ON CHICKEN WINGS


  • Autor článku

    Irena Brežná
  • Stručne o autorovi

    IRENA BREŽNÁ was born in 1950,  in Bratislava, and grew up in Trenčín. After graduating from high school she emigrated to Basel, Switzerland, with her parents where she she lives and works till today. She studied Slavonic studies, philosophy and psychology at the University of Basel. Besides her extensive writing and journalist activities, she has also worked as a psychologist, teacher of Russian, translator and interpreter, coordinator in Amnesty International and an army journalist in Chechnya. She has realized and supported various humanitarian and women’s projects in Guinea, Russia, Chechnya and Slovakia. She mainly writes in German and for her journalist and literary texts she has received nine awards in Switzerland and Germany, including the Theodor Wolff prize in 2002, in Berlin.

    Regularly she writes for the Swiss and German press and media (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Freitag, German radio WDR3) and for the Slovak dailies SME and Pravda. She published eight book in German, including a collection of essays and reports from eastern and central Europe titled Soul Collector (Die Sammlerin der Seelen, Aufbau Verlag, Berlin 2003). Besides articles, a Slovak translation of her prose, Psoriasis My Love (Psoriáza moja láska), was published in 1992, and in 2005 a book of prose, articles and essays, Liquid Fetish (Tekutý fetiš, Aspekt) followed. Her newest prose On Chicken Wings (Na slepačích krídlach, Aspekt) came out in German under the title Die beste aller Welten in the Ebersbach edition, in Berlin. In it, the author humorously talks about her childhood in the socialist Slovakia during the late 1950s. In September 2008, she made it onto the SWR-Bestenliste, the list of the best prose in German-speaking countries.

  • Text

    Mum is a proletarian, that is, she was a proletarian before she married my father. Proletarianism is a complicated thing; a man can lose it on account of an unproletarian profession and a woman by marrying. Mum is a renegade, that's why she lets me play with all the children and she thinks Grandma is stupid. Grandma is not stupid, she just has old-fashioned ideas and is afraid that proletarian children are dirty and have infectious diseases. If only Mum would come back soon! I have no new clothes, Grandma keeps mending my old ones; she doesn't like anything new. I'm ashamed to go out of the house in darned stockings. I used to be the best-dressed girl in our class and live in comfort. When Mum hugged me, I would be lost in her scent. Now no one hugs me and I can't read novels in the evenings, because Grandma turns out the light. Electricity is expensive, she says quietly in an apologetic voice, because she knows that reading novels is educational and she is depriving me of education. Should I ask Jesus Christ for help, or would it be better to write to our President in the capital? But Jesus Christ has his own problems and Comrade President could order our Mum to be executed, because he is strict and just. I'm afraid Mum wouldn't tear the blindfold off her eyes when facing the execution squad. Then she wouldn't get into the history books and she'd remain a nobody. I'll manage by myself. I'll bury my lovely big Mum deep in my heart like the hawk in the yard.

     

    During the break one boy yelled right across the school playground: Your Mum's in the nick! Poor boy, his father staggers through the streets, blabbering to himself, then collapses on the pavement and sleeps there. His son must be terribly ashamed of him! That's why he vents his anger on me. Our father is not an alcoholic, he's a sportsman and sportsmen only drink water. Everyone in the playground froze to the spot; they stopped running around and shouting. I am standing there and suddenly I feel happy. Now I know what happiness is. It sits inside me and it is overwhelming. Time stops and I stop and in spite of that I'm alive, in fact more than at any other time, and I know: Mum is alive. Then life goes on, as if nothing had happened. I play with my friends, we eat my bread and butter and Comrade Teacher does not announce that our mum is in prison to show she is politically aware.

    Since then I've been happy that Mum is not dead; she is lying on a hard plank bed in our beloved country and growing pale. She is safe in the prison cell; she can't do any harm there, consort with enemies, betray secrets, so that foreign, exploited soldiers can attack us. If she had left our country, I would have had to disown her in front of the whole class and I wouldn't get higher education. The children of traitors can't be allowed to be wise; their wisdom is dangerous for the state. Traitors and their descendents must build bridges and be useful to society. They are called the enemy within and can't choose for themselves how they will serve the common good. They carry within themselves the seed of betrayal. I imagine the seed of betrayal to look like a black bug. Even if a child renounces his or her traitorous heritage, the bug will still want to behave disloyally. There's nothing you can do about that. Bugs can't be re-educated.

    Our President and all of us must be on the alert, says Comrade Headmaster. He teaches us a new subject – civil defence education and in every lesson he repeats that the danger of war has not yet passed. He shows us a poster on which our enemies are portrayed as horrible stray dogs with bared teeth. All the workers of the world must unite against these dogs, that's what is written in red letters on the wall in our classroom. Enemies within must not hold leading posts, because they could build our bridges crooked on purpose, so they would collapse. That's called sabotage. Whenever I hear that word, I can hear a bridge cracking and collapsing. I hope they are guarding Dad well, so he doesn't commit sabotage. Comrade Teacher says this country is swarming with saboteurs. Whenever a bridge collapses, they immediately throw a couple of saboteurs in prison. I should like to catch a saboteur in the act; I would report him to the police and be awarded a medal.

    Mum hasn't stolen anything or killed anyone either. Could it have been words that got her into prison? Words are dangerous in our country. I'm afraid it might have been my words. Sometimes I forget Mum's warning: You mustn't repeat at school anything we say at home. I have erected a dividing wall in my head, on the right are family words and on the left school words. They are two worlds and two languages and every day I go back and forth between them like a double agent. But, whether out of naughtiness or tiredness, sometimes a word slips out into the wrong world and that word may well have put Mum in prison. It's not easy living in a happy country. Happiness can disappear at any moment and someone has to pay for it.

    Think what you like, but never say it aloud, that's another of Mum's favourite sayings. I consider keeping quiet to be cowardly and I promise myself that I will always say what I think. But I don't. If I met some heroes who weren't afraid to defend their opinions even in prison, I would have someone I could talk to. But the heroes in the history textbooks are dead and we who are to light up the future are still too weak. I like our hard-working ancestors, the tinkers, who went out into the world to mend the holes in pots and pans. They offered their services in the streets and squares of foreign towns, shouting out loud: Pots to mend! They were well-liked and good craftsmen. I'd love to shout out my opinions in our Great Victory Square  and patch up all the holes in this world with my heart.

    Although Mum was a proletarian child, she had traitorous plans. That is the great secret with which she entrusted me and my brother. Before she disappeared, she called us into the living room, told us to sit down on the sofa and she shut the door. She cleared her throat and hesitated for a moment, I was already afraid she was ill, but then she revealed her plan to us: Very soon we shall escape across the border and travel overseas by ship. I didn't hear what she said after that, at the thought of travelling by ship my ears filled with water, I could only hear the rush of waves and I never reached the enemy shores. My brother went dead quiet. As I said, he's a coward. But I too sat mutely on the sofa, where guests usually sat, and felt as if I was just there on a visit. I stared at Mum; she seemed so distant, as if she was someone I didn't know, as if I was wearing glasses through which all I could see was the sea.

    My head was swirling. Why did Mum want to go where there was oppression and injustice? She couldn't be a spy, could she? Could she want to destroy our bright future for a pile of money? So many heroes had been tortured to death and executed in jails, so that we could live in a better world. And Mum wants to live overseas, where the proletariat with despairing faces slog away for starvation wages, emaciated children beg in the streets and fat gentlemen pass them by and instead of sharing their bread and butter with them, they spit out saliva stained yellow by their fat cigars. But what can I do now when I'm sitting in the living room behind closed doors on the best piece of furniture opposite my fragrant mummy and she has just uttered that terrible word "emigration"? Our state gives us textbooks and exercise books free, so we can one day work for the benefit of the proletariat, and not for the benefit of spitting gentlemen in a hostile country, where textbooks and exercise books cost a lot of money and the classrooms are half empty. That's what we were told by our headmaster, who has never been in an enemy classroom. But, he said, we don't have wait until winter to know that snow is white. Our heroes used to declare that you must never run away from any danger, from any task, no matter how difficult it may be, and you must never betray your country and they themselves kept to this. I'm glad Mum's attempt to run away came to nothing. I want to stay for ever in our backyard and be progressive.

    I certainly don't want to emigrate, but not because it is forbidden and ignores the need for solidarity. When I imagine us leaving, I see the children from our neighbourhood gathered at the gate to say goodbye to me and Mum calling irritably: Come on! I turn round to take a last look at our house and I just can't budge from the spot. It's like in a nightmare when I can't run away from a bad man, my legs are heavy, as if they have put down roots in the asphalt. So that day I sat on the sofa in the living room like a coward – after all, I am the sister of my brother and I have inherited the bourgeois bug from my father, and all I could manage to do was to ask quietly: Can I take my teddy bear? At which my mother hugged me in delight. But of course you can. Teddy isn't good at sums, which is why I have to spank him and then his eyes grow sad. That hurts me and I kiss him all over and beg him to forgive me. I certainly wouldn't want to emigrate without him. Then Mum told us very sternly: You mustn't tell anyone, otherwise something terrible will happen. She looked at us mistrustfully, as if we had already given the secret away. Hm, only something terrible happened anyway, even though I didn't say a word. But it could have been far worse. Isn't it better to sit in a dark cell in our country than be alone and free overseas?

    We are to be more progressive day by day, like our country, which has more and more factory chimneys. In this way we can look after ourselves and also help poor countries to build factory chimneys. When Comrade Teacher hands out paper and coloured crayons, we draw red factory chimneys, from which proud black smoke is rising. When the sky over our country turns black and hides the sun, it means that we are well off and industrialisation is progressing and we don't need the sun. When I see the factory chimneys from our backyard, I know that I am well cared for. Our factory worker comrades are taking care of me, they know my needs. We have enough electricity, we have lots of rivers, we've got the better of floods and we have built a hydroelectric power station outside every village. Our rivers are choked up and filthy because of all those factories, but only backward countries have clean rivers.

    Grandma says that only my guardian angel knows my needs. Mum, on the contrary, says – or rather used to say, when she was still with us – that Grandma is talking a load of rubbish. But I like listening to Grandma when she's talking about angels. Her voice goes soft, it's like cat's fur, and then I know that our Grandma is good. I sit near her in the kitchen on a footstool. It grows dark, but we don't turn on the light as we are saving electricity and I can hear angels flying around the kitchen, even though I don't believe in them. Outside the window bats whizz past in large circles and everywhere there is peace. Not the kind of peace that would stop our enemies from attacking us. It is the kind of peace that needs nothing more than to sit quietly and listen to sounds.

                                                                        Translated by Heather Trebatická