Journal of Carnojevic (fragments)
by Miloš Crnjanski
The protagonist of the book is a young Serbian soldier who lived in Vojvodina, now northern Serbia, which was, at the time, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. When WW I began, he was, along with thousands of other young Serbs, recruited to the Austro-Hungarian army, and the war completely obliterated his image of the world. Crnjanski himself had such a destiny, and he wrote the book right after coming back from the war – still as a young man.
The book is a combination of the present, the past and the future, strangely intertwined. We can’t even say who he is – because of his alter ego, the sailor; just like the borders between the periods of life, the borders between persons are blurred and unclear.
“Autumn, and life without meaning. I drag myself around taverns. I sit by the window and stare at the mist and the yellow, wet, scarlet trees. And where is life? ”
Then, somewhere towards the middle of the book, he meets the sailor and the story changes completely – now it’s about the sailor's life.
"All they were doing, he said that somewhere, far away, on some island, was leaving a mark. And when he’d tell her that now, from her passionate smile, a red plant on Ceylon island is drawing its strength to open, she would gaze at the distance.
She didn't believe that all our actions could reach that far, and that our power is so endless. And that was the last thing he believed in.
Under the palm trees, in hotel lobby, he was telling her that he didn't believe someone could be killed, nor made unhappy; he didn't believe in the future, he said his fleshly passions depended solely upon the color of the sky, and that life is being lived in vain - no, not in vain, but for the sake of a smile, with which he smiles to both the plants and the clouds.
He said that all his actions depended on some scarlet trees that he had seen on the Ios island.
She giggled. Ah, he was funny and young, so young...."
"He visited some islands, and he was happy when he could touch colorful birds with his hand. Around the islands there was nothing but sky, and maharajas with white turbans knew more than all the European libraries (...) And wherever he went, everyone was moving away from him. His eyes were filled with some desperate rage, they laughed at soldiers, foreigners, women... "
"And he stood by the window, gazing at the sky. Around him everyone was crying and singing, but he had no regrets. He looked, and he saw a dark grove, and he couldn't remember where it was. He felt that he was going to die, and suddenly he found himself falling into a bottomless abyss…
But he comforted himself to the thought that, instead of him, some crimson fir-trees will live on some island, filled with colorful parrots. And when he smiled, he remembered that now someone far, far away, is crying for him. He turned around, to the table where people were sitting, and started shouting, raising his hands - "Gentlemen, smile, maybe someone in Sumatra will feel it!" After that he started talking about some Corinthian columns and he felt it was the end.
He fell, and everyone gathered around him. Yes, he kept raving about poplars, about the scarlet plants living instead of him; an old priest in black sailor's coat approached him and asked him if he was Catholic, and he replied - I am a Sumatraist..."
Again, the soldier talks, this time about his childhood.
“Illnesses were my best experiences. They used to clothe me in white and put me in the window, and people would stop by and look at me. Ah, they were doing all sorts of things to me! And the mother, I can remember her only like a dream. She was a young and pretty widow. Ah, I too feel sorry for many things! She used to sit on my bed and sing to me the songs about incessant slaughterings and killings, and the villages which were burning. Ah, how much I screamed then! The day after, I would run away from home. I would hide under the fortress walls, among the green puddles, around which the grass was dense and yellow. I used to lie there for hours, taking out the frogs, green, colorful, with scarlet eyes. I remember that eyes, scarlet, yellow, mysterious, and how I stared at them for hours. They quivered on my palm, and I, laying in the grass, for hours and hours looked into their eyes scarlet and yellow... ”
“I will go past borders and cities and villages and forests and waters and there will be nothing left on me but dust on my feet, silence in my heart and on my face a mild smile meaningless and burning. So many are the places where something had been left, ripped out of my torn apart soul and my ragged life.“
Translated by Lazar Pascanovic