The city was changing. Above it, as dependable as in the 10th century or any other time, the moon hung in the night's dark gateway, sometimes full and puffy like the face of a drunk, at other times floating in the clouds, almost invisible, a glassy bauble that didn't burn but still drove the city mongrels to madness. Here in this glow, whenever the moon climbed to its cool intensity, lovers would drink off the last of their bottle and hurl themselves at one another, lips nibbled raw out of love supreme, the killer would sneer as he twisted his knife in the wound, and here in this light, dear mommy would suddenly do something atrocious to her little papoose, and the golden force flowed down over the tracks of trams and trains and they glistened brilliantly in the flood of light... The Lord of the Earth caught hold of the dark at its centre and turned the night inside out like a freshly-peeled skin. Then the sun would blaze up in the sky, beating down on walls and sidewalks, and only then was filth filth and decay decay and you could see it. This searing sun caused blood to move slowly and lazily, turning sweet, or the other way around, made the pumps work so frantically that the blood seemed ready to burst out of its confines. That's how it seemed to me anyways, nothing too pretty.
The city was changing. Iron grills and shutters left pulled down for years and gone to rust were given fresh coats of paint and often a sign with somebody's name on it. Dusty cellars and dirty beer joints in what used to be the Jewish quarter were cleverly converted into luxury stores. You could find steamer trunks from the last century, a book dictated by Madonna with a piece of her chain included, pineapples and fine tobacco, diaries of dead actresses and trendy wheels from old farmers' wagons, whips and dolls and travel grails with adventurer's blood in them, coins and likenesses of Kafka, shooting galleries with all the proletarian presidents as targets, rags and bones and skins, anything you could think of. In the back of one showcase were two statuettes, half-dog, half-man, stooping under heavily-laden, wicker baskets, their glassy eyes watching you over their shoulders, and maybe they even knew your name. They were the statuettes of the Devil and they stood there for a long time before anyone bought them. I was relieved when they finally disappeared, but the very next day, in their place stood a cat-woman figurine with green eyes, inlaid precious stones, and raven-black hair. The hair was human and she was spooky too. Pozener was the company that owned the store, they were from Vienna and their logo had the horns of a bull in it.
The city was changing. Old, broken walls were torn down, ads pasted up over cracked, mysterious maps in the roughcast plaster, sidewalks were newly paved, barriers of sheet metal and wood that had stood for years vanished overnight. New owners took charge of dilapidated buildings and tried to convert them into hotels, pubs, wholesale glass and crystal shops, travel agencies. Pants, coats, wooden toys, hotdogs, newspapers, gingerbread and gold were sold on the street out of ground-floor apartments, and the idea of declaring income was a joke. "Nothing sleazy 'bout money," said the sleazeballs, and they parcelled up the streets and squares to fit their stands. On the periphery of the city and in the outlying districts, new centres sprang up around discos, mini department stores, new bars and restaurants. Evenings saw the laundry on our street filled up with mothers. Told me I was nothin' but his landlady now, so I gave him the heave-ho and he don't live anywhere. Mine'll come home plastered again today, no doubt; last time he went for the groceries, the food was rotten by the time he got back. "Here're your shirts, sir," she told me, giving me the eye to get lost. Yeah, fine, you're short, but come up with the money by the first of the month or you're out one bathrobe. "My man don't cut that stringy meat," I heard another say. But it wasn't enough to quench my thirst for life. I searched for a way to wear out my vigorous mind in business activities, working my way up to literary mercenary, a dealer in words, a street-smart hack.
Most people in the neighbourhood were more successful. Dunar, the crook, blackmailer and wino, became lord of Nightland, a disco that reeked with the stench of burnt flesh from the hot rocks tossed from one Mafioso client to the next. "Come again sometime," Dunar told the emissary from one of those nasty foreign outfits that came to Prague in the rush for the ram of gold. "Come again," he told the wiseass who so confidently demanded a premium for protection, "and I'll kill you." A week later they shot the guy, he'd probably just come for some fun but they didn't give him a chance to trot out his offer a second time. "Show this to Mummy," Dunar told the guy's date as he expertly snapped her collarbone in two. Then his gorillas worked her over a little bit more, just enough so she'd barely survive, and tossed her on a garbage heap outside of town, all rolled up in the crime-flecked carpet along with the dead protection specialist.
Stumbling by Nightland back to my dump at about 6 a.m., I saw Dunar perched on the bonnet of his BMW, he was just having breakfast. Three or four half-drunk flunkies pranced around him with a bravura worthy of a changing of the guard, serving him up roast chicken and salads, gold-plated toothpicks, baskets and dishes, shots and bottles, the air pulsed with the sounds of good, old ABBA. Dunar let out a belch and flung a bottle of wine at me, "Scram scribbler!" he roared, and I made myself scarce. Some time back, he had asked me to write him a few pieces in praise of his 'entertainment paradise' and even though I was paid a king's ransom, I still hadn't turned them in. Apparently, he hadn't lost faith in my genius, because the bottle smashed against the wall about five yards wide of me and none of his Dobermans came snarling at my throat.
The factory workers were walking to work with last night's hangover in the crook of their necks. "Hey Franta," Dunar greeted them. "Hey Luboš, hey Ládín, how's tricks?" Nothing mean about the way he said it, his BMW sat sparkling like a great, big, black beetle, the bonnet supporting its load without damage, Dunar was having himself a ball. The working stiffs smiled, their innards invisible, but they knew that he knew that they knew. They were of one blood. Plain and simple, the Master has come to town to take the chair out from under your rear, the soup from under your spoon, shove it right in your eye. The Master's going to make slaves of your sons, and what's more, he'll take his followers, your daughters and wives, and sell 'em on the street, flesh by the pound. "Hey Miloš, hey Jožín, you sonuvagun, ciao guys, ciao, ciao." Onetime classmates and buddies and cagemates an workmates from the factory, onetime brothers from school, church, the Party, the army. Was a time they lived together, side by side, so to speak, fist with fist, idle gossip with ratting to the cops. Nowadays, they just swallow hard on their spit, on their envy and hate. One day, one of them is going to break his head open. Maybe soon, maybe not, when the time is right.
The city peeled off its stern and gloomy face of the past, the mask of rotting bolshevism, and replaced it with a thousand others. Some were the smiley makeup faces of clowns, and who'd give a damn if those wacky, old, circus-ring alcoholics smelling of sawdust and animal dung cover up a few little pockmarks here and there, or a two-bit scar from a two-bit stab wound? Brightly coloured buffoon kissers painted on for rowdy youngsters, for female sightseers from around the globe, for the first shy kisses and fleeting touches, for the first marijuana cigarette in the mysterious twilight of foreign lands wrapped in a web of legends, for wannabe artists in a haze of romance, rust under their nails from the Iron Curtain, behind which—at long last!—no more tank parades, just Punch and Judy for sons and daughters from well-to-do families with fabulous passports who came to Eastern Europe to go wild. Expecting a menagerie and they found a jungle, expecting a jungle and they found a warehouse of scrapped stage scenery, searching for the Spirit and the mirror-faced Boogeyman got them... for dour intellectual females who had cast off Morrison and Kerouac at the age of seven, then existentialism and phenomenology between eleven and sixteen... and all that junk and then drugs and then, once cleansed, they loved Jesus so they could start up with some other male, the harpies, and then they were men-haters with well rounded views on what was nonconformist and environmental and witchy and lesbian, wearing out their resigned and scornful Czech landlords with their opinions, delivered in words, words, words... Sooner or later, every lunatic with a couple of bucks, a worldview and a vision set down in this city to found an organisation, a movement, a newspaper, they pulled into town with never-ending cables wrapped around their waist for the new TV, one you could look at for a change, creating CULTURE or at least some cute, little sect for the local suckers or some limited liability company, nothin' but paper, right?... and when the money ran out, they vanished, the city and its speculators sucked them up like a sponge. It just about killed me too, this city... evenings with the fortune-teller... new owners tailored other parts of town into the apparel of respectable businessmen, banks and change offices, varicoloured flags fluttered over the ruins and hired guns took pot shots at pigeons with air rifles so their ammunition wouldn't disturb the digestion of the suits whose shits run the circuit with utter discretion... still other city districts contorted into the professional spic-and-span face of the player, the try-hard, the type who's born to lose in spite of his agile fingers and lifelong training, because he's sick, condemned by nature, a weak piece. Some streets still made you feel like the best thing to do was drug yourself till you dropped. And there were corners, dark and damp with black sewer water, where you could come down with schizophrenia as easily as you catch a cold. But then again, other places seemed to emerge from the magic spell of inertia to reconnect with happier days. By some miracle, or maybe it figures, these were the oldest places, like the cathedral with the Czech kings' tombs and outside the low-flying pigeons, the sparrows and lazy swallows moving—as I like to put it, even if it might sound unusual for birds—with sublime sensuality, or the monastery with the abbot they tortured so many times.
I was walking through South Station with a hangover, examining the colourful covers of pocket novels, detective stories and pornography, their titles resonated in the slow-motion ache of my brain and they're points on a world map too:
'Here be lions' and here's One Thousand Sex Slaughters and here's Black Mary and here's House of Spiders and here's Mutiny of the Robots, and if you stand on your tiptoes, you can also catch a glimpse of Cooked Alive, a novella, and The Maid's Dream and Reign of the Fist and Street of Terror. Next to that is a vegetable stand, and the heavy aroma of Asian unknowns and dill and oregano and cinnamon and olives piquant and lemons and raisins forms a unique smell screen that wafts over towards King of the Mutants and Maneater, and next to that the toilets stink. Besides selling porn videos, the private news dealer runs them too. I'm standing there pissing into the trough, watched by the paper eyes of a painted slut, her legs spread wide on the cover of Teenage Prostitute. "You like to beat off?" the guy standing next to me says. My hungover brain fails to issue the command for a lightning punch in the face, so I go on standing there and, "Huh?" I ask, starting to play stupid. The man who addressed me is the urinal owner himself, an entrepreneur. Could he too be setting up some sort of movement or centre? How to Change Your Life in Harmony with Yourself How to Get Rich German in One Hour Lose Weight in Three Days of Gorging, etc.? "Yeah, I see you around here," he goes on. "I work next-door," I explain so he won't think I'm a Snooper, but he probably does anyway. "You like to beat off?" "Beat what?" I reply, giving him my best baffled innocent look. He tosses a glance toward the door to make sure no one's coming and: "Just between us, if you like to beat off, we could make a deal on a peep show. Huh? Yeah, all you do is beat off in one of the stalls and they watch." "Who?" "Come off it, perverts, for Chrissake." "Aha," I say to myself, "so it's strictly a business deal between two grown men." "Nothing happens to you, they just watch," he goes on. "Hey, how many times can you beat it all the way? Listen, you got long hair, I stick a helmet with horns on that mop of yours and it's instant Viking." "Uh-uh," I groan. "Don't make too much in your job, do you?" he says with a disapproving look at my shabby suit, but he's from the sticks, what does he know, this cotton here's brand-name. "Sorry," I tell him, "doesn't grab me," and I leave him standing there, no coin tossed into his little plastic dish from me.
I watch the swarm of Nomads inside the Tram Station. No wonder the bushes in front are such fierce competition for the public toilets, if he goes around hassling every Viking like that. Cash. How much would he have given me anyway? Judging from his filthy mug, I'll bet he does the really kinky stuff himself. Helmet with horns? Yeah right, just the thing to make it easier for the rent-a-cops to nab me! Cash, cash, cash. Sure isn't any point in money-making without a pinch of excitement thrown in though, can't argue with that.
Excerpt from the novella Výlet k nádražní hale (A Trip to the Train Station; Petrov, Brno 1995), translated by Alex Zucker.
Jáchym Topol (1962)
Son of poet and playwright Josef Topol, now working also as a journalist, took part in samizdat and underground literary activities during the 80's. He entered Czech literature officially with books of poems, Miluji tě k zbláznění (Love You Madly, 1991) and V úterý bude válka (There will be war on Tuesday, 1992, translated into several languages, in 1994, some of these poems were recited by Alan Ginsberg at the Fringe NYC Festival). His novella, A Trip to the Train Station, is Jáchym Topol's first work in prose and it is outstanding for the way in which it succeeds in expressing the prevalent mentality and atmosphere of the beginning of the 1990s. Behind the mask of strength, the subjectivised description discovers emotional helplessness and constraint as a reaction to the confusion of the changing value system. Through the use of different layers of language Topol's story creates its social milieu, and at the same time reflects real experience of the "beginning of capitalism in the Czech lands". His novel, Sestra (Sister, 1994), was awarded the Egon Hostovský Prize as a book of the year. His following book, Anděl (Angel 1995), served as a basis of a film of the same name. His most recent novel, Kloktat dehet (Tar-gargling, 2005), deals with the trauma of 1968 by means of a brutal slapstick that leads to the unleashing of World War III in the Czech Basin.