Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Twenty years later: The Men Who Still Love “Fight Club” — and Adam Driver: “What do you mean, ‘toxic masculinity’?” he asked.

4 Nov

“They also talk about the appeal of joining a band of brothers united by purpose.”

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 12.09.00 AM.pngDavid Fincher’s “Fight Club,” from 1999, has become a focal point for the exploration of postmodern masculinity, white-male resentment, consumerism, and gender relationships.   Photograph from 20th Century Fox / Everett

It’s pretty amazing how many guys I know that still love this film and how many women I know that are totally freaked out by it.

Adam Driver on Girls might be the closest to a Tyler for the 2010s we have.  I have to admit that I find Lena Dunham more than just a little irritating, but Girls was frankly a television masterpiece.  There was a real yummy irony to it — an annoying millenial like Dunham, brilliantly portraying annoying millenials.  And without an excess of snark.  I hate these generational labels, but I have to admit that the kids we call millenials seem to have a real heart as opposed to the insufferable irony of Gen-X.  (Or what an asinine Toby Miller, a cinema professor at NYU — spiked peroxide hair though he was pushing 50, black leather everything, and an atrocious Australian accent — once called a class of late boomers I was in: “post-modern brats in black”; I remember we almost all looked at each other and mumbled to ourselves: “Look who’s talking…”).  But Girls had that heart.  The characters were real people.  And they loved and cared: about things, about society, their families, about art and about each other.  They had real emotions.

Of course what first hooked me onto the series was the character Adam.  And I remember that I immediately thought from the first episode that he was a Fight Club Tyler for the 2010s.  I was shocked, frankly, and delighted, that at the dawn of the #MeToo movement and the sudden epidemic of “toxic masculinity” everywhere, that mainstream television was putting out a character that was an unapologetic vessel for male independence and uncastratable libido; he was strong, independent, proud, fit, knew what he wanted, went for it when he saw it, knew his heart and knew when to give it and when to protect it, and though deeply soulful, was completely unpussywhipable by any woman, even one he loved as deeply as Dunham’s character, Hannah.

I couldn’t believe that a twenty-something Dunham had written such a character and was totally getting away with it in 2012.  Adam Driver’s actual personality had a lot to do with it, so I’m grateful to both of them.  And it’s weird.  Something is going on in the cosmos, the Jungian in me says.  (Maybe it’s an #anti-metoo backlash, still socially semi-conscious as of yet, but you can bet it’ll be ugly when it zeitgeit-surfaces).  Because this Fightclub article was put out by the New Yorker EXACTLY one week after the Adam Driver profile they did.  And I’m cheating and posting both below.

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 12.44.53 AM

Adam Driver

The whole NYer article below, for what it’s worth.  The topic needed a much more substantive and longer treatment.


The Men Who Still Love “Fight Club”

The first sign that “Fight Club” might inspire men to do anything other than quote “Fight Club” on their Facebook walls came in the mid-two-thousands, with the rise of the “seduction community.” These were groups of men searching together—sometimes in live seminars, but increasingly via online Listservs—for an objectively reliable set of techniques that would maximize their chances of getting women in bed. These groups had existed below the cultural radar for decades, well before “Fight Club.” In 2005, they received a new level of attention when Neil Strauss published “The Game,” a memoir/investigation about his time living in an Los Angeles group house devoted to the refinement of seduction techniques. Strauss attempted to engineer his own transformation from, in the lexicon of his housemates, “AFC” (average frustrated chump) to “PUA” (pickup artist) to “PUG” (pickup guru). Though the book ended with him taking a critical view of the PUA experience, its publication—plus a wave of bemused media coverage—brought new legions of curious men to pickup artistry and, by extension, to a world view that framed interactions between men and women as a scientifically hackable quest for maximum sex with minimal emotional investment.

In the years that followed, I became a regular lurker on message boards not just in the PUA world but also across the networks of male resentment to which pickup artistry frequently functioned as a gateway drug: “men’s rights” activists, the anti-feminist hive called the Red Pill, incels, the amorphous “alt-right.” Browsing through this world, I saw “Fight Club” references and offhand worship of Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, all the time. Tyler is an alpha male who does what he wants and doesn’t let anyone stand in his way; “Fight Club,” then, was a lesson in what you had to do to stop being a miserable beta like the film’s other main character, a frustrated white-collar office worker played by Edward Norton.

There was little discussion on these boards of how Tyler is ultimately revealed to be a hallucination who exists only in the Norton character’s mind: a projection cooked up by his subconscious to yank him out of an existential malaise of alienating corporate work, condo payments, and IKEA catalogues. In the final scene, Norton’s character “kills” Tyler, implicitly recognizing—and picking—a path between mindless middle-class consumerism and the nihilistic will to power of the terrorist. This act is crucial to the movie’s most articulate defenders: proof that “Fight Club” functions as a critique of Tyler, not a valorization. But when I saw this element of the film acknowledged online, it was usually presented as a thematic flaw, or a sop to the demands of big-studio moviemaking. No one was naming himself after Norton’s character. In fact, Norton’s character doesn’t have a name.

Over the summer, I talked about the enduring influence of “Fight Club” with Harris O’Malley, who runs a dating-advice Web site called Paging Dr. NerdLove. O’Malley offers dating advice “to geeks of all stripes”: relationship tips geared toward fans of video games, comic books, sci-fi, and the like, formulated with an eye toward steering people away from the appeal of PUA-type misogynistic snake oil. In the e-mails he receives and the one-on-one coaching sessions that he gives, O’Malley told me that “Fight Club” comes up so regularly that he has come to expect it. A lot of people who contact him for advice, he says, are “young disaffected men who feel they’ve done everything they were told to do, but nothing is happening. And it’s slowly starting to dawn on them that the rewards they were promised are never going to appear, certainly not in the way they were promised. ‘Fight Club’ and ‘The Matrix’ seem to provide a lot of meaning. They’re both about social malaise, and they’re both about people waking up.”

In one of the most-quoted scenes of “Fight Club,” Tyler bemoans the sunken fate of masculinity in late capitalism:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. Goddammit! An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars—but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

In theory, O’Malley said, “Fight Club” was a cautionary tale about where the adrenaline rush of “waking up” can take you. Tyler starts by preaching empowerment and authenticity but ends up sowing violence and terror, demanding cult-like subservience from the men he claims to be liberating. Despite this, O’Malley said, “I do meet a lot of people who feel like they should be more like Tyler.” They also talk about the appeal of joining a band of brothers united by purpose. “Fincher does his job too well,” O’Malley said. “He sells why it was tempting to fall for the cult of Tyler. But he doesn’t quite show the horror of where that gets you. Or, for some people, that’s not the part of the movie that sticks.”

Recently, when I checked out Palahniuk’s novel from my local library, the librarian, a woman in her thirties, visibly struggled to hide her displeasure. She had bad memories, she explained, of an ex-boyfriend who badgered her not just to watch the movie and read the book but also to acknowledge its genius. Experiences like these seem to be fairly widespread, and are referred to often on social media. Of course, “Fight Club” (both the book and the movie) has its share of female fans. But it’s also a symbol for certain insistent myopias of masculinity. The story has just one female character of any significance: Marla Singer (portrayed in the film by Helena Bonham Carter). The nameless narrator pines for Marla, though we never see him getting to know her well; Tyler uses her for acrobatic sex followed by emotional neglect. What does it mean for a man to tell his girlfriend that this, of every movie in the world, is his favorite, or the one with the most to say about gender today? Among women who get in touch with Dr. NerdLove, O’Malley told me, “It’s kind of, like, Yeah, if his favorite author is Bret Easton Ellis, his favorite movie is ‘Fight Club,’ and he wants to talk about Bitcoin or Jordan Peterson—these are all warning signs.”

Over the summer, I had a series of phone calls with “Fight Club” enthusiasts: the type of superfans with “Fight Club” tattoos and pets named after “Fight Club” characters. In my conversations with this completely unscientific sample of men with fierce attachments to the film, their focus was overwhelmingly on the movie’s first act: on the nameless protagonist’s sense of ennui and adriftness; his mistaken assumption that endless work hours or the purchases that they enabled him to make will bring him meaning; his intertwined currents of emptiness and longing. One man described how “Fight Club” helped him toward the realization that he didn’t have to work all the time, and didn’t have to worry so much about what other people thought about his life choices. Another talked about how the movie helped motivate him to specialize in existentialism when he pursued a master’s degree in psychology—and, eventually, to write and self-publish a novel about a bitter office worker who, instead of joining Project Mayhem, goes into therapy. At first, the office worker hates therapy, but eventually his sessions help him work his way to a new level of honesty about the disconnect between what he wants from the (imperfect, inherently limiting) world and how he is actually living.

To my mind, stories like these—stories of men driven to take some ownership of their fate, but without seeking out opportunities to inflict pain on others—are more interesting and vital than anything in “Fight Club.” But how many people would want to watch these stories? Sitting in the theatre watching “Joker,” I felt only despair. The movie presents us with Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill social outcast—a white man, perhaps inevitably—so neglected and maltreated by the world that his recourse to violence is all but guaranteed. If jumping from one movie to another were possible, he would be a great candidate for Project Mayhem. But, just as “Fight Club” admits that Project Mayhem is a misguided bridge too far without showing more than a sliver of interest in alternatives, “Joker” presents a world so broken that a nihilistic, existential lashing out—coupled with a hateful grin for the world that forced your hand—has become the only way for a lost man to assert his humanity. By the end of October, “Joker” was already the world’s highest-grossing R-rated theatrical release of all time.

  • Peter C. Baker is a writer based in Chicago and a contributing editor at Pacific Standard magazine.

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Adam Driver, the Original Man

Why so many directors want to work with Hollywood’s most unconventional lead.

Colleagues view Driver as a throwback to the off-center movie stars of the seventies. “Game respects game,” Spike Lee observed.

Photograph by Richard Burbridge for The New Yorker

When white phosphorus touches skin, it can burn through to the bone. As the particles ignite, they emit a garlic-like odor and melt everything in their path. Adam Driver, Marine lance corporal, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Weapons Company, 81st Platoon, was aware of these effects when he looked up at the California sky, during a drill exercise, one day in 2003, and saw a cloud of white phosphorus exploding above his head. The only thing to do was run.

Driver had joined the Marine Corps the previous year, when he was eighteen. After high school, he’d been renting a room in the back of his family’s house, in Mishawaka, Indiana, and mowing the grass at a 4-H fairgrounds. He had vague ambitions of being an actor and had auditioned for Juilliard, in Manhattan, because he knew that it didn’t check grades. When he was rejected, he decided to go to Los Angeles and try to make it in the movies. He packed up his 1990 Lincoln Town Car with his minifridge, his microwave, and everything else he owned, and said goodbye to his girlfriend. “It was a whole event,” he recalled recently. “Like, ‘I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. Our love will find a way.’ And then: ‘Bon voyage, small town! Hollywood, here I come!’ ”

His car broke down outside Amarillo, Texas, and he spent nearly all his money fixing it. When he got to L.A., he stayed at a hostel for two nights and paid a real-estate agent to help him find an apartment (“A total fucking scam”). He walked around the beach in Santa Monica, calculated that the two hundred dollars he had left was enough for gas money, and drove back to Mishawaka, where he got his job with the 4-H back. He’d been gone a week. “It was all just embarrassing,” he said. “I felt like a fucking loser.”

After 9/11, he found himself filled with a desire for retribution, although he wasn’t sure against what or whom. “It wasn’t against Muslims,” he said. “It was: We were attacked. I want to fight for my country against whoever that is.” His stepfather, a Baptist minister, had given him a brochure for the Marines, which he’d thrown in the trash. But now he reconsidered. He craved a physical challenge, and the marines were tough. “They kind of got me with their whole ‘We don’t give you signing bonuses. We’re the hardest branch of the armed forces. You’re not going to get all this cushy shit that the Navy or the Army gives you. It’s going to be hard.’ ” His decision to enlist was so abrupt that a military recruiter asked if he was running from the law.

He was sent to a processing center in Indianapolis for a physical exam, then to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, for boot camp. The first night, the recruits lined up to get their heads shaved. A guy four spots ahead of Driver had a mole on his scalp which got shaved off, leaving him bleeding and screaming. Driver was six feet three and lanky, with squinty eyes, a beaky nose, and ears that stuck straight out. Another recruit, Martinez, also had big ears, and he and Driver were nicknamed Ears No. 1 and Ears No. 2. Basic training was as gruelling as it was in the movies. “I was allowed one call, and my parents weren’t home,” Driver recalled, “so I didn’t talk to anybody for a long time.”

After two and a half months, he was sent to Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, where he trained as a mortarman. In one exercise, he and another trainee had to pound a nerve on each other’s thigh until it was numb. “That’s kind of what the Marine Corps is like,” Driver said. “They’ll just keep hitting it until it’s numb. Until you conform.”

During a simulated battle scenario, the mortarmen were to drive Humvees into a valley and fire mortars at a distant target, to be designated by a white-phosphorus explosion. In a screwup, the phosphorus exploded not over the target but over the men. Driver heard a boom overhead. Luckily, the wind was blowing, so the toxic plumes wafted a bit, and the marines sprinted to safety.

Later, as Driver was collecting himself at the barracks, he thought about the two things that he really wanted to do in life, and he vowed to do them. One was to smoke cigarettes. The other was to be an actor.

Driver, who is thirty-five, was telling me this story one morning in June, at an industrial-chic trattoria in Dumbo, over a lemon herbal tea. To help me picture the scene, he positioned a saltshaker to represent the target. His phone was the panicked mortarmen.

A tattooed waiter came by for our order, and Driver, who lives nearby, in Brooklyn Heights, chose scrambled eggs with spinach. He said that he smoked cigarettes for a few years after the white-phosphorus incident but quit, more or less, in his twenties. The acting thing stuck. In 2012, he got his big break on HBO’s “Girls,” playing Adam Sackler, a mysterious weirdo whom Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, visits for booty calls. The character, a peripheral one at first, became central. Adam Sackler was an odd specimen of boy: as big as a tree trunk yet affected in his tastes, particularly sexual ones. In one episode, he masturbates as Hannah berates him, demanding money for cab fare, pizza, and gum. It took seven episodes before he appeared outside his apartment. When Hannah spots him at a party in Bushwick and announces, “That’s Adam,” her friend Jessa deadpans, “He does sort of look like the original man.”

The same year, Driver had a small part in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as a telegraph operator. (He studied Morse code for the role.) I remember being jarred by his presence in the film: What’s the pervy hipster from “Girls” doing in the nineteenth century? But Driver has a range and an intensity that have transformed him into one of Hollywood’s most unconventional leading men. In just six years, he has worked with an astonishing roster of directors: Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers. Scorsese, who cast him as a seventeenth-century Jesuit priest, in “Silence,” told me that he was impressed by Driver’s “seriousness, his dedication, his understanding of what we were trying to do.” When I asked Lee, who directed Driver last year in his Oscar-nominated performance in “BlacKkKlansman,” why directors were drawn to him, he said, “There’s a very simple answer: game respects game.”

Driver has the bearing of a self-effacing vulture and a face like an Easter Island statue. (Not since Anjelica Huston has a movie star so embodied the concept of jolie laide.) Despite his stolid presence, his characters are often thwarted and befuddled—high-strung alpha males driven by an ancient code of valor but tripped up by contemporary frustrations, like a Cro-Magnon man airdropped into Bed-Stuy and handed the wrong person’s latte. Jarmusch, who cast Driver as a poetry-writing bus driver, in “Paterson,” and as a hapless police officer who fights zombies, in “The Dead Don’t Die,” pointed to his “unusual usualness.” Directors love his peculiar contradictions and his syncopated speech. (When the trailer for “The Dead Don’t Die” was released, in April, the Internet went briefly gaga over his elongated pronunciation of the word “ghouls.”) “He’s very disciplined, and yet he can be absolutely goofy,” Terry Gilliam, who directed Driver in “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” told me. Soderbergh cast him in the heist comedy “Logan Lucky” after seeing him on “Girls.” “He seemed to be operating with some different kind of compass,” Soderbergh said. “His physicality, his speech rhythms were all unexpected and yet totally organic. You didn’t feel like he was putting on a show or that it was mannered. He just seemed to be from another universe.”

In 2013, a column in Variety posited that Hollywood was suffering from a “Leading Man Crisis.” George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Will Smith were all middle-aged, and few younger actors seemed poised to take their place. But, six years later, there appears to be no shortage of leading men. Hollywood is awash in sad-eyed brooders (Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal), muscled he-men (Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johnson), sophisticated gents (Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne), high-spirited underdogs (Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Reynolds), bug-eyed misfits (Rami Malek, Jared Leto), and the interchangeable hunks known as the Chrises: Evans, Hemsworth, Pine, and Pratt.

Driver doesn’t fit any of these molds. In some ways, he’s a throwback to the off-center movie stars of the seventies—Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson—who blurred the line between matinée idol and character actor and infused their roles with a sense of alienation and neurosis. Next month, he stars in two films, each as a man navigating a tortuous modern maze. In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” he plays a theatre director whose divorce from an actress (played by Scarlett Johansson) turns into a nightmarish, yet totally ordinary, ordeal. In “The Report,” directed by Scott Z. Burns, he plays the former Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, who spent years investigating the C.I.A.’s use of torture in the war on terror, only to be stymied by Washington bureaucracy. Soderbergh, who produced “The Report,” told me, of Driver, “He just radiates obsession, and that is what ‘The Report’ needed above anything else: somebody that you believed would willingly lock himself in a room for five years to perform a task that may or may not end up being relevant or even known.”

Then there’s the “Star Wars” reboot, in which Driver plays Kylo Ren, an interplanetary warlord who can’t seem to live up to the infamy of his grandfather Darth Vader. During the course of the trilogy, which wraps up with “The Rise of Skywalker,” in December, Driver has managed to transpose the wounded virility of his twenty-first-century characters to the saga’s galactic scale. (The comedian Josh Gondelman recently said that he empathized with Kylo Ren, “the only ‘Star Wars’ villain who can correctly rank all the best Death Cab for Cutie albums.”) Kylo Ren is the J. Alfred Prufrock of space: a self-conscious poseur, needled by his own insecurities. J. J. Abrams, who cast Driver in the role, said, “Kylo Ren feels like he hasn’t arrived. Even as he becomes supreme leader, he is wanting. It’s like anyone you know who thinks that, when he arrives where he’s going, he will feel fulfilled. For Kylo, the hole only gets bigger.”

Baumbach, who has directed Driver in four films, once heard him call acting a “benign rebellion.” He told me, “It does accurately describe what he does so beautifully, because he’s both serving the role and the story and the director, and at the same time always looking for other things and pushing back.” Baumbach first cast Driver in a small role, in “Frances Ha,” as a hipster in a porkpie hat. One of his lines was: “Amazing.” “The way Adam says it is like a song: ‘Ah-ma-zinnggg,’ ” Baumbach said. “I always think of that word that way now.”

When I asked Driver about “benign rebellion,” he said, “Sometimes you have to shock yourself out of your rhythm.” I first met him one evening this summer, in his dressing room at the Hudson Theatre, where he was starring in a Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 drama “Burn This.” He was playing Pale, a boorish, coke-addled restaurant manager who bursts into the apartment of his late brother, Robbie, and begins an unlikely affair with the brother’s dancer roommate, played by Keri Russell. “This supposedly was Ethel Barrymore’s dressing room at some point,” Driver said, wearing a Naval Base Coronado hat. “But I can’t prove that.”

On the table was a poetry collection by Sharon Olds, which his wife, the actor Joanne Tucker, had given him as an opening-night gift. He showed me a few favorite lines, in which Olds envisages her parents as college students and yearns to stop them from making the mistake of their marriage, but relents: “I want to live. I / take them up like the male and female / paper dolls and bang them together / at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to / strike sparks from them, I say, / Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

“The language is so great,” Driver said, as he shovelled down a burrito bowl. “Striking sparks between two things—it’s kind of similar to plays. That’s it, right? You have an experience and then you go tell about it in your work.” “Burn This” was more taxing than he had anticipated. Unlike with “Angels in America,” in which Driver appeared Off Broadway, in 2011, he couldn’t let the language take him where he needed to go: “It’s very much about everything that they’re not talking about, which is the death of Robbie and the grief, you know?”

Driver is protective of his process and of the enigmas of acting, but he agreed to let me watch his preshow routine, of which the burrito bowl was the first step. When he finished eating, he went into the bathroom and put his head under a running faucet, while we talked about movies. “Have you ever seen ‘The Miracle Worker’?” he said mid-dunk. “There’s a scene with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke where they’re just beating the hell out of each other. Fucking one of the best scenes in film. That’s a non sequitur.” He squirted gel into his hand and smeared it into his shaggy black hair. “With this play, I’ve been really going to town on this shit. I think you’re only supposed to use a handful, but I fucking plow this stuff on.”

As he blow-dried his hair, he talked about his taste for Danish-modern chairs; he and Tucker have a knockoff Hans Wegner, and he joked that if he weren’t an actor he might have been a furniture-maker. He sat in front of a mirror and wound a bandage around his right hand. (When Pale first appears, he’s been hurt in a bar fight.) “This bandage for some reason is the part that gives me the most anxiety,” Driver said. “There’s a lot of trial and error over what is the right amount of blood. And the bandage cuts off circulation, so by the time I’m done my fingers are purple.” He drew a red trickle on his knuckle with a marker. Then he traced over it in brown. “It’s not a fresh wound,” he reasoned. “It’s, like, an hour or two hours old.”

He stood up. “Now I’ll brush my teeth, because I have to kiss Keri,” he said. On the couch was a piece of fan art he had received at the stage door. During “Girls,” strangers would often share details about their sex lives with him. (One guy stopped him in the subway and said, “I love that scene where you pee on her in the shower,” then turned to his girlfriend and said, fondly, “I pee on her all the time.”) But “Star Wars” has made him uncomfortably famous. “This one woman who has been harassing my wife came to the show and gave me a creepy wood carving that she made of my dog,” he said. He and Tucker have a young son, whose birth they kept hidden from the press for two years, in what Driver called “a military operation.” Last fall, after Tucker’s sister, who was launching a peacoat business, accidentally made her Instagram account public and someone noticed the back of his son’s head in one picture, the news wound up on Page Six. Driver stretched his foot on a foam roller and lamented his loss of privacy. “My job is to be a spy—to be in public and live life and have experience. But, when you feel like you’re the focus, it’s really hard to do that.”

He lay down on the roller and massaged his back; his body seemed to take up the entire room. His physique is sometimes regarded as a riddle of nature. When the play opened, the style blog The Cut convened four writers to discuss the question “How Big Is Adam Driver in Burn This?” (“I was so flustered by his quads that at one point I spilled all of the contents of my purse on the floor,” one said.) After stretching, he boiled water for his throat-soothing “potion”: half a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of baking soda, and half a teaspoon of corn syrup. At seven-twenty, he raced downstairs to the stage, where the cast had gathered for their nightly fight call. Russell, who lives in Driver’s neighborhood, was gossiping on the sofa about snotty Brooklyn preschools. They ran through their fight scenes, stomping and kicking and smacking at half speed, as if they were in a Three Stooges routine.

Driver went back upstairs to shave and to gargle his potion. Because of Actors’ Equity rules, I wasn’t permitted to see the rest of his routine, but he told me what would happen next. When the play started, he listened on the speaker system until he heard his cue. As he headed to the stage, his dresser reminded him to put a prop watch in his pocket. He thought about the character of Robbie, his dead brother. Sometimes he would picture Robbie as the idea of “losing something beautiful.” Or he would think about a mass shooting in the news. Or he would peek out at the silhouettes of the ushers in the theatre and view them as Robbie. Or he would think about the AIDS epidemic—Robbie is gay but dies in a freak boating accident—and project it onto the audience: “Maybe they were all Robbies, and here I am facing them all. And they’re faceless. All these artists who are gone.”

And then he tore through the apartment door onto the stage and delivered a ten-minute rant about parking and potholes and “this shit city”—Wilson wrote it in the throes of an anxiety attack—as he thrashed around like a wild bird in a cage. “Sometimes everything I’m thinking about helps,” he told me, “but every once in a while it doesn’t. And, the minute I get in my head, it’s fucked.”

“Marriage Story” begins after the marriage in the title has ended. Charlie and Nicole, played by Driver and Johansson, are in a mediator’s office, the air between them thick with resentment. The film is, in some ways, an update of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the 1979 drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep—but while Streep’s character disappears for most of the movie, allowing the audience’s allegiance to drift toward Hoffman, “Marriage Story” toggles between the spouses, as if they’d been granted joint custody of the story. At one point, when Nicole seems to be winning the battle over their young son, Charlie tells his lawyer, through tears, “He needs to know that I fought for him.”

Driver’s parents divorced when he was seven. Until then, the family lived in San Diego, and Driver has happy memories of their life; every Friday, they’d go to the beach and eat hot dogs. His father, Joe, was a Baptist youth counsellor, and his mother, Nancy, who met Joe at Bible college, played piano at church. After their split, Nancy moved Driver and his older sister to her home town of Mishawaka. He said, of “Marriage Story,” “It feels very familiar. Just trying to wrap your head around your parents not being together anymore—and not only that but you’re moving to the Midwest. Like, the first time seeing my father cry, as we’re leaving. It’s just all those very raw feelings that stick with you that you don’t articulate.” After the divorce, Driver’s father left the church, and he now works at an Office Depot in Arkansas. While shooting “Marriage Story,” Driver said, “something I thought about all the time was the things that my dad didn’t do that this guy does in Noah’s movie. The fighting to get custody”—he took a long pause—“was moving to me. My dad didn’t do any of this. He didn’t put up a fight.”

Mishawaka was a jolt. “We were living with my grandparents, and that sucked,” Driver said. “I mean, they were nice.” His father had shown him grownup movies such as “Predator” and “Total Recall,” but his new classmates talked about “Saved by the Bell.” Nancy got a job as a legal secretary in South Bend (she is now a paralegal) and reconnected with her high-school boyfriend, Rodney G. Wright, who drove a cab. With Nancy’s encouragement, he became a Baptist preacher. He also became Driver’s stepfather.

Driver began to pick up on strange tensions in their religious community. At Twin City Baptist Church, the pastor refused to officiate at his mother’s marriage ceremony, since she had been divorced. Around the same time, a girl in the Youth Department accused the pastor’s wife of being a lesbian, an assertion that split the congregation and led to screaming matches that Driver struggled to comprehend. “I remember this idiot yelling at my mom, saying, ‘No wonder your husband left you!’ ” he recalled. “Only recently did I realize, Oh, I hate organized things, because I feel like I’m missing something. I’m being told it’s one thing, but it’s actually something else.” The family soon joined another church nearby, where Driver’s stepfather became the preacher.

There wasn’t much to do in Mishawaka, a blue-collar town that had been devastated by the demise of a Uniroyal plant. As teen-agers, Driver and his friends Noah and Aaron would climb radio towers or set things on fire. (“Leaves. Clothes. Tires. Things like that, that you have to really douse,” he said.) They would dumpster-dive behind a potato factory and feast on expired chips. They rented movies from P. J.’s Video, down the street. “Because my parents were religious, we wouldn’t watch any of these movies in the house,” he recalled, so he would go to his friends’ houses and binge on Scorsese and Jarmusch and “Midnight Cowboy.” “I started to form opinions on what was good and what was bad, through conversation with those guys.” The first time he saw “Fight Club,” he said, “I felt kind of sick. It made me feel very strange. But then I watched it again almost immediately.”

In the woods behind a Kroger supermarket, the trio made camcorder movies. “It was, like, John Woo ripoffs, where we’d take plastic guns and paint them black and wear long trenchcoats,” Driver said. “They had no plots. They were just action movies.” The friends also started their own fight club, in the field behind an event space called Celebrations Unlimited. The one rule was: “Don’t hit in the balls.” Driver doesn’t believe that he was expressing latent anger. “I think it was something that scared me, getting hit, and the challenge in yourself to just turn the volume down on things.” The club dissolved after neighbors called the cops.

By then, Driver had developed an interest in stage acting. In his father’s church, in San Diego, he played Pontius Pilate’s water boy in an Easter cantata. In middle school, he auditioned for a play and didn’t get cast, so he operated the curtain. Then he landed a one-line part in “Oklahoma!” (The line was “Check his heart,” spoken by a cowboy as Jud lay dying.) In his sophomore year, a new drama teacher cast him as a lead in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” His teachers urged him to audition for Juilliard, so he drove to Chicago for regional tryouts. “I didn’t get in, I think, because I wanted to please,” he said. “I had no opinion about what I was saying.”


Instead, he bummed around Indiana, doing odd jobs. His stepfather had him wheel their lawnmower around to neighbors’ houses and offer to mow their lawns, which he found humiliating. He made telemarketing calls for a basement-waterproofing company. He sold Kirby vacuums, or tried to—he doesn’t remember selling a single vacuum. At one point, he was driving around Chicago in the three-piece suit he wore for church, hawking stress balls and National Geographic videos about whales. “I was basically peddling shit,” he said. He convinced himself that he could use his acting skills to entice people. During one telemarketing call, he asked a woman if her husband was home. “There was a long pause, and she says, ‘My husband’s dead!’ and started crying and hung up the phone. I felt terrible.”

Joining the Marines gave Driver a sense of purpose and some distance from his conservative religious upbringing. “The nice way of saying it is, it’s not part of my life anymore,” he said of the church, though he emphasized that he considers faith and religion to be two separate things. He is wary of discussing his parents or religion. In 2014, his stepfather told the South Bend Tribune, “I don’t agree with everything that he does, but I agree with his work ethic.” His mother didn’t know that he was on “Girls” until the second season, when she found out from a co-worker.

The pull between faith and apostasy has interlaced his movie roles. In “Silence,” he based his character, Father Garupe, on St. Peter. “He’s the only one that’s questioning, and I find that is healthier,” Driver said. “Doubt is part of being committed to something, I think. They’re very hand in hand, and that seemed more human to me. Garupe, in that story, he’s committed, and then at a certain point he’s, like, ‘This is fucking bullshit.’ I feel that with religion. I feel that with acting. I feel that with marriage. I feel that with being a parent. I’m constantly filled with doubt, regardless of what I’ve accomplished. It doesn’t mean anything. You still don’t know how to do anything, really.” He described Kylo Ren, in “Star Wars,” as “the son of these two religious zealots”—meaning Han Solo and Leia—who “can be conceived as being committed to this religion above all else, above family.” Part of him still feels blindsided, as if he’d missed a class and hadn’t yet caught up on the wider world. While discussing “Fight Club,” he asked what I thought of the movie. I said that I hadn’t seen it in years but wondered how it would play in an era when people are hyperaware of toxic masculinity.

“What do you mean, ‘toxic masculinity’?” he asked.

I suggested that male aggression is seen as less purifying now than it may have been portrayed as being in “Fight Club.” “I’d have to think about it,” Driver said. “I mean, I haven’t heard much about toxic masculinity.” He chuckled. “Maybe because I’m part of the problem!”

Hours later, in his dressing room, he was talking about how his suspicion of dogma shaped him as an actor. “For a lot of times in my life, I was told there was a right answer,” he said. “And then, when I got older, I was, like, ‘That’s fucking total bullshit.’ I feel that very much with acting, too. If you knew how to do it, you would do it perfectly every time.” He added, “So anytime anyone tells me, ‘This is the right answer,’ or ‘There’s something called toxic masculinity,’ I’m, like, What? What are you talking about? I’m skeptical of it, because I feel like I was duped for seventeen years of my life.”

In early October, Driver was at Lincoln Center, where “Marriage Story” was the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival. He had flown in from Brussels, where he was filming “Annette,” with the French director Leos Carax, and landed at 3:30 a.m. That evening, there was a red-carpet première, and at midnight he would fly to England, for the London Film Festival.

Baumbach said that when he was writing “Marriage Story” he had long phone conversations with Driver in which they discussed such classic movies as “The Red Shoes” and “To Be or Not to Be.” One of their abandoned ideas, a film version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Company,” found its way into the script in the form of two musical numbers. (Baumbach told me that Driver had recently sent him a photograph of the Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who has a blond, Thor-like mane, with the message “This would be good for something.”)

At noon, Driver was clutching a cup of coffee in a greenroom at the Walter Reade Theatre, before a press conference. The cast trickled in: Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta. (Johansson was stuck in traffic.) Liotta, who plays a divorce lawyer, approached Driver. “Hey!” he said in greeting, then struck a reverent tone. “Did you serve?”

“Yes,” Driver said shyly, standing to shake his hand.

“Wow,” Liotta said. “Thank you for your service. Seriously. My trainer was a marine.”

Driver quickly changed the subject. His military background makes him anomalous in Hollywood; the days of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart leaving pictures to fly combat missions are long gone. Though his time in the Marine Corps was formative—and gave rise to a nonprofit organization he founded, Arts in the Armed Forces, which fosters art appreciation among the troops—it came to a disappointing end. After more than two years of training, Driver was preparing to ship out to Iraq. At the time, he wasn’t thinking about the politics of the Iraq War, he said, just about his loyalty to his guys. One morning, he and his friend Garcia went mountain biking in Pendleton’s Camp Horno. On the way down, Driver hit a ditch. The handlebars slammed into his chest, and he dislocated his sternum.

Driver’s first sergeant told him that he was too injured for the deployment. Attempting to prove otherwise, he loaded up on hydrocodone and worked out in the gym, but he made the damage worse. He was honorably discharged, while his former platoon shipped out to the southeast tip of Iraq, to run security missions on the Iranian border. It was early in the war, and the unit returned safely. But Driver was devastated. “They had gone and done the thing that we trained to do together,” he said. “And I felt like a piece of shit.”

Driver’s platoon commander, Ed Hinman, had always found him more “pensive” than the others. “There was something more going on, I could tell, between his ears,” he told me. Hinman said that life after the Marines can be tough under any circumstances. “You go from being in a family to being on your own, without an identity and without a mission. And, if you know it’s coming, that’s one thing. But if you don’t, like Adam, that can be pretty scary.”

Humiliated, Driver drove back to Indiana in a Ford F-150 he’d bought from an officer and enrolled at the University of Indianapolis, where he acted in Beckett’s “Endgame” and in the musical “Pippin.” He applied to be a policeman but was turned down, because he was under twenty-one—“Which was ironic to me, because I was a SAW gunner, and suddenly I can’t handle a Glock?”—so he got a job as a security guard. But he felt adrift, his mission unfulfilled. Then, remembering his brush-with-death vow to be a professional actor, he went back to Chicago and re-auditioned for Juilliard.

Richard Feldman, a Juilliard teacher, recalled, “This very interesting young man walked in the room—big, tall, lanky, with hair partially flopping over his face.” Driver performed the opening lines from “Richard III,” a contemporary monologue he’d found at a Barnes & Noble, and, for his musical selection, “Happy Birthday to You.” His acting wasn’t polished, but, to Feldman, he radiated something genuine. Driver was guarding a Target distribution warehouse when he got the call that he’d been accepted. “I ran up and down the truck area, jumping around,” he said. “I was fucking elated.”

In the summer of 2005, he moved into a closet at an uncle’s house, in Hoboken. He got a job at Aix, a French restaurant on the Upper West Side, where he served asparagus to Tony Kushner. He was as good at waiting tables as he was at selling vacuums. “I’d never heard of broccoli rabe,” he said ruefully. Juilliard was a shock. He’d gone from firing mortars to pretending to be a penguin in improv exercises. He was disdainful of civilian life, sneering at classmates who wore their shirts untucked or arrived late to class. One time, he snapped so sharply at a student who had used his yoga mat that he reduced the guy to tears. “I was, like, I gotta be better at communicating,” he said. He holed up at the performing-arts library and read plays by David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley, and found that drama helped him express his roiling emotions.

His classmates were mystified by the hulking ex-marine. Gabriel Ebert, who later won a Tony Award for his role in “Matilda the Musical,” recalled their 9 a.m. movement classes: “I probably got there at eight-forty-five to stretch, and Adam was already in a full sweat, like he’d been there for at least an hour working out. He brought a discipline to his physical prowess that most of us didn’t learn until well into our second year.” Driver and Ebert got an apartment in Queens, and Driver would run five miles to school every day. He did pushups by the hundreds in the hallways and ate six eggs for breakfast (minus four of the yolks) and an entire chicken, from Balducci’s, for lunch.

Driver met Joanne Tucker, a classmate, during his first year. “She read a lot of books, knew a lot of shit,” he said. “She was very composed.” Her family lived in Waterside Plaza, in Murray Hill, and Driver would go over and eat all their cereal. Feldman, who, in 2013, officiated at their wedding, told me that Tucker didn’t stand for Driver’s holier-than-thou attitude: “She doesn’t take any nonsense.”

Acting wasn’t entirely different from military life: both required a team effort and a sense of mission. But when Driver saw his marine buddies he would poke fun at his cushy new life, ashamed that he hadn’t joined them overseas. In his third year, he and Tucker started Arts in the Armed Forces. At Camp Pendleton, the “mandatory fun” had included a skateboarding show and a trivia game in which you could win a date with a cheerleader. (The “date” was a stroll around the parade deck.) “Even at the time, I was, like, This is nice, but it’s playing to the lowest common denominator,” Driver said. He wanted to bring the troops something smarter, and show them that theatre didn’t necessarily mean men in tights. Feldman told me, “Adam was always trying to unite these two aspects of his life that seem to us in contemporary America so contradictory: how can you be a soldier—a marine, of all things—and an artist?”

Driver appealed to the U.S.O., but was told that the military demographic wouldn’t be interested in plays, so he went to Juilliard’s president for funding and solicited alumni to participate. In January, 2008, he returned to Camp Pendleton for AITAF’s inaugural show, along with Ebert, Juilliard graduates including Laura Linney, and Jon Batiste, a jazz student from the music division (he is now the bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”). Ebert recalled, “Jon and I stood in front of a grocery store at Camp Pendleton and handed out flyers for hours. ‘Hey, you want to see some monologues? You want to see some jazz?’ ” Around a hundred people showed up—the competition was the college-football championship—and watched monologues by Danny Hoch and Lanford Wilson, under a marquee that read “Juilliard Performance: Adults Only.”

During his third year, Driver was cast in a play at the Humana Festival, in Louisville, Kentucky. Juilliard has a policy against students taking professional roles before graduation, so he would have to drop out. Feldman urged him to stay. “I asked him to think about whether he had ever had the chance to finish anything in his life,” Feldman recalled. “He’d left college. He had to leave the Marines, because he got injured. And I challenged him to finish this.” Driver went through every step of quitting except for turning in his keys—and then changed his mind. His fourth year, he performed “Burn This” with Tucker and got an agent. He graduated in 2009.

Driver had thought about becoming a firefighter if acting didn’t pan out, but his career took off almost immediately. In 2010, he appeared in a Broadway revival of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” with Cherry Jones, and in the HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack,” starring Al Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian. The next year, he played a gas-station attendant in “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood, and Frank Langella’s son in the Broadway play “Man and Boy.” He and Langella became close. “He’d come up to my country place on his motorcycle, play badminton, help move furniture, do the dishes,” Langella recalled. “Once, at my New York place, I gave him some old suits of mine, and he left, bunching them in his arms, heading for the subway. ‘Take a taxi,’ I said. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Too expensive.’ ”

Driver initially turned down the audition for “Girls,” on account of television being evil (“I was an élitist prick,” he says), but his agent persuaded him. The casting call described Adam Sackler as “a carpenter, incredibly handsome, but slightly off.” Driver showed up with a motorcycle helmet under his arm. Jenni Konner, Dunham’s co-showrunner, recalled the reaction in the room as ecstatic. “Remember the old Beatles films, where the women are screaming?” she told me. “That’s what his audition felt like.” As the show evolved, details of Driver’s life would seep into the scripts; in the third season, the fictional Adam lands a role in Shaw’s “Major Barbara” on Broadway, a nod to Driver’s appearance in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” “He was always someone I saw as a rhinoceros, who picked one thing and ran toward it,” Driver said of his character on “Girls.” “He can’t see left or right at all, just sees what’s immediately in front of him, and he chases it until he’s exhausted.”

The first time Driver saw himself in “Girls,” on Dunham’s laptop, he was mortified. “That’s when I was, like, I can’t watch myself in things. I certainly can’t watch this if we’re going to continue doing it,” he said. Many actors decline to watch themselves, but for Driver that reluctance amounts to a phobia. In 2013, he watched the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in which he has one scene, singing backup on a folk song called “Please Mr. Kennedy”: “I hated what I did.” He swore off his own movies, until he was obliged to sit through the première of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” in 2015. “I just went totally cold,” he recalled, “because I knew the scene was coming up where I had to kill Han Solo, and people were, like, hyperventilating when the title came up, and I felt like I had to puke.”

The directors I spoke to sympathized with Driver’s aversion. “I think he’s rightly concerned that he would become conscious of himself in a way that would be harmful to his acting,” Soderbergh said. When I spoke to Baumbach, he was still “in a discussion” with Driver about watching “Marriage Story.” Spike Lee told me that Driver did see “BlacKkKlansman,” at Cannes (“It was very, very happy”), but Driver corrected the record: he had hidden out in a greenroom and returned for the closing bow.

In September, I met Driver in Brussels, where he was shooting “Annette” on a soundstage. He plays a failing comedian; his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, is an opera singer on the rise. To ease the resulting tension, they take a sailing holiday with their baby, Annette, and get caught in a storm. That day’s scenes took place during the squall. In one corner of the studio, half of a life-size sailboat was mounted ten feet high on a gimbal, a mechanism that would toss and turn the boat like a mechanical bull, while a cyclorama projected a tempestuous curved backdrop around it. Sprinklers would unleash rain and fog, while water cannons spewed waves. Also, the film is a musical, so there would be singing.

Carax, the director, smoked a cigarette in his sunglasses, as Driver and Cotillard emerged from a pair of black makeup tents. They rehearsed the scene in which Driver draws Cotillard into a drunken waltz on the sailboat’s deck. He mocks her theatrics (“Bowing, bowing, bowing”), and she pleads with him in song (“We’re gonna fall, gonna die”), before he flings her offscreen. The film’s co-writers, Ron and Russell Mael, known from the seventies band Sparks, watched on a monitor. “We spoke very briefly to Adam about three years ago, just about the style of his singing,” Ron whispered to me. “We didn’t want it to be Broadway, you know?”

Driver, wearing a fake mustache, measured the exact distance to spin before accelerating in the final moment. “If I’m throwing her, I don’t want to wing it,” he said. There was little leeway for benign rebellion. Driver later told me, of Carax, “His movies to me feel very much like freedom—like captured chaos—but they’re very, like, ‘Turn here, move left here.’ So it’s like doing math, but then not making it look like we’re executing choreography.”

A crew member yelled, “Silence, s’il vous plaît,” and in came rain, thunder, lightning, and waves. Between takes, Cotillard sang her lines to herself, while Driver stretched his legs on the railing of the boat, like a dancer at a barre. During one take, they slipped and fell. “Are you O.K.?” Driver said, helping her up, then asked the gimbal operators if the device was turned on too high: “We did this all yesterday, and we didn’t slip once.”

Like Robert De Niro in his “Raging Bull” days, Driver is known for embracing physical feats. For “Silence,” in which Garupe is captured by the Japanese, he lost fifty-one pounds, on a diet of chocolate-flavored energy goo, sparkling water, and chewing gum. For “Paterson,” he learned how to drive a bus. For “Logan Lucky,” in which he plays an amputee, he learned how to make a Martini with one hand. “He wanted to be able to do it in a single take,” Soderbergh said.

After Driver and Cotillard had been soaked half a dozen times, Carax called a twenty-minute break. “Let’s do a tight twenty minutes,” Driver requested. He dried himself off for the next scene, in which the comedian wanders the ship alone, pummelled by waves and singing an ambiguous mantra, “There’s so little I can do.” By the end, he is crouched on the deck, his palms pressed to his ears.

They tried it again, and again. “Our timing was off,” Driver said after one take, wringing water from his black T-shirt. He and Carax went over the timeline of waves, music, boat rocking, and drunken stumbling. By now, Driver had been singing in a fake thunderstorm for five hours, and he was drenched. But he wanted more. “It doesn’t match up to the music,” he said of the boat movements, leaning over the railing.

Carax suggested that they had what they needed. “If you already have it, then fine,” Driver said, sounding agitated. “I’m trying to move on, but I don’t understand. And the timing is wrong.” He listened for a moment. “All right, then. I’m fine moving on. It’s just unsatisfying.”

Then they had a revelation: the boat choreography didn’t need to match the underscoring. They did the scene one more time, a cappella. Finally, for safety, they recorded a clean audio track of Driver’s singing. Wrapped in a towel, he sang his line repeatedly into a boom mike, alternately braying and mumbling, and then trailing off into a near-whisper. “There’s so little I can do,” he sang, dripping and determined. “There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do. There’s so little I can do.” ♦

Published in the print edition of the October 28, 2019, issue, with the headline “Original Man.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

P.S. Armenians & Kurds — “Atoning for a Genocide”

30 Oct

150105_r25970 armenian churchEaster Mass in Sourp Giragos in Diyarbakır, 2014. Because the church still has no priest assigned to it, a priest flies in from Istanbul. Pari Dukovic

From A Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath.:

“As the villagers fled to Diyarbakir from the surrounding areas, it became a Kurdish city. In time, the Diyarbakir Kurds began to recognize that their role in the genocide was a kind of original sin in their modern political history. “I remember this one Armenian priest,” Demirbaş told me. “A Kurd was insulting him, and this priest told him, ‘We were the breakfast for them, you will be the lunch. Don’t forget.’ And that was important for me.'””  [My emphasis]

While we’re on Armenians, at a time when Syria plunges more deeply into hell than we had ever thought possible, when the West abandons the Kurds to Erdoğan and Assad, proving again that the U.S. is Turkey’s hamali, or that Turkey’s tail wags the dog, if you prefer, a historical reality check might be called for.

The American and almost every other media might be too superficial or too impatient to dig so deep historically because they’d lose their audience, but there is one, and one big thing that disproves Donald Trump’s assertion that Turks and Kurds have been fighting each other for centuries and are “natural enemies (see video below).  And that is the fact that perhaps the greater portion of the massacres of Armenians and other Christians in eastern Anatolia during the last decades of the 19th c. and first two and a half decades of the 20th c. were conducted by Kurds.* Not by the Ottoman military, but by Kurdish para/irregular forces or just Kurdish tribal chieftains craving more land and authority and wealth, and conducting/justifying their campaigns of mass murder with the rippling green banner of Islam, under which Turks and Kurds were just brothers in defense of the faith.  Only when the forces of modern nationalism started displacing the older bonds of religion and empire, did Kurds arguably start to feel themselves a separate entity from Turkish Muslims, and did the power of clan loyalties shift from semi-feudal to Kurdish nationalist ones; it’s even arguable that Republican Turkey’s anti-ağa, anti-religious and Turkification campaigns stoked the fires of the new Kurdish nationalism more than anything else.  (Somewhat of a similar process occurs between the Ottomans and Muslim Albanians in the early 20th c., and Orthodox Greeks and Orthodox non-Greeks: Bulgarians, Macedonians, Vlachs, Albanian Christians — as the latter groups discovered/invented new identities to replace the old religious-institutional bonds.)

Armenian_woman_and_her_children_from_Geghi,_1899_(edit).jpgAn Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking far distances.  Photo unknown provenance.

So I’m sorry that couldn’t counter Trump’s claims of eternal Turkish-Kurdish enmity with something pretty about how — on the contrary — eternally well they have gotten along but rather by implicating both parties in coordinated mass murder.  And forgive me the occasional snicker at Greek pro-Kurdish poses and the general sanctification of Kurds that we’ve witnessed in the past couple of decades.

Armenia22hamidianArmenian victims of the massacres being buried in a mass grave at Erzerum cemetery.  Photo unknown provenance.

* From Wiki:

(“In 1890-91, at a time when the empire was either too weak and disorganized or reluctant to halt them, Sultan Abdul Hamid gave semi-official status to the Kurdish bandits. Made up mainly of Kurdish tribes, but also of Turks, Yöruk, Arabs, Turkmens and Circassians, and armed by the state, they came to be called the Hamidiye Alaylari (“Hamidian Regiments“).[16] The Hamidiye and Kurdish brigands were given free rein to attack Armenians, confiscating stores of grain, foodstuffs, and driving off livestock, and confident of escaping punishment as they were subjects of military courts only.) [my emphasis]

And not just eastern Anatolia.  Istanbul’s Kurdish population played a major role in the 1896 Hamidian Armenian massacres in the City, where hundreds were killed right there in Pera, in ab-fab Beyoğlu, in the middle of the elegant, Beaux Arts, now garish and overlit Istiklâl.  Referred to this before and to how brilliantly these events are handled in the “Duck with Okra” chapter in Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra.

Only fair, however, that I include a reference to this 2015 article from The New YorkerA Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath. by Raffi Khatchadourian, in which the then mayors of Diyarbakır and the separate municipality of the Old City, Osman Baydemir and Abdullah Demirbaş respectively, apologize for the Kurdish role in the Armenian massacres and rebuild and restore the city’s main Armenian church, Sourp Giragos (Hagios Kyriakos in Greek) and allow it to function (see photo above) for the handful of Armenians left in the city.   Khatchadourian‘s article has some beautiful photos too by Pari Dukovic.

“We Kurds, in the name of our ancestors, apologize for the massacres and deportations of the Armenians and Assyrians in 1915. We will continue our struggle to secure atonement and compensation for them.”


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****


Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.


* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

To the Messenger and Co. — An Isaac Bashevis Singer story…

5 Jan

…full of the pain they don’t know and the humor they’re lacking…


The New Yorker last week published a story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s: “Job–to anyone who wants to read it because they haven’t hidden it from non-subscribers.  Mostly I want to dedicate it to the Messenger and his parea.  It’s a tale told to Singer by someone — I dunno if it’s a fictive character or not — in the 1970s.  It was written by Singer at the time, but was not translated from Yiddish to English until March-July, 2012 by David Stromberg.  Much like Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (which I touch on briefly here), it deals with the suffering of a twentieth-century Jewish everyman, sandwiched between the nightmare of Nazism and Stalinism, with bitter, caustic humor completely intact (which Grossman couldn’t really do).

Why do I dedicate this to the Messenger?

Because I remember distinctly in one late-night email battle-session, when he wrote me: “And why is it so wrong for bourgeois guys — like the both of us [his emphasis] — to have an ideology or an ideological schema?”  It’s a slightly tricky question to be asked in Greek and to have to answer from a Greek-speaker but native English-speaker’s perspective, because the word “αστικό” in Greek means urban and urbane and bourgeois, in its socio-political sense, all at once, so it’s difficult to separate.  But I quickly clarified the difference between my ethnic-American, working-class New York borough background and his petit bourgeois Athenian upbringing.  And yet I couldn’t put into words — or rather — couldn’t, at the time, find an example or definition to support the difference I was trying to establish.

But we can sort of close in on what I meant…  Someone — Simone Weil, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Rebecca West, Walter Benjamin, the great Hitchens, historian Timothy Snyder…I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember — said: “The twentieth century is when ordinary people realized that bookish young men who read big books full of big ideas could have a total and devastating effect on their lives.”

Or in the words of Singer’s Job: “Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia.”

And that’s where it lays.  It’s Singer’s Job that makes the knock-out realization:

“I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”

Of course your messianic vision doesn’t have to be Red; the Messenger’s is vehemently non-Red.  But that’s one thing that he never understood.  That that hue doesn’t matter.  That after a certain point he — he and his nationalism and his cronies’ nationalism — became the enemy for me.  The “worst people” are the ideologues.  After liberating him from the petit bourgeois prejudices he had been raised with, and becoming a model of “Roman-ness” for him, I didn’t realize that I had created a Frankenstein.  And he has never realized that he’s the enemy to me.  The people who tortured innocent women in our family like our aunt A. and killed heroic young men like our uncle S. and others, who looted and burnt down my mother’s paternal home, who imprisoned and persecuted and exiled my maternal uncle L. for decades, the people who tormented my father and his family and his extended clan for decades, who threw my grandfather into a prison camp in Albania and then into a mass grave somewhere, who isolated my grandmother in one room of the house her husband had built for her, who separated her forever from her only child, who created the pall of depression and unspoken sadness that hung over my family all my life…  Those people weren’t Albanians to me.  Or Muslims or communists or fascists or Turks or anything else or anyone else that the Messenger loves to hate.  They were petty little ideologues like him: bookish nerds who feel empowered by imposing their ideological hard-ons on innocent people, and making them suffer intolerable suffering in the name of their grand ideological vision.  “What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”  He’s the enemy.  But he doesn’t get it.  Y de allí his shock when I lay into him.

The other money quote from the Singer story:

“…I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.”

Laugh at these people.  Russians’ and especially Jews’ saving strength.  That’s all there is to do.  Until they knock on your door.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

giagoulaMy grandmother (click)


And the whole article, since The New Yorker is being so unusually generous about it:

August 13, 2012
By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by David Stromberg

Editors’ Note: This story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), was first published in Yiddish in 1970, and is appearing here in English translation for the first time. (See the translator’s note below about how it came to light.) Singer published more than sixty stories in The New Yorker, beginning in 1967; we’re grateful for this chance to present his work once again.


Being a writer for a Yiddish newspaper means wasting half the workday on people who come to request advice or simply to argue. The manager, Mr. Raskin, tried several times to bring this custom to an end but failed repeatedly. Readers had each time broken in by force. Others warned that they would picket the editorial office. Hundreds of protest letters arrived in the mail.

In one case, the person in question didn’t even knock. He threw open the door and before me I saw a tiny man wearing a black coat that was too long and too wide, a pair of loose-hanging gray pants that seemed ready to fall off at any moment, a shirt with an open collar and no tie, and a small black spot-stained hat poised high over his brow. Patches of black and white hair sprouted over his sunken cheeks, crawling all the way down to the bottom of his neck. His protruding eyes—a mixture of brown and yellow—looked at me with open mockery. He spoke with the singsong of Torah study:

“Just like this? Without a beard? With bared head? Considering your scribbling, I thought that you sit here covered in prayer shawl and phylacteries like the Vilna Gaon—forgive the comparison—and that between each sentence you immerse yourself in a ritual bath. Oh, I know, I know, for you little writers religion is just a fashion. One has to give the ignorant readers what they truly desire.”

A wise guy, I thought. Aloud I said, “Please, sit down.”

“And what good will it do me to sit? Let me first get a good look at you. Right here is where you write? Right here, next to this little table, is where the goods are fabricated? This is where your holy spirit, so to speak, makes its appearance? Well, it is what it is. And, anyway, how do people write all these lies? With simple pen and ink. Paper is patient. You can even write that there’s a festival in Heaven.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name is Koppel Stein, but you can call me Job, because I’ve suffered as much as Job, and possibly even a little more. Job had three friends who came to console him, and in the end God took it upon Himself to offer a word of comfort. Then He repaid him twice over: more donkeys, prettier daughters, and who knows what else. I haven’t been comforted by anyone, and the Almighty remains silent, as if nothing had happened. I’m Job squared, if one can put it this way. Do you have a match? I’ve forgotten my matches.”

I went out and brought him matches. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke right in my face.

“Forgive me for speaking to you this way,” he continued. “As they say, it’s my troubles speaking. You know it down to the last letter: ‘blame not a man in his hour of sorrow.’ The other day you complained in your write-up about a reader who’d held you up for six straight hours. I’ll keep it short, though how can one shorten a story that’s already lasted more than forty years? I’ll give you just the bare facts and if you’re no fool it’ll be as they say: ‘a word to the wise is enough.’ I’m one of those crazy people—this, it seems, is what you called them—who want to save the world, to institute justice, and other things of that kind.

“With me it started when I was still a little kid. Our neighbor Tevel the Shoemaker worked straight from the first rays of the sun until late into the night. In the winter I heard him banging on nails when it was still dark outside. He lived in a tiny room. He had everything there: the kitchen, the bedroom, the workshop. That was where his wife, Necha, gave birth every nine or ten months, and there the infants died. My father wasn’t much richer. He was a teacher. We also lived in a single room and had so little to eat that we might as well have deposited our teeth in the bank.

“Early on I began to ask: how is this possible? My father answered that this was God’s will. And I came to despise—with a thorough hate—the very same God Almighty who sat eternally in his seventh heaven, showered with respect and greatness, while his creatures suffered and died. I won’t get into details—I know from your work that you’re familiar with these details and even with the so-called psychology of such things.

“In short, I was about fifteen when I went astray. We had a political group in town where we read Karl Marx and Karl Kautsky and even got our hands on a brochure by Lenin—in Russian, not in Yiddish. In 1917, when the Revolution broke out, I was a Russian conscript. I managed to catch some lead near Przemysl and was laid up in a military hospital. What I went through in the barracks and on the front you probably know yourself. No, you know nothing, because my greatest sorrows came from my own mouth. I told everyone the truth. I spoke against the officers. To this day I don’t understand why they didn’t have me court-martialled and shot. They must have needed cannon fodder.

“Kerensky called for further fighting and I became a Bolshevik. I ended up in Poltava, and there we went through the October Revolution. Mobs set upon us and we were chased away. Who wasn’t there? Denikin, Petliura, others. I was eventually wounded and discharged from the Red Army. I got stuck in a little town where there was a pogrom against the Jews. With my own eyes I saw how they slaughtered children. I lay in the hospital and got gangrene in one foot. I’ll never understand why, out of everyone, I came out alive. Around me people died from typhoid fever and all kinds of other diseases. For me, death was an everyday thing. But despite all this my faith in man’s progress became stronger, not weaker. Who started wars? Capitalists. Who incited pogroms? Also they. I’d seen plenty of wickedness, stupidity, and pettiness among my own comrades, but I answered myself ten times a day with the same refrain: we are products of the capitalist system. Socialism will produce a new man—and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, my parents died in Poland, my father from hunger and my mother from typhoid fever. Though possibly also from hunger.

“After the mobs were driven out and things subsided into some kind of order, so to speak, I decided to become a laborer, despite the fact that I could have taken a government post or even become a commissar. By that time I was already in Moscow. I’d studied carpentry in our little town, so I entered a furniture factory. Lenin was still alive. For the masses, the big holiday still held sway. Even the New Economic Policy didn’t disappoint us. How do the Hassidim put it? ‘Descent for the sake of ascent.’ To stand and hear Lenin speak was a compensation for all the suffering and humiliation. Yes, suffering and humiliation. Because in the factory where I worked they cursed me and called me a ‘dirty Yid’ and mocked me no less than they had in the barracks.

“I was constantly hounded—and by whom? Party members, fellow-workers, Communists. They took every chance to tell me to go to Palestine. Of course, I could have complained. You heard of cases in which workers were put behind bars for anti-Semitic acts. But I soon realized that these were not isolated incidents. The entire factory was saturated with hatred for Jews—and not only Jews. A Tartar was no less inferior than a Jew, and when the Russians felt like it they made mincemeat of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles. Try sweeping away a trash can. I saw with sorrow that the Revolution had not changed all the drunkenness, debauchery, intrigues, theft, sabotage. A doubt stole into my heart, but I kept it silent with all my powers. After all, this was still just the beginning.

“I promised you to be short and this is what I’ll do. Lenin died. Stalin took over. Then came the plot against Trotsky—who for me was a god. Suddenly I heard he was nothing but a spy, a lackey of Pilsudski’s, Leon Blum’s, McDonald’s, Rockefeller’s. There are hearts that burst from the least worries, and there are also hearts as solid as a rock. It seems I have a stone there on my left side. What I’ve put up with, I only wish upon Hitler, if it’s true that he’s still alive somewhere, and that someone is hiding him in Spain or Argentina. I shared a room—actually a cell—with two other workers: drunks and scoundrels. The language they used—the smut! They stole from my pockets. At the factory, they called me Trotsky more than once and pronounced the ‘r’ with a Yiddish accent. Then came the arrests and the purges. People I knew—idealists—were taken away to prison and either got sent off to Siberia or rotted in jail. I began to realize, to my horror, that Trotsky was right: the Revolution had been betrayed.

“But what is a person to do concretely? Could Russia endure a new revolution, or even a permanent revolution? Can a sick body stand one operation after another? As my mother, peace be upon her, used to say: If a dog licked my blood, it would poison itself….

“So the years passed. Permanent revolution is impossible, but there is such a thing as permanent despair. I went to sleep in despair and awoke in despair. I was drained of all hope. Yet Trotskyist circles sprang up regardless of the persecution. The old conspiracies from the Tsarist times repeated themselves. The Revolution had fallen with a thud, but humankind doesn’t resign itself. This is its misfortune.”


“In 1928, I came back to Poland. So to speak. I smuggled myself across the border, helped by my fellow-Trotskyists. Each step involved the worst of dangers. I forgot to tell you that while still in Russia I’d been held at Lubyanka for seven months precisely under the suspicion that I was a Trotskyist. There wasn’t a single night in which I wasn’t beaten. Do you see this crippled fingernail? This is where a Chekist stuck a glowing rod into me. I had my teeth knocked out and those who did it were my fellow-proletarians, a curse upon humankind. What was done in prison can’t be put into words. People were physically and spiritually degraded. The stench of piss pots made you crazy. In a prison you can find all sorts of people. There was homosexuality as well as outright rape. Yes, be that all as it may, I smuggled myself into Poland and came to Nieswiez—perhaps you’ve heard of this little town? As soon as I crossed the border, the Poles arrested me. They later let me out, but then I was put behind bars again.

“This was in 1930. I’d been given a contact among the Trotskyists in Warsaw, but they ended up being just a few poor youths, workers. The Stalinists considered it a good deed to denounce Trotskyists to the authorities, and most of them were imprisoned in Pawiak or Wronki—a terrible prison. In Warsaw, I tried to tell them about what was going on in Russia, and don’t ask what I had to put up with! Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia. I was beaten, spat on, and called nothing but a renegade, fascist, traitor. A few times I tried to speak to an audience, but thugs from Krochmalna Street and Smocza Street came to shut me up. Once, I was stabbed with a knife. There is no worse lowlife than a Jewish Chekist, Yevsektsia member, or plain Communist. They spit on the truth. They’re ready to kill and torture over the least suspicion. I already understood that there was no difference between Communists and Nazis, but I still believed that Trotskyism was better. Something had to be good! Not everyone could be evil.

“Up until now I haven’t mentioned my personal life, because in Russia I hadn’t had any personal life. Even if I could have sinned, there was nowhere it could be done. With several men living in a single room, you’d have to be an exhibitionist. I witnessed both sexes in their utmost shame and misery, and I, as they say, lost my appetite. Hundreds of thousands of illegitimate children were brought forth—the homeless—who in turn became Russia’s curse and peril. When a woman went to buy bread, they fell upon her and stole it from her. Very often they raped her too. There was no lack of downright thieves, murderers, drunks. The Revolution should’ve brought an end to prostitution, but whores loitered all around the very Kremlin. In Warsaw, I met a Trotskyist woman. She was hunchbacked, but for me a physical defect was no defect at all. She was clever, intelligent, idealistic. She had a pair of black eyes and from them all the sadness and wisdom of the world peered out—though where in the world is there wisdom? We became close. Neither of us thought much of the idea of going to a rabbi. We rented an attic room on Smocza Street, where we started living together. That’s also where we had our daughter, Rosa—naturally, after Rosa Luxemburg.

“My wife, Sonia, was a nurse by trade—a medic and a compassionate caregiver. She spent her nights with the ill. We seldom had a night together. I couldn’t find any work in the Polish factories and earned a little by repairing poor people’s furniture—a closet, a table, a bed. I earned peanuts. As long as there wasn’t any child, it was still bearable. But when Sonia was in her later months it became difficult. In the middle of all this I was arrested. I’d been denounced by my Jewish and proletarian brothers, who’d invented a false accusation against me and actually planted illicit literature. What do you know about what people are capable of doing? Some of them later fell in Spain—they were killed by their own comrades. Others perished in the purges or simply in Comrade Stalin’s labor camps.

“The entire trial against me was a wild invention. Everyone knew this: the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge. They put me together with people whose faces I’d never seen and said that we’d planned a conspiracy against the Polish Republic. The policemen—guardians of the law —gave false testimony and swore to lies. In prison, the Stalinists hounded me so much that each day was hell. They didn’t take me into their circle. Among the civilians there were rich people, especially women, who brought political prisoners food, cigarettes, other such things. They even provided lawyers free of charge. But since I didn’t believe in Comrade Stalin, I was as good as excommunicated. They played dirty tricks on me. They tore my books, threw dirt into my food, they literally spat on me a hundred times a day.

“I stopped talking altogether and went silent. It got to the point that I became like a mute. In order not to hear their abuse and curses, I used to stuff my ears with soft bread or cotton from my coat. They even persecuted me at night, all in the name of Socialism: a bright future, a better tomorrow, and all their other slogans. The tortured themselves became torturers. Don’t think that I have any illusions about the Trotskyists. I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?

“It got to the point that the Polish prison guards began to stand up for me and demanded that I be left alone. I started asking them to put me among the criminal offenders, and when they at last obliged me the comrades exploited it and organized a protest demonstration opposing a political prisoner being put among criminals. In other words, they wanted me nearby to torture. This is how they behaved—those who ostensibly sat in jail for the sake of justice.

“Sitting among the thieves, pimps, and murderers was hardly a delight. They eyed me with suspicion. There prevailed an old hatred between the underworld and the politicals—ever since the times of 1905. But, compared with what I endured from the Stalinists, this was paradise. They stole my cigarettes and made off with portions of the packages that Sonia sent me, but they let me read my books in peace. Instead of ‘fascist,’ they called me ‘idiot’ and ‘good-for-nothing,’ which did less damage. It even happened sometimes that a thief or a pimp would pass me a piece of sausage or a cigarette from his own stash. What was there to do in the cell? Either you play cards—a marked and greasy pack—or you talk. From the stories I heard there, one could write ten books. And their Yiddish! The politicals babbled in the Yiddish of their pamphlets. It was not a language but some kind of jargon. The thieves spoke the real mother tongue. I heard them use words that astounded me. It’s a shame I didn’t write them down. And their thoughts about the world! They have a whole philosophy. At the time I went to prison, I still believed in revolution, in Karl Marx. I had all kinds of political illusions. Back outside I was completely cured.

“While I sat in jail, there developed in Poland a growing disappointment in Stalin. It swelled to the point that the Polish Communist Party was thrown out of the Comintern. Many of my persecutors had taken off for the ‘land of socialism’—where they were liquidated. I was told about one sucker who, having crossed the border, threw himself down and started kissing the ground of the Soviet Union, as Jews of yore used to do when arriving in the Land of Israel. Just as he lay down and kissed the red mud, two border guards approached and arrested him. They sent him to dig for gold in the north, where the strongest of men didn’t last more than a year. This was how the Communist Party treated those who had sacrificed themselves on its behalf.

“Then a new curse wriggled its way in: Nazism. It was Communism’s rightful heir. Hitler had learned everything from the Reds: the concentration camps, the liquidations, the mass murders. When I got out of jail, in 1934, and told Sonia what I thought about our little world and those who wanted to save it, she attacked me like the worst of them. The fact is that while I sat behind bars I’d become a kind of martyr or hero for the Trotskyists. I could have played the role of a great leader. But I told them: dear children, there is no cure for the human race. It was not the ‘system’ that was guilty but Homo sapiens itself, in the flesh. When they heard such heresy, they shivered with rage. Sonia informed me that she couldn’t live with a renegade. I’d had the luck of becoming a renegade twice over. It was a separate issue that, while I sat behind bars, she had lived with someone else. Hunchbacks are hot-blooded. There’s always a volunteer handy. He was a simple youth from the provinces, I think he was a barber. Little Rosa called him Daddy…”


“Don’t look so afraid! I won’t keep you here until tomorrow. You went away to America in 1935, if I’m not mistaken, and you know nothing about what happened later in Poland. What took place was an absolute breakdown. Stalinists became Trotskyists, while Trotskyists went into the Polish Socialist Party or the Bund. Others became Zionists. I myself tried to turn to religion. I went to a study house and sat myself down to learn the gemara, but for this one must have faith. Otherwise it’s just nostalgia.

“The anarchists raised their heads again—some of them still stood by Kropotkin, others became Stirnerists. We had guests in Poland. Ridz-Szmigli had invited the Nazis to hunt in the Białowieza Forest. Then came the Stalin-Hitler pact and the war. When they started to bomb Warsaw, those who were strong enough ran over the Praga Bridge and set out for Russia. Some had illusions, but I knew where I was going. Yet staying among the Nazis was not an option for me. I came to say goodbye to Sonia and found her in bed with the barber. Little Rosa started crying, ‘Papa, take me with you!’ These same cries follow me still. They torment me at night. They all perished. No one remained.

“I was in Bialystok when a number of Yiddish writers from Poland all at once became ardent Stalinists. Some lost no time and began denouncing their colleagues. People knew me as a Trotskyist and I was heading for certain death, but by then I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.

“Until 1941, people got by somehow. When the war arrived, a famine broke out. Refugees on foot arrived by the millions. Others were brought in freight trains. Millions of Russians went to the front. I starved, slept in train stations, passed through all seven circles of Hell, but I avoided one thing: prison. I kept my mouth shut and played the role of a simple person, someone half-illiterate. I worked wherever possible. On collective farms and in factories I witnessed the thing called the communist economy. They simply destroyed the machinery. They ruined raw materials. It couldn’t even be called sabotage. It was a simple beastly indifference to anything that didn’t directly relate to them. The whole system was such that either you stole or you were dead. I entered a factory and the accountant, a fellow from Warsaw, conducted his accounting on books by Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy. He scribbled his numbers—obviously false—on the margins and above the printed type. You couldn’t get any blank paper there. People lived on stolen goods sold on the black market. You can’t grasp it unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. If not for America—and had the Nazis not been such ferocious murderers—Hitler would have got as far as Vladivostok.

“I didn’t live—I smuggled myself through life. I became a worm that crawled from here to there. As long as it wasn’t trampled, it crept on. I was astonished to realize that the whole country was like this. We became like the lice that infested us. Until I arrived in Russia for the second time, I’d still had something in me that could be called romanticism or sexual morality. But with time I lost this, too. Millions of men lay scattered on the fronts and millions of wives lived with anyone who would take them. I slept with women whose names I didn’t even know. In the night I had females whose faces I hadn’t seen. I once lay with a woman on a bale of hay. She gave herself over to me and cried. I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she wailed, ‘If Grishenka only knew! Where is he, my little eagle? What have I made of him!’ Then she nestled up to me, crying. She professed, ‘To me you’re not a man but a candle for masturbation.’ She suddenly took to kissing me and wetting me with her tears. ‘What do I have against you? You’ve probably also left someone behind. A curse on fascism!…’

“In Tashkent, I got typhoid fever, which was later complicated by pneumonia. I lay in the hospital and around me people were constantly dying. Some Pole spoke to me and started telling me about all his plans. All at once he went silent. I answered him and he didn’t respond. The nurse came in and it turned out that he’d died. Just like that, in the middle of speaking. He suffered from scurvy or beriberi, and with these diseases people died, so to speak, without a preface. I became indifferent to death. I never believed this would be possible.

“You shouldn’t think that I came here just to get into your hair and tell you my life story. The fact is that I’m here and this means that I smuggled myself through everything—hunger, epidemics, murder, destruction, borders. Now I’m in your United States. I already have my papers. I’ve already been mugged in your America, and have already had a revolver held to my heart, too. A survivor with whom I crossed here on the ship has already worked his way up and owns hotels in New York. He took straight to business, forgot all the dead, all the killing. I recently found him in a cafeteria and he complained to me about his falling stocks. He married a woman who’d lost her husband and children, but she already has new children with him. I talk about smuggling myself and he’s a born smuggler. He’d already started smuggling in the German DP camps, where he waited for an American visa.… Yes, why did I come to you? I came with an idea. I beg you, don’t laugh at me.”

“What’s this idea?”

He waited a moment and lit another cigarette.

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he said. “The idea is for all decent people to commit suicide.”

“Is that so!”

“You laugh, eh? It’s no laughing matter. I’m not the only one disappointed in the human race. There are millions of others like me. As soon as there is no longer any hope—what’s the point of hanging around to suffer fruitlessly and in vain? I read your writing back in Warsaw. I read you here. You are, as far as I know, the only writer who has absolutely no hope for mankind. You’ve lately taken to praising religion, but your religion is a religion of despair. You reduce everything to one point: this is God’s will. Perhaps God wants humankind to put an end to itself? I beg you, don’t interrupt me! There are scores of movements, who knows how many religions and sects—why shouldn’t there be a movement that preaches suicide? How long can you smuggle yourself only to be crushed in the end? My feeling is that millions of people are ready to end it all, but they lack the courage—the last push, so to speak. If millions of idiots are ready to die for Hitler and Stalin and all kinds of other scourges, why shouldn’t people want to perish as a protest? We should frankly throw back at God this gift of His: this despicable struggle for existence, which in any case ends in defeat. First of all, people must stop having children, bringing into the world new victims. Let the scumbags hope, let them fight for bread, sex, prestige, for the fatherland, for Communism, and for all kinds of other isms. If there remains among the human race a remnant of common sense, it should come to the conclusion that all this filth isn’t worthwhile.”

“My dear friend,” I said, “suicide can never be a mass movement.”

“How can you be so sure? What was the Battle of Verdun if not mass suicide?”

“People there hoped for victory.”

“What victory? They stationed a hundred thousand men and were left with sixty thousand graves.”

“Some survived. Some received medals.”

“Perhaps we should create a suicide medal?”

“You’ve remained a world-saver,” I said. “Suicide is committed alone, not with partners.”

“I read somewhere that in America there are suicide clubs.”

“For the rich, not for the poor.”

He laughed and exposed a toothless grin. He spat out his cigarette butt and stepped on it.

“So what should I do?” he asked. “Become rich? Perhaps I should. It would, actually, be like Job.”


Translator’s note:

Beginning in his early years in the United States, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his living churning out texts for the Yiddish-language daily Forverts—an assortment of fiction, essays, journalism, advice, and memoir, often published in a hurry, under several pseudonyms. Later in his writing life, Singer worked on translating into English those stories he considered worthy of republication, editing and correcting them in the process.

When, in the course of my doctoral research, I came across the story “Job” (“Iyov”)—first published in Forverts in 1970, and later included by the late scholar Khone Shmeruk in a Yiddish collection titled “Der Shpigl” (“The Mirror”; Hebrew University, 1975)—I was convinced I’d find the story in English translation. Its themes of political disillusionment coupled with an inextinguishable search for salvation were tied to Singer’s larger body of work, and the story’s artistic accomplishment was confirmed by its inclusion in the Yiddish collection. The biblical title also indicated its potential significance. But I found nothing: not in any of Singer’s English-language collections, not among his uncollected or posthumously published stories, and not in the Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. It seemed I’d have to read “Job” in the original.

I’d studied Yiddish, but my vocabulary was still relatively limited. To understand anything beyond the main premise, I had to look up words in the dictionary. As I began writing them down, I realized I was on my way to translating the story. I shared my translation of “Job” with a few colleagues in Jerusalem, and reviewed it with Eliezer Niborski, a young Yiddish teacher and native speaker. We were all struck by the story—especially its sharp yet compassionate final exchange—and surprised that it had yet to be published in English.

I decided to take another look at the list of the Singer papers in Texas. Knowing now what the story was about, I noticed a folder entry among Singer’s unidentified works that caught my eye. I ordered a facsimile of this typescript fragment and, as I suspected, found that Singer, together with Dorothea Straus, had indeed translated “Job”—but that the translation was not complete. The fragment of Singer’s translation attested to his distinct and idiosyncratic mastery of English, which I felt compelled to acknowledge in my rendition of the story. I ultimately decided to introduce the author’s hand by incorporating some of Singer’s own word choices—while also aiming to avoid mimicking or impersonating his singular English style.

Arrangements were made to publish my translation of the story. I showed it to Robert Lescher, the literary agent for Singer’s estate, who gave me some insight into Singer’s publication process. Mr. Lescher said that, after they’d begun working together, in 1970, Singer would bring his stories into the office. Mr. Lescher would comment on them, sometimes Singer would make changes, and only then would they be submitted to various editors for publication. At The New Yorker, Singer worked with the fiction editor Rachel MacKenzie to get a story into its final shape.

Mr. Lescher had minor reservations about a few lines in my translation where he felt the language didn’t flow. Based on his suggestions, I made a handful of adjustments that required my straying very slightly from the literal text. We were wary of editing a great writer who was no longer with us, but felt we could fine-tune the translation: ultimately, the responsibility falls to the translator to make decisions based on the original Yiddish text, whose publication Singer had approved.

A couple of days before the story was set to appear, I found myself again working with the folder list of the Singer papers at the Ransom Center. Looking for something else altogether, I came upon yet another entry among the unidentified works that caught my attention. I realized that it contained more, though still not all, of Singer’s translation of “Job.” The rest of the manuscript had apparently not been lost—it had merely been separated from the other parts and stuffed into a different slot.

The publication of “Job” had turned into a literary experience reminiscent of a chaotic Singerian universe—where coveted objects are misplaced, or purposely hidden by imps, only to reappear just before it’s too late. I used the additional pages to reconstruct some of my initial translation solutions—though again avoiding the temptation to replicate Singer’s signature linguistic choices in English. With the help of Arcadia Falcone of the Ransom Center, I am working to locate and reunite the missing pages of Singer’s translation of “Job.” And as in a Singer story, the story of this translation is yet to be continued…

— David Stromberg, Jerusalem, March-July, 2012

Photograph of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.

Belgrade: Wimbledon 2014, rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković…

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

“What’s with you and all the Djoković?”

This is M. in Belgrade, after the sixth or seventh rakia, giving me a hard time about my Nole cult. M. is an old Serbian student of mine from New York. He’s one of my favorites actually; out of the nearly ten years I taught English at CUNY, he’s one of those special ones that I can count on one hand. Funny, charismatic, super-smart – when he came to class – he was a real asset to have.

“I was your best student,” he says, a propos of nothing and with characteristic modesty.

“Yeah, when you came to class,” I say.

We live ten minutes from each other in New York but never see each other – bumped into each other at some bars a couple of times – except that every year at Orthodox Easter he comes to my house. But I haven’t been home for Easter for the past three years, so we didn’t see each other then either. Except for one night, two nights ago, the stars arranged for us to both be in Belgrade together and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some long-due drinking done.

So this is M. getting all up in my face Serbian style:

“If you’re such a fan, why are you here? Why aren’t you in Montenegro at his wedding trying to get a picture?”

I didn’t even know Djoković was getting married this weekend and M. knows I’m too old and probably knows enough else about me to know I’m not some idiot groupie:

“Like the other groupies…” he says nevertheless. “You could try to take a picture of him with the bride…one with the bride alone…one with…”

The thing is his teasing is so good humored it makes you wanna jump right into the ring with him and take him on, so it’s always fun and it only makes you like him more. I also came away from the evening feeling good because M. and I barely know each other actually, but a bunch of his friends showed up and it was obvious how loved he was by all of them and that was nice to see; I like when my instincts about a person are correct even when I don’t have much evidence to go by.  But he’s relentless…

“You could try to get a picture of the dog…”

Well for M. or anybody, if you still don’t know what my Djoković thing is about and how it relates to my Serb thing and how possessive and defensive I get about both, you haven’t been reading my blog very regularly. So let me try again. Back to Wimbledon…

I don’t think any real tennis aficionado could’ve asked for a better Wimbledon 2014 – unless you have the frankly hilarious misfortune of being a Nadal fan, in which case you deserve your fate and I’ll tell you when it’s ok to come out of your room and stop being embarrassed. For Djoković it was no easy climb. Great tennis all the way, but he wasn’t granted anything. With Čilić, with Raonić, with Dimitrov, there was practically not a single give-away. He had to wrestle every point from the hands of the universe.

Of course the finals match between him and Federer was a friggin’ dream. It was everything you want from good tennis, from good sport, competition, art, or a good war even: matched skill and guts, intelligent tactics, constant reversal and coming back from behind – and the masochistic pleasure or knowing that even if your guy loses, he’ll have lost to someone you respect. This was one of those matches that the phrase “toe-to-toe” was invented for. At no single point during the more than three hours did either man have enough of a numerical lead to allow his supporters to relax for a few minutes. Neither of them was ever more than just one step ahead of the other and that never lasted long enough for you to take even half a breath.

I watched the game in an empty Greek bar with a friend of mine and don’t think I actually sat back on my seat for a second. And I don’t know whether it was the emptiness of a bar in suburban Athens, perhaps, on a hot July, Sunday afternoon — the hours of high summer heat in Attica still turn the city into a desert — but this was the first time that Djoković’ loneliness on the court struck me so hard. Existentially.  How completely lonely he sometimes seems.  Of course, that day, Wimbledon had to do with it as well. For a variety of reasons we all know, Novak’s always been considered the kind of odd man out in the tennis world despite his stupendous capabilities as an athlete, and Wimbledon is clearly the most classist of all tennis venues where that would show up in its starkest form. I don’t know if it was the shots that the Greek network we were watching was being fed, but not once during the whole match, were the cameras able to get even a single shot of the crowd looking satisfied or anything but stressed whenever an exchange went well for Nole; except occasionally from Becker and his team; no one from his family even seemed to be there — getting ready for the wedding circus I can now presume, but didn’t know at the time. Unlike the always cool French, who’ll applaud you for your art no matter who you are or where you’re from, like the standing ovation they gave Djok for his battle against the Catalan that left him in tears at Roland Garros, here there was the unmistakable look of British and other jet-set spectators at a sporting event in the grip of pure class terror: that their suave Swiss aristocrat would lose to this Balkan nut-job…and at Wimbledon.

I remembered that shitty little article by Lauren Collins that The New Yorker had run last September — The Third Man — about Novak, which kept essentially asking whether he can learn how to act like a proper tennis player: “Can he make us like him?” Like you guys are the arbiters of what exactly and he needs your liking?  And all my pro-Serb and pro-Nole nerves got twisted into knots again, like when I had first read it. The whole article was just dripping with condescension and I thought to myself that if Collins had written an article like that about an athlete from a “country of color,” The New Yorker would have been faced with a howling riot of censoring anger and cries of racism. “Is Nole too ghetto for Wimbledon?” Collins had essentially wanted to know. She could’ve consulted me and I would’ve come up with at least twenty terms from half a dozen Balkan languages for “ghetto” that she could have used.

Then the fifth set started and it became clear that both men knew this was it, life or death, especially because it started to become clear that physical and – from the tightness of the game and competition – nervous exhaustion had started to set in. And Nole got that look he gets late in matches, where he alternates between a look of steely professionalism and hunger that’s ready to rip his opponent to shreds, and this strange watery-eyed look of almost spiritual exaltation, looking dreamily skyward, or gazing down at the ground blankly. And this latter look, though beautiful, is a little worrisome because it means he’s either going to start playing like a man possessed by some god and steamroll whoever he’s up against into the ground – or just start f*cking up and making a royal mess of everything.

It became clear that he was in a state of deity-possession almost as soon as the set started. And then he stopped looking lonely to me. Instead we was simply magnificently alone, the akritas fighting it out on the marble threshing-floor, the young kraljević single-handedly taking on the hostile hordes of pink frangoi in their sun-screen and appropriate hats.

NOLEUSE1404667649000-AFP-531415517Glyn Kirk, AFP/Getty Images (click)

And Federer hit the ball into the net and it was all over. And Nole cracked open; not up, open — like the cracks that Leonard Cohen says let the light get in, except the light here was not flooding in but out of him in this great luminous glow. I don’t know what mad idea of redemption or humility or gratitude was going through his crazed Slavic mind when he knelt and started eating the grass off the court, but in the back of my mind I could hear some Serbian Sonya Marmeladova crying:

“This is what you shall do! Go at once, this very moment to the crossroads and kiss the earth which you have defiled and bow down to the world and say: ‘I am grateful. I am humble. I am grateful. I am humble.’”

And then the tears of that gratitude and humility started flowing and I haven’t even wanted to watch any of the post-game interviews or read anything; I just want to be left with that image of him holding the cup and bawling. Weeping copiously.  Like a man.

wimbledon-men-novak-djokovic-wimbledon-trophy_3169070Getty images (click)

My sense here in Serbia is that there’s a little bit of a conflict between Djoković’ status as saintly national hero and the celebrity circus that’s constantly flowing around him, and that that’s what M.’s cynicism was about with the wedding and all. But a girl, I., who was in M.’s kompaniya that night: very smart and pretty, who speaks absolutely native-speaker American English and who is always running what’s apparently one of Serbia’s fastest-growing websites from from her IPad – which she was doing that night – while still managing to remain front and center of any conversation she happens to find herself in, says that’s the girlfriend and the media’s fault, not his, and that it really irks her.

“What does ‘irk’ mean, M.?” I decide to play professor with him, addressing him by his last name.

“It means like when something bother-… What do you mean what does it mean?!  I know what it means.  I was your best student!”

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

I. also talked some about some genuine darkness that was part of Nole’s childhood, the details of which are common knowledge here, but I’m not going to get into because it’s part of this blog’s journalistic policy not to go there with cheaply personal and especially hurtful personal issues, and especially not with someone I love and admire and who’s as much of a hero of mine as Djoković is. But let’s just say the redeeming, protecting hero archetype is a structurally core part of his psyche.

“He’s a beautiful man and he has a beautiful soul,” I. declared, definitively ending that conversation, as I imagine she must definitively end others when she wants to.

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

Out of respect for this spectacular victory and the Djoković-and-tennis tolerance of my readers I promise there will be no Djoković or tennis at all until the U.S. Open.

But see you before then.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Note:  Speaking of “marble threshing-floors…”  The court at Wimbledon is in such shit state that it can only be called a grass court in the most ideally Platonic terms.  Really; cute British shabbiness has its limits.  Beer and probably piss-stained pub carpeting is one thing.  A court where most of the playing is done on parched, packed, rock-hard dirt, made that much more treacherous by the fine layer of sand it kicks up and coats itself with, is another.  It definitely put a cramp on both players’ styles at several moments during the match and there were times where it even looked like it could cause dangerous injury.  With Nole I didn’t know whether his super-human flexibility would protect him or if it would make his propensity for taking acrobatic risks that much more risky.  Either way, do something.  It’s one of those things that’s not charming about England anymore.

Strange Border Kidnappings of Serbs in Kosovo — and some thoughts of mine

17 Jun


I haven’t written much, or anything really, about Kosovo, because of all the places I visited on this Balkans trip it was, despite its frantic, chaotic energy, not only a place that still felt deeply scarred itself, but also the place that left its deepest marks on me as well.  It’s a place that hurt me.  And it’s been hard for me to know where to begin to write about it.  An innate warmth and sympathy I feel for Serbs generally left me terribly depressed at the sad state of what’s left of Serbian life in Kosovo.  And yet, simultaneously, l was left overwhelmed and trembling at the mountain of atonement Serbs will have to seek out for themselves for the horrendous crimes they committed there, not just in the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century, before they can really face a future with a clear conscience.

And then, I found almost all Kosovar Albanians deeply likeable.  I wouldn’t call them friendly exactly — Albanians don’t really do “friendly” — but they were…dashing, shall we say, in a particularly Balkan way that was immensely attractive and were always helpful with directions or anything else we needed while on our journey.  I’m also a sucker for physical beauty and I will swear to any God in the universe that I have never been in a country with such a rich embarrassment of gorgeous people of both genders in my entire life.

But whatever I may have felt about Kosovars, I will believe the most nightmarish things possible about the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), a collection of Berlin club bouncers, heroin smugglers, white slave traders and mob hitmen to whom the world granted the government of an independent country on a silver platter — simply because, as is usually the case in the Balkans, the West had no idea what it was doing and just wanted the whole crazy place and its people out of its hair — while they, the KLA, continue to operate as a semi-incognito organization only slightly less criminal and murderous (and I’m not even sure about the “slightly”) than the drug cartels of Colombia or Mexico.

This story of KLA members abducting Kosovo Serbs, killing them and then selling their organs — especially kidneys — on the black market has been around for a while.  The New Yorker did a story on it back in May of 2013 (posted in full below) that seemed kind of sceptical, but this reportage (video below) by Vice News, an independent news outlet originally from Montreal now based in Brooklyn — and a serious media source we should really look out for in the future; they do great work (see 2013 article about them from The Guardian) — claims that the allegations are now being taken seriously by the Hague and the European Union.

What concerns me is why the story had been forgotten for so long and I think the answer is present and not so subtly coded in The New Yorker article itself.  For about the first, I’d say, two-thirds of the piece, the allegations against the KLA are treated as completely believable.  Then, based on the evidence of one single individual, whom the KLA claims is a Serbian plant meant to discredit it, and the incoherence of his testimony, the article does a complete one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn and suddenly all kinds of doubts are cast on the potential truth behind these KLA crimes.  And then the clear and constant bias of the Western media can be heard loud and clear: the Serb can never just be the victim.  And the not so subtle suggestion is made that these allegations against the KLA might just be another example of Serbs’ supposed pathological propensity for creating nationalist mythologies and martyrdom narratives for themselves and nothing else.

Kudos to Vice News for bringing the story to the forefront again and shame on a publication with the reputation of The New Yorker  for pandering to its readership’s expectations of who the bad guys in the movie always are.

From Vice News:

“In the wake of the war in Kosovo, investigative journalist Michael Montgomery traveled to the Balkans to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Serbs. His scrutiny brought to light evidence that suggested links between a black-market crime syndicate and the upper echelon of the Kosovo Liberation Army—indicating that the end of war doesn’t necessarily mean the end of war crimes.”


The New Yorker story:

A Reporter at Large

Bring Up the Bodies

Kosovo’s leaders have been accused of grotesque war crimes. But can anyone prove it?

by May 6, 2013

Haci Thami130506_r23468_p465Hashim Thaci, the Prime Minister, helped lead the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war. He says, “The K.L.A. was big, and you always have abusers in such organizations.” Photograph by Alex Majoli.

After the conflict in Kosovo ended, in June, 1999, a tribunal in The Hague set out to punish the perpetrators of atrocities. Louise Arbour, the lead prosecutor, described Kosovo—a former province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—as “one vast crime scene.” Her investigators’ primary target was Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb who led Yugoslavia. Milosevic had claimed that Kosovo’s majority group, ethnic Albanians, treated ethnic Serbs like slaves, and armed forces under his control had waged a campaign of mass murder there, slaughtering more than ten thousand Kosovars. NATO, relying heavily on American forces, launched air strikes to stop Milosevic, and received crucial assistance from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main rebel force in the region. K.L.A. scouts relayed Serbian tank coördinates to Green Berets, who passed on the information to American fighter jets. Three months after the air strikes began, Serbia surrendered. Milosevic was eventually arrested and sent to The Hague, where he died in prison, of a heart attack.

In Kosovo, meanwhile, the K.L.A. officially disbanded, but many of its members joined political parties. A party led by Hashim Thaci, the K.L.A.’s political chief, rose to power. In 2008, Thaci became the first Prime Minister of an independent Kosovo. Two years later, Vice-President Joe Biden hailed him as “the George Washington of Kosovo.”

Today, nearly two thousand people remain missing in Kosovo, a country that José Pablo Baraybar, a Peruvian who headed the U.N.’s Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, described to me as “one of the most exhumed places on earth.” DNA technology has helped investigators identify hundreds of bodies, many of them buried in mass graves. But, even in an era of sophisticated forensic science, definitive evidence can be elusive: in one case, the Serbs burned hundreds of corpses in a lead smelter.

Dozens of Serbs have been convicted of war crimes since the fighting stopped, but they were not the only ones responsible for violence. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, rumors circulated that, in the summer of 1999, K.L.A. paramilitaries had trucked prisoners across the border to secret detention camps in Albania, where they were tortured and, sometimes, killed. But, in public, Kosovars embraced a “silence taboo,” in the words of Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist in Pristina. The men who led the K.L.A. remained a fearsome presence in the country, posing a threat to anyone who spoke out, and ethnic Serbs were a powerless bloc, falling to less than two per cent of the population. Unlike Argentina, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, Kosovo failed to establish its own truth-and-reconciliation commission.

The task of accounting for the missing was left largely to outsiders. One of them was Michael Montgomery, an American radio journalist who had helped expose the massacre of forty-one Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces in the village of Qyshk, on May 14, 1999. He began amassing troubling stories involving the K.L.A. Multiple sources told him that, in the days after Milosevic’s defeat, the K.L.A. had shipped accused traitors to camps in Albania. A former K.L.A. member recalled guarding seven prisoners in the back of a van, their mouths taped and their hands cuffed, as they crossed the border. A K.L.A. driver said that he had been given orders not to hurt anyone; once his captives were in Albania, they were taken to a house where doctors were present. The driver heard that the doctors sampled the prisoners’ blood and assessed their health. Several sources implied that this caretaking had a sinister purpose: the K.L.A. was harvesting the prisoners’ organs and selling them on the black market.

Montgomery was concerned that these stories might be propaganda planted by the Serbian government, so he tracked down additional sources. Three people recalled taking prisoners to a yellow house outside the Albanian town of Burrel. Another K.L.A. driver told Montgomery that there were only two places where he “brought people but never picked anyone up”: the yellow house and a cream-colored farmhouse near the airport in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The farmhouse, he noted, had a “very strong smell of medicine.” The driver added that he sometimes heard other drivers talking about “organs, kidneys, and trips from the house to the airport.” Since the late nineteen-nineties, Istanbul—a short flight from Tirana—has been a destination for transplant tourism.

In late 2002, a K.L.A. member told Montgomery that the group had made “a fortune” by trafficking body parts, primarily kidneys. C., as Montgomery called the source, claimed that the K.L.A. received about forty-five thousand dollars per body. Most shipments involved body parts from “two or three Serbs,” though C. knew of an instance when the K.L.A. “did five Serbs together.”

In late 2002 and early 2003, Montgomery travelled with a colleague to Albania, carrying a map drawn by his informants. It directed them to the yellow house and to the farmhouse near the airport. But they didn’t knock on the doors. Montgomery thought that they needed stronger evidence before confronting the occupants. “The only way we felt we could report this was if bodies were recovered and matched with missing people,” he told me.

Montgomery decided to put his investigations aside, but he didn’t let the matter go entirely. He sent a memo to the U.N.’s missing-persons office in Kosovo, asserting that, in 1999 and 2000, between one hundred and three hundred prisoners were taken to Albania, where some were dispatched to a “makeshift clinic” that extracted “body organs from the captives.” The U.N. forwarded the memo to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or I.C.T.Y. The tribunal, established in The Hague in 1993, was designed to bring a measure of justice to those who had suffered horrors in the Balkans. The Serbs did not see the tribunal as impartial, and they have remained hostile to it. Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia’s current President, said recently that the tribunal “was founded to try the Serbian people.” In fact, most of the convictions in I.C.T.Y. courtrooms have been of ethnic Serbs, in part because the Milosevic regime made little effort to conceal its crimes. In Qyshk, Serbian militia members responsible for the massacre left behind photographs of themselves posing with machine guns; the images were later used to identify some of the culprits.

The lead prosecutor at the I.C.T.Y. was Carla Del Ponte, an indefatigable fifty-six-year-old lawyer from the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. She had joined the tribunal in September, 1999, and she had tried dozens of Serbs for crimes against humanity. The K.L.A., she suspected, had committed significantly fewer war crimes, but scale is not exculpatory.

Del Ponte received Montgomery’s memo as she was preparing to indict Ramush Haradinaj, a former bouncer who joined the K.L.A., rose to commander, and then went on to become the Prime Minister of U.N.-administered Kosovo. She intended to charge Haradinaj with “planning, instigating, ordering, committing, or otherwise aiding and abetting” the abuse of dozens of prisoners. The indictment also accused him of participating in “the abduction of persons who were later found murdered.” In documents sent to Del Ponte, Montgomery quoted his source C. saying that Haradinaj “must have known” about organ trafficking, in part because his brother Daut was close to someone “heavily involved” in the trade. (In 2002, a U.N. court convicted Daut, a former K.L.A. member, of involvement in the murder of four political rivals.)

Del Ponte was not alone in her dim view of the K.L.A. President Bill Clinton’s Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard, had called the K.L.A. a “terrorist group,” and the organization had regularly been accused of gangsterism. In the late nineties, Italian police had arrested an Albanian for trafficking women and marijuana across the Adriatic Sea by speedboat; the suspect confessed to brokering drugs-for-guns deals between the K.L.A. and the Mafia. An Interpol representative, appearing before Congress in 2000, testified that the K.L.A. had “helped transport two billion dollars’ worth of drugs annually into Western Europe.” After the war, critics have alleged, many former K.L.A. members continued to nurture strong ties with the underworld.

Del Ponte knew that securing a war-crimes conviction against Haradinaj would not be easy. Insurgencies tend to be improvised affairs, without battle orders or formal communiqués. The K.L.A. prized secrecy and stealth. Looking to buttress the case, Del Ponte authorized Michael Montgomery to escort a U.N. team to the mysterious yellow house. One morning in 2004, under a low, granite sky, Montgomery, Baraybar—the Peruvian U.N. official—and half a dozen U.N. and I.C.T.Y. personnel travelled, in a convoy of S.U.V.s, down a dirt road outside Burrel. Following protocol, they brought along Arben Dyla, an Albanian prosecutor, who mocked their “silly” expedition. “There are no Serbs here,” he told the group. “But, if anyone did bring Serbs here and killed them, that would have been a good thing.” (Dyla denies making this remark.)

They arrived at the yellow house that Montgomery had seen a year earlier—only now it was white. Baraybar got close enough to determine that, beneath a thin coat of fresh paint, “the thing was yellow.”

The owner reluctantly let them inside. Baraybar, who was trained in forensic science, pulled on a white Tyvek suit and walked around the place. It smelled stale and sour. He sprayed Luminol—a chemical that causes traces of blood to glow—and identified a stain on the living-room floor. The owner explained to a translator who was part of the U.N. contingent that his wife had given birth at home; later, he said that the blood had come from a slaughtered animal. “Do you slaughter chickens in your living room?” Baraybar asked me. “It was quite bizarre.” Moreover, the stain had a square edge, as if blood had dripped off the corner of a table. “Is that proof of anything?” Baraybar said. “No, it isn’t. But it’s a clue.”

At one point, Baraybar went into the back yard, and noticed a pile of trash inside a thicket of brush. He dug past food scraps and plastic and retrieved gauze, syringes, drip bags, vials, an empty bottle of Tranxene, and an empty foil packet of Buscopan. He called a doctor at the U.N., who told him that Tranxene was an anti-anxiety drug and Buscopan a muscle relaxer and anti-spasmodic; both could be used to sedate patients. Baraybar asked the owner about the pharmaceuticals. He said that a nurse visited the house “on occasion” and doled out pills and medical supplies. Baraybar found the explanation “incoherent.” He placed the items in Ziploc bags, along with a fragment of cloth that he deemed “consistent with surgical overalls.”

There was a cemetery near the property, and when Baraybar walked over to it locals confronted him and told him to leave. The U.N. investigators decided to return to Pristina. Baraybar shipped the Ziploc bags to The Hague, and Del Ponte’s team inspected the material. Though suspicious, it wasn’t strong enough to anchor a case, and it couldn’t be connected to Haradinaj. Archivists at the I.C.T.Y. filed the objects away. Eventually, someone threw them out.

Del Ponte pressed ahead with prosecutions, but she discovered that it was extremely difficult to secure witnesses. A Kosovar who had testified in the murder trial of Haradinaj’s brother Daut was gunned down; an internal U.N. document noted that the Kosovar had been expected to deliver “vital” testimony in “other war-crimes cases.” Another witness told the court that “there were persons . . . whose names don’t even appear on witness lists, because they have been killed.” The I.C.T.Y. had a witness-protection program, but it was largely ineffective. Although public transcripts protected witnesses by using pseudonyms, defendants learned their identities before trials, and, during proceedings, sat only a few feet away from them. “Who were we protected from?” one witness told me. “Everyone in the court knew me.” In April, 2008, judges in The Hague acquitted Haradinaj, but they noted their “strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe.” (No evidence has come to light connecting Haradinaj to organ trafficking. His lawyer denied that his client had committed or sanctioned any crimes, and said that it was “false and defamatory” to suggest that Haradinaj’s acquittal was “tainted by intimidation.”)

The prosecution of Fatmir Limaj—a former K.L.A. leader and a close confidant of Prime Minister Thaci—had unravelled in similar fashion. In February, 2003, Limaj surrendered at a ski resort in Slovenia, where he was vacationing with Thaci. Limaj was accused of overseeing a detention camp, in Llapushnik, Kosovo, where prisoners were subjected to beatings, starvation, and torture. Two of his deputies were also indicted.

Del Ponte wouldn’t need to prove that Limaj wielded an axe or fired a pistol—only that he knew about atrocities and did not stop them. Her prosecution was guided by the legal theory of “command responsibility,” which dates to the fifteenth century, when Peter von Hagenbach, a governor under the Duke of Burgundy, was tried, convicted, and beheaded for presiding over the brutal occupation of a town in the Upper Rhine. “Not only was this the first recorded international war-crimes trial; it was the first recorded trial in which a commander was held responsible for crimes by his subordinates,” David Luban, an expert on war crimes at Georgetown University, told me. After the Second World War, tribunals vigorously applied the doctrine of command responsibility to Japanese and Nazi officers.

According to an internal I.C.T.Y. document from 2004, Limaj’s relatives and associates launched a campaign of “serious intimidation of and interference with potential witnesses.” Two men showed up at the house of one witness and warned him not to testify, adding, “If you make the mistake of going there, you will be dead.” Someone called the wife of a second witness and threatened, “You will be liquidated.” A third witness withdrew after a relative overheard a group of men, at a café in Pristina, saying of any people who testified against Limaj, “We will burn them, their families, and their houses.” A fourth witness refused to meet an I.C.T.Y. investigator, explaining that he “did not want to die.” Nazim Bllaca, a former K.L.A. member, told me, “This is how the Limaj case ended.” On November 30, 2005, the tribunal acquitted Limaj, though the judges observed that a “context of fear, in particular with respect to witnesses living in Kosovo, was very perceptible throughout the trial.” (A relative of one of Limaj’s indicted deputies was convicted of contempt, because he “knowingly interfered with” a witness.)

Bllaca says that he participated in more than a dozen violent acts on behalf of former K.L.A. members, including murder, kidnapping, and witness intimidation. Now under witness protection, he has testified in two cases, both of which have led to convictions. “It was very simple,” he told me. “We worked in three lanes. Kill collaborators, kill Hague witnesses, and kill L.D.K. people”—members of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the chief rival of the party led by Thaci and Limaj. In the months after the war, many L.D.K. members were murdered; one was killed at home on his couch, and another was assassinated on a street in Pristina, in the middle of the day.

In a leaked 2005 memo, Germany’s foreign spy service asserted that Haradinaj and other Kosovar leaders had inoculated themselves against criminal investigations by leveraging their connections in Kosovo’s military and intelligence agencies, and throughout the Balkan underworld. Kosovar leaders had avoided “getting their hands dirty” even as their henchmen engaged in tactics such as contract killings and bribing officials.

Last year, I met with Limaj in Pristina. He denied any responsibility for prisoner abuse. When I asked him whether he had directed his subordinates to frighten witnesses into recanting testimony, he said, with a pinched smile, “I was in The Hague. If someone here did something which was wrong, this person has to respond.” After Limaj was released from detention, Kosovars celebrated in the streets of Pristina.

In December, 2007, Del Ponte stepped down as the lead prosecutor, saying that it was “time to return to normal life.” She soon published a memoir, “Madame Prosecutor,” in which she recounted her successes in chasing Italian mobsters, Rwandan genocidaires, and Serbian generals. But she fumed about her inability to make charges stick against the K.L.A. The Limaj and Haradinaj investigations were “the most frustrating” part of her time in The Hague—and proof that “impunity shrouds powerful political and military figures” in Kosovo. She voiced her suspicion that the K.L.A. had trafficked the organs of prisoners, and offered an account of her team’s visit to the yellow house.

Del Ponte told me that “the international community” had shown a “fear-driven reluctance to apply the law” in Kosovo, adding that the United States had displayed “no political will to find out the real truths.” The K.L.A. had been a reliable ally of the Americans during the war, but it struck Del Ponte as hypocritical for the U.S. to ignore possible crimes by the group’s leaders, given the U.S. condemnation of Serbian misconduct. She also felt that allowing alleged perpetrators of war crimes to achieve leadership positions in Kosovo undermined the country’s prospects for stability.

After the publication of Del Ponte’s book, the Council of Europe decided to look deeper into the matter of organ trafficking. It assigned the task to Dick Marty, a senator from Switzerland who represented his country at the council, and who had looked into alleged human-rights abuses across the continent. His team had located C.I.A. “black sites” in Poland and Romania, and had exposed the murder of political opponents in Chechnya. Marty sent several investigators into the field. Experts in the region told him to expect a challenge, noting that the criminal networks in Albania and Kosovo were “probably more difficult to penetrate than the Cosa Nostra.”

Just as Marty’s team was getting to work, Hashim Thaci became the Prime Minister of Kosovo. In February, 2008, a month after taking office, he declared Kosovo’s independence. Joyous crowds in Pristina launched fireworks, and a giant yellow sculpture, forming the word “newborn,” in English, was installed in a plaza. Thaci stood before Kosovo’s parliament and declared, “From this day onward, Kosovo is proud, independent, and free.”

Not everyone saw Thaci in heroic terms. The 2005 German intelligence document claimed that, after the war, Thaci presided over an organized-crime empire whose leaders came from the Drenica Valley, in central Kosovo. The Drenica group allegedly coördinated its activities with Albanian gangsters throughout Europe, engaging in money laundering and maintaining links to arms and drug smugglers. According to the German report, the group kept a “professional killer” in its employ.

Not long after Thaci became Prime Minister, Lutfi Dervishi, a urologist in Pristina, began pushing to open a transplant clinic. In Kosovo, doctors need official approval to perform such operations, so Dervishi turned to a former associate, Shaip Muja, a surgeon who was working as Thaci’s health adviser. Muja made several inquiries, and in March, 2008, Dervishi opened a clinic. During the next eight months, two dozen organ transplants took place there.

That October, a young Turkish man, who had agreed to accept twenty thousand dollars for one of his kidneys, arrived at the clinic in Pristina. The kidney was removed and placed inside a seventy-four-year-old Israeli man, who had paid ninety thousand euros for it. The operations were performed by Dervishi and by a Turkish surgeon, Yusuf Sonmez, who is known in the Turkish press as Dr. Frankenstein, for his prominent role in the black-market organ trade. (Buying organs from volunteers is outlawed everywhere in the world except Iran; Luc Noël, a doctor at the World Health Organization, told me, “Human bodies should not be the source of financial gain.”)

The Turkish donor was released from the hospital while he was still woozy, and, when he got to the airport, police officers began questioning him. He said that he had donated a kidney, but the officers were suspicious and raced to the clinic, where they arrested Dervishi and his son. (Sonmez had fled.) The clinic was shut down, and Dervishi, his son, and three others (including Sonmez, who remains a fugitive) were charged with human trafficking and organized crime by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. The trial is currently under way, and a verdict is expected soon. According to the indictment, high-ranking Kosovars were complicit in the clinic’s activities and encouraged health officials to grant a bogus license.

Two days after prosecutors released the indictment, Dick Marty, the Swiss senator, published the results of his investigation. Marty claimed that Thaci and the Drenica group, which included Fatmir Limaj, had built a “formidable power base in the organized criminal enterprises” in the late nineties, and had exerted “violent control” over the heroin trade in the region. During and after the war, Marty wrote, Thaci was the “boss” of a “network of unlawful activity”—one that included a constellation of detention camps in Albania, where some prisoners were subjected to abuse, including torture, murder, and organ harvesting. One of the “leading co-conspirators,” Marty suggested, was Shaip Muja, the surgeon who became Thaci’s health adviser. Marty identified four sites, among them the yellow house outside Burrel, that had served as “way stations” in an organ-trafficking trade. At the farmhouse near the Tirana airport, prisoners were killed, “usually by a gunshot to the head,” before “being operated on.”

The sale of organs at Dervishi’s clinic, Marty wrote, indicated that Kosovars had continued organ trafficking after the war, “albeit in other forms.” He concluded, “Signs of collusion between the criminal class and high political and institutional office bearers are too numerous and too serious to be ignored.” He acknowledged that Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had been “appalling,” but insisted that the dynamic of violence was “more complex” than many had assumed: “There cannot and must not be one justice for the winners and another for the losers.”

His accusations had an explosive effect in Kosovo. Thaci called Marty’s report “an attack” on “Kosovo, the Albanian people, and me, but also against the U.S., the U.N., and NATO.” Thaci appeared on an Albanian television program and threatened to expose every Kosovar and Albanian who had assisted Marty, saying, “These individuals will be disgraced.”

In private, Thaci spoke with less bravado. He fretted to friends about whether he could still look his eleven-year-old son in the face. He summoned the American, French, German, Italian, and British envoys. “He was rocked,” Jean-François Fitou, the French Ambassador to Kosovo at the time, recalled. Thaci offered to resign if they considered him a diplomatic liability. They discussed Marty’s report. Although it was based on a sustained investigation, it did not provide conclusive details of any single crime, nor did it name sources, other than identifying them as “distinct and independent” K.L.A. insiders. Moreover, Marty’s findings carried no judicial weight. The ambassadors told Thaci that, unless hard evidence emerged, he could count on their support.

Last spring, I flew to the Balkans and visited Serbia’s Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, in Belgrade. I traded my passport for a security badge, and was escorted upstairs to see Bruno Vekaric, a deputy prosecutor. Vekaric, a Serb who started his job in 2003, has helped secure the convictions of dozens of people for war crimes—nearly all of them Serbs. He has pursued the organ-trafficking allegations as intensely as anyone. His goal, he has said, is to find out “who committed those monstrous crimes, who was capturing and killing people for trafficking in their organs.” He is not the only Serbian government official who speaks as if it were an established fact that the K.L.A. trafficked organs. Such officials contend that the problems with securing witnesses at the Limaj and the Haradinaj trials, coupled with the discarded evidence from the yellow house, strongly suggest a coverup. Recently, Serbia’s minister of justice said that the I.C.T.Y. had “spat in the face of Serbian victims.”

Vekaric, who had invited me to visit, excitedly led me into a boardroom, its windows obscured by venetian blinds. At the end of a table sat a man wearing a black baseball cap that shaded his eyes. Vekaric introduced him and offered to let me conduct an interview, provided that I used a pseudonym for the man, who was in Serbia’s witness-protection program.

He was thirty-nine years old, with a mustache and a broken nose, and asked that I call him Adrian. Half Albanian, he grew up in Switzerland, where he became part of a community of Albanian expatriates. In 1997, he joined the K.L.A. Upon enlistment, he said, he went off to train with the French Foreign Legion. Then he travelled to Albania. Once there, he said, he headed toward the border with Kosovo, stopping at a camp near Kukes. Michael Montgomery and Dick Marty have both identified Kukes as the site of an abandoned factory that the K.L.A. transformed into a weapons depot, a barracks, and a jail.

“I met some doctors and started training with them,” Adrian said. “They told me how to take organs out, how to put them aside, and how to transport them.” One of the doctors, he noted, was Lutfi Dervishi—the urologist from the transplant clinic in Pristina.

One day in the spring of 1998, Adrian’s commander stepped on a land mine while on patrol in Kosovo, suffering grave injuries. Adrian and five others carried him, on a stretcher, to the Albanian border, but he died along the way. A van arrived at the border to pick up the commander’s body. Adrian accepted a ride, and was dropped off near the village of Helshan, where another K.L.A. camp had been established—a few tents and a converted schoolhouse. Adrian noticed that two senior K.L.A. leaders were present: Jakup Krasniqi and Sabit Geci. Krasniqi was then the spokesman for the K.L.A., and is now the president of Kosovo’s parliament. Geci headed the K.L.A.’s military police.

This was a crucial turn in Adrian’s story. In July, 2011, a European Union court found Geci guilty of war crimes, based on evidence of prisoner abuse at Kukes and another camp, Cahan. Former K.L.A. officials had long denied the existence of detention camps in Albania, but the Geci trial proved otherwise, and marked one of the most prominent convictions to date of a K.L.A. leader. The judges rendered their verdict after sixteen witnesses, most of them former captives, testified to scenes of depravity.

A Kosovar Albanian I’ll call Enver testified about being detained in Kukes, along with his brother. They had been accused of being spies—charges that they denied. One night, the guards took Enver and his brother into an interrogation room. Enver said that Geci watched as guards beat another prisoner, clubbed him with a rubber-wrapped baseball bat, and rubbed salt into his wounds. Geci himself beat the prisoner with a crutch. He pistol-whipped Enver, and told his men to beat him with metal bars; Enver repeatedly lost consciousness, and they tortured him further by dunking his head in water. On another occasion, the guards at Kukes fitted him and his brother into bulletproof jackets and fired Kalashnikovs at their stomachs until they collapsed. Later, a guard shot Enver’s brother in the knee. Enver begged for help, but his brother bled all night and died the next day.

After saluting Geci and Krasniqi at the camp in Helshan, Adrian told me, he was summoned to the converted schoolhouse. The K.L.A. officers there knew him, and were aware of his medical training. “There were school desks, three in a row, that formed a table,” he said. Three doctors, including Dervishi, stood around the table. K.L.A. guards dragged in a young man—“nineteen or twenty years old”—and lifted him onto the desks. “I didn’t know who he was or his nationality at the time,” Adrian said. The young man’s face was covered with fresh-looking bruises.

Someone tore off the young man’s shirt and splashed rubbing alcohol over his chest. Guards grabbed his wrists and ankles. Adrian suddenly realized what was happening: the prisoner’s organs were to be harvested. He gripped a scalpel and “started cutting” into the young man’s chest. Adrian recalled hearing him scream, in Serbian, “Bože pomozi mi! Nemojte to da mi radite!” (“God help me! Please don’t do this to me!”)

“That was when I figured out that he wasn’t an Albanian,” Adrian told me. Next, he sawed through the rib cage with a bayonet. While two doctors, standing across the table, lifted the prisoner’s ribs, he carved out the heart as it was still pulsing. The young Serb died.

Adrian said that he placed the heart in a box filled with preserving liquids. He put the box in a small cooler and carried it outside to an idling green Volvo 704 sedan. He fitted the cooler into the trunk’s spare-tire cavity. The entire procedure took about forty-five minutes, though to Adrian it “felt like an eternity.” Before he left the camp, Geci congratulated him and slapped him on the back.

Six months later, Adrian said, he received orders to collect a cooler from a house outside Burrel—the notorious yellow house. Adrian said that a doctor, in scrubs, met him at the door and handed him the cooler. Adrian drove to a military airport near Tirana, where a guard opened a gate to a runway. “Then we saw a private jet,” Adrian said. “It had a Turkish flag on the back of the plane.” I now grasped why Vekaric had been so eager for me to meet Adrian: his eyewitness account filled gaps that had stymied prosecutors and investigators for years.

When I asked Adrian if these episodes had darkened his view of the K.L.A., he said that he had “made a wall” in his mind and continued fighting for the group, and for another separatist movement. But in 2002, he said, “I had a problem with my conscience.” He renounced both groups but stayed in Kosovo. Not long afterward, he said, a former K.L.A. commander retaliated by kidnapping him, beating him, and administering electric shocks. He complained to a U.N. police officer; the assailant was eventually convicted of battery. Soon afterward, Adrian said, someone tossed a grenade at his home. He went into hiding, in various Balkan countries, before finally heading to Belgrade and seeking protection from the Serbian authorities.

I asked him if he felt like a traitor.

“I’m not speaking against the Albanian people,” Adrian said. “I’m speaking against people who committed crimes. I gave up everything I had in Switzerland to fight for the K.L.A., so I am not a traitor or a spy. I’m just trying to become a good person. It’s been enough for me to hide all these things in my life. I cannot do it anymore.”

He admitted, though, that he still had some secrets. “There are too many things, too many stories, too many murders that no one has ever heard about,” he said. “Many people saw things. If all of them speak as I speak, these cases would be resolved.”

Adrian’s testimony was striking, but it also seemed to connect one too many dots. By his account, he had participated in the barbaric murder of a Serb, received praise from a notorious war criminal, taken a suspicious package from a doctor at the yellow house, and delivered this parcel to a plane bound for Turkey. And his description of the surgery seemed bizarre: why, for example, had the Serb not been fully sedated?

I decided to see how much of Adrian’s story checked out. The K.L.A. had indeed encamped in Helshan, and in 2004 prosecutors presented in court the testimony of someone who claimed that a K.L.A. veteran had beaten him and administered electric shocks; the initials of the accuser matched those of Adrian’s real name. That same year, the BBC reported that a grenade had been lobbed at the house of someone sharing Adrian’s real name. But most of the story was difficult to authenticate. Dervishi, who was under indictment, and Geci, who was imprisoned, refused to talk. Krasniqi denied ever visiting Helshan in 1998 and told me that the episode Adrian described “could only be constructed in legends and films.”

Prem Shekar, a cardiac-transplant surgeon at Harvard Medical School, told me that Adrian’s tale was medically implausible, starting with the rubbing-alcohol detail. A heart transplant requires a truly sterile environment, he said: “If you take a heart that is harvested in a contaminated scenario, the recipient will get a terrible infection.” He disparaged the notion of removing a warm, pulsing heart. Typically, the heart is injected with a cardioplegia solution while it is still inside the donor, paralyzing the organ. “Only once the heart has cooled and stopped can you take it out,” he told me. Shekar also doubted Adrian’s claim that he had sawed through the Serb’s ribs. In hospitals, Shekar said, hearts are harvested through a “midline split”; a sternal saw is used to crack the breastplate in half. Moreover, a heart can last only four to six hours outside a body. There was simply no way you could transport a heart from a remote camp in Albania to a hospital in Turkey, and then complete a lengthy operation, without the heart failing first. The surgery that Adrian described, Shekar said, would suffice only as “an extremely primitive form of torture.”

I did find Adrian’s supposed commander—the one who had allegedly stepped on a land mine—on a list of K.L.A. martyrs. But the official date of death was May, 1999, a year later than Adrian had indicated. Then I scanned the roster of K.L.A. veterans, but Adrian’s name was not on it. He told me that authorities in Kosovo were “doing their best” to erase his memory from the archives.

I interviewed Adrian four times—twice in person and twice over Skype—and the disparities piled up. Even after I notified him that the commander’s date of death was 1999, he insisted that the Helshan episode had taken place in 1998. “I saw a lot of dead people,” he replied, opening the possibility that he had mistaken the commander for someone else. Originally, he claimed that he hadn’t seen Lutfi Dervishi, the urologist, since that day in Helshan; a month afterward, he said that he had seen Dervishi “later on, way after the war,” at a reception in Kosovo.

He told me that he now lived with his wife in Belgrade; his ex-wife was in Kosovo, and was related to a “very high-level, V.I.P. person.” I tracked down one of Adrian’s relatives in Europe and called her to ask about these purported family connections. (Adrian refused to tell me his ex-wife’s name, or the names of any former K.L.A. fighters who could corroborate his story.) The woman laughed, dismissing Adrian as a pathological liar who had never belonged to the K.L.A. but had served time in Germany for dealing drugs. I discovered that Adrian also had a police record in Serbia, which included vehicle theft, threatening an official with an axe, and lying to police.

Meanwhile, Adrian, under the auspices of Serbia’s Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, was sharing his tale with others. He got a very receptive hearing from Serbian state television, which, on September 10th last year, broadcast a ninety-minute documentary, “Anatomy of a Crime.” The opening twenty minutes featured Adrian—his face obscured and his voice distorted—describing how he cut out the heart of the young Serb. Vekaric, the deputy prosecutor, also appeared, telling the host, “We absolutely are convinced that he did what he says he did.”

The program’s message was clear: just as Serbian leaders had been held accountable for war crimes, Kosovar leaders needed to be held accountable for the kinds of acts described by Adrian. Within days, Adrian’s story was disseminated around the world, as the A.P., the Telegraph, and other media outlets published summaries of the program. An Agence France Presse report, which quoted Adrian describing how “the blood started pouring” as he made incisions in the rib cage, bore the headline “GRUESOME DETAILS ON WARTIME KOSOVO ORGAN HARVESTING.”

In July, 2010, an appeals court in The Hague granted prosecutors another opportunity to try Ramush Haradinaj, the former K.L.A. commander. (The tribunal does not prohibit double jeopardy.) Not long afterward, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Belgrade notified prosecutors in The Hague that it had found a witness—one of Haradinaj’s subordinates in the K.L.A.—who had firsthand knowledge of Haradinaj’s misdeeds. That November, a prosecutor from The Hague, Paul Rogers, flew to Belgrade to meet the prospective witness.

Rogers approached the meeting with caution: it seemed unusual for a crucial witness to emerge five years after the indictment. He was also concerned about the possible bias of the Serbian government. But he assigned the witness a number, Eighty-one, and heard him out. In the summer of 1998, Eighty-one said, three men—one Serb and two Roma—were arrested by the K.L.A., accused of collaborating with Serbia, and thrown into a basement near the village of Jabllanice, in southern Kosovo. Haradinaj came to check on the captives. For the inspection, the three prisoners were taken into a courtyard. A Haradinaj lieutenant, nicknamed Toger, sliced off one of the Serb’s ears, while another lieutenant, nicknamed Maxhup, beat the Roma men with a baseball bat. Later, Eighty-one said, Toger cut out one of the Serb’s eyeballs with a knife.

Rogers noticed some inconsistencies in Eighty-one’s narrative, but people often waver when relating disturbing memories. Certainly, the account conformed to suspicions that prosecutors in The Hague had long held about K.L.A. leaders. And so, in November, 2011, Eighty-one flew to The Hague to testify, and underwent ten hours of direct examination in the courtroom.

Haradinaj’s lawyer, an Englishman named Ben Emmerson, leafed through a stack of Eighty-one’s previous statements. “The first account you gave to the prosecution was that only one of the boys’ ears was cut off and that it was cut off by Maxhup and that it was the Roma’s ear,” Emmerson said. “The second account you gave was that only one of the boys’ ears was cut off, but that it was cut off by Toger and that it was the Serb boy’s ear. . . . Now you’re saying two ears were cut off—one of a Roma and one of the Serb.” Emmerson also said, “I appreciate that it’s difficult for you to keep up with the various versions that you’ve given—but that’s because you’re making them up.”

At one point, Eighty-one blamed poor translation for the confusion. Emmerson produced a copy of a document that Eighty-one had signed earlier, attesting to the accuracy of the translations. “This is theatre!” Emmerson said. “The reason why you can’t keep them straight is because they’re all inventions.”

During closing arguments, Rogers conceded that Eighty-one’s testimony had been a disaster, and requested that the judges “ignore that evidence” while contemplating their verdict. Emmerson, in turn, said that Eighty-one was “so slippery with the slime of dishonesty that one felt the need to wash one’s hands.”

A few days later, Emmerson told me he was certain that Eighty-one had been “actively tutored” by Serbia’s intelligence agencies. Last November, Haradinaj was acquitted a second time; the judges cited Eighty-one’s “unreliable” statements as a factor.

Reading the transcripts of Eighty-one’s testimony, I noticed several similarities between him and Adrian. Both had offered unusually detailed accounts of K.L.A. savagery. Both had spent considerable time in the company of Serbian officials. Both had grown up in Switzerland. Both had a rap sheet in Serbia. In their testimony, both emphasized the importance of rank and mentioned saluting K.L.A. leaders—observations that could help prosecutors make a “command responsibility” argument.

I also learned something about the 2004 case in which Adrian had apparently testified to being kidnapped and abused by the former K.L.A. soldier. In March, 2007, the Supreme Court of Kosovo had ordered a retrial, arguing that the accusations were not “in any way corroborated by evidence.” Three years later, the prosecution withdrew its charges. At the time, the case had seemed another example of K.L.A. fighters evading accountability. Now it seemed one more instance of fabulation by Adrian.

Many questions remained. Had the Serbian government, frustrated with its inability to find conclusive evidence of Kosovar organ trafficking, deliberately planted a false story? When, and why, had Adrian begun working for Belgrade? Had his criminal record made him vulnerable to exploitation by the Serbian government? And why, if he was a trained Serbian asset, was he so incompetent?

Then, there was the role of Bruno Vekaric, the prosecutor in the Belgrade office. In his country, he told me, he had been criticized for prosecuting mainly Serbs and for his coöperation with The Hague. Was Vekaric hoping to demonstrate his patriotic credentials by advancing Adrian’s story? When I asked Vekaric if he had been duped by Adrian or was complicit in his fiction, Vekaric responded, “Maybe he is a liar. But in this organ-trafficking story I am sure he is right.”

When I last spoke with Adrian, over Skype, I asked him to confirm that he was also known as Eighty-one. He put on a blue baseball cap and tugged it over his eyes. Pushing himself away from the table, he mumbled something, in Serbian, to a female handler off-screen. She appeared in the frame and said, “He does not want to speak anymore.”

Forensic police procedurals like “C.S.I.” are predicated on the idea that every murder leaves behind a trail of evidence, however faint. In reality, some crimes prove impossible to trace. Conspiracies are hatched in dark rooms; corpses are dissolved in acid; witnesses take secrets to their graves.

Several K.L.A. leaders have survived repeated prosecution. After Fatmir Limaj, Thaci’s confidant, was acquitted in The Hague, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo charged him with torture and prisoner abuse at a second camp. Prosecutors had persuaded a former guard, Agim Zogaj, to talk. At the camp, Zogaj had kept a diary that contained the names of prisoners. According to a report in Koha Ditore, a Kosovo daily, a “plus” or a “minus” sign beside the name signalled whether the prisoner had been freed or executed—in some cases, on Limaj’s orders. But in September, 2011, a month before Limaj’s trial began, Zogaj was found hanged in a park in Duisburg, Germany—an apparent suicide. The judges declared the diary inadmissible and acquitted Limaj. In November, 2012, however, the judges reversed their decision on the diary, and a retrial is expected to begin soon. Limaj is currently under house arrest in Pristina. A spokesman for the E.U. justified Limaj’s detention by citing the risk that he might tamper with evidence.

A senior E.U. war-crimes investigator told me he was certain that “criminality in Kosovo has not been accounted for.” Yet Serbia’s efforts to promote Adrian’s story had clearly backfired: such tactics only made it easier for the lawyers representing K.L.A. leaders to protest that their clients were victims of slander. Michael Montgomery said that Bruno Vekaric’s office in Belgrade had, in its investigation of organ trafficking, “gone out of its way to screw up everything.”

Nevertheless, the E.U. investigator told me, “With the appropriate degree of rigor, I remain convinced, it is possible to account for the most severe crimes in Kosovar Albanian factions, the K.L.A., and their affiliates, even the most complex criminal conspiracies to traffic human beings for organ extraction.” In August, 2011, the E.U. formed a “special investigative task force” to sort out the organ-trafficking saga once and for all—including the possible role of Kosovo’s leaders.

The E.U. has put an American prosecutor, Clint Williamson, in charge of this effort. Before taking the job, Williamson, a former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, examined the material gathered by Dick Marty’s team, and concluded that a full-scale investigation was merited. Williamson, an experienced diplomat, knows Kosovo well, and a decade earlier he had worked in The Hague, helping to draft the indictment against Milosevic. It would be hard to depict him as inexperienced or partisan.

Williamson set up his office in Brussels, in a nondescript E.U. government building that is protected by twenty-four-hour surveillance and a secure communications network. He told me that the failure to have a proper reckoning in Kosovo had left a “dark cloud” over the Balkans. He plans to finish his probe in 2014.

Court records pointed to glaring oversights in some previous prosecutions of K.L.A. leaders. For example, a witness in the trial against Sabit Geci—the military-police chief convicted of abuses at Kukes and Cahan—testified that one of Thaci’s top advisers had driven him to Kukes, but the judge dismissed the comment, saying that the adviser was “not a defendant in this trial.” Why hadn’t the prosecutor pursued this potential link between Thaci and Kukes?

There were other possible leads. A former detainee in the Cahan camp has said that guards there “put guns at our heads and made us beat, shoot, even sodomize other prisoners.” He noted, “Our torturers were our fellow-Albanians, the K.L.A., who were supposed to be fighting for our freedom.” The detainee, who remembered Limaj giving orders, said that, at one point, Thaci came in, looked at the prisoners, and “saw that we were tied up, injured, and in such a dirty place.” Thaci and Limaj “knew exactly what they were doing to us.” Parts of the detainee’s story eventually appeared in Le Monde, but prosecutors have not picked up the thread. (At least one other witness has placed Thaci at a detention camp: Enver, the prisoner accused of spying, recalled seeing Thaci at Kukes, wearing civilian clothes.)

In 2011 and 2012, Williamson travelled to Albania. He told me that he considered Albania, not Kosovo, the “single most important operational zone” for the K.L.A.’s alleged crimes. One place of particular interest is the farmhouse by the airport—the spot where, according to Marty, kidneys were removed from prisoners who had been shot in the head. (The owner of the farmhouse, which is in the village of Fushe-Kruje, denies any wrongdoing; he filed a claim to sue Marty for defamation, but the claim was thrown out.)

Williamson admits that the chances of finding a “smoking gun” are slim, since so much time has passed since crimes allegedly occurred. If corpses had to be moved, or videotape destroyed, it was probably done years ago. Without physical evidence, Williamson will have to rely almost entirely on testimony. He noted, “It’s one thing for people to talk to Marty or talk to a journalist. It’s quite another to participate in a criminal investigation where you ultimately have to go into a courtroom and point your finger at very powerful people.” That said, Williamson spent several years working in the Justice Department’s organized-crime-and-racketeering section, and he had found that, with the right combination of incentives, protective measures, and appeals to conscience, “even the most intractable insiders will turn witness.”

Last year, I met Prime Minister Thaci in his office, on the second floor of a drab fourteen-story tower in central Pristina. Jean-François Fitou, the French Ambassador to Kosovo, had told me that Thaci was “the Mick Jagger of the K.L.A.,” and Thaci is indeed dashing, with a clean smile, carefully groomed hair, and a buttery complexion.

Within the K.L.A., Thaci had been known as the Snake—a reference to his slippery evasion of Serbian authorities. The nickname, it seemed, was still appropriate. “Until the war broke out, the Serbs wanted to imprison me,” he said. “In wartime, they tried to kill me. After the war, they tried to compromise me, to destroy my reputation.” Thaci denies having ever been connected to a criminal syndicate and says that he was unaware of any prisoner abuse.

At one point, the conversation turned to Sabit Geci. Germany’s spy agency reported that Thaci had maintained “very good contacts” with him, but Thaci disputed this, saying, “To be frank, he was not my friend.” As we talked about Geci’s crimes, Thaci’s face turned the color of gravel and his smile contorted, as if he could taste his reputation souring on his tongue. “The K.L.A. was big, and you always have abusers in such organizations,” he said. It was almost five o’clock, and many of his aides and assistants had gone home for the day. He sank into a black leather chair and unfastened the top button on his shirt.

If Williamson found conclusive evidence that the K.L.A. had trafficked the organs of prisoners, Thaci said, “that would leave the worst legacy for Kosovo and our people.” But “never did something like this happen” with his knowledge. “That’s why I gave my full support to the task force,” he said. “In order to have the truth prevail.”

The late-afternoon sun slanted across the room. “I give my full support to justice,” he added. “I will be on the side of justice, no matter who is on the other side.”

Regaining his color, Thaci said, with a grin, “The only laws I have violated were Milosevic’s laws. And I feel very proud of that.”


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