Tomislav Kuzmanović translating Maja Hrgović

Back in Five Minutes

Earning pocket money by working as a receptionist at Pavilion 3 – it mostly comes down to watching music videos on MTV and helping disabled students who live on the ground floor, in large single rooms, so-called “solitaries,” with large bathrooms. All the disabled look the same: their thick lenses set in oversized government frames, bowl-cuts on their heads, strong arms from pushing themselves around the pavilion’s lobby and paved yard. The ones with cerebral paralysis have modern wheelchairs with electric engines; they stick together and race down the ramp to the management’s office. All of them, or almost all of them, study something related to religion: religious studies at Jesuit College or theology at Catholic University. The paralytics seem older and their mouths go out of shape, cramping suddenly, grotesquely.

When a red light goes off by the number of one of those ground floor rooms on a board above the reception desk, I close my eyes in anguish. Reluctantly I get up, put a piece of cardboard on the counter with a note saying “Back in five minutes,” lock the booth, and go to the room I was buzzed from. For a moment I stand at the door, then take a deep breath and knock. I put on a servile smile. The door opens to a musty space saturated with male stench: the smell of socks, moldy armpits, and genitals.

When I still worked there, at Pavilion 3, one student buzzed me more often than the others. His name was Teo. I would set up the bedpan, fetch the New Testament from the high shelf, help him put on his jacket. There was something uneasy in his eyes, some dread of dying swam in his pupils – or was it just bitterness? Unlike the kids, who tried really hard to prove to themselves and others that they could do everything on their own, and refused every attempt to help them with the nervous twitch of a determined teenager, Teo practically demanded help. All agitated, he would ask me to button his shirt, as if I were his maid, as if he had the right to take satisfaction for his misery from me. I think that, at the same time, he loathed himself for it; I sensed his accusation directed against the world, his contempt because of his own inability, because of his legs, thin and immobile like a crushed bug’s, because of his rigid fingers that couldn’t push the key into the lock and turn it. With Christian humility, I did what he needed, holding my breath because of the stench, and then, my mood crushed, returned to the reception, hoping that the red light wouldn’t come on again during my shift. I’d turn on MTV or reach for one of the books that lay scattered around, trying to decontaminate myself from the encounter.

I asked other female receptionists how often Teo buzzed for them. Almost never, they said.

“He’s in love with you,” said Ivona, my roommate, who from time to time brought her books to the reception so we could study together, but instead we’d lock the door and share a joint and laugh at the international exchange students who wandered around the dorm completely lost and confused, and who talked to each other in a hilarious inter-language that they themselves had invented, tossing in a word or two from their own languages, whenever they needed one.

I asked for a transfer into another pavilion because of Teo.

“Any of them, it doesn’t matter,” I said resolutely to my supervisor, a head guard who works at a small prefabricated booth and raises and lowers the ramp at the car entrance.

I was transferred to Pavilion 8. For a while, it was good. On the weekends I’d work nightshifts, put on my makeup in the bathroom, stick that cardboard sign on the counter saying I’d be back in five minutes, and then go out to The Mast with Ivona. I ran the risk of getting fired, since I wasn’t there all night; the head guard controlled us pavilion receptionists by making unannounced rounds, stalking those who fell asleep at their counter – their hours would get docked, and their pay. When at dawn, tired from dancing and alcohol, wobbling in my high heels, I snuck back to reception, I always had a cramp in my stomach, scared that my scheme had been discovered.

Oh, that excitement! We combined sneakers with beautiful, extravagant dresses we’d bought at a flea market for next to nothing and warmed up for our night out by drinking Jagermeister from an army thermos, which we’d also bought at a flea market. During the rest of the week, I filled it with coffee and carried it around everywhere: to my lectures, to the library, to movie nights at the student theater. Later, at The Mast, we drank and danced as if our life depended on whether our lungs would fill up with enough elation before dawn, so that at one moment, on a crammed dance floor, glasses in our hands, screams of ravenous love for the world that was so beautiful would burst from us and make our eyes glassy and our smiles so wide that under the spotlights we looked like those Russian rag dolls with their mouths hanging open in delight. At least that’s what Ivona looked like. Her laughter was like concentrate happiness: her head thrown back, mouth open wide, fillings showing, the twitchy “aaaAAAhhh” swelling up from her throat, from her esophagus, vocal cords trembling and murmuring like water lilies in a swift stream.

That was last semester. But then Ivona got a stipend and went to Lvov, and even though she regularly sends me long emails with detailed descriptions of silly hairdos in the Slavic Department, somehow I know that our blowouts at The Mast are over and never be repeated. Last semester seems like the distant past, and I think of Ivona with some numb sense of sorrow, like a retired woman remembering her co-workers from the factory plant where she worked her whole life. Something like that.

That disabled guy, Teo, found out that I’d asked for a transfer, so he started coming to the reception at Pavilion 8. He would wheel his wheelchair over and park it in front of the counter and talk to me through the window, wanting me to read to him his Bible. He had a list of his favorite quotes from the Epistles to the Corinthians, which somehow pertained to me, or so he thought.

It was hard to avoid him all the time. I’d see him at the dining hall, at breakfast, as he stuffed his mouth with polenta, milk dribbling down his chin and onto his chest. After that, I couldn’t eat anymore, no matter of how hungry I was.

Last week, I read on the Disabled Club’s notice board that Teo had died. The dorm management organized a free bus to take us to the funeral in his village, not far from Zagreb. There was a pen on a string hanging from the board; anyone who wanted to go had to put their name on the list. I stood in front of the board with that pen in my hand. I stood there for a while. Then I let go of the pen.

Here at the reception, the passage of time is as capricious as drunkenness: sometimes hours just tumble down on you, sometimes the shift trickles down like rain on the window, limply and without end. I watch the automatic door open to new gusts of cold air and reddened cyclists who lock their rusty bicycles against the railing next to the steps. I tape the postcard Ivona sent me from Lvov to my reception booth’s window; it’s the only decoration in here except for a crucifix with a dry and dusty olive branch attached to it. Some previous pious shepherd must have left that here. Under this crucifix, this reception booth in which I while away my days in solitude seems like a cemetery chapel: the desk I’m leaning against is in fact an open casket with me in it, I’m lying there, my eyes closed, my face pale, made up and dressed in a beautiful flea market dress, exposed to the eyes and snivels of the bereaved family and friends.

I know I’ve said this many times, but tomorrow, I swear, I swear, tomorrow I’ll put the “Back in five minutes” sign on the counter and then go to the car entrance and tell the head guard that I quit. When he asks me why, I’ll say it’s a matter of life and death. And it is.

Translator Note: 

Theorists (and practitioners) of translation write about the (in)visibility of translation, translating and translators – something along the lines of: what translators do is great and they deserve recognition for it and should be allowed to write a couple of words about the awesome work they are doing. And it’s great, really great, when you find a venue and the people around it that are kind enough to grant you this opportunity. Somehow, you feel truly humbled. But then, ironically, it happens you just can’t find the (right) words. I am not sure if it is a general thing (it would be easier if it were), or is it this particular piece. Not because Maja Hrgović’s piece gives me, its translator, nothing to write about, but perhaps because it just gives too much of it, yet none that could easily lend itself to the translator’s note.

And there you have a real drama. You need to come up with something, provide context, describe the process, tell your personal story, reveal something about the author, make those elements of the text that left you in awe visible. And there is just too much of it.

Can you, can anyone find this in themselves and verbalize it? Isn’t rendering it in another language enough? (Drama, drama, drama.)

It is, it’s enough. But you can’t keep hiding behind the glass (almost proverbial when translation is in question) and say you did not take onto yourself the feeling and the atmosphere of the story. And that they did not somehow spill over into this brief note. Maja Hrgović’s story talks about disability: about the physical one (the most obvious), but also about the disability of all those participating (the translator included). Just as the character in this story is disabled, so are, in a way, all the ones around it. This is not a story about people stuck in the dormitory, but perhaps a story about circumstances, about the lack of perspective, about the inability to move both on and out of the situation. A story about people stuck. Period. While this brief intro/translator’s note is a “dramatic” piece about the translator stuck yet humbled by the story and at a loss of words of which key are: awe, humility, (in)visibility.

Maja Hrgović

Maja Hrgović (Split, 1980) has been working as a journalist for Novi List, covering culture and gender issues. Her journalistic writing appeared in the book Identity: The Search for Belonging in a Changing Europe and was awarded the Journalistic Excellence Award by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Her fiction has been included in several anthologies, such as the anthology of best Croatian stories, Najbolje hrvatske priče 2007, Best European Fiction 2012, and Granta. Her first short story collection Pobjeđuje onaj kojem je manje stalo won the National Kiklop Award and her novel Živjet ćemo bolje was published in 2013.

Tomislav Kuzmanović

Tomislav Kuzmanović is the translator of The Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Ferić and A Castle in Romagna (with Russell Valentino) by Igor Štiks. His translations of fiction and poetry and other writings have appeared in various publications in the U.S., U.K., Croatia and elsewhere, among others Granta, Ugly Duckling Presse’s 6x6, Iowa Review, Absinthe, New European Poets Anthology, Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction, etc. A graduate of Iowa’s Translation Workshop, he works with the Festival of the European Short Story, Zagreb’s Center for Creative Writing, and teaches literary translation at the University of Zadar, Croatia.