In May 1985, I visited Serbia from my home in Cambridge, England, to run a series of poetry writing workshops for pupils in Serbian schools, mostly in their early teens. With my daughter Lara, who was then seventeen, I travelled to Belgrade and some smaller towns and villages in the central and western region of the republic, known as Šumadija (šuma, ‘wood,’ ‘forest’). The project, which included a group of local teachers of English, was set up and led by my friend and colleague Branka Panić, director of a language teaching centre in Belgrade, in collaboration with a Serbian publisher of children’s books and magazines. As I didn’t know Serbian at that time, when conducting these workshops, I spoke in English and the teachers translated for me. The boys and girls wrote their poems in Serbian. Our group travelled from town to town in a minibus.
One of these poetry workshops took place on a sunny morning on May 25 in a school in the city of Kragujevac(kraguj, ‘vulture’). A large number of pupils were involved in several sessions, and the events filled the school hall. There was a bright, enthusiastic, expansive atmosphere and a sense of novelty and pleasure about these workshops. Afterwards, with Branka and Lara, I visited the city’s memorial museum in Šumarice (‘woodland,’ ‘spinneys’), a hilly park of 350 hectares just outside the town.
Nothing could have contrasted more strongly with the mood of these poetry workshops than the history of Šumarice. Here, on October 21, 1941, 2,672 people were massacred. Most of these victims were male Serbs, including boys pulled directly out of classes from one of the main schools. Victims included forty local Jews, an unregistered number of Roma, as well as prisoners from local jails, and some Serbian women and girls.
Following their whirlwind invasion in April 1941, the Nazis had fully occupied Serbia by the beginning of May. The massacre was a punitive reprisal for a night-time ambush by a Serbian resistance group, near the village of Ljuljaci, on the narrow hilly road between Kragujevac and Gornji Milanovac, at a spot lined by woodland on both sides, on October 16. Nine German soldiers were shot and twenty-seven wounded, of whom one died later. A ruthless edict had been published by the occupiers, stating that in the event of a single German being killed, one hundred members of the Serbian population would be executed. For a single wounded German soldier, the toll would be fifty executed.
Three days after the ambush, the reprisals were swift and merciless. On October 19, 20 and 21, 1941, 2,797 people were massacred at Šumarice, in Kragujevac itself, and in the four nearby villages of Maršić, Mečkovac (aka Ilićevo), Grošnica and Beloševac. Those killed included at least 27 women, 217 children of secondary school age, and 25 children aged between twelve and fifteen. The largest killing site was at Šumarice.
Our visit to Kragujevac coincided with a national holiday linked to the birthday of the former Yugoslav president, Josip Broz Tito. Five years after his death, May 25 was still being observed as Dan mladosti (‘Youth Day’). Because our entire focus had been on the poetry writing workshops, Lara and I had been given no advance knowledge by my Serbian colleagues either of this event or of the wartime massacre, so we had no idea at all of what to expect. Our friends had told us after the workshops that we really ought to visit the museum, but excused themselves from coming with us. They had already been there; and a repeat visit would be ‘too upsetting.’ But Branka kindly agreed to accompany us. I’d never visited the site of a massacre, and nor had Lara. I was curious to visit Šumarice, even though I knew nothing about it and the visit hadn’t been envisaged in any way, let alone prepared.
As we arrived, the memorial park presented a curious and completely unexpected scene. The place was thronging with people on special outings. Groups were arriving from many other Serbian towns and villages. Children and teenagers poured out of various hired buses, and pensioners out of others. Many families were coming in by car. Hundreds of people milled around us, and in the queue outside the museum there was a good deal of noisy chatter and friendly jostling. The weather was balmy, and the area around the museum brimmed with youthful energy. In extreme contrast, the memorial park itself, a green area of 350 hectares expressly dedicated to the commemoration of the massacre, retained its own underlying, passive calm. It would be hard to visit this place at any time and not be reminded of the events that had taken place there in 1941.
On both sides of the straight road leading from the town to the museum, large banners had been strung up, on which fluttered phrases inscribed in Cyrillic script. Branka explained to us that these were blow-ups of short messages that had originally been scribbled on scraps of paper by some of the men and boys who’d been selected by the Germans for execution. They’d been interned overnight in a disused barracks before being marched out to be shot the next morning. They’d known or at least expected the fate that was awaiting them. These short messages, written in and through communal and individual terror, overwhelming panic, utter helplessness, and extraordinary bravery, were remarkable documents. Much later, when I tried to render some of them into English, I discovered that they had a heartrending, tragic poignancy, a dignity that utterly defied adequate translation.
Eventually, Lara, Branka and I found ourselves in a queue of people waiting to get into the museum. The building was quite small and, once a hundred or so people had entered, the keepers closed the glass doors to prevent overcrowding inside. The previous group needed to be allowed to percolate through the building to the exit on the floor below, before we could be admitted. We stood outside, in a crowd of strangers, waiting our turn.
Thirty-three years later, I still have a crystal-clear memory of what happened next, in all its detail. Lara and I were standing close to the glass doors of the museum, slightly bemused by the chatter and bustle around us. I had my arms folded in front of me, so that my right hand cradled my left elbow and my left hand was slightly raised. Lara stood to my right, holding our camera. My eyes were focused on the statement printed in large letters on the partition wall inside the museum, facing through its glass doors so that it could be read from outside: Machen si mir dieses Land Deutsch (‘Make this land German for me’). Beneath it was attached the name Adolf Hitler. At that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small movement on my left hand.
Looking down, I saw that a small blue butterfly was perched on my left forefinger, its wingspan hardly more than the size of my thumbnail. I gazed at it in disbelief for a second and nudged Lara with my right elbow. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘Quick, take a photo.’
Lara pulled out our camera and took the first of two photos. In my astonishment, a vast number of impressions and ideas flashed (flooded) across my mind at once, as the horizons and boundaries of ‘normal’ perception, thought, and observation suddenly opened wide. Then the tiny butterfly lifted off my finger but, rather than flying away, flittered around in front of my face and just above it. It seemed to be performing a little aerial dance. Then, it settled back down on my finger again, the same finger as before. ‘It must like me,’ I thought. I asked Lara to pass me the camera, slowly stretched my left arm out in front of me and, using only my right hand, managed to focus the apparatus so that I could take a slightly better close-up shot. I had to manipulate the camera carefully because I’m left-handed, and my right hand isn’t as flexible as my left. In terms of clock-time, although all this must have happened in a few seconds, I remember it as a moment in and through which the here-and-now expanded into a kind of timelessness, and time and space either stopped, or stopped being relevant. Time itself seemed to expand (disperse) and collapse (implode) simultaneously, and while ‘things’ were transformed because of this—somehow (and paradoxically) they also remained entirely ‘normal’: that is, exactly as they’d been previously. I’ve captured, or at least suggested, some of these complexities of response in ‘The telling, first attempt’, although the word attempt in the title clearly indicates my sense at that time that language itself—even language, the richest, finest, clearest of our communicative gifts—wasn’t adequate to expressing the fulness and subtlety (essence?) of such an experience, which leaks away, as it were, through minute cracks in language’s jar.
I don’t remember much, if anything, of what happened immediately after that. I know that I retained some immediate visual and spatial impressions of the museum’s interior, because I recalled them later on, when they became relevant to me as triggers for research. But the incident itself, of the butterfly perching on my finger—and then returning, and then flying away again—together with everything that had led up to it, has been engraved into my memory ever since, with a cut-glass clarity, scattering multiple refractions.
Our tour of Serbia continued and we moved on to other towns. As soon as Lara and I returned home to Cambridge, I had both our photos developed. Although these were of nowhere-near-professional standard, especially by comparison with the extraordinarily fine detail of modern digital photography, the first shot that Lara had snapped and the second that I’d taken both yielded quite clear images of the little blue creature astride my finger, almost as if it had been posing there, sunning itself, waiting—even somehow wanting (?)—to be photographed. Our camera had contained a colour film, so the butterfly’s delicate blueness came out clearly enough: wings edged in lacy whiteness, and a black contoured band, a kind of wavering border, between wingtips and the inner dominant blue.
Around that time, I wrote two poems to record the experience. They arrived spontaneously and effortlessly: first, ‘The blue butterfly,’ followed by ‘Nada: hope or nothing.’ The second poem contains two lines (‘A blue butterfly takes my hand and writes / in invisible ink across its page of air…’), which express my acute sense at that time that, rather than my writing them, both of these poems were writing themselves through and out of me. That’s to say, rather than my own will, intention (ego) being in control, the butterfly had somehow entered my imagination (psyche), and was guiding and guarding my hand in, through and along the entire compositional pathway.
It was hardly surprising that after the arrival (delivery) of these two poems, I realised that there was considerably more to be said—and done. As it turned out, these two poems eventually became the core of a book.
Thanks to the resources of Cambridge University Library, one of the great libraries of England, I was able to do some preliminary research into the Second World War in Yugoslavia. I began to delve into this subject from as many angles as possible, including records of German war documents. During this period, I also received and accepted several further invitations to various parts of the then-Federation of Yugoslavia, in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. These visits were short, usually lasting no more than one or two weeks: I went either to train English teachers on residential courses sponsored and planned by the British Council or to attend literary events organised by the Serbian Writers’ Association. As a result, by 1986 I had a good number of friends among both teaching and literary communities in Belgrade and in Split.
In my early twenties, I’d lived in Italy and then in Greece, and knew both countries well. Now, in my mid-forties, I was discovering that the more I learned about Yugoslavia—which, at that time, I first thought of as the ‘space between’ Italy and Greece—the more curious I became, the more attracted, and the more I wanted to discover about this zone as an entity in its own right.
Then a new possibility emerged. Branka Panić’s language centre in Belgrade needed a qualified native-speaker to teach English, and a job was to be advertised in the UK through the British Council. By this time, I’d already given poetry readings and run several poetry workshops at this centre, and had several friends there. If I went to live in Belgrade, I’d have the chance to experience Yugoslav—and more specifically, Serbian—culture first-hand, learn some Serbo-Croatian, and work on The Blue Butterfly. I decided to apply for the post, and was interviewed by a laconic mandarin at the British Council’s head office in Davies Street, London. ‘I see no reason,’ he drawled, snootily and almost absent-mindedly, ‘why we can’t accept you.’ In this way, a new phase in my life was set in motion.