Incident Outside Novi Sad
The first time I saw a man die I was nine years of age. He died forcefully in a Trabant—a minuscule, boxy, East German car made out of cardboard or something resembling drywall; a car that even we, Romanians, made fun of, although Trabants were quite popular around Bucharest and almost equaled in number the Dacia 1100s that traversed our boulevards and side streets in a weird, self-conscious and paranoid urgency, that of being perpetually watched. The man, grinding gears and pushing hard a backfiring, oil burning, over-heating proletarian motor, was making a run over the border into Yugoslavia. There was no sophisticated plan that I could discern; nothing thought out in advance, no underground tunnel, no home-made hot air balloon—envelope sewn from bed sheets like I’d heard in fantastic, successful defection stories from my parents and their friends gossiping at the seaside, covertly listening to Radio Free Europe on their shortwaves and secretly delighting in these shared morsels of attaining freedom in the West. The man just pointed the front end toward Novi Sad and made a run for it; a simple plan. I don’t know where exactly the border was; usually some sort of demarcation like a barrier or concrete parapet would delineate this obtuse, imaginary line two countries historically draw into the land and idiotically defend, so I don’t know if he died on Romanian or Yugoslavian soil. I imagine if it were the former, he would have been disappointed, for most of us ordinary citizens are born and die anonymously and uneventfully in the same country—sometimes in the same house, and less often in the same bed. I imagine he would have at least wanted to be able to claim his dramatic demise on foreign soil: mission half accomplished as it were. The border soldier who shot him from approximately a kilometer away fired his rifle three times before he picked him off with the fourth slug and the hapless, cardboard, Communist machine ground to a feckless halt just short of a tree. Immediately a black, government sedan stopped next to the fallen would-be defector and three men pulled out the body violently and stuffed it into the back seat, one of the agents contemptuously kicking the dead man in between his limp legs in a final act of degradation (or childish revenge). There was blood on the windshield from where the brain matter splattered. The border soldier had been a good shot. Probably he was going to be commended for his patriotic act; perhaps even given a medal or official papers recognizing his difficult, but honourable feat. And probably, later, like most of the others, he would disappear swiftly into the system: into the salt mines, the gulags, the labour camps, this particular incident long forgotten and officially erased from any resemblance of a record of existence. My country’s history, back then, was dubiously written in pencil. Revision and redaction were highly sought government professions. I was at the drafty window of an acquaintance’s summer house that year when the running man was killed. I was eating large, round grapes from Ostrov that my father had brought in the boot of our car in stacked, wooden crates to have as dessert each night. Within five minutes, all evidence of anything having happened had been removed or erased. The border soldier who had taken the shots was picked up by a second black Dacia and driven up the slope toward a small, nondescript house made from large granite stones. Later that evening my parents and their acquaintances played backgammon and drank red, home-made wine and discussed Mircea Eliade. No one spoke of what had happened. If it, indeed, had happened. The lines between several versions of reality were always kept out of focus, whether by the government intending to perpetually destabilize its programmed citizens, or as merely a survival mechanism by familial relations. I understood that well. I was born into that. People lived and died, or didn’t live or die at all. And some lived but never died. And others were never born. The night of the first time I saw a man who was never born, at age nine, I read three chapters of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. When I finished, I climbed into bed and slept without dreaming.
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