BEF 2011/8 – One Minute: Dumbo’s Death [Serbia]

25/02/2011

1

Time is common to all men as is the secret hope that our portion of it should prove to be, against all reason, infinite.  It is an elastic phenomenon and our perception of it is, mercifully, saltatory: we are none of us Borges’ Funes.  Time changes speed, it accelerates and decelerates according to no discernible law, and though we charge our calendars and watches and sundials with its regulation, we know that they too are subject to its universal dissolution.

When we are children time appears without end, like standing on the shore of a fog-shrouded sea.  We delight to imagine the things we will accomplish, the people we will be, the independence long desired.  But after only a few score years we come to the far shore, we have crossed our sea and stand looking back at our younger selves, and we realise that we crossed the tiniest of waters: that ocean that can be straddled in a single step.  Did we achieve our goals?  Do our lives match those projected by us as children?  Rarely.

(50) vomit had slid down his rough cheek, followed by thick snot (49) coloured with red strands of bloody spit, forming a little puddle on the pavement

This is our first introduction to the subject of Vladimir Arsenijević’s story One Minute: Dumbo’s Death.  This is Hasan – Dumbo – one of Barcelona’s homeless.  Hasan, we could say, in his current execrable state of health, is lucky to be alive – that is, if we were so callously ironic.  Hasan is something of an attraction to the locals and tourists of Barcelona, outshining even his friend the erstwhile biped Aurelio whom fate, by whatever circumstances we can only speculate, has left but a single arm.

(58) tourists came every day to take his photograph…(56) cameras clicked, flashes flared, lenses hummed…(52) once he even ended up on a postcard

Dogs, we are told (53), “sniffed him and slunk away in horror…”  He is a mess, is Hasan.  But he wasn’t always like this.  Once, Hasan had shown promise as a swimmer and was working his way toward the Olympics with his trainer Fat Charlie.

“Come on, Dumbo, faster!…faster, damn you!  Sixty seconds, bah!  Sixty fucking seconds!  When you break that barrier, kid, that’s your ticket to the championship, and then who knows – maybe the Olympics.”  And: “Barcelona, Dumbo, remember that, Bar-ce-lo-na!”

But the mephitis of war issued from Marshall Tito’s decomposing Yugoslavia and spread to Sarajevo where Hasan lived.  What could have been wasn’t.  Instead Hasan becomes a soldier in which role he sees Fat Charlie again after several years.  The latter is badly wounded and Hasan kills him quickly before taking the stopwatch that he stroked so hard against in the quiet waters of Sarajevo.

The gesture is symbolic, and ironic in a way that will not become apparent until the end of the text.  In taking possession of the watch, Hasan becomes the master of his own fate, the captain of his own ship, etc.  Likewise, for Fat Charlie, the time is up.  The watch functions as a magical device, a talisman.  But we learn shortly after that the control granted to the owner is illusory: “[Hasan]…let the current carry him and it carried him through refugee camps all over Europe.”  Chronometry is a science foreign to time.

2

The Trans-Siberian Railway Panorama was an exhibit featured in the Paris World’s Fair of 1900.  It consisted of three static train carriages (bedecked in all their finery) in which patrons sat to watch painted scenery scroll past on moving belts.  There were four layers of these boards, each painted with different features: the closest to the train-car depicted small shrubs and grasses and rocks, the intermediate layers showed forests and plains and rivers, while the last and farthest from the train was decorated with the soft pastels of blue and green mountains and skies, and distant cities.  What elevated the exhibit above a pedestrian novelty was the manner in which these painted boards achieved the illusion of motion.  Each layer of scenery moved at different speeds relative to the stationary carriage in which the spectators sat: the first and closest panel rushed by quickly, the middle ones moved slower, and the final one passed with creeping majesty.

Isn’t this just the sleight-of-hand shown by Arsenijević?  He paints for us two layers of Hasan’s story, the immediate continuous present of his poverty, and the saltatory memories of his younger self.  He achieves this in a number of ways.  In the paragraphs narrating Hasan’s memories Arsenijević’s prose is a little distant, its sentences declarative, not weighted with abundant description.  The writing is distanced by a minimum of sensorial observations.  We are privy to Hasan’s actions but not his thoughts; we can see him but we can’t know him.  There is no interiority to Hasan’s character in these sections, but this is by no means a flaw, as shall be presently shown.

Alternating with these memories are the passages depicting Hasan’s immediate, pathetic reality.  These paragraphs are notable for two reasons: they are each a single sentence and they are punctuated by numbers from 60 to 0.  Flagged by the title of the story and the sequential order of the numbers we recognise them immediately as a countdown, most likely to Hasan’s death.  Does it end at 0?, we wonder.  We flick ahead – yes, there it is, (0).  We read the story knowing Hasan is a doomed man, but it is not until we reach the end that we realise Arsenijević has not written a story about a man laid low by fate.  I said at the beginning of this review that Hasan is the subject of the story, but allow me to retract and offer in his place the phenomenon Time; Hasan is just the medium.

Arsenijević gives us all the clues: in the steady, stately narration of Hasan’s memories there is the sense of authorial control.  There is, too, the symbolic struggle against the clock which he later comes to own.  Contrasted with these passages there are those contemporary with the telling, in which we are caught in the rushing, single-sentence-current of the prose stream, and which seem to have slipped from Arsenijević’s grip.

What truly sets One Minute: Dumbo’s Death apart and gives to Time its central place is just that numbering device mentioned earlier, and the way in which it escapes the writer’s control.  When the story begins and it becomes clear that Hasan’s last grains are slipping through the hourglass, we confidently expect his death to coincide with (o), and for the story to end there.  In the text, however, Hasan dies before the end, perhaps as early as (12) or even (42) or (41), his last act being to

[raise] his heavy head to watch the fat drops of rain falling onto the world[…](43) and then dropped it back feebly into his own vomit – that soft, tepid pillow which dispersed at once under the pressure (42) until his cheek finally met the cold stone once again

After this there is no movement, no reaction from the promptings of his fellow indigents Aurelio (O cruel irony – Hasan won his Barcelona gold after all) and Juan.  We are certain, finally, that by (8) Hasan has died:

Juan, after examining Hasan carefully, jerked on his crutches (7) and without a single word turned and hastily fled from some sudden danger visible only to him (6) (for all his drunkenness he had seen what was still escaping Aurelio: that Hasan was no longer breathing and that his eyes were glassy and lifeless

And yet the story continues, however briefly, beyond Hasan’s death, sketching a tableau of a street crowded with shoppers and tourists “pushing and shoving, slowly but persistently, like a solemn procession on a frieze or fresco…”  How wonderfully funereal the simile is with its careful word selection (“frieze” is not lightly chosen), suggesting the future deaths of that entire crowd.  The time of the piece outlives the story; it runs away with the narrative.  This is very much like the way in which good prose bends around characters of gravity through free indirect style.  With a stroke Arsenijević dangles a sword above all the milling multitudes and they become not only Hasan’s but their own cortège.

‘One Minute: Dumbo’s Death’ is translated from Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

Author: Vladimir Arsenijević

Translator: Celia Hawkesworth

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