IN NOVEMBER 1989 THE COMMUNIST REGIME COLLAPSED SO QUICKLY WE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TIME TO CATCH COLD. At that time many of us succumbed to the illusion that history could be easily changed; it was just a question of wanting to, of having warm socks and a plentiful supply of paper handkerchiefs.
Like thousands of others, I jingled my keys in the Square of the Slovak National Uprising, and like them I looked around to see from which direction the police would attack. I couldn’t believe they would leave us in peace. I expected water cannons, Tatra lorries fitted with blades to push back the crowds and armed police with riot shields. And maybe even tanks, like in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Why should the regime give up without a fight?
In Bratislava sparks were flying over the heads of the crowd and our excited bodies quivered subtly, as when a galvanic current runs through frogs' legs. We felt alive.
Now, over twenty years later, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if tanks had appeared in the Bratislava square as they had in Beijing and crushed us like the bodies of the Chinese students. Whether I would have survived at all and how I should have lived if November 1989 had turned out differently. If it had not been Gentle, but Bloody.
We know that the tanks did not arrive, that the comrades were already abandoning their sinking party, theatrically returning their membership cards and the cleverer ones among them were already calculating how profitable the transformation from ideologist to entrepreneur would be. And the cleverest were already at the borders of the republic that was still called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, with lorries full of cheap computers from Taiwan, which would earn them their first million, because the baffled customs officers let them go without paying duty, for fear of holding up the development of the young democracy.
So what would it have been like if it had not come off? How would my life have continued? Would I have been courageous? Cowardly? Resigned? Would I have been dealing in toothbrushes as I am now? I must introduce myself. My name is Roman Šuster, I only add Dr on my visiting cards and my friends know that I am allergic to the title, as I am to cold. And in that November square I was the warmest dressed demonstrator.
When I was pushing my way towards the platform with two of my colleagues from the hospital, Kňažko didn’t even have to ask for a corridor.
At the sight of me, everyone stepped back of their own accord. I aroused amused wonder as a huge ball in an orange anorak, sticking out from under which were two sweaters and a padded ski suit. On my head I was wearing a balaclava my mum had knitted and my hands were hidden in warm mittens. It was chilly, but not so chilly as to make others feel it necessary to come dressed in a Siberian outfit like I was. What would be a practical joke for them was a matter of life and death for me.
My allergy to cold rendered me useless for a third of the year and the fact that I had come to the square at all could have been proof of my courage, if it had not been unbridled curiosity. We all felt that something extraordinary was happening – and if nothing out of the ordinary has happened in your life for thirty years, you don’t want to miss it.
Especially if it’s a question of civil disobedience. I was participating in making history, with the feeling that one day I would have something to tell my children, not knowing that I would never have any. And even if I had, they would have yawned through Dad’s stories of the revolution dating from those boring times when the internet did not yet exist.
My colleagues from the hospital kept telling the crowd, “He’s allergic to cold, let him through, please, he’s an invalid, there’s an invalid here, room, please!”
In this way we made our way right up to the foot of the platform and we could enjoy the speakers from close up. Among them were actors the nation recognised from television. They could be seen on the screen in Monday’s drama productions and on other days in amusing shows filmed in Slovak cultural centres filled with workers from the local factories. I had had no idea how developed industry was in my country.
Actors who before had joked in front of the cameras of their own free will now protested indignantly from the platform that the regime had exploited their faces. That wasn’t evident from the screen. They would laugh heartily at the jokes about mothers-in-law and drunken doormen that viewers had sent them and which they told brilliantly. And the wittiest were the winners.
I cannot judge to what extent they were exploited; I was then an unexceptional surgeon and even now, when I am just a dealer in dental hygiene, I am no great thinker. And I haven’t got a television and I don’t go to the theatre.
At the very end of the meeting, when the crowd was beginning to disperse, I suddenly felt an aura coming on. My attacks were always heralded by the smell of fermented gherkins. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. No doubt it would be more interesting if I sensed myrtle in the aura, but I’m not Saint Teresa, I don’t have ecstasies; unfortunately, I am only Roman Šuster and fermented gherkins are more appropriate for me.
I clutched my friend’s hand. “Shit…”
The cold had penetrated my cells and they began to produce an extreme amount of histamine. I began to suffocate. That’s why those two had come with me.
My colleagues pulled out the resuscitation pack. “Quick, we must get to work!”
I collapsed right in front of the platform and although there was an ambulance a little way off, there was no need for it. Pity. I missed the chance of my life to have my own corridor at least for a moment. The speakers began to point at me.
“Is there a doctor here?” Kňažko’s voice boomed from the clouds.
He was high up, right up in the sky, all the higher because I was lying on the cold ground.
“Is there a doctor here, please?”
In the last moments of clear consciousness I wanted to call out, “Fuck it, I’m a doctor!”
And I am dying from anaphylactic shock. My colleagues are already giving me an injection and the square is resounding with that unforgettable slow voice of the revolution. “Is…? There…? A… doc…tor…? Here…?”
In the last few seconds of clear consciousness I saw a bright orange ball separating from me and changing into a figure. It was my virtual twin, my Viktor.
I’d always wanted to be called Viktor. They say that before you die you see beneath your eyelids a speeded-up film of your life. I don’t know whether that’s true; I haven’t died yet, but I’ve been dying several times.
I saw a story of a life quite different from my own. I saw a stream of the dispersing crowd bearing my twin away into the side streets, in quite the opposite direction to which my colleagues later took me.
In a couple of minutes parallel fate carries Viktor off straight towards the special police unit preceded by three armoured trucks. Before my colleagues could bring me round I had time to see his story; echoing in my ears were the shouted commands, people’s panicky cries, interrupted by bursts of machine-gun fire from the trucks aimed at the crowd and killing men and women who had for a short while naively believed that truth and love could win in this beastly country.
When I once more began to make out their fuzzy faces, my colleagues helped me to my feet. For a while we just moved around on the spot. Kňažko was already introducing some political prisoner and I felt I was now capable of walking. I managed, so long as they supported me by the elbows. But where in fact does a ball have an elbow? Wrapped up in a down anorak, my colleagues moved me along like a huge ball.
“I’m fine, really,” I assured them as I shuffled along.
We made for the nearest café. I drank some tea with rum. The aroma of rum tickled my nose and I half-closed my eyes, seemingly out of sheer bliss to be alive, but in fact anxious to see the last scenes of Viktor’s story.
In a matter of a few seconds I lived through his life from that Bloody November to the present day. I often recall those scenes, especially when I’m driving. It’s the best cure for micro-sleep, more effective than coffee and loud music combined.
Just now I am sitting at the steering wheel of a company car and I’m returning from a business trip. In Slovenia I’ve signed quite a good contract with the largest network of pharmacies, although the situation is not what it was. During the Balkan war they didn’t take anything, then for a short time there was a boom, and now things are falling off again. I can be glad that humankind still cleans its teeth. Old people because of the dentist’s bills, young people because of kissing.
I am driving a Mercedes and reflecting that at one time I had so many beautiful opportunities and I didn’t take advantage of any of them. I had wonderful friends. I met several remarkable women, I was enthusiastic about books and films, and I even wrote poems and produced two short stories that were published in a magazine for the modern woman. Clearly because, out of shyness, I pretended to be a female author.
Maybe one day I’ll write a story about myself, a novel about Roman, whose cells and then heart were destroyed by the cold. It will be a novel about Viktor, who did not have as much luck as I did in November ‘89.
The café was filling up with people from the demonstration. They all had the feeling that everything was possible from now on. That they had already won. As a little “thank you” for my life, I bought my colleagues six Georgian brandies.
“Look, Kňažko!” someone called.
On the other side of the window the tribune of the revolution was in fervent discussion with the future Minister of Culture. They were both wearing knitted sweaters and looking very much like mountaineers. I understood they wanted to look different from the old communists with their inevitable synthetic suits.
“Milan, come and have a drink!” came the clamour from the café, but the man invited gave priority to an Austrian television crew.
That convinced me that we would win. Not the full square, but the cameras. Foreign countries only took an interest in us when things were at their worst. Or when, once in twenty years, we woke up. If we are on television today, it’s really true. We are not dreaming.
I quickly got used to freedom; she wasn’t yet making demands on me. We had only known each other for a short time; our relationship was passionate and for the moment she didn’t want anything from me. She was just satisfied that I liked her.
I soon began to forget Viktor, my twin in that parallel life, who would shortly be interned in the winter sports stadium, where the fate that awaited him was that of a future prisoner of the Slovak-Ukrainian-Belarusian Federation, a puppet state that in my lifetime was called Czechoslovakia and a few years later, only Slovakia.
A Federation divided off from Europe by a high fence, with only one newspaper, food rationing and state supervision of the internet. After all, who knows how it might have turned out?
I’D BEEN ACCEPTED TO MEDICAL SCHOOL IN SEVENTY-SEVEN. The first thing my alma mater did was to send me to work for three weeks in the Znojmo canning factory. There, together with other future students of medicine, we were to integrate with the working class. We were bottling gherkins.
It wasn’t there that I acquired that aura of mine. For one thing, it was summer and for another, I had already experienced my first attack the previous Christmas. On Christmas Eve I smelled fermented gherkins for the first time and was taken to the emergency department at the hospital. The doctor put it down to extreme meteosensitivity. As for the aura, he couldn’t understand the smell of fermented vegetables any more than I could. So I left for Znojmo with three things to worry about. Would I manage university? Would I get on with my fellow students? And would those cursed gherkins kill me after all?
I could give a positive answer to that first question only seven years later. It wasn’t a first, but at least I passed. The faculty turned out over a hundred like me. White fodder for the hospital cannons.
To the second question I got an answer the very first evening.
“Is this place free?” someone asked.
The dining room was half empty. I had wanted to digest my pork belly with pea puree alone. Why did this oddball have to come intruding on my meal? In spite of the hot August, my future friend was wearing a shirt and tie with dark trousers, while the rest of us had on torn jeans and T-shirts.
“’Course,” I said with a pork belly and pea puree sigh.
He put the metal tray down on the table, thus revealing the so-called “meatless dish of the day”.
“Ducat buns,” he said. “These have never ever seen ducats.”
The little pieces of bread roll had been fresh at breakfast time the day before yesterday and since lunchtime a dry skin had formed over the custard. The time signal announced 7.30 pm and Radio Hviezda was offering a bouquet of melodies. The little buns had turned hopelessly hard, and for seven minutes I had been separating my meat from the fat; the meat representing about two cubic centimetres of the “meat dish of the day”.
We exchanged looks and laughed. The paltriness of our evening meal had exceeded all expectations. I gazed at his jacket, which he was carrying tucked under his arm.
He carefully smoothed it out over the back of his chair.
“As a matter of principle a gentleman doesn’t give the address of his tailor, but I’ll let you into a secret and tell you that the Trenčín Clothes Factory sews for me.”
That is how I came to know Andy.
“I chose you, because you were the only one with a beard,” he told me some time later. “And whoever goes to study medicine with a beard either has very good connections, or doesn’t care what anyone thinks. In your case I guess it is the second possibility.”
The truth is, I was a man without connections. No hero. It just hadn’t occurred to me that in Czechoslovakia to study a discipline for which a trustworthy mug is essential and yet to have a beard makes you rather conspicuous. It was a period when the police would chase after young men in the streets who had hair longer than in their identity cards and subsequently shave it all off, leaving them bald. And as a matter of principle they wouldn’t take for official documents photographs of men with long hair.
I wanted to be different, but I didn’t really know why. I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about my fellow men, but with every stroll through my home town, with every ice cream in its streets, with every television programme that blasted through open windows, I knew that I didn’t want to be like them. I had no idea what to do to achieve this. The simplest thing was to look different, and so I let my beard grow.
As for the third question – the Znojmo gherkins didn’t kill me. And, as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. All the temporary job in the Moravian canning factory did was to strengthen my dislike of the proletariat, who as a whole I had nothing against, but as individuals they could be real beasts.
The workers in the canning factory relished every chance to humiliate the future doctors they would one day have to rely on. They ridiculed us quite openly when we couldn’t keep up with the speed of the assembly line and joked when the young medical students gagged on the sickly sweet smell of rotting gherkins.
But we had brought this revenge on ourselves. We, myself included, had only just finished grammar school; we didn’t know a thing about medicine, but it was enough for us to be accepted to the faculty and we didn’t give a hoot about anyone else. We moved around the factory like professors of neurosurgery in their clinics.
“I wouldn’t like to operate with these hands,” a colleague said, showing his fingers sticky from molasses.
“You poor little twit,” sighed the Moravian manual worker next to him.
In this way, day after day, we became that reluctantly tolerated entity in socialist Czechoslovakia – the working intelligentsia.