The Poet and his Wife

When "Prosveta" published a collection of poems called "Woolly Times" in 1981, the book was banned and the poet, Gojko Šogo, arrested because of allusions to the autocrat Josip Broz Tito and his entourage of back-slappers. There was major concern among the intellectual public; not only did unofficial writers still awaiting their chance feel threatened, but also many of those who had already had their chance. The Serbian Writers' Association organised protest evenings. For a better understanding of the following excerpt, one should keep in mind the general social atmosphere of the time: more than one wife, for instance, under pressure from ideology and the authorities, denied her husband in order to hold on to her job. Not to mention what was done by one colleague to another. For this reason, the writer has dedicated this collection "to the hope that one day man in this historic part of the world will not deny his neighbour"

Row after row of diverse people were seated in the hall. Not only gray-haired gentlemen in ties, or here and there people carrying a book or with a newspaper in their pocket, but also young men in wind-cheaters and one obvious traveller with a bag and a market basket. Not just little old ladies with crocheted caps or well-set up, well-dressed women, but girls in jeans, some of them in coats with a tape-recorder slung over their shoulder. Once or twice I even spotted two children, a little girl and boy. Were they alone or with the woman next to them? There were no more seats, maybe they were with the woman standing on the other side? Some of the faces I saw evening after evening, some only once, those in the front rows not even once — I never got there in time to get a seat, not to mind in the front rows. Those who sat there must have been particularly keen — or distinguished. Once in the course of the evening one of the speakers paused and said:

"This should be heard by everybody, by the whole world. You too, sir, you in the front row, you who are actually a secret police agent pretending not to know me!"

I couldn't see these people in the front row then either. All I could make out from the crowd behind was that none of them lowered his head or even wriggled, certainly no one sitting in the direction addressed by the speaker.

I remember one particular evening very well. Someone who was still almost a youth came up to the microphone, raised a hand to smooth down his poetically unruly hair and without any announcement or even giving a title, began to recite something like this:

Over the head of each subject,

whatever the occasion,

his gaze and picture kept watch.

It was the custom to say where the quotation or line of verse came from. I thought the lines were the reciter's own, but that out of modesty or for some other reason — understandable in view of the distinguished guests — he did not wish to say so.

All working hands and foundries on lists

moulded only his bust.

"Who's the poet?" I asked the man next to me.

He glanced briefly at me, seeming not to understand the question. Or he had no time, he wanted to hear the rest as soon as possible.

For all twenty million subjects, winter and summer,

a teaspoonful of his intelligence was enough.

"Excuse me, whose verses are these?" I repeated the question with slight variations.

The man looked at me over his shoulder again. "You don't know?"


For a moment I clearly saw suspicion on his face. Then he turned back without a word to listen again.

I began to look around me. To my right and to the right of the man who did not want to reply but a little further back, were the woman and the two children. All of them were straining to catch a glimpse of the reciter over many heads and around many shoulders. All three seemed to be excited. Beside the tiled stove in the corner, the woman was now helping the boy to use bumps and grooves in the tiling to climb up in order to get a better view. The little girl she held in her arms, raising her up.

This time I asked the man on my left:

"Whose are these verses?"

"You don't know?"


"Why, Šogo's!" he smiled.

All foundries in the kingdom on lists,

millions of hands and all the same bust. *

Applause broke out in the hall. Some shouted: "Hear hear!" others: "Freedom for the poet!" And a new wave of applause. The woman with the children clapped briskly a couple of times, and then seemed to be unable to go on. Now she was just standing, the children by her side. The children weren't clapping either, but still seemed to be pale with excitement.

"Excuse me," I turned again to the man who was willing

to reply, "Whose wife is that, the one with the children?"

There was another short exchange, like a password:

"You don't know?"


"Why, Šogo's!"

I was no longer interested in the applause or other speakers. With difficulty I restrained my tears.

So a woman like that did exist. And with children, with children! Despite all the writing in the newspapers and all the accusations, all the possibilities of being fired — see this, see this!

You did not applaud an enemy of the state like that, a writer of pamphlets, not in a place like this.

Children should grow up with a father, even if he was in prison — precisely because he was in such a prison!


*       For a long time after, it was whispered in Belgrade that the Prosecutor had charged Šogo separately with this poem, particularly because of the twenty million subjects — approximately the population Yugoslavia had at the time. Šogo, they said, defended himself by saying that he had meant the Emperor Franz Joseph, who with Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, had had twenty million subjects.

"How could you, respected Prosecutor," — Šogo is alleged to have said — "have thought of Josip Broz when you too have certainly sung:

Comrade Tito, little white violet,

All the youth loves you?"

(Fragment, translated by Mary Popovię)

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