Lana Bastašić (1986) is a Yugoslav-born writer. She majored in English and holds an MA in Cultural Studies. She has published two collections of short stories, one book of children’s stories and one of poetry. Catch the Rabbit, her first novel, was published in Belgrade in 2018 and reprinted in Sarajevo in 2019. It was shortlisted for the 2019 NIN award and it won the EUPL prize in 2020. It is currently being translated into 12 languages.
Her short stories have been included in regional anthologies and magazines throughout former Yugoslavia. She has won the Best Short Story section at the Zija Dizdarević competition in Fojnica; the Jury Award at the ‘Carver: Where I’m Calling From’ festival in Podgorica; Best Short Story at the Ulaznica festival in Zrenjanin; Best Play by a Bosnian Playwright (Kamerni teatar 55 in Sarajevo) and the Targa Unesco Prize for poetry in Trieste. In 2016 she co-founded Escola Bloom in Barcelona and she co-edits the school’s literary magazine Carn de cap. She is one of the creators of the ‘3+3 sisters’ project, which aims to promote women writers of the Balkans.
Photograph by Radmila Vankoska
Amsterdam airport. It’s such a cliché that this feels like home. But it does. Already four or five this year. How addicted do you have to be to travel during a deadly pandemic? I’m not proud of it. I just need to move. Terreiro do Paço full of New Year’s Eve junk and Afonso’s motorbike cutting through the fresh Lisbon January. Let me take your photo in this light and feeding me Belém tarts and me crying by Saramago’s oak-tree. Dammit, I cry a lot. Then Vienna; I was touching D flat (or was it sharp?) in the Sound Museum, already you could hear the word corona on the pedestrian crossing, and that girl with auburn hair and giraffe earrings who wanted us to do MDMA and wouldn’t stop talking about her iguana. Then Zagreb, cold and quarantined, our bed shaking with 5.5 Richters, it will be okay, we’re okay, my young lover playing the clarinet in an empty park and already I knew – even before the top of the Cathedral collapsed – that nothing would. Be okay. Then Budapest – her churches empty, her streets empty, her belly empty and wailing – and me walking around her impossible consonants looking for my rabbit; a hand on the nape of my neck in the bookshop, in every bookshop, we’re okay, we’re okay. Pula, which young Joyce had so ardently hated and yet it gave him a statue – an old man in a café – and my wet bathing suit showing through my summer dress as the street musician singing a French song with an honest Slavic accent. Bosnia (was I really in Bosnia?), which is a hole I fall through but no longer get hurt, because I know where all the curves are, and mother’s food filling me like a beach ball, full of air, and father’s emails still not getting the job done, and Grandpa – so angry because I attended the protests in Belgrade.
I will not talk about Belgrade.
I’m in Amsterdam now, waiting for my flight. I have been invited to Santa Maddalena – a writer’s retreat in Tuscany. I will watch the summer die in the olive trees. And I intend to get drunk at the funeral.
I arrived yesterday night. Nicolás came to pick me up at the airport in Florence and Manjiu drove us to Santa Maddalena. In the end, nobody asked for my PCR test. They didn’t even look at my passport, although Croatia is on the high-risk list in Italy. This whole situation with Covid-19 is kind of like parental love – there’s either too much of it, or too little.
It was quite late when we got to Santa Maddalena, so I could barely see anything. Still, the beauty was there. I could discern its edges – or at least the edges of the woman who had brought all that beauty together.
I followed Nico to the main kitchen where he found some bread and cheese. He is smart, well read, inquisitive, playful and, of course, attractive. (Today at lunch Beatrice explained that she has always had attractive assistants, though she never really chose them. “They always came to me, you know? All those beautiful people.”)
I was especially interested to hear about his writing, although Nico seemed reluctant to talk about it at length. He loves to talk about literature in general, but when it comes to his own work, there is a hint of disappointment in his voice. I didn’t want to push it.
He showed me the tower and asked me to pick the floor. I chose the first one – with a small study, a simple bathroom and a beautiful double bedroom with Oriental art, old furniture and pink ornaments on the walls, here and there time-stained. I liked the quiet shabbiness of it all. Spiders and cobwebs, a handle falling off a drawer, the floor squeaking. It is a world that is slowly coming to its end, but both the remains and the process are somehow beautiful. I felt like the place was being honest with me. Like it was asking me what I would make of it and if I would treat it with that same honesty in return.
After the circus of the past eight months – the pandemic, the earthquake, the breakup, and being quarantined in three apartments I couldn’t call home – I almost cried when I was left alone in my room. Apart from an owlet hooting in the distance and the wind shaking up the big oak by the tower, there was perfect silence. I sat in the dark, looking at my suitcase in the corner, wondering how on earth I got to be so lucky.
Woke up with Jamaica this morning. She is as unsophisticatedly loving as I am, so I guess this helped us bond fast. Beatrice introduced her as “half pug, half something”. The identity mishmash is another shared trait that made Jam-Jam and me best friends. I’m always half something to someone. This morning I took her out for a walk, which was made nearly impossible by all the gnats, wasps, flies and who-knows-whats. We did three kilometers altogether and went back to the tower, Jamaica covered in burrs, I with six mosquito bites. Before lunch I skimmed through the last pages of the short story collection and finally hit the Send button. I even managed to do some work on the new novel – I deleted two pages. I consider that very good work, indeed.
Afterwards, I had lunch with Beatrice and Falcone, one of her assistants. Falcone is such a peculiar character. He has pitch-perfect English, wears a bandana and a 2020 Tokyo Olympics T-shirt, and has the naturally elegant walk of someone who is about to buy an estate in a Jane Austen novel. Picture a beautiful Quattrocento statue of a bored Millennial and you’ll get it.
He and Beatrice were teaching me Italian. (I managed to get the very basic foundation thanks to an audio book I had downloaded two weeks before coming here. Now, with the help of my Spanish vocabulary and Beatrice’s accentless diction, I think I’m slowly entering the language. It is like a new house that I have just walked in, and am now about to learn where all the rooms are.) I like to ask the baroness about her family and her childhood memories, her Armenian roots, her art gallery, and especially her time in Ethiopia with her father. She would start a story in English and at some point switch to Italian, which is always a sign that rich details are coming. She has a great eye for detail and I told her she should have been a writer. “I’m not a writer”, she replies naturally, as one would tell you they’re not blonde. “But I like beauty. It doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. Just beautiful. Places. Art. People. I become very sad in ugly places.”
Rasika brought us a delicious pesto salad and fennels with lemon juice dressing. I said Thank you very much in Sinhalese and it made her happy. She’s a cheerful woman with gorgeous brown eyes, a big pearl-white smile and quick hands. She told me that back in Sri Lanka her hair was so long it almost reached her ankles. “But here I had to cut it. Here it isn’t normal”, she added sadly.
After lunch, Beatrice had to take some rest and Falcone gave me the laundry detergent, so I loaded the washing machine and went for a swim. The water was freezing, but I managed to get in, with Jam-Jam bringing me twigs, stones and squished figs to play catch.
Now I’m in the small study, which I preferred to the bigger one. A Mexican poet, translator and editor, Ernesto Kavi, is arriving today and I thought he should have the bigger study upstairs. It looks like poems should be written there, with all the art and the books and those beautiful chairs with engravings in Arabic. This painful business of making up stories and polishing paragraphs seems more suitable for a small office. I let Kavi have the luxuriant bathroom as well, with flowery frescoes, an antique divan and even a small toilet library. Poets should do their business among painted birds and flowers. We, the wretched, lying sort, deserve the blank page even when emptying our insides.
Kavi arrived last night. We had dinner with Beatrice and Nicolás. Beatrice talked about the many famous writers who have slept in the tower before us. She was proud to let me know that Emmanuel Carrère had also chosen the smaller study and that Margaret Atwood slept in my bed. I have noticed Beatrice’s sharp sense of humor and how amused she is when the conversation takes a sudden detour. Her jokes usually rely on a simple shift in register – the erotic interrupting the mundane, the mundane interrupting the sublime, etc. She is well aware of her own charm and it is not her social status that makes us go quiet when she’s about to tell a story. Before coming here, I was afraid that my lack of education, my poor Italian and especially my complete ignorance when it comes to table manners would bother her. But I soon learned that the baroness is the kind of woman who can both own a Tàpies painting and buy a second-hand dress for one euro. What makes those objects valuable to her has nothing to do with the price and everything to do with beauty. And that – Beauty with the capital B – is one of her most cherished topics.
At dinner, I ask her who is the most handsome male author she has ever met. Without a blink, she answers, “Bruce Chatwin”. She soon adds, “And my husband, of course. Grisha era un uomo bellissimo.”
Kavi is visibly humbled by the fact that Chatwin himself spent time in the tower. I am always moved when writers spontaneously and honestly reveal an almost childlike fascination with a dead author. At that point it isn’t about who has the information, who can tell us the exact name of the Italian translator or the French editor or show off their collection of memorized quotes. It is about something much more human, almost like an intimate secret being revealed, as if we were discussing our most revered lovers. “Chatwin…” Kavi says and his eyes light up. Beatrice takes a sip of water and says, “You know, he’s still around.”
“Bruce Chatwin. Some say he’s a bat now. You might see him flying around the tower at night.”