In memoriam Jack Kerouac

Some time north of the mid-seventies I taught summer camp, initiating kids into the arts of soccer and painting. It was in upstate New York, by Schroon Lake. I apologize for starting with myself. Bear with me, for it will get worse. OK, this was supposed to be a joke, and it didn’t turn out all that well. It did seem funny, though, that these two disciplines (soccer and painting) ended up together, but what can I say? It just had to be this way. What really matters is good health, anyway. Dogs will bark and the caravan will move on, and so on and so forth. Even in America. The Brazilian legend Pelé had entered a trajectory of decline by then, kicking the ball around for Cosmos, but he still managed to kindle passion for soccer among the youth. The art teacher, for his part, had fallen sick with appendicitis, and because I had played as inside-right for Novi Sad, and moreover prided myself on dabbling in the fine arts as a self-taught painter, I decided to go the whole hog, so to speak. And it was quite alright in a way. I did OK; everything went reasonably well. Even the girls took to the ball, and we kept pushing paint on the canvas. We smeared and slopped feverishly, with all four limbs. There was no shortage of surfaces or art supply. In a particularly wild attack of inspiration, we even painted the rock faces overlooking the lake, to a soundtrack of ritual Indian music. (Using of course watercolor and chalk lest we inflict permanent damage on the environment.)

When it was all over, I hoisted my weather-beaten, bullet-riddled, patched-up canvas bag from World War I, the envy of American troops, and hitchhiked north to Canada. Once there, I did things I lack the space here to describe in fleshed-out detail. Suffice it to say I hooked up with some friends and tried to snag a Leonard Cohen gig. Then I snatched a ride back to the natively named Saskatchewan campsite, by then deserted save for the owners, with whom I struck the deal of my sojourn in the New World: a commission for a painting illustrating the waterfront of the place, complete with canoes, cabins, and, on the express wish of the client, a raccoon.

This last image I cut out from a postcard and simply pasted it onto the canvas, in the hope that it will make it all look very modern indeed. In any case, who knows how to paint a raccoon? Or has the time it would take? Not to mention the fact that, of course, I laid eyes on no specimen that I could assume would be willing to pose as a model, despite my supplications for such a mighty favor of nature. (Ah, this penchant for jokes be damned!)

The landlady gloated as she spurted out a few pertinent examples from the colorful realm of art by way of analogy to pigeonhole my ingenious effort at hand, which in turn began to remind me, with mounting ghastliness, of the gingerbread technique of village fairs. Not that I mentioned it. Obviously enamored, she rambled on and on about pop culture and collage, while her husband – a much older Fred Astaire type with sleek grizzly hair – remained sullen and silent, with pursed lips, until he finally reached for his wallet. Before long, I was on my way again, with an abandoned shredded cabbage of a book under my arm. It was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, an original copy in English, no less. Take note of the impact of literature on real life – another thing fate would have in this way, and in this alone. Solely. Incidentally, as I begin to pen this recollection, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of said trip of mine, and the sixtieth of the first edition of Kerouac’s cultic novel.

On September 5, 1967, an abridged and heavily edited version of the book was published by the Viking Press of New York, to make a legend out of its restless and reckless author, who wasted no time abridging his own life by agency of his various vices and substances. This legend was fondly remembered even in the remote Serbian town of Čačak on the occasion of the more or less round anniversary, wherein Kerouac repeatedly received enthronement among the towering figures of anyone’s canon.

It must be said, however, that the really major stopover on the freeway of time had been the fiftieth anniversary, as will be the hundredth without a doubt. But there will be much beer to be drunk and a lot of road to travel before that comes to pass. What can we still do until then? For one thing, we can no longer hitchhike like we used to. We have reached the end of an era, with its laudable habits and colorful paraphernalia, including its “naïve hippie fantasies” of saving the Earth and the human soul.

May the Big Dream rest in peace, next to those of the poor Indians, the Mohicans, the Iroquois and beyond, who had waited so ardently in vain to fall into deep slumber after a trance induced by dancing wildly to conjure up their spirits. May they dream of a better future, and, when their eyes pop open, be elated to find all the white people miraculously gone to hell for good. All gone, except perhaps for two skulls: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, one a Catholic, the other a Jew, two Sainted Fools still hanging around, each with his own hallucinations of the other being an angel, as they deliver their lunatic yarns from the soapbox. Plus, OK, a handful of the pale-faced beatnik-hippie set left lingering innocently under the spell of their own scribblings. With unkempt hair and abnormally dilated pupils, as if they had just escaped from eye surgery through the window, they lurch all over the country. They have this scary way of barging in from nowhere, stamping their feet, but they would not hurt a fly, not any more. This is how they must have appeared to the Indians, including Ken Kesey, the famous white one who liked to watch cuckoos home in on their nests. They must have thought of these pale- faced brethren as being essentially of their own ilk. No wonder they get along so well. Who knows to the end of what time.

But where does the town of Čačak come in, you might wonder?

Well, by the wayside it does, and not because this place boasts forests not unlike those in the Great Lakes area or the Adirondacks, not to mention the absence of any Mohican population in Serbia, but in a different way. Let me explain. The truth is that Yugoslavia’s anti-Soviet policy under Tito failed to weed out from the Serbian soul the last vestiges of a deep romantic attachment to all things Russian. These feelings flare up over and over again, despite the callous, or at best indifferent, attitude of our big brothers in Russia. On occasion, the flames blaze sky-high, igniting fierce anti-Americanism. Oil on the fire has been supplied by the NATO bombing during a relatively recent period of Balkan history, which Serbians continue to regard as an egregious injustice to this day, on the grounds of having been singled out as the guilty party in a region where everyone has been guilty one way or another. Setting aside for now an in-depth analysis of the Balkan wars – especially considering that today’s Serbian politicians are seeking the favors of the EU while eyeing NATO –, the gist of the matter is that NATO came to be thought of here as the proxy of evil in the flesh, a synonym for the devil. In its turn, the US has been seen as the oppressor par excellence, a duplicitous, Janus-faced superpower with a forked tongue. So what’s that got to do with it? How did they ever put Kerouac on the pedestal?

Well, as it will be clear for any intellectual worth his salt and not averse to alternative thinking, the aircraft that blasted to pieces so many objects in Serbia, among them the finest bridge of Novi Sad (which bore the name of “Liberty” and had been built in collaboration with Hungary’s GANZ-MÁVAG), did not happen to be manned by Jack Kerouac, nor was the second mate named Allen Ginsberg. Far from it. It’s not some kind of robot plane I have in mind, of course. Planes with no one around, without anyone with a human face, belong in another plane of thought, a different air space, and are thus irrelevant to this discussion. What does matter is the fact that Čačak, the living heart of Šumadija rock and roll, is not all that far from New York. The head honchos of the Gradac Journal would never mistake counterculture for lack of culture. They can and want to coexist with it, breathe the same breath with it, sustain and even improve on it in their own way.

Others only want to reminisce about it.

Some of them may have been members of the old “jeans generation” (the writers of which were written up by Professor János Bányai in Novi Sad back then, in the old Yugo days), and many most likely never played in that “happy team”. Yet they all remain untiring in their efforts to continue the tradition of Jack Kerouac, the man who engraved his message on a serious quantity of telex scroll in one fell swoop of a three-week trance, giving it all the jazzy swing of his soul. Indeed, it was as if he penned this most famous work of his in a single protracted breath, yielding to the impulse of automatic writing – always colorful, sometimes seemingly obeying a forced trajectory – about his travels, mostly in the company of the notorious bon-vivant and fellow artist Neal Cassady. (In subsequent editions of the novel, Cassady appears as Dean Moriarty.) And, in Čačak at least, no one could care less that Kerouac subsequently became part of the curricular canon with his honorary doctoral degree, somewhere along the way on his picturesque and picaresque journey from somewhere to nowhere.

An honorary doctoral fellow, then – named as such by a schooling system promoted by a disagreeable superpower prone to drop bombs on others. It’s a fact, even if he himself could not help it: The award was conferred upon him posthumously.

It was roughly with such thoughts, such a heap of paradoxes, in mind that I tried to enjoy my ride the other day when I took the international fast train I had dubbed the Yokohama Express – a sad affair of transportation capable of a speed of no more than 25 miles per hour on average – while watching the land recede inch by inch through the window pane. Before me, in a barely predictable future, lay Budapest; behind me, Novi Sad, Belgrade, and, further south, Čačak. I was reading a copy of the weekly Vreme discussing Kerouac, among other topics of currency, including the news that a raccoon the other day paid an unexpected visit to the police precinct in Čačak. I suspect it was this piece of serendipitous information that triggered my reminiscences about Kerouac. It also reminded me of a watchmaker in Čačak, whom I once heard stating he would undertake the repair of no watch unless it was capable of monitoring the speed of forgetfulness.

At the time, it seemed I had time enough on my hands before reaching Budapest to decipher the meaning of this sentence. How wrong can you be?

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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