Short Story Review – Vladimir Arsenijević – One Minute: Dumbo’s Death

A man’s end is the product of his beginning.  To properly understand one, you must know both.  Arguable, but Vladimir Arsenijević’s short story, One Minute: Dumbo’s Death, takes this mantra as true and runs with it, taking it as a concept to its terminal point.

The story is broken into sections, an A and B, the first a countdown from 60 presented in staccato sentences chronicling the abrupt death of Dumbo, and the second a whirlwind tour through his life, from birth, to war, to love, to the moment before his death begins.  In the first part of “Dumbo’s” life, we are witness as he succumbs to a disease brought about by years of living high on drugs and low-down in streets.  He’s homeless and, thanks to his huge ears, has become something of an attraction to tourists, students, and other sundry unsavoury types.   Arsenijević’s writing here is at its most arresting, an immediate, forceful, physical, kinetic countdown that leads to an inevitable conclusion:

(52) and once he even ended up on a postcard, though he was oblivious to this, and it was, thank goodness, only a parody made by one of the students (51) in that picture he was lying on the cold stone like a log, like a heap of dead flesh (50) vomit had slid down his rough cheek, followed by thick snot (49) colored with red strands of bloody spit, forming a little puddle on the pavement (48) while above his head there was a shiny sign in several European language (47) “WELCOME TO GLORIOUS BARCELONA!”

The interruptions of the seconds in the last minute of Dumbo’s death create a tense pacing effect, one that far outstrips the often prosaic nature of the death itself.  We are disabused quite early on that Dumbo might in fact be something special; Arsenijević allows us to hold no allusions as to the worth of our erstwhile protagonist.  He is a homeless man, a bum, a character of few redeeming qualities, though his fall, which was precipitated by the effects of the Sarajevo war, was perhaps not his fault.  Nevertheless, he is a man who has fallen through the cracks and that, perhaps, is where he is most comfortable.  In short, the affect of telling the story of his death is more aesthetically and culturally important than the fact of the death itself.

The title of the story alerts the reader to the significance of the countdown from 60; we also know what the end point must be.   Arsenijević’s knowledge of our knowledge serves to propel the story, providing it’s thrust – if we know the terminal point of the story, then its execution is all we become concerned with.  A story titled John Dies at the End provides no ambiguity as to its ending; how it goes is more interesting than where it goes, because the latter is a foregone conclusion.  So, too, with Arsenijević’s story, which wears its end proudly at its start.

Its second part begins with the childhood of Dumbo and progresses through his life.  These sections are similar to reportage, they are technically uninteresting, but they lead us to the man we know is about to die.  Sometimes the point of view is his, and sometimes not; the issue here is creating what is simultaneously being destroyed in the alternating section.

He left Sarajevo as soon as he had a chance.  He took a few things with him including that old stopwatch of Charlie’s.  He saw that he wasn’t in control of his destiny and let the currency carry him and it carried him through refugee camps all over Europe.  He spent the most time in Denmark, picked pockets there, got used to heroin and alcohol, cheated his way to a fake passport, and one very ordinary evening in Copenhagen fucked a Ukrainian whore, the Balkan way, in a blind alley, pressing her back into a rough wall.  A year later, he already looked like a wreck.

Recurring motifs include “Charlie’s” stopwatch, which represents time, and the constant references to Dumbo’s life being lived in isolation, solitude and with the constant repression of being misunderstood.  Nobody every really knows him, or takes the time to learn who he is, and his life exists as a succession of faceless archetypes – student, soldier, refugee, thug, homeless man.  He’s never Dumbo – sorry, Hasan.  But his birth-name doesn’t matter much to him, and means less to us.

Arsenijević’s story gains its effectiveness by hurtling toward the inevitable death of its protagonist while simultaneously sketching in the details of a sad, miserable, mostly small and insignificant life.  It’s a rather fascinating double act, with each section adding immeasurably to the other – a clear case of a story being greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s themes are well known and have been explored in myriad forms throughout history, but this is, to my reading, a singular method of condensing the simultaneously lengthy and alarmingly short experience of life.  Dumbo’s life is the extended drudgery of being a soldier, a student, a homeless man battling against filth and disease, and, at the same time – at the same time – it’s the last few seconds before you leave the life you didn’t really know you wanted.  It’s all too soon when it’s all too late, no matter who you are or how you got there.  But you don’t know that until you know it, alas.

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