Day One: Evening
It was around seven o’clock by the time he got home, somewhat later than in the previous few days, his head empty from hours of the intense effort to stay alert but also feeling hungry and, as a result, angry and irritable. He decided that this time he wouldn’t just cut a few slices of bread, spread them with some butter and cheese, and proceed to chew on them the way he’d been stuffing himself at breakfast and dinner for over a week now. On his last visit to the supermarket he’d bought some canned meat; on the can it said that all you had to do was put it into boiling water, unopened, for five or ten minutes.
He filled a pot with water and set it on the gas stove. He laid out a plate and cutlery, and removed empty bottles of mineral water and fruit juice and two thick books from the bag he had brought home. Tomorrow he would take the books back to the library and choose another two. He left the bottles in the corner of the kitchen and carried the books into the living room. When he returned to the kitchen he found the water in the pot already hissing so he placed the can in the water and it was only then that he remembered he hadn’t checked whether you were supposed to leave it there for five or ten minutes. But he didn’t take it out. He sat down on a bench at the kitchen table, and when he thought he’d waited long enough he turned off the gas, quickly took the can out of the hot water, opened it, tipped half the contents onto a plate, and cut himself a slice of bread even though he could see small bits of potatoes floating in the unappetizing looking sauce among the pieces of meat.
The canned meat was lukewarm. It tasted disgusting and sticky like industrial rubber but that made sense, it made sense, fitting into everything else that had conspired against him.
Lately he’d taken to talking to himself—only short sentences though, mainly curses (directed at himself ) and questions (so what else was I supposed to do?) meant to conclude a particular chain of reminiscences. This time, too, he felt the urge to give loud, succinct, and strong expression to his annoyance with the foul-tasting canned meat, which was why he followed each gulp with a loud and accusatory scream at the wall opposite: “Damned canned meat!”—“Fucking life!”
The screaming helped him to calm down a bit and made him realize how ridiculous it was for him to swear, especially using words he normally never used. But at least it was a way of unburdening himself to someone invisible. He was fully aware that it wasn’t the fault of the disgusting canned meat and that there was nothing stopping him from tipping the contents of the plate into the toilet and making himself a sandwich with some cheese from the fridge, but it was doing him good to berate everything that couldn’t be tipped into the toilet and so, after swallowing each chewy piece of the disgusting canned meat, he continued insisting to himself, only now more calmly—as if he had discovered the immutable nature of things—and much more quietly, over and over: “Damned canned meat.”—“Fucking life.” The repetition turned his swearing into some feeble-minded child’s game and as he continued mindlessly, he suddenly heard the telephone ring. He remained seated for a while, not interested in hearing what someone might want to say to him on the phone. What if it’s something else though, he thought, as the names of three or four friends flashed through his mind but then again, as he began to walk toward the phone in the living room, he thought: this had to be it, irredeemably, definitively.
He crossed the living room, picked up the phone and spoke into it. Since a voice on the other end asked who was speaking, he introduced himself. The voice said its name was “Doctor Marton.” It flashed through his mind that there was a time when he used to hear this name more often, he thought it belonged to a urologist and for a moment he wasn’t so sure he was going to hear the news he was expecting, but once the voice on the telephone started explaining “I’m calling from the oncology ward, I just happen to be on night duty here tonight,” he was quite certain again he would hear what he’d been expecting.
Actually, he wasn’t expecting it at all; it’s just that sometimes it had vaguely occurred to him that this call might come, perhaps the day after tomorrow, in a week, or in a couple of weeks. But he wasn’t expecting it just yet...
However, the voice on the other end of the phone didn’t continue with the news he was fearing but proceeded instead to give him a detailed account of how he hadn’t been able to find his name in the telephone directory, and that’s why he had to call at least three people who he thought might know him, but none of them had his number, and only then had he remembered a fourth person from whom he finally got the number. That was why he hadn’t called earlier.
The voice on the other end of the phone paused, so, just to say something, he offered: “Yes, my name isn’t listed in the phone book.” Then the doctor moved on to the crux of the matter: “The thing is, your wife’s condition has deteriorated. The situation is critical.”
Again, he just said “yes,” as if to encourage the doctor to say more but the doctor digressed once again: “I’m sure you remember that before we admitted her we told you that something like this couldn’t be ruled out...that you had to be prepared for it.”
What does he mean by “we,” he thought, annoyed; he had talked to the chief physician and nobody else was present at the time. But out loud he just said “yes” again and then finally, as he’d been expecting, the doctor moved on to the reason why he was calling: “And that’s why it would be a good idea for you to come straight away.”
Again, he repeated mechanically, “Yes, I’ll be there straight away,” to which the doctor added: “It would be a good idea for you to bring someone along.”
He didn’t understand why he should bring someone along just because his wife’s condition had deteriorated, but again he just repeated his “yes” but this time the voice on the other end of the telephone quickly went on, like someone who had inadvertently forgotten to mention something important: “Obviously you have to be prepared for the fact that your wife is already dead.”
Now the voice at the other end of the line had nothing more to announce, and he repeated his “yes, I’ll be there straight away” and put the receiver down.
For a moment, he stood by the telephone without moving, as if the last sentence had to be chewed first and then swallowed, like another chewy piece of the disgusting canned meat. But he hadn’t swallowed it yet. He focused on something that had nothing to do with the content of the telephone conversation. Like an editor or a dramaturge editing other people’s texts he reviewed the doctor’s last few sentences, as if proofreading a manuscript on his desk. Where’s the logic in this—first he tells him about the situation getting critical and then he ends by saying the critical situation is over. And then this “obviously you have to be prepared…” Obviously! He didn’t mind that it was an ugly word but it bothered him that in this sentence it didn’t make any sense. Surely the doctor didn’t mean to say “obviously”; what was so obvious about it, surely he wanted to say “of course,” in the sense of “but”: “but you have to be prepared for...”; there would have been some stylistic logic in that.
Having finished his proofreading he went back to the kitchen, slowly and deliberately, as if carrying a secret. Once in the kitchen he sat down on the bench again to ponder something and it took him a while to realize he wasn’t thinking of anything, and that all he had to do was go to the hospital and take someone along. So he got up, picked up the plate so that the smell of the canned meat wouldn’t linger in the kitchen, tipped the rest into the toilet, flushed it down, put everything away, and sat down on the kitchen bench again, as if he now needed a little rest before leaving.
He sat there with his shoulders drooping, his hands in his lap. He would no longer have to...yes, there were quite a few things he would no longer have to...think about what she might like in hospital and what he would say to her...or to think, as he had done so often over the past two weeks, whether she would ever come back to this apartment...and if she did, for how long. He no longer had to be petrified, nothing would change, everything had settled down. She simply was no longer. He was unhappy with himself for not feeling a sudden alarm that was supposed to shake him up. But then again, could it have ended any other way? She was likely to have been thinking the same way. And maybe she’d even wanted it. Nonsense. But still, sometimes over the past few days these ideas had crossed his mind. The thought had lodged itself in his brain and now he felt ashamed to think that she, unlike him, had come to terms with it… and she had left him here alone. Surely she must have known he wouldn’t be able to cope by himself. He’d be left sitting in this huge apartment from morning till night. Surrounded only by an immutable silence. And a vast emptiness. Suddenly he seemed to have gotten a grip, noticing his mind had gone blank again and that he had to go to the hospital. The doctor had ordered him to come. Although right now it no longer mattered if he went there straight away or if he went on sitting here. He wasn’t going to the hospital to see her anyway; he was only going there because of her.
Extract translated by Jonathan Gresty
[Here the author/narrator thinks back over the jobs he has held trying to identify former colleagues to whom he ought send a notice of his wife’s death. The following extract focuses on his five-year spell at Pravda, the Communist Party daily, at the height of the Stalinist 1950s.]
Then there was his next job, at Pravda, another newspaper and another five years of his life. By that time independent opinion was regarded as virtually a criminal offence, and the newspaper wielded all the authority of a mouthpiece. In his mind’s eye, he conjured up a group photograph. It was so crowded it was almost impossible to fit everyone in, so many people were needed on the paper since almost no-one could write, most of them having enjoyed only a perfunctory education and untrammelled by any views of their own, by any ‘intellectualism’, as it was called, so they had no need to get rid of it, unlike him, who, whenever he was attacked for this vice, had to promise as part of his self-criticism that he would do just that. It was customary at this newspaper, whenever a new ideological campaign was launched, that a pack of wolves would gather and start sniffing around for anyone who might make a suitable target for the campaign. He had never experienced so much malicious hatred as at that newspaper. In the end he was quite lucky to be fired simply for not being a party member and so avoiding other, much more serious forms of punishment.
He wouldn’t find a single name here, he was quite sure, but those were such truly strange years that he found it hard to drag himself away from them immediately. Though he never quite managed to get rid of his ‘intellectualism’, a stick he was often beaten with, those years left him dumbed down and made him leave the paper professionally damaged, having to re-learn how to read and write, with one article in particular he’d written in those five years staying branded on his forehead and continuing to itch, yet he never quite managed to toe the line and march to the same tune as everyone else. At first he thought he might take shelter on relatively neutral ground by joining the arts desk but after describing a book by Tatarka as the best post-war novel, he was reprimanded, so vehemently that the walls shook, just for daring to mention the novel in the same breath as socialist realism, but when a year later the same author wrote another novel, quite a lousy one, and he said so, he was reprimanded again, so vehemently that the walls shook again, for failing to notice that this, at last, was true socialist realism, and how could he not see that here, at last, was the first person to conquer this Himalayan peak. So he had himself transferred to the foreign affairs desk where life was much more comfortable and all he had to do was transfer the news from the only existing news agency and cut-and-paste it to produce the requisite number of lines each morning… He stared again at the group photograph, the editor-in-chief looming over the blurred faces like a rock. The others regarded him as just a senile moron but to him he was the very embodiment of that era. He would spend all day sitting in his editor’s office designing grids. The daily edition of the paper had eight pages while the Sunday edition had twelve, and the editor-in-chief would prepare a mock up of all these pages a month in advance, meaning he would decide some three hundred pages ahead, what editorial would appear when, what would be the main headline across three columns on page one, what would appear on pages two and four and five and six and seven each day, what copy the industry, agriculture, ideology, foreign affairs, arts, letters, sports and perhaps some other desks would supply on which day. He would leave the odd blank frame on page three and eight perhaps, for the foreign affairs and sports desks since he was unable to predict and determine what schemes the American imperialists might be up to in a week’s time, what threat to world peace might come from the German revanchists in three weeks, what fresh act of betrayal Tito’s fascist gang might commit in two weeks’ time and what fresh peace proposals the Soviet Union might present to the UN General Assembly, just as he was unable to predict the course and outcome of sports matches over the next four weeks. Once a week he would call a big staff meeting where everyone sat with notebook in hand, ready to take down precisely when their desk was to supply an editorial or the main article across three columns of page one, or a reportage, or a more detailed report on page five, the editor-in-chief having filled all his page grids with headlines, which he accompanied by a briefing that was more or less unnecessary since the content was clearly expressed in the headlines:
“URGE THE MASSES TO VOLUNTEER IN OUR FACTORIES!”
“OUR COOPERATIVE FARMERS ARE WINNING THE BATTLE FOR HIGHER YIELDS!”
“THE SOVIET UNION HAS ESCALATED ITS STRUGGLE FOR WORLD PEACE!”
“GUARD THE UNITY OF OUR WORKING CLASSES WITH YOUR LIFE!”
“THE USA – A BASTION OF GLOBAL IMPERIALISM”
“WE MUST MAKE SURE WE’RE WELL PREPARED FOR THE SPRING SOWING SEASON!”
“WE WILL DO OUR UTMOST TO BRING IN A SUCCESSFUL HARVEST!”
“LET’S RIGOROUSLY COMPLETE PLANNED TASKS THROUGHOUT THE INDUSTRY!”
“SOCIAL DEMOCRACY – THE ARCH-ENEMY OF THE UNITY OF THE FORCES FOR PEACE!”
“OUR OPERA ON THE PATH TO SOCALIST REALISM”
“NOT EVEN IN WINTERTIME DO OUR FARMERS REST WITH THEIR HANDS IN THEIR LAPS!”
“THE UNSHAKEABLE FRIENDSHIP WITH THE SOVIET UNION – A FIRM FOUNDATION FOR OUR COUNTRY’S INDEPENDENCE!”
“BRING THE MASS SPORTS MOVEMENT INTO THE FACTORIES AND COOPERATIVES!”
Deviations from these standard headlines were dictated by the changing seasons in the agricultural section, while in the industrial section it was the changing names of voluntary workers’ brigades and innovation movements that were meant to help our industry become cutting-edge in global productivity, immediately behind the Soviet Union. Although the targets of the ideological campaigns varied and sometimes contradicted each other, requiring some variation in terminology, the pattern stayed the same, for there was always something for the masses to condemn, as the enemies that had been exposed invariably failed in their attempts to betray our country to someone – the US, West Germany or Israel – so that the editor-in-chief didn’t need much imagination to keep cranking out the headlines for this section either:
“THE BOURGEOIS NATIONALISTS – OUR PEOPLE’S ARCH-ENEMIES!”
“ALL DEVOUT PEOPLE ARE UNITED IN THEIR CONDEMNATION OF THE TRAITOR BISHOPS!”
“THE ZIONIST AGENTS FAILED IN THEIR EFFORTS TO SUBVERT OUR PEOPLE!”
“FACTORY WORKERS, COOPERATIVE FARMERS AND THE PEOPLE EVERYWHERE DEMAND THE HARSHEST SENTENCES FOR THE TITOIST-ZIONIST TRAITORS!”
And each campaign of this kind was accompanied by the same expressions of gratitude:
“OUR SECURITY SERVICE IS A DEPENDABLE GUARDIAN OF THE PEOPLE OF OUR COUNTRY!”
“WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR THE VIGILANCE OF OUR SECURITY SERVICE – THE STEEL FIST OF THE WORKING CLASSES!”
On major annual holidays and the most sacred of anniversaries the headlines and texts were repeated every year without any variation:
“J.V. STALIN - THE TEACHER OF ALL NATIONS, THE ARCHITECT OF THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION, THE BUILDER OF THE SOVIET STATE!”
“THE GREAT OCTOBER REVOLUTION – THE GREATEST HOLIDAY IN THE HISTORY OF PROGRESSIVE MANKIND!”
For those who had lived through this period, he thought, these headlines would continue to convey its essence for decades. It was an era of slogans. Man could not live by bread alone, but he lived by, and was fed, slogans. Slogans victoriously declaring that Time had stopped, that History was frozen and the Word had surpassed reality. However, he recalled that the slogans had a dual nature – there were the victorious, basically harmless, all-purpose lies and then the murderous slogans, dripping blood.
No, he wouldn’t find any names among this lot, but still he couldn’t drag himself away from those five years for he hadn’t experienced anything like that since, and as he glanced again at the group photograph he noticed for the first time that a face had been retouched. Mňačko, an expert on the working classes, who had created a number of heroes of innovation and socialist labour, and who had acquired a privileged position since his reportage always contained some scintilla of reality, something that was very rare in those days and brave too, for his aggressive literary ambitions always made him convey that scintilla well. That is what brought them together and soon they would be inseparable, like a pair of enigmatically whispering heretics. There was a time when Mňačko would turn up in his office almost every day, impatiently waiting for him to cut-and-paste his daily quota of lines and cobble together the final captions and subcaptions to go with them, wearily walking up and down the room, urging him on: „C’mon, get on with it, it’s not some bloody masterpiece,” and after he handed in his copy they would always dive into the same café and Laco would begin by sharing the latest news: „Have you heard... so-and-so was arrested yesterday... And in Prague... And did you read that disgusting speech from yesterday? Beats the Stürmer... And do you know who’s teamed up with who at the newspaper?... Be careful, those bastards in the Writers’ Union, they are plotting against you, they say you want to sink our literature.... Yesterday I saw so-and-so... he was shitting himself... he told me that, apparently ... Things are going downhill... now that factory director in the back of beyond was locked up, too.” In the course of these exchanges we’d get through several brandies, smoke quite a few cigarettes, and after settling our bill we’d go out into the long narrow park in front of the café, which was once called a promenade and where pensioners could rent little portable deckchairs on sunny days before cars started whizzing by on both sides. Their walks in the park, however, took place during a cold and wet autumn, the wind rustling and crackling the damp leaves, and only here could they proceed to comments and interpretations. “You know the chap they arrested in Prague, he was basically a nasty self-important fellow, a typical Comintern cadre, but the only reason they locked him up is because he’s Jewish...“ - „But how come he’s still around, can you understand that, he was a ‚Londoner‘ after all and nearly everyone who was in exile in the West has been locked up by now...“ „You know that greenhorn, the one who used to share your office on the arts desk, apparently he’s confessed to everything, that he spied for Tito, that it’s all his fault, he should have stayed where he was born...“ „But you know, the people I feel most sorry for are those who fought in the Spanish Civil War, they got away from Franco but back home none of them got away ...” The wind murmured in the trees, it often rained and there was usually not a soul around as they walked from one end of the park to the other, their collars turned up, at an angle against the rain, two whispering conspirators. „But what is this bloody mafia that’s taken over here...“ „But if those high up say nothing, it means the mafia’s got something on them, to blackmail them with... but what is it and how....” – „And the Russians keep mum as if they had nothing to do with it all, as if it didn’t make them look bad in the eyes of the world....“ „Oh well, what riff-raff, let me tell you, but those up there, they must be able to see through it...“ They’d reached a dead end again. So they’d try a different tack: „What if it really is Tito’s people behind it all, trying to discredit the regime?“ – „Don’t be silly,“ – the Yugoslavs were close to his heart, he even learnt Serbo-Croat before the war – “all that stuff about Tito’s people is just rubbish,” but how could he still believe this if he didn’t believe anything else, „either it’s all true“, he told him off, „or it’s all a lie.“ But he wasn’t able to come up with anything other than the Titoists. Neither of them was an Alexander the Great and they never managed to cut the Gordian knot. Before too long the great show trials began and they learned from the indictment that nearly all the defendants were of Jewish origin, with one Slovak ‘bourgeois nationalist’, one alleged German and someone else thrown in for good measure, and once this puppet theatre show with real-life puppets was over they stopped playing political detectives, their hypotheses having yielded nothing, and once the socialist camp – camp, what a brilliantly apt word for our part of the world, they would often say to each other in those days – had discovered that Jewish doctors, Jews – for the second time in history – had plotted to murder the Lord of the Kremlin along with all the Apostles, their heads were purged of all criminal conjectures, there were no more mysterious gangsters, no more secret mafia, there was no more enigmatic fascist conspiracy but quite simply Moscow and Stalin... From time to time his friend still felt the need to raise some marginal issue and to exert his brain cells, but by then he had stopped thinking, everything was possible in this camp of theirs, the only thing that still remained to be invented were some new slogans, so he preferred not to think about anything, not to rack his brains over anything, and so the great Sherlock Holmes and his dim-witted partner Doctor Watson, instead of trying to solve mysterious crimes, started to play chess at the café, only downing a brandy now and then, their conspiratorial debates in the park over, and Doctor Watson, with his undisciplined and unsystematic way of thinking, kept losing every game, prompting the Great Schemer Sherlock Holmes to come up with a little rhyme, and announce, full of himself, after each victory:
„Here’s a check-mate
Says your Czech mate“
until once, in the middle of a game, quite late at night, the great Sherlock Holmes reproachfully reminded him in a sentimental, almost trembling voice: “Here we are, playing chess and in Moscow meanwhile the old bugger may have kicked the bucket,” this reprimand eliciting from little Watson, who was losing again, such a state of euphoria as to immediately suggest that a brandy was called for to mark the occasion; they never finished the game that night, as one brandy followed another, they even went over their limit of five doubles and not a drop more... The next day his mother had to shake him awake and as he opened his eyes she came down on him with unusual fury: “You’re kipping here like an old wino and the whole world outside is in chaos. They said on Austrian radio at seven in the morning that Stalin has died and by the time I went out to get some milk and rolls the streets were packed with people”, and she went into the kitchen to make him a white coffee and butter a couple of rolls and as she left the room he had exactly the same feeling as on the first day after the war... now, now, he thought, only now would real life begin... and although this euphoria proved premature, most likely influenced by enduring fairytales from his childhood, for only in fairytales does the monster breathe its last and the whole world heave a sigh of relief, transforming everything and allowing things to blossom again, but after the monster’s death the socialist camp retained its guards, Kapos and assorted lesser monsters, yet as a result of this event their unique friendship started to fade, they no longer had anything to whisper about, they were no longer bound by common heretical ideas that nobody else was allowed to hear... and later on his friend began to write books, one of them a bestseller, which he, as a critic, was expected to review but he assumed that someone else would lavish much more praise on them, which indeed proved to be the case, and his friend started to regard him as an intellectual snob, and that made the last leaves of their friendship fall off the tree but the memories remained, and now he thought with nostalgia that this was definitely someone he ought to send a death notice to, but he knew he wouldn’t, as Mňačko had lived somewhere overseas for some years now and he didn’t even know what address to put on the envelope.