click for homepage

The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




This was a long time ago, so I can’t vouch for much accuracy here, but for the spirit of the time, yes.

The world used to be a bit different even only 55 years ago when I was a seven year old starting that detestable enterprise, formal education. For entertainment, people depended on each other as we had no TV programs most of the day. After school, an old cloister, which under communism was a failing business so it closed down and was converted into the elementary school, grades 1-3, I’d walk home, liberated. It was never the same walk. Some days I got stuck in fist fights or choking fights with the other boys, and other days, I played soccer or ping-pong, and sometimes I simply walked home, but 100 meters before our house, which had a big wooden clog hanging out on a pole, to advertise father’s business, clog-making, I usually stopped by Krojac Franić’s place. I don’t remember what his first name was. We knew him as Tailor Franić. The shop smelled pleasantly of wool though there were no sheep there. He worked with a little magnifying glass stuck over his right eye, so he could insert the thread through the eye of the needle and perform other delicate operations worthy of a surgeon. He was balding, short, stout, with a Franz Josef mustache. The mustache was no surprise, my father had it, Stalin had it, only Tito didn’t. Franić made the best formal suits in town, but I never got any formal wear at his shop. What I got was a sensation that I had something to say. At the time, I had a speech impediment, I stammered, and my home was filled with prophets, loud siblings, and they all talked a mile a minute. But here, I could stop by, and tell Gospon Franić the stories of my day—how a teacher beat me, how a cat caught a baby squirrel and was chased away by the mother squirrel, and how Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem (well, that was on Monday after Sunday school). He called me Joko, and said, You tell cool stories. Come back tomorrow, I like listening to your little tales. And so I did.

He was about 55 or so. Maybe he was 35, I don’t know. At that time everybody looked to me to be 55, unless they were kids. My father looked to be 100 but then when he died it turned out he was only 53. I couldn’t tell much to my father. He was too busy cutting wood with loud machines or praying to his favorite person in the universe, God Almighty. Sometimes, I’d try to tell him about the cat and the squirrel, and he’d say, Son, that is wonderful, as God created them both, so let’s thank him. And he’d start praying. And I’d say, but God knows it all already, so why talk to him about it? He said, you are right about that, but we should thank him. So father was a bit useless as a receptacle for stories as he believed that all stories came from God and went to God. (Actually, occasionally he told good stories, a variation on Don Quixote). But Tailor Franić seemed to believe in stories, and he laughed at everything, and made me feel like a clever little devil. Maybe I needed that boost; I certainly wanted it. Everybody around me was a better story-teller than me, but here, this old man thought my stories were entertaining.

I don’t think he wanted anything from me. It was not the age of suspicion—well, actually it was: we had just gone through Inform-bureau and KGB phases, but we didn’t worry about sex. He was simply a wonderful neighbor, who probably had a difficult world history and wars behind him. Our next-door neighbor was supposed to have been a high-ranking NDH officer (Croatian Quisling Army); he couldn’t get a job, and walked around in clogs my father made, and the nickname for him was papučar, slipper-wearer. His children looked gloomy and beautiful. They moved to Zagreb. At the time it was a country divided between orgiastic partisans or people who claimed to have been partisans on war pensions and all sorts of defeated peoples. . . and in the meantime our town Daruvar was a center of the Czech minorities with a large Hungarian population, which didn’t enjoy much of a partisan reputation. The feeling in the town wasn’t a trusting one. I suppose this all carried into the next war, which started for real in Parkac, 20 km south of Daruvar. But we are not there, timewise, and I don’t care to be. I think Western Slavonia was a big fault line in Croatia. The Czech minority produced wonderful Staročeško Pivo Czech style pilsner. And the rest of us ridiculed them. It didn’t faze me that I was a quarter Czech myself or that my grandmother Juza came from Prague; I loved, Mi smo Česi mi se ne bojimo, muvaprne mi se razbježimo. My mother spoke Czech, shop assistants did too, but I closed my ears, in fear I would learn Czech. My mother said, Son, you are stupid to refuse to learn Czech, one day you will regret it. And she was right. I do. I could have picked it up just so.
Anyhow, I want to recall this wonderful artisan, who produced good suits, repaired them, and threaded needles, bent over his Singer machine. He had a son, a year older than me. He had covert violent tendencies just like me. We made pracke (sling-shots) together out of branches forking into Ys. Then we’d affix rubber and that was enough if we were going to use nails bent into Us. My older brother Vlado was a doctor then in Miokovičevo. He thought I was too thin and I had to visit him once a week for adrenaline shots and steaks so I would grow some muscle. It turns out adrenaline was the last thing I needed. Steaks, yes, as my crazed father was a pescatarian, and my mother inherited that. We ate lots of vegetables and on weekends sarani, carp. Perfect diet for Hassidic Jews, which we were not. Anyway, on one occasion, I ran after a boy on the river bank and shot a U nail into his back. He came to my brother’s ER, to get tetanus shots and disinfectants. Vlado asked, what happened to you? Well, Sir, your younger brother chased me and put a nail into my back from his sling shot. Vlado was furious. He said, how dare you. Don’t come back for your adrenaline shots. I don’t care if you don’t build muscles.
Well, to the town’s horror, Tailor Franić’s son’s story of slinging nails around turned out way worse: he’d hit a friend of his in the eye and he needed an operation. I don’t know whether the friend lost the eye but he certainly lost a friend. I was now a bit older and I think that kind of ended my friendship with the story-listener. By then, I was 12 and my father had just died. I entered a few years of adolescent confusion and megalomania and horror, reading the Bible and Jules Verne, and discovering the Rolling Stones; then, Jimmy Hendrix came along and gave me the will to live and kiss the sky.

© Josip Novakovich 2018

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization