Irena Brezna


(An excerpt)

I’m hanging upside-down by my knees from the carpet stand, I let go of both hands, let myself swing, and then jump down and take a bow. In our yard, where I perform acrobatic feats, my mother and grandmother beat our Persian carpets and turn their faces away from the rising dust of our lives. With a broad grin I take a step toward my applauding public. One viewer moves closer and sighs: Oh, the innocent bliss of childhood, one day it will all be over.But I don’t believe this idiotic man and run off to play with the chickens. Although the hens resist leaving the backyard, I hold them firmly in my arms and carry them, one by one, up to the second floor of our house and then I fling them out over the heads of the audience. Terrified, the hens squawk, flap their wings and fly. Grandma doesn’t approve of this hen flying circus. Since our hens started flying, they’ve forgotten to lay eggs, she says. Grandma would rather have eggs than freedom in flight. But chickens have wings and hidden underneath them is a yearning to fly.

Grandma considers flying useless, and she can’t stand lazy good-for-nothings. Roosters are good for nothing, she explains. Out in the yard she sits down by the laundry room door, puts the useless rooster on a plaid blanket in her lap and cuts his throat with the words: You freeloader, you.

Fried rooster legs with mashed potatoes are yummy, but every time new chicks hatch, I pray that she’ll let at least one rooster live so that our fat, red hens can have a little fun with the owner of pointy, feathered things. Sometimes a farmer brings over a rooster that climbs up on the hens and pecks at them and they compete for his attention. But then they soon get tired and waddle away to sit back down on their eggs. When the chicks hatch, the rooster is already long gone, unable to protect his sons from Grandma’s knife. Well, a bodyguard with colorful feathers isn’t a bodyguard at all anyway, just a show-off.

Grandma can’t stand sparrows either. She says they’re good for nothing too. She likes blue tits – they sing beautifully. She likes to feed them breadcrumbs on the windowsill and whisper things to them through pursed lips.The sparrows that come to eat the crumbs she shoos away, waving her thin arms. Sparrows sing too, even though tits are nice, I tell her, although I don’t have any of my own yet. But Grandma says that sparrows only chirp and that’s not singing.

Father comes home on the weekends and shoots sparrows. He’s not allowed to live with us, he’s a bourgeois element. Once, when our life wasn’t happy yet, he helped rich people get even richer and exploited the proletariat. He was a lawyer with his own office, and wore a white shirt and tie. Now he has to wear gray overalls and build bridges with the proletariat. When a bourgeois element spends a long time with proletarians, he starts to look like them – kind of how our hens look like each other – and then he becomes a politically conscious person.And the more conscious people our country has, the happier it will be. Father has been building bridges with conscious proletarians for years, but he still has the same scowl on his face.

Comrade Teacher always asks us to let her know if someone in our family isn’t conscious. We don’t say anything, except one girl once raised her hand and said: Comrade Teacher, my sister doesn’t want to become a proletarian, she wants to be a hairdresser. When I confide in Grandma that I want to become a proletarian, she clasps her hands in despair and tells father. Grandma is his mother and she tells him what to do. On Sunday afternoons, after our rooster dinner, father stands at the window and shoots at the sparrows chirping on the apple tree. I’m allowed to hold the shotgun too, and pull the trigger. My shots don’t aim anywhere though, they just disappear into the sky. Father, on the other hand, hits one sparrow every Sunday.

In the yard I made a sparrow burial ground where I lay the dead in graves cushioned with flowers. I pick the flowers from our garden when Grandma’s not looking. She loves her flowers and is always raking away the stones so that they can grow in soft earth with no stones. But then more stones push their way up to the surface and I use the nicest ones as gravestones. I pluck out the sparrows’ feathers, sprinkle their naked bodies with water and, in the name of Jesus Christ, christen them Karolko or Majka. Funerals should be formal but Grandma scolds me: Jesus died on the cross for us, not for a bunch of sparrows. When I drop a glass on the floor by mistake, I shout Jesus and Mary! Grandma doesn’t consider it right to call on Jesus and his mother for every little thing – they have enough work as it is. Everywhere you look, there’s a heap of unhappiness. And anyway, we don’t have unhappiness or Jesus Christ in our country. But in my reactionary family it’s not worth spreading revolutionary ideas. Once at Sunday lunch I mentioned how our Comrade President makes sacrifices for us, and father went red in the face. Grandma gave him more chicken soup and said that we shouldn’t talk during meals.

I see our Comrade President more often than I see father. His picture hangs in our classroom above the blackboard. He looks boring, but he takes care of us and father is jealous of him. When Comrade President came into the world he was already a proletarian, so he didn’t have to become one later. On holidays, we carry his portrait in thanks for the fact that he carries responsibility for us all year long. He looks down on us from the wall in every office.Once it was Jesus Christ who hung up there, grumbles Grandma. Why do they make such a fuss about Jesus Christ anyway? He’s skinny and he hangs up there almost totally naked on some wooden or stone cross in a church or on some forest path. He let’s himself be hung up in front of everyone. He doesn’t defend himself, he just hangs up there with his eyes closed and this suffering look on his face while blood flows from his hands and feet. And no one wipes it off. Old ladies clasp their hands in front of him as if they didn’t want to get them dirty. But you have to stand up for yourself and not let them just hang you up while you hang your head!

In school they told us about a young partisan girl who took her blindfold off before her execution. In the yard we play firing squad. They condemn me to death and then the kids from the yard blindfold me and yell at me: You partisan bitch! This is your final hour! I take the checkered handkerchief off my eyes and laugh while the kids shout bang, bang. Slowly I fall to my knees and then keel over onto the ground. I like to lie there dead, having sacrificed myself for others. Too bad the war and the Great Revolution are over and our proletarians are free. Everything important has already been done. Now we just have to be happy, and that’s a really tough job.

I tell my dolls and my brown teddy bear about Danko. Danko ripped out his own heart, held it over his head and walked at the head of the procession.The heart was burning, and people followed him and found a way out of the dark forest of oppression where they had lived for a long time. Danko died, but he achieved his goal. I’m teaching my dolls and teddy bear that they have to share. Grandma only shares her bread with the blue tits – she has blue tits in the belfry. When she makes me bread and butter for my mid-morning snack at school, she reminds me: Butter is expensive and you have it good, so don’t just give it away to anyone. In school we learn that solidarity is the obligation of new, progressive people. And I figured out that it’s easy to break a soft slice of buttered bread in half and give one half to a classmate, who takes a big, hungry bite and loves me for it.

One summer evening, my mother doesn’t come home, and the next morning she’s still not home, so I ask my Grandma: Where’s Mama? Grandma’s rolling out dough and doesn’t answer. I pull on her black, polka-dotted housecoat: Where is she, when’s she coming home? Don’t ask, mutters Grandma and keeps rolling. But I pull and pull on her apron, until she waves me away with her hand as if I were one of those free-loading sparrows: Don’t ever ask about Mama again, do you understand?

Since then I’ve stopped asking out loud. I’d rather think it to myself. Who can I talk to anyway? Father misses his office where he was an exploiter and I can only yell at my older brother. He takes everything from me like one of those sparrows, except that I can’t shoot him. When he hits a few keys on the piano, Grandma whispers: He’ll be a great pianist one day. But my brother wants to become a millionaire and doesn’t want to help our country at all. With those fat, sausage-fingers of his, the best he can do is count wrinkled old banknotes anyway. Maybe he’s not even my brother at all, maybe they adopted him, or they adopted me. I look through drawer after drawer trying to find a document where it says in black and white that I was born to a proletarian, partisan family that was shot during the war. Mama used to say that I wouldn’t always live with our family, but that I’d marry a foreign diplomat and have a big house abroad with expensive furniture and two children. But I don’t want to have an enemy bourgeois element for a husband and I don’t want to have children who are like my brother. I want to fight with the brave partisans and a pack of German Shepherds in our woods.

Where is Mama? If she were dead, they’d bury her in the ground in the name of Jesus Christ and I would be there in a black dress and black hat with a black rose in the brim. Once I saw a foreign film where there was a widow like that and lots of men who were in love with her, and they came to tell her how sorry they were. When I’m a partisan widow, I want to be dressed like that too. If Mama were dead, she’d have a grave, and I could bring flowers to it and cry there, but I can’t wear a black rose and I don’t even know if black roses grow here. And no one is in love with me and coming to tell me how sorry they are. Everyone is acting like Mama never existed. Nobody says her name, and nobody tells stories from the times when she was still with us, like they do with dead people who they only say nice things about so that they don’t come back to haunt us at night.

Nobody sends Mama their regards and nobody asks how she is.She’s deader than the dead. When I’m in the yard and I fall down, I want to call out “Mama!”, but the ‘m’ gets stuck in my throat and I swallow the ‘a’ along with my tears. Crazy doubts fill my mind about whether I ever even had a mother, or whether I just imagined her. They often scold me for fantasizing and having my head in the clouds.It’s harmful, they say, looking at me with grim faces.

Mama definitely hasn’t left our country so she can marry a foreign diplomat. Our border guards protect the border well so that the enemy doesn’t attack. There are lots of enemies out there just waiting to come over and trample on this wonderful life of ours. But we won’t let anyone trample on us, says my Comrade Teacher, and the whole class stands up and stamps their feet and shouts: We won’t give in! I’m always prepared to defend the homeland too. Once everyone considered family honor important, but we’ve replaced it with more important honors. In school we greet each other with the words: Honor to work! Before, we used to use a greeting from a foreign language that meant: I’m your slave! In those days, we were so unconscious and enslaved that we didn’t understand what it meant. Now we want to be free, like one of our poets said in his poem: And rather choose not to be at all, than to be a slave. When I found a wounded hawk in the woods and the next day he lay curled up dead at the bottom of his cage in the laundry room, I recited this revolutionary poem at his freshly dug grave. I didn’t give him a name because he already had the name Hawk. He was peerless and proud like our poets, but now he lies together with the sparrows outside the laundry room.

It would be better if Mama weren’t proud and dead. Instead she should be lying in a cage alive, even if she is wounded. One day the cages will open. Maybe there will be an earthquake and the cages will fall apart. In my unconscious family, I forget that cages can be opened from the inside, the way the proletariat did it. Mama is hidden in some corner of our country. She hasn’t abandoned me or my stupid brother.When I asked her to put him in an orphanage, she said: He’s my child, I love him, that’s called maternal love, you will feel it sometime too, it’s the greatest joy of all. Jesus and Mary, there is so much happiness around me! How come I can’t see it? Some dragon is keeping Mama prisoner in his lair like a helpless princess. I should go look for her like Janko the fairytale hero who killed the dragon, but I haven’t been further than the cemetery by myself yet.

I have to go to school every day so that one day I don’t end up with empty hands. My hands should be full of knowledge. No one can take our education away from us, not like a house where some proletarians come to settle one day, says Grandma, who’s mad that three worker families were placed in our big house, which my dead grandfather built. I’m happy that there are children living on the ground floor. If, in their yearning for liberation, those comrade proletarians hadn’t moved into those rooms, I would have to play in them with my brother.

Once my brother ripped the head off one of my dolls and whacked me with the headless body. I grabbed Grandma’s rooster knife and threw it at him.When it stuck into the doorframe right above his head, it turned out that my brother was a coward – he could never become a partisan. Grandma likes it when I play by myself. When I do that, she likes to stroke my head, right where my part is. I stop moving, let my arms hang down and just feel her rough palm. I would do anything for Grandma, but actually I prefer to play with the proletarian kids in the yard, which makes her unhappy with me.

Mama is a proletarian. That is, she was a proletarian before she married father. Proletarianism is a complicated thing. A person can lose it through a non-proletarian profession, a woman by getting married. Mama is a turncoat, so she lets me play with all children and she thinks Grandma is dumb. Grandma’s not dumb, she’s just old-fashioned and she’s scared that proletarian children are dirty and have infectious diseases. If Mama could just come back as soon as possible! I don’t have any new clothes. Grandma just mends all the old ones and doesn’t like anything new. I’m embarrassed to leave the house in darned tights. I used to be the best-dressed girl in our class and I lived a life of luxury. When my Mama hugged me, I got lost in her scent. Now nobody hugs me and I can’t read novels at night – Grandma turns off the lights. Electricity is expensive, she says in a quiet, apologetic tone, because she knows that reading novels is education and that she’s keeping me from my education. Should I ask Jesus Christ for help, or should I write to our President in the capital? But even Jesus Christ himself is having a bad time and Comrade President could give an order to have Mama executed – after all, he is strict and fair. I’m afraid that Mama wouldn’t take her blindfold off in front of the firing squad. Then she wouldn’t make it into the history books and she would be a nobody forever. I’ll figure it out myself. I’ll bury my big, beautiful mother deep in my heart like the hawk in the yard.

During recess one of the boys shouts across the whole schoolyard: Your Mama’s in jail! He’s so pathetic. His father staggers down the street, throws up, falls over on the sidewalk and goes to sleep right there on the spot. His son must be so ashamed of him! That’s why he picks on me. Our father isn’t an alcoholic, he’s an athlete, and athletes only drink water. Everyone in the schoolyard froze and stopped running around yelling. So I’m standing there and suddenly I feel joy. And now I know what joy actually is. It sits inside you and it’s a huge force. Time stands still, and I stand still and, despite this, I feel alive – actually more alive than I ever have. And I know: Mama is alive. Then life goes on, as if nothing happened.I play with my girlfriends, we eat my bread and butter and Comrade Teacher doesn’t even say that Mama is in prison so that she can become conscious.

Mama isn’t dead, she’s lying on a bunk bed growing pale somewhere in our beloved country. She’s safe in the prison cell, she can’t do anything bad there. She can’t fraternize with the enemy or give away any secrets.That means that no foreign, exploited soldiers can attack us. If she left our homeland, I would have to denounce her in front of the whole class and then I wouldn’t be allowed to get a good education.The children of traitors are not allowed to be smart – their smartness is dangerous for the state.Traitors and their descendants have to build bridges and be useful for society. They call them internal enemies and they’re not allowed to decide for themselves how they’re going to be useful. They carry in them the seed of betrayal. I imagine the seed of betrayal to be like a black bug. Even when children renounce their treacherous heritage, the bug will still want to act like a traitor. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t re-educate a bug.

Our Comrade Director said that our president and all of us have to be vigilant. He’s teaching us a new subject – civic preparedness – and in every class we learn that the danger of war hasn’t disappeared. He shows us a poster where our enemies are portrayed as vicious, stray dogs with their teeth bared. The proletariats of all countries must unite against these enemies – that’s what it says in red letters on our classroom wall. Internal enemies cannot become company directors. They could build our bridges crooked on purpose so that they fall down. It’s called sabotage. The word itself makes me imagine some bridge collapsing with a giant cracking sound. I hope they are guarding father well so that he doesn’t sabotage anything. Comrade Director says this place is crawling with saboteurs. When some bridge collapses, they immediately put a couple of saboteurs in prison. I would like to catch a saboteur red-handed. I would report him to the police, and as a reward I’d get a medal.

Mama didn’t steal anything or kill anyone. Maybe words got her put in prison. In our country, words are dangerous. I’m afraid that it was my words that did it. Sometimes I forget Mama’s warning: You can’t say the same things at school that we say at home. In my head I built a wall – my family words live on the right and school words live on the left. They are two worlds and two languages, and I go back and forth between them every day like a secret agent. But whether out of foolishness or just fatigue – sometimes a word slips from the right world into the wrong one and that’s probably why they put Mama in prison. It’s not easy living in a happy country. At any moment, happiness can fall apart and then someone will come and take it away.

Think what you want, but never say it. That was another one of Mama’s favorite phrases. I think silence is for cowards and I swear I’ll always say what I think. But I don’t do it. If I met some heroes who weren’t even afraid to say their opinion in prison, then I’d finally have someone to talk to. But the heroes from the history books are dead and we who have to light the way to the future are still weak. I like our industrious ancestors, the tinkers, who went out into the world with wire to fix pots and pans with holes in them. They offered their services on the streets and town squares of foreign cities with cries of: Pots mended! They were good and well-loved craftsmen. I would really like to shout out my opinion on our Great Victory Square and plug up all the holes in the entire world with my heart.

Even if my mother is a child of the proletariat, she has treacherous plans. It’s a big secret that she told me and my brother. Before she disappeared, she called us into the living room, told us to sit down on the couch and closed the door. She cleared her throat and hesitated for a moment. I was afraid that she was sick, but then she revealed her plan to us: We would steal over the border and take a boat across the sea. I didn’t hear anything else she said after that because I was already seasick and water had gotten into my ears and all I could hear was the sound of the waves and I never even reached the enemy shore. My brother went all quiet and acted like a dead bug. I know I said he was a coward, but I also sat there quiet on the couch, which is where the guests usually sit, and I felt like I was only a visitor in our house. I gaped at my mother and she seemed far away from me, like someone I didn’t know, as if I were wearing glasses that showed only the ocean.

A merry-go-round started up in my head. Why does Mama want to go to a place where there is persecution and injustice? She’s not a spy, is she? Does she want to destroy our shining future for lots of money? So many heroes have been humiliated and executed in the torture chambers just so that we could live in a better world. And Mama wants to go live on the other side of the ocean where the grubby-faced proletariat slaves away for a miserable wage, where hungry children beg in the streets and fat men walk past them without even sharing their bread and butter, but instead just spit that yellow spit from their big, thick cigars as they pass? But what can I do if I’m sitting opposite my Mama, who smells so good, in the living room, with the door closed, on the best piece of furniture in the house, and she has just said that terrible word “emigration”? Our state gives us textbooks and notebooks for free so that one day we can work for the good of the proletariat and not for the benefit of some spitting gentlemen in an enemy country where textbooks and notebooks cost a lot of money and the classrooms are half empty. Our Comrade Director, who’s never been in an enemy classroom, told us this, because you don’t have to wait for winter to know that snow is white, he said. Our heroes said that one should never run away from any danger or any task, no matter how difficult, and never betray one’s homeland. And they themselves clung to this belief. I’m glad that Mama’s attempt to escape failed. I want to stay in our backyard forever and be progressive.

I definitely don’t want to emigrate, but not because it is forbidden and un-solidarian. When I imagine us leaving, I see children from the yard gathered at the gate to say goodbye, and Mama nervously calling me: Come on! I turn for one last look at the house and cannot move. I feel like I’m in a nightmare where I can’t run away from the bad man. My legs are heavy, as if they’ve grown right out of the asphalt. On that day, I sat cowardly on the sofa in the living room. After all, I am my brother’s sister and have inherited the bourgeois bug from father, and so I only managed to ask one shy question: Can I take my teddy bear? At this my mother hugged me excitedly: Of course you can take him. My teddy bear doesn’t know how to count well, so I beat him and then his eyes get sad. It hurts me and then I kiss him all over and ask him to forgive me. Without him, I could never emigrate. Then Mama said severely: You cannot tell anyone about this, otherwise something bad will happen. She looked at us untrustingly, as if we’d already revealed the secret. Hmm, except that the bad thing happened anyway, and I never even made a peep. But this bad thing is only half as big. I wonder if it isn’t better to sit in a dark cell here at home rather than be across the ocean alone and free?

We’re supposed to be more and more progressive every day, just like our homeland, which has more and more factory smokestacks all the time. So we can take care of ourselves and even help poor countries build factory smokestacks. When Comrade Teacher hands us paper and colored pencils, we draw red factory smokestacks with righteous black smoke rising from them. If the sky above our homeland gets dark and the darkness blocks out the sun, it means that we are doing well, that industrialization is moving forward and we don’t need the sun. When I see a factory smokestack from our yard, I know that I am well taken care of. The Comrade Factory Workers take care of me and know what I need. We have enough electric power, we have lots of rivers and we’ve triumphed over floods and built a hydroelectric plant at the end of every village. All those power plant dams have clogged and polluted our rivers, but only backward countries have clean rivers.

Grandma says that only my guardian angel knows what I need. Mama says – that is, said – when she was still here with us, that Grandma talks nonsense. But I like listening to Grandma when she talks about angels. Her voice goes all soft like my teddy bear’s fur and then I know that our Grandma is good. I sit next to her in the kitchen on a stool. It’s getting dark outside, but we don’t turn on the lights, we’re saving electricity and listening to angels as they fly around the kitchen, although I don’t believe in them. Outside the window, big circles of bats are flitting around and there’s peace and quiet everywhere. Not the kind of peace where our enemy wouldn’t dare attack. It’s the kind of peace that requires nothing else but sitting quietly and listening to sounds.
IRENA BREŽNÁ (1950) was born in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 she emigrated to Switzerland and has lived in Basel ever since. She is a journalist, writer, academic in Slavonic Studies, psychologist and human rights activist. In 2008 she published her autobiographical novel Die beste aller Welten (The Best of All Worlds) and in 2010 the novel Schuppenhaut (Scaly Skin). She has received numerous awards for her work, including Switzerland’s Federal Literary Prize for the novel The Thankless Stranger, the EMMA journalism award and the Theodor Wolff Prize for her war reporting from Chechnya.

About the Translator:

JANET LIVINGSTONE was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in the U.S. and has lived in Bratislava, Slovakia for 14 years. In 2003, she began translating from Slovak to English and has worked on film scripts, subtitles and dramatic works, including: Communism by Viliam Klimáček; and House of Silence and The Gilded Red Cage by Silvester Lavrík. The latter premiered in New York in 2010 and was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to rave reviews. She also translated the book Master your Stage Fright by Slovak violinist, Bohdan Warchal. Her latest translation projects are the novels The Best of All Worlds by Slovak-Swiss author Irena Brežná and Juliet and the Other One by Gabriela Revická.

About the Translation:

Die beste aller Welten (The Best of All Worlds) was written in German and translated into Slovak by Jana Cviková and published by Aspekt publishing house under the title Na slepačích krídlach. The English translation was made from the Slovak translation in direct consultation with the author herself.

Read more work by Irena Brežná:

Read short excerpts and summaries of the author’s fiction and journalism as well as reviews of her work on her website