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Zagreb Retablos by M.A. Quintero (Zapisi sa Svačke VI)


A.M. Quintero perfoming in Botanical garden

Photo by Ž. Somun


In the language of the city of Zagreb today, two markers in time initiate the past. The first, the war, has now become murky, like the primeval ooze out of which new traditions dimly begin, and behind which lurks that bleak forest of gray history where so much happened that up until just recently no longer seemed worth arguing over anymore. The second is an earthquake that struck the city two years ago in the middle of a pandemic. The lesions of this marker in time can be seen on every stretch of skin the city bares to the sun, as well as on its internal passageways and enclosed habitations.

Time turns back on itself.

When we talk about irrevocable damage, we insinuate that our duty is to preserve, to return things to their former state. Such a pretention denies the only absolute presence we know: that of time. I am in the city of Zagreb again after three years, and I see time everywhere. Time is a hand that moves over everything, caressing it. Movement is like a whirlwind gathering my thoughts. I am here in this city to contemplate an act of translation, from one culture and language to another. The word translation means “movement”. At its core, an earthquake is only movement.

I want to be able to understand this shifting. I look around me to see what of the present city superimposes on the past and what has changed and begins to move toward something new. Zagreb is a serpent that sheds its skin and moves forward.

Time spirals into the mirrors.

I am living in a third floor walk-up. The building is mustard colored and rectangular. It has two doors leading to two discrete apartment houses. I always go in the first door I come to. This day I fail to realize that I am coming from the opposite direction. The code for the door is not working, but yesterday this same door refused to lock. Perhaps the malfunction has gone from never closing to never opening. Luckily, a young woman is coming out of the building. She opens the door, smiles and greets me as if we have known each other all our lives. I manage to slip into the building and make a note to myself to mention the front door situation to my hosts. Inside the landing, I am glad to see that the workers have picked up a pile of sheetrock that had been there the day before. It is only as I begin to ascend the stairs that I realize something is wrong. The stairs are curling in the opposite direction to the one I am used to. Instead of rising in a clockwise spiral, the stairs I am on are turning counter-clockwise. I am somehow trapped in a mirror image of the building where I live, as if my reality is now being played with by M.C. Escher or Lewis Carroll, and I have gone from being Tweedledee to being Tweedledum. When I understood finally that I was actually in the apartment house directly next door to the place where I had been staying, the thought occurred to me that maybe this city has been practicing translating itself for a long time already, even before the earthquake made it necessary to create an entirely new version.

Time lifts and drops us.

We leave a city, and at some point in the future we are under the impression that we return to it. But it is the city that has moved, that escapes us. We have changed places in that certain moment that we are living. The city, on the other hand, has been carried off by the current of time. We will be lucky to catch a glimpse of pieces of the ruins floating away upon the water.

Time deepens the moment to include the shadows of other moments.

Sometimes the sudden transformation caused by translation is carried on the air. I step into the square, and an aroma envelopes me in a familiar word: chócolo. An old man grills corn on the cob and sells it to passersby, just as people continue to do in villages and at road stops outside the city where I live. Miraculously, this smell transmits the feeling of summer and of harvest. This same open fire illuminates the night a thousand miles as the potential customer draws near and the seller the wraps the warm corn in a napkin. Somehow, I am now simultaneously there and here.

Time is one thing striking another and making it vibrate.

A sudden storm moves across the city, battering a square kilometer at a time for half an hour before moving on. Its torrential wind and rain sweep the outdoor bistro tables of tablecloths, napkins, silverware, and customers as we are rushed into the adjoining hotel to finish our meals. This hotel, appropriately named Esplanade, served the Zagreb station of the Orient Express, between Trieste and Belgrade, on the line inaugurated in 1919.

What is history? History is a debacle that marks a point in time. It is time's way of punctuating with disaster. As I walk through this old city made new by catastrophe, I wonder should the cracks and the fissures in the facades be smoothed over, is mending the way forward in this new version?

The sediment of time creates labyrinths with spaces that are inaccessible.

The devastation caused by the earthquake had been worse than I had originally understood. The number of places I had been on my former visit that were now damaged and inaccessible was much higher than I expected. These places were now sealed in time like lost bits of vocabulary I had deemed essential to my new text. Calamity had made the city idiomatic to me again, and I was now less sure of what I was seeing and more careful in my explorations. As I attempted to discover the city anew, I found myself running my fingertips over my memories, searching for the cobweb stitchery that would affix them to this new fabric splayed before me.

Time will not stop for you.

Is it possible to stitch a city to itself? Or does each visit create a new city. As in so many things to do with experience, memory, and translation, understanding the way we read can give us clues and open doors onto the manner in which we retain living.

The young are still ready for any adventure. Their eyes brim over with laughter. Friends still turn their hallucinations, flowers resulting from rugged experience, into long elaborate jokes. The poet with the beautiful crooked smile is still gentle, still gracious. The old woman with the Mickey Mouse umbrella still seems irritated by everything around her.

The graffiti on the buildings now looks human, almost tender beside more severe indignities. All the forms a caress can take. In its convalescence, it is clear that this city is quietly beloved.

Time washes memory.

Tesla's statue is sad. Head bowed, it appears to be full of melancholy and defeat. Its dark gaze seems to turn away from the street around it and inward toward private concerns and memories. Even though his mother has promised them a special treat, the six-year-old boy seems distracted. She is taking him and his two sisters out for ice cream. She has to keep putting him back in his seat at the ice cream parlor. There are so many people passing, here in the center of the city. Two engineers stand before the Tesla statue, trying to remember the great man's accomplishments. The boy breaks away from the table. He still has ice cream on his face. He knows exactly where he is going. His mother looks up. The child climbs up into the lap of the Tesla statue. He straddles one leg. Like all impulsive ideas, his sisters are immediately infected by the urge to climb onto the statue. Their mother calls out to them to be careful. One of the sisters is now nestled against the statue's chest while the other is cradled by its arm. Suddenly, the statue's expression has a completely different interpretation. Now Tesla no longer seems sad. Rather, the statue's expression has become that of a father, whose vigilance is an expression of his tenderness for his children. He seems to be embracing them and protecting them. These children have historically translated Tesla, a man who never had children in his private life. Everywhere I go in Zagreb today, I feel the care and concern of parents for their children. These children are in some way the inheritance of a life lived in sacrifice to independence and integrity. A generation of innovation and productivity rises to assume new challenges. I wonder to myself whether Tesla's children know he is watching over them.

Time can be described as a network of bridges that lead to necessity.

My attention floats delicately over the city. I am keenly aware that there are aspects of this place and these people that I am not seeing. My imagination only extends a foot to ground where it finds resonance. Brutality, stupidity and cruelty, are, alas, universal. I am here to find the voices, the hands, the care, the attention to detail that made this city beautiful to begin with. All of that is still here and I reach out to it and find that the spirit of generosity is still here to answer my greeting.

Time is the fragment that remains of a psalm.

O my soul, do not let me fall into neglect Keep me awake to the truth that along this expanse of chaotic time

something inside me may have crumbled.

Pod starim krovovima cafe; A.M.Quintero in Jutra poezije

photo by Ž. Somun


Time occurs on many different scales at once.

And yet a hint of breeze relieves, the trees are large and green, anchored to the ground and continuing to grow as they have done for hundreds of years, while warm laughter sets the table for a meal.

Nothing stays still in time.

A pigeon decomposes in the dirt in front of my building. It is now just a bump over the earth, like one of those mysterious risings in the parquet wooden flooring of the antique houses here. Little by little, what was the bird becomes a hollow husk of feathers. Life takes its insides, feeds on them, reshapes, and translates the substance of the bird into the language of maggots, into the heavy sweet smell of putrefaction.

Time is the tension between things.

Above, the crows insist that every cry is the same, that each must find survival, a crust of bread, some half-eaten corn. Beside me, the warm voices of friends call to me to linger in good company, generosity like an open and enveloping breeze.

Time is the soul of melancholy and of wonder.

Blue trams slide past in the rain. The flags repeatedly try to shake off the weight they carry above hunched-over figures scurrying along and bushes frantically trembling like witnesses to some gray calamity. The light that falls out of the sky is white and the pavement puddles.

Time will not obey.

Now, yet another Zagreb arrives. It is gray and windy, with rain for days on end. To my surprise, the old woman with the Mickey Mouse umbrella strolls by again. Now, she appears to be amused.

Time has been known, on occasion, to let a sparrow fall.

George Mario Angel Quintero


M.A. Quintero performing in Marija Jurić Zagorka library

photo by Ž. Buklijaš

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