round table introduction  


Dear Alexander,

I wrote you a letter exactly a week ago to tell you that I was off to London and Barcelona and then on to New York (all for book stuff, not for romance or espionage or to shop for shoes). That e-mail bounced back last night and I'm on the plane to the states today. Now I've got some time and an extra battery in the monster and so this first letter might be far longer than the rest. I've got a bunch of books with me including Sarajevo Blues, which you sent and which I told you I'd never get to since Don Quixote--though wonderful--seemed like it was going to take up the rest of my natural life. I finished it in Spain, fittingly. And I arrived in Barcelona right along with the narrative. (Don Quixote and Sancho P. show up there near the very end. They know they are outside the city because of the thirty-or-so bandits strung up in the trees, feet dangling. I saw no such things, and had a wonderful time, and I'm pro any book tour that includes frequent feedings.)

Instead of starting Sarajevo this flight, I am (after watching 1-1/2 very bad movies) rereading your stories--as I now hold an actual advance copy, having read them originally in manuscript. What I want to ask you about is the epigraph to your story "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls." When I was seventeen and in my first semester at college, an instructor read that very same passage from Street of Crocodiles aloud to the class. I didn't know who the author was but I never forgot the image, that man "forever turning his back" and walking "into the depths of the mirror, through the row of empty rooms which did not exist." It was years before I read Bruno Schulz and came upon that image again--and found myself equally struck by it. I might very well be starting the first meeting of the Bruno Schulz fan club, and I also have plenty to say about your wonderful story, but my intentionally hazy question is this: What is it about that specific passage?

Seems I'll be passing through Chicago next month. Hope to get to meet you in person then.


Dear Nathan,

Please call me Sasha. Only persons of authority, often in unpleasant uniforms, call me Alexander or Aleksandar -- that's my passport name, and bad luck as such.

And, yes, let's start the Bruno Schulz fan club. Danilo Kis, the great Yugoslav (as in former Yugoslavia), said: "Bruno Schulz is my God." The main reason I used that quote from Street of Crocodiles is that it is the best piece of writing I have ever read. This sounds dry, like a lame encapsulated review, so let me rephrase it: it makes me want to cry, and it makes me want to write. The banal moment of leaving the apartment in the morning is infused with such dazzling poetry and philosophical and emotional depth that it always restores my precarious belief that literature (or writing, as they call it nowadays) does something to and for the world.

But also, on a different level, it makes me terribly sad, because it makes me wonder where Bruno would be now, how different this world and culture would be if Bruno was not shot by a Nazi--indeed, if six million Jews did not perish. Oh, think of the stories he would have told us, our friend Bruno.

This is why, I think, telling and writing stories is of utmost historical and political and, fuck it, human importance -- it is a way of not only remembering, but making memories a part of your life. This is why I cannot stand the glib cynicism of an army of freshly trained creative-writing infantry, the stories about Midwestern boredom (though it is a rich subject), the stories about junked-up drunks trying to find a little love in a brothel, the stories about divorced academics going through their annual crisis at some godforsaken conference. A window has just appeared on my laptop saying: "Warning! You are ranting again!" so I shall stop, because it is an expensive laptop. So let me ask you: how important and in what ways do you think telling and writing stories are?

Congratulations on finishing Don Quixote. I don't think I ever finished it, though I like what I read. I have trouble finishing fat books--I have the attention span of a bee. I used to go and spend a few weeks in the mountains near Sarajevo, in my family cabin, reading fat novels. I would finish them, since there was nothing else to do. I read The Magic Mountain (in an appropriate setting) in a week and War and Peace in ten days. Here is my question to you: why short stories? Someone once described you to me (here's some gossip) as a natural storyteller, which seemed sensible to me, because For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is full of stories and details that are worth telling. In other words, had someone told me those stories, even in the most basic form, I would have felt compelled to pass them on. As it is, I recommend the book to whomever I can. I know I like to collect and share stories, and writing short stories is one of the ways to do it. Would you agree?

So here is a little story, a dessert after a heavy meal:

A friend of mine spent some time in Ukraine, working for some Swedes. One of the Swedes wanted to do some easy hunting, pheasants perhaps. So he talked to the Ukrainian who was the liaison for the company, helping with bribing, and asked him if he could arrange some pheasant hunting.

"Hm," said the liaison. "It is hard. I'll see."

After a few weeks, the liaison comes to the Swede and says: "It could be done. It is three thousand dollars, all upfront. You must show up at dawn with the money, with nobody else. If you come with somebody else, nothing. If you talk to somebody else, nothing. It is very dangerous."

So the Swede asks: "What's the big deal with pheasants, they are just birds."

The liaison says: "Pheasants? I thought you said peasants!"

Looking forward to talking to you again. Fly safely.


P.S. I'll be out of town April 2-23, I hope you are not coming in that period. When are you going to be in New York?

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