the short story project


Danilo Kiš | from:Serbian

Last Respects

Translated by : Michael Henry Heim

Introduction by Vladimir Arsenic

“Last respects” seems like a minor story in Kiš’ masterful collection The Encyclopedia of the Dead. Yet every reader has their personal preference, and this one is my favorite because it works on three levels. The first is the basic level – the plot. The story describes the funeral of Marietta, a prostitute from Hamburg, which leads to a revolutionary act in the name of love, as narrated by the ruined Ukrainian sailor and revolutionary Bandura. Some of the signature features of Kiš’ writing are evident on this level, such as the extensive list of flowers on Marietta’s grave and the use of para-literary and para-documentary sources (the Berlin based leftist newspaper Rote Fahne is one example) as authenticating details in the story.

The next level of meaning is the political one and it’s the reason that the story, originally published in 1983, wasn’t well-received by Yugoslavian readers. Its plot bears a striking resemblance to Tito’s famous funeral in 1980. Tito was buried in a mausoleum which was called “The House of Flowers” and Kiš’ rendering of Marietta’s funeral and description of her destiny was seen to parody Tito’s burial. The entire story was considered a profound criticism of Tito and the Yugoslavian policy  that oscillated between Western and Eastern blocs, an act that seen as a form of prostitution, especially among the intellectuals. The third and most important aspect of the story is, in my opinion, that it presents an ironic view of the writer’s destiny and is effectually a postmodern text. The stories in The Encyclopedia of the Dead constantly play with the notion of death, and it is the last book that was published during the author’s life. It was likely that Kiš was aware of his worsening condition and the severity of his illness, and that he felt the closeness of death while he was writing the book. In this sense, the irony with which the story concludes carries tragic and even ominous meaning. 

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It happened in 1923 or 1924. In Hamburg, I think. During a time of stock-market disasters and giddy devaluation: the daily wages of a dock laborer came to seventeen billion marks, and decent prostitutes charged three times as much for their services. (Sailors in the port of Hamburg carried ‘change’ in cardboard boxes, under their arms.)

In one of the small pink rooms not far from the port, a prostitute named Mariette had died suddenly of pneumonia. Bandura, a Ukrainian sailor and revolutionary, claimed she had ‘gone up in flames of love.’ He was incapable of associating her divine body with even the slightest banality, and pneumonia was a ‘bourgeois disease.’ ‘She went up in flames, at the stake,’ he said. Although nearly five years had passed since the event, Bandura’s voice grew hoarse and muffled whenever he spoke of it, as if he were choking on a cough. It was not only the result of alcohol, though the truth of it was that by then he had become a ruin abandoned by his kind, a huge rusty ship run aground and rotting in the shallows.

‘Don’t worry,’ Bandura wheezed. ‘No whore on earth was ever mourned with more sincerity, no whore ever paid such last respects.’

Greenhouse flower beds and abandoned outlying gardens had been ravaged for Mariette’s funeral; dogs barked all night; the hounds were called out, and Alsatians straining at the collar, that canine crown of thorns; links of heavy chains slid up taut steel wires, clanging like the chains of all history’s slaves; and no one had the slightest inkling, not even the tired old gardeners in whose ailing bones lay a history of ailments as enormous as the history of the proletariat, that on that night a small, separate revolution had taken place: the sailors of the port of Hamburg stormed the villas of the wealthy; the proletarian children of Le Havre, Marseilles, Antwerp massacred the gladioli under cover of night, slitting stems at the root with sharp sailor’s knives and trampling minor flora, unworthy of the knife, with heavy, scruffy boots. Parks were ‘savagely overrun’; nor was the Municipal Garden spared, nor the garden in front of Town Hall, ‘a stone’s throw from Police Headquarters.’ ‘So barbarous an act,’ said the news-papers, ‘could have been perpetrated only by spirits of anarchist bent and ruthless flower smugglers.’

Mariette’s grave was covered with armfuls of roses, white and red, freshly cut pine branches, chrysanthemums and tuberoses, sky-blue hydrangeas, decadent art-nouveau irises, the flower of lust, hyacinths and expensive black tulips, the flower of night, waxen mortuary lilies, the flower of virginity and First Communion, violet lilacs reeking of decay, low-born rhododendrons, and monstrous gladioli (which were in the majority), soft-white and soft-pink, saintly, angelic gladioli with their intrinsic sword-and-rose mystique, all of them together a sign of putrid wealth, of the cool mansions of the wealthy, lethally lush gladioli watered by the sweat of weary old gardeners, the rosettes of watering cans, the artificial rain of artesian wells, to shield from the elements the lushly morbid growth of barren flowers devoid of fragrance, even fish fragrance, despite their fantastically jointed, lobster-claw structure, despite the blossoms’ waxen wrinkles and the stamens’ mock tentacles and the mock spines of the finely honed buds: all that monstrous lushness was incapable of exuding a single atom of scent, not even so much as a wild violet’s worth. The crown of these floral fireworks consisted of magnolia branches purloined from the Botanical Gardens, lush branches of leathery leaves, each branch tipped with a single large flower like a silk ribbon in the hair of the ‘society girls’ whom Comrade Bandura likened (with his typical taste for overstatement) to harbor whores. Only cemeteries were spared, because in his call to ‘all sailors, all longshoremen, all those who loved her’ Bandura had requested fresh flowers only, expressly forbidding – doubtless in a rush of quasi-mystical inspiration – the desecration of graves. I believe I can reconstruct, approximately at least, the flow of his thought: You can’t cheat death; flowers, like humans, follow a clear dialectical path and biological cycle – from blossom to decay; proletarians have a right to the same last respects as respectable citizens; whores are the product of class differences; whores are (therefore) worthy of the same flowers as young ladies from good families. And so on.

The silent procession led by Bandura did not raise its flags, red and black, until it had reached the outlying, proletarian part of town; there they unfurled in the wind with an ominous flutter, fire-red, night-black, symbols resembling the language of flowers yet not without social overtones.

At the border between the graves of the rich and the graves of the poor, Bandura stumbled his way up a high podium of black marble slabs (a bronze angel held a wreath over a long-dead girl) and, before the quiet, bareheaded crowd of sailors and heavily made-up prostitutes, delivered his funeral oration. He began with a short, schematic account of her life: the painful existence of a child from a proletarian family with a laundress for a mother and a scoundrel for a father, who ended his days a drunken stevedore in the port of Marseilles. And while the sailor and revolutionary Bandura tried, with tight throat and cracked voice, to reduce his eulogy – that sad summation of a wretched life – to a chronicle of social injustice and class struggle, declaiming words of hate as if reciting Bakunin, he could not help reviewing the living pictures of that life as they passed before him like photographs in an old album (and I am certain they mingled imperceptibly with memories of his own childhood): a basement in morbid semi­darkness, cigarette smoke, and the reek of wine and anisette; harrowing scenes of family quarrels, fights, screaming and sobbing; bedbugs burning, popping under a torch of lighted newsprint, the flame licking the already sooty grooves and joints of iron army beds; the evening’s delousing by flickering lamplight, the children leaning over one another’s heads monkey­like and discovering clusters of the pests at the roots of black and blond tufts; a mother’s hands, swollen like boiled goatfish from taking in washing…

His speech over the open grave was interrupted only by occasional hysterical sobs from the old whores (no one perhaps showed more painfully the transience of the flesh and the impending disaster of decay) and hoarse coughs and sniffles from the longshoremen, though he had no way of knowing whether it was actually coughing or a tough, sailor’s brand of crying, a male surrogate for crying, the same substitute for sighs and tears he himself was using as he gave the speech. (Listening to his voice – like the voice of a stranger or a scratchy phonograph – he mentally leafed through the old picture album in chronological order, from his original encounter with Mariette.)

He first laid eyes on her one evening in 1919, in the port of Hamburg, where he had just gone ashore from the Franken. It was a beautiful gray November evening with streetlamps flickering in the mist. He had orders to make contact with the apparat in a local dive the next day (a password had been agreed) and until then he was to go unnoticed, to refrain from standing out in any way – in bearing, speech, behavior, or appearance – from the hundred, the thousand sailors who had gone ashore that day. He walked along ‘Doll Street’ mingling with the drunken sailors – and sober informers playing drunken sailors – and peered through the low windows into discreetly pink­lit rooms. The red-shaded wall lamp cast a light like that of the Flemish masters in portraits of Lady in a Violet Interior, while a screen painted over with decadent irises, the flower of debauchery, hid the mysteries of the Intimate (which attracts by concealment like folds and slits in a dress): the settee upholstered in brocade and solid as a ship – oh, Bandura knew the shape of things long before he came to know Mariette! – the sparkling white porcelain basin and shapely high­handled pitcher. The lamp’s pink light glitters on the screen’s glossy fabric, the irises recede into darkness, as does the red brocade on the chair, in the center of the window, where the Lady sits. She is turned toward the spectator in semi­profile, the rose-colored lamp­light bending this way and that in the folds of her dress. Her legs are crossed, her hands occupied by knitting. The flicker of needles above the yarn. Long, blond hair falling over bared shoulders down to half­bared breasts. A second Lady, in the next window, holds a book. She is like a novice reading the Bible. From under the strawberry­blond hair that slightly veils her face a glint of light is reflected off her eyeglasses. (Moving a bit closer, the observer discovers the title, The Count of Monte Cristo, printed in large letters.) She is wearing a dark dress with a white lace collar, a camp follower who looks like a student at Heidelberg… And then he saw her, Mariette. She sat with her legs crossed like the others and her bottom sticking out, with a cigarette in her hand and the usual bright satin dress hugging her body, but there was something in her bearing, her appearance, the pale pink glow in which she was immersed as in an aquarium (the sailor’s eternal Siren) that immediately attracted Bandura. Yet not until he had entered her room and she had drawn the heavy green velvet curtain across the window and placed her warm hand under his shirt, not until then did he realize: Mariette was not meant to play a role, be it Housewife or Knitter or Student or Novice; she was the only one who needed no complicated and carefully rehearsed choreography; she was unique, inimitable; she was a harbor whore.

‘She loved and aided sailors from all ports,’ Bandura roared out over the open grave as if at a rally, ‘and she had no prejudices against skin color, race, or religion. She pressed her breasts – “small but beautiful,” as Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of crime, used to say – with equal ardor to the black, sweaty chests of New York sailors, the yellow hairless chests of the Malaysians, the bear­like paws of Hamburg stevedores, and the tattoos of the Albert Canal pilots; her lily­white neck, like a seal of universal brotherhood, had been crushed by Maltese crosses, crucifixes, Stars of David, Russian icons, shark’s teeth, and mandrake talismans, and between her tender thighs flowed a river of hot sperm that merged in her warm vagina as in the home port of all sailors, the mouth of all rivers…’

Bandura listened to his own voice, remote and cold, and images from Mariette’s life kept coming to him but without any clear chronology, like the wind riffling through the leaves of an album, and as if he himself, Bandura, had seen everything there with his own eyes. (After love, in the proximity of a man she really loved – and this tender-hearted revolutionary was one of them – Mariette could talk about herself as if she were at confession. She would reminisce with a curious kind of nostalgia, as if all the brutal stories, full of loathsome detail, were unimportant in and of themselves, the only thing of importance being that it had all happened long ago, she had been young then, presque une enfant, almost a child.) And he saw some disgusting little Greek take her by the hand one Carnival evening, pale and slightly drunk from skimming the foam off beers like a child; saw her tag after the Greek with the tiny steps of a hungry, obedient animal through the narrow streets of Marseilles and down to the port; saw her start up the steps of a dark tenement in the vicinity of the harbor warehouses, pulling herself along by a makeshift railing of thick cordage; then followed her, with the same vague fury, as she made her confident way toward the third-story door (the Greek still standing at the foot of the stairs, in case she changed her mind). Then the scene switched back to the streets of Marseilles, where a heavily made‑up Mariette stood leaning against a stone wall, supporting herself on one leg like an injured bird…

‘All of us here, Comrades,’ Bandura went on, ‘we are all members of one large family, lovers, fiancés – I mean, husbands of the same wife, knights of the same lady, cousins‑in‑cunt, who have swilled at the same source, swigged rum from the same bottle, wept drunken tears on the same shoulder, and heaved into the same basin, the one over there, behind the green screen…’

When Bandura’s cracked voice fell silent, the first lumps of earth – cast by the rough hands of sailors and stevedores, who crumbled them as if salting the innards of a gigantic fish – began to beat against the coffin. From somewhere above the grave came the sound of fluttering silk, red and black flags turned to mere funeral trappings. Then earth began to rain down on the grave by the shovelful, drumming dully on the coffin with the sound an ear hears when pressed against the frantic heart of a bawd after love. They tossed the flowers in singly, then in bunches, and eventually by the armful, passing them along from one to the next, hand to hand, a collective harvest, all the way from the chapel to the paupers’ section, where crosses suddenly shrink and granite tombs and bronze monuments give way to stone markers and rotting wood. And no one will ever know what made them do it, what impulse, what drunken whim, what pain – class hatred or Jamaica rum? – made them violate Bandura’s order, but all at once a miracle of revolutionary disobedience took place, an elemental, irrational uprising: sailors and streetwalkers, a hard-boiled lot, suddenly took to raving and exaltation, tears and teeth­gnashing as they tore out the noble gladioli, bloodied their hands on rose stems, pulled up tulips with their bulbs, bit off carnations, passing them along from one to the next, hand to hand, and by the armful. Up grew a mountain of flowers and greenery, a stake of tulips, hydrangeas, and roses, a charnel house of gladioli, the cross above the fresh burial mound and the burial mound itself disappearing under the enormous stack of flowers with the slightly rank aroma of lilacs past their prime.

By the time the police intervened, the finer sections of the cemetery had been stripped bare, devastated, as if, according to press reports, ‘a swarm of locusts had passed through the gloomy precinct.’ (Rote Fahne carried an unsigned article condemning police brutality and the arrest and deportation of some twenty sailors.)

‘Take off your cap,’ says Bandura to the man he has been talking to. In a sudden surge of pain Johann or Jan Valtin (I think that’s what his name was) tries to recall Mariette’s face. All he can come up with is a tiny body and a hoarse laugh. Then, for a moment, he catches a mental glimpse of her smile, a shadow of her face, but soon they too dissolve.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Bandura. ‘No young lady from a good family was ever mourned with more sincerity, no lady was ever paid such last respects.’

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