Chernobyl Strawberries

Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy Read Free Book Online

Book: Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy Read Free Book Online
Authors: Vesna Goldsworthy
not have been radioactive.

2. The Name of the Mother
    BACK IN THE EIGHTIES , still a young bride, I called myself Vesna Bjelogrlic-Goldsworthy. On paper, the name seems longer than its nine syllables. The grand double-barrel was a compromise between patriotism, the knee-jerk feminism of a Belgrade princess and that romantic-submissive impulse which leads women like me – two-thirds Simone de Beauvoir, one-third Tammy Wynette – to promise to obey till death do us part. Spelling the name out, however, soon became a bore. My fellow Serbs, not even willing to contemplate Goldsworthy, preferred Goldsvorti, Golsforti, Golzuordi and even Golsvorti, by association with the novelist John Galsworthy, whose high literary status in Serbia is reflected in the fact that he has his own street in north Belgrade. Most of the time, I did not bother to correct anyone over there, just as I’ve never put to rights anyone over here who expressed surprise that ‘Vanessa’ was a Serbian name. More appealing than Vesta or Vespa, Vanessa suited me well. It was my onomastic equivalent of an invisible cloak.
    Bjelogrlic, pronounced Byelogerlitch, turned into an obstacle race for the native English speaker. It was indeed a fine Slav ‘itch’, as Evelyn Waugh once said, and anyone called Ivlin Vo must have known a thing or two about itchy names. Byelogerlitch means ‘son of white throat’, which, admittedly,sounds somewhat Sioux-chieftainish in English but is quite OK, even a soupçon distinguished, in Serbian. On my wedding day in November 1986, the registrar in Hammersmith took a deep breath every time he approached it and, remarkably, succeeded not once. I felt sorry for the poor man. The bride, the groom and the two witnesses (our entire wedding party) took a collective gulp of air every time he reached the B. What a job!
    Since then, a rare few have been brave enough to try. Blog-litch was as close as one normally got. I dropped it after a while. I felt I had nothing to prove by endlessly repeating the tedious sequence – b-for-beetroot, j-for-jam, e-for-ecdysis, l-for-Levant, o-for-oh dear – and the variants thereof. I had too many names to care about any one. Even Goldsworthy is more than one should normally need to burden people with. Occasionally, however – today, for example – I still feel a sudden impulse to teach the world and his aunt to pronounce Bjelogrlic properly.

    The first Bjelogrlic was really, or allegedly really , a son of a ‘white throat’. That belongs to the matriarchal story of my patriarchs. Early in the nineteenth century, escaping from a forgotten Montenegrin blood feud, my ancestral mother crossed the border into Ottoman Herzegovina with two young sons, unwilling to reveal her name to anyone. She settled in Lipnik, a mountain village no more than a stone’s throw from her ancestral lands, but with a tribal frontier between her and whatever dispute threatened her sons’ lives. The young widow’s Montenegrin dress revealed more of her neck than those of her Herzegovinian Orthodox sisters, whose costume was barely different from the head-to-toe coverings of Muslim women.The colour of choice for clothing was black: ideal for both mourning and camouflage. It wasn’t a world in which beauty brought anything but trouble.
    Lipnik lay in the lands ruled by Smail-Aga Chengich, a feudal lord notorious for bloodthirstiness and the subject of a nineteenth-century Croatian epic in which my ancestors, now prime specimens of the Christian rayah , the subjects of the glorious Turkish empire, were soon to feature with outstretched hands, begging, ‘Bread, master, bread,’ before joining in the heroic uprising in which Smail-Aga (pronounced, sweetly, Smile-Aga) ended up brutally murdered, which was probably no more and barely less than he deserved.

    The account of Smail-Aga’s beheading, coincidentally at the hands of my Montenegrin granny’s

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