Graveyard Drifter, The

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński
Graveyard Drifter, The
  • Wydawnictwo Literackie
    Krakow 2006
    128 x 203
    71 pages
    ISBN 83-08-03924-3
    Translation rights: Lidia Croce-Herling

"The Graveyard Drifter" is a short story that was written in 2000, in the final months of the author’s life. As in the story "Blessed, Holy", which appeared in the collection "The Hot Breath of the Desert" in 1997, once again Herling-Grudziński takes up the theme of the war in former Yugoslavia. "The Graveyard Drifter" is about the horrific massacre in Srebrenica, when between 12 and 16 July 1995 armed detachments of Serbs entered a Muslim enclave and murdered more than 7,000 men and boys. The main character in the story, Captain Zdravko Malić, the “graveyard drifter” of the title, is an average person, essentially devoid of any murderous intent; initially he opposes the killing and persuades his commanders to opt for expulsion. However, on the critical day, in a fit of frenzy, he murders about two hundred people. Among them, quite by chance, is his own wife, who was in the fifth month of pregnancy. From then on, haunted by memories, and also by a sentence passed in absentia by the Hague Tribunal, he drifts about Europe, hiding in graveyards by night, and spending his days among the local down-and-outs. In the final stage he reaches Rome, where he has a casual sexual encounter with a drug addict at a railway station and contracts AIDS; later on, while hiding in one of the graveyards, he is found and arrested. His further fate is a reflection of the paradoxes of the post-modern world: he is sentenced to 46 years in prison for his crimes, but as he is so ill, he will probably end up in a hospital, where he will spend the rest of his life in peace and bliss.
In this way Herling-Grudziński was trying to say several things. First of all, that evil is universal, occurring when “reason goes dormant”, at the prompting of the irrational side of man. Secondly, that post-modern humanitarianism is useless for dealing with a monster from a past era: if a crime against humanity demands the death sentence, but liberal laws forbid us to condemn the terminally ill, it means post-modernity prevents justice from being reconciled with the law, which causes the seeds of vengeance to be sown among those who have not been avenged, and the seeds of impunity among those who have not been punished. Thirdly, by placing his main character among drug addicts, vagrants and municipal dumps, Herling suggests that the ethnic vindictiveness to which Malić yielded is a historical leftover, a remnant of totalitarianism. Along with fascism and communism the body of Europe was infected with contempt for human life, and that is why any liberal form of opposition to that evil will be doomed to failure, and will be demoralising in its impotence.

- Przemysław Czapliński

He went inside the ruined chapel and found himself a cosy spot under the remains of the altar, opposite the smashed-in door. A cold wind was blowing from the small piazza on the other side of the Tiber, but habit is hard to break. Without taking off his rucksack he pushed his entire body into the relatively solid base of the altar, which by some miracle had survived. And like that he dozed, adept by now at keeping one eye open: he dozed, while also staying alert.
A noise from the piazza shook him out of his watchful doze: there were shouts, someone running about and cats yowling. Dusk had fallen by now, and all the windows onto the piazza were dark. After a while he realised there was a reason why the lights hadn’t been switched on – it was easier to hunt feral cats in the dark. Two men were standing in a corner by the canal, holding open sacks. The cats were being chased towards them from the opposite direction. Some of them managed to leap aside, and two jumped into the chapel and hid behind a board next to the altar, but the men flushing them out had put on hand-held lamps and were waving them like shining rods, which made the cats lose their sense of orientation, roam around the piazza for a while, and then rush headlong into the waiting sacks. One of them, evidently strong and full of energy, took a great leap, hissing ferociously, and dug its claws into the face of the man holding the sack. A louder scream rang out, even more ferocious than the cat’s hiss, and in spite of the gloom the spurting blood could be seen from the chapel. The man dropped the sack, then two cats jumped a ditch and disappeared into the bushes. The other man standing next to him twisted the top of his sack closed, with two or three cats fighting and struggling inside it. The wounded cat-catcher ran for home, wiping the blood from his face with a rag. The haul was meagre. Some women, with children helping, were lighting iron stoves, the whole piazza had come to life, and here and there lights had come on; they were getting ready for a holiday feast or an anniversary.

Now he was sitting up, leaning on his rucksack against a long altar panel. He had been roused from his nap by human screaming mixed with cats yowling. He could see the blood trickling down the cheek of the catcher, who had pulled the cat off his face, strangled it in his grip, then hurled it to the ground and stamped on it until it was a bloody pulp of guts beside a lifeless pelt. He automatically repeated: My God, Mon Dieu, Mein Gott, for some unknown reason in three foreign languages that suddenly surfaced from his blurred memory of a language course at the Academy in Belgrade. It was obvious that the cat-hunting beyond the Tiber reminded him of something unbearable. He stood up, rushed out of the chapel, dashed across the piazza and plunged down the little street that had brought him here. On the way he was provoked by some incomprehensible insults and the touch of aggressive hands. The young rogues from beyond the Tiber were attracted by his stout rucksack, but once he had stopped and cut the pests down with a couple of violent punches, he was left in peace. He went back to the Tiber diagonally, led by a soldier’s unerring sense of direction, and emerged onto an avenue by the river at a point so far on the other side of the city that from the next bridge he could see the “wedding cake” at the Piazza Venezia in the background. It was six o’clock, the time the cemetery below the Piramide closed. It did not take him long to make his way to the main gate, which was already bolted shut with iron bars. He knew how to go on from here – he simply had to follow the cemetery wall in the darkness. His sense of smell told him where his way through was. The stones in the wall really were so loose that he had no trouble pulling them out of the wall without making much noise and setting them down very near by, so he could put them back in place afterwards. But the gap only just let him through into the cemetery, and it was a tight squeeze – he had to throw his rucksack over the wall, but luckily it fell without making a sound onto the grass next to the Dukici family tomb. He removed a piece of wire and quietly opened the abandoned stone chamber. In place of the wire he fitted a padlock that he dug out of his rucksack.
The chamber was almost empty, with just some broken spades and shovels against one wall and a decayed iron cart. “That’s good,” he thought, sweeping piles of rubble into one corner with his hands. He had already picked out a place to sleep by the wall, near the outer cemetery wall. But the chamber, which could not have been used for years, was terribly chilly, and the sharp cold outside had turned it into a refrigerator. He sat inside, shivering and not knowing what to do. Finally he hit upon the idea of dragging the broken iron cart against his wall, to try and make a sort of short bed out of it – anything rather than sleep on the ground, which was as cold as a sheet of ice. He managed to do it, then laid some rags in the bottom of the cart, almost emptying out his rucksack. An unusual army blanket, down coated in thin sail canvas, would protect him from the frozen air. He dressed for the night, pulling on all three sweaters and a hat with earflaps. Maybe things would be better once he had warmed up a bit. Meanwhile he battled with his shivers.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones