by Jiří Kratochvíl
Trucks loaded with cucumbers
This is something that happened to me a few years ago. I’d been detained in the city by something or the other until early morning, by which time it was too late to take public transport back home; I was, however, offered a ride by somebody who was headed to the town of Ivančice, from which it's just a short way to my place, which is in a town named Moravský Krumlov. We maneuvered our way out of Brno's streets and by the time dawn broke we were out on the highway, which was almost completely deserted (the only vehicles we came across were two trucks loaded with cucumbers, and they only showed themselves so they could give this story its name).
The guy who so willingly offered me a ride (was he a prop man from the Goose on a String Theatre? The fact is, I didn’t really know) told me about new safety systems for the whole of the trip and, thanks to their detailed technical descriptions, our time passed quite excellently. So before we knew it we were already coming up on Ivančice. The driver slowed down and told me that there was a shortcut coming up, one that would lead us straight into town. But then he cursed and said that something wrong, because the shortcut didn’t start in the woods. But then he decided that must be it and asked me if we couldn’t try it anyway. I nodded yes. What else could I do?
So we drove into the woods. Even though it was now nearly full daylight, the driver kept his eyes glued to the dirt road and drove very slowly. I asked him if we couldn't stop for a moment. He shrugged his shoulders and, when he stopped, I got out of the truck and walked a few steps to the nearest tree. But then I glimpsed a patch of sky visible between a break in the trees and got such a fright that I immediately forgot about my little bathroom break. My fellow-traveler, who'd also gotten out of the vehicle, had just been getting ready to smoke a cigarette when he also looked up at the sky, after which he immediately jammed his cigarette back into its box and hopped back up into the truck. I quickly followed and we both remained tongue-tied as he went into reverse and backed us out onto the highway. He dropped me off, as promised, in Moravský Krumlov; he didn’t say a word to me at our parting and I forgot to thank him for the ride.
On Kopečná Street in Brno, which is below the Denisová Gardens, lives the painter Jan Zuziak; during the time of which I'm speaking, he was suffering a protracted artistic crisis and wasn't painting at all. I often dropped by his place to have a chat and did so this time as well.
Imagine this, he said (after he'd opened the bottle of Ruland blue wine that I'd brought): about a month ago I came back from Prague by train and I was so worn out from the trip and the late hour that I fell sleep as soon as I got back. And I dreamed — you know, of course, that I write down my dreams — that you were going somewhere in something, that you stopped in some woods, got out, and that you were headed to a tree and that your driver wanted a cigarette, but never lit it.
I told him that it was obvious that he’d talked with the guy who’d given me the ride and that I wasn’t going to take the bait he was offering me; I added, though, that it would very much interest me what the prop man (or whatever he was) had said about that trip
Zuziak however looked surprised. He didn't know what I was talking about. No prop man had said anything to him about anything. And then he changed the subject and asked me if I still remembered Doubravka — you know, the daughter of that Russian from the Caucasus, Jelena Jazykovova — and if I’d heard that she’d taken up painting. And that she’d started straight-off with ceiling frescoes? He told me that she goes around to her friends and, when one of them lets down their guard, she grabs a ladder, places it under the ceiling and paints like a demon. Like she'd been possessed by Michelangelo. So don't be startled, he said, but it's really pretty wild!
And he opened the door to his bedroom. When I looked at the ceiling the blood in my veins froze and I had to lean against the wall for support.
Hey, don't go crazy! Zuziak said, surprised. Do Doubravka's frescoes fascinate you so much?
No, its rubbish, let's leave it, I said. I quickly returned to the adjoining room and explained that I wasn’t up to explaining it to him.
But let me at least try to explain it to you.
It is well-known that in that phase of sleep during which we dream there are rapid eye movements (in English they abbreviate it to “REM”). And, with all that movement, it only figures that the eyes could on occasion get a peek at what lies outside in the room, since the eyelids are sometimes opened just a bit. When it's completely dark, what’s in the room won’t have much influence on the dream. But Zuziak, arriving by an overnight train from Prague, didn't go to sleep until the early hours of the morning, when it was already daylight; I can only figure that he must have seen a part of the ceiling in his bedroom through his partially opened eyelids. And this would explain what it was that I and the prop man saw in that patch of sky between the trees: Doubravka's wretched fresco!
We'd evidently wandered into Zuziakov's dream. In retrospect, I am now especially glad that we’d behaved ourselves and shown some good manners. Which is to say, that the prop man hadn't lighted his cigarette and that I hadn't done what I'd set out to do behind that tree.
I can only hope that visitors in my dreams will comport themselves so well.
Sometime in the spring of 1981 I went to the city of Pardubice, north of Brno, to meet with a young woman named Romana. She was translating a letter of mine that I’d written to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, a letter that was full of literary allusions and all variety of intricate compliments and admiring obeisances.
Romana, who had married an Argentinean maker of canned beef shortly after graduating from high school, promised me that she’d not only translate the letter but would personally deliver and read it to the blind writer, even if it meant she had to go to Switzerland to do it; that was where he was spending the majority of his sightless days at that time. And when she returned to Pardubice to visit her mother, she’d tell me how the letter had been received.
But unfortunately she never got back to me about the letter; I heard later that she might be a KGB agent, though it was also said that she worked for both sides, and that somebody — as they tend to do to these agents — had done away with her. I thought about her some number of times after that, especially about how she’d explained to me that, in rich Argentinean families such as the one she’d married into, a devotional cult had grown around the figure of Jorge Luis Borges.
And then I forgot about it. Several years passed by and the communist regime was now gasping for breath like an old drunk sitting in a bar; Borges, meanwhile, had died a few years before. One day I went to a park on the outskirts of Brno, actually a public garden, where only recently a statue of some working-class shop steward had been standing; I looked up and saw that in its place stood the figure of a woman sculpted into stone. Specifically, the figure of Romana. It’s true that I hadn’t seen her in a good long while, but she was somebody I couldn’t help but remember until my dying day.
But I didn’t stop to take a closer look like you might have expected. Instead, frightened by what I’d seen, I hurried out of the park. Only after I arrived home did I have second thoughts about the matter; I got up early the next morning and went back at an hour when only the wind is chasing after the leaves. And then, when I had time to carefully look the statue over (it really was Romana on that plinth, captured by the sculptor in the moment that I’d last seen her as we parted at the corner of a street in Pardubice: she was already walking away, her head still slightly turned toward me), I noticed something that I’d missed the first time. What I’d considered to be the raised collar of Romana’s coat was, in reality, the paws of some kind of a huge dog, which was hanging onto her back by wrapping its front legs around her shoulders.
I let a whole week pass before, late one evening, going back to the park. In the meantime a marked change had occurred. The dog had turned into a wolf and it wasn’t on Romana’s back but on the back of a huge she-wolf, which was rearing up on its hind legs like a dancing mare. Standing there in that park, which was surrounded by buildings with lit windows, I felt like I was in a darkened aquarium in the middle of a room that had its lights on. After hesitating for a moment, I climbed onto the statue’s plinth, struck a match and inspected the ugly head of the she-wolf carefully. Its teeth were bared with an animal’s glee.
I will not keep you in suspense, because everything now proceeded forward at a brisk pace. I managed to catch the sculptural group in the following days as it underwent further changes. First there was a huge stone snake strangling a stone llama or some similar animal and then, in quick succession, it alternated naturalistic scenes from primeval Argentinean forests with scenes from mythology. It amused me to watch as people passed through the park and sat on its benches as though nothing were amiss; they acted as though it were entirely normal that, in the middle of the park, there was a sculpture of a unicorn standing on the back of an elephant, or of a cock fight.
And after a little while I understood what it was all about: living inscription! It occurred to me that, from wherever he was now, Borges was answering my letter. But after a few moments I realized that I was mistaken.
It wasn’t a reply to my letter, but rather an expression of Borges’ unspoken trust in me. With his living inscription he was dictating his newest story to me from wherever he was now. And it took a long time before I could read this writing even a little bit. In the meantime the text of the story wrapped around the plinth fully six times and I was able to get a sense of the story’s contours. And here I realized something that caused me to get quite exhilarated. Borges once wrote a story, “The Secret Miracle,” that played out in Prague during the Nazi occupation (its hero was the writer Jaromír Hladík), and here I had before me another one of his stories with a Czech theme.
Finally, after a huge effort (a sacrifice I was glad to make for my Master), I succeeded in transcribing from his live writing the first two sentences of the new story: Sometime in the spring of 1981 I went to the city of Pardubice, north of Brno, to meet with a young woman named Romana. She was translating a letter of mine that I’d written to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges … But I couldn’t go any further with it. It made me feel absolutely powerless. I will never know what is in the rest of that story.
Meanwhile, in a small park in a suburb of the city of Brno, an unknown Borges text vainly keeps going round and round, written with living inscription.
Please, don't swear
Brno. King's Field. Slavic Square. Yes, here in the Secessionist block of flats not far from the school lives Oleg F., and it is here at this moment that he is initiating me into something:
Have you ever seen a cat walking on a table covered with a lot of glassware and porcelain?
I have. They walk very adroitly and never knock over or break anything because they can't stand loud noises.
And do you know why they can't stand loud noises?
Because they have extremely sensitive hearing.
Right. And did you also know that a some number of white cats are absolutely deaf and will break glass, porcelain, and ceramics with the greatest of pleasure?
Yeah, I've heard that too. That when they're deaf they can't hear the noise that normally keeps them from doing it.
Exactly. But just to make things even more interesting, once every great while a white cat is born with phenomenally sensitive hearing. In all of human speech there isn't a word that can describe such sensitive hearing.
I nodded in the direction of the white cat, which he had in a basket on the couch. And is that such a cat?
For a moment we quietly watched the cat. Her ears were in constant motion — her head continuously turning from side to side and tilting forwards and backwards — as though she were always following something.
Whole days pass by and all she does is listen, he explained. Nothing else in the world interests her; she lives with those sounds and nothing else. But can we even begin to imagine what they must be like if they’re always grabbing her complete and total attention? I'd bet that they're colorful and, in their own way, ordered; that the beast hears them as being in complete, mutually distinctive, and distinguishable zones of sound. Just to take an example: the tram from Řečkovic should be coming along any second now and its stop is in this direction. There, you see! The cat is turned in that direction and now looks as though it is following the tram's departure. But that is only the first and closest sound zone. I have also tried to figure out how she reacts to more distant zones. I figured out, for example, that she reacts to the start of the day’s work at the Královopolský machine-works.
But dammit, how can you know what a cat's reaction would be to the sound of machines starting up in a distant factory?
Don't swear, please. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I was able to reach a point where I could answer this. And it will be with far greater difficulty that I will be able to explain it to you. Basically, it has to do with the various ways she moves when she hears a sound and what that says about the sound that she heard. I know for a fact that this beast listens to the whole city, the whole of Brno. That there isn't a single sound that she isn’t aware of and that the full aural richness of the city is at her disposal. That with her, to listen is better than to communicate.
Then I didn't see Oleg for a long time (maybe six years?). I heard that he'd taken advantage of early retirement. I also heard that his telephone service had been disconnected and that he had, in all possible ways, cut himself off from the world. I had my suspicions as to what might be inspiring this. And because my interest in the matter had been reawakened, I wrote him a letter in which I politely asked whether he might not allow me to stop by for a visit.
He didn't reply until a shamefully long time had elapsed. He excused himself by stating that he was always busy with something. And that he would let me know when he had more time. And, at the conclusion of his letter, he informed me that I'd better do something about my bathroom door, because its goddamned squeaking was driving him crazy.
Don't swear, please! I wrote him back.
(translated by G.S. Evans)
Jiří Kratochvíl was born in 1940 in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic and currently lives in the nearby town of Moravský Krumlov. He is the author of several novels, plays and short story collections published by the Atlantis, Petrov, and Druhé město 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). His stories, "A Sad Play" and "From the Pulps," appeared in Issue #12 of The Cafe Irreal. These stories originally appeared in his short story collection Brněnské povídky (Stories of Brno, Druhé město, 2007) and have been translated with the permission of the Dana Blatná Literary Agency.
G.S. Evans is the coeditor of The Cafe Irreal. His short novel, A Week in the Quiet Country (Týden v tiché zemi, Prague, David&Shoel, 2009), was recently published in translation in the Czech Republic; his fiction and essays have appeared in various Czech journals, including Host, Labyrint, Listy, and Britské listy; his translations of the work of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig have appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, and New Orleans Review.