As the curtain goes up, I’m sitting naked on the potty in my grandfather’s backyard in a little village in Serbia. The year is 1940. I look happy. It’s a nice summer day full of sunlight, although Hitler has already occupied most of Europe. I have no idea, of course, that he and Stalin are hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet. I love the neighbor’s dog, whose name is Toza. I run after him carrying my potty in my hand, wanting to pull his tail, but he won’t let me.
What would I not give today to have a photograph of Toza! He was a country mutt full of burrs and fleas, and in his wise and sad eyes, if we had known how to read them, we would have found the story of mine and my parents’ lives.
I had a great-uncle of whom nothing is known. I don’t even know his name, if I ever did. He came to America in the 1920s and never wrote home. Got rich, my relatives said. How do you know that? I asked. Nobody knew how they knew. They had heard rumors. Then the people who’d heard the rumors died. Today there’s no one left to ask. My great-uncle was like one of those ants who, coming upon a line of marching ants, turns and goes in the opposite direction for reasons of his own.
Ants being ants, this is not supposed to happen, but it sometimes does, and no one knows why.
This mythical great uncle interests me because I resemble him a bit. I, too, came to America and, for long stretches of time, forgot where I came from or had no contact with my compatriots. I never understood the big deal they make about being born in one place rather than another when there are so many nice places in the world to call home. As it is, I was born in Belgrade in 1938 and spent fifteen eventful years there before leaving forever. I never missed it. When I try to tell that to my American friends, they don’t believe me. They suspect me of concealing my homesickness because I cannot bear the pain. Allegedly, my nightmarish wartime memories have made me repress how much dear old Belgrade meant to me. My wartime memories may have been terrifying, but I had a happy childhood despite droning planes, deafening explosions, and people hung from lampposts. I mean, it’s not like I knew better and dreamed of a life of quiet strolls with my parents along tree-lined boulevards or playing with other children in the park. No. I was three years old when the first bombs fell and old enough to be miserable when the war ended and I had to go to school.
The first person who told me about the evil in the world was my grandmother. She died in 1948, but I recall her vividly because she…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.