By FRANCA MANCINELLI.
Translated from the Italian by John Taylor.
IT’S NO COINCIDENCE that snow has fallen, covering this land, erasing the traces of all those who have stayed awake and bivouacked at the border, after riding on trains and walking for hours with a backpack, a bag, watched by the police and special forces deployed like another barbed wire net. The snow has fallen on all this, restoring the peace that we now trample: this silence, this solitude of trees laden with frosty fruit.
IT WAS A valley divided by a stream where children hanging from the branches would dive in and adults await them with a barbecue. In summer, there were parties from one bank to the other, in the villages, and many loves.
Then the thorns emerged. Miles of spirals wrapped around themselves. A red-and-white ribbon was unrolled as a danger sign. ‘We are fenced off,’ says an inhabitant of Kraj Donji. ‘Animals don’t understand. This is why we occasionally find a deer bled to death. It is like a recurrent sacrifice.’
THE KRAJ DONJI border seems vacant. A small deserted guard station. In the below-zero air, a red, white and blue striped flag. A few steps away, beyond the intact mantle of snow, another small station and a flag with the same colors in a different order: white, blue, red. At the center, this space in which one stands, watching, leaning on an invisible cliff. Suddenly, behind an icy wall, they will ask for a card proving who you are.
I repeat the same question to the face that appears on a card between letters and numbers. One figure is missing for this operation to be completed. Fill in your death box.
YOU CANNOT LOSE or forget on this journey. The card that you have to keep in the game and keep showing to reiterate you are a member of the team of those who can go on, who have everything in order.
May it always be with you. Tight in your wallet. Double-stitched to your skin.
IF THIS SOLITARY customs post, which cuts in two a small village in the snow, is superposed on a snapshot from another sequence of time (Autumn 2015), you see thousands of migrants standing and waiting in the rain, or leaning against each other on the ground. How was this image put together? How has it vanished?
CAPTIONS OF DELETED sequences, the words of a volunteer met in Zagreb. “I came by train with them. They mistook me for an Afghan, because of my beard maybe and dark hair. Seated in the corridors, arms and legs entangled, a human scaffolding wavering and trembling with the jolts of the journey. I sang with them, national anthems and old songs. Like a child, I repeated the syllables, following the sound.”
Once out of the train, a single large crowd was moving: to the right, to the left, to get on the bus. The crowd was directed by the “turtles”. Protected inside their shells, they watched over every passage. We arrived in Bregana. Two times as many of us as the inhabitants of this handful of houses. You give a woman clean laundry and see twenty other people who are left without any. Whatever you do, it melts like a snowflake on your hands.
LTTLE WOODEN HOUSES immersed in the whiteness look at each other from one bank to the other of a small stream. The barbed wire fence merges with those of vegetable patches and private gardens. The village has been cut in half. To reach the neighbors on the other side, the path has become longer and more uncomfortable. In the last house before the bridge, a Croatian flag hangs from a woodpile. A short distance away, the forest begins again, a few majestic firs and then the tangle of branches. The same silence between the trees and the houses. Only one old man comes out of his house, limping, slowly starting to shovel.
I DON’T KNOW why I’m here. Perhaps I have obeyed the sound of broken branches, which reaches me from this unknown language, like walking in a dense forest. There is something immediately familiar in these bits of bark that preserve meanings. It suffices to repeat the name of a place like Zagreb or Kraj Donji to make something mysterious move, like sunrays penetrating entwined branches, or the trail of an animal through a thicket. It is the enchantment of a preverbal world, of good and evil spirits, which immediately envelops me and swallows me back into it, beyond the threshold where a decision can be made, a choice formulated.
For me, this land is the other seashore. On some clearer mornings, from the first foothills of the Apennines or from one of the high slopes on the Marche coast, you can see it emerge like a cloud on the horizon. And nonetheless, it is a land that starts again, after the first nautical miles and the signs of the fish pots, beyond the suspended oil platforms, and the water that becomes deeper and blue, plummeting towards a beauty multiplied by small islands. If you leave on a sailboat at night from the port of Pesaro, at dawn you are greeted by the lighthouse of Susak. It suffices to say its name, recognize it on the map, to definitely feel the beginning of another world. Or drive on the panoramic road of Monte San Bartolo: between one curve and another, at times this fragmented and obscure language emerges from the radio like something coming from the other side of a mirror.
But coming to meet you, this time, is a land frozen with sharp boundaries and small houses shut up into themselves. As if the lens of winter had returned the clear-cut image, reunited with its essence. This is what I always seek: beyond the bud and the foliage, the nude drawing; branches woven together like nerves of life. Only then do the dark shapes of abandoned nests and the spheres of mistletoe appear between the forks of trees. Sometimes crows or large black ravens make a halt, in flocks that fill the branches like fruit. An invisible signal suffices, something goes by in the air, so that the tree is handed back to itself. This is the most important thing that happened during the trip through snow-covered Slavonia, in the silence interrupted by the barely audible clicks of lenses that open and close. They are the eyelids of my companions who are trying to capture reality. While I watch and, in my notebook, mark something that looks like bird tracks on the snow. I will not be able to read them, but I leave them anyway, trusting someone who is in transit inside me, a hunter walking on this trail. When I am far away and he is here, the form of what is happening will be fulfilled in these words.
The ravens have come to leave you with a lesson. The most difficult one. Those black fruits on the branches, that unexpected presence. And suddenly the detachment, the emptiness that comes back clearly. You call it abandonment, try to recognize it as a restitution.
MY BODY HAS an open texture from which hangs a thread. Someone at the other end, without even noticing, pulls it, and slowly I grow thin. The absence beckons me. I approach the spirits of the cold, that white wordless nucleus which governs this earth. I close my eyes, as if pervaded by a flat colorless sea.
I’m starting to translate snow. It is the experience of the desert. You can feel it slowly advancing, with its icy grains, until it gets into your breathing. As long as you withdraw, seeking refuge in yourself, in your core of buried heat, you will find a seed of ice. You must contain it with all your strength.
Perhaps now you understand the harsh sounds of this language that has beckoned you and the foreign gestures in which you have sought a home, as in a thick thorny bush.
THE BUZZARDS WATCH over us. Perched on the tollway fences, they confirm the route. Every now and then they come flying. You recognize them from the strength they draw from the sky. By simply holding their wings open.
FROM THE SNOWY plain, trees come toward me. Alone and just themselves, they know the secret of resisting in this landscape. Once, they appeared as an oasis. By looking, one could draw on those dark shapes and nourish oneself, after sequences of images that extend and fade away a few steps from nothingness.
This desert does not resemble the one of which Jabès speaks. You can lose yourself in its desolation until you become exhausted and find yourself facing the harshness of closed doors and marked boundaries. A law executed as a relentless game. The foreigner, “God’s envoy,” must have with him all the papers attesting to his heavenly origin.
THE LAST EDGE of Slavonia. The trees are dark lightning bolts driven into the plain. We slowly cross the no-man’s land that opens out between Croatia and Serbia. Between one tollway booth and the other one, between one customs post and the other one, this wide strip of space can be recognized as a rest area, while much more happens on the margins of one’s gaze without finding a word.
We are entering another alphabet. The road surface becomes uneven. The signs are illegible. Sitting on the fence along the edges of the tollway, the buzzards continue to confirm the route. Or to watch over a border where we are not allowed.
On the parallel road, in the opposite direction, the long line of trucks is at a standstill. The plates of sheet metal can hide men. Occasionally they are discovered, ill-treated by the police, and pushed back.
ADAŠEVCI. AS ON any trip, we enter the rest stop to take a break, are about to have a coffee when a voice says: you won’t need it. And suddenly we’re outside. Each of us left to himself.
In whatever direction your next steps move, a path as thin as a thread will be opened, swallowed up by your next step. The path is within this space that opens and closes back up. Like an invisible seam. A building and its rail fence. A long room full of bunk beds. Entrance declares a sign on the glass door. The same word transcribed in the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets. At the gate, two watchmen in blue uniforms, with the circle of European stars on their backs, repeat that it is not possible to enter. All the while, a man with a coat and thongs walks up and down, with a cell phone on his ear. The sound of his voice, directed to a distant country, cannot be heard. A flock of sparrows alights on the railing. They compose their own message for a few minutes. And with a beating of wings, they make it disappear by returning to the thick of the forest.
A PAIR OF blue pants and a green towel hang from the high fence surrounding Adaševci Camp. Someone will come back to retrieve them. Otherwise they belong to the woods, to the entangled tree trunks, writhing in the frost, which grow in the mud strewn with dark leaves and a strange early flowering or the last remnants of dirty snow. It is a mantle interwoven with debris, the legacy of existences that have dwelled here and then been uprooted and dragged elsewhere.
I reach a large rubber tire from which two paths branch off. From the thicket of branches appear huts of wood tied to pieces of tarp. I stop to listen to the ghosts of passing trucks.
Why are you here? I write and the cold paralyzes my hands. I am on the threshold of an empty hut: a brick hearth, a black pot. Scattered onionskins, an energy-drink can. A wisp of smoke rises between the trees. From the farthest hut, two crouching shapes are making wind with a piece of cardboard. I’m about to move forward when something calls me back towards the dirt path that runs along the edge of the forest, along the E70 tollway to the border. Flimsy net fencing protects it from the road. A yellow jumpsuit soiled with dirt, with heart and elephant designs, is hanging there.
These excerpts have been selected and translated from Franca Mancinelli’s Taccuino croato (Croatian Notebook), which is comprised in Come tradurre la neve (How to Translate the Snow, AnimaMundi Edizioni, 2019).
Franca Mancinelli was born in Fano, Italy, in 1981. Her first two collections of verse poetry, Mala kruna (2007) and Pasta madre (2013), are both now available in John Taylor’s translation as At an Hour’s Sleep from Here: Poems 2007-2019 (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2019). In 2018 she also appeared in Taylor’s translation of her collection of prose poems, The Little Book of Passage (The Bitter Oleander Press). Her prose memoir, “Maria, towards Cartoceto,” has been published in The Fortnightly Review here, as well as samples from the aforementioned translations. She has participated in international projects such as the Chair Poet in Residence (Kolkata, India, 2019) and Refest: Images and Words on Refugee Routes. From this latter experience was born her Taccuino croato (Croatian Notebook). For more, visit her blog-website.
John Taylor is an American writer, critic, and translator who lives in France. He is a Contributing Editor of The Fortnightly Review. Besides his translations of Franca Mancinelli’s work, he has also recently translated Philippe Jaccottet’s A Calm Fire and Other Travel Writings (Seagull Books). He is the author of several volumes of short prose and poetry, most recently The Dark Brightness (Xenos Books), Grassy Stairways (The MadHat Press), and Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press). The Fortnightly Review has published his “double book” co-authored with Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges as well as his translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas. John Taylor’s website is here.
Mitar Simikić and Armin Graca are photographers from Bosnia and Herzegovina.