Michal Ajvaz


2019 | Druhé město




Barbora was the wife of Štěpán, my classmate from high school and once my best friend. I have no clear memory of what she did for a living, but I think she was a doctor. How many times had we met? Three? Four? Since their wedding, I hadn’t seen much of Štěpán either. Yet my first encounter with Štěpán remained the most important such encounter of my life. Twenty-five years before, when we came together as high school freshmen, we were fifteen years old. I’d been an avid reader of adventure and travel books from early childhood, but I’d always had the feeling that all the expeditions of adventure I read about were bound for a place none of the books described. Behind the printed word was a noise – faint but insistent – of other, incomprehensible sentences, describing a journey into a radiant fog. This fog concealed a wonderful city, whose outlines I could just about make out. In the first weeks of our friendship, Štěpán showed me the city I was looking for. He guided me to the land containing the object of my quest. For he had already discovered this land for himself – not so long before, it seemed; he himself had recently been a child. Although he didn’t yet properly know his way around the new land, he knew exactly where he was. And when he took me with him, I knew it too.

Novalis, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and several other poets and writers were inhabitants of this land. Štěpán had had time to get to know them, and he told me about them. To my astonishment, I saw at last the fantastical city of my imaginings, spread out before me. And what I discovered in the wonderful city would fill me with delight and torment me with its painful newness, even though it was all somehow deeply familiar to me, as if I were returning to a home I had once been taken from and left to forget. A pain-infused delight washed over my body in great waves. It gushed forth from images, sentences or two or three conjoined words I read in the books Štěpán lent me, and which later I bought for myself, with my pocket money. I read the words over and over again, and each time I knew a delightful, burning pain akin to being struck by a powerful ray of sunlight – the same painful delight I had known in a fainter, weaker form for years.


It was about more than just literature; indeed, literature itself mattered very little to it. From the very beginning we knew, without having to mention it, that the glow we found in the books was the glow of the world. We went on expeditions to the outskirts of Prague and beyond, and our eyes told us that our poets’ land was in no way different from the world we lived in. It was so obvious that words and objects were united by a single mythos and a single light, there was no need to talk about it. Though the eyes born to me then – on roads skirted by tumbledown fences, derelict factories, and last houses in streets beyond whose blank walls lay plains of dry grass – have since glazed over and grown tired, they retain the memory of that time’s majestic, modest glow in things. Still a collapsed wall or dusty shrubbery by the railroad can appear to me like a mysterious, exhilarating message from the luminous world.


Once I told my ex-wife about that time, and she told me I was projecting a present-day dream onto the past; we had surely been too young to discover anything truly essential about the world, she said. Although I made no reply to this, I thought at the time how strange it was that adults forget so easily who they once were. We were children, yet we had seen the essence of the world, even if we were unable to speak its name. The essence of the world, which later I ceased to understand, and which I try to recollect at times when I feel dissatisfied with my life. There was nothing strange about this. What I never did figure out, however, was the external event that inspired Štěpán’s discovery of the world of wonder. Sometimes we would find ourselves in the living room containing his parents’ library, and I would study the spines of the books, looking for one that might show me the way to their son’s world. I never did find it.



Fighting the dragon


“I never asked Štěpán anything about his world, not even then. For I was sure of one thing: whatever had happened in Sweden, it had something to do with that world of his. Over the next days and weeks, I went on with my observation at home. As always, Štěpán hid behind his disguises. But after all my years of watching and listening to him, my eyes and ears were so finely tuned to his body and his voice that I was convinced something strange to me had awoken in them… What confused me was how the new signs changed as I was trying to read them. At first, excitement, restlessness and anticipation seemed to dominate. On one occasion, as Štěpán was thinking something through and I was watching his hands, the thought occurred to me that in a movie of the fantasy genre, this is how an actor would play a hunter who senses the presence of a dragon. I even imagined the music that would accompany such a scene. ‘What splendid monster is approaching Štěpán, and what fight is about to be waged?’ I asked myself. ‘And what will be my role in the battle?’ I could answer the last question straight away: as always, I would have no role.

“This period lasted a few weeks. Then Štěpán’s behaviour began to change, and entirely new signs emerged. It was easy to make out what the new signs were expressing: it was despair. And this despair took up residence in his body for several long months. That was when I told myself that he’d lost his fight with the dragon.”

Several times Barbora took a break in the narrative, and on each occasion I waited patiently for her to resume. “In no way did Štěpán’s despair affect his behaviour towards me or our daughters. In fact, he was even kindlier and gentler than before… For months I tried to find the courage to question him, but whenever I came close, I realized the ban on speaking of certain things had always been fundamental to the life of our family, and I was afraid of what might happen if I violated this long-standing custom.

“Then something happened for which I wasn’t at all prepared: Štěpán broke his silence.”



The purple crocodile


“Suddenly, Štěpán found himself longing to take a close look at the strange street that didn’t seem to belong to the city. It was as though its building were calling to him with a promise. Evidently the lure was so strong that he fought off his drowsiness, crossed the bridge and walked to the top of the hill.”

As Barbora was talking, I imagined Štěpán on a light summer night, walking in one of his expensive suits, in places I knew well.

“Before long, he was passing single-storey houses. There was no one in the street, and the only sounds he heard were from cars passing along the coastal road below, plus the occasional siren from a ship on the lagoon. Then he heard the sound of music coming from the open window of one of the houses. The music was an accompaniment to singing so soft as to be practically inaudible. Something in the woman’s voice stopped him in his tracks, so that even though he didn’t understand the words, he strained his ears to listen. He couldn’t even identify the language in which the song was sung. The singing remained so quiet that what little Štěpán made out he heard only at moments when no car was passing on the road below and the ship’s sirens were silent – and even then, the song was sometimes lost in the hum of noise from cars on the bridges and the distant waterfront at Norrmalm. After a while, Štěpán established that the woman was singing in English, but still he could make out only the odd word.

“As his ears slowly got used to the song amid the noise of the city, he found himself able to make out groups of words, and then whole sentences… And it was as though a ghost was appearing before him. Although the images in the song were entirely new to him, he knew them to be images from what would be his book, were he to succeed in writing it. He was in no doubt that these images had for years been hiding in the luminous fog, calling to him. These were images he had been trying desperately to reach, see clearly and give words to. But so far he had failed – the result had always been warped, unfinished sentences… He leaned on the wall next to the window. The voice of the singer was still so quiet and obscured by surrounding noise that he had to strain his ears to hear. When the continuation of an utterance was lost forever in the noise of a passing car, Štěpán despaired. He must have thought up some of the song lyrics himself, although he wasn’t able to tell what he had heard from his own insertions, which he had formed from words half-heard as they dissolved into the noise, so filling empty spaces. At times, he began to wonder if the woman really was singing in English. Had he not ascribed English to the song simply because of chance similarities between some of its words and English ones? Could the woman be singing in another language – Swedish, for instance? At some moments, he had the impression that the song was in Czech. But then these doubts were dispelled by the sound of more meaningful words of English. The question was, was he hearing the true words of the song or listening to his imagination?

“This woman stranger, whose voice was the purest Štěpán had ever heard, sang of everything he wished to write about but couldn’t – it was as though some kindly or malign demon had set Štěpán’s unwritten work to music, and that this work was waiting in vain in some strange library for Štěpán to make a copy of it for our world. He had long ago given up hope of writing his book; he had long ago given up his fight with images that fled from him. But now here he was in a strange city hearing the words of his book set to music, performed by the lovely voice of a woman stranger… Suddenly the music ended, and different music started up, at greater volume. A few bars in, Štěpán recognized the piece – it was the overture from Don Giovanni.

“Štěpán knew that if he were to discover nothing about the mystery song, this ignorance would trouble him for the rest of his life. So he plucked up the courage to ring the doorbell. Moments later, the lock clicked and a small, white-haired old woman opened the door. Beyond the woman, Štěpán saw nothing but a narrow hallway and part of a room at its end. It was from this room that the music was coming. As you know, Štěpán doesn’t speak Swedish. Having introduced himself in English, he asked about the song. It was obvious that the old woman didn’t understand. He tried French and German, but still the old woman shook her head and replied in Swedish. Štěpán tried to act out his question: he mimed playing the piano and the violin, he opened his mouth wide, as though he were singing, then he pointed at the door of the room.”

I imagined Štěpán standing in a street up in Södermalm, performing his strange mime, against a backdrop of the lagoon reflecting the cool light of the white summer night. As yet, I knew nothing of the story of which this crazy image would form a part. But I knew that I would never forget it.




“That night, Štěpán told me that when he was fourteen or fifteen, it began to dawn on him that there was a hidden source of images. In those days, he believed the source to be so close that he might discover it at any moment. For years he searched for it, until one morning he awoke with the realization that he would never find it… But on the island of Södermalm, to his amazement he found himself standing in front of the very source he had stopped looking for years before. And now that the source had opened for him, that very same night at his hotel it began to spew out images that had been waiting for him for years. At first, they were blurry, indeterminate shapes; it took several weeks for them to take on the sharp contours of images and for the sounds and noises to become lone words shining in the dark, then subjects of sentences and predicates. After a few more weeks of the silent, insistent eruption, images would appear to him as he was riding the streetcar to work, at free moments in the workplace, on our Sunday excursions, and in the quiet of the bedroom at night. So it happened that Štěpán wrote the book he had waited for for years – a book whose birth he had once accepted he would never see.

“He worked on the book for a year. Then, as he was finishing it, he had a sudden horrified realization: he couldn’t distinguish images of his own from images from Stockholm. In desperation, he tried to recall what the woman had been singing about, but in the vortex of images and words of the past months, his memory was unable to find those that had made themselves known at the very beginning. As he picked through what he had written, he was unable to say for sure of any single image that it had come not from Södermalm but from his memory, so making it truly his. He was forced to admit that the book he was writing was largely, perhaps entirely, a record of what he had heard in Sweden. One afternoon, as he sat in a meeting at work, responding to complex questions of law, the happiness he knew while writing the book gave way to a feeling of desperate hopelessness. You probably know that Štěpán has always despised plagiarism. Well, now he was terrified of being a plagiarist himself. The mere thought of it was unbearable, and it was unthinkable that he should give anybody a possibly plagiarized book to read. Now that Štěpán had told me more about himself than in all our years together, I was hoping that he would allow me to read the book – wasn’t it part of the story he had told me, after all? – but no, not even I was allowed to see it.

“Štěpán decided to show no one the book until he had made it clear that he was indeed the author. Although this was not an entirely hopeless enterprise, the problem lay in the fact that he couldn’t find the resolve to do it. In the days following his night-time confession, I gave him all the encouragement I could. I told him to go to Stockholm and to get an interpreter – I didn’t think of you, it had slipped my mind that you know Swedish. I offered to go to Sweden myself. Štěpán rejected all my suggestions. He was ever more convinced that his book was mere plagiarism. He began to hate it and want nothing to do with it. But still he clung to the hope that the book was his own creation – a good reason to do nothing about it, as he was afraid that a trip to Sweden would spell the end of that hope once and for all. I became terribly irritated by this childish behaviour – it was as if I didn’t know him. But desperate people often behave irrationally and childishly; there is nothing to be done about it.

“I told him that I wasn’t at all convinced that his book was nothing but a record of his returning memories of someone else’s text. I didn’t tell him this just to help him: the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that he was the true author of his book. In fact, I now believe that it’s quite possible nothing of what he heard on Södermalm came to his mind from outside. We must take into account that Štěpán had barely slept for several nights; he told me himself that his state was one of stupefaction and half-sleep, even when he was walking. You, too, have surely experienced a state of tiredness where words overheard abroad in a strange language transform into Czech or some other language you know. Štěpán and I once took our daughters on holiday to the Greek island of Paros, where we stayed in a guest house over a taverna whose customers would sit on into the small hours. Every night as we were falling asleep, their conversations would turn into Czech. Over breakfast the next morning, we would ask each other what we’d heard as we were drifting off to sleep. Yes, it’s more than likely that the soft, unintelligible song was in fact in Swedish, and that in Štěpán’s mind its words transformed into his own. It may be that at a moment when his waking perceptions were giving way to sleep, a way was cleared for the passage of the source of images from the lowest levels of consciousness… And as he had been speaking nothing but English for several days, he heard English and thought in English, so the words were formed in his mind in English.”

“And did Štěpán agree with this interpretation?”

“Well, he didn’t reject it out of hand. He admitted that his tiredness and his subconscious may have been responsible for at least some of what he had heard. But he said this wasn’t enough to clear the book of all suspicion of plagiarism, so still he couldn’t go public with it. I’d always thought that Štěpán was too serious and too grown-up, but after his trip to Sweden, this, too, changed. Suddenly, he was behaving like a stubborn, rebellious child. In the end, I said to him, ‘Maybe you’re right – maybe your book really is just a copy of someone else’s work. But if you don’t take the courage to publish it, you’ll never find out the truth about it. Are you afraid that people will mock you? Well, maybe they will. But wouldn’t even that be better than your current unhappiness?’ I was right, he said. He also said he just couldn’t put out a book under his own name in the knowledge that he might not be the author.”

“So how did Štěpán solve his problem?”

“He didn’t. He put the book in a drawer and tried to forget about it. But I don’t believe he’ll ever succeed in forgetting. We no longer speak of the book – I don’t wish to upset him.”

Suddenly it came to me why Barbora was telling all this to me. But I waited for her to speak the words.

“Anyway,” she said, obviously judging the moment to be right. “I was reading that interview with you…”

I didn’t let her finish. “Of course – next time I’m in Stockholm, I’ll go to Södermalm and find out what I can. It’s a pity you didn’t think of me earlier; if you had, for Štěpán’s sake I’d have left for Stockholm immediately. I know the street you spoke of well. I could go from house to house to ask about the purple crocodile.”

“You won’t have to do that. I know which house it is. When Štěpán and I still spoke of the matter, he showed it to me on Street View.”

I turned in my chair to my laptop, clicked on the Google Earth icon, swooped down on Stockholm and the places Barbora had spoken of, then switched to Street View. Now standing next to me, Barbora leaned down to the computer and took the mouse. She clicked a few times, until we found ourselves looking at some single-storey buildings. We stopped in front of a white house with a clearly visible number above the door.

Barbora didn’t return to the armchair, and I didn’t attempt to detain her. When we reached the hall, she turned to me and said, “I did read Štěpán’s book, you know. He had hidden it pretty well, so it took me a while to find it. But I know my way around the apartment better than he does.”

“What was it like?” I asked with bated breath.

“Beautiful. It tells of rippling curtains in empty afternoon rooms, the cold gleam on the top of a piano, fantastical flowers shining bright in the night, the rapture of artificial humans made of gold and precious stones, cities rising from the sea, glowing red in the setting sun, great halls of train stations, the ocean, the song of white animals, disquieting poems written in night-time neon in a rough district of a strange city, jungles, wide rivers flowing through cities, marble waterfronts with large statues of tigers, monotonic operas lasting for hours and describing battles between princely families in distant galaxies, long conversations about philosophy conducted on board a spaceship flying through a deserted cosmos, goddesses appearing in coolly lustrous corridors of office buildings, a cathedral of clear glass filled with water in which large luminescent jellyfish swim, surfaces of mountain lakes, tragic algebra and the geometry of despair, forbidden dances on gloomy terraces overlooking the sea, a struggle between humans, demons and robots, long symphonies of hum and rustle…”


Translated by Andrew Oakland