1. Builder of Dreams


Do we not all have one Father?

Did not one God create us?

(Malachi 2:10; inscription on the entrance portico of the synagogue in Vinohrady, 1896–1951)


“Oh, gods! Please grant that I may finish building this earthly paradise!”

The man who utters this rather pompous sentence is about forty. He is leaning against the railing of a recently completed balustrade, a ring gleaming on his solid finger. He is wearing a perfect suit, undoubtedly made to measure. And how do I know it’s perfect? Well, poor men constantly have something sticking out or even spilling out from somewhere. Their clothes never look right on them – they’re too small or too big; creased, even though they’ve been pressed; tattered, even though they’re immaculate. Whereas with this gentlemen, it’s as if he was born in his suit. Some master tailor ran it up for him so skilfully that even when he put it on for the first time, it didn’t look unnaturally new. It immediately fitted him, as if he had had it forever.

“Which gods are those, papa?” The thirteen-year-old lad is equally perfectly dressed. The beginning of the sentence testifies to his good breeding and proper filial respect, the form of address to a sentimental relationship to his father.

The big man by the railing falls into a reverie. It may be part of a role; the whole tone and choice of words are very theatrical. But the man isn’t an actor. He wouldn’t be performing in front of his own son, and the boy certainly isn’t putting on an act.

He takes in a breath to say something suitably grandiloquent, and freezes knowingly. He looks like his own portrait. No, that would only be two-dimensional, whereas he looks like – a statue. Something bursts in my chest and warmth floods through my whole body.

“And who is stopping you, Moritz?” comes the icily posed question. It is spoken without any special emphasis, yet it brings the temperature of that May morning down by several degrees. It has been uttered by a woman in the prime of life, probably in her thirties, with a carefully coiffed hairstyle topped by a large hat. Perhaps it is the collar of her dress that makes her hold her head so straight. Or is there something else holding her by the neck? But her delivery puts her clothes, otherwise quite remarkable, completely in the shade.

“I’d be pleased to hear your suggestions for what else should be built here,” replies Moritz, the hand with the ring tracing an arc across the newly planted orchard, beyond which a half-built villa rises up. From the slight weariness contained in his reply, it is clear that our couple are man and wife and that what is unfolding is a replay of an old dispute.

“When I try to give you advice, you never listen, Moritz,” declares the remorseless female voice. The hand with the ring twitches as if it wanted to point to something still hanging in the air. Then it alights on the balustrade in resignation. The rippling plaster on the undulating surface behind him smells of newness. Above the man rises something that is not the facade of a new house. It is not even a cliff. It is the creation of human hands and yet it is curiously wavering, vague, rather like the odd conversation of our trio. “Clotilda would like a pond.” Aha, so as well as the married couple and the boy there’s also a girl, dreamily playing somewhere nearby. As far as possible from the marital disputes.

“What kind of gods are they, papa?”

“First and foremost Neptune, my dear Alexander,” utters the man in that quavering prophetic voice, back in character again.

“I wish you wouldn’t fill the boy’s head with that ancient junk,” comes the voice from the charming but collar-bound throat.

“Antiquity is the foundation of all European civilization, Marie,” begins the man with the ring, and the only thing that affirms his words is the head of his devoted son. “Moreover, I did not mention Neptune idly. It was he who was behind my success… After all, I made my fortune in water engineering. All those Prague harbour constructions! Karlín, Holešovice and Libeň! All those bridges! Railways! How many times did my thoughts turn to Neptune? Ah, Neptune. Water, stone and metal, those are my elements. But who will help me now?”


Well, who will it be?

Is there anyone else out there to hear the question?

No. It’s up to me. All the more so when I hear that name. Neptune. Neptune!

My blood seethes in my veins like the steam in a steam engine’s boiler, my sinews grow taut like the connecting rod of a locomotive, my ribs arch like the struts of a railway bridge. Water, stone and metal.

Neptune! How long has it been since someone invoked his help? And even if he did say it in a slightly affected way, so what? That is how one talks to gods. And that is how they talked to them before the curious ascendancy of reason, which has plagued our society for the past several hundred years.

I moved. The first to grow tense were the muscles in my arms. I realized I was carrying something above my head. My burden, my lot, pertaining to both humans and gods. I staggered ever so slightly, but this was unhesitatingly rectified by the muscles in my calves and thighs. The whole flawless construction of my body came to life, became self-aware and brought itself under control. The ones up there, on the platform above me, had perfect clothes. I boasted a flawless body.

I was holding what looked like some kind of tray.

I waited until the company descended from the balcony where the gentleman with the ring had delivered his short monologue. They rustled away from that place to the discreet sounds of delicate fabrics, especially the train of the dress the lady was holding up in her hand. My nostrils detected the natural fragrance of the perfumes of better people, which masquerade as their own body odour.

Moritz launched into an explanation of the ancient deities, to which Marie appended a disparaging comment about swots.

When they had disappeared around the bend of the freshly laid path, I took a look at my load. Of course. A giant shell. What else did I expect after the talk of Neptune?

I jumped down into a circular tank not yet filled with water. I stepped over its rim and looked up. Rising before me was an incredible wall, all undulating and with holes through it, but proudly holding together. It looked like a petrified waterfall. Like a breaking wave turned upside down – and solidified. Only on closer inspection did I see that it was the work of human hands. Jutting out from that bizarre cliff was a balcony – it was there that Moritz had delivered his speech.

It was as if the shadow of the hand with the ring was still hanging over the railing.

I turned and headed for where the path shone out.

Before I set foot on it, something made me look back. Above the empty tank, below that imposing rock wall, stood the statue of a muscular man with a giant shell above his head.


* * *

The May sunshine settled in my hair. Only now did I feel how thick it was. Just like the beard I discovered when I touched my chin. And then I glanced around and froze.

Until then I had only perceived the slopes around me as a backdrop. Now I was struck by how neatly they rose and fell, by the way the heads of the delicate woody plants curled. On the elevation before me rose a newly constructed villa, and even it reminded me of something so strongly that it took my breath away. I felt a waft of hot Mediterranean air around my forehead. Oh, yes. Standing there on the hill was no less than an ancient temple and around it a rolling landscape so delightful that it made the heart ache; a landscape that could be nothing other than the home of the gods…

“Oof, that gave me a fright.”

“God in heaven, who’s this nutcase?”

“Will he not be one of those sportsman chappies, Karel?”

Staring at me in disbelief were two men in loose-fitting britches and rather grubby shirts with rolled-up sleeves. Slung over their shoulders were gardening tools. They could be the servants of the gods! If only!

Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to puff on those long-stemmed instruments hanging from their lips. Nor could they speak so disrespectfully. About me! About the gods! It didn’t help that the dangling pipes rendered their speech somewhat indistinct.

“You know, those crackpots that build up their bodies.”

“Just look at him. I mean, he’s half-naked. He should have one of those sports outfits on. Oi, lad, what do you want here?”

Good question. Several thoughts ran through my head. There weren’t many of them, given that I had only come into being a moment ago. But one of them stuck: I know what I want to do. I know who I want to help and who summoned me.

“To help Mr Moritz.”

The fellows recoiled, probably intimidated by my sonorous delivery, which I had copied from my master.

“Are you a gardener as well, like us?”

Trudging along furrows – ah, that is the fate with which the gods punished ungrateful mankind. That definitely wasn’t for me. I examined my hands, as if they might give me the answer.

“Well, he’s got hands like shovels,” one of the men appraised me thoughtfully.

“He’ll be one of those navvies that’re grafting down in the tunnel. Those Eyeties run about half-naked an’ all. You should go there, to your own kind, youngster.”

“Certainly picked up the lingo though, hasn’t he?” marvelled the one who had assessed my hands. For the first time, I learned of something as absurd as languages.

Dismissed by rakes, hoes and pipes, I went off downhill, taking in that view again. The valley on the other side rose gently into the undulating space. It was paradise, without a trace of human presence. Apart from those two lumps.

And then I saw them. Those multitudes cultivating a strip of land… No: those masters of labour, who immediately brought to mind Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths. For down there the blessed paradisiacal landscape turned into a battlefield. The half-naked multitudes were fighting – with the hill, which a tunnel was biting into.

“I have come to help Mr Moritz,” I briskly announced to the first of the perspiring labourers, who reminded me of the athletes in the stadiums.


Translated by Graeme Dibble