A Sad Play
n the spring of 1949, shortly after the revolution, he had done some leafleting of the sort that students are wont to do; the very morning they came to arrest him he was making his way across the Czechoslovakian-Austrian border somewhere near the town of Mikulov. He sailed to America, entered the army, and moved quickly up the chain of command; in the fall of '56, though, he left the army to protest the failure of the Yanks to intervene in Budapest. He then became a successful businessman; however, he never forgot about his homeland and occasionally, it was said, crossed the border as a secret agent.
We never had any contact with him and nobody in our family dared say our uncle’s name. We, of course, had to live here--live and survive. And, in order that we could overcome all of the disadvantages and suspicions that our uncle's emigrant status had conferred on us, we had to try really hard to fit in. We were so successful in this that we eventually conquered all of the obstacles that had been placed before us and reached, I think, a sufficiently high station in life. But then another revolution came along and with that one blow everything changed. In fact, after all of our efforts it looked as though we were suddenly in danger of losing this high station.
We expected him to be among the first wave of returnees that came flooding in after that second revolution in 1989. But then we had to consider that if he had really made a life for himself there, coming here would be a like a second exile. That would, however, hardly stop the man from stopping by for a visit. But when he kept on being a no-show it seemed pointless to keep waiting: either he was no longer alive, or else he'd come to know just how bad our situation here was and wanted to keep it that way.
And so we rented a large hall in the Palace of Culture and invited newsmen and photographers to see and hear our uncle, his hair dyed, speak with a moving pathos of his experiences. He then turned the floor over to a former school chum of his who had, after those forty years, also worked himself pretty high up in the scheme of things and was in equal need of some cover. Along the walls of the hall stood uniformed girl scouts holding armfuls of flowers.
I had an arrangement with this uncle whereby he would disappear in the same way as he'd appeared. Unfortunately, he didn't uphold his end of it. Instead, he started hanging around a lot and became something of a parasite. I tried to speak to him about this, but he would act as though he didn't understand what it was that I was trying to get at. I finally decided to consult with a family member and decided on one of my cousins. I visited this cousin one evening when the sun was sitting in the sky like a grimacing guard dog above the quarter of villas where he lived. But he’d scarcely opened the door and exchanged greetings with me before I realized there was something wrong; I quickly retreated across the beds of vegetables.
It took some number of days, however, before it all came together in my mind and I could say that I really understood what was going on. The actor that I'd hired to play the role of my uncle had not only become a hanger-on and parasite, but had also exchanged all of my family members for his acting chums, a motley crew of provincial ham actors. I didn’t intend to stick around until my turn came up.
I went abroad and had been living for awhile in a hotel located in a foreign city when I woke up during the night and went to the window. Standing in the darkness, I raised my hand and touched what I had long considered to be my face. When I looked at my fingers, I was surprised. What, during the day, was covered over with make-up was now naked and palpable. It was then that I finally understood that I'd also been replaced by an actor and that the whole of my rash escape had only been a covering maneuver.
I returned home so unexpectedly that I caught him, the actor playing my uncle, with the actress who was playing my wife. And he, the actor who was playing me, only stood above them for a moment and then--so that they could make themselves decent--fled into the street. Into the street, where in that moment those actors who play all of you . . .
Yes, those actors who play all of you...
But do you really want to hear this?
From the Pulps
t the start of the 1950's my dad was contacted by the CIA, who told him that he'd been tapped to assassinate Klement Gottwald, the president of Czechoslovakia and head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. When my dad told them that the whole idea scared him to death, they calmed him down some by telling him that he wouldn't actually be the one to take out Gottwald--that they would send somebody identical to him, specially trained on the Palmyra Atoll, to take his place. My dad, they explained, would be lounging about in a comfortable hotel in Florida until the deed had been done.
We had to help him pack his suitcase because he couldn't control the shaking in his hands. Later we saw him off at the highway that led to the border town of Cheb, where American paratroopers were to pick him up during the night.
Two days later we got a new dad, who was remarkably similar to the original one. Not only that, but the American YMCA had inculcated into him the principles necessary for a harmonious marital relationship: as we were all sitting down for breakfast after his first night with us, my mother whispered to me, "He's only the slightest bit different."
After breakfast, the same as dad would have done, this replacement dad grabbed his briefcase and drove off to work in our battered old car. We followed his instructions precisely: we should never speak of his secret mission--either with him or among ourselves--because if we did we could well endanger all of us. Days, weeks, and months passed by, during which we never said anything about his real identity or purpose; we did, however, continue to watch him with a wary fascination. This fascination, though, faded with time and we slowly but surely forgot who he really was.
After he came home from work he would play with my sister and me for hours. Božena, my sister, would ride on his back while he would pretend to buck and neigh like a real horse; with me he would play word games; when it was an especially nice evening he would carry me to a shabby sandlot behind the house where we'd kick a football around some. One evening, after we'd zonked ourselves out and were resting on the playing field, our young neighbor Mrs. Trojan walked by. Dad turned to me and said, with a kid's intimacy, "Grab a look at that togged out lubricate!" That was an idiom used by people from the city of Brno, the capital city of Moravia, and either expressed a man's admiration for a finely dressed lady or scorn for a tastelessly done-up whore. This, you see, is a specialty of Brno slang--that each phrase has two completely opposite meanings. And Dad had always been drawn to that mystical language like a fly to ointment, because he spent his childhood in a Brno suburb and a powerful experience like that is not something that one ever gets over. And now it looked as though they’d implanted similar memories in this new dad or, at the very least, he was similarly well-versed in Brno slang.
But then came March of 1953, and the newspapers came out with the news that Klement Gottwald had suddenly and unexpectedly died. My sister was already seven years old by then and I was twelve, but we once again looked up to our father--his special mission once again gave him a larger-than-life quality. Unfortunately, in that festive moment I ran up to him and told him that he'd made really good work of it, completely forgetting about the strict instructions we'd been given. He pretended that he didn't have any idea what I was talking about, and I immediately realized that I'd completely screwed up. Which is to say that I'd drawn his attention to the fact that we'd all been initiated into the details of the plot and were therefore quite dangerous to him. With that single slip-up I'd put my whole family at risk.
And, sure enough, two days later somebody got my little sister, and after that my mother as well. I knew I had to get out of there, and so the next day I didn't return home from school; instead I lived in the woods like a wild animal until one sunny September afternoon when I found the day's newspaper on an overturned log--some loggers had just taken a break there--and noticed a photograph of an automobile accident. I immediately recognized dad's car and then also the deceased driver.
What had happened was as clear as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick: while dad had been eliminating dangerous witnesses, some deadly commando had done the same to him because he too was considered a dangerous witness. I now understood that the woods were blanketed with American parachutists who were tracking me down with the help of Indian scouts; that even now snipers were nestled in the crowns of the tall pine trees with their long-range rifles at the ready. I knew that I couldn't win against such a foe and set out to the nearest police station to make a clean breast of things.
They transcribed everything that I said and after a lot of waiting and telephone calls they moved me up the chain of command. First they sent me to another city where they typed up more transcripts and then, after a particularly long telephone call, they sent me with an armed guard to Prague.
There they took me to a large, gloomy palace. The sun was just rising and in its light I could make out a throng of stone gladiators on the roof. The driver of the car rang a doorbell and after a brief moment two thugs came to open the door and led me through the palace’s labyrinthine corridors. We finally came to a door which they knocked on before getting the go-ahead to lead me through it.
Sitting behind a huge mahogany desk--above which hung a portrait of Klement Gottwald with a small black ribbon tied to its upper left corner--was none other than my father. He smiled at me and then said, in his perfect Brno slang: "That's a goldmine that you can see there, rooter!" And that, like all sentences in Brno slang, had two different meanings. It either meant that everything was terribly funny or, conversely, that here and now all fun had come to a complete and total end. I decided to go with the first interpretation and smiled back at him.
In the corridors outside we could hear the hustle and bustle of the largest secret police station in Prague; outside the windows we could hear the city waking up and coming to life. Father got up from his table and stepped towards me. We warmly embraced each other.
(translated by G.S. Evans)
Jiri Kratochvil was born in 1940 in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic and currently lives in the nearby town of Moravsky Krumlov. He is the author of several novels, plays and short story collections published by the Atlantis and Petrov publishing houses, and his books have also been published in translation in France, Spain, Hungary, Russia, and Germany. In English his short stories have appeared in This Side of Reality: Modern Czech Writing (London 1996) and Daylight in Nightclub Inferno:Czech Fiction from the Post-Kundera Generation (Catbird Press 1997). The stories appearing here, "Smutna hra," and "Z kalendarovych historek," first appeared in the collection Ma lasko, postmoderno (Atlantis: Brno, 1994).
G.S. Evans is a writer and translator as well as the coeditor of The Cafe Irreal. An excerpt from his novella, The Secret Czech Diary of Frederick Baron, aged 29 and 3/4, appeared (in Czech) in the March issue of the Czech literary journal Host. Also, his translation of Arnost Lustig's short story, "The Gendarme," was recently accepted for publication by The Kenyon Review.
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stories copyright by author 1994 all rights reserved
translations copyright 2004 and 2013 by Greg Evans all rights reserved