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Aco Šopov: At Five-Seventeen *

Someone has written: On the twenty-sixth day of July, in the year nineteen sixty-three, at five seventeen in the morning, the city on the Vardar died.

How terrible the verdict of nature, how catastrophic the peril of truth contained in that single moment of time—five seventeen. In the roar of the earth and the blocks of concrete—five seventeen. In the maelstrom of the buildings and the darkened sun—five seventeen. In the cry of the children whose dream, even beneath the rubble, did not flee the green fields of their eyes—five seventeen. In the strange silence of the mothers and fathers, the young men and young women, of those who, in a single moment, were left naked in the ashes of the demolished buildings, crushed beneath an inhuman freight of pain and suffering—five seventeen.

Five seventeen. Who can express in ordinary human words the drama of two hundred thousand inhabitants of this planet being pulled into the blind bowels of the earth—the drama of five seventeen?

Yes, that is how it appeared: cruel forces gave their diagnosis—the city died at five seventeen.

It is to you, who have emerged from the ruins, from the terror and the horrors; who have climbed to the summit of impossible pain and, wounded, shone forth in all your beauty; who carry all the cities within you, all their sorrows, all their dreams, all their hopes; who set your pain alight with the fire of birth—it is to you I give these lines, fully aware of their inability to ever touch the depth of your suffering, the strength of your nobility, the height of your unspoken human beauty.

For this city is not its streets and squares, its linden trees and red carnations, its parks and pigeons, its towers both beautiful and ugly, the lines of its old and new architecture, which the Vardar River divides like a watershed between two pages of history. For this city is not these graves of iron and concrete, of mortar and brick, not these dark, menacing cracks in the walls, these diagonals of death, not these oddly suspended roofs above the sidewalks. For this city is you. This city is the invisible architecture of your conscience, your love, your patience and suffering, the city of the unrecognized humanity that lies within you.

History will write: The city of humanity was born at five seventeen.

I watched as you built it, your fingernails digging at the concrete slabs in search of your son, daughter, friend, brother. I watched as you crawled through narrow cracks and crevices to pull them from the jaws of hellish uncertainty. I watched as with your own breath you breathed life back into girls and boys disfigured by this monstrous clash of life and death. I saw you exhausted, pallid and spent from sleeplessness, from keeping vigil, from grieving for the wounded, for the dead. I watched as you stretched the boundaries of life even beyond known human strength and bit by bit took power away from death. I watched you in the ruins, on the pathways, in the shelters, living between possibility and impossibility.

This city was born at five seventeen on that terrible morning when the earth roared with a roar of destruction. Its towers of humanity did not rise in institutes of urban planning; its streets of love were not painted on canvas in closed studios; its houses of compassion and human understanding are not the fruit of some touching poetic imagination. This city of your new humanity was born at five seventeen.

O you who emerged from the ruins, from the terror and the horrors, who climbed to the summit of pain, who shone forth in all your beauty and set your pain alight with the fire of birth, I hear you calling:

“Poets, masters of the word, architects of humanity and solidarity, forge new words for the concepts of understanding and love, of help and brotherhood, of the oneness of human concerns, of life without fear and disaster. At five seventeen the city of the future was born.”

* This text translated in English by Rawley Grau and Christina Kramer, in 2022, was first composed by Šopov just days after the Skopje earthquake occurred. He wrote it initially in Serbo-Croatian, with the title “U pet i sedamnajest”, most likely at the request of Borba, Politika or another major newspaper published in Serbo-Croatian. A search for the published text is currently underway. Šopov translated himself the texte in Macedonian and published it in Sovremenost, XIII 7-8,1963, pp. 425-427. 

Only two years later, Šopov published in Sovremenost, XV, 6, 1965, the poem “Lament from the Other Side of Life” in which the image of the “man who climbed to the summit of impossible pain” reappears in the line: “I climbed beyond the summit from the pain.”

The original manuscripts and typescripts of the text are in the Aco Šopov Fund in the Archive of the Macedonian Academy od Sciences and Arts, archive units nr. 52, 53 and 54