Explaining the story behind Astronautilia is not easy. It is so extraordinary that the poems' true source will remain shrouded in mystery. After some thought I've come to realise that the man best placed to describe the circumstances that led to the sudden appearance of a contemporary epic poem written in classical Greek language and style but translated into modern Czech would be the author himself. For this reason I've supplied the most relevant sections of the book's Czech prologue, but translated into English.
From the following extracts I hope, incidentally, you'll be able to get some feel of the author's lively mind although the prose style he has adopted here is a deliberate imitation of Capek's. The limitations of html have forced me to omit special characters from the text: 'Divisek' for example should be pronounced more like 'Djiveeshek'. But let's begin at the beginning. . .
The name Divisek the archivist is of course well known from Capek's tale about the fall of the House of Voticky, but this must have been some other Mr. Divisek because it was at quite a different time. Capek's Divisek lived at the time of the "First Republic" whereas our Divisek is quite a contemporary figure, from the period after Slovakia broke away, as we shall see. . .
. . .Of course, it may well be that our Divisek was a descendant of Capek's Divisek and that together with his surname he also inherited his love of the archivist's trade.
Whatever the case may be one day this contemporary Divisek turned up at my office just like the original Divisek turned up in doctor Mejstrik's office (critics please note how unoriginal this is being a symptom of insufficient creativity!) and just like the latter he wore a worried expression, but not the gold-rimmed spectacles, and introduced himself as Divisek, the archivist.
I felt I had seen him somewhere before but I couldn't remember where until it transpired during the conversation that I had seen him working as a church organist and that a mutual friend from SPOMAKO had recommended me to him. I had not seen Mr. Divisek since the days when I ceased to be active in Prague's church choirs, i.e. since 1968, but I must say he had not changed much, just had a few more wrinkles.
"Doctor, I've come for advice," said Mr. Divisek and put a big file of papers down on the desk.
"Please, do go on," I said, because for some reason I was beginning to get interested.
Perhaps I was hoping that it would be some kind of interesting mystery, like the fall of the House of Voticky, or something like that, basically I had this feeling that it wouldn't be the usual, boring old psychology thing that people sometimes still come to me with even though I am retired.
And I was right although what he had come with was much more bizarre than the affair of the fall of the Votickys.
Because what Mr. Divisek said to me was roughly this:
>>Not far from the M... Archive, where I work, there's a little snack bar, you know the sort of place, where you can get coffee, open sandwiches and so on.
And I always go there at lunch time for a couple of sandwiches and a coffee because I live alone and making myself a packed lunch is too much trouble, and in any case - you have to eat - don't you?
Well, one day I started noticing a man there who looked kind of strange:
I can't really say why, maybe it was his clothes.
He had a strange kind of jacket, it may have been padded like the sort people wear for skiing but it had a strange kind of silvery sheen. His features were basically unremarkable, and he looked somewhere between thirty-five and fifty years old, you couldn't tell exactly, and he had sort of nondescript brown hair.
He would sit there looking sort of nondescript eating and drinking something.
I don't really know why I noticed him because he wasn't at all conspicuous - even the jacket could have been just the latest fashion - after all we get all sorts of things from the West these days - and the way he behaved was really quite unassuming.
This went on for a few days, I can't even say how long - until one day -
Oh yes! I forgot to tell you that I am a bit of a sci-fi fan.
Well, one day I took out the latest issue of Ikaria, the science-fiction magazine.
And this man suddenly got up and without saying a word came to sit down at my table - he didn't even ask if the seat was free - but it obviously was.
"I see you are a sci-fi fan," he said suddenly, in perfect Czech but in a sort of hollow voice without intonation - "do you think things like that could happen? - I mean - in real life?"
"Of course they could," I said, "don't you think we're nearly there? My dear sir, man quite often does a very good job of describing the future. The details, well perhaps the details aren't quite right - too much like the present - but in general, in general I think we've got it more or less right."
"Look," I went on, "at home I have some old copies of the Old Prague magazine, you know the one? "Well one year they had a sort of serial, it was translated from French. It was called 'Wonders Of The Twentieth Century' written by someone called A. Robida."
"It was in the 1893 volume - so that's a hundred years ago now, isn't it - and you know what, it was basically all exactly right - women's equality, television, air travel - well whatever you can think of - except that in the illustrations things were sort of quaintly in 19th century style.
For example the television - it's called a Telephonoscope in the story - has a kind of oval screen and a decorated frame with various swirls and twiddles a bit like a mirror from those hundred years past - but basically he got it all so right, it almost makes your flesh creep!"
So what I think - in fact I'm sure of it - is that the same thing applies to us and the future and the idea that space travel will be perfectly common.
After all if people have the ability to foresee things - and to deduce things - of course it will happen - it's bound to! I'm sure of it!
The man smiled a bit and then he said:
"And do you believe in time travel?"
And I said: "Well of course I do, it's part of future progress isn't it."
"But," he went on, "if you could travel from the future back into the past then that would mean that time travel would in fact be a reality today?!"
"Yes, it stands to reason," I said getting a little annoyed.
"And," he said, "if I told you that I am one of those visitors from the future, would you believe me?"
"Come off it," I said, "pull the other one. If what you said was true then you would hardly be speaking today's Czech, after all - language changes - and I expect that time travel is still far off in the future - although, you know technological advances seem to be speeding up cumulatively -"
"And what if I had an interpreter with me," the man said.
It was only then that I noticed that he had something behind his ear, like one of those things that people who are hard-of-hearing have.
"Oh come on, where would you put him," I said.
"He is outside," he said, "we communicate by radiophone."
"He can hear what you are saying, he translates it for me and then he tells me what to answer on the basis of what I am thinking - from the signals from my speech centre and my brain signals - I am specially trained to repeat the sounds he makes - it is part of our training."
That would have explained his hollow voice without intonation and the fact that, as I noticed before, it always took a bit of time before he said anything.
"Well," I said, "I'd like to believe you because I like mystery and sci-fi. But common sense tells me that you are either a madman or a conman of some kind who wants to get the better of me."
The man laughed bitterly:
"That is what I was afraid would happen - you see I have crash-landed here and I could use your help - but the way things are I will most probably have to rot here at the end of the primitive twentieth or in the twenty-first century -"
He howled hopelessly but then immediately he pulled himself together.
"You know, " I said, "if you could prove to me that the interpreter really exists, and that he really is doing the interpreting, then I'd probably have to believe you - but I expect that if I went outside with you now you would just hit me over the head or something - because I can't believe what you're saying, you must have made it up."
"Ah, but now you are acting absolutely against your own principles," the man then said, "because a moment ago you were assuring me that what is today's sci-fi fantasy will be the reality of the future, like the things of a hundred years ago - and now, when you have the chance to see for yourself that it really is so, you are backing out like a little man with no imagination -"
The discussion went on a little longer but then I left the snack-bar with him and went round the corner where a sort of shabby old grey van was parked.
He opened the back and pointed inside. I was expecting to see some kind of machinery or something but all I could see was some kind of animal, like a kind of skunk.
"Oh come on, this is your interpreter?" I said, "don't mess about, it's just a smelly old skunk!"
"Go on, try him," he said.
Well, like most Czechs of my age I can still speak a bit of German so I leant over to the skunk and I said:
"He, der Mann hier sagt, das du ein Dolmetscher bist. Also antworte mir, falls du es wirklich bist!" - Of course it would have done just as well if the animal could understand and speak Czech but that some how hadn't occurred to me.
And believe it or not, the creature said:
"Jawohl, mein Herr, ich bin der universale kosmiche Dolmetscher und Ubersetzer, ich behersche ungefahr eine Million Sprachen, und andere kann ich gewohnlich generieren aufgrund deren, die ich schon kenne, durch die Gesetze der Etymologie - Ihr gehorchsamster Diener, mein Herr!"
Well that was too much for me, so I tried English - and he did it again!
Well then I remembered that I once read a story by Stanislaw Lem about a universal astro-translator which looked like a skunk and that's when I was convinced that the man was right, that he really was a time traveller from the future who had crashed in our time, Divisek went on:
>>So, when I agreed, or rather accepted, that this man was a time traveller, or as he called himself a chrononaut, I said that we should go back to the snack-bar and celebrate and that I'd buy him a drink.
He agreed but paid for it himself - he pulled a huge wad of our banknotes out of his pocket - but you could tell that he didn't really understand what he was holding because the skunk only had an audio link to him so he couldn't read the notes for him, so I helped him out a bit and made sure they gave him the right change as well.
Then we sat down and he said he had a favour to ask me:
His friends were supposed to come and pick him up in a spaceship during the night of such and such a date - it was about two weeks after we met, but that it was to be in the Tatra mountains and he would rather not tell me precisely where. But meanwhile Slovakia had become an independent state and that he needs some papers just in case they do a check at the border, because he will have to get there in the van.
Well, I said to him, how come if you have such wonderful technology, or at least since it appears that you do, how come you have to travel in such a primitive way. That doesn't seem to fit in, does it, because usually in these sci-fi things astronauts move about using some kind of matter transporter, they go blelelelelele, go sort of wobbly, disappear and then appear somewhere completely different - so what's all this - maybe he is a conman after all.
And he says, look I told you I have crashed, your Robinson Crusoe was dressed in goatskins and used a spear to hunt with on his island even though when he was at home he wore clothes and used a gun - well that convinced me a bit again.
So I said to him - well all right but I can't just give you my Identity Card - what if you don't return it - I don't even know you - but he said that it wouldn't take a minute, that he has another robot in his van which can make an indistinguishable copy, naturally with the appropriate changes which the translator tells him to make, that it will all happen while-you-wait, and how do I think he got all that money anyway? I sold a few of my clothes, the robot made replicas of them for me and then he did the same with the money I got for them - and that was that - and I can give you as much of it as you like for the loan of the papers.
Well, I didn't really know what to think, on the one hand I wanted to believe that it really was like some kind of fairytale but on the other hand common sense kept getting in the way.
So I said: Look here, I'll do what you're asking, and I'll lend you my Passport as well so that you can get a false one made too just in case the Slovaks want it now instead of just the ID card - they might change the rules, you just can't trust them - but Mr. Spaceman, you don't get something for nothing!
I don't want money, that was never my thing, and since I'm working I've got enough to live on.
But I've always wanted to write some kind of sci-fi book to make my mark in the world and maybe even get a Nebula award and become famous like Stanislaw Lem or Arthur Clarke or Garu Konisi and all those others - or like our own Josef Nesvadba - but I never had the time for it, or the patience and imagination for that matter.
So, Mr. Spaceman, I'd like to ask you if in exchange for the loan of my papers you could write down your real adventures and I'd have them published as my own sci-fi and that way I'd become famous.
Well, he scratched his head - said that this was the kind of complication that he didn't need, but yes all right, that he would dictate it to the translator, the skunk like translator like the one in Lem, and that he would be able to translate it quickly and write it down - that he is equipped to do that too - and that it should be quite fast.
By the way, he also told me that his skunk was made up mostly of something like brain cells, that is why he could absorb so many languages - that's just by the way - that he is sustained by some kind of pills made for him by the robot from ordinary provisions and so he doesn't need a proper digestive system and so on - but I'm digressing. So, he said, he must get started on it right away to get it done in time - I was surprised that he didn't object, after all he could have just hit me over the head and taken my ID anyway - but he was pretty decent - maybe they have more advanced ethical standards in the future as well -
So we set a date to meet a week later in the snack bar - I still went there every lunch time for my sandwiches but I didn't see the astronaut there again - until the day we had agreed. So then we went to the van and I, somewhat worried, lent him my ID card and Passport - and he had the robot there, it looked like a huge metal spider, and he stuck it in its mouth, it shook for a bit and then spat both of them out, both my original documents and the forgeries for the astronaut with his photograph and everything, occupation programmer for company UNYSIS, name Jan Novak, place of birth Pardubice I think in '49 - well it was credible enough.
I was relieved to get my papers back and then I said - now your part of the bargain.
And he pulled out the manuscript that you have on the desk in front of you - I opened it - it was in some strange writing.
What's this you've given me, I can't read it.
I am sorry, he said, there has been an error, but now there is no time to fix it, tomorrow night I have to leave for my own time and probably to continue my journey through space.
What happened? - well I explained to Franta - that's the translator's name by the way - that you want literary fame and that he should do a good job of it - but the idiot got a bit mixed up between your period and the renaissance - you understand, since he needs to know so many languages there is not much room for good general knowledge - he would have to be the size of an elephant for that - so he thought that to guarantee the right effect among the intellectuals it would have to be in Classical Greek - so that is what he did - I am very sorry - you know modern theroids must exercise their own initiative, one cannot direct everything they do - and this time it did not work out.
But I am sure you will find someone here who can still speak Greek - so he will translate it for you and that will be that.
I know it is not quite perfect but I am sure the content will interest you and others. Look I will have to say good-bye, thank you for everything. And he got in his van and was gone before I could say a thing.
So I have been asking around if there is anyone who still speaks Classical Greek and Mr. Cernil recommended you. So that's why I've come - I opened the manuscript, and sure enough - there was an epic poem about a journey through space, what we would call a kind of sci-fi, but according to Divisek this was no fiction - but it was written in Homeric Greek and some of the modern concepts were taken from modern Greek or simply taken from international terminology - well that skunk-translator had had a bit of a job on his hands and I was surprised that he could have done it in one week! - if what the astronaut had said was true. He must have been a feat of engineering indeed.
So I said I would have a look at it and Divisek left.
I would read it in the evenings and it was quite interesting, but I didn't start on the translation for the time being, because translation work is hard work while reading is a pleasure. And then some important things came up and I suddenly had the feeling that I wouldn't have time for the Greek Astronautilia.
I wanted to return it to Divisek, with regret, but then I realised that I did not know his address, and as it turned out neither did our mutual acquaintance who had recommended me to him.
But I did know the name of the archive where he worked because Divisek mentioned it at the start of his story (which I called the M... Archive for our purposes here) so I took the manuscript along there and asked where I could find Mr. Divisek the archivist.
But they told me that unfortunately Mr. Divisek died about a month ago of a stroke - what a shame.
And they talked about him and said how sorry they were and how wonderful he had been, what a kind person he had been and how educated, they say he spoke several languages very well, but he was also very modest and he never bragged about it and hardly anyone knew that he could - that he was an excellent musician too, he could play the piano and the organ - which I did happen to know about him, but the fact that he was a linguist did surprise me and it got me thinking.
Excuse me, I said, do you happen to know if Mr. Divisek could also speak Classical Greek?
We don't know, they said, but in his case you couldn't rule it out, rather the opposite they said, it would be quite likely.
And so I left but the mystery remained, although it no longer looked quite so mysterious and there could have been a quite natural explanation.
When I got home I laid out the manuscript again.
I'll translate it no matter who wrote it, the astro-skunk or Divisek! I resolved.
But if it was to be published it would have to include the Greek text so that the public could see that it wasn't just your run of the mill fiction, that the translation is a real translation and that there really is an original - either a tribute to Divisek or a route to a great mystery.
And if it isn't going to be for Divisek and towards
his Nebula Prize now I'll translate it any way I like, not in prose but in properly
stressed hexameters. . .