Almost Invisible



ome people are not made for either life or for death. They haven’t enough strength in them for the one or for the other. They spend too much energy on surviving and too much strength on trying not to actually die. I can recall such people too. For example R. I described her in a much earlier story of mine, slightly disguised – what if she should come across my text one day? I shouldn’t like her to think of me as mistletoe on her life. One year R. and me had neighbouring rooms and shared a bathroom together in the students’ hostel. I remember her narrow face with cat-like eyes, her frizzy red hair. From time to time she received a visit from her father, a very old pharmacist from some little town in the south of Slovakia. Once he drove R. and I in his Saab to see his sister in Budapest. “She was one of the first microbiologists in Hungary,” he said proudly. They both had faded numbers tattooed on their forearms. Their bodies emanated melancholy, although they spoke rapidly in sharp voices and they never mentioned the past. I also knew that R.’s mother had died just after her birth, that she had problems with her nerves, which R. thought had been passed on to her as her inheritance, as the shadow of her mother. That R’s inability to make love had its roots in this. That’s what she told me when she once brought Max to the hostel. He was a student of economy from Switzerland. We sat on the divan bed in my room and I made toast and strong tea, which we sipped while carrying on a passionate discussion with Max, who insisted on the need for a world revolution, on the necessity to change this world of merchants, in order to develop at last a new world, uncorrupted and just for all. Max had made a detailed study of Das Kapital, he admired Mao and Che Guevara with his apostle-like face. He told us about the previous year’s waves of demonstrations in the USA against the war in Vietnam, about the crippling of the Vietnamese, about poisoned rice fields, about the tragedy of American soldiers whose enthusiasm had evaporated and who deadened their minds with drugs, until many of them were carried home in metal coffins. He said that the Viet Cong were impossible to catch, that this was a different kind of war, in which there was no front line. He enthused about the way the recent university students’ revolts had spread from New York to Rome, Madrid, London, Berlin, Tokyo and Paris. In the Latin Quarter students had pulled up cobblestones and built barricades. They had overturned bourgeois cars and they wanted a battle. On the thirteenth of May he himself had taken part in a student protest in the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. Hundreds of thousands of students, he claimed, had waited there to see what would happen next. Their leaders carried on confused discussions. The Maoists wanted to continue with the demonstrations in the working-class suburbs, the anarchists and Situationists called for an attack on the rich districts, the Trotskyists demanded something else, while the communists suggested they should disperse, because they said the students and the workers had already shown their strength sufficiently. For a moment the insurgents had seemed to Max like a crowd of madmen. He explained to us two – as if to some foreigners in our own land – the strength of the Prague Spring, and he was indignant about the military occupation of our state. His conclusion was something along the lines of “The Youth International has identical icons, desires and aims: it wants to destroy everything that is old, like Jimi Hendrix his guitar.” He gazed lovingly at R., who had said nothing all this time, just sitting cross-legged and frowning. In the morning she told me that she had gone with Max to his hotel and in the night he had tried it, but she had once again been overcome with such fear and anxiety that she had curled up like a maggot and burst into tears. That had bewildered Max and deprived him of the courage to make love to her. R. was sad with the sadness of her tribe, which had experienced exile, found its own land and lost it again, scattered to wander for centuries through a strange and alienated world, exposed to suffering. I felt sympathy for R., I admired her, as I did everything that was connected with this tribe of hers. Especially because of what I had gradually learned in my childhood about the Holocaust. I saw in photos and films the emaciated, tormented halfhuman beings from the concentration camps. As a child, they made me sob my heart out.

R. went to see a psychiatrist. She told me that he had instructed her to write down all her dreams. In one of them she had been washing the body of her mother, which did not have a face. She did it slowly, thoroughly, and when she had completed the ceremony of washing, she wound wire around her mother’s body. She put one end in the electric socket and at that point the dream ended.

R. tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions. After one such attempt we found her lying like a little girl in a deep sleep on the divan bed. She was dressed more as if she was preparing to go for a walk, in a green dress with tiny red and black flowers. Her red hair was splayed around her head and on her feet she had sandals with straps wound around her ankles. There was chaos on the desk next to the divan: scattered pills and a fallen glass. “You saved me,” she said, almost indifferently, when her father drove her off to a sanatorium somewhere in Hungary. R. may always remain shut up in her own world, like a clam hiding from the fierce sun. Maybe she will never get over her sadness.

I am a prisoner of my memory of R. But this memory will never be sufficiently true to life and profound, sufficiently exact and complete. Because that is what writing is also like – the tracing of one’s own limitations. R. left my scene. Serious. Different. Imprisoned within her own fate. It is beyond me to describe her. But I have returned to her again, as I keep returning to my youth and to various things that have left their mark on me.

Just after R. had abandoned her studies once and for all, Z. appeared in my life. A Palestinian, a student of medicine. He was no prince on a white horse, but a nomad, a man of the desert, dark, frowning, created out of rocks and sand. A rebellious revolutionary, like Max, the Swiss. He spoke passionately about his hatred of Israel. I did not understand, I defended the Jews on account of the Holocaust. “What happened in the past mustn’t lead to another Holocaust! On my nation, which lives in tents, as my own family does. We do not have our own land; it is we who are the exiles now! There will be a terrible war one day. I must be of service as a doctor to my people. To the wounded in the ruins, the dying in the dust and desert,” he said with pathos, as it seemed to me then. We used to walk back along Hlboká Street to the Horský Park hostel late at night. Occasionally, when he noticed the stars and an exceptionally full moon, Z. would also smile, forgetting his hatred. His youth broke through and he pulled me towards him. I don’t know where he is now, or whether he is even alive. A newspaper lies open on my table and I am looking at a photo of the abducted Israeli soldier, Guilad Shalit. He looks like a shy student. Like the very opposite of a soldier. His family are begging his captors to treat their son as a human being, to nurse his wounds. Israel is demanding his release. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given the command for an extensive operation in the Gaza strip. “No one will be regarded as inviolate,” he declared. Tanks and soldiers would clearly be entering Gaza very soon. It is not hard to imagine the shooting, dust, ruins, blood, weeping and hatred on both sides and the violence. All that remains is Z.’s deeply-rooted conviction that the rest of the world feels nothing any longer, is numbed, mentally ravaged. But at that time, when I am twenty, a game is beginning between Z. and myself. A serious game, without a happy ending. We both know that, but we pretend it is not so. The game has the smell of fire; it changes my body and in its rigorousness it endangers my ability to dream. I find it difficult to prepare for my exams; the fourth year is drawing to a close. He introduces me to Palestinian girls – this minority here has its own regular meetings. Syrians and Kurds come as well. The men carry on passionate discussions in guttural voices – maybe they are swearing to fight forever for their lost lands. This is followed by the sound of drums and whistles. They all dance in a large circle. The girls stretch their hands above their heads towards heaven, to their god, like the peasant women in J. But the Arab girls dance in a more refined way: they have to bend their arms like the soft necks of flamingos. They twist their hands at the wrists and move their fingers in complicated patterns...

Translated by

Heather Trebatická