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Winter 2013

All the Names

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Elvis Bego

I contain multitudes of names. We all do. Take your legal name, then add all the coddling nicknames and childish taunts, and your mother’s maiden name, which hovers somewhere by you like a ghostly penumbra, and you will end up with a lengthy sequence much like one of those demented royals from a mythic, tiny kingdom. But all of it is you and yours.

So, sometimes I want a single name, an uncommon want perhaps, unless you are some swaggering stage lizard strutting with a codpiece enlarging the good news of the contents of your pants. You know what I mean: the princely sting of madonnas. The artists formerly known as citizens. What the single name ought to do is distill the nucleus of your soul into potent sound. More than one and it already starts to dilute your essence.

Me, I like Orlando. Look at those satisfying, gaping portals of its beginning and end and the rolling music of the stuff in between—to say nothing of medieval romance and knight-errantry. Mad, poetic, furioso, and dangerous to know. But then there is the blooming Bloom who ruins it for me, the insipid actor, moisturized mannequin, that forever-whispering, squinting cypher. Still, was there ever a cooler name than Orlando Jones? Max Ophuls, perhaps.

Anyway, a single moniker, the tag of a hero whom the world remembers might be sweet, till the world discovers you are not the true one.

Byron, how I love you, and your majestic name.

When I was nineteen and in my first blush of Byromania, I once lay in bed convalescing from a freak accident (which had caused me a trip to the hospital to get the arteries in my nose cauterized, fully conscious, fully excruciating), reading André Maurois on Byron, in Norwegian of all tongues, in a provincial Danish town. I fell asleep and dreamt it was circa 1808 and I was the young Byron, shirtless in some London stable or yard, boxing for fun, encircled by a number of dandies. But, curiously, they called me Byrne or Burn in the dream, and when I not long after read somewhere that they at times pronounced his name that way, I experienced one of those little mindquakes that youth affords us. We contain multitudes of names, I tell you.

I was born Elvis Avdibegovic, a concoction surely plausible only in Yugoslavia (another ghostly name, now), in 1980. Marshall Tito was dead two months later, and the country would gradually accelerate toward its extinction. But it ain’t over till the fat lady sings, they say. The fat lady, Elvis Presley, had stopped singing three years before, assassinated by a hamburger. And were they fans, my parents, or just cruelly humorous? Neither. They liked the name, that’s all. These days I tend to say, when asked (and I’m always asked), that I ought to have been named after Elvis Costello but I doubt my parents were aware of him then. Costello was christened Declan, so you understand his own choice—anything else would do.

I don’t think I ever quite felt I was Elvis, that I and name were one. It was always a little alienating, that name, never fully overlapping, ever so lightly suspended off my body. I could hear it called out and it wouldn’t quite resonate inside me. No, I’d register it from the outside, so to speak, having to connect it intellectually to the contents behind the eyes. This is perhaps why I felt no compunction about toying with it, and in my late teens I was sometimes Eluis di Bego, mangling the last name of my birth, peeling off its edges. I wanted something shorter, less difficult than my real (is a name ever really “real?”) name.

And what about it—Avdibegovic? The etymology of those eleven letters (just like Shakespeare, I once counted, blissfully) tells us three things: Muslim aristocracy of Slavic origins. How?

Avdi refers to some ancestral Avdo (diminutive of Abdulah), while beg is an Ottoman noble title (bey) that some converted Bosnians gained, possibly to retain their previous status, and ovic is of course the Slavic patronymic suffix. So: the progeny of Avdo the Beg. There you have a history of Bosnia in eleven letters. Who knows how many changes of name our houses make through history? Sometimes I wonder what the family name might’ve been before that conversion. In a short story of mine entitled The True Chronicle of the House of Bego I say that the name was Mandorlic and I proceed to tell tall tales about these medieval ancestors. I lied of course, beautifully I swear, but the truth may be stranger than fiction. That phrase too is Byron’s coinage.

Perhaps I was lucky that the Bosnian war came when I was only twelve; there hadn’t been enough time to be branded with some scarlet alias. Bosnian nicknames are the cruelest month. Wait, a name cannot be a month (damn you, January Jones), but a cultural allusion would be so nice here. I want an allusion, a common want.

In my hometown there was hardly a person without a nickname. There was a saying that went something like this: “Here everybody has a nickname except Avdo Prdo (Avdo the Farter).” They weren’t endearing either. They would take your most embarrassing, least fortifying feature and immortalize it in some cheerfully cruel name. Once you acquired the nickname, people no longer used your birth name. A young man who had a huge, purpuric skin discoloration over his neck and face was known as Fleka (Stain), and another was called Gusak (Gander, on account of his gait, methinks). One of my relatives was known as Gubicar (something like Camelgob, or Schnauzer, for his mouth was capacious). People would sometimes forget your given name, but not the nick.

Somehow we made our way out of Bosnia after the war broke out, eventually arriving in Denmark. Here there is a bend in the tale. It goes clerical. When I was registered as a refugee, my last name was misspelled Audibegovic, and I’ve existed ever since in my papers, my passport, my citizenship, and even at the back of my head as the sole Audibegovic in the world, detached from my family, its black ship (yes, ship) in an ivory regatta. It was a single letter, sort of, but decidedly other-making. I was displaced again, into a dynasty created by some underslept or vengeful immigration officer, and I’ve never corrected the blunder. These clerks, copyists, and secretaries rule the world; no, they positively (negatively!) plague it. They are the true unacknowledged legislators.

Think of Raimundo Silva, who with a single negative modifier changes the history of Lisbon. Think of Akaky Akakievich, haunting Petersburg, searching for his stolen overcoat. My Danish Raimundo, my outrageous scrivener, made me alone in the world. He was nothing like Melville’s meek Bartleby.

Javier Marías says somewhere that they have “sixteen secondary surnames” in Spain, remembering a few generations back—your paternal grandmother’s name, your maternal grandmother’s, and so on. And why not? Is one name more real or natural than another?

Is a name ever really real? Its chief, mysterious, forgotten function, it seems to me, ought to be shrinking the distance between itself and the bearer. But doesn’t each name exile you a little, remove you from yourself, from the concrete, delineated subject that you are? It’s like a bucket of paint splashed onto your interiority, and you’re forced to identify and live with this foreign tint. Permanently tarred and feathered, and feathered with another’s plumes. Names have an ontological totality, a shifting power. Do we not become a kind of object, a feature in the landscape that by implication needed to be mapped and named? This is why your name is a sort of looking-glass, because it is a doubling marker or signifier of your selfhood, and we know what happens when we’re faced with the mirror: the I becomes You. A doppelgänger, the tireless cliché: an other. If the name is a doubling then it is uncanny, in Freudian definition. As if we needed further complications.

But I suppose it was necessary. How else would we allude to each other? And elude each other. And illude each other. Ourselves above all, alas.

Ah Bego! Ah humanity!

Elvis Bego was born in Bosnia and at present lives in Copenhagen, where he is trying to finish his first novel.

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