Case Closed

Publié le Wednesday  25 March 2015
Mis à jour le Saturday  22 March 2014

Case Closed

A novel by Patrik Ourednik

Translated by Alex Zucker

Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010


[4]

Dyk’s bench was located on a square that was practically rural, bounded on one side by a modest though baroque church and on the other by a former stables, now the Andy Warhol Museum. The stables used to belong to a hunting château, now the Academy of Fine Arts; under the last regime they had housed the Museum of Workers’ Resistance. The Academy itself was hidden behind the first line of trees in the park, which took up nearly a quarter of the district. Inhabited for the most part by longtime residents, the neighborhood was distinguished for its serenity, an increasingly rare thing in the new millennium, when every yokel around was trying to elbow his way into the EU. The only blemish of note on the neighborhood’s pastoral atmosphere was a few apartment houses occupied by Gypsy families. The Gypsies, also known as Roma or jigs, spoke a strange and incomprehensible tongue, which disturbed the otherwise largely peace-loving attitude of the citizens of non-Gypsy origin, also known as Gadjos or pastyfaces; the encroachment of linguistic alterity gave them the unpleasant feeling that the world was either too big or too small.

Abutting the church on the park side was a small graveyard, which, remarkably, had withstood both communism’s enthusiasm for dismantling and early capitalism’s zest for construction. Word on the street was not for long; a Canadian firm had proposed to build a three-story structure with a terrace on the site. Given that ancestral respect is a natural reflex for Canadian developers, the building was to rest on columns, leaving the graveyard intact. The second and third floors would house a supermarket, or überstore, with the fourth floor occupied by offices, a florist, and a funeral parlor. The terrace would be planted with linden and ailanthus trees, in whose shade the citizens could look down on the church roof, and equipped with a playground, complete with jungle gyms and a sandbox, thereby achieving a symbolic symbiosis with the graveyard on the ground below: Play, play, you’ll die anyway. The Canadians had also pledged to spruce up the graveyard, replacing the damaged crosses and tombstones with new ones, and in general to do their utmost to accommodate both deceased and still-thriving Praguers alike.

There was some graffiti on the cemetery wall. A few predictable statements (M. loves J., Roman can kiss my ass, If you’re reading this you’re a loser) had been supplemented by two more ambitious ones, one a Cartesian inquiry (Mila’s a whore, David loves Mila, is David a whoremonger?), the other cautiously optimistic (Leave your phone number or e-mail if you like to read Verlaine).

Every now and again some overeager tourist devoted to pop art and the avant-garde would invade the square, but this was a fairly rare event. The museum was off the beaten tourist paths and few foreign visitors were acquainted with the fact that Andy Warhol was actually Czech, or actually Slovak, which is the same thing, at least for Warhol, a native of Pittsburgh. In fact, most people who have gone on to make something of themselves in this world have been of Czech origin: Sigmund Freud, Madeleine Albright, et passim. Slovakia, though now split off, can lay claim to other famous Near-Czechs, tender souls in agile frames; Andrej Varhola was one of them.

The neighborhood also had the park to thank for its peaceful reputation: too public for prostitution, too far away from downtown for drug-dealing. If not for the growing number of maniacs in the morning and early evening who engaged in the activity known as Djo-Ging, which had replaced calisthenics by an open factory window with a view of the factory grounds, at first glance there was little to suggest that the wheel of history turned here too.

The only really obvious evidence of historical evolution could be found on an artificially elevated platform in the park. Where Generalissimo Stalin once towered, a victim of the Twentieth Congress of the CPUSSR, there now stood a colossal pendulum, illustrating the movement of time in duly equal parts mechanical and symbolical. In the previous century’s next-to-last year, promoted by the mass media to last, an LED panel had been temporarily installed beneath the pendulum, ticking off the seconds that separated the city from the century’s alleged end. Thus, between the first of January and the last of December 1999, 31,536,000 seconds had slipped away from the former monument to Generalissimo Stalin. Since the century’s alleged end, another 111,758,400 of them have slipped away, each like the next, all of them equally astonished. But today, friends, today we can discuss the last century impartially, with cooler heads and some perspective, the generalissimo having taken his place alongside Pericles and the atom bomb, joining Assyrian trestle guns and the Battle of Crécy’s wooden cannons in the chapter on the evolution of military technology. Not that the new century’s seconds are slipping away any more intelligently than the last one’s, God forbid, but perhaps, Dyk thought hopefully every now and then, perhaps this one would be the last. After all, the experiment can’t go on forever. As a former attendee of lectures in the Department of Natural Science and a subsequent expert on the life of the ground beetle, Dyk was aware that nature is full of alternatives. Perhaps one day the ants will have their say. Or the jellyfish. Wouldn’t that be a scream. Despite the outcry from environmentalists, the shrinkage of the glaciers, and the decline in the sperm count of civilized species, there’s been nothing so far to suggest that this is the end, but a hundred years is a long time, never mind a thousand. There’s been nothing so far to suggest it, just the same old sewer of wars, famines, idiotic murders and idiotic murderees, but jellyfish aren’t as dumb as they seem, and their lust for power is every bit as passionate as anyone else’s—just look how blissfully and single-mindedly they gobble up everything that floats past their mouths.


[15]

Mrs. Prochazka yawned, stepped clumsily into her slippers, cracked her knees, snapped her spine into place, and headed into the bathroom. Blew her nose in the sink, spat out some spit, leaned toward the mirror, plucked some hairs from her chin with a tweezers, and rubbed the gunk from her eyes. Poured a slimy green liquid into a red cup and rinsed out her mouth. Thought a moment about whether or not she needed to urinate (having gotten up three times during the night), then gave the flush chain an absentminded tug. Went into the kitchen, cooked up her morning mush, pulled a pastry of vaguely bunlike shape from a plastic bag, walked into the living room, went to the window, opened it wide, and looked out. Mr. Platzek sat on the bench in front of the park, talking to a man she didn’t recognize. Mrs. Prochazka rushed to the kitchen, grabbed her pastry and mug of mush, and excitedly hurried back. She pulled a chair to the window, sat down, and perked up her ears.

“Everybody criticizes everything nowadays,” said Mr. Platzek.

“They used to before, too.”

“But nowadays more.”

“You think?”

“Or put it this way. Nowadays it’s allowed.”

“Nowadays all sorts of things are allowed.”

“But if I want to give some little shit a slap in the face, that’s not allowed.”

“No, sir.”

“Talking’s allowed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Nowadays everything’s interactive.”

“Just about.”

“On TV they ask every idiot his opinion.”

“You’re right about that.”

“They invite six idiots and ask them all their opinion.”

“Opinion, right. Sometimes not even that.”

“And meanwhile nobody thinks at all.”

“They didn’t used to before, either.”

“But at least people used to ponder.”

“You think?”

“Well, maybe reflect.”

“Reflect, right.”

“It wasn’t allowed, but they still reflected.”

“I don’t know if I’d call that reflection.”

“Maybe not. But they would imagine different things.”

“They do that now, too.”

“Nowadays no one imagines anything. All they do is talk.”

“That’s democracy for you.”

“That wasn’t allowed before.”

“Exactly.”

“Nowadays everyone talks and nobody listens.”

“No, sir.”

“They just all give their opinions.”

“Opinions, right.”

“You’re right. They don’t even give their opinions. They just go on and on about things. Every idiot. Before only some idiots talked.”

“That’s democracy.”

“Everyone else kept their mouth shut.”

“What else could they do?”

“You’ve got to admit, there was something to it.”

“Something, yes.”

“There were just as many idiots, but most of them kept their mouths shut.”

“Hear, hear.”

“Is that democratic?”

“Yes.”

“That everyone talks and nobody listens?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s a strange sort of democracy.”

“We just have to get used to it.”

“Maybe it isn’t strange. Maybe it’s actually true democracy.”

“That’s entirely possible.”

“That everyone talks and nobody listens.”

“That’s right.”

“Listen, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m not a democrat, but still.”

“Still. On that we agree.”

“All everyone does is talk. And yet they’ve got nothing to say.”

“And they don’t even know it.”

“Don’t know what?”

“That they’ve got nothing to say.”

“What else do you expect from a bunch of idiots?”

“Nothing.”

“One idiot can’t expect another to know they’ve got nothing to say.”

“Of course not.”

“There, you see? I can talk and talk and not say a thing, but as soon as I want to light up in the doctor’s waiting room or give some brat a beating, that’s not allowed.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It was in our day.”

“Yes, it was.”

“Is that democratic?”

“That it’s not allowed?”

“Yeah.”

“It depends. If you were that brat . . .”

“Now you sound like they do on TV.”

“I hope not.”

“I couldn’t be that brat, because we had an upbringing.”

“You’re right about that.”

“Nowadays it’s all human rights. And no upbringing.”

“It’s practically a forgotten word.”

“Nowadays you can’t even smack your own kid.”

“You can. You just have to be careful.”

“Listen, I lived through the war.”

“Those must have been hard times.”

“Well, not exactly the war. The mobilization.”

“Even so.”

“Four nights in the barracks, twenty-four guys in one room.”

“That’s a lot.”

“When they turned out the light, we’d have a contest to see who could let the loudest fart. Originally someone suggested a contest for the smelliest one, but after a couple you couldn’t tell, they all merged into one.”

“We were all young once.”

“But still, I’ll tell you one thing. In our day wars made sense.”

“All wars make some sense. We just don’t know what, exactly.”

“Nowadays when someone farts, it’s a logical phenomenon.”

“Sociological.”

“Right. In our day wars were either just or injust. But collectively they made sense. Not like nowadays.”

“Times have changed.”

“Take the Taliban for example.”

“Out of the Taliban into the fire.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Just a bad joke.”

“Oh. But anyway. Tell me, what kind of war was that?”

“You’re right. They used to be different.”

“And young people nowadays. I mean, it’s a joke.”

“Always was.”

“They don’t know how to fart, never mind on command.”

“It’s hard sometimes.”

“But opinions, they’ve got one of those for everything.”

“You know how it is.”

“Nowadays everyone knows what they’re supposed to think in advance.”

“Think, right.”

“Or say.”

“More like it.”

“And no one listens to anyone.”

“No one knows how anymore.”

“The Jevohah’s Witnesses came by to see me the other day.”

“Jehovah’s.”

“And they said nowadays no one listens to anyone anymore. Just like us.”

“We’re listening to each other.”

“But we’re saying that nobody listens to anyone.”

“That’s right.”

“And when I told them they could speak their hearts, since I know how to listen, I had an upbringing, not like nowadays . . .”

“Nowadays it’s practically a forgotten word.”

“Exactly. And when I said that, they said I’d find everything in the Bible and tried to sell me one for two hundred crowns. Said I’d find the way in there. At the bookstore they told me it’d cost three-fifty, at least.”

“Everything’s more expensive.”

“But they didn’t want to chat.”

“That’s rare nowadays.”

“Maybe they weren’t Jevohah’s Witnesses.”

“Jehovah’s.”

“Maybe they were Normans.”

“Mormons.”

“Right.”

“They don’t carry the Bible, though. They’ve got their own.”

“There’s only one Bible.”

“One Holy one. But there are others.”

“So they weren’t Normans.”

“Mormons.”

“Right.”

“Probably not.”

“Maybe they were those Seventh-Day types.”

“Adventists.”

“Right. Nowadays any idiot’s allowed to talk.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If this is democracy . . .”

“It is.”

“Maybe you’re right. But what good is it, then?”

“It’s democratic.”

“But still.”

“On that we agree.”

“The other day on the radio, the president said that democracy stakes its success on intelligence.”

“That isn’t dumb.”

“No, it isn’t. Maybe not. But how many intelligent people do we have?”

“Not many.”

“You see?”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“Nothing against democracy, but I’d rather bet on stupidity.”

“It would be easier.”

“In our day there wasn’t so much talk.”

“There was less opportunity.”

“Nowadays there’s talk everywhere—on the radio, on the television. The only place there isn’t any talk is in line. Everyone’s quiet there.”

“You’re right about that.”

“Supposedly it’s a sign of longevity. Talking. They said so on the radio.”

“I hope not.”

“I don’t believe it. People should keep their mouths shut.”

“They’d often be better off.”

“In our day, no one talked, women stood in line, and I’m still here.”

“You look good.”

“Nowadays everyone debates everything. You debate with your children, your wife. In our day . . .”

“Everything used to be simpler.”

“People shut their mouths and didn’t need to get divorced. Nowadays it’s all they do.”

“Yes, sir. More and more divorces every day.”

“The Taliban banned it.”

“They banned a lot of things.”

“The other day on TV they said that Muslims and all of those ones with the beards can legally beat their wives if they don’t obey. Supposedly it says so in the Koran.”

“A beating a day keeps temptation away.”

“What’s that?”

“Sorry. I was trying to make a joke.”

“Oh. Well but supposedly it’s literally written there.”

“Supposedly.”

“That you’re allowed to beat your wife.”

“Wives.”

“That’s right. They can have more than one.”

“Oh well, different strokes for different folks.”

“That’s why they wear those beards, too.”

“That’s required.”

“Supposedly they can even kill their daughter if she messes around with someone. Legally. I mean, illegally. That is, they can legally kill them, for messing around illegally.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s what they said. Seems excessive to me. A slap or two, all right, but killing your daughter?”

“Oh well, different strokes.”

“Although on the other hand, if I had a daughter and she messed around, with a Gypsy, say . . .”

“That’s not allowed here.”

“Not that I’d kill her, mind you, don’t go getting the wrong idea, but she wouldn’t be able to sit down for two weeks I’d beat her so bad.”

“That’s not allowed either.”

“Or with the Taliban.”

“Especially if she’s of age.”

“Of age, not of age. A woman’s a woman.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“I should say so. Look at that. See that one there? That’s what I’m talking about.”

“That Gypsy?”

“There’s more and more of them every day.”

“They’ve always been in this neighborhood.”

“He’s writing something on the wall.”

“You’re right.”

“That wasn’t allowed in our day.”

“No, sir. But I’ve got to be going.”

“Oh? Well, anyway it was nice to chat.”

“You’re right. It was very nice.”

“Have I seen you around here before? My name’s Platzek.”

A tomcat by the name of Bugs silently snuggled up to Mrs. Prochazka, rubbing against her shin. Mrs. Prochazka, tense and focused, shrieked in fright. So it was that the closing words escaped her:

“Lebeda. Vilém Lebeda.”


© Patrik Ourednik