When he drops us off at the half-completed church, the taxi driver says: “I know a couple of good strip joints too.”
I have returned to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Once Podgorica was called “Titograd”. The city’s airport code is still TGR; Tito will always live on a little here.
The throngs of international journalists have never left Montenegro, by reason of the simple fact that they never arrived in the first place. In 1990, during the NATO bombardments, Montenegro and Serbia were still one and the same country. The occasional barracks complex was bombed here and there in Montenegro, but that was more or less it, the Balkan wars largely passed over this country. True, this is the birthplace of Radovan Karadžić, the psychiatrist, poet and politician currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes; one of his brothers still lives in Podgorica.
I have been here before: in 2006 I visited Kosovo and Montenegro in the role of investor.
There are four kinds of people who go to war zones: soldiers, relief workers, morbidly curious sightseers and investors. The diplomat is a variation on the relief worker, just as the journalist is a variation on the morbidly curious sightseer.
A friend of mine in America wrote to me: “To be human is to trade.” In my heart of hearts I serve the god of literature; the other gods have proved to be false gods, only the god of commerce is still sacred to me: to be human is to trade.
The reason for this particular visit is a commercial one as well: the Serbian Orthodox Church has offered to provide me with a miracle cream which I can import into the Benelux countries and sell there under the name “Grunberg’s Miracle Cream”. Our initial talks had been about a Grunberg wine - the church in Montenegro makes wines as well - but a Spanish vintner has meanwhile offered to produce Grunberg wine for me. And, all things considered, miracle cream seems better than wine; a miracle cream is to your average wine what mystic poetry is to a dime-store novel.
The cream is also available as lotion. From stomach disorders to psoriasis: the herbal riches of the mountains of Montenegro will cure anything.
I find myself standing with one foot in the immortality of literature, with my other I shuffle cautiously towards the immortality of miracle cream.
My contact, a Montenegrin who lives in Amsterdam, told me before I left that he had arranged for me to meet with Raco Karadžić, Radovan’s brother. Karadžić runs a café on the outskirts of Podgorica.
For one thousand euros, Raco will tell me everything.
The miracle cream for the sake of true immortality on earth, and Raco’s story for the sake of literature; the Balkans remain a Fundgrube.
“I don’t have a thousand euros,” I told my contact, “but everything’s negotiable.” Or, as Groucho Marx once said: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them, well, I’ve got other ones.” Like last time, I’m travelling with an interpreter: Damir, a Bosnian who fled to Holland when he was thirteen.
“What are we going to do in Montenegro, anyway?” Damir asked before we left.
“I can give you the long version or I can give you the short version,” I told him. “The short version consists of four words: ‘miracle cream and genocide’.” Now, in Podgorica, we’re standing in front of the half-completed church where a Mass is being held for St. Jacob. The church square is a muddy parking lot.
“You know the old joke,” my interpreter says. “Go to Montenegro. Your car’s already there.” As it turns out, the Serbian Orthodox Church does not believe in pews. Everyone stands, occasionally they kneel. The Mass lasts more than two hours. After a while our taxi driver joins us; a devout man, despite or perhaps due to his knowledge of strip joints.
Half an hour into the service a man nudges me and gestures that I’m not supposed to stand with my hands behind my back. What are you supposed to do with your hands? A blind man is recording the proceedings on his cell phone. He bumps into people all the time, but the beatific smile never leaves his face.
We are here to talk to the spiritual leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Vladika Amfilohije, after Mass is over. He is the one who must give his final blessing to Grunberg’s Miracle Cream.
Mass is almost over. Consecrated wafers make the rounds. A woman drags a little boy - who doesn’t seem to be entirely okay, mentally speaking - through the church. He tries to spit out his wafer. She stuffs it back in his mouth.
After the service is over we are led to a rather dilapidated little building beside the church, where the clerics have gathered around a table. Vladika Amfilohije is seated at the head. There are pastries and bottles of schnapps. The ambience reminds me of a dressing room after the play is over, except that here the actors don’t take off their costumes.
Vladika Amfilohije addresses me directly, in German: “The children of communism have been injected with hedonism, and they are the ones who are worst off.” He takes a slug of schnapps. The Taliban hate hedonism too. Someone should write a hymn of praise to hedonism.
“The ecological crisis reflects the spiritual crisis of mankind. Never has Europe been in a worse situation than it is now. Man is the middle point of God’s creation, but he cannot replace God, otherwise things go wrong,” he continues.
This seems like the perfect moment to bring up the miracle cream; the fact that, in the Netherlands and surroundings, it will be called “Grunberg’s Miracle Cream” is a subject I still have to broach.
But Vladika Amfilohije doesn’t give me the chance, he says: “The civil war started here in ’45, but it’s still going on today. The war has claimed more lives here than Nazism ever did. This evening we will be launching a book that I have co-authored. It’s called Go Ahead and Shoot, the War is Over. You’re invited.” “And the cream?” I ask. “What about the miracle cream?” “You have my blessing. They’re expecting you at the monastery. When I was attending school in Italy I always went to the Biënnale in Venice. The battle between good and evil rages on in the arts.” Vladika Amfilohije glances at me meaningfully. “There is good art and there is bad art,” he says.
On our way back to the taxi, my interpreter tells me: “The Church is trying to rehabilitate the royalists, the Četniks, many of whom collaborated with the fascists.” History is being written all over again. The father of Karadžić was a royalist, a Četnik.
And our taxi driver says: “A Mass like that is a workout in itself.” Then he takes us to the monastery at Ostrog, in the mountains, an hour’s drive from Podgoric. The story goes that Radovan Karadžić hid out there for a time as well. Because of the heavy rainfall, the trip takes two hours. It’s already dark by the time we arrive. The driver drops us off in front of the guests’ quarters, then races away.
After we have knocked a few times, a man opens the door. They had assured us that the people at the monastery were expecting us, but this man claims he knows nothing about it.
“Tell him,” I say to my interpreter, “that we’re here for the miracle cream.” A second man, this one with a bull neck and close-cropped hair, appears at the door. He looks more like a hit-man than a monk.
I have the interpreter tell him that the spiritual leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church has reserved two rooms for us, but this only enrages the bull-necked man. “We don’t have rooms. We have dormitories. Every monastery has rules, and if you don’t abide by them, then you have no respect for monastic life.” Lots of tourists come here in summer, the monastery is at a lovely location; miracles, it seems, have taken place here. Further down in the valley we saw souvenir shops and one lone café. We hope to drink something there.
After we’ve deposited our things on the beds in the austere dormitory, we walk down the mountain. We use our cell phones as flashlights, but step deep in the mud anyway.
“Have you ever seen ‘Pulp Fiction’?” my interpreter asks. “At a certain point Maynard says: ‘The spider just caught a couple o’ flies.’ I have the feeling that that monk is now phoning the other one to say: ‘The spider just caught a couple o’ flies.’” The souvenir shops and the café are already closed, but the restaurant called “Tvros” is still open. Not a real restaurant, as it turns out. They have beer, schnapps and tea, and a manager who stands at the window, staring at the rain.
A call to our contact in Holland tells us that it is Father Sergey whom we need to talk to, that he can help us out and that he’s in the church right now.
We walk back up the hill. The church is deserted. We rattle the doors of the houses beside the church. There are no streetlights here. I can’t shake the feeling that a monk is watching us and murmuring softly: “The spider just caught a couple o’ flies.” When we succeed in opening the door of one of the houses, we find ourselves face to face with a middle-aged woman in a headscarf, who looks at us in surprise.
“We’re here for Father Sergey,” my interpreter says.
“He’s gone to bed,” she says. “What do you need him for?” The interpreter explains who we are, but, just to be on the safe side, doesn’t mention the miracle cream. He says we have urgent business to discuss with Father Sergey.
Fifteen minutes later the bedroom door opens and out comes Father Sergey, a monk in his forties with a friendly face that seems caught in a perpetual smile.
After a brief introduction he says: “We eat here twice a day, at ten in the morning and five in the evening. Have the two of you eaten yet?” It’s already eight-thirty. “No,” I say.
The woman serves us a meal of homemade cheese, hardboiled eggs, boiled cabbage, vegetable soup, homemade bread and buttermilk. Father Sergey tells us that his grandfather once lived in Detroit, but came back to Serbia before the Second World War. He himself entered this monastery nine years ago. After five minutes the monk gets up and says: “I’ll wait for you outside.” “That’s the sign for us to stop eating,” my interpreter whispers.
My bed in the dormitory has five blankets, but I still can’t get warm.
Early the next morning we go back to Father Sergey’s. There are monks at this monastery who heal people, but Father Sergey apparently has an administrative job. The Apple computer on his desk is a more recent model than my own. He leads us to a reception room. On the table there is coffee, schnapps and party snacks in the shape of fish.
“It’s all homemade,” Father Sergey says. “Except for the party snacks.” Then he starts in on a story: “There was a woman who was crippled. She came here. Her legs were so bent, they looked like the letter ‘x’. She didn’t ask anyone to make her walk again, because she was a modest woman. All she wanted was to be in a little less pain. After the prayers were over she stumbled out of the church. It didn’t go easily, but she could walk. Miracles like that have happened here, they have been documented, and there have also been many miracles that have not been documented. A NATO general paid us a visit once, he told me: ‘All the people who don’t believe in God should come to visit this monastery.’ Faith without works and love without sacrifice, they’re useless.” Our glasses are refilled with schnapps.
“A monk,” Father Sergey says, “has a fixed daily routine, but it’s not like in Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’.” He laughs loudly at his own joke, and I laugh along with him, because I like Chaplin.
“I always felt drawn to monasticism,” Father Sergey says, “but I didn’t dare to really do it. I had a girlfriend. At a certain point there was no one who depended on me anymore, so I entered the monastery.” Lunch is almost identical to dinner the night before. This time, however, we sit at the table with a group of monks. During the meal a novice reads aloud from the Bible. No one talks. After exactly twenty minutes a bell rings. Everyone stops eating on the spot. Father Sergey is the first to get up.
He takes us on a tour of the monastery, past the cows, a horse and a few goats.
It’s still raining outside. Father Sergey throws his cell phone in a puddle. When he sees the shocked look on our faces, he says: “My cell phone is waterproof.” Father Sergey loves gadgets.
“Sometimes people ask me: ‘Why does a monk need a cell phone?’ Well, God gave Man a knife to cut his bread, but you can also use it to kill someone. The important thing is what you do with it.” We’ve arrived at the cowshed. The monastery has six cows. “The cows have taught me a lot about Christianity,” Father Sergey says. “One time a cow kicked over a bucket of water and I hit it over the head. The cow turned and looked at me in fear, but also with love. If cows can do that, why not people?” I choose not to answer that question.
A little further down the hill is the stable for the goats. One of the monks has decided to live with the goats. His little hut is no more than ten meters square, but it’s the only place in the monastery that seems heated. When he sees us coming the monk leaves his hut, spreads his arms, walks through the pouring rain towards the goats and begins talking to them.
“What’s he saying?” I ask my interpreter.
The interpreter replies: “He’s saying: ‘Goats, I love you. My little goats, I love you with all my heart.’” Some monks may be spiders, but the goat monk looks more like a fly to me. This seems like the right moment to start in about the miracle cream.
“Oh, that’s why you’ve come,” Father Sergey says. “We perform miracles here, but the miracle cream comes from the convent of St. Stefan Piperski.” We say goodbye to Father Sergey and catch a ride to the convent.
From the outside, the convents looks a bit like a luxury hotel.
A young nun, a novice still, shows us to the reception room. She’s attractive.
Then Sister Katherina appears, yet another clearly attractive young woman, despite her habit. She offers us a glass of orange juice and tells us about the miracle cream.
There is one thing I can’t figure out: what is a woman like her doing in a convent?
Then it dawns on me: a nun is the greatest thing a man could wish for. A married woman is nice, but with a nun you can say: “I share my girlfriend with God.” Or: ”This is Sister Katherina, before she met me she was going out with God.” Sister Katherina says the miracle cream should sell for fifteen to eighteen euros, retail. There are no minimum shipments. We can design our own label, but the Church has to give its blessing.
It’s already dark by the time we leave. Vespers are underway. We’re allowed to take a peek in the church.
There are six nuns in the church; one to each pew. I can’t see the nun leading the service, because the place is quite dark. The church seems to linger in a kind of eternal twilight. The prayer, recited in a singsong voice, reminds me of a Buddhist mantra. None of the nuns seem aware of our presence. I wouldn’t want to call it a religious experience, but all of a sudden I’m certain that God is a big, hairy spider.
Sister Katherina leads us to the exit. She shows us a little outbuilding containing boxes of miracle cream. “These are our stocks,” she says. “When spring comes we’ll start making it again.”
We look admiringly at the stocks and at Sister Katherina.
“It will be no problem getting the miracle cream to you,” she says, but all I can think of is how, in the presence of the big, hairy spider, I would like to tear the habit off of Sister Katherina’s body.
Even if only because flies, too, must sometimes shake their fists at the heavens.
On the last day of our stay we go to meet Raco Karadžić, the brother-of.
When we knock on the door of his café, however, no one answers. It is Saturday morning, eleven o’clock. We have an appointment; my contact has assured me of that. We go around the back. Here too: mud, wooden planks. It’s not clear whether these are signs of a renovation or of decay.
Behind the café we find Raco Karadžić, in his work clothes, talking to a neighbor.
“What are you doing here? Karadžić asks. “I thought you were going to call first.” “We have an appointment,” I say.
“Come back later,” Karadžić says. “But first let’s have a little schnapps.” We sit down at a table in the empty café. Karadžić tells us that the neighbor made the schnapps himself.
The neighbor provides us with an incoherent account of how he marched in the student demonstrations back in 1968. Then he says: “I got up early this morning, that’s why I’m already drunk.” Upon which he slams his empty glass down on the table. Soon Karadžić starts trying to work us out the door. “Come back in two hours,” he says. “Then we can talk about the interview.” Two hours later we’re back in his café, sitting on a leather sofa beneath a painted portrait of the man being tried for genocide in The Hague, and negotiating the interview. This time the neighbor is nowhere in sight.
“You were here in 2006,” Radovan’s brother starts in. “But everything was different then. My brother was a wanted man. It was in my own interests to say things that were not true, but now I am free to tell you the truth.”
The brother-of has a folder lying on the table in front of him. Occasionally he reaches out and caresses it, as though the folder were a beloved pet.
“I can put you in touch with a cousin who is also named Radovan Karadžić. And who was an adviser to the Radovan Karadžić now imprisoned in The Hague.” In a whisper, he continues: “The cousin is old and won’t be around long anymore. But the truth has its price, the truth costs a thousand euros.” Not a bad price for the truth, perhaps, but for this particular truth I find it a bit on the steep side.
Again, there is a bottle of schnapps on the table. I have no idea whether this one is homemade.
I say: “Your friend in Amsterdam, Mr. Petrović, tells me you need money in order to visit your brother in The Hague.” Karadžić says: “I would like to visit my brother, but I can’t. There are problems with the business. We had a fight here, they have taken me to court. And there is a complication with my passport.” I don’t persist. Clearly enough, he has no desire to visit his brother. The reports that he needed a thousand euros in order to travel to The Hague turn out to be unfounded. But before the negotiations can resume, more schnapps must be imbibed.
“Would three hundred euros do it?” I ask. “I don’t have a lot of money, and the newspaper I work for has a rule against paying for interviews.” Karadžić’s brother begins petting his folder again.
“For three hundred euros I’ll tell you some things, but not everything. It’s not about money, it’s the principle of the thing. What would you like to hear?” “Preferably personal stories. No opinions.” “Oh, but personal stories are priceless,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “My brother is going to write his memoirs, and if you had my stories now you would have something very exclusive. The truth is priceless. A thousand euros is merely a token sum. My brother figures he will be released in a few years’ time, but I think he will stay in jail for the rest of his life. My daughters have been threatened; I have a nine-year-old son, he’s received threats too. I am a man who has suffered beyond description, but I myself have never hurt a soul.” A strange mixture of sentimentality and cold rage has come over Karadžić.
“Three hundred euros,” I say. “That’s all I’ve got.” “I don’t want to make money at my brother’s expense,” he says with a sizeable dose of pathos.
That evening he comes to our hotel. We’re the only guests in the hotel restaurant.
Radovan’s brother doesn’t want anything to eat, only a little deep-fried cheese for conviviality’s sake.
“My wife is a sociologist and she has to work in my café,” he says. “That’s how bad things are.” I had expected him to drink schnapps this time as well, but he wants only white wine. When I ask what kind of wine he would like he says loudly: “Chardonnay.” “I had a rental company,” he says. “Five trucks. Before the NATO bombardment in ’99 the government asked to use my trucks to carry things from the barracks to safety. I love my country, I am a patriot. But after the war they made me an enemy of the state.” When the waiter approaches with our soup and the cheese, Karadžić stops talking, as though he’s revealing secrets no one else must know.
“I have four brothers and a sister,” he says. “My father raised us with an iron hand. But when we grew up we had to fend for ourselves. According to the authorities we were the children of traitors, but the people in the village didn’t see it that way.” The Karadžić family comes from a little village in northwestern Montenegro which was almost leveled during the Second World War. His father was a Četnik and fought against the communists.
According to Radovan Karadžić’s brother, partisans came to their house after the war to seize his father and execute him, but he escaped. This apocryphal story was also told in the book The Quest for Radovan Karadžić by British journalist Nick Hawton.
“My father was a shoemaker,” Radovan’s brother says. “He was the youngest of nine children. Now I am going to bare my soul to you.” His soul is bared, and the story of how his father escaped certain death, including details that sometimes exceed the limits of the feasible, is told to us: “In 1945 the communists came for my father, to put him before the firing squad. He had served in the royal army before the Second World War. Three men we did not know came to get him. In one pocket my father stuffed a plug of tobacco, in the other some ground red peppers to throw in the partisans’ eyes. Two men were walking behind him, one in front. At a certain point he hears someone clear their throat, he knows they are going to shoot him now. He turns around and grabs the two rifles. Some of the bullets went through his hands and arms, others went through the red peppers and tobacco. He didn’t kill the partisans because he knew that if he did they would only avenge themselves on his wife and children.” The brother-of takes another bite of fried cheese. He says: “Things are even more difficult now than they were under communism. In this so-called democracy you are allowed to say anything, but if you do your life is ruined.” In his book, Hawton cites one of Radovan Karadžić’s poems from the days in Sarajevo when he still hoped to become a poet: “Look how fear turned into a spider. Looking for the answer at his computer.”
Politics as the extension of an artistic career nipped in the bud.
“My brother was sent by God,” Karadžić continues. “My brother was the only person able to unite the Bosnian Serbs, and if that lady had come to power, that Biljana Plavšić, it would all have turned out a lot worse. There wouldn’t have been a single Croatian or Muslim in Bosnia left alive.” Plavšić was one of the two acting presidents of the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She turned herself over to the Yugoslavia Tribunal in 2001. The tribunal sentenced her to eleven years in prison in 2003, but she was released on parole in October 2009. Approximately 100,000 people were killed during the war in Bosnia.
Karadžić says: “While he was in hiding, my brother showed himself to be a humanitarian. He used his predicament in order to help people with his knowledge of alternative medicine. He didn’t do that for the money. A lot of people were cured, but they can’t talk about it because the one who helped them was Dr. Dragan Dabic.” Dr. Dabic was the name Radovan Karadžić used while in hiding and performing his work as naturopath, before he was arrested in the summer of 2008 and transferred to The Hague.
During that period Karadžić also wrote another book of poetry, entitled Under the Left Breast of the Century. In his book Aanklacht Massamoord (Charge: Genocide), Dutch journalist George Mustert says: “The poems have titles like ‘Morning Bomb’ and ‘Farewell Assassins’.” The waiter pours Raco a little more wine.
“The Serbs never forgot the things that happened in WWII, and they were afraid it would happen all over again,” he says.
The fried cheese is finished. I ask for the bill.
We go to the bar, but it’s already closed. I hand him the three hundred euros and ask whether he has any regrets, and what his ambitions are.
“I’d like to be my brother,” Karadžić says as we stand outside the door of the hotel. “His biggest mistake was that he wasn’t careful enough at his safe house. History will prove that it was all a passing thing. History will prove that my brother was right. I was present at the negotiations with Holbrooke. What an arrogant man! The Americans, of course, didn’t bide by their word. Kohl and Bush promised Gorbachev that the NATO would not expand eastwards, and look what’s happened.” The negotiations with Holbrooke, never officially confirmed by the United States, were said to have been about immunity for Karadžić in return for his complete withdrawal from public life.
Mustert writes: “For years there have been speculations about why Karadžić was able to remain a free man for so long, or, to put it more concisely: why it was so important that Karadžić keep his mouth shut. The recurring theme is that he could reveal too much about the diplomats from America, England and France who did business with him. (…) A cynical game of chess with regions and people that makes the Holbrooke deal look like a romp in the park.” The brother-of pockets the three hundred euros. He doesn’t count it. Had I given him a thousand euros, would he have told me much more? And what did he have in that folder?
Karadžić is waiting for his taxi to arrive.
“The Bin Ladens drive Ferraris around Zurich,” he says before getting in, “and I’m considered a problem because I’m someone’s brother.” “I need a drink,” my interpreter says once Karadžić has finally left.
In The Culture of War, historian Martin van Creveld writes of the Balkan war: “The longer the war lasted, the more the opposing parties began to resemble one another. Within a few months one could see almost no difference at all.”
In a café in downtown Podgoric my interpreter, a Bosnian Muslim, says: “I could use another drink. I did my best to stay cool, but Karadžić kept trying to draw me into the conversation.” In the Balkans it is the spiders who tell stories, and genocide is still a form of pulp fiction.
All I know is that it is better to be a spider than a fly, but if you happen to be a fly anyway, then be a fly with miracle cream. Then you can always say: “Mr. Spider, I’ve got something here for you. Before you eat me, let’s talk about this.” But as I wait at Podgoric airport for my flight to Vienna, it is not Karadžić’s brother I’m thinking about, it’s Sister Katherina.