Unhappiness Is Other People

Dubravka Ugrešić

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang


Someone recently asked me about moments in my life when I have felt pure happiness. I was devastated by the question. The word happiness is not part of my vocabulary, and the question of whether or not I’m happy is one I haven’t asked myself for some thirty years. Moments of happiness are few and far between, I stammered, knowing full well that I was buying time. Only a person of a certain age dares allow themselves platitudes such as: moments of happiness are few and far between. I imagine I have reached that age. Age is serving as my crutch.

The pious have an easier time of it. No matter what awful things they do, from pickpocketing a wallet to murder, God is at hand to forgive them for their sins. The faithful jettison their heavy burdens and, light as a feather, move on. And there you have it, a viable reason for happiness! I am not religious; I am one of that negligible number. Yet I do believe in the unproven claim that this is still the best of all possible worlds.

But the minute I’d uttered that liquid platitude, I did recall a moment of pure happiness. I should say that I am not a professional hunter for happiness at all, I pursue no hobbies that might have a high happiness quotient, and I am not an alpinist or a yodeler. I am a dark-minded, urban human being and my moments of happiness are, indeed, few and far between.

It was when I was a teenager, perhaps seventeen, and we were spending the summer on the Black Sea. I was not a bad swimmer, although on the Black Sea everyone dares to feel bold: there are no sharks there, though the strong undertow may pull swimmers out into deep water. For that very reason there used to be watchtowers and teams of lifeguards along the Black Sea beaches (something like a live Bulgarian Baywatch, but with no Pamela Anderson); well, at least they were there under Communism, at a time when the lives of the communist masses were thought to be worth saving. How things stand now I couldn’t say. I was with friends that day on an untended beach where there were no watchtowers or lifeguards. And so it was that I found myself quite far out at sea with the sun blazing high above. At first I was overwhelmed by an intense bliss, but soon I quieted down, found a kind of tranquility, and floated for a time. And then through me (yes, that’s how I’d describe it) passed a school of fish that kept coming, seemingly without end. I felt as if liquid silver were sliding through me, I was “theirs,” I was a big fish and they were a mass of millions of small fry. I wasn’t afraid, I enjoyed it, at that moment I felt as if I were yet another species of fish. I glanced over at the shore, and in the distance I could just make out the figure of a swimmer. After a time I was able to see the face of my friend, who had set out to help me. Together we returned to shore. The tide tossed us out some two or three kilometers from where we’d started.

The other moment of happiness that I remember is also linked to the sea. I was spending the summer, about twenty years ago, on the island of Lastovo in the Adriatic. There were no tourists, the war had ended only shortly before, and I swam, completely alone, in a deserted little cove. Suddenly, some thirty meters from me, a dolphin leaped out of the water. The sight was absolutely breathtaking: the vast shimmering body, the spraying droplets of water lit by the sun! I felt my heart—whether from terror or joy—tighten into a little ball the size of a garden strawberry. The dolphin vanished and I made for the shore.

Yes, I know, it’s difficult to feel respect for a person whose moments of pure happiness are all about marine life. To be honest I am not sure how to explain it. I have nothing against the fish and mammals of the deep but I have nothing for them either. Fish and I generally encounter each other in the customary executioner-victim constellation: they on the serving dish, just off the grill, me at my plate, fork in hand. So I’m left with the conclusion that these moments of pure joy are really about being in water, a return to a primeval psyche we can no longer recall but our genes still sense. Who knows how many millions of years ago that was—that primeval state of mind when we were living all together, the species existing then and those which hadn’t yet come into being, mingling as if at a hot springs where admission was free of charge.



Now, were I to publish these lines in the Croatian press, somebody would swiftly attack me for defining happiness in terms of Communism, because I mentioned “a hot springs where admission was free of charge,” I am championing the “equality among all beings on earth,” and instead of addressing fish and dolphins as might a fisherman or a sailor, I am championing the “brotherhood and unity” of all living species, including the fish swimming in the waters off Bulgaria! And Bulgaria, isn’t that the same as Serbia, anyway? It doesn’t take long to see why the word “happiness” vanished from my vocabulary. All because of stupidity!

For years I have been dwelling in an empire of stupidity. Stupidity has become, over time, far too burdensome for me. I am finding breathing difficult under its weight and can’t shake free of it. I tried for a while with laughter, and, to be sure, that helped. But now stupidity has moved in, made itself at home, and soaked up all the oxygen. A quarter of a century ago, stupidity grabbed the microphone, gleeful with self-confidence, and hogged center stage. There is no hope that it will be stepping down any time soon. Into the microphone it squawks ceaselessly, and demands of me that I listen and voice my admiration for it. Stupidity has strode through the front door over this last quarter century—straight into nursery schools, elementary and secondary schools, and universities. Meanwhile stupidity has raised new generations of offspring who are swiftly taking charge. Stupidity has elbowed its way into the press, the media, even into my paltry, humdrum realm of literature. Stupidity pens its own autobiographies, it promotes and awards the literary critics who offer it their support. Stupidity took from me and many others our workplaces and threw us out into the streets. People who were earlier chauffeurs, electricians, petty crooks, murderers, plumbers, truck drivers, journalists and professors (some of consequence, others of none), psychiatrists, military generals, historians, grifters, con artists, and card sharks—they knew how to steal us blind and ride our backs. Stupidity rules and won’t give us room to breathe. When somebody complains, stupidity stirs up a huge fuss and lets its shrieks loose through thousands and thousands of righteous throats. The din is unbearable.

I was on a bus, traveling from Zagreb to Rijeka. The bus stopped midway at Karlovac. I used the brief break there to go to the station’s restroom. Sitting there by the facilities, instead of the usual little old lady charging a coin for a few sheets of toilet paper, was a man. He was slight of build and scrawny, a worn-down forty-year-old wearing a black turtleneck, the sort of thing people wore in the 1970s. From outside the door of my stall I could hear him bemoaning his fate to someone: “I put my life on the line for this country in 1991. I spent four years at the front! And where am I now? I ask you, where am I now?” The restroom guard was hoping for an answer but the answer was obvious. “In deep shit,” I answered under my breath and fled.

Stupidity is forever whining and moaning, stupidity needles like a toothache, stupidity is rapacious, it always feels it deserves better. Stupidity struts its patriotism and thinks that for its volunteer effort of loving its homeland it should receive full financial compensation. The Croatian volunteers, the veterans from the war, receive state pensions from the homeland. Some of these pensions are as much as ten times the average Croatian pension. Militarized stupidity has, at times, taken to the streets of Zagreb to demand even more. It turns out that these volunteers—the invalids, genuine and fraudulent, the warriors, genuine and fraudulent, the male masqueraders sporting black T-shirts with big white crosses on the chest (Croatian crusaders!), or checkerboard scarves in the Croatian colors—are deeply in the right. For who could possibly love this country—or any country like it for that matter—free of charge!

Stupidity has a penchant for funerals. Much like the Italian Mafia of American movies, the people of the Balkans are big on the art of funerals and burials. Recently it seems as if Croats can hardly wait for someone to die, and then they fling themselves into keening and wailing. The recent funeral for General Praljak, a convicted war criminal who committed suicide in the dock as the judges were reading his sentence, is the perfect example. The dramatic images of people fainting, holding speeches, shedding copious public tears, provide the media with grist for their mill. The high artistic and dramatic bar for funerals was set by Tito’s “gravediggers.” None has outshone Franjo Tuđman in this respect. His burial was the most splendid. At the funerals of others, Croats go all out for mourning and grieving for themselves, the “sorry wretches” who have been left behind.

And as I click my way with my TV remote from channel to channel I see scenes of funerals, scenes of the fetching lads, those war veterans, some of them standing, others in wheelchairs, bent on broadcasting to the world their message: that their homeland is not worth defending free of charge, I see scenes of the Croatian president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, borne aloft by Croatian voters (in their thoughts, of course) much the way the Catholic faithful carry figures of the Mother of God on pilgrimages (it should be said that all the Balkan peoples are famous for adoring their political leaders). And suddenly all this “glorious” struggle of the ex-Yugoslav peoples and nationalities for independence, freedom, statehood, national identity and so forth spreads out before my eyes like a reality television show: a dynamic landscape of depravity, murder, the theft and expropriation of big and little houses, native soil and whole hillsides, gold ducats and ready cash, checking and savings accounts, pots of gold and barrels of wine, factories and franchises, gas stations and hotels, villas and estates, seats in parliament and ambassadorial posts.

And what about the rest of us who have wasted a good portion of our lives describing the reality show, high entertainment that it is, of others, as our own deeply humiliating reality? What about all of us? For we, in one way or another, have all been and remain hostages of stupidity, whether we have shined its shoes, or believed we were bearers of enlightenment, or were living in silence in an underground reality off the political grid? In better times the police simply switch off the reality show. When times are bad, the high courts of Croatia and Serbia exonerate the war criminals, murderers, and swindlers.

Here is my chance to use the memorable words a little girl uttered during the shelling of Sarajevo. She was in the hospital psychiatric ward. “What are you the most afraid of,” asked the doctors. “People,” she said. The little girl must be a woman in her thirties by now. I hope she has learned to live with her fears. Unhappiness is other people—this is the first assumption one must be guided by when living among them. The creators of the Netflix series, Zoo, in which the animals, tired of the terror visited upon them by people, join forces in a global animal resistance movement, understood this. The scenes where lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, and also the smaller members of the animal kingdom bare their teeth fill me with a particular satisfaction. I side, in any case, with the animals. With the fish and the dolphins.

translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać