Bekim Sejranović's From Nowhere to Nowhere, a novel about a young man displaced by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, is out tomorrow from Sandorf Passage in Will Firth's translation. In the excerpt below, the protagonist recalls receiving an unexpected gift from a neighbor who has recently returned from Germany.
It was fall back then, and Suzana’s dad, Uncle Slavko, had finally come home from Germany. He worked there, in Frankfurt, while Suzana, her mom, and elder sister Mira lived in a small three-story house at the beginning of our alley. Ours was at the end of the alley—the one with the red gate. It was the house of my mom’s parents, where I lived with Grandfather and Grandmother. I called Grandmother “Mother.” Mom and Dad got divorced, “officially,” Grandmother explained to her friends, simple women from the neighborhood. Dad went his own way, and Mom to a big city on the Adriatic coast to finish her education. Grandfather was a traveling salesman—and always on the road. Grandmother and I were at home.
I often played by myself because there was nobody for me to play with. All the children on the street went to day care, but I didn’t need to because Grandmother looked after me. Once she asked the day care lady if I could play with the children a bit while they were outside. She said yes, but I got into a fight with another boy and bloodied his head. After that, I wasn’t allowed to play with them anymore. I didn’t want to either. Sometimes I’d find a stray puppy and would play with it until Grandmother chased it away. She’d say that they fouled up the courtyard or were mangy.
When Grandmother had some business to attend to in town by herself, she’d leave me with Suzana’s mom. Their apartment had a room full of things from Germany. It was always locked, and not even Suzana was allowed in. Only when it was her birthday—then we all could go in. It was like Ali Baba’s treasure cave. There were all kinds of toys, little dresses, and decorations. Uncle Slavko would always come for her birthday, and then he’d dim the lights in the room and show us Disney movies on the projector. We ate German candies, which were always better than ours. Everything from Germany was better, we thought. Aunty Radmila, who lived by herself in the small white house across the street from Suzana’s, once said that we’d eat shit if it had “Made in Germany” written on it.
I asked Suzana why we couldn’t watch movies every day, and she said her mom wouldn’t let her. We could damage something. Her mom locked away everything they got from her dad. It was a shame because of all the toys, but I felt especially sorry for Suzana.
“The steering wheel worked, and that was the important thing.”
When I was circumcised and lay in bed tearful and hurt, she came and sat beside me and held my hand. I sobbed and didn’t want to tell her what’d happened because I was ashamed, and I didn’t really know myself.
Suzana was slender, and a head taller than me. She had sparse black hair and looked like a sad heron. Nobody had such a big mouth as her, Grandmother said.
Every time Uncle Slavko came home, he’d bring a lot of presents for his daughters. Sometimes he’d have something for me too. We kids from the alley gaped with amazement when we saw a battery-operated toy dog for the first time. It moved just like a real dog, wagged its tail, and even had a squeaky bark. Suzana would turn it on and make it bark, wag its tail, walk, and stop again. It always obeyed. I was sure Grandmother would let me have a dog like that. It was neither mangy nor ill. But later the dog broke down. It didn’t react to Suzana’s commands anymore, and Suzana’s mom locked it away in the room.
Once, Uncle Slavko brought Suzana a German bicycle. It looked like a rocket to us. It had three gears. We all wanted to have a go, but Suzana’s mom wouldn’t let us. In Suzana’s basement there was also a red Mercedes with pedals. A two-seater. I was little when Suzana’s dad brought that car for her and her sister, so I didn’t remember it. You got in, pedaled, and turned the steering wheel, which looked almost like a real one. Later the pedals got damaged a bit, and Suzana’s mom forbade us from playing with the Mercedes. Uncle Slavko had also forgotten about it, but he saw it when he went down to the basement and decided to give it to me. His daughters were big now anyway, they had bikes, and the car was spoiled. Suzana’s mom didn’t like the idea.
The pedals couldn’t be repaired, but the steering wheel worked, and that was the important thing. Our courtyard was large and had a gentle slope. You went up to the top near the gate, gave the Mercedes a bit of a push, hopped in, and zoom! At the far end of the courtyard you’d lined up some boxes that you now bowled over, or you turned sharply and the momentum made you and the plastic car roll over. Like in a movie, except there was nobody to film it.
From From Nowhere to Nowhere, copyright © 2021 by Bekim Sejranović; translation copyright © 2021 by Will Firth. Available March 2021 from Sandorf Passage. By arrangement with the publisher.