“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo,
catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, let him go,
and you are it!”
Birgit carefully goes through the entire route in her mind. Meter by meter. Every night, before falling asleep, she runs through the alternatives for boarding and deboarding, considering which footing is most convenient and least dangerous, what she will fixate on to overwhelm the rolling hum of the surroundings and blot out the onslaught of meanings. She projects to herself the scenes that will flash past the window. The buildings and open spaces she couldn’t miss. She programs herself. This time she’ll be able to make the trip. Without a transfer. The last stretch she’ll cover on foot.
The battle is on. She’s wedged in all the way at the back, squinting. She never goes into the front part of the car, or they might sit and gather behind her back, attacking, sucking away and taking her energy. A mass murderer lurks inside of every human being. She’ll get there.
She really did, she really did get there. To the historic building full of distress, to the rippling well of emotions that irritated and upset her. She reacted cautiously, treating it circumspectly. As she would a dangerous explosive. An unknown substance whose trigger was in some unknown location. She was as hard to read as the city she lived in.
Klamová greeted her matter-of-factly, without hesitation, as if they had just seen each other yesterday.
“So, where’s Buch? I hope I don’t run into him!”
Klamová laughed spitefully. Isn’t it funny how everyone so carefully guards their own little patch of grass, forgetting that they’re part of a gigantic field without end or beginning. Me, me, me. First she and Buch chase each other around like children, playing hide-and-seek, now they make a point of avoiding one another.
“He came down with something a couple of days ago and was sick, very sick. It’s fine now, and the premiere is no longer threatened. But he still needs to be looked at. After all, he’s a tired old man and his work pace is murderous. I thought you had read about it in the papers,” Klamová said, unable to resist a biting remark.
“I don’t read the papers. I just buy them.”
Noticing Klamová’s astonished look, she wearily added: “Everyone else buys them too!”
“Yes, of course, certainly, that’s a reason. Eh-ehm, I’m so glad you came and were able to find the time. We have lots of guests from abroad here for the press conference, so if you could just say something brief about your play and your other plans. I suppose they’re probably interested in your work with Buch as well.”
“I don’t work with anyone!”
“Then your nonwork with Buch, either way, it doesn’t matter.”
Klamová sighed and behind the back of the unsuspecting Birgit, disappearing into the auditorium, blew her away with the gesture of a shot from her puffed-up cheeks.
“It doesn’t matter, you selfish little bitch. It doesn’t matter one bit.”
Oujezdský sits in the bar. Alone. Abandoned. Cap jammed down on his forehead, which rested against a cluster of half-drunk glasses on the table. From the looks of it, he’s sound asleep. Then he lifts his head to reveal a circle stamped into his forehead.
Like a target.
Just waiting to be shot.
The crowd around him thickens. Oujezdský, focusing his clouded eyes, gathers a mouthful of saliva to let loose at the nearest victim, so far this evening nothing but “sweat-stained, scaredy-pants ink-spillers and depraved scribblers.” At which point the elegant Volfová patters in, with her giant faithful dog in tow, and without losing a whit of radiance in her smile she hisses into Oujezdský’s face, “Now pick your ass up and get out, or we’re going to call Johana!”
Oujezdský takes a deep breath and keeps his spit to himself. He swallows his resentment and, little by little, concentrates on his gait. Stopping on the embankment he rests against the railing, leans over and spits hard. A long rein. Minutes go by as he stares into the water flowing along, the same water by whose side he crafted his letter to the Party bosses, years ago. We keep stepping into the same, the same and unchanging, river of life. Not just twice, but a thousand times, a million, we keep on giving it another go.
Oujezdský bends over, sees the liquid, blue-gray infinity, and a chill runs down his spine, all the way from the top to the bottom.
“The little birds fly over
And oh, how sweet they sing!
To tell the happy children
That once again ’tis spring.”
As they noisily took their seats, shuffling the chairs around in confusion, a drove of reporters and photographers sat ready in a semicircle before them, Klamová visibly breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t stand the inevitable circus, tossing crumbs to those not in the know, scraps which revealed nothing about the whole, in fact distorting it. But what would the world do without the media. We too have to sell what we can. Still, it was easier than to remain alone with the inscrutable Birgit.
All eyes were pinned on Birgit Stadtherrová, concentrating solely on her. Weighing her, measuring her, turning her around in the air, handing her back and forth, undressing her unironed jeans shirt, tugging down and wringing out the long skirt reaching down to her heels, its hem dripping filthy slush to form a wet, devilish circle underneath Birgit’s chair; tallying the fragmentary facts about her life.
“Yes, yes, we will be presenting the Czech premiere of Birgit Stadtherrová’s fifth text. A happy dramaturgical marriage of themes and titles,” Executive Director Volfová, somewhat overshadowed by the cultivated head of her dog, cheerfully opened the main portion of the event, following the artistic director’s theatrical introduction. The well-fed mastiff was settled onstage next to its owner. In a chair. Sunken into a red velvet cushion. Pink tongue lolling out, breath adoringly rapid, it followed the ear of its mistress, licking her left cheek every now and then. A young hostess gingerly, rather awkwardly, set a silver bowl of water down on the table before the dog’s jaws. That and a rectangular cardboard plate with two open-faced ham sandwiches.
“But first our dramaturge, Mrs. Klamová, should say a few words about it.”
The gloomy Klamová, unlike the executive director, didn’t stand; nor did she smile. Her coffee was left untouched.
“Among the dramatists of today, it is difficult to find a truly scathing text that says something relevant and unflinching about the present. Birgit Stadtherrová is the exception. She is unafraid. She has flung off all hints of self-censorship. And she refuses to join the rising tide of today’s artistic output, which seeks either to shock at all costs with morbidness and sexual openness, or to whitewash the past.
“The dominant artistic testimonies about today or yesteryear–provided we assess not their professional qualities as literature or film, but primarily their inner truthfulness, their effect and moral impact–in other words, that artistic testimony which so triumphantly represents the Czech Republic, sailing across our country like an indestructible ship, all of the Blissful Years, Cosy Dens, and god-awful Pupendos, this testimony lulls the conscience, deceiving, and accelerating moral decline.”
She paused, waiting for the slurping sound of the dog cleaning out his bowl to subside, along with the clatter of humans stocking up on fresh water and ham.
“This is a terrible danger from which we are distancing ourselves. This attempt to repaint the past in rosy colors. To paint a comforting picture of one great big happy national party, mixing hangmen and victims together. Changing bloody to rosy. No one is pretending we never had a laugh in those days, but even in Auschwitz there was humor. That doesn’t mean that we forget it was a death camp.”
All eyes, as if on command, unglued themselves from Birgit and turned in amazement to Klamová.
“The authors of these testimonies gloss over the heart of the matter, offering excuses for the totalitarian regime, supporting a return to communism and the good old days. They are helping the Communists to breathe a sigh of relief, embracing each other with wet sloppy kisses as they recite ‘We are what we are.’ These authors erase the blame and bury the victims once and for all, kicking them down to the very bottom of forgetting, a burial once and for all, definitively, for good. I underline that these victims were in vain.”
Chairs creaked, an epidemic of coughing broke out, a Morse staccato that irritated Klamová all the more.
“Both Nazism and Communism were lined with thousands, millions of dead. Systems founded on humiliation and harassment, which carried over into prisons, and into normal life as well in the seventies and eighties.”
The first hands were raised to order coffee and sandwiches from the circulating hostesses; the coffee was poured from glass chubby pitchers. But Klamová wouldn’t set them free. She wouldn’t free anyone.
“And we act as if it wasn’t that hot. It was boiling!”
A young woman in a red miniskirt, with an artfully braided ponytail, spilled coffee on the sleeve of a balding man, soiling his crisp white shirt, the first stain of the afternoon, and speaking in a half-whisper amid the surrounding buzz began to apologize to him. Klamová raised her voice.
“Those who preferred to give up their life rather than their honor and moral principles, they are in our way now, we stumble and trip over them, they are the proof that reality is made up of microworlds that do not necessarily intersect, they cannot be stitched together with a superficial joke, a single image cannot pretend that it depicts the whole.
“Such works lift the burden of sin from the sinners’ shoulders, lulling the nation to sleep with ever deeper and more vulgar self-deception. We live in a country where there are pig farms on the site of concentration camps, where mayors and judges of towns and villages shamelessly permit marches by Nazis, where secret police agents and Party functionaries remake themselves as entrepreneurs and politicians, where trials of Communist criminals drag on for years and years, vainly trailing in their wake those who wish to testify, and their ranks grow thin, we finish them off for good and taste their immense humiliation.”
A sound of applause came from the back rows. A hostess with enormous breasts, in a see-through blouse, ceremoniously lifted a tray with a pyramid of cream-filled pastries and for several seconds balanced it on the tip of her head, her eyes bulging like a medieval saint’s. At the last second she caught the enticing sweets, her two full, youthful breasts rocking to and fro. Face flushed with the effort, she bowed flirtatiously. The male audience members burst into applause.
“And Stadtherrová maps all this out. In eminently artistic style. All the cruelties of the era penetratingly reverberate here in a model of family hell. Stadtherrová shows how today, instead of dealing with the horror of the past, we are snuggling up to it, coddling it, just to be able to elect a president. We say we need the Communists, but what is the price of their votes? The creators of these conciliatory amusements aid and abet in that. Stadtherrová simply turns and shines a light on it from other angles than the ones we are comfortable with. She kicks people out of their cozy dens. We do not mean to stage protest songs, absolutely not. We mean to achieve by means of artistic testimony divergent reflexes, divergent alternatives to ancient stereotypes.”
The whispering began to multiply uncontrollably. Pranýřová waved to Knutová and tapped the face of her watch. Two theater critics proceeded to slip their calling cards in the pocket of the pastry girl’s tight-fitting skirt, turning red in the face with the strain, while a third, as tall as her belly button, nevertheless tried his luck, droning on into her youthful flesh. If he had tipped back his head, she could have stuffed her nipples into his bearded mouth and choked him to death. The coffee was almost finished.
Klamová turned the faucet off, although what she really wanted to do was let loose an even more violent blast. God, who am I kidding here, who am I wasting my breath on. Encircling Birgit’s wrist, she squeezed and released the clingy bracelet until she was certain that Birgit was present with them. She had already started digging her elbow into her during the opening speeches, Birgit was off somewhere paddling in distant lands. Even now she didn’t look at anyone, just her hand, resting on the clean white tablecloth surrounded by glasses of red wine. She had walled in a glass with crab claws, thumb pressed to her index and middle finger across from the lonely ring finger, little finger huddled against it, all of them with a black corona of dirt under the nails.
Her inner absence, however, was merely an illusion.
“Instead of twaddling on, just quote Orwell: Society can be controlled by the falsification of its memory.”
The room fell silent. Klamová’s features hardened.
“Of course, thank you, Mrs. Stadtherrová, but you could have saved us the time at the beginning.”
Laughing out loud, Volfová, who up until now had kept herself entertained by slowly bringing a slice of ham toward her dog’s mouth and then quickly shrinking back before his jaws could snap shut, leaped sprightfully into the crackling tension between the two women.
“It’s a known fact that Birgit Stadtherrová is a master of the shortcut. Nevertheless we would ask her for a few–ahem–comprehensible sentences.”
Birgit slid her hand along the tablecloth several times from the glass to the table’s edge and back again. Just as Volfová was about to take another breath, Birgit spoke. Looking at her fingers.
“I actually don’t have . . . that is, I write, but I don’t speak, I simply just refuse selective amnesia. Everyone edits their past and the history of their life, whatever doesn’t fit in with their views they forget, distort, suppress, erase. The same way nations do. Whatever soils their shield, which they’ve already soiled anyway with their own feces, they suppress, they diminish. The trials with war–excuse me, Communist–criminals drag on. Nobody has been, is being, or will be punished, because we refuse to accept our own share of the guilt, each and every one of us.”
She raised her eyes and gave a frosty look to her amused audience.
“That includes you and you and you and you.”
She shifted her gaze back to the crab claws.
“People want to forget, and contemporary art helps them considerably in that. I aim to revive memory. I’ve decided to fill in the blank spots in my own life, define the contours and shine a light on the blurry smudges, and in doing so I will heal society’s wounds as well. Man is a strange being. All of us sitting here, we each see a different slice of reality, and yet we will claim we experienced the same thing, that we were at the same sitting–”
“Press conference, Birgit. This is a press conference.”
Guffaws of relief, journalists falling out of their chairs with laughter, spitting and braying, their open mouths stuffed with yolky cream. Birgit just winked at Volfová calmly.
“What’s that? Oh yes, a press conference, a press . . . séance. And there lies the problem. Man is a strange sort. Each of us takes our own point of view, our own experience, as reality. But which reality is real, none of you can tell me that, so I shine a light on it and through it from every angle, I hold characters in my hand and examine them under a magnifying glass, I drag characters out of my insides, twisting them out of my intestines, scraping them out of my heart, then I soak them in brain porridge and set them up, forcing them into situations repugnant to them, situations that cross-examine them. They never disappoint. Only a handful of them hold up. Only a negligible handful. But hope remains. Because we’re all going to croak. The whole dumb herd.”
Birgit let out a sigh, that’s the way to do it, the speech of an original author. And what’s more, she was sincere, absolutely sincere. Such a nice, awkward silence, now she should be able to leave.
Volfová smiled nervously, shoving a slice of ham into her mouth with two fingers, Are there any questions? There were. It rained questions, a whirlwind spectrum of absurdities. Focusing in on Buch. And this time they watched themselves carefully, so as not to let even the corner of their eye land on Stadtherrová, who was sizing them up one by one with a steadily worsening scowl.
Apparently her mind was already somewhere else.
The executive director and Klamová voiced praise for the way Buch had extracted a comic tone from the dark flow of Birgit’s text. Birgit yelped indignantly, throwing Volfová off balance.
“He didn’t have to extract it! It was there! From the start! Anyway it’s still a sneer in the end.”
“Yes, of course it was there, certainly, from the start, only artfully concealed, because–”
Volfová tried to talk over Birgit’s irritation and the mastiff began to bark. Both the dog and its owner breathed a visible sigh of relief as Stadtherrová suddenly stood, overturning the glass, and the red fluid soaked into the virgin white, discoloring it, a now eternally unwashable stain. She strode toward the exit without a single glance at anyone.
Volfová was terrified. Just let her get out the door without opening her mouth again. Please, dear God, please.
As she reached the door, Birgit sharply wheeled around.
“The comic tone was there from the start, it is always there. Like a hidden spring. And it can spout out at any time.”
She slammed the door.
Little by little the atmosphere began to relax.
Until the last odorous trace of Birgit’s body was gone. The last of the cooling coffee was poured, the orphaned open-faced sandwiches tumbling into gullets. Now the blunt questions turned to Stadtherrová, That’s genius for you, and Does she even have a boyfriend, Who does she live with, Remember that scandal, What has she ever done creative with her own kids, and What about her conflicts with Buch, his breakdown was definitely because of her, her and her hopeless conceitedness, The premiere’s announced for London in June and they’re making a film based on her play, yeah, that one, you know the one. They stood, bubbles of microphones before them, dictaphones lapping up their words, filtering them as they passed through the air. Stretching them out on the rack. Breaking. Censoring. And exterminating.
Klamová left Volfová at the mercy of the barking pack. And went sneaking off.
“Simple Simon went a-fishing,
For to catch a whale.
All the water he could find
Was in his mother’s pail!”
A few minutes later, Klamová stood at the entryway with Birgit. Birgit was anxiously chattering on about tramways, her fingers clutching a crumpled timetable scrawled all over with exclamation points and question marks, mysterious notations. Klamová was astonished to make out the phrase Not this way! Though upset by Birgit’s verbal attack, she tried to delay her so she could drive her home herself, but Birgit stubbornly refused, whispering hotly in Klamová’s ear, like it was some incredible secret, “I can get there by tram.” She beamed triumphantly.
“I need to see them, I want to see them, I’m looking forward to them, I need to see Iris and Peregrin, they’re all alone at home.”
Klamová opted for a head-on attack, so at least she’d stand a chance of being able to protect her.
“Birgit, the characters you’re writing about, Iris and Peregrin, they aren’t living, they’re dead, they’re literary figures, they only come to life onstage.”
“It doesn’t matter, living or dead, I need to see them both places, without them I’m not whole, everything I do is for their sake, for their sake I got up in front of people and let them bleed me. Without them it has no meaning, nothing would have meaning. I belong to them.”
“But Birgit, we love you too. Johana loves you, Buch thinks highly of you. Maybe for our sake you might spend more time among the living. Instead of being fixated on the dead.”
“Living or dead. What’s the difference. I need to see them. They’re my world. I gave up reality so I could understand reality.”
What a price to pay for exceptional talent. Most people subconsciously shied away from Birgit, guarding their self-possessed, prefabricated opinions of the model life with a strangely emphatic sunniness. The only ones attracted to her were pathological and disturbed individuals or snobbishly superficial. In all those years, Klamová hadn’t gotten through to her even one bit. Was she really that out of her mind, or was it just an act?
She watched enthralled as Birgit hurriedly walked away, shrinking smaller and smaller, until she vanished behind a building, stopped, hopped on one leg, did a tap dance, and bent over to inspect something on the dusty cobblestone pavement. Only after that did she finally break into a run.
Now Birgit stood in a cluster on the traffic island, the serpent of the tram slithering up, flanks opening wide, Birgit illogically stepped back, waiting for everyone else to board, and then, just before the doors clicked shut, tugging her skirt up to her knees with one hand, she bounded on board and grabbed hold of a bar with unusual nimbleness, pulled herself close, and held on for dear life.
Klamová raised her tired eyes. In the house across the street, an old woman in glasses watched her from behind a window, nodding her head almost imperceptibly. Ah yes, Dr. Lauschmannová, on the lookout for future patients. Klamová gave her a hasty wave and vanished into the building’s maw. She was thinking of Birgit.
In this city, they would hate Birgit the same no matter where she went. Walking past them one by one, pulling mirrors from her pockets, holding them up to their ducking and twisting faces, grasping each of them by the throat and thrusting a mirrored shard in front of their eyes, what they see there they can never escape. Though today they are sanctimonious leeches, lolling around in her fame, they will always hate her for that.
If only she knew how to help her, the psychiatrist said her mental health was absolutely fine, she refused to go to another. She had her own doctors, she said. Her own specialists.
“And yet at a certain point they can’t help anymore, not them or anyone else,” she had added mysteriously.
Oujezdský has been sitting by the river now for hours, huddled in his coat, watching the slow, liquid mass from underneath his visor. Lazy. Repulsive. Dark and droning. The river, licked by millions of greedy fingers and snatching up all sorts of trash, sticks and empty plastic packages, nothing but residue, toying with it, feeling its heft. And then, growing bored, sloshing off, draping slimy ribbons on the trees along its course. Spitting them out to leave behind its wet signature. In passing.
Years ago, they used to toy like that with him, Oujezdský, he was surface trash, but now he kept a firm watch on the course of his life, firming up its shores and setting its direction. Not back then. Back then He ruled, there was no room next to Him, He overshadowed everything, He was welcome everywhere. Talented, forthright, likable. Naively kind. Even in school he had advanced from one role to the next. The two of them hadn’t had equal opportunities, He had had license to do everything, no one else from his class had had that, no one else but Him. And the one movie part that Oujezdský got offered was yanked, as a rehabilitated member of the People’s Militia, which in retrospect was actually fine, since it let him complain for a couple of years that he wasn’t allowed to under the Communists. But back then it was unbearable. And so one evening he sat down by the Vltava with some cheap fruit wine and wrote a letter to the Party Central Committee and the heads of the film studio, TV stations, and every theater in town. How is it that an antisocialist element, what’s more a homosexual who hides his perversions under a cover of fleeting student acquaintances, is allowed not only to study in socialist art school, but to influence the working-class masses in roles for TV and film, and from the stage of the Holy of Holies of dramatic arts in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the National Theater. How is it that the responsible organs failed to notice what the individual institutions’ party committees were doing, is there anyone awake, is there anyone awake, here at the start of the next-to-last decade of the twentieth century? Does anyone care who He’s in contact with? That He delivers and distributes human rights documents to students and lounges around in cafés with the system’s outcasts and subversives?
Oujezdský sent several of these letters. Written on the bank of the Vltava river, fuelled by fruit wine.
He discovered that he didn’t have to let himself be tossed by random swells, he discovered that all he had to do was submerge, he discovered that all he had to do was connect to the imperceptible, dark and cold, but decisive, flow at the bottom.
And nothing ever got in his way again.
Because nobody knew a thing and he had a written alibi. Because it was Him, Him with the mark of the outcast, who in his farewell letter wrote that He had one true friend, one man alone who didn’t shun Him and refused to take part in the final, quiet, humiliating, and belittling witchhunt. That friend was Jiří Oujezdský.
Nine years later, Oujezdský will be one of the first to sign A Few Sentences. By somebody else. He is afraid to sign his own.
He was mistaken about one thing.
That everything is and will be forgotten.
Klamová wobbily dashed up to the top floor to fetch her bag and red jacket and was startled to see an imposing, freshly scrubbed figure wedged into her armchair. In a new, ironed shirt and tie, hair neatly combed, with an unusually tense expression on his face. She understood instantly.
“She was in a terrible rush, she has other obligations to see to. As do I,” she stressed.
“You should have delayed her, given me a sign, called. After all, I’m not about to go chasing after her. Not with all those transmitters of ideas downstairs.”
“It was impossible, really it was. It was a heroic feat just to get her to the press conference.”
She felt endlessly sorry for Buch. And that sorrow fed her hatred for Stadtherrová.
“Mr. Buch, she really won’t tell you anything more than what’s in the play, she isn’t going to help you. She doesn’t help anyone, it isn’t within her powers, she says. I describe things, not change them.”
“I’ve bought everything she’s written, as well as everything published about her.”
“I’m none the wiser for it.”
“It wouldn’t be any help even if you did meet her in person.”
“At least out of courtesy, if she could just–”
“Birgit invests words with various, unexpected, meanings. I’m not so sure what she perceives in the word courtesy. Come with me. I can drive you to the hotel.”
“I’ll wait here. Until everyone leaves.”
“All right, as you like. Don’t forget to lock up!”
As soon as she said it she wished she could have sucked her last sentence back into her mouth and swallowed it. Buch lifted himself from the chair, removing and replacing again the crumpled mask of unbending authority.
“Perhaps I will manage that yet, Mrs. Klamová. That much, yes. Although, truth be told, to speak with the author of a play I’m directing, an author who is only a few meters away from me, also seems like a banal act.”
“Go to sleep, my little dark eyes,
Go to sleep, my little dark eyes,
For now you will have to die,
Now you too will have to die.”
Buch is losing the ground from under his feet, plunging down and soaring up again. He can sense Stadtherrová’s warm and sweaty body, splayed out across the sky, she catches him in her hands but he slips from her grip, he changes into a bale of sand and she jabs him with her index finger, sand pours out through the tears, as soon as he fixes one, a dozen more appear.
He lies in his hotel room searching the wall across from him, which he has divided into squares to make sure he doesn’t miss anything, he searches the ceiling, doggedly looking for fissures and marks disturbing the whiteness, he searches the radiant cleanliness, the white ground into every pore.
Klamová wasn’t afraid of a scandal, she was afraid of a performance. She was enraged at Birgit’s capriciousness, if she would just briefly meet him once, just once, the old man would calm down. He’s probably pathologically boastful and conceited; oversensitive and affected, no doubt; used to having everyone rush his door in crowds, falling over one another, lines of admirers and aspiring collaborators; he isn’t used to such ostentatious indifference, this nearly insulting disinterest. Should she consult a psychologist or go straight to a psychiatrist? Or just leave Buch to relax a while and see about it later on?
She decided unexpectedly.
She gave Johana a call.
Even Klamová never found out what the two of them talked about. Buch just said, “She saved my life. She’s not a person. She’s an angel. An angel, Mrs. Klamová.”
Johana sat with Buch for two whole days. She fed him. They spoke together quietly, even more often they said nothing. She refused to reveal anything, refused to comment on anything.
“Maybe now it will be all right,” she whispered. “Maybe now it will be all right.”
 Blissful Years of Lousy Living (Báječná léta pod psa), a 1997 Czech film, dir. Petr Nikolaev, adapted from the novel of the same name by Michal Viewegh. Cosy Dens (Pelíšky), a 1999 Czech film, dir. Jan Hřebejk, loosely based on the novel Flaming Feces (Hovno hoří) by Petr Šabach. Pupendo, a 2003 Czech film, dir. Jan Hřebejk.
 A June 1989 petition that called on Czechoslovakia’s Communist government to stop oppressing freedom.