Balkan Travel and Gay Space Aliens
I travel frequently. More on this later, but ‘picture thousand words, .etc.’ and I leave you with a summary of my adventures this week, and an excerpt from a book I wrote to keep you busy until Interpol loses the trail and I can settle in to write again.
I will be here for a few days.
And then, in all reasonable likelihood, here.
In the meantime, I would like to draw your attention again to the Balkans. The story is called ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’, and follows the making of a disastrous film about Dubrovnik, a once glorious city-state on the Dalmatian coast. Many of the events in the book are true, although they defy belief. Read it. It’s funny.
“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” – Ambrose Bierce
“The little Republic of Ragusa [Dubrovnik] is rather little known. It has experienced, like other states, the alternatives of good and bad fortune; but since its most brilliant periods have never permitted it to play a certain role among the other nations, it has not sufficiently excited the curiosity of historians or politicians to obtain a distinguished place in the annals of the world.”
This story begins and ends in Dubrovnik, a once-glorious city-state on the very southern coast of Dalmatia. Dubrovnik flourished as an independent republic, respected for centuries for its wealth, architecture, culture and its willingness to trade with neighbouring states. It produced mathematicians, musicians and artists, but has recently fallen on hard times. Once a proud Republic, claiming much of the Balkan Adriatic coast, Dubrovnik was the focal point for rivalries among Montenegrin princes, Hungarians, Turks, the Venetians and French, but descended swiftly into obscurity in the twentieth century. Croatia lost its statehood, absorbed into the fitful anonymity of the Yugoslav socialist republic, and the spectre of Soviet dominance meant that few in the Western world bothered to explore the territory or the rich history of a Republic whose name, if it evoked any recognition at all, bore a mystical, distant familiarity, like the names ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Carthage’.
Not only had Dubrovnik lost its wealth, and perhaps its soul, it also faced a public relations disaster. Its obscure struggles behind the Iron Curtain led the world to forget; and the few recent glimpses of a nation emerging from a long nightmare of war and relative isolation were too easily subject to misinterpretation. Liberated countries of limited means, spurred by their desire to take their places on the international stage, fell easy victim to the wanton bullying of more popular states, and to the humourless and paranoid vestiges of their own authoritarianism.
Even during those rare, blissful moments when history began to smile on Croatia, or rather, when its perennial frown would start to soften, the tragic conspiracy would quickly regain hold. In many instances, the culprits were the Croatians themselves – the damage done to their national esteem by centuries of subjugation having left them with a propensity for self-sabotage. If an external enemy wasn’t ready to spoil the plans, corruption or self-doubt would lead quickly to an internal collapse, and the Croatians were once again near the bottom of the international pecking order.
It all struck home one summer afternoon as I watched the Sydney Olympics with my old university chum, Dobriša. Being patriotic, he was excited to learn that a Croat had gained the 62kg-class weightlifting final, but his enthusiasm turned to horror as Nikolay Pechalov took the stage. I laughed aloud the moment I realised, upon glimpsing the swarthy, bouffant-mulleted gremlin and ethnic Bulgarian who now faced the camera, that the world would quickly assume Croatia was an impoverished, land-locked, ex-Soviet republic, before everyone hastily changed the channel. Dobriša wept with bitter joy as Pechalov took home the gold medal, while his hairstyle and demeanour forever ruined what little credit Croatia had with the industrialised world.
Considering this incident, I realised the world needed to find a deeper regard for the Croats, whom fate has conspired, again and again, to assure remain misunderstood or overlooked. In the summer of 2002, I was drawn to a film project intended to portray the enduring soul of Dubrovnik, its spirit of tolerance and independence, and the cultural riches it fostered. An unfortunate crew joined me: Dobriša, a neuroscientist and would-be actor; Dan, an aspiring Croatian film director and childhood friend of Dobriša; Richard, a jobless, medieval Latinist; all of whom worked to change Dubrovnik forever.
Unfortunately, our plans to capture the essence of Dubrovnik, the warmth and achievements of its people, reviving its well deserved place in the modern imagination, didn’t go as planned. They fell prey to the sort of historical entanglements that make Balkan history such a hornets’ nest. Dubrovnik is impossible to capture without the interweaving stories of its Balkan neighbours and partners, whose conflicting viewpoints too easily muddy the waters. Any artistic portrayal of the place requires unflinching honesty, without which, as Croatian history has proven inevitable, recriminations quickly follow, a lot of people die, and many significant monuments are destroyed.
In this book, I have taken considerable care to recount not only the story of our film, ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’, but also to portray the Croats and their Ragusan brethren with the affectionate detail they so deserve. In addition, the careful reader will gain many practical things from this book: numerous helpful moral lessons, a rudimentary understanding of finance, and an incautious glimpse of the international sex trade.
In fact, the whole experience taught me a number of valuable things that I am now compelled to share. Many of these lessons will be familiar to the reader. And many of these lessons are included in the body of common sense that most people have acquired upon leaving school. It will certainly be exasperating to some readers who, cleverer than I, feel they will have anticipated the sorry outcome of our plot. But I beg the reader’s patience, and I ask only that he keep in mind certain factors that would cloud our view of the tragic outcome toward which we hurtled ourselves despite cautious planning and absolute good faith. Less wholesome motivations can quietly consume the best intentions while still inhabiting their skin. I ask the reader to keep this thought in mind. And I pray that the reader might understand in advance that many small, anticipated outcomes can drive toward a climax that is wholly unexpected.
We were confronted with the familiar, softly luminescent, black screen, the whir of fans and the smell of burning dust as the projector awoke. A brilliant, 1980s, techno pastiche, composed by Dan in the early hours of the previous morning, provided tempo to the flight of a bright, pink unicorn that tore shuddering across the screen, shitting a trail of silver stars in its arc that fell like glitter and conjured the film’s title ‘Gay Aliens Invade Dubrovnik’ in a glaring, neon, rainbow font. We had spent most of the production money on costumes and alcohol, and couldn’t afford a graphic artist. Dobriša had carefully traced each frame of the exuberant, trembling unicorn, adapted in childlike scrawl from a toy box.
‘I want my fucking money back!’ Our meetings with Ribaric, our main financier and head of the Croatian National Office for the Protection of the Family, Motherhood and Youth (NOPFMY), had long ago ceased being cordial. ‘I want my money back! I don’t even want to see the rushes! Do you think I can fucking sell this? Who made these titles? A fourteen year-old girl?’
Dobriša raised his hand sheepishly.
Ribaric was an ambitious civil servant who jealously controlled the ample NOPFMY film budget. He ripped the projector’s electrical cord from the wall. We were suddenly blinded by the fluorescence of the hall lights, and terrified to see Mr. Grgic, a hulking ex-non-commissioned officer from the Croatian armed forces who now served as production supervisor, standing at the door holding a baseball bat.
‘You assholes are going to make some big changes, starting with those faggy titles.’
‘Kitsch is very fashionable these days…’
‘Shut up!’ Ribaric grabbed the baseball bat from Grgic’s paws. ‘I’m not going to sell this. It looks like garbage! You want the world to think Croatians can’t use digital design tools? I’ve seen Romanian studios produce better crap than this! I want it sexy! I want it modern!’
‘Sir, I think I have a compromise; you can have your sexiness and your modernity while we maintain…’ I was quickly silenced as Ribaric prepared to swing the bat.
‘Here is your compromise: use those fucking iBooks I paid for and re-do the whole goddamn thing!’
Ribaric punctuated his demand with a hissing swing.
‘I want it professional!’ Another swing. ‘And I want it gripping!’ Another swing and he took a step closer. ‘And it’s going to be sexy…but tasteful.’ He cocked the bat as if to swing again, but paused on the word ‘tasteful’. ‘And it has to grab the audience, from the first second! Right from the titles!’ He began to swivel the bat in small circles, warming up for another dramatic swipe. ‘From the start it has to tell a story! A story about Croatia! And about Love!’
And with the word ‘Love’ he swung with full force, aiming for a glass paperweight, an abstract and upward sweeping wave representing the élan of the new Croatia. Unfortunately, years of bureaucratic struggle had left him ill prepared to make such a precise and physical point. He clipped the top of the wave, and a dagger sharp sliver of glass flew toward the wall, while the bat continued downward, unimpeded in its poorly aimed trajectory with the corner of his desk. It rebounded suddenly, wrenched itself from Ribaric’s hands and flew spinning from his grasp.
We all ducked, and Ribaric’s physical menace evaporated in an instant, as the glass shard ricocheted in a vengeful arc and nicked his skull. The bat clattered on the floor.
‘Ow! Romance! Fuck! And I want some production value!’ Ribaric massaged his scalp and checked his fingers for blood.
Dobriša was the first to regain his composure. ‘Sir, if I may point out: the unicorn is a symbol of love…’ Dobriša’s earnest attempt to find a middle ground between Ribaric’s incoherent, violent recipe for popular appeal, and our hastily composed, but inspired, title sequence made things worse. While the immediate physical threat was gone with Ribaric’s sudden loss of control, he quickly assumed a more abstract, and mortal line of attack.
‘I didn’t ask for an opinion! This is shit! This is bad filmmaking. If you can come back here in three days with a title sequence that doesn’t embarrass me, or Croatia, then I might not kill all three of you!’
Unfortunately, the series of events that would finally convince Ribaric to try to kill us were largely outside our control, and had little to do with unicorns, production value, or the quickest way to lure an audience with a sexy yet tasteful narrative of thrilling romance.
 I am indebted to Robin Harris and his recent history of Dubrovnik (SAQI: London, 2003) for this quotation from ‘Izveštaj gosp. La [sic] Maire, francuzkoga konsula u Koronu o Dubrovačkoj Republici’, JAZU Starine, xiii (1881), 40.