Ever Green is . . .


                  by Pavel Vilikovský  


In the past decade, the Slovak novelist Pavel Vilikovský has become increasingly well-known as a major literary figure of post-Communist Central Europe.  Since he received Slovenia’s Vilenica Award in 1996, his books have been translated into such languages as Bulgarian, Hungarian, Serbian, French, and most recently English.  His novel A Horse Upstairs, A Blind Man in Vráble was published in Romanian in 2000.

Vilikovský’s 1989 novel Ever Green is . . . establishes a unique perspective on Central European history, even as it parodies the longstanding Slovak obsession with identity and national uniqueness.  Despite its seemingly frivolous themes derived from spy thrillers and other genres, the novel is a critique of the assumptions of Central and East European nationalism as much as of the now-defunct socialism system.  Among the targets of Vilikovský’s satire are the corrupt monarchy of Charles II in interwar Romania.  In the sequence below, taken primarily from Chapters 5-7 (with several long digressions deleted), the narrator recounts his adventures in interwar Budapest, followed by a comical scene of interrogation and escape in the dungeon of a Romanian castle.  He also puts a new twist on the clichéd description of Bucharest as “the Paris of the East.”  This excerpt is taken from the English translation published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.  Further information on Ever Green is . . . can be found at: <http://nupress.northwestern.edu/>.



Copyright information:

Originally published in Slovak under the following title: Veène je zelený

copyright © 1989 by Pavel Vilikovský.

English translation copyright © 2002 by Charles Sabatos

Pulished 2002 by Northwestern University Press.

All rights reserved.



They say that cats have nine lives; I have had (and please consider this information confidential) twenty-three so far; this is the twenty-fourth.  Because yes, twenty-three times I have already stood on the threshold of death, ten times I have even raised my hand and knocked on the door, but nobody was ever home.  Twenty-three times, and each time, regardless of how much the situation took me by surprise, I made sure, within the given range of possibilities, to make if not the essence, at least the circumstances of my exit to the other world as pleasant as possible.  Under the pleasant sense — pleasant, so to speak, with a capital P —  I mean that bittersweet feeling that seizes you when they call closing-time in a wine-bar.  Because only the ancient Greeks and the Olympic champion Nurmi knew how to leave at their peak, voluntarily, that is.

     A bittersweet feeling: sweet with the honey of the present and bitter with the painful realization that it is coming to an end; and honey, as you certainly know, is gathered from the pollen of flowers.  I mean all of this symbolically.  A country is not a picture of the soul, but it can, at least for a moment, help to raise your self-confidence, to inspire a certain respect, however mistaken, for yourself. . .  When they tried to run me down with a taxi in Bucharest, the two big leaps that I took did not have the goal of snatching myself from the claws of the rapidly oncoming vehicle, it was already too late for that; I just wanted to be able to fall in a place from which I could see the sidewalks of the Boulevard Magheru bordered with trees, beyond the white walls of the Banca de Credit Roman.  From a worm’s eye view, it’s one of the most beautiful sights ever.

     At the time, Bucharest had 639,789 inhabitants, and if we subtract children and the elderly, there’d be about 300,000 men and women at a productive age, ready at any time to have you run down with a taxi.  The charge for that kind of service was quite insignificant.  Nowhere could you find more helpful taxi drivers than in Romania.  When the national interest required it, Charles II had the whole government run down with taxis without a moment’s hesitation.  Today Bucharest has 22 theaters, but at the time the favorite form of theater was watching an unfortunate person dodging an attacking taxi in confusion.  The popular character of Charles’s rule was proved by the fact that this theater was free of charge.  I should mention, only for the sake of comparison, that these days a theater ticket costs 15 lei and an opera ticket as much as 25 lei.

     Théatre-vérité.  That artistic form is today, and I don’t know if entirely rightfully, neglected. . . yes, Charles II was a great patron of the arts; if there was no bread, then there had to be circuses.  At the time it had to do, if I’m not mistaken, with the theft of the crown jewels; actually, that theft was forged — who would today, or even then, have stolen the crown jewels, which were practically impossible to sell!  Charles II was insured at Lloyd’s of London, and so the theft of the jewels was the easiest way for him to get some cash, and moreover in hard currency.  His partners at cards didn’t accept anything else.  That was already the fifth time since his accession to the throne — June 8, 1930: what a memory, eh? — and Lloyd’s decided firmly that it would be the last: Charles had to go.  Except that, as I have already mentioned, only the ancient Greeks and Nurmi knew how to leave in their prime.  Thus I was called by the great Harold Lloyd himself, the one with the horn-rimmed spectacles, and ordered to carry out a dethroning; preserving the monarchy if possible.  I did it as an independent contractor.

     Have you ever been in the Bucharest train station?  One of the dirtiest; but if I can express myself metaphorically, that greasy saucer had a silver border.  In Bucharest you could find anything you could get in Paris, and at half the price.  In 1933, Romanian imports from Czechoslovakia, for example, were 9.84%, and exports to Czechoslovakia 4.79%.  Romania mainly exported corn, oil and live animals.  Bessarabian horses were known as the second-best in the world, right after Arabian, and Romania annexed Bessarabia only on December 10, 1918.  At the time that I’m speaking of, Japan had still not ratified that annexation.  As you can see from the small amount of data I’ve given you, the international situation was quite complicated at the moment I got off in front of the Splendid-Parc Hotel on Strada Stirbei Voda, right across from the king’s palace.

     It was a hotel favored by diplomats, industrialists, and representatives of the business world.  I personally decided on the role of an English financier, primarily for the reason that the greater part of my luggage was in the form of a large gentleman’s umbrella.

     Are you in a hurry?  I wanted to dwell on that umbrella for a moment.  It was a made-to-order specimen, not like today’s ready-made merchandise, made of cheap material that gets porous when it dries and then lets the rain through.  The top was made out of bulletproof steel covered with camouflaged canvas, so that when opened, it represented a perfect shield, and even a hiding place (especially on the battlefield.)  At the same time, the hilt was the handle for a concealed pistol; in the middle was a hollow safe with a password, and at the end a bayonet which sprang out at the push of a spring.  It was a superb umbrella, but they stole it from me right at the reception desk.  If we take into consideration that Bucharest was a favorite center for pickpockets, one didn’t even know whether to suspect bad intentions.

     The great number of successfully resolved cases could have lulled me into a falsely carefree mood, but the incident with the umbrella served as an early warning.  Because even if it had been an unknown thief without bad intentions and the theft was just a routine matter, surely such an umbrella must have seemed suspicious upon closer inspection.  The spring had a little problem -- the bayonet would pop out at the most unexpected moments.  When opening the top, it sometimes happened that one would unknowingly press the cock in the handle and the umbrella fired accidentally.  Although I had long since removed the label with the name of the manufacturer, so the umbrella could preserve its complete incognito, its versatility could not stay concealed for long.  More than one adventure could be waiting for me, thanks to that umbrella -- whether during the harvest festival or some other entirely inconvenient occasion.  Therefore I decided that before proceeding to the matter at hand, I would start off with some warming-up exercises for my fingers, by searching out the umbrella’s misappropriator and making him pay for his mischief.

     Romanian hotel suites!  I mean, Romanian chambermaids!  With hands as skillful as two little snakes, she had made up my bed for the night and in order to demonstrate its total safety and comfort to me, a distrustful foreigner, she laid down in it with sensuous delight.  Well, perhaps while opening my suitcase I had somehow pushed her a little.  From the position which her body had instinctively taken in its fall, I concluded that these surroundings were not entirely unknown to her.  I was also able to glimpse that under the simple black dress with the little white collar, there was nothing except Jaeger’s-brand woolen underwear; but I didn’t manage to determine whether that part of her clothing was her only memento of her prematurely deceased father, or whether it was a feminine variant of the popular underwear widespread in Romania.

     As it turned out, there I committed another error.  From the point of view of my already-considerable renown, it was naturally better that I committed these errors in remote Romania, and not in the center of world attention, somewhere in Paris or London.  From the point of view of the safety of my life, however, this difference was completely negligible.  If I had paid less attention to the smooth velvet of her body and more to the underwear which she discreetly lowered beside the bed, I would have noticed that the hem of the underwear was marked with an inventory number and the words “Insured with Lloyd’s.”  By my proverbial sharpness I would not have later failed to realize. . . are you following me?

     I can perceive a certain resentment in your face, coming from the fact that I have not devoted my exclusive attention to the details of the physical intercourse.  I warn you in advance that I am an opponent of eroticism for its own sake.  I don’t deny, naturally, the role that sexuality plays in human life; if it weren’t for sexuality, what would really separate us from the animals?  But, for God’s sake, women!  Moist, as the decadent French writer Simone de Beauvoir admitted self-critically, in the middle!  But a person in a foreign country needs to create a certain base. . .

     Kissing, for example, has been observed in chimpanzees.  But also female flat-footed baboons from the New World — Alouatta Palida — often, during mating, turn and move at the same time with the tongue toward the male and often lick him.  Elephants also “kiss” in an interesting manner before mating, with the ends of their trunks in each other’s mouths.  One native of the Thonga tribe in Mozambique commented symptomatically on the European kiss with the words: “Those two are drinking each other’s saliva!”

     But why waste all these words.  The mating of many mammals does not look like an act of love, but like a struggle, in which the female first tries to run away, then to fight and retaliates with a hit although, in view of her physical disposition, she finally has to lose.  At the end of their decade of sexual activity, the females of various apes are covered with the scars that come from amorous relations.  I’d rather not even mention the males.  Do you want to have a look?  In his studies of the sexual lives of Pacific tribes, Malinowski discovered that women employ much more passionate and painful practices of sexual games and coitus.  I, who was more practically than theoretically engaged in the field referred to, can confirm his observations on the basis of my own experience.  In particular, Romanian chambermaids. . . but admit it, you have a premonition that she wasn’t a chambermaid at all.  What did you say?  You don’t have any premonitions?  Don’t deprive me of my last illusions.  So she simply wasn’t a real chambermaid.   You say that this isn’t essential in intercourse?  My dear friend, don’t let it show so obviously that you are swayed by the opinions of your generation.  You have, I must regretfully state, inverted values.  Intercourse in and of itself is not substantial, especially when, as in this case, it’s only business intercourse.

     Of course, I didn’t mean to say that we took care of this only standing on one leg.  It’s necessary to give the body what it deserves.  It is, if I could speak openly, as if you would suck your thumb.  To wit. . . in the given case it was different -- we experienced all four phases of male and female sexual activity.  To tell you the truth, we passed through the phase of stimulation more or less at a trot.  Experienced individuals can allow themselves to do that.  On the other hand, we stayed longer in the plateau phase.  Looking over her shoulder, I tried to penetrate deeper into the mystery of the Jaeger woolen underwear, while she for her part tried to penetrate deeper into the back pocket of my trousers -- where I had, however, circumspectly only hidden my unpaid receipts from the dry-cleaner’s.  Although this fact didn’t need to be made public, I didn’t consider it useful, on the other hand, to conceal it at all costs: I had soiled eight shirts and twelve pairs of underwear in the month of April.  I admit that in the back of my mind, I hoped that if she saw the amount of the required sum, she would offer to do my laundry herself during my stay in Romania.  Therefore, I didn’t particularly insist on crossing over as soon as possible to the phase of relaxation, either.

     Right when I was able to figure out the inventory number on the backside of the Jaeger underwear, the dear chambermaid, who was really no chambermaid at all, reached an orgasm.  That was something!  If the whole thing had taken place after 10 o’clock at night, they certainly would have thrown us out for disturbing the peace.  I was willing to tolerate that she bit my throat, but when she dug four bloody furrows with her nails into my cheek, it aroused in me the suspicion —unfortunately, as it turned out, a justified one— that she intentionally wanted to leave a mark on me.

     Women, as is well-known, know how to simulate orgasm, but an experienced man of my stature (at the time I measured one meter, eighty-four centimeters) can’t be fooled so easily; in such situations, young man, I watch the woman’s nipples: initiates know that if a woman reaches orgasm, her nipples wrinkle up immediately after intercourse; otherwise this process takes longer.

     So I watched, and what should I tell you.  That pseudo-chambermaid was the greatest European actress after the immortal Eleanora Duse.  She laid there blushing, with her wrinkled-up nipples, and when she noticed my penetrating look, she turned up her palms and chattered in charming Romanian: “Csak egy kis emlék, a little souvenir from you. . .”  I couldn’t get angry with her, although during the first orgasmic spasm she had skillfully knocked my suitcase off the bed, so that its entire contents landed on the carpet, spread out like goods on a vegetable stand.  I have to say that in my contacts with the colonel, whatever reservations one may have about them, such awkward intermezzos did not take place. . . When the colonel’s head dropped down to the soft little hollow above my collarbone, no suitcase was knocked over.  Why? you might ask.  It certainly wasn’t just because there was no suitcase there.  Even at his peak of manly power, the colonel’s movements retained a genuine tenderness and graciousness— there is ultimately nothing better than a demonstration; let me see. . .  You have, dear friend, a completely cozy little hollow.  It reminds me of my eventful youth.  Well, when the colonel’s head lowered down, it wasn’t like a falling rock; it was a light landing, as when a bird arrives at her nest, bringing food for her young, like a little feather, which was left floating behind, forgotten in the air. . .

     Couldn’t you take off your shirt?  Because when I see for myself, I can empathize better.  What, I should use my rich imagination instead?  Dear friend, according to the Viennese Jew Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, a happy person doesn’t have fantasies, only a person who is unfulfilled in life has them.  And that, I believe, cannot be said of me.  It’s true, one can realize, that psychoanalysis as a movement, as a certain doctrine, arose in certain socio-economic conditions and was based on certain theoretical assumptions, also important from a conceptual viewpoint, that carry particular weight in the current ideological conflict of two world systems. 

     Don’t worry, you won’t catch a cold, I’ll close the window.  What?  Give the body what it deserves, and give the soul. . .  In your case, I don’t dare to speak of the soul.  Mandatory school attendance sometimes causes more damage than benefit.  You had too many old-maid schoolteachers.  Shouldn’t I turn on the record-player?  Aristotle saw the advantage of music in releasing passions.  An igniting of passion in drama is also a good thing.  Such an occasional igniting of passion gives people some relief.  And no one needs relief as urgently as one of us, who live in constant tension.  A demonstration of this, if I may cite the first example that comes to mind, was the expression of immense relief on the face of the Romanian anti-chambermaid when she observed that the suitcase did not contain an automatic pistol.  A relief so limitless that I considered it a warning at the moment.  But before I had a chance to follow that thought through to the end — I was extraordinarily clever, but in certain situations I wasn’t able to concentrate — she groped for my head with her hands, and as if by chance, she suddenly covered my ears with her palms.  To prevent me from hearing the turn of the doorknob, she pulled me down to her breasts.  From this you can see that when taking action, you shouldn’t follow thoughts, but people.

     I laid in the warm valley between her breasts for only a second, and already I had realized the acute danger in which I had found myself: her heart was beating unusually fast.  At least, I would estimate now, something like one hundred and forty beats a minute.  I didn’t really have time then for a precise calculation; with just one mighty leap, I threw myself at the table lamp and. . .

[. . .]

     There are situations in which even the most talented people should know when to admit defeat.  For example, it is said that a wolf, when a fight is turning out extremely unfavorably for him, suddenly exposes to his opponent his most vulnerable place — his throat.  The reaction of the opponent to this signal is to interrupt the fight.  So it was in our case.  Creeping out from under the bed to confront my opponents — to speak concretely, there were two of them — I exposed not my throat, since I am ultimately not a wolf, but rather my private parts, in all of their naked beauty.  I noticed a gleam of open admiration flash in their eyes at this imposing sight.  But they were professionals and nothing could distract them from the task entrusted to them.

     I forgot to mention that thanks to my skillful, if somewhat delayed manipulation of the lamp, my opponent’s first blow did not strike me, but the unlucky pseudo-chambermaid, who was now lying unconscious on the bed just as the Lord had created her, and I must add objectively that He did a good job.  After all, I was not among the rejects, either.  Still today, at the end of a long and difficult life. . . Don’t worry, I’m only unbuttoning this because it’s getting hot here.

     Yet the two hired bullies were made like tools: for a single purpose.  They fulfilled it when they firmly tied up my arms and legs and rolled me up in a carpet — I should mention, it was not out of innate modesty, but so that they wouldn’t attract undue attention out in the hallway.  Then they took up reviving their collaborator.  They were not suited for that purpose.  It took them rather long to realize that, and during that time, I finally figured out the writing on the backside of the Jaeger’s long-johns, which were lying on the floor right next to my head.  And when I read the fateful words “Insured at Lloyd’s,” I understood why I had not received any foreign postcards for so long from my friend Seppi Wodopiwczo, a detective with the firm of Anglo-Danubian Lloyd, Allgemeine Versicherungs-Aktien-Gesellschaft, headquartered in Vienna I, Dominikanerbastei 2.  This knowledge would have paralyzed more than one man in my situation — I was a serious collector of postcards, and it was clear that one of my main sources had dried up for good — but I, a lover of danger. . . the bigger, the better. . .

     Danger is like a woman: it should have a certain volume.  So that (if I may be vulgar) there’s something to grab on to.  There are actually matadors who grab on to danger like a bull by the horns, but those are ordinary hired hands, who do a trade for wages, without love.  But artists -- among whom I (with all modesty) count myself -- know that danger should be fondled, tickled, caressed, patted on its chubby little bottom.  Dangers, and I mean the real ones, usually have little roundish bottoms, as perhaps you’ve noticed, with a little cleavage. . . roundish and bouncing.  When they rub against each other in such a neighborly way with both hemispheres, it’s as if a solar reflection jumped from one window to another; while the others drag their asses, as if pouring sour milk from one bottle to another.  Such backsides, along with the dangers that belong to them, are passé, a millstone tied around your neck.  No doubt those kind of dangers don’t have great demands, but if you strike up a conversation with them, you’ll never be able to shake them off.  They aren’t even real dangers, and an experienced observer recognizes them by the backside; they’re just ordinary fears: for example, that you displease your boss because you forget to turn off the light in the restroom. . .

     Ugh!  Pour some more, let me get rid of that aftertaste.  Now where were we?  Ah yes, in the Splendid-Parc Hotel, rolled up in a carpet. “Dear colonel,” I said then, naturally only in my mind, since my mouth was gagged with a handkerchief — from the taste I concluded that its owner was suffering from a chronic cold; just a detail, you say, but a person never knows when it might come in handy — “dear colonel,” I said then, “what would you do in my place?”

     “Dear friend,” replied the colonel, “I answer you along with Confucius: if you can’t defend yourself against rape, you should lie there peacefully and enjoy it as much as possible.”

     Nothing else was left for me to do but to repeat those words again.  A person who knows how to enjoy life in all its forms may not ultimately live longer, but certainly lives more intensively.  Do you know how much I enjoyed it when they unrolled me from the stuffy atmosphere inside the carpet, into the cool darkness of a cell inside a royal castle?  And my enjoyment grew even more (if that were possible at all) when they seated me, naked as I was, astride a long pole made of ice, hung on two hooks above a spacious iron tub, filled to the brim with sulphuric acid.  The only thing that dampened my pleasure was the fear of catching diaper rash.  This fear was, as many fears have been, exaggerated: in view of the minimal thickness of the ice I could have caught, at most, a teeny little rash; in the meantime the ice would have melted from my body heat — my anus, which was actually at stake, so to speak, was 37 degrees Celsius at that moment — and I would have fallen, tied at hand and foot, with no resistance, into the tub of acid.  Informally, they called this primitive-looking, but effective arrangement the “accelerator.”

     Here I should mention that the equipment of the cell was in sharp contrast to the scientific requirements that would be put on a similar place today.  In any kind of workplace, there should be an interior setting, or climate, which optimally suits the human organism.  I don’t mean to say, naturally, that the cold of the old walls was unpleasant in the first few moments, but later, not very comfortably seated on the ice. . . The folk wisdom in the proverbial “to put something on ice” long ago grasped that it had to do with an experience which was essentially negative.  One understandably does not expect that he’ll be handled with kid gloves, but still. . .

     An interrogation room should be suitably equipped, culturally speaking.  But since it is not possible to assume that all arrivals are accustomed to a similar culture of interiors, whether from their domestic setting or workplace — rather the opposite, especially among recidivists, alcoholics and such people — it is not possible to neglect the necessity for the gradual adaptation of a new arrival to an interrogation room.  That was out of the question in my case.  So you can understand my exasperation when I had to watch how they broke the basic rules of interrogating practice before my very eyes.  Everyone who has dealt even superficially with this problem knows that the change from one setting to another cannot be sudden, but must be a gradual adaptation.  The interior shouldn’t be so showy -- by the way, some pelvis bones and skulls were scattered in the corner of the cell, so at first glance it was clear that it hadn’t been tidied up in a while— it should rather meet the demands of the times.  Some sectional furniture, both in the waiting-room and in the investigator’s office, would have been appropriate.  And not some pole of ice, which is nota bene thoroughly unadapted to the bodily dimensions of the person being interrogated!

 [. . .]

     Life, although short, puts us through many tests.  Only those who are most resistant, who don’t lose heart. . . Sometimes coitus awakens female reactivity, which is only exhausted after several sessions of intercourse or orgasms.  And if it doesn’t get exhausted, then you do.  Avoid cheap thrills.  Ejaculation can take place without a sufficient erection during convulsive laughing or throttling.  Do you want to try it?  Likewise, schoolboys and high-school students say that during anxious excitement, for example, during written exams in difficult subjects, they sometimes experience an ejaculation without local stimulation and often even without a sufficient erection, purely out of fear that they won’t finish the task in time.  It’s happened to you before, hasn’t it?  In my case, if I have to reach into my own memories, I got a terrific erection at the question that was put to me by my teachers, I mean, torturers: “Who are you, and where did you come from?”  Well, if I have to quote precisely, the question went: “Who are you, where did you come from, and where are you going?”

     “Whew,” I replied, and in the pause that I fell into after that sigh, my member curiously, or I would even say threateningly, raised its head, which is glans in Latin. . . Do you know Latin?  And how could you.  Sine ira et studio. . .

     I myself looked at that exclamation mark with a poorly-concealed envy; that is, one can poorly conceal anything on a naked body.  If I were to express myself objectively, there was something provocative in that look -- a kind of inappropriate willfulness, I would say.  In short, a lurking suspicion overtook me, if there was anything for it to overtake, because I was almost entirely in the power of the king’s executioner.

     “Whew,” I sighed then again, and the best witness to the quality of my erection was the fact that although this sigh came from the very bottom of my troubled heart, the erect member did not even tremble.   “Whew,” I have asked myself that question in moments of peaceful contemplation and to this day I haven’t been able to answer it in a satisfactory way.  Thus it would have been highly improvident to assume. . .

     “Shut up!” answered the big lugs, and with eyes widened in amazement, they watched the proudly towering proof of my manhood in disbelief.

     “When I came,” I said hastily, in an effort to save the situation (in my place, you would have tried to save yourself, but I, pure in my unselfishness, put myself in the last place even at that moment,) “I listened to the yearning in my heart -- it was my heart, and nothing else, that led me straight to your beautiful city, which is very fittingly called the Paris of the East.  But if I were to be frank — and I think that’s what you expect of me — the name London of the South would be similarly appropriate.”

     See, there you have a classic, high-quality, suggestive answer!  To a question which, I must admit, was relatively symptomless.  In the end, it was only meant to subtly suggest that I was a supporter of the pedestrian movement.  In view of the condition of the railway network in Romania at the time — 11,206 kilometers, but the state they were in! — it was a completely justified presumption.

     London of the South, now come on!  But, as I had anticipated, the comparison aroused their interest.  It inobtrusively, discreetly flattered them.  London of the South!  So then one could, I read it in their faces, just as well call London the Bucharest of the North!  The man who was leading the interrogation — his cheeks were furrowed with deep scars; razor blades as we know them were practically an unknown concept in Romania at the time — accepted the flattery with a badly concealed smile, but unlike the others, he didn’t let it lead him away from the basic idea of interrogation.

     Like other artistic forms, interrogation has its own basic idea, which we must strictly differentiate from its theme.  Themes can be and have been various, but the basic idea is the same in most interrogations: it is a celebration of man.  “Lo and behold,” a successful interrogation seems to relate, “what a man can achieve with a little time and a couple of simple instruments!”  Today’s complex equipment is only, believe me, a concession to current taste, and in developing countries, where a significant part of today’s torture takes place, they hinder rather than help the discovery of truth, because of their high rate of failure.  There’s nothing better than the old well-proven kicking the shit out of someone, and all you need for that are a hard fist and a solid iron-tipped boot. . . as long as it’s possible to sew it to measure, so you don’t stub your toe.  You kick the shit out of people and then you rummage around and take what you need.  Simple, right? and yet nothing more accomplished has been invented so far.  People can fly to the moon, and meanwhile. . .

     “London, you say?” said the man with the scarred face.  “An interesting and very significant comparison.”    

     “Unlike me,” I said promptly, “who is well-known for not pushing myself forward, and giving preference to. . .”

     “Shut up. . .” responded one of the thugs, and in order to give greater emphasis to his words, he pushed the pole of ice with his fist, to the point that it was swaying dangerously.

     Have you ever been on a swing with your hands and feet tied?  Not to mention that the insatiable gullet — and that’s still too weak a word — of a tub full of sulphuric acid is gaping beneath you?  And its toxic fumes nota bene are importunately attacking your delicate mucous membranes?  While the sensitive epidermal layers in your erogenous zones are being anesthetized by the cold emanating from the pole of ice?  That, my dear friend, is what they call a happening!  That kind of situation cannot be arranged by any of today’s charlatans; it could only be created by the greatest artist of all time — life itself.  We can only admire it sincerely and with deep respect.  For me, at least, tied up and hanging on the pole of ice, nothing else was left.  My enthusiasm at the inexhaustible richness of life, at its unrepeatability (sliding off the slippery, icy surface, I realized that perhaps I would never repeat this situation ever again in my life) grew within me at every moment and ultimately it could not be suppressed.

     “Thanks!” I called out in a powerful voice, turning to my benefactors, “thanks, friends!”  And simply with those words, I raised up my hands to heaven. . . well, not all the way there, but I can say without exaggeration that I touched the vaulted ceiling of the royal dungeon with the tips of my fingernails.  It’s lucky that it wasn’t wooden, or I would have gotten a splinter, and that really stings under your fingernails.

     Dear friend, on this earth a person is either a hammer or an anvil.  In the given situation, I was closer to an anvil, but at the moment when my entire body — except my appendix, which had been removed when I was a child — was straining upwards in order to feed on the pastures of the universe, so to speak, the rope with which my legs were tied broke, the inertia of the swinging pole of ice ejected me, and then, as if by the wave of a magic wand, I was transformed into a hammer.

[. . .]

     Don’t think that I’m prejudiced.  Nationalism interests me only as a donkey which helps to turn the wheel of history.    Jeszcze Polska nie zginela. . . and they, the patriotic Poles, think that the only reason it hasn’t perished was to make them happy.  The Romanian king Charles II, and I say this on the basis of a personal interview, supposed that the historical mission of the Romanian nation, the meaning, so to speak, of its existence, was the preservation and expansion of Romance culture in the inhospitable regions of the Balkans, and so far the only lasting thing that has remained from the Romanians is bryndza cheese — especially the May variety, which lasts the longest — and the ruins of Povazsky Castle in Slovakia.  The Germans are always all that Sturm und Drang, Drang nach Osten, Drang nach Westen, Dichtung und Wahrheit, and in all that tussling and scuffling, they aren’t able to realize that their mission is to serve as an exclamation mark of history, as a warning example of what extremes are best avoided.  The Austrians bet everything on a single horse, and it turned out to be an ox.  Before they recovered, the glory and greatness of Austria were gone.  Today the Austrian nation is only an optical illusion, a rainbow of sweet colors, which in a little summer shower can be glimpsed across the Danube from the top of Kobyla Hill.  An eloquent witness to the fall of Austria is the fact that the best school in Vienna is Spanish, and it is attended by horses.  The only thing uniting the Swiss is the Central European time zone and the common desire to pass a thousand years of history without any accidents.  Just think, a nation that reckons the quality of a cheese according to the number of empty holes in it!  That kind of refinement was what doomed Ancient Rome.


Translated by Charles Sabatos


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