This is the story of a warrior and a killer. Probably. It is definitely the story of a storyteller. It is an exploration of memory and writing set, respectively, in the pages of a notebook, on the hot streets of Dubrovnik, and during the internecine strife of the Bosnian War. It is about a man who called himself The Wolf.
I met this man when I was travelling the Balkans back in 2007. It was a very memorable encounter that made for an excellent story, which I have recounted orally many times since. The Wolf has become a character in my store of anecdotes, two dimensional as anecdote characters are, used as an engine for the story rather than described as a real life individual. Over the years I have warped his reality to fit conversations, exchanged his truth for dramatic beats, lost sight of the man.
It was with interest, then, when driven by a periodic bout of nostalgia I picked up the diary I kept during my Balkan travels and reread what I had written at the time about my encounter with The Wolf. Two things struck me: first, how different the written meeting was to the one I now had in my head; second, the naïvety of my perceptions as I read them today. Almost nine years have gone by, and there are many things my views have changed on in that time, not least writing itself. Reading my account of The Wolf was also reading an account of myself at the age of 21, and of the ways I saw the world.
I decided it would be an interesting experiment to rewrite the episode from the perspective of 2016, and then publish the two versions alongside each other. Which account of this real event, the one written soon after it by a travelling 21 year-old, or the one written almost nine years later with time to reflect, would come across as the more authentic?
So, below are my two versions of The Wolf. The first is an almost direct transcription from my diary at the time the second one built from the diary, my memories, and a few embellishments that I believe add to the truth of the piece as a whole.
To set some context, it was the university holidays and I was travelling with former school friends Dimitris Josephides and Filippo Jones.
We had reached Dubrovnik overland from London, meeting The Wolf on our second night in the city. I was most likely in Mostar when I wrote the following passage…
It was easy to forget in the blaze of tourists and pretty things that Dubrovnik was only ten years ago the frontline in a particularly gruesome inter-ethnic conflict. It took a frightening chance encounter to remind us of that fact .
Sitting enjoying a pizza just outside our hotel, and a large goateed man invites himself to sit at our table. His eyes are slightly bloodshot and his manner that of a drunk. He introduces himself in heavily accented English which occasionally lapses into flowing Croatian. “I have killed people,” he tells us. “Can I have a cigarette?”
He really is enormous, dwarfing Filippo, who he is sitting next to, commanding all our attention. Without prompting he explains further:
“I was part of special forces. I kill many Muslims. They call me The Wolf.”
He sits smoking his cigarette, his hands and arms fidgeting frequently. This man ‘The Wolf’ seems interesting, seemingly more willing to talk about his wartime experiences than anyone we have met so far.
“But I don’t want to talk about that.” He opens his hand up over the table, crooks his arm, and stares at me. “I arm wrestle you.”
I accept his challenge and lose within five seconds, my arm feeling almost broken.
“I am the strongest man in Dubrovnik,” he laughs, fixing us all in turn with bloodshot eyes then relaying off a stream of Croatian to no one in particular.
“Do you want a cigarette?” He looks to Dimitris then me.
“OK” I reply tentatively, and he sets off to threaten some passer by for three cigarettes. He comes back.
“I kill people, I was The Wolf here…” he grabs my hands and pulls them up to his greasy hair. “You feel?”
There are two hard bumps not far from each other. They feel strange to the touch.
“I was shot… here, here, and here.” He points to his knee where the skin is badly scarred. “I have, how do you say, metal plates.”
He sits back and lights his cigarette. There is little we can do but let his tirades wash over us.
“You!” he points to Dimitris. “You are very beautiful. You are a beautiful person.” He leans over, sweating, moving to touch Dimitris’ face with what I now notice is a very small hand. “Ask any question… I know everything,” he challenges suddenly. “There is nothing I do not know.”
We are put on the spot: ask him a question he doesn’t know the answer to and he might turn vicious, but equally we must make it seem hard enough that it doesn’t seem we are insulting his intelligence. I settle on asking: What is the capital of Turkey? Ankara, he gets it right and accuses me of too easy a question, so I ask another one about the Beatles, which he assures us he gets right despite not actually giving an answer.
By now he has become distracted by Filippo, who he says reminds him of his brother who died during the war.
“Sniper,” he says looking sickened. “But I got them back,” he pulls Fil’s head towards him, “I killed them… I was special forces… I slip behind their lines… I was a shadow. My brother was a shadow too, and very strong.”
He stops and looks at Fil – it really does seem as though there is recognition in his eyes.
“My brother used to talk so much. He was very brave. He had plans he used to talk of.
He then tells us of the only woman he ever loved. He loved her for thirteen years, he says, but she too has died – since then, nothing.
“I hate Muslims,” he says. “What do you think of Muslims? You hate them too?” he asks Dimitris who, to his credit, with the slightly crazed ex-special forces Croatian sitting opposite him replies:
“I think Muslims are just people.”
“Pah! I kill them… At night, I slip through their lines, I cut their throats.”
He grins. Over the course of the next half hour – in between hugging and touching Filippo – we share beers together, and he intimidates more people into giving us more cigarettes, to a point where I am forced to chain smoke so as not to appear rude.
We learn that he was in the navy, that he spends only 4 months of the year on land, and that while his right arm might be the strongest in Dubrovnik, his left arm could well be the strongest in the world.
“I’ve only lost one arm wrestle with my right arm. One. And that was in Romania, and he was a big man.”
I imagine an epic contest worthy of Hemingway, with blood coming from under fingernails and two men locked together for hours.
“But with my left arm, I have never lost,” he laughs. “I am left handed, you see.”
He invites us back to his village, and we as politely as possible refuse. After that, he leaves us, stepping back into the throng of unaware tourists on the streets.
He was the kind of person who seemed almost perfect for war, no matter how much he said he hated it. He was without doubt crazed, immensely strong (my arm wrestle with him left me believing he could easily be the strongest man I have ever met) and seemed proud of the killings he claimed to have committed.
“Everyone in Dubrovnik is afraid of me.”
Perhaps the war had made him like this. I don’t know. Now, however, he seemed a man without vocation, still dangerous, not unintelligent, drunk, bored, depressed. At turns he was frightening; he betrayed signs of being a true monster and pitiable at the same time.
When he left though, he left an empty cigarette packet that had bummed off a stranger. The brand was Walter Wolf.
There is a medieval completeness to Dubrovnik’s old town at night that reverses the order of things. The modern world is the spectre, the past is real; tourists are ghosts, and they haunt the town’s brickwork and its stories.
The three of us were at a restaurant terrace in a dark side-alley to the shining corso when he approached. The alley was tall and narrow, and coagulated with crowds and summer heat. There was, I mean, nowhere to run.
He was enormous — not just in his physicality, but in his presence also — taking the fourth seat at our table without asking. His flanks spilled out either side of his chair, sweatily pressing Filippo toward the restaurant wall. There were burst capillaries on his goateed face, visible beneath tan and dirt. His bloodshot eyes swept across our faces like faulty searchlights.
“I have killed people.” That was the first thing he said, then: “Can I have a cigarette?”
“I’ve run out,” said Dimitris. “Sorry.”
Killed people! I thought.
“During the war,” he continued, “I was part of special forces. I kill many Muslims. They call me The Wolf.”
He produced his own cigarette from behind his ear — it had been hidden by lank hair. There were grease stains on its paper. His hands and arms fidgeted as he smoked. He made, I thought, many sharp movements for such a big man.
I could feel my friends’ discomfort mixed with annoyance that our meal had been interrupted. But I was thinking: this is exactly the kind of encounter I’m here to experience. Down a broiling side street, in a medieval city, surrounded by blinkered tourists, we’ve met the dark history of the region.
“But I don’t want to talk about the war.” The Wolf opened his hand up over the table, crooked his arm, and stared at me. “I arm wrestle you.”
If this had happened at home, I would not have agreed. “Arm wrestle me,” is the request of barflies and those too unimaginative to think of a better way to show off. Yet in Dubrovnik, with someone who said he was known as The Wolf during the war, the offer was irresistible. It was a chance to touch the man’s violence. I accepted. He won. It took him all of five seconds, but then, arm wrestles have never been my strong suit.
“I am the strongest man in Dubrovnik,” The Wolf laughed, like it was a catchphrase. Then he hit the table and barked something in Croatian. He looked straight at me, his red eyes weeping slightly:
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“OK” I replied, fearful that said cigarette might come from behind his other ear. But no, he uncurled from his seat to go intimidate passers by. I noticed he was wearing shorts. They lessened him somehow, revealing calves that were thin and fragile as sticks. His enormity was all on his top half. He was off balance, walking with a stoop; his movements had the jerky quality of an old film.
“I kill people,” he returned to the table, “I was The Wolf here…”
Perhaps that’s just how he always introduced himself when he sat down, I thought. He took my hand and pulled it across the table into his matted hair:
“You feel? I was shot… I have, how do you say, metal plates.”
What did I feel? A couple of lumps. They could have been anything. Considering The Wolf’s general air of uncleanliness, I hope they were metal plates.
“And in my knee,” he continued, pushing his chair from the table and rolling the leg of his shorts up to show us. His kneecap was a mess of scar tissue, crumpled like a stamped-on can. It made his “Strongest in Dubrovnik” claim seem a flimsy, desperate boast.
But he did not dwell on his weakness. He did not dwell on any subject at all. Listening to him was listening to a skipping tape.
“You!” he pointed at Dimitris. “You are very beautiful. You are a beautiful person.”
He leant across the table, his hair dangling close to our pizzas, moving to touch Dimitris’ face with his small, murderous hands.
“Are you Muslim!?” he raged from nowhere. “I hate Muslims, I kill them. They killed my brother.”
He turned to Filippo, and his eyes completely lost focus.
“You look like my brother,” he said. “The one they killed.”
Then back to Dimitris:
“It was a sniper.”
He was redrawing the lines of conflict across the restaurant table. But this memory stoppered his flow. He started panting heavily. I imagine he often panted heavily. Wolves have many attributes after all. Now, he panted thick clouds of ouzo breath.
He was theatrical, cinematic even; everything one might want to make up about a ex-commando of the Bosnian War. Right down to his name. The Wolf was as redolent of Hollywood as he was of danger. Still, that didn’t make him false.
“I got them back,” he said, breaking from his silence and bear hugging Filippo as if searching for affirmation. “I killed them… I was Special Forces… I slip behind their lines… I was a shadow. My brother was a shadow too and very strong. He used to talk so much. He was very brave. He had plans he used to talk of.”
The tape skipped again. To Dimitris:
“What do you think of Muslims?”
“I think Muslims are just people.”
“Pah! I kill them… At night, I slip through their lines, I cut their throats.”
I stared into his face, into his grey-blue eyes, searching for the killer. I saw only sadness.
I grew up in a world where my only connection with violence has been through media: films, T.V., magazines, books. Probably my generation in the West have seen more people die in more ways (at least fictionally) than any other in the history of the planet, just never through our own eyes. The Wolf was fascinating because he was a conduit to violence; one that was both more real than those I was used to, but also less tangible. Only very few of peoples’ experiences can be read on their face or skin. Across the table from me was a self-proclaimed murderer; but I found myself unable to believe him.
Our talk drifted away from the war, onto The Wolf’s life since then; how he was now in the merchant navy, how he spent only four months of the year on shore — drinking… mostly. We shared beers, asked him about his strength; always he remained the storyteller, not once did he show any interest in our lives.
“I’ve only lost one arm wrestle with my right arm,” he told us. “One. And that was in Romania, and he was a big man. With my left arm I have never lost. I am left handed.”
It was a fine boast. Unverifiable. But there was another possibility: The Wolf had created his own legend. He was a big man, yes, and strong, certainly, and I have no doubt had lost… something during the war. But could The Wolf persona be an act? From what I’ve read and watched, real life murderers do not tend to be so loquacious about their deeds. Was his whole story just the act of a lonely man? Had he learnt that certain creations about himself and about the war would have traction with certain sorts of young, travelling men? Hadn’t he seen the same films that I had? Why not make use of his size, of his particular kind of charisma, why not turn himself into a hero of his own making?
And there’s something else that needs to be mentioned here: that on a certain level, The Wolf was boring. Not on a one off basis, I’ll grant, but he had such a disregard for what others had to say, and such a determined monomania to his own flow that if he were a regular acquaintance he would fast become someone who you would seek to avoid.
Travelling is full of these people — traveller’s tales are too. You have more patience with their type when you are away from home, because you tend to me more open to experience, and because the act of being in transit means that escape is always close at hand.
Or travelling is full of these people because travellers focus on their experiences and not on the people in them. As I talked to The Wolf, I was too busy considering how I might “use” him as a story in my own life to properly consider his. I was constructing a narrative before the experience had even ended. I allowed him to tell his stories so I could tell mine.
He invited us back to his village, but we turned him down — you don’t follow a wolf back to its den. Shortly after that, he left us. We let him slip back into the substance of Dubrovnik while we ignored the city’s reality and ghosted on.
It was Filippo who found the packet of Walter Wolf cigarettes, resting just where the Wolf had been sitting. They encouraged the thought that maybe he had been a Keyser Söze figure, making up his stories as he went along, constructing them from things in his immediate vicinity. If that was the case, didn’t that make our story of him all the better? And the cigarettes were certainly real.