It was not so long ago that I discovered how my older brother Onti may well have played a part in the final collapse of Yugoslavia. The origins of this strange and sorry tale go back to 1987, when my brother was taken on by the feed-mixing plant of the co-operative. Onti had spent the last 17 years shinning up telegraph poles and plastering walls on various building sites. Now, he thought, he was going to have some order in his life. And no bones about it: his life could certainly have done with a bit of peace and quiet. In recent years he had had troubles by the truckload: his wife had left him, he’d smashed up his Zastava 750, and he’d lost a couple of million dinars in some property scam. But this was, alas, nothing compared to what lay in store. One dull, windy October morning Onti suddenly woke at a quarter to seven, and try as he might, couldn’t get out to the site before seven-thirty. His boss Posity was waiting for him by the gate and made a point of registering Onti’s lateness with an exaggerated sweep of his arm to look at his watch. He patted my still-sleepy brother as he clambered off his bike and said “Something special for you today, my lad!” They moved wordlessly across the eternal darkness of the warehouse reeking of fishmeal and on reaching the feed-mixing plant climbed down into the cellar. This subterranean hell was home to two enormous electric motors throbbing away as they powered various pieces of equipment and machinery. Conversation in the incredible din was impossible, so Posity took a piece chalk from his pocket and drew a rectangle the size of a small cushion on the concrete. Then he gestured to my brother that he had to break through the wall at the point indicated.
This is the kind of task that makes grown men go weak at the knees. My brother Onti did indeed go weak at the knees, as he knew that this wall was 40 centimetres thick, and there was no shortage of cement when it was built. Farewell, then, quiet life in the maintenance gang, he thought; he might as well go and get his cards. Then it suddenly occurred to him that this was just what “they” – and he glanced towards Posity wanted. He couldn’t let them get away with it. He nodded, feigning indifference, and set off to find his cold chisel and stonemason’s hammer.
By the age of 36 every electrician has realised that there is no point in rushing a job. After a little chiselling, a little bit of finessing around, you take a little break, with a coffee or a pint of Apatini light, and a little banter with any females of the species that may happen to be around. In the course of a varied working career, spent mainly in the shadow of walls with cables and clusters of protruding wire, Onti had had dozens of apprentice girls, well, under him, and saw no reason why, as one of the maintenance crew, he could not continue this tradition among the young women packing chickenfeed in the feed-mixing plant.
In the workshop the others were noticeably preoccupied with their lunch-boxes. The crackle from the nylon carrier bags drowned out all conversation. From this my brother concluded that shortly before his entrance he had himself been the topic of conversation. Kálmán Dávid, the craftsman in his fifties whose thrombotic ankle had a few weeks earlier – and at breakfast, too – began to suppurate, turned to him and said:
“That wall is 40 centimetre-thick iron cement and there’s enough Cementol in it to blow your balls off. If someone asked me to make a hole in it, sure as eggs is eggs I’d go to the office and ask for my cards.”
There were nods of agreement all round and my brotherjust stood amid the buzzing and tried hard not to let go of the grin on his face.
“The problem’s much bigger than it seems,” said old Sanyi Darázs, raising a forefinger. Pensioned off early, the yardman used to turn up in the workshop only around breakfast time. “Don’t forget – this year it’s our turn to go to Maribor!”
“They’re just putting together the list of those going!” said a voice from behind the piles of crated spares.
“See!” said the old yardman turning to Onti. “If you don’t finish that job in time, I wouldn’t put it past them to leave you off the list.” Since my brother hadn’t the faintest idea what it was that he could be left out of, his fellow maintenance folk explained that the co-op had had since time immemorial a linkup with a Slovene firm based in Maribor, down by the Hungarian border. Five or six years back the bigwigs had decided the workers should also get better acquainted, and since then the two collectives had met regularly after the maize-harvest. That year it was their turn to visit Maribor.
“Lots of eating and boozing!” nodded the old yardman knowledgeably.
“Followed by dancing to live music with lots of bosomy Slovene lasses, eh!” added Kálmán Dávid, the one with the thrombotic leg.
“Just two weeks and we’ll be all spruced up and off to Maribor!” shouted Nikola Sinkovics, the six-foot-two tall mechanic by the workbench.
My brother Onti slunk out of the workshop a broken man. He spent the whole morning slumped in the storeroom. He knew there was nothing he could do to the wall with a cold chisel and hammer. Goodbye, then, you bosomy Slovene lasses, he sighed, and was about to amble over to the office to collect his cards when the old yardman stopped before him.
“Concrete’s the only material in the world that can’t be broken by sheer strength,” he said, hunkering down beside my brother. “Stone, rock, wood, yes, but concrete never. There IS a way of doing it, my friend, a technique known only to a few. But I’ll let you in on something,” and he leaned over confidentially to my brother, “I used to work at the First of May factory in Topolya and there it often happened that solid set concrete had to be broken up later. The boss there would ferret out this fellow from Bajsa, who would manage to chisel out the whole thing in a couple of hours. He didn’t hit it that hard, but the concrete came spraying out like a shower of hail.”
My brother pointed out that such people die young and take their trade secrets with them to the grave, but the old yardman reassured him that this particular fellow was very much alive. And he even knew where. “We could visit him this afternoon…” he said, finally.
At first Onti was reluctant because his standing as an electrician and the Slovenia trip was at stake, but in the end he decided to “borrow” the company Zastava. Bajsa was only half an hour on the highway, but as they had no papers for the car they decided to bump along on the unmade road through the Krivaja valley. Luckily the Zastava was up to it and they reached the little village in the Telecka hills with no broken axles. Old Sanyi Darázs knew the area well and they found the oddly-sited peasant house of the concrete chiseller in minutes. The building had been limewashed a dull grey and was surrounded by a high brick wall. They reached its entrance gate by a veritable serpentine that wound around the hill; it was wide open. My brother eased the Zastava into the courtyard and as there were seven or eight men drinking beer on the porch, he thought he had gatecrashed some family event. He felt uncomfortable. The old yardman had no inhibitions: he climbed out of the car and shouted out loud: “Could you use some help over there?” “Sure could,” someone on the porch shouted back. He was the boss, János Pék, the concrete expert. He and the yardman were on first-name terms straight away. The reception reassured my brother.
“We’ve come on concrete business,” he said. “Haven’t done concrete for a long time,” countered Pék.
“Well, what is it that you do these days?” “Chickens.”
Onti took a sideways look at the old yardman, who was blinking as if he had just looked straight at the sun.
“There’s a delivery tomorrow morning. We’re just about to do the feed,” said the concrete expert and pointed to the porch. The drinkers waved back. “Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have the time to help you.”
“We don’t want you to go anywhere,” said my brother quickly. “We just want some advice.”
János Pék stood arms akimbo and looked at my brother long and hard.
“Right,” he nodded at last. “You’ll get advice if you help me out. We have to line the coops with 700 bales of straw and there are only seven of us. But with your help we could be done by midnight.”
“Midnight?” My brother blanched. “I’ve got to get the car back by eight…”
“Then it’s no deal,” said the concrete expert and turned to walk away.
Old Sanyi Darázs grabbed my brother by his shirt front.
“What do you mean you’ve got to get the car back by eight!” he hissed. “You can’t miss out on an opportunity like this! He’s never told the secret to anyone, though you can be sure many have tried to wring it out of him.”
“Then why should he make an exception with me?”
“Because he’s up the proverbial creek! There’s a new lot of chickens coming tomorrow and the coops haven’t yet been lined with straw bedding. He’s no choice but to make a deal. Come on, don’t dither about!”
“If I don’t get back by eight, they’ll know I’ve borrowed the car and I’ll be out on my ear!”
“So? If you are the best concrete chíseller in the county, you’ll making money hand over fist!”
“I don’t want to spend my life chiselling concrete,” said Onti, ending the conversation.
For a while they sat in silence. Meanwhile the others had finished their beers and began to sidle off to the yard where they worked. One pulled the cover off the straw-cutter standing by the entrance to the coops. My brother saw that it was powered by a miserably slow one-horsepower electric motor. He suddenly had an idea.
“I’ll go back to the workshop and get the five-horsepower motor!” he shouted. “With that it’ll only take a couple of hours to shred the stuff!”
Pék heard the shout and turned round. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
It was already past three, so Onti had to put his skates on. He jumped into the car, and scrambled across Bajsa, engine racing. Neither speed limits nor lack of papers bothered him now: he took the main road back to our village. He was lucky not to come across a police car, and truly fortunate that even the porter at the outside gate was out collecting plums somewhere nearby. He was able to take the electric engine unseen.
Half an hour later, he was hard at work in the yard of the concrete expert. He took the old motor off the cutter and replaced it with the one he had brought. The screws didn’t fit properly but my brother had had the foresight to bring an electric drill to make new holes. One small thing remained to be done: the fuses had to be reinforced with three hairline wires to cope with the increased load, and then the moment of truth arrived: he switched on the machine whose capacity he had increased almost fourfold.
The machine gave a shiver and then roared into life, creating a cloud of dust that enveloped them in a temporary sandstorm. János Pék himself picked up a bale of straw and stuffed it down the machine’s greedy gorge. Seconds later the machine spat it out shredded matchstick-length. It was all ready for the next bale and as the men motor was likely to burn out. He therefore reached over very carefully to pull out the tangled nylon by the longest piece he could see. He shielded his face with his right hand and, although he was aware that only an inch or to from the end of the string there were dozens of sharp rotating knives, he judged that this distance was enough for him carry out the manoeuvre in safety. But the straw was spewing out of the hole at such speed and in such quantities that he had to reach for that particular dangling string without being able to see it. He managed to catch hold of it, but it was stuck under the disc more firmly than he thought. Carefully he wound the string round his middle finger intending to give it a good pull.
It is easy to imagine what happened next. The tangle was free but one of the steel knives of the machine caught it and yanked it back with staggering force. As my brother’s finger was thoroughly bound with the cord, the nylon would not come off; on the contrary, the 3,000 rp.m. steel knives jerked his lower arm towards the machine. The machine tottered for a moment, as if it had tried to gulp down a raw squash. Onti took a step back, raised his hand and was aghast to see that the whole of his left arm below the elbow was missing. There was as yet no blood from the stump, so that one could see the white streaks of the torn sinews in the oddly swollen muscles of the flesh.
This is certainly how it should have happened, and it’s how my brother told the story even the hundredth time round; he could not understand what unseen heavenly or perhaps earthly powers he had to thank for intervening in the normal turn of events. He would recall, over and over again, the moment that he was on the verge of winding around his fingerthe nylon cord he held firmly between thumb and forefinger. And at this fateful moment a hand descended on his shoulder, the hand of János Pék, who shouted into his ear that he knew these machines better, let him take over the cord. And the concrete expert took over where Onti left off: he carefully wound the string around his forefinger and gave it a powerful yank. That managed to release the knot, but one of the steel knives of the machine touched it and jerked it back with tremendous force. As the finger of the concrete expert was well and truly wound about with the nylon string, it could not slide off his hand and dragged his lower arm, right up to the elbow, into the steel knives realised that it was possible to increase the payload they stuffed one bale after another into the machine, without even bothering to cut the nylon string.
A few minutes later my brother noticed that the nylon strings were getting caught on the chopper disc and increasingly preventing the chopped up straw from passing through. This did not bode well for the immediate future, as the machine was likely to jam and, thanks to the overburdened fuse, the rotating at 3,000 revolutions per minute.
Even today my brother grows faint if he recalls that afternoon. He doesn’t understand how the boss came to be standing by his side. Nor how he could have pulled back his hand at what must have been the moment after the very last moment, for he could already feel that the string was tense. It was as if time had been put out ofjoint for a second and two parallel cogs in the wheels of fate had changed places. At least, no better explanation had ever occurred to him.
The folk on the chicken farm were experienced men, and knew at once what to do. One undid his trouser-belt and tied it in a tourniquet above the boss’s elbow. Others looked round for the severed lower _ arm, as they seemed to recall that it was now possible to sew it back if you were quick enough. But it was all in vain: the machine had ground up János Pék’s lower arm and disbursed it with the straw.
Since there was no telephone, it wasn’t possible to call an ambulance and my brother had to drive János Pék to casualty in Bajsa. Though they reached it in five minutes, by this time János Pék was in such agony that he had almost trashed the inside of the car. The car seats and mats, too, were soaked with his blood.
On the way back Onti never managed to change up from second gear to third but the old yardman just stared at the windscreen oblivious of the high-pitched shriek of the motor. Neither of them slept much. Old Sanyi Darázs must have smoked half a kilo of rough tobacco, while my brother Onti lay on the bed, eyes wide open and unable to stop thinking that if he had not bolted on the more powerful motor, the machine would not have tangled up the cord, and Pék’s left arm would still be intact. To cap it all, the next day was a working day and the concrete wall still there waiting for him in the cellar.
The next morning he noticed that Posity was eyeing the discoloured seats of the Zastava with some puzzlement, but before he could have interrogated my brother, Onti grabbed his cold chisel and hammer and settled in his usual place, in a quiet corner of the feed store. It was getting on for noon when the old yardman turned up.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming in,Onti muttered.
“I went into Subotica,” said the old man, and hunkered down by my brother “Had to visit my mate.”
“And how is he?”
“Well as can be expected, I suppose. It would do no harm if you visited him as well.” “Me?” Onti said as if he’d been pricked. “I took him to casualty, I helped hold him dowri when they gave him the injection, and I wished him a rapid recovery when they put him in the ambulance. But visit him as well….”
“But now is the time you could winkle the secret out of him!” hissed the old man. “He is broken in body and soul. That’s a state pretty near to confession.”
“I’m no priest and I can’t confess him!” “For goodness’ sake!” the old man laughed. “All you have to do is sit by his bed and chat with him a bit.”
Onti gave all this a dismissive wave, but after the old man had shuffled off, he made his way to the office. It would have been easiest to tell a lie of some sort, but he told the truth: yesterday an acquaintance had had an accident and he’d like to pay him a visit. It would mean leaving early. Posity gave him a very odd look but in the end let him go. By two-thirty my brother Onti was already bumping along in the bus to Subotica.
It was not a visiting day at the hospital, but as they were just bringing victims of a double car crash into A & E, my brother was able to slip unnoticed up to János Pék’s ward on the second floor.
Before Onti could open his mouth, the concrete expert reassured him that he was not to blame for the accident and should not brood on it.
“I wasn’t joking when I said I knew all about that machine. I’ve been using it for 25 years and it wasn’t the first time the string had got tangled up inside. I always managed to poke it out somehow, though it’s true it never had to ratttle along at that rate…” My brother Onti knew that whatever he said would only make matters worse. In his discomfort he stared intently at the huge window spattered with fly droppings. There was a clack of steps hurrying past in the corridor, and someone swore in Serbian.
“I don’t hold you responsible, my lad,” he said propping himself up on his good elbow. “I know you’ve come because your conscience is troubling you. Don’t let it! I haven’t worked with concrete for 27 years and I’ve somehow felt it my ríght to keep this God-given secret to myself. And now dammit I’ve got what I had coming and everything’s fucked up. There is no secret to that bloody concrete, really, or if there is, at most it’s that you shouldn’t look on it as a dense mass of stone and cement, but as a force confronting you. It’s a huge, massed army, united and indestructible, every inch of it. It doesn’t need chiselling; it needs confronting, fighting. A gentle tap here, a small knock there. If we launch these attacks with a rhythmical precision, always from a different direction, then the army’s forces try to defend themselves by regrouping. The more frequent and the more measured these attacks, the more certain is victory….”
Was that it? The God-given secret of how to chisel, concrete? My brother Onti could barely disguise his disappointment. On his way home on the bus he was so edgy he almost missed his stop. He could hardly wait till the following day to tell the old yardman of the developments.
“He was measured but the essence of the thing was there,” old Sanyi Darázs said carefully.
“But what can it mean? If he’d at least said you have to hold the chisel at an angle of 15 degrees to the surface, or that after two big thumps, you have to give a gentler tap, but he just went on about armies. How should I start chiselling now?”
“You shouldn’t,” said old Sanyi Darázs with a shrug. “Plan B: we do nothing.”
“Then they’ll give me the boot – and bang goes Slovenia!”
“You won’t be the first to have swung the lead. Nikola never scrubbed off the moss on the storehouse roof, and Kálmán has been doing up the old weighhouse for the last two years. And both of them will be going to Slovenia. Why should you be treated any different? And anyway, do they really need that hole? Perhaps tomorrow there’ll be an order to lower that pulley into the cellar from a metre higher up, through the floor”
“Well then, why did you get me into this mess?” my brother remonstrated. “It’s cost the man who you called your mate half an arm.”
“I just wanted to see if you could handle a little local difficulty,” replied the old man, offended. “But you just buggered about. As for János Pék, he’s no more my mate than anyone else. Before yesterday we’d hardly exchanged two words.”
“But you called him by his first name!”
“Why shouldn’t I? We’re the same age.” And with that the old yardman walked off. My brother took the advice of old Sanyi Darázs and didn’t lay a finger on the concrete wall. He let the unfinished work hang over him like Damocles’ sword, and this decision was tacitly accepted by Posity. He had every reason to concur: with that nonhole he managed to calm down my brother once and for all. Never again did he come late; moreover, even if there was dirty work to be done, like changing the bulbs in the corridor under the warehouse, he did it without a grumble.
A fortnight later three coaches set off from the factory yard to Maribor for the usual get-together. My brother had a seat in the one reserved for the technical staff and they passed the time trying to outdo each other in telling filthy jokes. By the time they reached Maribor they were so much the worse for wear that the Slovene guide waiting for them at the outskirts, Zvonko Hostnikar by name, was persuaded to take them on a detour downtown. At first he was unwilling and kept looking nervously at his watch, saying that they were already running late, but when the very merry company threatened to hijack the coach, he glumly climbed up into the boozy stench. They soon reached a rather decent restaurant in Maribor and streamed noisily off the coach into the elegant rooms. There was only a couple of men – they looked like university students – in the place, with a grumpy-looking waiter rinsing glasses by the bar. Zvonko Hostnikar and my brother sat down at the table nearest to the two students. Onti had of course already had a few on the coach and now ordered a double pelinkovac grappa. This quantity was more than enough to bring out one of the least pleasant facets of his character, the desire to perform in public. In deference to Zvonko Hostnikar he spoke Serbian, but this did not prevent him from telling the terrible tale of János Pék. Had he been a mite less tanked up he would have noticed that old Sanyi Darázs, who was sitting a little farther off, first went pale, then flushed red, and was generally feeling quite uncomfortable. But by this time Onti had fallen in love with the sound of his own voice and paid no-one any heed.
As the story reached its genuinely bloody denouement – my brother’s Serbian is excellent – the two students at the next table fell silent and turned towards them with unconcealed interest. Onti was no longer able to control himself as he told the story of his visit to the hospital and what the concrete expert had told him. The student with the longer face turned towards him and asked him in Serbian:
“That’s a very interesting story. Would you mind telling it again?”
“No problem,” replied Onti, also in Serbian, and started again from the beginning. The man gestured:
“Just the bit about the concrete, if you don’t mind.”
My brother shrugged and again expounded the non-secret of concrete. There is no secret to that bloody concrete, really, or if there is, at most it’s that you shouldn’t look on it as a dense mass of stone and cement, but as a force confronting you. It’s a huge, massed army, united and indestructible, every inch of it. It doesn’t need chiselling; it needs confronting, fighting. A gentle tap here, a small knock there. If we launch these attacks with a rhythmical precision, always from a different direction, then the army’s forces try to defend themselves by regrouping. The more frequent and the more measured these attacks, the more certain is victory….”
There was silence.
“Interesting, most interesting,” said the student thoughtfully. Then he and his friend both got up and as they made their way out he leaned over to my brother and said: “It has been real pleasure. I’m Janez Jansa, by the way.”
Not long after this, the factory folk gathered up their things and forgot all about this episode. In fact, all they could remember of the Maribor trip was that it rained throughout, and the sports fixtures and the usual factory and sightseeing trips were cancelled so that they spent their time in the motel drinking and playing cards till dawn.
Almost exactly two years later the Yugoslav press was greatly exercised by an article from a Slovene writer. The man had been rash enough to criticise the Yugoslav People’s Army. Only those in the Ministry of the Interior and with a special interest in the subject knew that he was Janez somebody. Everyone thought this fellow was crazy. Anyway, in 1991 the Slovene guards and the local militia kept turning up in various places until the YPA scuttled out of Slovenia.
Onti at this time was more concerned about his new marriage – he had married a divorced mother of two a couple of months earlier – and he never read the news with much care; it was all censored anyway. The obvious link was pointed out to me by old Sanyi Darázs, whose cancer was now well advanced and who didn’t want to go to the grave with such a heavy burden on his heart.
“Not a word to that idiot!” he said referring to my brother, when I visited him at his request. “If he doesn’t know, there’s no point bothering him.”
Since his marriage Onti has thrown his marking pencils and chisels away. His fatherin-law has 70 hectares of his own and Onti labours away on this day and night. In the rebuilt co-op I am the only maintenance electrician left. Sometimes I go down into the cellar of the abandoned feed-mix plant and stare long and hard at the rectangle that Posity drew on the wall fifteen years ago. I stare and stare and when my eyes begin to go funny, I go over and trail my fingers across the picture.
[Translated by: Peter Sherwood]