises up on a small hill in the centre of the village.
We were welcomed in the Saints Peter and Paul Church by the young, already portly priest, Methodius, who had a similar red beard to Iko, just slightly longer. We asked him if he had known Papradishki.
‘Dimitar Andonov? Oh yes, I knew him. He lived to a ripe old age – he was ninety-five when he died. Although the Communists in Skopje gave him a pretty pension, he kept coming back to Papradishte.’
Then we asked Methodius if he knew anything about the artist’s journeys.
‘There was a particularly strange story he once told, and I thought at the time: God forgive me for thinking he’s making it up – it must be his age. I remember the story well, although it seemed he was telling us one of his dreams. It was about one of his trips to Serbia as a young lad, at the age of fourteen. He went to see his father, Andon, who was painting frescoes in the church of St Nikola in Gnjilane. He wanted to help out and start learning the icon painter’s trade. After a long and probably tiring journey on his donkey, he had made it almost to Niš, when the animal stumbled and threw the sleeping lad. The next thing he remembered he was in a train, but since trains didn’t yet exist for him at that time, he got very frightened and thought it a giant, iron snake. He cowered in fear. The monster moved with astounding speed and belched clouds of smoke. The lad had ended up in some kind of narrow chamber in the bowels of the monster, and there he was met by a strangely dressed foreigner, without cap or suit but in an unusual worn out shirt and mottled blue pants, who asked him something with a strong voice, in an incomprehensible language. Then the strange man dashed out of that chamber, and poor young Dimitar got even more alarmed, thinking the man would throw him out the window when he came back. He clasped his hands and prayed to the Lord to preserve him from the monster with red-hot jaws and its minions, to deliver him from torment and dismemberment. And as he was begging and pleading like this, Dimitar said, he was blinded by a mighty flash and suddenly found himself in a ditch by the road, all scratched, terrified and shaking, near his poor donkey. Only then did he settle down enough to cry, and as he hugged the donkey and his tears rolled down its neck he realized he had left the bag with the paintbrush and pigment inside the monster.’
Partly after persuasion by Father Methodius, but more due to our reluctance to leave Papradishte straight away, we decided to spend the night in the village, with a host that Methodius recommended.
Sitting in the courtyard of the house beneath the cold, starry sky that evening, wrapped up in coats and scarves, we fortified ourselves with a tumbler of traditional Rakia and a snack of sheep’s cheese brought out onto a low, wooden table by our host. I thought aloud and tried to connect my peculiar experience on the train with Methodius’s story.
‘The message in all this, Iko, is that things happen in this country that are out of step with time, and it would seem that even time travel is possible.’
After a brief pause, he looked at me with an intense stare and said: ‘Yes, some things occur contrary to the flow of time… I can think of another example of something that happened near here, in the city of Veles. In 1855, a certain Haji Koste Krstev painted the frescoes there in the church of St Dimitria (I asked Iko to write the name in Latin letters in my notebook, which is why I can refer to him now). He signed his name beneath the frescoes and added that he was an icon painter – and photographer!’
‘Sorry, but I don’t see what’s so strange about Mr Haji… here I (consulted my notebook again) …Krstev adding that to his name.’
‘What’s strange is the year: 1855. Four years before the birth of our Papradishki, who, as I mentioned, was the last Macedonian icon painter and first European-style painter. That means photography was accepted here much earlier than profane painting. My family album, for example, contains photographs of my great-grandfather Prokopi, taken long before Papradishki painted his canvases.’
Yes, it’s hard to explain some things with logic here, even for a faithful compatriot of Hercule Poirot, I mused. The task for which I was called to Macedonia – to raise up the main square, which was sagging beneath the weight of the new buildings – is also rationally inexplicable, yet the main square still needs to be lifted. That’s why I’m here as an expert, for which I’m paid a fee plus handsome per diems. Staying in the guest house, ‘Lucia’ by Lake Ohrid for two days hardly costs half a per diem. Not to mention the afternoons in Skopje’s old bazaar with its tasty, long rissoles, kebabs, spicy bean stew and Noah’s Pudding, and all for such a modest price, but with inestimable satisfaction for the palate.
‘What’s even more interesting,’ Iko continued, ‘is that Papradishki painted a great number of self-portraits at different periods of his life. Or, to be precise, he painted himself as a fifteen-year-old boy when he was already in his mature years. And it’s crystal clear that the fifteen-year-old on the canvas is not a reflection from the mirror, but the reflection of another time in his life, a much earlier one, preserved on one of his photographs. He used his old photographs to paint self-portraits.’
We each drank another tumbler or two of Rakia to warm ourselves before going to bed in the unheated room, but it was warm enough under the homemade blankets on the two cast-iron beds. I huddled, exhausted, under the shaggy, woollen covers and was soon fast asleep. I dreamed a muddle of queer things, but in the morning my last dream was clear in my head.
I dreamed I was in front of the open front door of a house as square as a box. I was being shown out by a short, plump man with a trimmed moustache, neatly dressed. I noticed that his shoes were freshly polished. He was wearing a light-grey hat.
‘Quel beau paysage,’ the man said, although you wouldn’t have thought, to judge by the expression on his well-groomed, friendly face, that he was necessarily a nature lover: ‘Off you go, my friend, it’s time – the train won’t wait for you. Your place is among the living. I’ll stay behind with the dead,’ and finally he added in a voice that was clear and resonant even in the dream: ‘A bientôt, mon ami.’
I wanted to tell him that he would remain with me, but in the dream I was now already travelling in a train. It was much more modern and faster than the one I had come to Papradishte on; it seemed not to be travelling on rails (there was none of the usual click-clacking) but to be gliding along. I was in a compartment with a younger man in jeans and a faded T-shirt which once, a long time ago, had been the favourite clothes of the young generation. The young man stared at me in dismay.
I felt the train accelerate.
ALEKSANDAR PROKOPIEV graduated from the University of Belgrade Faculty of Philology, General and Comparative literature department, and finished his postgraduate education in Belgrade and at the Sorbonne. He has pubished 13 books of stories and essays, as well as a novella, The Peeper (2007) and his collection, Homunculus received the Balkanika Prize 2012. He has worked as a editor of several magazines, and was a member of the editorial board of Orient Express (Oxford, UK) and World Haiku (Kyoto, Japan); and presently for POEM Magazine (Universtiry of Roehampton). He has written screenplays for film, theatre, tv shows, radio dramas and comic books, and his works have been translated into many languages. Prokopiev is also the Artistic Director of the Pro-Za Balkan International Festival of Literature, Skopje, Macedonia.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.