Mom worked both for the regime and against it, since she knew about the illicit nosybody pioneer troop and she definitely didn’t report it to the department or the comrades would’ve stamped out Šrámek a long time ago. It seemed like a bolt from the blue afterwards, but only here in Krakow. All of Czechoslovakia was up in arms by that point, and especially the capital, they showed it on TV. There must’ve been millions of people pouring through the streets of hundred-spired Prague, streaming across the flagstones of the oldest city in Europe, and the armored comrades tried in vain to organize them into orderly units and talk the workers back into the comradely calm they’d shown just a few days earlier. But now it was too late and a brouhaha had broken out in towns all over the country like after a football match and people didn’t see or hear, just shouted slogans till they were hoarse.
While the storm of anti-socialist revolution was sweeping Czechoslovakia, a State Security officer unlocked the front gate of the scrap collection center and five comrades with clubs caught the whole troop of nosybodies, headed up by Šrámek, making flyers for a demonstration calling for the head of the local Communists to resign and the whole government of Czechoslovakia too. It was November 18th, 1989, and they bundled them all into cop cars and took them in to the department. They let the teens go later that night, but Šrámek spent a whole week in a genuine jail. At least that’s how my sister mythologized it in her revolutionary euphoria. She said Milan got his food through a little window with a metal flap that slammed shut after they pushed the plate through, plus he had to go to the bathroom in a bucket and his cellmate was a guy who’d broken his brother’s bones.
Someone must’ve told on the nosybodies, because the comrades knew exactly what they were doing. The only grown-up who knew about them was Mom, plus besides Huňát, who hardly ever went to work, nobody else had a key to the collection center and the StB got in by unlocking the gate, which they don’t ordinarily bother with.
I remember when Mom found out about Šrámek’s arrest from my sister, who was one of the first they let go, she turned white as a sheet. She paced around the apartment like a zombie, until that wore off, because Dad was also stalking like a zombie back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, saying over and over again that he was floored.
Anybody else would’ve stopped the audit inspections when Milan got locked up and the nosybody kids got their just deserts. There was nothing left for me to dig up anyway, what with Mom just loafing around the apartment and sobbing at work, which was fine by me if she was the one who turned Šrámek in. But I couldn’t resist, and plus they were hardly teaching at school, let alone taking attendance, so I went back to my patrol of the collection center windows like an ever vigilant member of the Hokama Indian tribe, who never let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security, and plus I saw something through those windows. After two days my mom stopped sobbing and launched into a spring cleaning the likes of which her workplace had never seen. She sorted every last little bit of old metal, cardboard boxing, crates of half-rotten books and unreturnable bottles, then swept the floor and started putting something together out of colored crepe paper. Cutting out giant hearts and big flowers and sticking them on the wall or something. She was in the corner so I couldn’t really see, and plus I promised I’d stop off at Anděla’s so I had to go. I cursed Anděla in my mind afterwards, since the next day there were curtains up in the windows, checkered curtains like in a cottage in the country, and that was the end of my espionage.
You couldn’t tell from the way she acted at home, but I would’ve bet my left hand my mom had lost her mind. A couple of times in the living room she hugged me so close and squeezed me so long that I ran out of breath. I felt like asking her, Why don’t you hug Dad like this? But I knew why. I was just a stand-in for Šrámek. And that made my stomach churn like the Indians’ the first time they sailed to Europe from the New World so they could perform in the circus, this was just like that. Luckily, God’s mills don’t grind in vain, even without God—that’s all ahead of us.
They released Šrámek, but he never came back to the collection center, so Mom’s welcome decorations came to nothing. Over the next several days, thanks in large part to the fact that they’d thrown him in the slammer, Milan Šrámek became one of the main counterrevolutionary leaders of our town—during those months between November 1989 and spring of 1990, when society turned inside out like a glove, so whoever had been on the outside was suddenly on the inside and whoever had been on the inside suddenly dropped out. Assuming of course that they didn’t have the gumption and dynamic flexibility, which is a concept that became popular in the ’90s. Just like Huňát and all the other true-blue comrades who were successful in acclimating themselves.
But let’s take things in order.
It took a while for people to get oriented to the new conditions. Most of our neighbors waited for the situation to develop sufficiently clearly before adopting a stance. It didn’t take long to figure out it might not pay to defend the regime, so even people who tried to be and not be at the rallies at the same time, and just sort of stood around, occasionally found the courage to shout a slogan or two. After a few days, they even began bringing hand-painted banners from home. In the worst case, if they ended up next to the deputy secretary, who was looking around accusingly, the banners stayed rolled up to avoid any unpleasantness, not to mention awkwardness. The fall of ’89, in short, was a time of great maneuvering, a time that tweaked the nerves and broke the weaker constitutions.
The nosybodies were of course riding high. Just a few days after November 17th, when millions turned out for the anti-socialist demonstrations in Prague, it started here in Krakow too. First every other day by the statue of Remek, the first Czech in space, then on Uprising Square, growing a little every day. It began with a hardcore group of ten or fifteen nosybodies, then my sister and Standa Vidlička’s crew joined after a couple of days, then Šrámek, when they released him, and soon all the rest piled on. Workers, teachers, the few doctors we had in town, even the saleswomen from the House of Services and the lady from the newsstand who always had the sign in the window saying be right back, my ass, I saw her there too. And the grimy people who always came to the demonstrations together in great big groups, workers from the giant driers where Dad said a third of Krakow’s residents worked sucking the water out of the swamps to keep our town from drowning. In other words, only the courageous nosybodies at first and then everybody under the sun protested.
They say the students with keys were the explosive that set it off in Prague. Here in Krakow it was the Vidličková case. Besides Jarka Vidličková, Standa’s mom, my whole family was involved.
Mom was reluctant at first when Jarka rang our bell the night of November 17th.
It’s after midnight, can’t it wait till morning? Mom droned through the door. My sister was jumping up and down for her to open immediately, but it wasn’t till Mom heard whimpering and looked through the peephole and saw that she let her in. One of her eyes was covered in blood and there was a scrape running across her swollen eyes and face like from a chain. She walked past Mom like she didn’t even see her, stumbled blindly into my sister in the living room, and the two of them fiercely embraced. While Mrs. Vidličková sobbed and whispered into Milada’s ear, Mom went to the bathroom for some iodine and bandages and a half hour later Mrs. Vidličková was driving with Dad in a borrowed car to get sewn up at the hospital. They kept her there for two days. My sister went to the hospital at least four times, each time with a different set of visitors, while Standa, now being the only Vidlička at large, did his part to unleash chaos and general confusion. The uproar at the beating of the wife of a known, and at that time imprisoned, nosybody needed to be fed before the euphoria from Prague could arrive in Krakow in full force. It didn’t take long.
The TV was full of images of protests in all the big cities and towns of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The cities caught the counterrevolutionary spark one from the next like a flu, the mood turning increasingly festive as people stopped going to work, and the smart ones, if they were crafty enough, began laying the groundwork to settle accounts with the boss. All they had to do was make themselves out to be counterrevolutionaries, their boss into somewhat more of a comradely comrade than he was, and they were good to go.
There was never any real investigation of who beat up Jarka. There was so much investigating going on at the time, and besides, it had fulfilled its historical role, since right after that the ice, as they say, began to crack in Krakow, so who cared? Something had to start it up one way or another, since supposedly “the time was ripe.” It was “ripe for change” because the regime was rotten, said the people it was convenient for. The ones who moved up with the changes.
Take the nosybodies, for instance. They were the first ones to go to the statue of Remek and shout that Staňek, who was chairman of the National Committee, had ordered the attack on Jarka. No doubt they were brave, I don’t deny it. But what purpose did their bravery serve, what was the result, and if I say counterrevolution, I might sound like an “old structure,” which I don’t mind, but if I say the destruction of everything, including the good, that would be more accurate, and I’ll say flat out that if the baby they poured out with the bathwater of communism meant a little lack of freedom, then so be it. With the hindsight of twenty years I see it bright and clear. Maybe the time was ripe, but not for what happened. Because history’s supposed to ripen in the direction of better tomorrows, and those didn’t come after the revolution, or at least there were fewer of those tomorrows than ones that were good for nothing. Equality went down the tubes and people’s lives turned into the pursuit of capital. Our free time went up in smoke like steam from a boiling pot and wait till you see what it’s done to people in Krakow. Not only that but a lot of nosybodies turned out to be irresponsible citizens and it cost my sister what must’ve been the dearest thing on earth to her.
It’s easy to be a general after the battle. But in the turmoil of November, each passing day was a little unknown. Each demonstration where people expected troops in green uniforms to rush out from around the corner and start laying into people.
The first week a couple cops with clubs appeared and stood around the statue going fee fi fo fum. But you could tell they didn’t have orders to intervene, which the counterrevolutionaries picked up on right away. Nobody even cared about the cops after a couple days, and guys were placing bets on who could burn them with their lighter. It all seemed heroic. Throwing a stone through the glass of the Party announcement board, making faces behind the back of a comrade, going nyah nyah at the nineteen-year-old boys in uniform. Anděla said one of them was her boyfriend who had gone off to the front a year ago, but his helmet hid his face and even I was scared to get close. But after a few days the pimpled troops disappeared too, and the general excitement revved higher from one day to the next.
The comrades, former upper echelons, started going around with their collars up around their ears and kneeling down with their heads together to decipher the writing on the posters on the corner as if they’d just happened by, but it was obvious. I would see Huňát, Šmíd, and Staňek there, all of them together. But anyone who didn’t want to be forced off stage had to exchange the safety of the waiting game for genuine revolutionary enthusiasm. Huňát was one of the first to start wearing a tricolor pin, and made a point of pushing his way up front at demonstrations, so the nosybodies making speeches could see that he was on their side. Once he even fixed the microphone when it broke while they were waiting for colleagues from Minsk, another Czechoslovak newtown, named after the Belorussian capital.
The comrades who led the nation expected decidedly more from Czechoslovakia’s newtowns during the stirring events of November than they ultimately accomplished. It was thought these agglomerations with their special status would be a bastion of permanence, but due to the nosybodies which the comrades themselves had infested them with in order to clear their own front yards, Krakow, Dresden, Minsk, Kharkov, and Debrecin turned out to be no more reliable than Prague or Bratislava. In fact just the opposite. The nosybodies of the newtowns were in close contact from the start of the counterrevolution, and just as the counterrevolutionary elite of Minsk were clearing a path through the crowd to the dais, Huňát finished soldering the wires, picked up the mike and said, “Sincere greetings to our friends from south Moravian Belorussia,” and all of Uprising Square exploded in applause. It was Huňát’s premiere in his new coat and he passed it with flying colors. Everything after that went smooth as butter for him. In three years he started up a press for bricks made of recycled plastic, which earned him enough for a villa while earning him the support of local environmentalists, because Huňát’s technology was a darn good example of sustainable development.
You could see various postrevolution careers in Krakow, but very few understood how and why the counterrevolution really began. For a while people believed it was just a military exercise. A provocation to view with distrust, a mistake that would be quickly discovered and straightened out by the comrades on high as soon as they shrugged it off. No one suspected that it meant the definitive end to forty years of building socialism and thirteen iffy but nonetheless glorious years of life in the Czechoslovak newtown of Krakow. None of our neighbors, not Mom and Dad.
If anyone in our house had believed in unearthly powers, Mom and Dad would’ve had to thank them on their knees for the incident with Vidličková. She rang at the Hrubešes and the Masáles before us, but we were the first ones at home, or more likely, willing to open the door and help. We bandaged the hand of the Krakow counterrevolution’s first lady and wiped the blood off her face, and from then on Mom and Dad were relatively in the clear. They could stay comfortably at home instead of freezing outside at the rallies next to their coworkers and neighbors, who were as euphoric now as they’d been intimidated and circumspect before, everyone keeping an eye on everyone else at first.
The old days were ending for good. The cards were being redealt and my parents could only bless fate that they’d had such luck. Seeing as assets attach to families as much as liabilities when it comes to politics in our country, I was also covered by the protective umbrella that so graciously opened over our family, and the counterrevolution didn’t rain on us. I was one of the Komárek girls, whose mother, true, had informed on Šrámek, as people openly whispered after the raid on the nosybody pioneers, but she’d also told him she was working with State Security and all along she had closed her eyes to his counterrevolutionary activities. Milan Šrámek had been able to gnaw away at the regime under the guardianship of Commissar Komárková, and that was before anyone knew about the sweater Mom had knitted him so he wouldn’t be cold reading his samizdats under the lamp in the corner.
She’s the daughter of a secret police agent who wouldn’t hurt a fly, people said of me, and what’s more her family helped the nosybody Vidličková like a true neighbor in time of need. And I was also one other thing. The sister of Milada Komárková who by then was going steady with the young Vidlička—now that was an item. It had been a long time since Milada had been seen by anyone’s side but Standa’s. The sparrows on the roof had been chirping about it for a while.
For a short time, old man Vidlička’s three-time imprisonment catapulted him to Krakow nosybody number one. It didn’t matter that he’d sat out the start of the counterrevolution in the slammer, and didn’t make it to Uprising Square till early December. Šrámek the star introduced the bony man with the grizzled beard, and first the more courageous and then all the comrades, even in back, began to clap and shout “Vidlička for President,” even though some of them didn’t know who he was and the ones who did, only knew him from the local paper as a “threat to the socialist system” or from the gossip of law-abiding citizens, since the Vidličkas’ apartment consistently exceeded the permitted noise levels.
Then Vidlička read from a piece of paper, rehashing what had been said a thousand times before—new management for businesses, and freedom of speech, and nationwide elections, and at last a life of dignity for Krakow’s inhabitants, because Krakow, as everyone knew, was falling apart. So let’s put our heads together and set our hands to the work, regardless of our political standpoint. In other words, Emil Vidlička spoke like a good old working-class cadre, because the language of the counterrevolution was still socialist, which is why I liked most of the speeches. After a few years people stopped saying “set our hands to the work,” along with “fruits of honest working-class labor” and “fulfill the targeted goals.” They died out, even though they were nice words that encouraged people and attuned them to a common cause. Which went out of style a couple years after the counterrevolution. For a while at least we were all still returning to Europe together. After the free elections, people got their property back and the big companies got stolen. Europe was the last common cause we ever had.
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker