During a group therapy session for the emotionally disturbed he said that every spring, when the swallows return from the south, he would start to wonder what a burnt body looked like. Would it shine with incredible brightness or smoulder pathetically?
In June 1968, he was just a boy. The papers were full of Russian tanks, occupation and corpses lying on the streets of Prague. They also printed the story of how Jan Palach was burned to death. He poured petrol over himself and struck a match. They say he thought about Jan Hus. Jan Palach and Jan Hus, two torches whose tragic light shines across the five dark centuries that separated them.
He wanted to know if the square where the living torch stood would be marked in some way. How many primary schools, libraries, nurseries and amateur theatres would one day be named after that celebrated hero?
Even then he was haunted by strange images: a run-down Czech village next to a cement factory, small cottages, their roofs covered with a thick layer of white dust and a weak sun that hardly dared to light up the main square and village hall with its red star and Styrofoam letters:
VOLUNTARY FIRE BRIGADE, JAN PALACH
When he was ten years old, his mother tried to explain Czech humour to him. He’d never been really sure that she’d succeeded.
Looking at the restless flames of the candles and the tiny bunches of hyacinths on the tarmac; he asked himself when it was that he had stopped being a boy. Now he was a tourist admiring human courage, especially the young women who put candles on the place where once this human sacrifice burned. He wondered how many of them he would be able to find selling their bodies on Wenceslas Square.
On that same square, which might one day be called Jan Palach Square, he was approached by one of the many people who exchanged money illegally on the street. Right away, he would later tell, he noticed the missing front teeth, the gold bracelet, the signet ring, and the tattoo across the knuckles. His hair and skin were dark, but he didn’t have the Indian features typical of a Roma.
‘Wife’, said the moneychanger, ‘sick’. And he put his two palms together and held them beneath his cheek, as if to explain that she was bed-ridden.
‘Foreign currency for medicine,’ said the stranger, ‘imported medicine.’
He held the blue one hundred German mark note in his hand while the gypsy (at least that’s what he looked like) counted out 1,200 Czech crowns.
When he got back to the hotel he put the money on the table, and noticed that among the green 100 crown notes, there was a blue note with a different design. Around the edges were ornate Gothic letters, and along the top it read DEUTSCHE REICHSMARK. It was a note of 100 German marks from 1922, from the time of economic collapse, and now worth absolutely nothing. The strangest thing of all, though, was that someone had drawn a line across the note in red pen and written underneath five billion. Suddenly, he understood the proportions inflation could reach.
This was a town full of thieves, he thought to himself. You had to check your change in the restaurants and bars. And when you changed money on the street, it paid to check all the notes they had palmed off on you. In the shops, unofficially, there were prices for locals and prices for foreigners. The majority of police and state employees were open to bribes. In the hotel you paid for non-existent services – hot water and clean sheets. The maids offered themselves for less than the whores on Wenceslas Square. In the market they sold rotten vegetables and stinking meat, and children begged for small change. It seemed that Jan Palach knew what he was doing when he set himself alight.
In the morning, he decided. In a town of full cheats like this one, which had forgotten its own heroic past, you had to become a cheat too. He started in the Beer hall ‘U Supa’ not far from the place where they laid flowers for Jan Palach. It was a real Czech breakfast, as far as such a thing existed; boiled egg, local beer and short fat sausages with added estrogen.
When the waiter finally came for the bill, he casually offered him the 100 reichsmark note with one hand, while with the other he carefully wiped the crumbs off the tablecloth. The banknote, however, left an unexpectedly strong impression. The waiter held it up to the light, as if to check the watermark, then handed the note back.
There was something very respectful in his gesture.
‘Thank you …..’he said. ‘You can pay another time, when you have change.’
From that moment the waiter was unusually polite, and even held his coat for him as he left.
In one boutique for foreigners on Wenceslas Square he chose the most expensive suit. It reminded him of an illustration in a children’s comic, which had accompanied a story by Mark Twain. When he handed her the note, the saleswoman furtively showed it to her boss, her face shining with satisfaction.
‘We are honoured, Sir’ said her boss, ‘that you chose our shop. You can pay when you have change.’
She winked, and there wasn’t a doubt anymore that there was something strange going on.
That afternoon he took a taxi ride, bought a second-hand violin on the street of Alchemists, visited museums, had lunch and drank the best Austrian wine, all for free. He didn’t even pay for his postcards. After midnight he found himself in an all-night bar, one of the worst shitholes in the city. A place where all the whores of the Warsaw Pact congregated. Here you could find everything: from Russian soldiers who sold amphetamines to child pornography. Most of the clientele were black marketeers, pickpockets, small time dealers in grass (when that was still in), local alcoholics and ex-politicians: very interesting indigenous fauna.
He sat down at the bar. A brawny barman, with a bow-tie and rolled-up sleeves, served him his drink. Both his forearms were tattooed. On one was a curvy mermaid with pursed lips, while on the other, the right, he could recognise the form of a Salamander. That tattoo, he thought to himself, could be the mark of membership of some secret organisation: that’s the kind of thing that always happened in Hollywood films.
It crossed his mind to ask him who’d drawn it for him, when out of the toilet came a guy covered in blood. His nose and a good part of his face were like minced meat hanging off the bone. It wasn’t long before the police arrived, and they seemed to know immediately who to arrest. They took away a young guy in a black jacket and an older blond woman, obviously a prostitute. The victim stumbled out behind them. The blood dripped from his nose onto the marble-patterned linoleum.
‘Don’t worry, its normal for here’ said a pleasant female voice.
He noticed a girl who had sat herself down at the stool next to him. She had shinny, pale hair that fell to her shoulders, a pin-striped skirt suit, and low-heeled shoes. She looked more like an air-hostess than a lady of the night. There was something likeable about her. She didn’t seem dangerous, and in a place like this you appreciated people who didn’t seem dangerous.
‘Will you buy me a drink?’ she said. Her long fingers held a lighted cigarette and he noticed her slim, delicate wrist. The kind of wrist that hinted of other delights.
He signalled to the tattooed hulk.
‘A drink for the lady’ he said ‘and another one for me.’
(At that time, he would later tell me, he wasn’t so hooked on alcohol, so he could say that without a guilty conscience).
‘I expect you want to know what happened’ she said. He noticed that she raised one eyebrow when she spoke. It reminded him of something, but he didn’t know what.
‘Well I’m not really used to that kind of thing’ he answered, ‘I come from a quiet town’
‘The one with the broken nose’ she explained, ‘he’s the naïve one. The woman you saw is the bait, and the guy in the black jacket is the hunter. Everyone in the story’s got a name. The bait took the naïve one into the toilet promising some good entertainment. But in the middle of the party, the hunter came in and was pretty pissed off.
‘You’re with my woman!’ he said, or something like that. Then he hit him with his elbow, because there’s not much room in the toilet, not enough to throw a real punch. But a smack with the elbow is enough for a guy like the naïve one. And in the meantime Naïve’s wallet ‘accidentally’ falls on the floor. And when it’s all over a third person finds it. Everything here has a simple explanation.
‘I see that you are well informed,’ he said. There was nothing left to add.
‘I told you that to gain your trust,’ she replied. ‘Every relationship starts with trust, don’t you think?’
He had to agree that trust was very important.
‘I’m Vilena,’ she said.
He told her his name, but she didn’t give the slightest indication that she would remember it.
‘I’m a school teacher,’ she added ‘does that seem strange to you?’
‘Not really’ he answered, ‘I’ve read about things like that.’
She laughed. It was the honest laugh of a child, not a laugh of ridicule.
‘When I was little, I had a magic wand with a star on the end which lit-up. My uncle brought it for me form Austria. I used to touch people with it and say magic words. I thought that I was doing them a good deed.’
He wasn’t particularly interested in a whore who wanted to tell you the story of her childhood, so he came straight to the point.
‘Are you going to do a good deed today?’
‘And how much would such a good deed from you cost?’
‘It depends’ she answered. ‘I see you’re wearing a pretty nice suit. It must have cost quite a bit.’
‘I have 100 Reichsmarks’, he said, drawing the note out of his wallet.
At once her face took on a look of gentleness, and her smile was as if in recognition of a shared secret.
‘Will it be enough?’
‘When you pay for the drinks, come with me,’ she said. ‘And don’t talk anymore nonsense.’
He dreamt of fire and smoke, like he was in the middle of flames which didn’t burn him. He felt like a tourist at a witch burning. When he awoke, she was sitting on the end of the bed, smoking.
‘Welcome back to earth,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have to go. I was just waiting for you to wake up so we could say goodbye.’
‘That’s nice of you,’ he said. And he meant it.
‘I usually leave while the customers are sleeping. I can’t stomach them in the morning.’
Expertly she slipped out under the covers without revealing herself, and put on a peach-coloured jumper. She didn’t put her coat on, just threw it over her shoulder, then took her handbag and held it under her arm. The hundred Reichmarks still stood on the bedside table where he had put it last night.
‘You’re not going to take it?’ he asked with a smile.
She looked at him, not like a prostitute looking at her customer, but with respect. There was also gentleness in that look, and a little compassion.
‘You obviously don’t know what happened to you,’ she said. ‘Nor what that 100 mark note means.’
He looked at her with surprise. This was the first time anyone had openly talked about it.
‘You got it on Wenceslas Square, didn’t you?’ she asked, but the question was really a statement. ‘You bought a bunch of hyacinths from an old lady with a pair of scales. And you bought some tall candles off another woman. Then you stood there for a long time, you were a tourist that was not afraid. And then a gypsy came up to you….you see, in Prague, that’s the way we pay back those who respect our heroes. And now you don’t know if that really happened or if you just really wanted something like that to happen. I have to go, I just stayed to say goodbye.’
ZORAN FERIĆ was born in 1961 in Zagreb. He is among the most widely read contemporary Croatian writers. His work has received numerous prizes, including the Ksaver Šandor Gjalski Prize in 2000 and the Jutarnji List Award for the best work of prose fiction in 2001 and again in 2011. He lives in Zagreb where he teaches Croatian literature at a high school.
About the Translator:
S. D. CURTIS is a British novelist, editor and sometime translator of Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian into English. After graduating in English Literature & Art from Surrey University, she was active in the field of social work and education for many years, and has lived for longer periods in Slovenia, Italy and Croatia. She is perhaps best known as the Founding Director of Istros Books – a small publisher of contemporary literature from the Balkans, based in London.