In January and then through to April, there followed a whirlwind of legislation aimed at transforming the country into a traditional European state with all its political and economic apparatus. This was no easy task, somewhat reminiscent of Baron Münchhausen’s efforts to drag himself and his horse out of a swamp by his hair. There has been ample experience throughout Europe of nationalizing and smothering pluralism, but how this entire process is to be put into reverse while still in motion…? It is rather difficult to slowly transform, say, a crab into a cat while it’s on the move: both the cat and the crab are animals that are functional in their own way, although the numerical ratio of cats to crabs kept as pets clearly shows where people’s affections lie – crab cannot be used dry or frozen, but then again you don’t have to feed it every day and it doesn’t miaow. Still, turning its external skeleton into an internal one and radically rearranging all its organs, without the creature actually pegging out on you, is a problem on the borderline of solvability. The only thing that has ever been carried out was the denazification of Germany, but that had broken down and was under the all-powerful administration of a foreign occupying force. This country was intact, even though it had suffered a very chronic disorder when a more or less malignant growth had swept all before it. A “third way” may well have still been under consideration in various forms, but it was slowly starting to become obvious that the “construction of capitalism” was under way, with all that that involved. Those who still remembered the horrors of the “construction of socialism” erroneously imagined that the entire process would be something rather heroic on rations of three hundred grams of bread a day – in that brief interval between the two periods of profligacy they did start talking for a short time about the need for austerity and economies. Negotiations were already under way over the withdrawal of the occupying forces, even though it would take almost two years to repair what was done in a single night. After all, as an oriental proverb has it: It took a fool no time to drop a stone down a well, but seven wise men could not draw it out.
Sometime mid-month Slíža phoned to tell Jindřich that the following afternoon a preliminary meeting was to take place in a Nové Město apartment to create the new faculty. When he arrived on the fourth floor of the Secession-style tenement block, the largest room in the four-room apartment was already bursting at the seams. As blue smoke from the many cigarettes rose towards the crystal chandeliers, our protagonist surveyed with interest the faces, clothes and behaviour of this, the dissident intelligentsia. Not that there weren’t a few individuals amongst them from the Academy, but the predominant type here was quite different. Jindřich was struck by the number of full beards and half beards of various lengths, and contrary to his normal habit he even lit up and puffed on a cigarette guardedly, so as not to stand out like a sore thumb. Everybody was sipping coffee or tea and debating with everybody else. The extent of Slíža’s social contacts, which Jindřich had never guessed, was now evident. Slíža did not pay him any attention at all, having clearly discharged his obligations by inviting him. Next to him the son of Marxist reformist thinker Pospíšek was talking about how the STB had urged him to denounce his father, who had fallen into disfavour. “He’s an old Bolshevik, gentlemen, that he is, but he’s still my dad,” he’d answered them and evidently they never came back. Suddenly everyone fell silent. A huge, bearded man aged about sixty, whom Jindřich had never seen before, started speaking about the basic idea of a Faculty of General and Special Studies. “That’s Marhold,” Slíža whispered by way of explanation. Jindřich was perhaps one of the few people present who did not know Dr Marhold, a close friend of the President’s, or who did not know his remarkable story. He was the son of First Republic General Marhold, a Russian legionnaire, who may not have held any really prominent position in the army, but who at the time of the Siberian anabasis knew not only Masaryk, but also Emanuel Moravec. This unusually sociable general’s friends also included Alberto Vojtěch Frič, who was a frequent guest at Marhold’s villa in Ořechovka. This association ultimately proved fateful to him in a rather bizarre manner. After the Germans arrived, Marhold Senior was pensioned off and as he only flirted with the resistance from a great distance it seemed he would see out the war in good health. But it was not to be. Marhold shared not only a passion for gardening with Frič, but also a hatred for his fellow general Moravec, then Minister of Education and National Enlightenment. So he was jubilant when Frič wrought his vengeance on Moravec by breeding some tomatoes with the Japanese-sounding name of Ritsushima, which cleverly caricatured the bald and auricularly well-endowed collaborator. He told all his friends and acquaintances this hilarious story and in August 1943 he even handed round some ripe ritsushimas. The Minister, who had had it in for Marhold since before the war, fumed with rage, but he knew that by accusing the famous traveller of breeding a tomato to caricature him, he would at best make himself look rather foolish in the eyes of K. H. Frank. All he could do was inform Frank of his serious suspicions regarding Marhold’s anti-Reich activities. Nothing specific was investigated, but just to be sure, the general was at least placed in protective custody until the end of the war and sent to Buchenwald. Thanks to his resilient nature he survived in good health until April 1945, when the front lines were closing in on Thuringia from all sides. The Americans, who were about to liberate the camp, dropped a large number of leaflets in several languages on it to announce their imminent arrival. As even the SS had now correctly guessed that the end was nigh, discipline in the camp broke down and a number of prisoners ran out onto the area between the barracks, enthusiastically waving at the American planes, including General Marhold. He alone was hit on the head with full force by a package of leaflets that had failed to open in the air, breaking his neck. Frič was dead too by then, having been infected with tetanus from a rusty nail, and shortly afterwards Moravec committed suicide just as his Gestapo driver, while trying to save him from the Prague Uprising, ran out of petrol on the hill below Hradčany and was about to refill the tank. For some reason the Grim Reaper wanted them all right away. Marhold’s son, who was at first treated as the child of a national martyr, did eventually manage with difficulty to complete his studies in the 1950s, but only in engineering, with a doctorate in practical aerodynamics. Even as a boy he took a liking to Jan Smuts, the South African general, statesman and biological and social theorist, and he later took up Chelčický and so converted to the Moravian Church, as was appropriate. In 1967 he managed to get to a Smuts Conference in Sappora, Japan (is there anything at all that these Japanese aren’t involved in?), and in 1968 he went to Britain for six months, returning home with much gnashing of teeth. Having signed the Charter, he joined the Building Engineering Department as a digger, which thanks to his even greater stature than his father’s he coped with easily, apparently without ever taking a single day off – wielding his pickaxe even when he had the flu and a thermometer up his armpit. At apartment seminars he was naturally tired out and dozed off, but the opportunity to become a night porter a year before the events of November enabled him to get more involved again. With his submissive wife entirely devoted to his family, like a cut-out from a macho fantasy, he was still living in his inherited villa, albeit with one wing occupied by tenants forced on him by the mother party. They had the blessed number of seven offspring, all girls except one, and from the eldest an entire gaggle of grandchildren. Their only boy was not so much involved in intellectual pursuits as arranging hard rock concerts, often on the fringes of old regime legality. In other ways too, Marhold was the stuff of legends – not only that his villa housed a collection of statuettes and portrayals of St George, that Christian transformation of the Thracian horseman, but also that three key items supposedly came from the collection of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: during his proletarian period he had swapped them for two bottles of rum from a fellow digger, formerly the caretaker at Konopiště Castle and subsequently a down-and-out alcoholic, who had once “appropriated” them and kept them in a hut. One quite unbelievable story, which was apparently true, was about Marhold’s grandmother, a small factory owner in Počátky, Vysočina. Although her factory manufactured stockings, she had evidently not had enough of knitting even on Sundays, so there she sat in a rocking chair in Počátky Square, old-world fashion, knitting away. Imagine her dismay when the half-wit hydrocephalic son of Jebavý the cobbler from next door in his oligophrenic raving ran into one of her needles, which pierced his still soft head. Panic erupted as the dismayed entrepreneur did not know what to do when she saw his oversized head leaking some bloody effusion. However, a couple of gold florins pressed into their palms dissuaded his parents from suing, as well as the fact that the boy didn’t die, but actually made a full mental recovery following this crude and unintended tapping of the brain ventricles. He then went to school normally and grew up to be the poet Otokar Březina. If you don’t believe it, go and see for yourself.
After a short introductory speech Marhold began to explain the idea behind the planned school: it was to be divided into three “Sections”: Formal Natural Sciences, involving the mathematical modelling of various processes, particularly physical-chemical ones; Economics, also with an emphasis on mathematical applications; and the Life Sciences Section, which was, surprisingly, also to include Slíža and Krottenbacher, as that is where Marhold’s approach classified peoples and their cultures. In particular, this section included the Institute for Bioethics, the Institute for Inter-Gender Studies and also the Institute for East-West Comparative Studies (IEWCS FGSS FU). Clearly, thanks to Marhold’s numerous contacts with friends in the West, going back to his visits there during the sixties, he had a good idea of what was in demand at universities there, and at that time economics was the science of sciences: veneration of the Invisible Hand of the Market might not have got through to the working masses yet, but “up there” it was now being progressively adopted. A long and highly detailed discussion broke out, during which Jindřich had the opportunity to closely observe the dissident intelligentsia in action. Apart from their appearance, complete with sweaters that were frequently stretched out of shape and corduroy jackets, he was particularly struck by many individuals’ pronunciation, sentence stress and vocalization, as a number of them had various peculiarities and defects in their pronunciation, at least from the standpoint of the speech therapists of the day, as well as a sentence intonation they held in common which differed from that of the majority of the population. Superficial observers might have associated the entire phenomenon with foreignness and an inadequate command of the phonetics of a new language. But these were not foreigners, as would have suited the former regime, but people who would be described in German not as Ausländer, but as Ausweltler, people who do not feel at home in what must be a rather grubby everyday reality. Moving into dissent (from dis-sedere, to move away) also correlated strongly with what was now an imperceptible aspect of many of those present – rather poor motor coordination, which made activities such as dancing, volleyball and driving a car unpleasant or impossible – as if those who found that many things did not come naturally, of themselves, showed an inclination to think not only of themselves, but also of society as a whole. In comparison with the respectable western intelligentsia, where even non-conformity is stereotyped and calculated to achieve an effect, they looked like handmade pottery in contrast to factory-made pots: each item was an original, every one was different, though of course some pieces might have been suddenly called upon to decorate the display cases of illustrious museums, whereas others would have been hard to shift at a Ghanaian market. For the most part they had so far only seen the rear end of their fate: bureaucratic bullying and the need to earn a living permitted both by chance and the high and mighty, a lack of literature and critical capacity in their own ranks and the inability to publish except in typewritten samizdats or by riskily smuggling texts abroad. The fact that they had enough time for their not exactly numerous books and that they could read and think them all through, that they did not have to pour out articles just to get an item in a list, that making a living out of your favourite subject is in many respects close to the idea of having a thrilling amorous experience and then getting into prostitution, and that criticism also has its competitive and aggressive side – of all this few of them were yet aware. Krottenbacher had already seen this in Munich, if only out of the corner of his eye. Besides, in contrast to the stifling stuffiness at the Academy, here the atmosphere was relaxed, even homely, and everyone knew everybody else. Never had the power of money been so small and the power of human ties so great as at that time, although the phenomenon was now beginning to wane. Both in the party and among the opposition, one only trusted those within one’s own ‘extended family’, with whom for the sake of self-preservation one had to be in cahoots, some times more happily than other times. Fortunately, the times had long passed since execution or years in prison could be risked by just being friends with somebody. Besides society was now full of alternative families, from ‘hikers’, setting out in droves on Saturday mornings for the Brdy Forest, to emigrants.
Eventually it was agreed to make a proper announcement in the newspapers, to conduct interviews for the new positions in April and to start teaching proper from October – with the best will in the world they would not make it for the summer semester. The building itself was coming together, not far from the Rudolfinum, previously used as an auxiliary office building by the Socialist Youth Organization municipal board. Alarmed by the sudden developments, the ‘Youth’ had agreed to hand over the building in the near future. That autumn the faculty would arrange a conference for its foreign supporters and intellectual sympathizers entitled Overcoming the Borders – Intellectual Dimensions of Europe Today). Krottenbacher was all in a trance as he was leaving Slíža after numerous good-byes, but then Slíža put on a meaningful expression and invited our protagonist to the pub. There he pulled out two cigarettes of an odd shape and told him they were from his western sources and contained the highest quality hashish, evidently smuggled from Afghanistan via Islamabad and Karachi. At that time hemp products had not yet assumed the dimensions that they were to subsequently in Czech urban folklore, but the first swallows had already arrived. Jindřich had not carried out any experiments of this kind in Munich. When he was a student he had bought some peyote, Lophophora williamsi, for five crowns at the Young Cactus Growers shop and consumed it, but without result. All the more to look forward to now. On Slíža’s advice he kept the smoke in his lungs for as long as possible, despite a huge urge to cough, and he began to see something like arabesques. When his tempter produced another couple of joints he just nodded avidly. He then observed with interest and dismay as the grammatical structure of his language fell apart, objects assumed some very odd ‘neoclature’ and his speech took on absurd new forms. Overcome by curiosity, he began to draw a picture on the reverse side of the bill, which undulated oddly in front of him. Although he had depicted all the parts correctly, the whole was exceptionally bizarre because the overall meaning of the drawing had been sacrificed to the local associations and nothing remained but to call it a ‘raverie’. As if from behind a veil he perceived the uncouth waiter throwing them out, yelling that they would not put up with junkies there, and Slíža paying up and disappearing. Only with difficulty did Jindřich find his bearings on the street and although it would have been more sensible to walk the short distance home, he decided to take the metro. The rattling carriages themselves appeared monstrous and alien to him and he only got in with the greatest effort. He remained standing by the doors, where the usual ‘Do not lean on the doors’ sign had peeled away to reveal: n e o d o r. The doors had slammed shut by the time he grasped all the associations and realized just how naively he had been caught in the trap. With all his strength he tried to open them and get out of the departing train, paying no heed to those standing round. All of a sudden he saw the awful grimacing face, indescribably monstrous behind the window. The Neodor! He let out a ghastly yell as with all his strength he leapt at the doors and crashed onto the floor. Hardly had he got up again when shortly before the next stop he saw on the wall a face that was even more dreadful…the Paleodor! Ignoring the alarmed passengers, some of whom were even trying to seize him, he rushed out onto the platform and went off home.
In order not to pre-influence or “preformat” the reader, this passage, originally planned as an introduction, has been placed at the end and the weary consumer can naturally skip it. All the same, the author feels it necessary to append it in some way to his product, just as medicines come wrapped in for the most part unread information on contraindications, side effects, ingredients and so forth.
This book, described by its title as an “irregular” novel, forms a loose trilogy with the previous two: The Opschlstis’ Foundation and The Little Black House (Petrov, 2002 and 2004), although in terms of plot and overall structure it is only connected to the former to a degree that is smaller than small. If the former was basically about the male principle in the world and the latter was about the female, this third volume is about death – that which is greater than either, ultimately levelling them both down a peg or two. What sometimes confuses literary critics, i.e. the question whether these books are indeed novels with essayistic digressions or long essays with narrative interludes is a question of how the interpretational framework is set, just as one and the same substance may be understood either as juice with a large quantity of fruit in it or unusually thin jam. I am not only unable to write any differently, but also unwilling. Concern for the “purity” of a genre ultimately leads to its sterilization, and the interesting part, albeit the most prone to risk, always appears on the edges – for it is well known that along the skirts of the forest you will find most strawberries and mushrooms, but also most vipers.
This novel will perhaps be my last one for a long time (the next, if any, heaven permitting, may be from Hussite times – just to spite all those old writers of historical fiction such as Jirásek). One reason might be that after this book all the times and places that I have direct experience of will have been covered. I believe, perhaps a little old-fashionedly, that the “truthfulness” of books generally stems not only from how they reflect the drama and the order of the world (which everyone may conceive in very different ways), but also from the local colour and period atmosphere. We need not fully accept Klostermann’s arguments on the punishment of the profligate and the reward of the industrious, but his image of Šumava at the end of the nineteenth century remains unrivalled to this day. That strange old routine which gives the impression that the “realistic” and “magical” side of the world can be artificially separated out from its compact tangle, say, like steak and Swiss cheese from a cow, and even served up separately, results in the breakdown of modern literature into two genres: in one book we read who Joe Bloggs drank and copulated with after he came home from the factory one evening, while in the other we read what happened to the Elf King Shmordor when he and his retinue set out to free the Wizard of Boredor. The fact that the world is one and that it has but one nature is concealed behind such strained polar thinking, just as it is nowadays the custom to vicariously experience a sense of risk at the casino and of security at the insurance company. Who amongst us actually knows exactly how the fabric of the world is formed and woven? The fact that something is fashionable and widespread does not mean that an author who writes for his own pleasure and, thank God, does not have to earn a living from literature has to act that way. Besides, he would attain most popularity of all if he were not an author, but an authoress describing in detail her sex life primarily based on one thing – getting her own back on the guys. But he is out of luck there.
Like the previous books, this one does not attempt what is normally known as psychological miniature painting. On the one hand, what we actually see is people and their actions, not their motivation (and behind every motivation there is another motivation and so on back to some doctrinaire root cause in places where the author no longer knows his way round), while on the other hand I have serious doubts about whether or not people really have such motivations to the extent that is assumed. Like slugs, people are much more similar to one other than they assume in their rampant egocentric pride and than they might find gratifying. Let anyone who has the stomach for it record that today a small Pimple was found on the author’s Navel or that yesterday he was scandalously jilted by Jane.
The name Mandarins is certainly not all that original and readers will immediately recall a book of the same name by Simone de Beauvoir, as well as a classic Chinese novel by Wu Jingzi, whose Czech title translates as Mandarins and Scholars (the word itself, depicting the traditional Chinese intellectual and functionary all rolled into one, is not of course Chinese. It only occurs in European languages and probably comes from the Portuguese word mandar, meaning to order, command, while in Czech it invokes associations with such Russian-Asian terms as bárin and tatárin). The name was chosen inter alia because the chief protagonist is an intellectual. There are various reasons for this: on the one hand the author knows this setting better than any other, as he has only ever occasionally and briefly left it, while on the other hand intellectual circles form an enclave in society which might be rare and for the most part unimportant, but which has a bizarre local colour about it, and ultimately they are practically the only consumers of this type of literature. Who would not like to read of those similar to oneself – after all, dear diary, we are so different from everybody else. Another reason for this choice is that following the model of Chinese novels (and those of classical antiquity), this novel does not have the usual modern-era dénouement, and like the above it also has a looser plot. Moreover the main protagonist is himself a sinologist. Of course, he is just our central character, not the author himself, who would actually like to ask readers for their indulgence – they will find things all the more difficult in that he hardly ever provides them with any of the usual diversions offered by fiction which is set in recent times in a capital city and its institutions, and so which cries out for satire and portrayals of living contemporaries under transparent but unassailable pseudonyms. Difficile est, satiram non scribere, Juvenal once wrote. The author went very much out of his way to ensure that all the characters and institutions involved were indeed typical of the era, but that the original components of these amalgamations of several models were quite indistinguishable. Likewise the plot is the product of pure imagination (although here it should perhaps be noted that only the strange and unlikely tale about how the chief protagonist’s wife was thrown out of a window is based on something that really did happen to a friend of the author’s, not on the author’s morbid imagination). Even so, the author did not do himself too many favours with this book – some will find it not radical enough, others too radical, some will chide him for his docile nostalgia, others for blaspheming against their values, and yet others because particular details have already appeared in some essays or columns: such is the lot of the writer and one has to grit one’s teeth. Likewise, he will be reproached by the generation that survived the period that he writes banal platitudes about it, while those who do not remember it will say that he goes into pointless detail over things that no longer bother anybody. It is because of this abrupt boundary between the absolutely obvious and the totally abstruse that he does not write about some things at all. This has something to do with his stance and perspective, which are intentionally somewhat suggestive of an ‘ethologist from Mars’.
Figures, institutions and backgrounds that are general knowledge and referred to in neutral contexts are brought into the plot undisguised. The author himself also appears in the novel, admittedly as a secondary character, but not an entirely unimportant one (in Opschlstis’ Foundation he was still quite marginal, but as is well known, appetite grows with what it feeds on). Amongst other things, the book is also a recollection of times we will not easily see again, the period from 1989 to 2001. We don’t see any times again, but in most cases we are glad they are gone: these were worth it, at least for some. After all, they were not stifling or too destructive and not in the least bit sanguinary. Although spring may seem frivolous or even futile from the viewpoint of autumn, it surely still deserves to be recorded. Anybody who is dissatisfied with the way the times are just needs to wait a while. The bad times will pass and so will the good. If you don’t like the night it will be dawn in a couple of hours. If youth and its troubles are oppressive you will grow older in a few years. It’s just a little demanding on your patience and sometimes you need to move over in time before they put the noose round your neck. No need to push, everybody will get their turn.
Some may feel that the novel is too centred around the subject of death (at present there is perhaps no more sensitive subject because the opposite pole, sexuality, has been thematically exhausted) and that there is rather a lot of it in the book, although closer investigation will show that both in books and the real world there is quite sufficient death, with one for each person, namely one’s own. Every path leads closer to it. We hang like pears on their branches, swaying easily in the warm breeze, slowly turning yellow and eventually breaking off from the stalk by the weight of our deeds. In any case we would not be able to bear ourselves for longer and death is the most radical form of absolution (Latin ab-solutio means something like washing off, rinsing off, as if we pull a string and something unappealing disappears for ever). If we could listen better, we would hear the occasional dry clicking and quiet sound of steel against whetstone from the nearest closet. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is right to say the world is one big death cell – the formalities can drag on for a long time but no one swings a reprieve. Every brilliant intellectual overview withers as soon as we fully admit that it it will soon be our turn too. Moreover, the endeavour to fight it with all available means is just as silly as the behaviour of a child attempting to wangle an hour or a day off school from his parents. Even the school-leaving examination once appeared a long way off. Life is ultimately a state in which the worst is always yet to come.
This novel is not as asexual as the two before it, partly because procreation and death inseparably belong to each other (and are often allocated to the same department: the Greek god Hades and our registry offices deal with both), partly also because in turbulent times the population is friskier than in more stable times, when it is absorbed by various permutations of work, boredom and fear. If the typical Indian novel is about “how I came by something for dinner”, the typical Central European novel is about “how I faced ill fortune” and the typical Swiss novel is about “how I built my identity”, this novel is undoubtedly closest to the middle option, but it comes together with the question of how much and how intensively we should “face” something that quite fundamentally belongs to us.
Prague – Summer Solstice 2005
Translated by Melvyn Clarke