It could have been one spring. It might have been in one of those hungry winters, I am not sure. I remember that people still used to gather around a radio connected to a car battery, expecting the fresh news from the frontlines. It was an ordinary day: a warn-out youth was wondering down the school corridors, professors with their eyes in the distance were just the shadows of authority, and a slightly retarded major-domo calling the students to the classes, by crazily beating at a metal object, looking like a large lid. The corridors would soon be filled with nothing but a whir, similar to that heard when a shell is pressed against the ear.
After the starting flustering moments, the teacher called out a dozen of names, and mine among them. I thought that we would, once again, go through the descriptions of the villages in Ana Karenina, or something like that. Our surprise was unseen when the teacher, in a very ceremonial tone, announced that we will go to the city library, to meet a writer. Rolling eyes, angry looks and unclear mumble made it clear that I, except for the teacher, was the only one happy with the idea. To be clear on something; I was not the best student, and I probably wasn’t the smartest in our class, but I liked to read. Besides, this sudden outing could free me from the rest of the classes today, and such a gift could not be wasted.
The air in the city library was a special one. The humidity coming out from the walls, mixed with the smell of yellow pages of the books which dangled on the book shelves, seemingly without any order. Above the door, from where Tito used to smile at us, mystically just like the Mona Lisa, there was now the picture of Branko Ćopić. Branko has a very serious facial expression, as if he was nagging the librarian who nailed him up on that damp wall to hang from there, crumpled and frameless. He did not know that the librarian deliberately did not want to put any frames and limitations on him. I remember the chairs; the best were selected, those upholstered in a greyish fabric. They were neatly placed in a circle. Although everything gave away a smell of being well warn out, a feeling of tiredness and poverty, I felt a strange festivity in this modest environment. We sat down. While others were nervously picking things around and looking over their bony shoulders, I sat still and looked at the warn-out book covers in my vicinity. The Russian literature and a bit further the English literature and a bulk of the domestic literature attacking from the side. From the floor to the ceiling, this grotesque structure hosted Andrić. Andrić, Crnjanski, Šćepanović, Bulatović, Ćopić, and then Krleža, Ujević, Dizdar, Prešern… At that time, we have already been well trained to recognise “ours” and “theirs” in the middle of the night, and almost following our noses. Maybe it was the signals broadcasted by the shelf were confusing ones, that brought the angry look on the Branko’s face? I doubt. I think that all of them get along just fine; Ćopić and Crnjanski and Krleža. The truth is, Krleža and company were at the bottom, somehow hidden from the looks, and placed in a dustier place than, for example, Andrić.
And then, the door squeaked. Whether because I was sting or because he was very thin, but the man who entered the door did not seem to me as a very tall one. His hair was grey, his face was hollow-cheeked and his bony shoulders were slightly bent. At one moment, as he stood there leaning, he reminded me of Ostoja, my grandfather on my mother’s side. But, in the next moment, he was himself again – elegant, shaved older gentleman, wearing a jacket and who was, in a grandiose, but not intruding manner, different to other, mainly tired and unsightly local men. Sitting there, quite stupefied, I was looking at his arms, which were in the height with my eyes. They were long and thin, and his hands, in which he held several books, were bony, but beautify. It seemed to me that they were at least 20 years younger than the rest of his body. Our teacher introduced him and he slightly bowed, as if we were an important auditorium. Because of the broil, I did not hear his name. After he sat down, he said he came from our town, but he left to live in Belgrade when he was young. He told us some details of his childhood, then sketches of his careers, and asked us about our school. He often smiled, warmly and parentally. Then he told us about his works and we asked him about the literature and his favourite books, as if we were a gathering of critics. The questions we were asking were the ones made up by our teacher and we memorised them on the way from our school to the library. Thinking about it, I think that he was the only person who understood the writer’s answers. This was not important, because the writer’s oration was very interesting and even those who were the most mischievous listened to his every word. When the time foreseen for our company was over, he got up, gave some of his books to the librarian, and then turned to us and said: The life, my kids, is sometimes very strange. You see, I am an old man and I could die now. Now, my tomb stone would say that I was born in Bosanski Brod and that I died in Srpski Brod. People would be confused thinking that those were two different towns…
He looked at us once again, smiled and then left. I have never seen him again.
* * *
I have not thought about this meeting for a long time. It surely was not one of those meetings that changes the life of a man. Still, it was one of rare pleasant memories from the war. The majority of other events have been lost in time and space. In another life. In someone’s far away youth. Today, some fifteen years after that meeting, I am slowly starting to understand some of what he said. I am now fully convinced that his last words were intended for us, the young lads from the province, to open our eyes and show us the universal absurdity of the war, the endless unpredictability of human destinies. Maybe my eyes are not wide opened yet; they might never be. But, I think that I at least squint, unlike many others, who still keep their eyes shut and who see only the delusion under their eye lids. Some of them sat in that library on that day, of that spring. Or it was one of those hungry winters. I am not sure.
The day after our meeting, I asked our teacher for the name of the writer who visited us. It was Voja Čolanović.