HOW I DIDN'T START WORLD WAR III

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Zachary Karabashliev's novel 18% Grey, (18% Сиво, Ciela Publishing, 2008) is a bestselling title which has run to 8 editions. It won the Bulgarian Novel of the Year 2009 Award from the Edward Vick Foundation, and was a finalist for the renowned literary biennial Elias Canetti Award.

Zachary KarabashlievHis collection of short stories Brief History of the Airplane (Кратка история на самолета, Ciela Publishing) won the 2009 Helikon Award. His story Metastases has been shortlisted by the editors at the American publisher Dalkey Archive Press for inclusion in Best European Fiction. His recent book Recoil (Откат, Ciela Publishing, 2010), a collection of plays and dialogues, came out in December. His latest project, a children's book Fairytale (Приказка, Ciela Publishing 2010) is co-authored with Silvia Karabashlieva, and illustrated by the storyboard artist Iva Sasheva.

He lives in San Diego, California with his wife and daughter.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

"The Hollow Men"

T. S. Eliot

"Metal is metal, man."

Bart shrugs, drops the pencil onto the page, and finishes what's left of his Guinness. On the TV above the bar, the Chargers are getting their asses kicked by the Broncos. On another screen, CNN shows men in black masks and green/white bandanas waving AK-47s by the skeleton of a recently bombed building; far behind in the desert, twisting in the haze of the flames, is a tall wall.

"There's a big difference," I say. "But, then again, what do you know about thrash metal?"

"What do I know about thrash metal?" Bart slams his pint on the table. "Well, Zack, back when I was following Metallica around, and partying, you – let me guess – you and your comrades were following orders from your Party apparatchiks from uh, what was it, the Warsaw Pact? Inside the barbed wire."

"Wow, well, Bart, back then, inside that barbed wire, me and my comrades would always find ways to listen to everything you did. Perhaps even more, my friend." I manage to catch the waitress's attention and spin with my index finger for another round. "Do you know the original name of Testament?"

"Heavy metal is not…"

"It's Legacy. And, I'm telling you, it's thrash metal. So," I tap the circled word on the manuscript between us, "I'd leave it there."

"Whatever." Since Bart started editing my novel for English publication, we come here every Tuesday for Happy Hour, to talk about his notes and drink two-dollar Guinness draughts. The bar is on the corner of 11th and J and it's called The Corner. Sometimes we go through a lot of pages, sometimes we get stuck on a word and waste time, we waste so much time. Bart is one of the smartest people I've ever met. He is a book editor, he knows his literature, he knows films, and art, and he's got a great sense of humour. But he's got no sense of thrash metal.

"It’s not whatever, Bart! That's what I'm trying to explain. It's not whatever. Take Katyusha rockets for example, and Qasaam rockets. There is a difference between a rocket and a rocket. It's not whatever." On CNN they're carrying out bodies in blood-soaked sheets. There is a commercial break on ESPN.


"What do rockets have to do with metal?" says Bart. I take the pint from the waitress, thank her, and wait for her to leave. I sip, put down the Guinness, lean back with my hands behind my head. I intertwine my fingers and crack my knuckles.

"Let me tell you a story about rockets and thrash metal."

"Go ahead."

"Well, it's 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, no one then anticipated that the Berlin Wall would ever fall. So – Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, East Bulgaria, a small town, and I'm a corporal. Military duty was compulsory then, the draft, you know, it's the very end of my service, there are only a few days before I am discharged, and maybe precisely because of that, everything seems to be going in slow motion – the hours drag for days, the days are infinite, September will never end. My unit is on duty at a top-secret military site, The Tomb, just outside the small town where I was stationed. It's a hill at the foot of a mountain. Acacias and prickly pears grow on the hill, barbed wire all around, sentry boxes above. Down below, in the earth – an underground weapons warehouse with thousands of rockets.

So, on this particular afternoon when we go on duty, we see this long line of military trucks, soldiers loading rocket crates on the trucks, the trucks crawling from the dirt country road onto the paved street, leaving fat slabs of mud on the asphalt. We ask one of the drivers what's happening. They were going, he says, they were going to Varna Port, unloading the motherfuckers to get shipped to the Middle East, and could he bum a cigarette. The rockets are around nine feet long, Katyusha type, but not exactly. You know what a Katyusha is?"

"The Russian-made…"

"Exactly. Overly simple to operate, and savagely easy to detonate. That's why, supposedly, they are guarded with a high level of security. I remember the first time we had to take duty at The Tomb, and the Master Sergeant giving the lecture. He opens one of those green crates to show us the rocket lying on a bed of straw, and he points at a + and a – sign at the bottom of it. 'Do you see this, dickheads, do you see this? This here is the plus, and this is the minus, ok? Right. Now, if one of you connects the plus and the minus with a four-point-five volt battery, what will happen? Right. Closed circuit. And the rocket will, what? Right. Explode. Why will the rocket explode? Because, dickheads, this is a re-active rocket. What happens if the rocket explodes? Does anybody know what happens when this rocket explodes, raise your hand. Right. OK then. Here is what's going to happen. If one rocket explodes, the rocket next to it explodes too, and the rocket next to it also and the one next to it, and all of the rockets and military supplies in The Tomb will explode, and this, as you dickheads already know, is the biggest and baddest military warehouse on the Balkan Peninsula. Under this mountain are eleven stories of underground storage packed with rockets. If they explode, boom, so does East Bulgaria.'"

"How big is East Bulgaria?" asks Bart.


"Big enough," I say. "So, The Master Sergeant goes, 'And what will happen, if East Bulgaria explodes? Somebody? Right. The Soviet Union will hit Turkey, dickheads, that will happen. Why? Because the Turks are what? The enemy. Why? NATO, the American bases. Yes. Right. Then England will strike back at Czechoslovakia, why Czechoslovakia? Anybody? Then The USSR hits Alaska, but the Pentagon strikes back from the bases in West Germany, and… boom, World War Number Three, dickheads!'" I sip.

"So, Bart, 1989, The Tomb, one of my last days in the military, the last month of communism, and I'm on duty, carrying a small transistor radio. In those days, soldiers were not allowed to have radios, Walkmans, things like that, and while on duty we were not allowed to sit, piss, eat, read, write, drink, jack off, listen to music – our whole attention was supposed to be focused on one and only one task: not to fall asleep. Well, that day I have planned to listen to Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe was the most forbidden radio station. Banned. The communists hated that radio station; I loved it, because it aired the only metal show available at that time. They'd play everything just released in the West – Metallica, Slayer, Testament, Kreator, Megadeath, you name it. If I was caught listening to a transistor radio on duty, I'd be severely punished. But if I was caught listening to Radio Free Europe, well, they'd throw my ass in discip. Do you know what discip is?"

Bart shakes his head. "Good. So, Radio Free Europe that particular evening … by the way, discip, Bart, is a bad prison for military personnel only. You are fucked, fucked in the ass if you end up there, they throw you in there, and you are never the same man, never! Well, anyway, Radio Free Europe that evening is supposed to play the new Testament album and I just can't wait to go on duty and listen to it."

Bart motions for me to hold on, tries to attract the attention of the bartender who is staring at the last minutes of the game.

"So, the moment I am alone, I find a cozy spot and sit on the grass, AK-47 between my knees. I pull the transistor radio out of my sleeve, I dial the frequency. Nothing. No signal. Static. Like wind in dry grass. S-s-s-s-static. The truth is, the cocksucking motherfuckers sometimes managed to jam Radio Free Europe. Not often, just sometimes. So, I jump up, I start pacing back and forth, I cuss my head off, walk around and around, run up and down the hill, transistor in my hand, tinkering around with the dials, climbing up trees, jumping down, shaking the radio. No signal. So there goes my metal show hour. It has gotten dark and I'm furious, but I keep walking. And I end up in front of one of those dark stacks of rockets pulled out from The Tomb, ready to be shipped out the next morning. So I take out my flashlight, adjust it on a pear tree branch, I direct the light at one of the crates, long and narrow like an alien's coffin, I pull out my military bayonet, cut through the seals, loosen the planks, open the lid and undress the rocket's body. I find the plus and minus at the bottom. I open the back of my transistor radio and take out the 4.5 V battery. And I say to myself: if this, this tale, that a rocket can be set off with a four-anda- half-volt battery is a dumb-ass myth, I will destroy that myth right here, right now, and reason will triumph. If this is not a dumb-ass myth, if this rocket can be detonated with a transistor radio's battery, if the peace and quiet of Central and Eastern Europe is in the hands of a pissed-off corporal, then reason has long ago left this part of the continent.


So let this hill blow up like a shepherd's moldy fur cap. Let this sleeping military town blow up, and the barracks with the sleeping soldiers blow up, let the sleeping villages around blow up, along with the vineyards and the cabins, let this fucked-up sleeping Communism blow up, let just everything blow up and go to Hell, and let me explode along with it. Let World War Three begin, let the Apocalypse come, and let this be the way the world ends. With a bang, not with a whimper. I use the wire from the seal as a cable. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and connect the battery with the + and – of the rocket."

Bart sucks in his breath. "What happened?"

I take a sip of Guinness. "What do you think happened?" Bart takes off his baseball hat, massages his shaved head, and puts it back on. He lifts the pencil from the page and starts scribbling something in the margin of my manuscript. We are silent.

In the window, at the traffic light in front of the bar, a boy and a girl appear. They are on the sidewalk, she angrily gestures, he grabs her shoulder and tries to stop her, she shakes his hand off, she keeps walking, jaywalking, he rubs his forehead, motions at her, then looks up at the sky, shakes his head, turns around, as if looking for help from somewhere, he is about to catch up with her, but a few cars are passing, so he waits.

"Well, what if," Bart scratches his brow. "What if your battery was old? What if it just didn't have four and a half volts left in it, what if it had two point one? What if it was short a volt and a half or so? Have you thought about that?" On ESPN, men in suits comment on the lost game by the Chargers. On CNN – commercials.

"No." I say. And I nod at the page. "Are we going to go on with this today?"

Bart looks at it, taps the bill of his hat with the pencil. "It’s still Happy Hour, right? Where were we?"

"Thrash metal."

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at Vagabond are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.

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