It is our pleasure to feature Lidija Dimkovska’s novel Grandma Non-Oui wonderfully translated by Christina E. Kramer who is undoubtedly one of the best translators of Macedonian Literature into English.
Lidija Dimkovska was born in 1971 in Skopje, Macedonia. She is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator. She studied Comparative Literature at the University of Skopje and took a PhD in Romanian Literature at the University of Bucharest, Romania. She has worked as a lecturer of Macedonian language and literature at the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Bucharest, and as a lecturer of World Literature at the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. Since 2001 she has been living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as a freelance writer and translator of Romanian and Slovenian literature into Macedonian. She has participated at numerous international literary festivals and was a writer-in-residence in Iowa, Berlin, Graz, Split, Vienna, Salzburg, Tirana, and London.
Christina E. Kramer is a professor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto, Canada. She teaches Russian and Macedonian and has published numerous articles relating to Balkan linguistics. Her translations include (from the Macedonian) Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski (Penguin Books, 2012) and My Father’s Books and The Time of the Goats by Luan Starova (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012 ). She was also a member of the group of translators of the 19th-century classic (from the Bulgarian) Bai Ganyo by Aleko Konstantinov (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).
7 June 2009, Castellammare del Golfo
While she was alive, Grandma Nedjeljka remembered everything, events of the past and everyday events up through June 2009. Or, more exactly up to June 7, 2009. Up to that date, up to my 21st birthday, she was still a normal grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law. Old, but normal. Very old, but vital. Grandma and her brother evidently had their mother’s genes and could expect to live to ninety. I was turning the age considered a legal adult in America. The orange tree was blossoming and we were sitting beneath it at the wooden table. I was sitting with mama, papa, Margherita, and her boyfriend—a serious boyfriend—Pietro. He was a full twenty years older than Margherita. She was eighteen, he was thirty-eight. A very pleasant and open guy, but too old! “He’s so old, where did you possibly find him!” grandma would say whenever he left our place. “Magi’s a child, he’s an old man!” And she never missed the opportunity to turn to father and say: “Find Margherita a proper suitor! A young girl shouldn’t be going around with an old man!” But for papa it was even more unpleasant what Margherita dished back: she would laugh and say, “He’s young, don’t worry!” and papa would feel guilty that Margherita had found herself such an old boyfriend. Still, once he even said, “I guess better old than nothing,” probably alluding to me who, at 21 years of age, had yet to bring a young man home. Margherita had joked with me that day: “Well, now that Neda is ‘forever young’, she doesn’t need a man.” “Which Neda?” Grandma asked and we all laughed. “You,” I said to her devilishly, although everyone yelled, “Neda, not you, you’re 86 years old, Neda’s only 21. And, you’re Nedjeljka, Grandma Non-Oui.” And then, as I recall, grandma started shouting: “I’m twenty-one years old, I’m Neda, and today is my birthday!” “But grandma,” I said trying to calm her, but she screamed at me, “Grandma?! What do you mean, grandma? I’m a young woman, I’m twenty-one years old, my name is Neda, my mother has a stand in the market, my father is a fisherman, we live in Split.” “Of course, of course, that’s nice, mama,” our father said trying to smooth things over, but she started in on him, too: “Mama? What do you mean ‘mama? I am a young woman and I’m not married. Carlo is waiting for me on the Riva!” How strange my birthday was! At first, we thought grandma was joking and that we were joking with her, but she wouldn’t let up and kept trying to convince us that she was the Neda celebrating her birthday, not me. When she couldn’t convince us, she began to shout at the top of her lungs and called us liars, thieves, even fascists. We quickly cleared the dishes and the food from the table in the garden and managed somehow to get her inside. The special Split cake that grandma had made the day before—working all day in the kitchen, her spattered recipe in front of her—remained in the small refrigerator that grandpa had put in the corner of the garden several years before. No one remembered it until several days after my birthday. I think all of us felt our hearts pounding in our temples. We went inside, closed the door that led to the garden, and shuffled off to our own rooms. Grandma went to her own room as well, repeating over and over as she climbed the stairs: “Faa-scists. Faa-scists!“
Grandma, why did you call us fascists? In the days that followed, you repeated that word and for the six full years until your death. Why was it that that word would pour from your mouth a hundred times a day? Sometimes it would be the only word you said. What really happened that day? An outpouring of unexpected hatred toward all of us, your closest kin, or the final outpouring of illness? Doctor Rinaldo said it was a typical sign of Alzheimer’s and had no connection to concrete causes and consequences. You were simply ill. Old and sick. Surely you had been sick a long time, but that day the illness appeared in its truest light. Something flipped the switch on your illness right then on my birthday. You were lucky till then. At that age, grandmothers are usually in their graves, in an old folks’ home, or seriously ill. “Mrs. Nedjeljka Lombardo has a good heart, but her brain is no longer functioning properly, and it will continue like this from now on.” The doctor said, “and worsen. Do not leave her alone for a moment.” “Do we need to sleep with her as well?” mama asked sarcastically, then immediately bit her lip. “No, she can sleep alone, but lock the balcony door, she’ll never know.” It was my job to lock the balcony door to your room every night, then hide the key in my room. How hard it was for me to do that, and how hypocritical I felt, showing a granddaughter’s love towards you during the day, while at night taking your freedom to the balcony with its a beautiful view of the bell tower beside the Holy Mother of God cathedral. Every evening before I left your room, I kissed your forehead, and you would grab my hand that held the balcony key. “Faa-scists, faa-scists” you repeated with eyes closed, without looking at me, and I felt the palm of my hand sweat as it clenched the key, I felt my heart pounding in my temples and how I hated myself for playing the role of prison guard. The door of your room, however, remained unlocked and during the night you often went back and forth to the washroom several times, which meant either that you had forgotten to turn off the faucet or had completely forgotten to do what you went there for; you just sat and gazed into the night without turning on the light. Meanwhile, in my half of the room, separated from Margherita’s by a tall book shelf, I would think about everything that had happened, how I had lost you, my grandma, while you were still alive, and how you know yourself that you’re the most important person in my life. We were as close as “ass to panties” as papa would describe us, and mama would not forget to to add, “out of spite”.
I asked myself whether her illness had any connection to Grandpa Carlo who had died thirteen long years earlier. “Alzheimer’s defies logic,” Dr. Rinaldo said to me, “don’t try to find reasons for it. It occurs in young people and in old.” Yes, it can’t be grandpa’s fault; he’s been dead so many years, and is buried, alone, in the city graveyard. He died in 1996 when I was eight years old, and my sister five, but he had been mute for the two years prior due to an undetected medical cause though grandma told us it was because he had really wanted to teach my sister and me to swim, and he would carry us to the beach, to the bay, at any time, just to warm a bit in the sun, but Margherita and I cried and kicked so much that one day Margherita, the tough little thing, slipped out of his arms and nearly drowned and grandpa barely managed to pull her from the water, shouting at me: Step on her back, step on her back!” Still today it feels like I can still hear him shouting, as I, a six-year-old, wet and frozen, climbed crying onto the back of my little sister, who was barely three years old. I stepped on her, and from her mouth poured gurgling water and a cry, a cry that could be heard by every person in Castellammare del Golfo, and from that moment he never spoke again; he went mute over night, he never took us to the beach again, and whenever someone asked him something, he simply could not answer – out of his mouth came only odd mumbling and gurgling sounds, but no real words. My father and uncles took him everywhere they could think of: first, to the small clinic here where he was known as Carlo and his wife, Nedjeljka, as Neda from Yugoslavia. The first question the nurse asked my father was, “Did the mafia do anything to him ,” but since the answer was negative, the simple doctor in the clinic had no other answer to explain why my grandfather had stopped talking just like that, but said only “he had a fright; it will pass. He just needs time.” But when the ‘time’ that passed was a whole year following Margherita’s near drowning with its happy ending, Uncle Mario, who lived in Trieste, sent a ticket to grandpa to travel by boat to Trieste where he would take him to the best doctor in the city, “the American”, my uncle wrote. “He’ll surely know what to do.” My grandpa set off for Trieste, alone, unused to traveling with anyone, on his first trip since the war, while grandma, even though she wanted to go to her son’s in Trieste, was, in the end, gripped by fear and stayed home wringing her hands beneath her apron waiting for the pasta spread out on the white tablecloth to dry in the only empty room in the house, the one that had been Uncle Mario’s. But not even in Trieste was there a cure for grandpa’s muteness. Uncle Mario even sent him to Rome, to their younger brother’s, Uncle Luca, and Uncle Luca went with grandpa from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, but they all said the same thing: “He’s had a fright and been struck mute, he needs time for the fear to pass, and then he’ll begin to speak again.” There was a nurse in the suburbs of Rome, who had earlier been a client at Uncle Luca’s law office, who took my uncle aside and said to him: You know, I’m not from here, but I know how to drive away fear: you take an axe, then the person who has suffered the fright sits at the entry to the house facing outside, and then the head of the household takes the axe and waves it in the doorway right beside the sick person saying “Fear leave this house, because, without fear, a person can be a person.’ You do that three times, to the person’s right and left sides, and once over his head, in the air, and you’ll see how the fear leaves him.” That’s what she said to my Uncle Luca, so grandpa Carlo would begin to talk as he had before: “That’s what people do where I come from. I don’t know about how they do it where you’re from, but why not give it a try, it doesn’t cost anything to give it a try.” Uncle Luca put a sheet of paper in grandpa’s suitcase on which he had written the nurse’s advice, with a ps: Mama, maybe you understand these things, the nurse is from Yugoslavia.”
“Ah Nedi, we didn’t have that custom in Split, but I had heard about it. A long time ago, when I was young, I read a book of folk stories from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and I read something like that in one of them and it upset me so much that I thought about the story all night: there was a woman who had gone off to live with her husband’s family after she got married, and she was very afraid of his sister who was an evil woman and one day her husband cut her fear with an axe right in the doorway to their house. From then on, she and her sister-in-law became like sisters. However, the sister-in-law soon got married and moved away. I thought about this when I read the advice from the hospital nurse in Rome and I thought we should give it a try, but your grandpa wouldn’t hear of such a method to drive out his fear and he just turned and ran out of the room. I think it was also because he was the head of the house and he would have been devastated for his son took over that role all at once, while his father was still living, but it was also ‘out of spite’ your mama said, thinking I wasn’t listening. He didn’t let us to do it, even though I thought it was the only thing that could save Carlo. I stroked his head but he silently pushed my hand away, because he didn’t want our tenderness or our help and none of us were brave enough to just put him in the doorway and cut away the fear that had made him speechless. He died in his sleep two years later—you were already eight years old, and Margherita five—and he hadn’t spoken for 24 months, sitting mute in our marriage bed, in the rocking chair on the balcony, here at the table under the orange tree, and in the armchair in the living room, gaping open-mouthed at the television as if every second he had something he wanted to say, but couldn’t. He said nothing to me before he died. Nothing. He passed away in silence, and left me with countless unspoken words.
17 September 1996, Castellammare del Golfo
Grandma Nedjeljka, that morning, the day you were supposed to go to Split again after the second trip you had made nearly thirty years before, Grandpa Carlo simply didn’t wake up. I remember, it was 1996 because that was the year I started second grade, and Margherita was still at home. You and grandpa took care of her, and when I got home from school we would make paper airplanes from the pages of La Sicilia and we would fly them all over the house, but first we’d peek again and again into the drawer in your room where, hidden like a precious stone, was the airplane ticket my uncles and papa had bought so you could go to Split. Later on you told me that you had decided to go then, in 1996, because on Italian news it was announced that all military action had ended in the former Yugoslavia, that there was no more shooting, that those who had fought in Croatia received the title of ‘defenders,’ and that the war just ended had been called a ‘Patriotic” one; you told me that the president of Croatia was shown on the news for several seconds holding up the Bill of Rights for the Croatian defenders and you felt uncomfortable, as if he had done something to you personally. I don’t remember that news broadcast. Margherita and I surely had more interesting things to do. I know we had to make a hangar for all the little airplanes because mama threatened to throw them in the trash because they were underfoot everywhere including the bathroom. Now, as I think about that time, I think the situation in Croatia wasn’t exactly clear to you either, and even less to mama and papa, but who knows, maybe papa knew exactly what was happening in your homeland—though, as he once said to me, he simply didn’t want to know anything so it would be easier for you. I do remember your fear during the war in Yugoslavia and, when a scene of military strikes was broadcast on Italian television, your face, and Grandpa Carlo’s, would crumple and you would not blink for hours, lips tightly pursed, as if glued together. “Look, grandma’s a doll” Margherita said to me, but to me you looked like those anatomic models I had once seen in a classroom where the teacher had sent me to get chalk. I went in the room and screamed, terrified: there, standing on the tables, were several anatomic models and a skeleton. They were all gross and frightening, with organs hanging on small hooks. There was one body that was not completely terrifying: the one which had a partial left cheek, eye, the left-half of a nose, and half a mouth. The other side was not there, so those parts of the face were clearly visible, hanging on small hooks at the mid-point of the head. The eye was open, as well as the nostril, but the upper and lower mouth were glued shut, and, had the right side of the face been there, its lips would have been glued shut as well. “Don’t blink and don’t breathe,” I told Margherita as I explained to her what I had seen for the first time in my life and she said, “Just like Grandma.” You often looked like that: eyes wide open, nostrils flared, lips sealed shut, so frightened by the events in your homeland that came at you like a news flash, so worried about your home in Split, about your brother who had not not contacted you once in his life, even when his wife, a Serbian, died, and about your niece who never made the effort to get in touch with you. You were convinced that it must be the same there as it had been during the second world war, during the time of your war— as you would say to us, then always correcting yourself: grandpa’s war. Yet, now you wanted to go to Split more, perhaps, than ever before, to see with your own eyes the traces of the new war, to get a sense for yourself of this new world, and we all hastened to fulfill your wish, Margherita and I with our paper airplanes, papa and our uncles with a real plane ticket: Trapani-Trieste-Split. No one told you not to go, or asked what you were looking for in a country that had just been through a war, where there was likely still some shooting even though no one talked about it any more, it was as if it we were the ones who wanted to send you there—at any cost—among the stray bullets fired by traumatized defenders and attackers, even if you never came back. But Grandpa Carlo didn’t wake up that morning, so you didn’t go then or ever. You took Grandpa’s death as a sign that you no longer needed to go to Split to see, at least once more, your home, your brother, and your niece, the only ones left in your family, and you kept repeating that it was your fate to return to your fatherland after settling in Castellammare del Golfo in 1947 only two times: the first in 1959, and the second and final time in 1968. You said to me many times. “Ah, Nedi, when you no longer live somewhere, you are dead to that place. And when a dead person returns to where he had once been alive it is as a ghost. And everyone is afraid of ghosts, right? Children and grownups.” Your words didn’t make sense to me, I couldn’t understand why you were already dead where you no longer live; you simply live in another place and sometimes you travel to where you lived before—for my generation traveling had become the most normal thing, a tourist destination, not an existential question. And no, not everyone would be afraid if they saw you. I, for one, wouldn’t be afraid of you if I lived in Split and you turned up unexpectedly. And why shouldn’t people who love us want to see us again? Even if we are ghosts? When you were in Split you were a young girl, a living human being, you had girl friends. But fate wanted you to fall in love with an Italian. Can it be that that love, which believes in everything and has hope in everything, turns people into ghosts when they move to a new place following their love?
Ah, Nedi, Saint Paul neglected to write that in his epistle to the Corinthians. But surely he didn’t know that a person who loves and who leaves his fatherland because of that love, then becomes a ghost because of it. It’s interesting and not an insignificant thing, that he lives like a ghost even in his new fatherland. The person is like domestic spirits which the people living in the house and others who live in that place gradually fear less and less, but they still look at him differently, as if he had something stuck to his head or clothing, as if he were marked in some way. They seemed to look at me like that on those rare occasions when Carlo had too much work in the workshop and I had to help, even though he had said when I moved here: “We’ll live on my shoemaker’s salary. There’s no need for you to work, and you don’t know the language well enough. Besides, you never know who’s going to turn up at the workshop. The Mafiosi also wear shoes, and what shoes! But if you want, you can sew upstairs in our place above the shop.” During those years it was rare that Carlo and I went to the Rosetti store оr took a short walk to the bay. Of course, those were years when a woman didn’t walk around town alone, but at that time, when there were whispers of more gunfights, neither did a man. It wasn’t just me, a foreigner, someone unfamiliar with the Mafia’s laws, but the other women also didn’t leave their houses; we just peeked through the window curtains. We were all ghosts, those who had arrived from somewhere else, and the locals. But in my native country, if the ghost of a woman were to reappear or if no one recognized her any longer, no one would treat her like a living person or like a ghost. Or everyone who recognized her would compare her with her the way she had looked before and her picture, and they would simply not see her as anything other than as a ghost. But I don’t know if you can understand at all what I am telling you. If you ever move somewhere, you would understand what I’m talking about. If it’s because you love someone, it will be easier for you. Easier, no matter how hard it is. Just like it was for me after ’47. Let me tell you something even more important and more truthful: perhaps it’s better to be a ghost because of love than because of war. Yes, war. Not from war like on television or in a war film but war right where you live. But to be a witness to war. It begins with a feeling, then unusual signs and signals, then moves on to explosions. You live normally, and suddenly the world collapses. Can you imagine? Can you imagine that in 1939 I would ever have imagined that within the span of two years all these things would happen? Both in Split and in the rest of the world.