(Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergović)
Billie Holiday drank too much and lived in cigarette smoke for too long. That’s why she looked unhappy and gaunt. She sang as though she was sorrow itself, and that’s why people liked her, Later on, black and white girls appeared in her image. They were just as gaunt but their lungs didn’t belt out jazz the same way. Nevertheless they readily absorbed the music. It consumed them the way they consumed alcohol. Sad and lonely, they’d end up in a doorway vomiting to the syncopated rhythm of the boogie-woogie. The only difference between Billie Holiday and her imitators was that her sorrow was authentic while theirs was inferred. The jazz singer created things that were rejected by the girls’ bodies.
The Bell was a bar in a cellar dating back to Austro-Hungary. It was vaulted with lots of arches and laid out in the shape of the letter L. The sound of rusty trumpets blasted out from the middle of the room. It was the sort of jazz decreed by the architecture, and it was unlikely to be much improved by the use of loudspeakers or the landlord’s attempts to enhance the acoustics by adjusting the treble or the bass. You always had the impression that two different types of music were being played simultaneously at opposite ends of the bar. At one end the customers stared emptily in front of them, inebriated by the sound or by the beer, and with heroin shadows in their eyes. At the other end people were laughing happily, out of range of the music and protected from any sensation.
The barman was called Sem. At least he used that nickname when he was drying glasses, pouring drinks and smiling benevolently at the customers. Otherwise it was Semezdin – but this name was too long and provoked more comments than was desirable in a place like The Bell. The landlord was called Vedran. He was dark, with a moustache and unshaven like a Mexican. He always had a different girl in tow. This is the life! was his motto, especially if you could spend it listening to the music in The Bell. The rotten jazz mixed with beer and the grass in your lungs and the sound of muezzin became a way of avoiding reality, of floating over the streets of Sarajevo and the muddy yellow waters of the Miljacka. Vedran seduced his girlfriends by telling stories he didn’t believe. Not that he expected the women to believe them either. Each date ended with a big wet kiss, and heads would turn to watch the embrace, but none of his love affairs ever produced anything out of the ordinary. Of course Sem used to smile knowingly to himself, because Vedrans come and go but you can’t do without a barman.
Some time before dawn, when everybody had drunk too much and the barman was measuring the level in each bottle with scientific precision, a girl would be sitting at the bar sipping an espresso. Her ruffled hair would be the only sign that she had been crying. The last guests would be putting their coats on, Vedran would have left already, and out of the corner of his eye Sem would be looking for someone to give him a lift home.
The girl crying would only prolong the illusion. But since a level of intolerance had already been reached, and by now everyone was thoroughly sick of jazz, the stragglers only despised her, if she didn’t actually annoy them. She was useful as a warning sign not to cross the borderline, reminding you that it would soon be time to go back to reality, to abandon the enchanted stupor and return to the mundane but also sustainable rhythm of ordinary life. To justify her tears would have been similar to become a druggy, an unhinged pleasure-seeker flying off to strange places where misguided people actually believe that an illusion can serve as a modus operandi in life. Billie Holiday is OK as long as she doesn’t become your only option.
That’s why you have to go home, into the fog and snow, and back to your warm beds.
One day The Bell came face to face with reality. The guests packed their student bags and went back to their places of birth. They hoped that it would be easier to survive there. In Dobov, Teslić, Banja Luka, Mostar, Čapljina… Vedran watched from his bedroom window the Cyclopean barrel of a sniper’s gun staring back at him. He got scared, took his current girlfriend by the hand and escaped to a safer part of town. The records, tapes and record-player were destroyed in a fire. You see, jazz burns as easily as folk music, punk or anything by The Doors. He sat up home in an abandoned cellar, with just the one girl who shivered in his arms like a sparrow – or like Edith Piaf – while the shells fell everywhere.
The local criminals wearing combat uniform plundered The Bell, while the neighbors smashed up the bar and used the wood to stoke their stoves during the first days of winter. The bar turned into an empty cellar devoid of illusion. One day Sem took a handful of foreign journalists around the place; by then it was a cold and empty hole. They looked at one another, probably not believing that it had ever been a jazz club. After all, what could these unfortunate, hungry and poor Bosnians possibly know about jazz, about the roof gardens of Manhattan where a lonely person drowns his sorrows in a dark liquid. It’s just sad that Billie Holiday died a long time ago.
Two more beautiful short stories by Jergović, also from Sarajevo Marlboro, Cactus and Theft. (via Words Without Borders).