“Don’t ask that question. You could end up losing your mind,” Mika said as she sipped the gin tonic I had prepared and poured from a disinfected thermos. Mika lives in Zagreb, and though the city has imposed rather loose confinement measures, she insisted on following her own, self-imposed strict rules. Zagreb has a remarkably low number of coronavirus cases.
But in order to convince Mika, I had to prepare snacks in a Tupperware that I scrupulously disinfected beforehand. I also brought a bottle of traditional Turkish cologne, the price of which has skyrocketed with the epidemic. “You didn’t have to do this, darling,” she told me in her usual nonchalant tone. “It is not that I’m terrified by the virus, I’m just trying to handle this absurd period in my own way. And that is why I tell you: do not keep thinking about the future. It could drive you crazy. I’m speaking from experience.”
Mika is my age, 46, and is one of my very few friends in Zagreb. She grew up Bosnia-Herzegovina and became a refugee in Zagreb in 1992, when the Bosnian war broke out. “To bear that bizarre period in the refugee camp I didn’t speak to anyone for more than a month. It’s my way of dealing with reality when it gets bizarre. I shut down.”
Mika told me how she had recalled the memory and experience of her former self to handle the absurdity of the coronavirus. As she praised my gin tonic with a frown of approval, I remembered Rosa Luxemburg who once said that in order to endure the prison conditions, she woke up earlier than the stand up count and imposed a stricter discipline on herself than the prison rules in order to feel like she was running the show.
I also thought of the Russian poet Brodsky and his prison memories in the former USSR. Inmates were supposed to spend two hours every day cutting wood. So one day, Brodsky began to cut wood and did not stop. Finally, he terrified the guards with his odd manners to the extent that he was exempted from the wood cutting business for good. Yet those are the tools to fight a dictatorship, a visible power. What if there is nothing to resist? How do we keep it together against an invisible enemy that asks for nothing other than, well, doing nothing?
The coronavirus has created its own, quite distinct mental hegemony. Not only it is impossible to think or talk about anything else, but the global crisis has also abducted our dreams. On the bright side, from the steppes of Central Asia to the Rocky Mountains of the U.S., we all harbor the same dream of hugging or kissing someone and all wake up in cold sweats. We bake cakes and bread, use Zoom or Houseparty and post comic videos on social media or consume them. Celebrities take to Instagram and tell us to stay home from their villas and yachts. And only a few actually read all those books that many boast about on social media.
The coronavirus is a global loop that dumbs us down dramatically. If it goes on like this by this time next year we might end up being spotless idiots.
So as an act of resistance, last week, I decided to be in utter denial. I made up my mind to pretend that there was no pandemic and to live an entire day as if all was normal. The ability of human kind to imagine, I thought, would prevail. So instead of a mask and latex gloves I put on a smiling face and lipstick like I would on normal days.
However, once you hear your own breath in the city center and your own footsteps like the unending crescendo of a horror movie and when people draw a wide arch around you because you are not wearing a mask, you immediately come to terms with the fact that the mental hegemony of the coronavirus beats even the most decisive imagination.
At that stage, I thought of a woman I had met years ago. She too was Bosnian. I had met her in Split, a coastal town in Croatia. After a few glasses of Pelinkovac, she told me about her 16th birthday during the war. “I decided,” she said, “to give myself a present. I was to take a walk in the city as if there was no war. The city was bustling with snipers. The few people who were outside were running from building to building praying not to be shot down. But you see, I needed a normal day. A day without fear, without hiding. So I took a long walk. It is truly a miracle that nothing happened to me that day. I guess God protects those who are truly crazy.”
My imaginary normal day was seven days ago, so I have six more days to see if the devious coronasniper has already shot me down. That same day, I blew away some dandelions upon worrying that we wouldn’t see them next year if no one blew them away. So I’d like to think that God has made the right decision and placed me in the “to be protected” category. It is not that I believe in God but I certainly believe in righteous madness as a tool of resistance to absurdity of our times.