Translation Tuesday: The Third Man

Bosnian short fiction from acclaimed writer Dario Džamonja, author of Letters from the Madhouse

From afar, judging by our gesticulations and the vehemence with which we’re defending our opinions, you’d think we were discussing the economy, the upcoming elections, pension funds, mortgages, the Hague Tribunal or some other inevitable aspect of our daily lives. Hell no! We’re trying to pose the dumbest question (and succeeding)! Meho is the reigning champion. He just keeps ’em coming: “What do you call a male turtle? What do you call a male squirrel? A male giraffe? A male seal? A male shark?” Someone counters, “A male shark is called ‘Jaws!’” Meho doesn’t let this phase him and on he goes, “If you have a goldfish in your aquarium, how can you tell if it’s male or female?”

“Well?” “You give it a bit of fish food: if he eats it, it’s male. If she eats it, it’s a female!” From zoology, we move on to physics: “How come you get circles on the water when you toss in a square brick?” The hot summer afternoon, dripping with alcohol, goes by in ostensible happiness and an easygoing atmosphere until it’s time to pay up—a bleak hour when dark clouds converge over everyone’s faces. Each of us has an overdue bill, a debt, an unpaid bar tab, a pair of shoes with worn-out soles, a car or a washing machine on the fritz… In the drunken stupor the conversation veers off to literature, as in a dream when images follow one another by some alien logic, and someone tells a story about Ivo Andrić. During his time as a consul in Rome, he met the Turkish consul, an exceptionally well-educated, wealthy, handsome man with a beautiful family who would regularly get wasted on cognac. Andrić asked him about it, and the man replied: “You know, Sir, as soon as I have a drink, I turn into another man—a ‘second man,’ if you will.” “So?” “Well, this second man then says, ‘I’d like a drink as well,’ and so it goes.” Meho interrupts the story, “If that’s the case, I’m the third man.” “How come? “I start off with a double!”

This reminds me of meeting up with an old friend from Belgrade. He seemed to be doing better than ever, unlike the rest of us. He was driving a red beast of a car (I wouldn’t know which kind since I can only tell cars by their color), and he asked me if I’d keep him company because he had something to do in Novi Sad. I had a couple of spritzers at a dive while he wrapped up his business, and then he took me to lunch at this restaurant where we had two kinds of fish, steak in sauce, rolls with prosciutto, vanilla croissants… There was no point in asking him how he was doing, so I sat there digesting my meal until he asked me, “Anyway, how have you been?” I shrugged, “Like the weather forecast.” “Meaning?” “Somewhat overcast with worse weather and a cold front coming my way.” Then it was my turn to ask, and he kept it short: “I have some stalls at a market in Belgrade.” He’d already had quite a few and he knitted his brow and said, “I’m something of a third man, in fact.” I laughed and asked, “Are you alluding to the Andrić story with the Turkish consul?” He shook his head, “Never heard of it.” That was the end of our conversation. There was nothing left to talk about as we had already reminisced about friends and acquaintances from our former life and it would’ve been rude to ask how he had escaped from Sarajevo. And to be honest, I didn’t even care. The only thing I cared about was how he would get the car to Belgrade as drunk as he was. As we were saying our goodbyes, he said, “Give my best to our friends in Sarajevo, and tell them that…” He stopped and wiped his forehead. “Just give them my best.”

I was having drinks with Zaim when I asked him, “You know who I ran into in Belgrade?” I mentioned our friend’s name and Zaim jumped back, as if bitten by a snake, “That motherfucker!” “C’mon, Zaim, don’t, he’s not the only one who left…” Zaim spat as he spoke, “Do you have any idea what he did during the war?” “No clue.” “He stole a truck with humanitarian aid. Fine, he wasn’t the first or the last. But that truck had a large shipment of baby formula. He sold it at insane prices, but everyone did that. Anyway, once the formula started running out, he began mixing it with lime plaster…”

That’s when it finally dawned on me; I realized what he had meant with the third man quip. I recalled that Orson Welles film, where Harry Lime sells flour instead of penicillin. I could taste the fish, the steak, and the rolls again, and felt sick. I thought, “My friend. You’re not the first, second or third man: you’re not a man at all.”


Dario Džamonja (1955-2001) was one of the most influential authors of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. His own biographical note in the 2001 edition of Letters from the Madhouse simply said: “My name is Dario Džamonja. I was born in Sarajevo in 1955. I died in Sarajevo in 1993 when I left it. I died again in 1998 when I left America and my children. Now I’m trying to live again in Sarajevo from my writing.” He never managed to get published during his life in the United States. Only a handful of his stories were published in English, most of them posthumously.

Aleksandar Brezar was born in Sarajevo in 1984. He currently resides in Northampton, MA. He has worked as a journalist at Radio 202 and a translator on several documentary films and other film-related projects for PBS, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Al Jazeera English, among others. His translations have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Brooklyn Rail,, Peščanik, and Lupiga. He (occasionally) writes for Mediacentar Online.

Image from The Third Man, dir. Carol Reed, featuring Joseph Cotten.

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More from Sarajevo: Poems by Faruk Sehic
Poetry from Serbian writer Biljana Stajic
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