Notes on the memories

Listopad in Mirogoj; wear your Sunday best
Listopad in Mirogoj; to mark the day of the Dead

Listopad (literally, leaf fall) is the old Croatian word for October. Mirogoj (pronounced Mirroh-goy) is a huge cemetery just outside Zagreb. Zagreb was (still is) the capital of Croatia, then one of the constituent republics that made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In October 1970 I had just started a post-graduation gap-year in Zagreb. At that time, before cheap flights, it seemed far further away than it would do now; geographically as well as politically.

This song brings together a whole host of memories; far more than are necessary to understand the song: but I present them here in case one day I forget them myself and need to be reminded. Not all of them date from my very first few weeks in Zagreb, though most do. Some may even come from time spent later in Belgrade. In all I spent about two years in Yugoslavia between 1970 and 1975, including extensive in-country travelling. And the sequencing or timing of events may not be entirely as related in the song. But .... sometimes there is a greater truth in artistic licence than in the mundanity of spurious factual accuracy.

The Day of Death is traditionally the last Sunday in October: it resonates with All Hallows, and is a day when just about all Zagreb dressed up smart and made the pilgrimage up the hills behind the city to the cemetery; to visit their family plots and pay their tribute to their ancestors. My new host family took me along: it was a bright, clear autumn-leafed sunlight day; but not warm.

Battered blue tramcar, crowded to bursting, clatters its way through the fray
Of chattering children, old pious pilgrims in grief
Old village ladies, black-scarved and toothless, huddle in knots by the gate
Offering icons and red votive candles and wreaths
And Nataša shows me the way with a touch on my sleeve

The Zagreb tram system was quite modern in the city centre; but the little branch-line that led up towards Slieme and Mirogoj was ancient, rectangular and distinctly rattley. I may be mixing up this particular trip on this day with others later; but the image of the bright blue tramcar weaving through traditional village-style streets stays with me. As does the image of children, chattering away happily as if oblivious to the repressive political system and social constructs which shaped their lives. As indeed they were. It was the habit of the elderly, especially ladies, to wear black clothes and headscarves; it was traditional and not (as various Americans I tour-guided round the country in later years thought) because the communist government obliged them to. The red votive candles were ubiquitous in every quasi-religious setting.

Ah, Nataša (pronounced Natasha of course): named so by her father who, at the time of her birth (1948), was very pro-Soviet. It is, of course, a common Russian name rather than a Croatian one. 1948 was the year in which, after being threatened by Stalin to toe the Soviet line, Yugoslavia led by the independent-minded Tito left the Cominform, and started out on a forty-year independent communist course, with innovations such as workers’ self-management, a developing market economy, a foreign policy of “non-alignment”, and open borders. Yugoslavia alone had been liberated from Nazi / Fascist occupation from within, by Tito’s Partisans, and not from outside by the invading alien Soviet troops.

Nataša’s father was still alive in 1970, but had left the family to set up with a different comrade when Nataša had been young. Nataša’s mother lay buried in Mirogoj.

Partisan veterans, proud sense of duty; peasants with donkeys and carts
Party officials in sleek black Mercedes for show
Family groupings cluster round gravesides; widows with fresh-broken hearts
Reading the names of their loved ones that only they know
And Nataša touches the gravestone where her name will go

I visited a number of cemeteries during my year in Zagreb (and subsequent trips) and maybe some of the images here remembered have seeped in from other locations, later times. But the social mix: of genuine peasants next to quite well-to-do city folk, with quite contrasting styles of dress, was very clear. As were the party officials; a race apart. There was no conceivable connection between the standard image of a “revolutionary communist”; or even of anything remotely resembling the working class, and these besuited partycrats. They were the governing elite, much as there is always a governing elite. They had to mouth a certain type of political language in an attempt to root the legitimacy of their power in communist orthodoxy; but this was usually convoluted meaningless blather (doublespeak, even: I re-read 1984 in my first few moths in Zagreb).

And I do recall seeing one (presumably recent) widow; displaying real grief. But mostly it was almost a celebratory atmosphere: cousins meeting up round the family plot maybe for the first time since the same time last year. My particular family was not grief-stricken, though Nataša’s mother had died young. But what did shock me was when Natasa bent down and traced with her finger the blank bit of the clean light-grey gravestone below her mother’s name, telling me that this was where her name would one day be engraved. As a young 21 year-old I had given no thought to when or where I might die, let alone any practicalities like where I would be buried. It was quite a jolt to come across someone, of my age, who knew these things with some certainty.

Bright brittle sunlight fades into evening; the chill speaks of winter to come
Small whitewashed cottages; firewood logs stacked at their side
Back in the tramcar the mood turns to quiet, as mourners’ minds bend towards home
Some are still dabbing at tears that haven’t quite dried
And Nataša tells me in whispers how her mother died

This imagery does borrow from subsequent trips in early spring: the whitewashed cottages with the firewood logs in particular; and the old tavern “Kod Debelog Martina” (Fat Martin’s Place). But the fading October light, and crispness in the air, and the sombre mood ... yes, that was all there. Winters in Zagreb were central European rather than Mediterranean, with icy winds and frosts sweeping across Hungary all the way from the Russian steppes – or so it felt, as I too caught the mood of an approaching proper winter.

It was not on that immediate occasion that Nataša told me the background to her mother’s death. It was probably a few days later that she produced a Studio photograph of her mother, posed with Nataša and her older brother Mladen, probably taken in 1953, a few days before her mother shot herself. “She knew she was going to die when she had the photo taken”, said Nataša; and there was indeed a wistful faraway look in her mother’s eyes. Her suicide was a direct reaction to Nataša’s father’s leaving them: they had been war comrades together, and matrimonial breakdown was neither expected nor socially acceptable. I formed the impression Nataša thought that her mother had considered it to be “her own fault” that her husband had left them.

Communists cover the country in concrete, write slogans worthy and strong
But ritual tradition still grips the heart of this land
Let’s sit round the fire with a bottle of rakija, sing a traditional song
Of nationalist battles and passions I don’t yet understand
And Nataša smiles through the firelight, and touches my hand

I was a graduate in Economics and Politics from Bristol, having taken a final-year option in Eastern European politics. At that time “Eastern Europe” was a group of almost completely unknown and certainly, in the west, un-regarded countries making up the Soviet bloc: the far side of the Iron Curtain. At best they were viewed as having an identical uniform greyness. But I became fascinated by these almost mythical nations with their diverse history and geography. And also interested in the politics of communism; which was not nearly as monolithic as it appeared, even though the manifestations of political activity, dissent and pluralism were of necessity extremely subtle. I had been told by my tutor (a Polish émigré) that grants to spend a year in Eastern Europe were more plentiful than applicants: so I applied. It wasn’t Yugoslavia I was initially interested in but (to cut a long story short) I found myself in Bristol one Friday afternoon with three hours in which to compose and send off a good academic reason to spend a year there. My eventual MPhil thesis three years later was pretty close to what I came up with that afternoon ... and Bradford University offered me the money to write it ... but I digress. I was actually interested in Communism as a living political system; and how the economy “worked” in a communist system. That’s why I was there.

I therefore probably had fewer inaccurate misconceptions about the nature of a communist society than most people in the West at that time; but it was still a surprise to me how thin was the gloss of communist political correctness that the leadership had managed to paint over society. I was expecting the sense of living and being under a communist regime to have seeped into everyday life: but it hadn’t. The various peoples that made up this cobbled-together country had all become used to having governments they didn’t choose or control, telling them what to do: this was just a different set of suits and slogans. Same difference.

People who wanted to get on in life were obliged to join the Communist Party: but pretty much in the same way that people in the West who wanted to get on had to put on a suit and tie. It meant no more than that. Communism did not affect how children joshed and chattered and played after school; nor how teenagers crept off into the woods with armfuls of newspaper to spread on the ground so they could make love, nor how ordinary people went to church and held hard to their religious traditions; nor how the old and young alike would spend hours reading their coffee-grounds (this didn’t make it into the song: but I remember Nataša and her friend Vanja regularly doing this round the kitchen table: usually Vanja seeing ever more terrible futures in Nataša’s coffee cup).

There was concrete: the grey blocks of tenement flats in Novi Zagreb: cheaply built and already falling into unsightly disrepair in 1970. But their cheapness and utility was a reaction to the widespread destruction of the war, and rapid inward urban movement that followed; not something ordained by communism per se. The few such flats I ever went into were perfectly comfortable and homely inside. And there were slogans: though not many were painted on walls or openly displayed: mostly they appeared in the patterns of speech in which all political or policy pronouncements were couched or written. Public buildings and squares were given new names: most cities had a main street called “Titova ...” “Trg Zrtava Fasizma” (Square of the Martyrs to Fascism) was near where I lived: Tomasiceva 5 – first floor. The square is still called that today. “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo” (Brotherhood and Unity) was a regular slogan: designed to eradicate the nationalist divisions that had killed more people during the second world war than any invading forces had: but no-one was fooled, and it didn’t stop what was to erupt 20 years later. Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Bosnians, Kosovans, Macedonians: they all had differing histories (both real and imagined) and irreconcilably different self-perceptions. It was a bit of a rag-bag of a country, with more differences and divisions than any glib slogans could gloss over. Tito was the one single (and totally genuine) unifying factor.

The inevitability of eventual bloodshed when Tito died was clear to anyone who scratched the surface of everyday life in any of the Yugoslav republics. The Serb-Croat rivalry was only just below the surface of even the most educated and urbane of citizens; as was both nationalities’ contempt for the Bosnian muslims. Most Croats I knew were not sympathetic to the Ustasha, the fascist Croat force that had actually sided with the Germans in the war and formed a puppet Croatian government that proved itself to be extremely bloodthirsty. But, perhaps like the IRA in nationalist areas of Belfast, no-one would shop an activist; and while their excesses would not be openly supported, their reasoning would be tacitly understood.

One of Mladen’s friends was a secret Ustasha member; and he would come round occasionally; and if/when he got a bit drunk (I think Mladen and the rest of the group used to encourage this, to get him going) he would become verbally violent, shouting “Ja sam Hrvat” (I am a Croat!) in response to any form of political debate. In describing this as a fireside chat with folk music, I am romanticising what was actually a somewhat brutal, neon strip-lit event of real menace. But the historically-dubious reminiscences over the supposedly once-great and unjustly subjugated nation of Croatia were real enough; as was the rakije (home-distilled slivovic: plum brandy). Mladen was a partially-recovereded alcoholic and ex-rock star who had spent much of his earlier life touring Germany. He went back off the alcoholic rails while I was living in their house – but that too is another story.

Such events were all part of the process by which I came to understand (if never sympathise with) the apparently irrational historical-based hatreds that really meant something to ordinary people. Communism and its wafflings were a complete irrelevance. People had their (Catholic) faith, their traditions, their own perception of their history, and their powerful sense of (Croat) nationhood – and of how, in their eyes, the Croat nation had been unjustly treated ever since the golden period of Illyria in about 1150. These feelings were exactly replicated when I later formed similar relationships with ordinary people in Serbia. They came inevitably back to the fore once the universally-respected Tito died.

There was no such romantic fire-lit occasion in which Nataša first reached out to me. In fact, I almost certainly reached out to her first. But it did happen shortly after the Day of Death in Mirogoj; very much in the context of the environment described in the song; and we did become, almost inevitably, an item. She told me at some point that she and Vanja had made a pact; that whichever of them I went off with, the other would “not mind”. Nataša had been convinced that I would go for Vanja ... and maybe I should have; she seemed pleasant enough, and her lesser ability in English would have done wonders for the development of my own proficiency in Serbo-Croat.

My relationship with Nataša did not end well – I eventually came back to England and she didn’t want me to. In the interim she had suffered a miscarriage. After I left, she apparently had a related spell in hospital, but not through deliberate self-harm. I know that almost a year later she was still working for JAT, the Yugoslav airline, in a job she had obtained while I was there; and which I had tangentially been involved in her obtaining. And as far as I know she is still alive and well today. If not, I think I know where she will be buried.

Listopad in Mirogoj; wear your Sunday best
Listopad in Mirogoj; to mark the day of Death


JW 07.10.08