An acquaintance of mine was into fly-fishing. I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was all about had he not shown me his resplendent collection of flies, their miniature beauty enchanting. I could easily imagine a dazzled salmon in a shady Scottish stream, an alluring fly and jazzy feathers dancing before its eyes. Fly-fishing is a particularly expensive hobby. You can’t just wade out into a Scottish stream willy-nilly, wearing any old thing. Flies don’t come cheap, either. But a gentleman is always willing to dip into his pocket for a spot of fishing. God knows how many times the money invested in the ritual exceeds the value of the fish caught. The satisfaction, quite obviously, isn’t in the catching. Getting back to my acquaintance, though, at some point his life changed and the accumulated years dulled his fly-fishing fervour. He packed on the pounds, his heart grew weak, and his spirit dissipated—all until recently. Out of the blue he got in touch while on a trip through Asia. He was with a guide fishing a pristine river in some kind of island jungle. Fly-fishing had literally brought him back to life. The passions of others are the most mysterious thing in the world.
My acquaintance sent out his sudden electronic life beacon around the same time an online article caught my eye. A new consumer obsession has caught on among moneyed young men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. The majority of wealthy men in this age bracket are either soccer players or oligarchs. They’re not spending their money on yachts, women, or art (bye-bye, artists!) anymore, but on their sublimate—on aquariums. From Singapore to London, a whole network of professionals has popped up to service this well-heeled clientele: aquarium designers and architects, underwater lighting experts, underwater gardeners for the aquarium ecosystem, suppliers of rare aquarium fish, ichthyologists, even fish therapists. Aquarium maintenance alone costs around $160,000 annually. And aquarium fish are another matter entirely. At between $80,000 and $200,000 a specimen, the Platinum arowana is most highly priced, and prized. Its lack of pigment gives it a platinum color, making it a kind of albino among fishes, an apparent bearer of wealth and good fortune.[*] The Platinum arowana is unusually sensitive, its optimal life expectancy around ten years. In order to test water quality, temperature, and a bunch of other water-related things, people put tester fish—known as clown fish—in first, the majority of whom die so that other fish may lead happy aquarium lives. Clown fish have performed the role of slaves throughout history, offering the same suicidal service, one akin to tasting whether the czar’s, the emperor’s, the king’s, or the master’s food has been poisoned.
The possible explanations for this trendy new obsession among flush young men are almost endless, and all are as right as they are wrong. The most straightforward can be found in language. In a number of languages, including a few Slavic languages, the equivalent of the word chick (i.e., an attractive young woman) is, believe it or not—fish. Is the aquarium a realization of the infantile dream of underwater worlds (and absolute control over them)? Or is it a symbolic substitute for a harem, one with “little sirens,” with whom every touch is impossible and therefore all the more desirable? Or is it about a space of contemplation, a home temple in which the divine world swims around indifferent to the lives of mortals? Whatever the case, the fatal attraction between men and fish is fertile ground for psychoanalytical and other interpretive acrobatics.
On the island of Kiribati, the relationship between young girls, fish, and men is as clear as day. The Pacific Ocean feeds the world with fish, more than half the global tuna catch (two million tons a year) is hauled up there. And it’s not just European fishing fleets: Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Russian, American, Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino boats are there, too. Kiribati waters are swarming with fishermen and fish. From the age of twelve upward, the little Kiribati girls slink around the fishing boats like cats. Prostitution isn’t illegal on Kiribati. It’s how the local girls earn a bit of pocket money to buy a few drinks, or, in exchange for a sexual service, get a few pounds of fish to feed their hungry families. The young prostitutes are called korakorea girls, korakorea meaning “cheap fish.” The girls fall ill to venereal diseases, just like clown fish do from fishy ones. Here, the reciprocal relationship between men and fish really is fatal.
At the end of June this year I traveled via Vienna to Graz in Austria. The flight from Vienna to Graz was canceled, so I had to take a bus. The young guy sitting next to me was a Russian from the Ukraine, a soccer player, traveling to Graz for a two-day training camp. “But why Graz? Aren’t there any spare fields in the Ukraine?”
The young guy shrugged his shoulders. Although he seemed to me barely seventeen, it turned out that Pavel was twenty-six, his club owned by a rich Ukrainian. A mafioso? A Ukrainian oligarch? No, no, a businessman, Pavel said, defending his boss.
“And how much do you earn?”
“Not much. Twenty thousand dollars a month.”
In the world of major league soccer players, twenty thousand dollars a month is like beer money, Pavel explained. Pavel obviously wasn’t interested in talking about soccer, or about oligarchs, or about his “wages,” or about anything else for that matter.
“Tell me. Is Vienna at the seaside?” He livened up.
“Graz isn’t either.”
Pavel quickly sunk into sleep. And while I looked at the sleeping boy on the seat next to me, a general sense of resignation came over me. He was on his way to Graz to train for a couple of days, and I was off to a literary evening. A barely literate Ukrainian was using his enviably nimble pair of legs to bring in twenty thousand dollars a month, while I, highly literate, for my “intellectual services” was bringing in incomparably less. With his monthly salary, a soccer player like Pavel could buy four Hawaiian yellow tang, a popular aquarium fish, at five thousand dollars a pop. Pavel might be barely literate, but as opposed to me, he was born with an innate knowledge. He knows all too well that he’s only a little fish in the aquarium. He knows he’s replaceable and that he only costs his boss one, two, or three Platinum arowanas (the price of which has apparently fallen lately) a year. I, on the other hand, who drank “arrogant” ideas about the rights of all to equality with my socialist milk, haven’t been able to shake the thought that I’m irreplaceable, although the wages that await me in Graz for the provision of intellectual services equal a portion of fried sardines. In a better restaurant, of course. Yes, I am a korakorea girl, a cheap fish. And with that thought for comfort, and my young fellow passenger having mistaken my shoulder for a pillow, I, too, sink into sleep.
Jumping Off The Bridge
I was glued to reports on the recent riots in the London boroughs of Tottenham, Hackney, and Brixton, stunned by the images of seething youth smashing shop windows and making their grab for street wear and electronics. Expensive mobile phones apparently topped their consumer desires, a detail that disappointed many commentators (If only they’d stolen bread and milk, we’d understand!). I became fixated on something else, though: a Waterstones bookstore the kids passed by might as well have been an undertaker’s. But they didn’t miss a beat in cleaning out the backpack of another dazed and confused kid who obviously needed medical attention, leaving him bloodied and lost in the street. On our television screens, we, shocked viewers, saw what we were given to see. Each of us projected our own fears onto the Rorschachian stain of the London riots.
Around the same time, the beginning of August 2011, a Serbian news portal carried a witty article about the opening of a new bridge. In Belgrade, the capital, there’s an old bridge called Branko’s Bridge. Although named after the Serbian poet Branko Radičević, it’s better known for the fact that another Branko jumped from it—Branko Ćopić, a fellow writer. The author of the article noted that among terminally morose Serbian writers, the opening of the new bridge had been greeted with rare delight, and that a kind of competition was on to see who’d christen the bridge with a jump, thus winning naming rights. The bookies were already taking bets on the next writer-suicide. Among the many comments on the article, someone made an appeal that these things not be joked about; someone else observed that others might also like to think about jumping (Why only writers? What about welfare mothers?); a third person suggested that politicians should take a jump (Jump, Tadić![**] We’ll call it Boris’s Bridge, for sure!); a fourth person remarked that a lot of people in Serbia seemed to unfortunately have no idea who Branko Ćopić was; a fifth suggested that a list of candidates for pushing be prepared.
Why did I single out this particular episode? Because I could have equally mentioned Anders Breivik, the Norwegian “anti-Islamic crusader,” who just a few days previously had killed seventy-seven people, the majority of them teenagers. Or the band of thieves who robbed a handful of people in a Budapest suburb and then buried them alive in a nearby forest. Or the pack of Zagreb yobs who bashed a pair of French tourists simply because the pair refused to buy them a round of drinks. I could have mentioned falls on the stock exchange, the soaring Swiss franc, the global recession, and the bankers impunibly running the show. I could have brought up the numerous demonstrations against “the swine of capitalism,” the messages of which haven’t reached the pudgy ears of those with their snouts deepest in the trough. Because all of this, and a lot of other stuff too, happened within more or less the same timeframe.
The devastating fact is that the majority of the young English rioters are barely literate. The research and the terrifying statistics are there. The reading ability of 63 percent of fourteen-year-old boys from the white working class, and more than 50 percent of their Afro-Caribbean peers, is at the level of the average seven-year-old. The majority of these kids leave school and continue their education on the streets. “Other kids go from school to university. We go from school to prison,” said one of them. Their “girlfriends” get pregnant early. In comparison with other European countries, Great Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy. At best semiliterate, left to their own devices, and with few chances of finding any kind of job, these kids form an angry, disenfranchised mass whose futures have been stolen. They have absolutely no reason to believe in social institutions, and vandalism is the only means of articulating their fury. “I didn’t want this kind of life. It just happened to me,” said one boy.
The image of the life they desired is one that their society served them up as desirable (I want to be rich, I want lots of money/I don’t care about clever, I don’t care about funny).[***] In an ideological package such as this, the system of values in operation in everyday life doesn’t assume literacy, education, responsibility, or work (Life’s about film stars and less about mothers/It’s all about fast cars and cussing each other). That’s why confronting one’s own loser status is, for all intents and purposes, just another form of self-deceit (But it doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic/and that’s what makes my life so fucking fantastic), in exactly the same way that vandalism is a mute form of conceding one’s own defeat (And I am a weapon of massive consumption/And it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function).
Years have passed since the clearing of the utopian fog and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In spite of the many warnings—the piles of books written sounding the alarm, the multitude of demonstrations that have pointed to ever-increasing social stratification, in spite of institutional and extra-institutional attempts to resolve or attenuate the worst of the consequences—society, deaf and blind, has marched on. In the meantime, grandmothers and grandfathers, those who lived with full faith in the system, have gone into hard-earned retirement and then died of hunger. In the meantime, their children have had children and discovered with horror that they aren’t in a position to support either themselves or their children. In the meantime, their children have also had children, the penny dropping that their futures have no future. And in the meantime, a heaving mass has been born, a tribe of millions, déclassé and inured, incapable of remedying their position, because they don’t know who their real enemy is anymore. All their lives, they’ve had it drilled into them that it’s all down to their personal choices and individual ability. And today, looking at its “feral” children, society, stupefied by the mantras of democracy and free choice, continues to try and convince these kids that they’re cutting off the branch on which they’re sitting. They might be barely literate, but the children know that the branch has been rotten for years, and that it can’t hold their weight in any case. The only weapon they possess is their rage.
And I, who by all accounts should be on the opposite side, am at this very moment much closer to these kids than any of them could imagine, and much more than I would have ever imagined. I didn’t want this kind of life either, but there you go, it happened to me. If nothing else, the kids and I are bound by—fear (I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore/I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore/When do you think it will all become clear?/’Cause I’m being taken over by the fear).
And although day and night I flagellate myself with the news, while my heart pounds like a beat-up dog cowering against a wall, I extinguish my fears with fantasies about them, about the kids who will soon (yes, soon!) in their millions crawl from their ghettoes, and, with fists raised, descend on Wall Street, or wherever they’re needed. My fantasies, however, don’t hold out for long, and soon burst like a polychrome bunch of birthday balloons (Forget about guns and forget ammunition/’Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission/Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner/Now everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner).
And as far as jumping off the bridge goes, good taste keeps me from being so predictable. I’m not going to jump, no way! Unless it makes me thinner. And if it does, then it’s good-bye, Weight Watchers! And hello, Revolution!
A Bicycle-Eye’s View of the World
A bicycle-eye view is a view out on the world. When you ride a bike your gaze doesn’t linger long on your surroundings, but neither does the world exactly flash by, particularly when you ride as leisurely as I do. The elevated position and nonchalant circling of the pedals allows you to register things, but doesn’t give you time for empathy. Here I need to add that the view from my bike is always of the same restricted space—of a park in my Amsterdam neighbourhood.
The park has changed a lot over the past decade: it’s a long while since it was a space for urban escapism. Today, particularly on the weekends, it’s crawling with joggers, cyclists, and walkers of all ages and nationalities. Before, you’d see only young men out jogging: now you see tubby middle-aged women wrapped in hijabs. People used to cruise around on their bikes. Today, little mobility scooters barrel down the bike paths, unruly old folk at the steering wheel. Sometimes you even see an entire Turkish brood heading off to do the shopping on them. Then there are the kids on Vespas, the invalids in their wheelchairs, and the increasingly wary cyclists.
My gaze settles on a small posse bounding toward me. There’s a young man chugging along pushing a twin-size baby stroller. A young woman with a boy in tow follows close behind. A girl and a dog bring up the rear. This family out for a morning jog would be fantastic material for a pro-life propaganda video. That’s if—dog and baby twins excepted—they weren’t all clenching their jaws. There isn’t the slightest trace of pleasure on their faces. They might as well have stayed home and cleaned their teeth.
Actually, no one’s cheerful anymore. Not the scowling old fellow, plastic bag in one hand, grumpily hurling clumps of dry bread into the lake with the other. Not the young couple with a child watching the angry old boy, and not the teenager sauntering past totally indifferent. It’s a sunny Saturday morning; little sailboats and winsome ducks gently glide across the lake. The trees and grass exude a calming shade of green. So why the general anxiety dimming the glow of this Amsterdam park-life idyll?
According to demographers and the newspapers, life on earth is getting a little crowded. The number of earthlings has just topped 7 billion. India, currently with a population of around 1.2 billion, is soon to overtake China as the most populous country on earth. The developed countries of today are projected to experience future depopulation, while developing countries such as Nigeria are expected to see population explosions. Some 1.5 billion earthlings live on less than a dollar a day, and huge numbers perish from hunger. People with a planetary view of the world are worriedly wondering if in the near future we’ll all be hungry, and whether there aren’t simply too many of us. Perhaps this accounts for why more and more people are asking themselves how to die. I mean, when there’s no answer to the question of how to live.
Demographers suggest that the demographic picture of little Croatia is currently in a bad way. More people are dying than being born, and Croats no longer believe in church or state. The raging procreational passion that erupted with the birth of the Croatian state has long since fizzled. These days, potential parents don’t have jobs, so they live with their parents, not in any position to rent, let alone to buy, an apartment. And they’re a curse on their parents’ houses, who themselves are barely surviving on miserable pensions. Unofficial statistics suggest that every second Croat is a thief. This dirty little detail helps sap the procreational impulses of potential parents. It also helps explain why young Croatian women down contraceptive pills like sedatives.
But even death is an expensive solution. The price of cemetery plots has gone through the roof. With thieves, gangsters, murderers, and politicians all desperate for their deeds to outlive their mortal coils, there’s a mad scramble for prime plots at Zagreb’s main cemetery. The Catholic Church in Croatia granted (not without a fee, of course) deceased Croatian president Franjo Tudman pole position at the very entrance, where hitherto there had only been a chapel. Today, Tudman’s majestic grave stands almost buttressed behind the chapel, the new layout like a symbolic sentry box surveilling the entire cemetery. In this new order of things, it’s immediately clear who rules the Croatian dead, present and future. Tudman’s devotees among the living quickly started scrapping for the first row. The heirs to old graves never dreamed of flogging their great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers’ final resting places. But the ambitious buyers are generous to a fault, which is understandable. They’re buying a spot in the eternal gallery. And, in this respect, a new social order is taking form in the graveyard. Wealthy dead folk squeeze out poor dead folk.
“Resomation” or “green cremation” is a new invention in corpse management, a natural process for the speedy decomposition of the body. The deceased is fed into something called a resomator (which looks like an elongated washing machine) and at high pressure exposed to a water and potassium hydroxide solution. After three hours the machine spits back out around 200 gallons of mineral-rich liquid. Dental implants, crowns, pacemakers (which don’t explode like they do during cremation!), and other remains are ground into a fine ash and given to the family, the volume of ash being much less than that remaining after cremation. Resomation also consumes eight times less energy. The deceased’s liquid remains can be used as fertilizer, or just tipped down the sink. The process even erases any DNA trace of the deceased’s identity.
Resomation is currently legal in a handful of American states and several European countries. The Scots, incidentally, hold the patent on resomation. And given the lack of cemetery space in Switzerland, resomation might soon be the only available burial option. Those who care about the environment can breath easy: resomation is eco-friendly. We are all dust, and it is to dust we shall return. We are all liquid, and it is as liquid we shall end. For the many people who felt their lives worthless, posthumous transformation into this truly liquid form could be of some comfort. (Water the lettuce with Grandma! We’ve never had such tasty lettuce before! Spray the geraniums with Granddad!)
What happens to the soul in the process of resomation—whether our soul is hydrophobic or water resistant; whether on hitting the water it turns into a little submarine and rides the storm, or simply dissolves; whether at high pressure it is catapulted into the air like a miniature rocket, or simply evaporates—these are questions best left to wise men of theology. One thing is certain: Zygmunt Bauman is right. We live in a liquid epoch.
Blessed were the times of totalitarian dictatorships and information blockades! Today, thanks to the Information Revolution, barely a day goes by without a disturbing piece of news unnerving me. If every revolution eats its children, then this one, the Information Revolution, is the bloodiest of all. I mean, who ever really knew what a tsunami was, let alone had heard of the region where it hit? In the old days, who knew who had mugged and robbed whom? These kinds of stories nibble away at my hard-won reserves of internal peace. In communist dictatorships, people lived longer and healthier lives. Promised a brighter future, many were convinced they’d live to see its dawn. The reality is that excessive information exposure is more harmful than radiation. The fall of communism, globalization, the incontestable hegemony of capitalism, and Francis Fukuyama with his end of history have ruined the health of millions.
Bubba, my countryman, spends most of his day voluntarily hooked up to every available source of information. Bubba’s daily phone calls raise my drowsy consciousness to a state of emergency.
“Hello, you there? Get yourself to the bank, quick.”
“Withdraw the lot.”
“There’s nothing to withdraw.”
“Christ, you must have something!?”
“Take it out!”
“What kind of provisions?”
“You know, food.”
“What kind of food?”
“Flour, oil, tinned stuff, dough, zwieback, definitely zwieback . . . Didn’t you ever do the weekly shopping with your mom?!”
Actually, I do remember. On the first of the month, Dad would fetch a canvas satchel and we’d all go grocery shopping together. Mom would buy just enough to see us through to the next payday: oil, flour, rice, pasta. Mom’s pantry was a place of wonder: lined up in neat orderly rows were jars of preserves, jams, pickles, paprika, beetroot, sacks of potatoes, small casks of sauerkraut, smoked bacon, crackling, ham, jars of lard and honey, little boxes of cookies . . .
“Don’t forget the garlic.”
“In case of riots and a police crackdown.”
“What’s garlic got to do with the police?!”
“If you’re out and about and there’s a riot, you can rub the garlic into a scarf and cover your mouth and nose. Garlic’s great against teargas.”
“What are you on about?”
“Buy batteries, a transistor radio, a torch, a pocket knife, and a few essentials from the local camping store.”
“Haven’t you heard of nine meals from anarchy?”
The phrase “nine meals from anarchy” was apparently coined by Lord Cameron of Dillington in the hope of rousing shopping-drunk British consumers from their slumber. Let’s imagine, for instance, that one day there’s no gas at the pump. Trucks wouldn’t be able to make their daily food deliveries to the supermarket. And given that almost no one keeps provisions at home, it’s estimated that the food on supermarket shelves would go in three days. At three meals a day, we’d have only nine meals before total anarchy. Things are, of course, much more complex. It’s a matter of chain reactions. Every increase in the price of petrol increases food production costs, and increased production costs increase the price of the product. Chaos would ensue if cash machines crashed for a day. Nobody keeps cash at home anymore. But things are, of course, much more complicated still. Today, the crisis is all-pervasive, and unemployment is all-pervasive, and this means that hunger is crouching at the door of millions of people—those who don’t have the faintest idea what hunger is. Because, until now, hunger has always been somewhere else. On television reports of starving African children covered in burly flies.
A few years ago I was in Sofia, in Bulgaria. The acquaintance I was staying with lived downtown in a typical East European apartment block. Thirty years ago they were pretty apartments—that much is apparent from the spaciousness and the detailing. The apartment was now in a desperate state of disrepair. We went onto the balcony for a cigarette. On the neighbouring balcony, I noticed an unusual wire contraption.
“Ah, that’s our ingenious neighbour,” said my acquaintance. “He hunts pigeons with it. He made it himself.”
“What does he want with pigeons?”
My acquaintance laughed tartly and shrugged her shoulders.
“A lot of people are struggling here . . . ,” she said.
It’s been a few years since that conversation on a Sofia balcony, but at this moment I remember that resourceful Bulgarian with respect. Things have changed in the space of several years. Even I’ve wised up recently, in every respect. I’ve honed my consumer instincts, and for the first time in my life I’ve started comparing prices and am more than willing to travel a little further if it means saving a few pennies. I recently bought a load of Dutch cans of condensed milk at about a dollar and a quarter a can. The cans are identical to the old Soviet ones; Russians called the contents zguschenka. From a single can of zguschenka you could make a liter of milk. Unlike the Dutch cans, the Russian cans didn’t have an expiration date, edible for eternity.
As far as pigeons go, I’m resolute there: but no way, ever. Pigeons are revolting.
“You’re right,” says Bubba. “Set limits. It doesn’t matter how hungry you are; don’t ever ingest what revolts you.”
Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table, and, luckily, Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pinkie-coloured birds. Flamingo needs to be boiled a little first, then you flavor it with spices, douse it with white wine, and put it in the oven. Pheasant doesn’t hold a candle to flamingo.
Amsterdam’s parks are hopping with hundreds of thousands of rabbits, and numerous flocks of plumpish ducks paddle the canals. For now, it seems, there’s no reason for concern. The Dutch were long kind to immigrants. They’re not anymore. But there are some exceedingly cunning fauna that manage to flout the strict legal controls, sneaking their way in undocumented. That’s what happened a year or so ago when, tired of the long south-north flight, a gaggle of Egyptian geese landed on Dutch soil and decided to set up camp. The feathery Egyptian felons would have gone unnoticed had a few articles not appeared in the tabloids about how these brawny Egyptian geese were threatening their autochthonous counterparts with extinction. I’ve got no idea what an autochthonous Dutch goose looks like, but I’ve clocked the Egyptian geese sauntering around the neighborhood tram stop. Egyptian geese are unusually chunky, so as you approach the tramlines, it’s as if there are big clumps of snow lying there. Yes, things have changed: today, immigrants are good to the Dutch.
Like I said, I’ve honed my instincts. I run the scenarios in my head. I’ve got a Plan B up my sleeve and a Plan C under development. Apart from the kidnapped flamingos, rabbits, and ducks of unidentified origin, and renegade Egyptian geese, lately I’ve been eyeing my Chinese next-door neighbor. He’s youthful, compact, shortish, has supple joints, toned, tanned calves (he wears shorts in the summer!), a cute face, and smooth skin. My Dutch neighbor on the other side I don’t give a second look: he’s my age, gone to seed, has big ashy eyelids, and an unhealthy complexion. All in all, more sausage than steak.
Soul for Rent!
“I think it’s just elegant to have an imagination, I just have no imagination at all. I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination.”
Shortly before the whole world slid into financial crisis, a Dutchman, the head of some kind of association, contacted me explaining that he was a fan of my books, and that he’d like to organize a literary evening.
“And you’d be the moderator?”
“You’re a literary critic?”
“No, I’m a physical education teacher.”
“So you’re into sport, then?”
“No, cultural exchange.”
“And where would the literary evening be?”
The Dutchman mentioned the name of a village. As it turned out, the Dutchman had a holiday home there, where he spends most of the year. Other Dutch also had houses in the village. Then it came out that the physical education teacher actually organized group tours for Dutch tourists, accompanying them around the surrounding countryside and introducing them to authentic Polish village life. His mission wasn’t just to enlighten Dutch tourists about Polish culture; it was also about enriching the everyday lives of the local population. I was supposed to be the enrichment. The physical education teacher’s benevolent enterprise had already received accreditation for its innovative embrace of European integration.
“Who are you accredited by?”
“European Union agencies. We get some funding from them, the rest comes from membership dues.”
“And this is how you earn a living?”
“One has to live from something,” he said meekly.
Irrespective of the fact that I was and remain wholeheartedly in favor of initiatives supporting European integration, not to mention intercultural communication, I declined the invitation, which only goes to prove my arrogance and worrying deficit of visionary imagination. Let me repeat: this was all before the crisis. Today I’d no doubt be more receptive to the offer.
Yes, we live in times of crisis. Many are thinking about means of survival, yet most suffer failures of imagination. For example, in Croatia a couple of middle-aged women (one of whom was educated as a political scientist) went to jail after botching a bank robbery. For my part, I appreciate an imaginative approach. I think it’s elegant when someone, even in times of crisis, has an imagination. Perhaps I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination.
That’s why I was thrilled to read about a little Croatian start-up. Buying pigs’ ears from a local slaughterhouse (cheap, of course—pigs’ ears rarely make it onto anyone’s menu), a guy figured he could grind them into prime dog food. Crisis or not, there are plenty of buyers. People obviously figure that even if their own lives aren’t up to much, they can at least try and give their pets a decent one.
I was equally taken by the example of well-known gourmet chef Daniel Angerer and his wife. The pair had a young baby, and in case her milk dried up, the wife put away some in reserve. With the fridge soon overflowing with breast milk, the pair decided to make cheese from it. Angerer launched the new venture by approaching volunteer tasters with little cheese, fig, and pepper sandwiches. Many turned up their noses. Angerer’s wife maintained that the prevailing scepticism toward mother’s-milk cheese stems from the fact that most people “associate cheese with sex,” instead of accepting the fact that “women’s breasts exist to produce food.”
Angerer’s idea was taken up by artist Miriam Simun in the installation The Lady Cheese-Shop. Visitors were offered breast-milk cheese, the goal being to examine “the relationship between ethics and modern biotechnology.” London restaurateur Matt O’Connor has a dish called “Baby Gaga” on his menu: breast milk ice cream. It’s around twenty-two dollars a portion. O’Connor maintains that “no one’s done anything interesting with ice cream in the last hundred years,” and pays his donors well. One wet nurse shyly explained that, given she has excess milk, the extra income was very welcome in these recessionary times. The woman is right. If people sell their kidneys, blood, and children to survive, why wouldn’t women sell their milk? I mean, if they’ve got it to spare.
Some people’s imaginations really take the biscuit. It isn’t just breast milk that brings in the punters; nostalgia works a treat too. Lithuanians, for example, cottoned on that there was a dollar to be made in commercializing their traumas under the terrors of Soviet communism. As part of the project 1984: Survival Drama in a Soviet Bunker, visitors crawl down into an authentic six-meter-deep Soviet bunker in a Lithuanian forest somewhere, exposing themselves to the risk of physical and mental torment. Visitors are happy to put their hands in their pockets to hear (for a first or second time) Soviet guards yelling: “Welcome to the Soviet Union! Here you are nobody and nothing!”
Hungarian director Péter Bacsó’s 1969 film The Witness (A Tanú) features a communist amusement park. There’s a scene in a funhouse in which Marx’s, Lenin’s, and Stalin’s heads leap out of the darkness, prompting general shrieking in the audience. The scene inscribed the film in the memories of my generation as a brilliant and emancipatory satire on the absurdities of communism. Of course, the film itself spent some time in a bunker, and is today almost forgotten. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, communist theme parks have sprung up in a number of postcommunist countries, but as there’s no risk, they’re no longer entertaining, and least of all emancipating. Viliumas Malinauskas is a wealthy Lithuanian farmer (mushrooms and snails) and the owner of Grūtas Park, a sculpture garden located in a forest next to the village of the same name, the park home to socialist-realist statues scavenged from the ruins of Lithuanian communism. Visitors can have their photo taken in the embrace of tons of bronze—Stalin, Lenin, and Marx and Engels are all there—or, if they prefer, with living sculptures (performance artists impersonating the same crew). In Lithuania, a land of Catholicism and former communism, a battle for market share is raging. It remains to be seen whether dead communism or living Catholicism will win the day.
Incidentally, let’s not forget that, from a commercial perspective, communism still appears to sell amazingly well in the country of its former rival, in America. Every now and then a new literary star emerges from the undergrowth to testify about his or her communist trauma due to lack of bananas and toilet paper. The reality is that these stars are getting younger and younger (and cuter and cuter!), so can’t have had any real personal contact with communism in the first place. But yeah, genes and place of birth are always solid guarantees of purported authenticity. The marketplace knows that the inauthentic recycling of trauma always sells better than authentic experience from firsthand.
Some people really do have great imaginations. The London culinary expert assured us that there had been nothing new in the ice-cream world for the past hundred years. But there’s no way that’s the case with tourism, where they’re innovating on a daily basis. Hence the appearance of so-called dark tourism and its specific sub-genres. There’s grief tourism (tourists visit concentration camps, infamous prisons, historic graveyards, battle sites of mass slaughter, or the small town of Soham, England, where two ten-year-old girls were once killed); disaster tourism (tourists visit places struck by natural catastrophes, post-Katrina New Orleans, post-tsunami Thailand, etc.); then there’s poverty tourism (tourists visit infamous shanty towns such as Soweto in South Africa, or the favela of Rio de Janeiro); and then there’s doomsday tourism (tourists go to places threatened with disappearance—the Galápagos Islands, Greenland, tiny coral islands such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia).
The newest branch of tourism on offer is political tourism. It’s all about educational visits to political hotspots. Tour operators organize both group and individual trips to countries such as Turkey, Georgia, North Korea, Ethiopia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. The tour guides are always experts, acclaimed historians, diplomats, academics, respected commentators, and journalists. The clients are whoever is prepared to pay. The cost of an eight-day trip to Bosnia is just over four thousand dollars. The tour is led by a well-known British journalist and involves meetings with local politicians, NGOs, religious leaders, regular people, and authentic victims of the Bosnian war. Surviving victims, naturally.
For many of these troubled hotspots the potential windfall from political tourism could be a saving grace. Croatia has a lot to offer—the aforementioned Croatian generals in The Hague, for example. One of them has got real star power: an alleged playboy and former French legionnaire, who heartless Europe considers a war criminal, and little, but sensitive Croatia, a hero. The Serbian criminal scene also has talent to burn, not least that of a beautiful silicon-enhanced pop star and gangster widow. The war criminal Radovan Karadžić, also currently residing in The Hague, is great material for any prospective tourist package. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before ethnic cleansing and detention camps inspire theme parks. Tourists could get their ethnic chip (Serb, Croat, Bosnian, Albanian, etc.) with their entry ticket and then chase each other around the park ethnically cleansing one another. Communism could be a starter too. Goli otok, the Yugoslav gulag, has a mild Mediterranean climate, and given its accessibility, incomparably better tourist potential than Siberian camps. In short, if there’s a growth market for anything in the states that has sprouted from the former Yugoslavia, it’s definitely tourism. It would naturally be unfortunate if the industrious residents of these impoverished backwaters were to participate in political tourism ventures only as waiters and supporting actors.
I admit that there’s also a personal dimension to my interest in the human imagination in times of crisis. I’ve been mulling over how to earn a dime, too. I once met an unusual old woman who asked me a sly question.
“And where do you fit in: among the vampires or the donors?”
“I’m with the donors,” I shot back in jest.
Today my then off-the-cuff response turns out to have been the correct one. Because as the old woman explained it, people fit into two main groups: “vampires” and “donors.” Being a donor doesn’t automatically grant one the moral high ground, and neither does it relegate one to the loser category in advance. Maybe you’re just lazy, and exposing your bulging veins to exploitation is easier than baring your teeth and getting down to work.
As someone with a donor’s psychogram, I’ve decided to try my hand as an entrepreneur. My idea is perhaps a little exclusive, but luckily for me it’s not original. Originality, say marketing experts, only increases the risk of bankruptcy anyway. I’ve decided to rent out my soul. I’m well aware that the soul’s value has fallen catastrophically, and that my business venture doesn’t have much hope of success. But you never know. I’m inspired by the bright example of the Croatian businessman who with his dog food really has made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. My soul is flexible and displays strong regenerative properties. Its powers of absorption are as good as any old-school blotter. Potential clients should provide a short biography. Perverts and smokers are out of the question. Payment in advance and in cash. Contact details to the editor.
Translated from the Croatian by David Willams.
[*] The belief that albino children bring good luck lives in certain parts of Africa. Every now and then, a witchdoctor kills a pallid-looking child in order to prepare a voodoo potion. The child’s organs are usually removed while he is still alive, so the child bleeds to death.
[**] A reference to current Serbian president Boris Tadić.