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The Other Letter

On a cool spring morning in 1995, in the mess hall of the Bihać base of UNPROFOR, Lazar Saveljić, nicknamed "Lazo," got into an argument with Lieutenant Leon Fields. This thirty-year-old librarian, Saveljić, had already been working as an interpreter for the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations for more than two years. He was the chief interpreter for and the driving force behind the magazine local stuff. The various units of the British army had rotated in and out, but he had remained. Of the many Englishmen with whom he had worked, Leon seemed to him the most likeable, yet it was none other than Leon with whom he squabbled.

This wasn't a real quarrel. The locals in the employ of the UN were overjoyed at the privileges they enjoyed and at the pay, which was phenomenal, considering the wartime conditions; they avoided any kind of conflict with the foreigners. The motto was: shut up and work. But Lazo didn't keep his mouth shut. The incident was a banal one, an everyday thing, so to speak. Just casually, perhaps paying no attention to what he was saying, Leon had commented on the reverberation of a far-off detonation in the following terms: "Bloody Balkans! Always the same old story, again and again: new murders and ancient hatreds." It wasn't at all unusual to hear such things; after all, every foreigner certainly thought this way, and they very frequently spoke this way, but this time Lazo hit the ceiling. "If there's an old story here that keeps repeating itself over and over, it's the one about your prejudices"—that's what he said. Then Leon responded, in a rather conciliatory tone, incidentally: "So why are you all the only ones at war in Europe?" Lazo's reply was that this had not started as a conversation about war but about murders and hatred. At that point Leon said that hatred was the very thing that characterizes Balkan wars. "In other places, wars are fought for self-interest. It's only here that they're fought for hatred; and that's why they kill children," he said. At that Lazo raised his voice for the first time and snapped: "And your country is an Arcadia, a paradise on earth? I'm not so sure about that. But you got one thing exactly right: this is indeed an age-old story that is perpetually repeating itself." After that he stood up and took his leave: "Have a nice day!" And both Britons and Bosnians followed him with their eyes as he walked out.

Lazo hurried home with long, powerful strides. The main street of the city was deserted. The wind toyed with the dust and trash. Lazo was unshaven. He looked worn-out. His eyes skimmed the façades of the buildings, as if he were searching for a shop window in which to check out his reflection, to assure himself that he still looked like something, like a living person. But there were no displays of any kind; Bihać was a city without glass. The shop displays had planks nailed over them, and the shattered panes of windows were enclosed in plastic sheeting adorned with English-language acronyms. Lazo yawned. The previous night he had been on call at the base. He was always given the day off after pulling night duty, but Lazo wasn't in the habit of taking these one-day vacations. The thought of going back to an empty apartment probably didn't appeal to him. Lazo's wife and young daughter had left (fortunately!) and gone to be with her parents in Germany back in March of 1992. Trouble was in the air, but Lazo thought it would be shorter than this and not as bloody. That's why he stayed put in his hometown, guarding the past and his mementos. Since the fighting had started in earnest, he had regretted on several occasions not dropping everything and leaving with his family without so much as a backward glance, but in truth he probably never had a change of heart. After all, he had done well for himself. He was all in one piece, living in his own apartment, and the only uniform he wore was that of the UN forces. That is to say, in those first several months after mobilization, his work duties saved him, and then by the beginning of 1993 he had started to work for UNPROFOR and was protected. Since then he had spent most of his time on base, but nonetheless no one had touched his apartment. In that small city, everybody knew what belonged to whom, and even apart from the UNPROFOR ID card he was protected by the fact that his brother-in-law was one of the local commanding officers.

Upon reaching his building Lazo pushed open the door in the entranceway. The large windows in the stairwell were covered with sandbags, so that even at noon a deep gloom filled the lobby. He went up to the second floor, holding on to the banister. He unlocked the door to his apartment. In the foyer he did not remove his shoes. He entered the living room and gazed at the large, framed photograph on the wall: Amra and he were seated on the sofa, with little Ema between them, smiling and holding a big teddy bear. She had named him Andrej. Lazo walked over to the picture and lightly stroked the glass above the child's face. Then he dropped onto the sofa underneath the picture, the same one whose four-year-old likeness he had just been studying. The sofa had aged, too: it had grown dirty and threadbare. In the picture, however, it gleamed in eternal youthfulness like Dorian Gray. Lazo, as if he had allowed slumber to trick him for a moment, began to doze off but then immediately shook himself awake. He stood up and went over to the cabinet. To the left of the television stood a vase with a few dried flowers in it, and to the left of that was a somewhat smaller frame containing a picture coated in enough dust to make it unrecognizable. Lazo picked it up, and with the index and middle fingers of his right hand, he cleaned off the dust and examined the black-and-white photograph: an old man and a youth, in old-fashioned uniforms of the postal service, the only difference between them being that the young man's uniform would have been considered modern at the time of the picture. On the back of the photo the year was noted: 1955. In the picture were Lazo's grandfather and father: Dimitrije and Aleksandar Saveljić, both of them postal workers, both deceased.

The Saveljićes had been inhabitants of Bihać for ages, but on the eve of the First World War, Dimitrije fled to Serbia and signed up with the Serbian army. He lived through the whole epic period associated with "Tamo daleko,” that song, that faraway place, only to exchange his army uniform after the conclusion of the war for that of a letter carrier. He lived and worked in Belgrade, where, as a thirty-year-old, he got married. He had only one child, Aleksandar, who was Lazo's father. They remained in Belgrade until the Second World War. They spent those war years there, too, but as soon as it ended, the fifty-year-old Dimitrije returned to Bihać, with his wife and his son of fifteen, after an absence of over thirty years. He worked in the Bihać post office till his retirement, though not as a letter carrier. He brought with him, just as a souvenir, his old uniform from the time of the monarchy. But immediately after high school and his military service, Aleksandar Saveljić, the son, officially donned the new outfit of the postal service. That's how the photograph, now gathering dust in Lazar's home, finally came into existence. Six years after the picture was taken, Aleksandar married. Two years later, Lazar was born, and, like his father, he was to be the only child in his family. The tradition was not followed in every regard, however. Lazar did not become a postman; he took a degree in comparative literature and library science in Zagreb. And he had (thus far) one child, but she was a little girl.

Lazar had no memory of Granny Isidora, the wife of Grandpa Dimitrije. She died while he was still in diapers. Yet in his childhood he spent more time with his grandpa than with his parents. Both of them worked, so the boy had to spend almost his whole day at his grandfather's house. He ate supper at his parents' house, and slept there and spent his weekends with them, but otherwise he just went straight to his grandfather's after school. Grandpa Dimitrije was not like the majority of pensioners: he played neither cards nor chess, and he wasn't a stamp-collector, although his passion did have something to do with philately. To be specific: he collected undelivered letters. This had started back in 1919, right after he had taken the job as a mailman. Immediately after the war there was a fairly large number of letters that were impossible to deliver, owing to the great amount of movement and resettlement; some of the recipients had died, some had moved to new places, and some of the letters bore nonexistent addresses. Who knows what moved the young Dimitrije to hold on to those first undelivered letters, but it metamorphosed very rapidly into a passion. Such a passion that he actually yearned for every letter he carried to be undeliverable, so that he could hold on to each one of them! Despite that, it never crossed Dimitrije's mind to keep any letter that could be transmitted properly—that is, to fail to do his job. He was the best postman imaginable: he greeted the customers with a smile, and they responded to him in the same manner, and yet each time he had to part with a letter, the expression on his face darkened. When he got home from work, he would read the letters and rejoice. After their wedding, Isidora shared the pleasure with him; each afternoon she would wait at the door with a smile and the whispered question: "What have you brought us?" But there were ever fewer letters that couldn't be handed over; as the situation in the country stabilized, the torrent of dead letters abated. Still, even if there were fewer letters in that category, they never disappeared altogether. In lean times, Dimitrije and Isidora would turn to their archive: reading old letters anew, they found new meanings and value in them. And as soon as young Aleksandar learned to read, he joined in this family tradition. Maybe that was what made him decide to become a postman. When he got older, however, and went to work, he gave up this practice, and he himself never took home any lost letters. His mother and father sometimes reproached him for this, until he began to accuse them of having led him astray with these dishonorable and unethical doings since childhood. Therefore Dimitrije started reading old letters with Lazo as soon as the boy started school. He was proud of Lazo's curiosity and pleased with what they termed his "grandfather's blood." Lazar's predilection for reading old, lost letters was especially strong in his high-school years. After he left to study in Zagreb, he gradually developed a certain loathing toward such adolescent amusements, but he made it a point not to let it show around his grandfather during his holiday and summer visits. During the exams at the end of his third year, Grandpa Dimitrije died, but Lazar's parents failed to notify him right away. They harbored a sort of idolatrous veneration for university exams, the apotheosis of the sacred cow of education, to which more modestly educated people are particularly inclined. When Lazar came home for two weeks, he came across his grandfather's grave and was confronted with his parents' excuse that they had not wanted to upset him. He could not forgive himself for not attending the funeral, and he burst out crying when his father showed him what grandpa had left him in his will: the lost letters. In his room a large burlap sack full of letters was waiting for him. He kept them at the bottom of his wardrobe until he married and got his own apartment. Then he took them to his new place and put them once more in the bottom of his armoire. He never looked in the bag, never took out a single letter. Right up to that day, the day he got into an argument with Lt. Leon Fields.

Lazar returned the picture to the cabinet shelf, placing it right where it had been earlier, by the vase—and then he went into the bedroom. From out of his wardrobe he retrieved the large burlap sack, filled with letters in their envelopes, and he plunged his hand deep inside it, like some celebrity invited to produce the lucky winner in a prize-drawing. But Lazo was not looking for just any envelope; he was seeking an old one, from the early days of his grandfather's career, an envelope addressed to one Andrija Ivić. He had a vivid memory of the story his grandfather told in connection with this letter. It arrived from Paris in May of 1920. Grandpa had taken it to the address indicated on the envelope, but there was no longer an Andrija Ivić living in that apartment. The new occupant said he had taken off and emigrated all the way to America. He supposedly worked for the government and had left to take up a post in our embassy in the United States. To Grandpa this was the most precious letter he ever preserved. In addition, it was one of the very first. It seems that this letter was decisive in influencing Dimitrije Saveljić to keep, till the end of his postal career, the habit of appropriating undelivered letters. As if he were hoping, his whole life long, to find another letter worth as much.

Finally, Lazar dumped the contents of the sack onto the floor in front of him. And he started pulling one letter after another out of the heap, reading off the names of the recipients. He had tossed aside some thirty letters before he found the right one. His hands trembled as he opened it; reading the first few lines, he knew it was what he'd been seeking. He walked back into the living room holding the letter, sat down on the sofa, and began reading.

My dear old friend,

When I wrote you that last letter from Trieste, two months ago, that was in fact a kind of symbolic page from my imaginary diary, a page that was dated perhaps a year after the fact. You probably remember that I wrote you in German, as if I wished by the very form and linguistic medium to underscore the content of the missive, to confirm what it contained. And you surely recall the letter itself. I have to say straight off the bat that what I wrote was actually a kind of synopsis of my thinking on Bosnia, of the thoughts that tormented me immediately before the war, during the war itself, and again immediately following it. Thus, that letter, as I said, was not a presentation of my views at the time of its composition; it was more like a relapse—into opinions I'd held previously. The sediment and ashes of things I had outgrown.

I am writing you again, my friend, because you deserve to be informed of my continued evolution, because my meeting with you came just before a partial change in my stance. Our conversation at the station in Brod was akin to an overture; it was a prologue to that which was about to happen to me in the train. Surely you remember how I told you at the station that I was absolutely convinced that you would return to Bosnia. Do you know why I said that? Because since our high-school days you have been for me a kind of symbol, the incarnation of Bosnia. I don't know why this is, but of all the people I've met, you've always been for me the most Bosnian, the archetypal Bosnian, so to speak. And that, it seems, was what interested me about you and prompted me to get to know you better. Thus the encounter with you softened my views on Bosnia a bit, and that's why I couldn't tell you to your face the things I wrote you about later, even though there in the station I believed more firmly in what I later wrote to you than when I composed that letter. All of this probably strikes you now as hopelessly convoluted, but I hope that the remainder of this letter will clear everything up.

I'll get right to the business at hand. We parted ways at that station when my train pulled in, the train bound for Trieste and beyond by way of Beograd, Vinkovci, and Brod. It was the Orient Express. It was late, because somewhere after Vinkovci it hit a snowdrift. The train got stuck. I waited a long time for the train, and I was tired from being up all night. And I immediately asked the conductor for a first-class sleeping compartment; I figured there were bound to be several of them, for the Orient Express was typically half-empty in winter. But to my amazement, the conductor told me that they had only one. I said I'd take it, and then he asked me whether I might be uncomfortable doing so, since a murder had occurred in the compartment. So, what had actually transpired? In the station at Vinkovci, a murderer had gotten on board, gone into the compartment of this American gentleman, stabbed him with a knife (twelve times), and then left the train. It was only on the morning of the following day that the corpse was discovered, when the train had already run into the snowbank, and a private detective who happened to be on board this particular train reconstructed the crime during the delay. Thus at the station in Brod they were able to report an open-and-shut case to the police, and the train was able to continue on its way without a long stop. It was already late, however, on account of the snowdrift. The police had to telegraph Vinkovci with a description of the suspect: small man, dark complexion, with the voice of a woman. Such an individual was reported to have been seen in the train during the stop in Vinkovci, and for a certain length of time someone had been sending anonymous, threatening letters to the deceased. The detective from the train thought that it looked to be a question of revenge.

Whatever the case, I got the compartment in which the crime had occurred. This didn't bother me. I've never been superstitious. The neighboring compartment belonged to none other than the detective who had reconstructed the murder so speedily and successfully. He was a runt of a man, with the thickest mustache I had ever seen. Belgian by nationality, his name was Hercule Poirot. He lives in London and is, supposedly, quite famous in England. People describe him as the greatest living detective. What a coincidence that he was in the train at the very time of the murder! I lay on the bed and dozed, listening to the melodious rattle of the rails. It seemed to me that I might have found a mistake in the famous detective's reconstruction. Then I fell asleep.

As soon as I woke up the next morning, I realized that the train had stopped. I peered out the window. Yet another snowdrift! "That's the Balkans for you," I thought. "They don't even know how to keep the rails clear." I headed for the dining car to eat breakfast. It was full: it seemed like all my fellow travelers were there. And, in spite of the holdup, everybody was in a fairly good mood. "They seem to have taken the first delay in stride," I thought, "and at least this time there was no murder." My neighbor the detective was seated at a table by himself. I inquired of him if a place was free there, and when he answered in the affirmative, I joined him. We introduced ourselves and courteously exchanged greetings and compliments. In jest I asked him if it could be verified that every passenger was currently accounted for, or whether another murder might have taken place. He gave me a very serious look and said there would not be any more murders. Then he added that Hercule Poirot could guarantee it. I studied him for some time. In his endless arrogance I found him both aloof and likeable. Geniality, however, carried the day. Then he said that no one else had been killed because none of the remaining passengers had ever received threatening letters.

At this point I could no longer refrain from saying that perhaps he had made a mistake, that I thought his reconstruction of the murder was wrong. His countenance suddenly grew even more earnest. I presented the hypothesis that had occurred to me the previous night before I had fallen asleep. My angle was that the American was not in fact killed by anyone seeking revenge. The crime was an irrational one, and he was only by accident the victim. The murderer was really a Yugoslav, probably a Bosnian, blinded by hate for the entire world, a man who would kill anyone at all just on account of this incurable hatred. It was then that Poirot smiled for the first time: "You are mistaken, mon ami," he said. (Naturally we were conversing in French.) "What kind of person would kill randomly out of an irrational hatred?" he asked. I answered immediately that a Bosnian would do it. After that I gave him a long monologue and related everything I had written to you two months earlier. I added that most of what was true for Bosnia held for the Balkans as a whole, too, but that Bosnia was still the worst, that hatred there was the strongest and most passionate. During my entire soliloquy, Poirot looked at me in mild astonishment. After what was probably half an hour of talking about Bosnian hatred, and practically foaming at the mouth, I finally concluded, and he said to me, quietly, reassuringly: "You are a sad man, monsieur, very sad." Then he said it again, nodded his head, and left. I stared at his back as he started toward his compartment.      

After ten minutes I followed suit and returned to my berth. I was glad I had told him that. I truly believed it and was almost hoping that another murder would occur and prove my theory right. Right up till lunchtime I lay on my bed, reflecting on Bosnian hatred. When I headed to lunch, the train was still standing in the snow. I went into the dining car and looked around for my Belgian. He wasn't there. Then I sat down at an empty table and began to observe my fellow-travelers. They were a diverse bunch. You could tell that much just by their languages. As I was eating, I could hear English, German, French, and Hungarian. An unattractive old lady, who was speaking in loud and punctilious German to her servant, was a Russian, or at least she seemed so by dint of her name; and the waiter in the dining car, as well as the conductor, incidentally, was French. "And the detective is Belgian," I thought. "Where is he?" I ate my lunch and was about to head back to my compartment when my mustached neighbor entered the car. He made straight for my table. Sitting down, he turned to me: "I see that you've finished, but do stay a bit longer, Monsieur; I need to speak with you." I nodded. And he began to speak.

"Yesterday, mon ami, one of your sentences frightened me. And Hercule Poirot does not scare easily, I assure you. I grew afraid when you stated that I had pieced the crime together wrong. I was frightened because you were right and because I was alarmed to think that you might know the entire truth. But there I erred. All you really said was that I had made a mistake. When you started explaining that outrageous thesis of yours, I was glad at first; I felt relieved, since you actually did not know the truth. But the longer your exposition lasted, the more melancholy I became. You made me sad, mon ami, and Hercule Poirot is not easily saddened. I was listening to you and telling myself that your life must be hellishly difficult. It's not easy to live with opinions such as you have about one's own homeland. Such a point of view should at least be accurate—sometimes it's worth suffering on account of the truth. But you are wrong, my friend. Your erroneous opinion saddened me, however, and as far as I'm concerned you should not be able to use this murder case as proof of your thesis. I, Hercule Poirot, cannot allow that. I cannot allow a young man to ruin his life, in part because of me. No, I can't allow it, my friend. You have placed me in one of the biggest dilemmas of my life, and, believe me, I've been in a lot of dilemmas. Since our conversation yesterday, right up till now, I've been thinking, and in the end I concluded that you need to learn the truth. My friend, Hercule Poirot will tell you the truth, and, as le bon Dieu himself said somewhere, it will set you free."

I'll give you the short version and won't recount his long explanation to you. It was not some short, swarthy man with an effeminate voice who killed the American; his traveling companions killed him. ("All these people seated around us, each one of them killed him in turn," Poirot whispered.) He told me that he had found them out, and announced to them that he knew everything, but that he had no wish to report them. For the American deserved to die. He deserved hell. In actuality he was the kidnapper of a little three-year- old girl, Daisy Armstrong. (Perhaps you recall this case; I myself have a foggy recollection of it.) He killed her, but the court let him off for lack of evidence. But Daisy's death led directly to the death of her mother, who was pregnant at the time of the abduction: she passed away while giving birth to a premature baby. After that Daisy's father took his own life, and then there was one more suicide: little Daisy's governess killed herself; she had been wrongly accused of complicity. All the passengers in that rail car, save Poirot, and of course the conductor, were co-conspirators. The parents and friends of the victims decided to punish their killer. Poirot unmasked them, but, as we Bosnians would say, he gave them his blessing. At first Poirot's tale seemed fantastical to me, but in the end I believed him. Simply put, everything fit together. He had no reason to lie to me, and if, he did, he would have concocted a more believable story. At the end of the whole meticulous reconstruction of the case, he told me one other thing.

"This is the truth, my friend. There is hate everywhere. People get killed everywhere, children too. This is the dismal truth. I see that you are leaving your homeland. That's fine, but you do not have to cease loving it, and you do not have to ascribe hatred solely to it. Hate belongs to the whole world. I also left my homeland, monsieur, probably forever—but I still love it. I proudly tell everyone that I am Belgian. My friend, in my country people are also kept apart by religion, and we have this linguistic divide, and we have people who hate. But it has never crossed my mind to label my country the land of hate. You are an idealist, and a good man, my young friend. You remind me of one of my friends who considered himself a scoundrel of cosmic proportions, yet he was a saint. Believe me, monsieur, a saint. But he preferred to attribute all the nastiness of this world to himself instead of to others. You remind me of him, my friend; out of a hypertrophied sense of respect you denigrate and do injury to the very thing you love the most. Do not forget, monsieur, that hatred is everywhere. Your homeland is not the land of hatred. If one country is the country of hatred, then automatically the entire world is a world of hatred. Remember that. Hatred is found everywhere. That's why I shared all this with you. And from the bottom of my heart I hope that the good Lord doesn't demonstrate these things to you at your expense. Adieu."

He stood up and walked toward the door. I called out after him: "Thank you." He merely gave a wave of his hand. It was winter and already growing dark outside. When I returned to my berth, I heard the clacking again: the train had started. I lay there, pondering Poirot's story. In my heart of hearts I knew he was right, but my mind was still unable to process the rejection of the views I had lived with for so many years. I fell asleep, and the next day, before breakfast, we arrived in Trieste. I did not see Poirot again. I penned the letter to you that very day. It was as if I feared that by the next day I would already be incapable of writing it. Poirot's antidote was gradually curbing the poison with which I had been grappling for years.

And now I am in Paris. I intend to remain here. I do not believe that Bosnia is a country of love, nor is it paradise on earth, but I no longer consider it the country of hatred. It is just an ordinary country, neither better nor worse than the rest of them. A little more complicated, perhaps—that's all. It's a country like any other, but I love it because it's mine. I'm going to stay in Paris in order to heal people, to help them, especially Bosnians. For there are Bosnians here, too: workers and students. I want them to come to me, their compatriot, when they need a doctor. I hope to get this work underway soon.

I wish you and our Bosnia every happiness!

Sincerely,

                                    M.L.

 

Lazar read the letter. Then he dropped it to the table and walked over to the cupboard. From one of the drawers he took out a pencil and several sheets of paper. He sat down at the table, picked up the pencil—and wrote nothing. He sat there for a while, lost in thoughts, not letting go of the pencil. Then he stood up, put the letter in his pocket, and walked to the door.

Lazar probably wanted to translate that letter into English and then read it aloud to the lieutenant with whom he had quarreled, Leon Fields. In due time the letter would have been able to serve as an argument in what he considered an unfinished dispute. But apparently he was impatient and left for the base to give Leon a verbal translation of it on the spot. Over the last two years he had gained experience in simultaneous translation; it was routine.

No sooner had Lazar passed through the front door of his building than a shell came whistling by. He ducked and began running back, but there was not enough time. The projectile exploded and a piece of shrapnel caught him in the back, at the level of his heart. He died on the spot. Thus ended the life of a man who did not believe that Bosnia was the land of hatred.

First published as Drugo pismo iz 1920 Godine, in Travničko trojstvo (Zagreb: Durieux, 2002). Copyright Muharem Bazdulj. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.