Extract from the authorised translation of the awardwinning novel Mrchopevci,GraveLarks
It is about ten o’clock in the morning on a Friday. A red squirrel and a black one are chasing each another through the cemetary trees, a small blood-red mite runs around the stony labyrinths of the gravestones, houseleeks are starting to bud, bees are buzzing from flower to flower and so on.
The graveyard is pulsating with the joy of life and at this moment Zderad is engaged in his cover occupation.
A widow in mourning leans on her son’s arm, crying, the priest sprinkles the grave with holy water and the gravediggers have already put the straps around their shoulders.
The white handkerchiefs contrast aesthetically with the black clothing.
The last farewells are underway and the quartet intones the favourite song of the deceased:
“O’er the lake of Stachov,
Ruffled by the breeze,
O’er the lake they’re flying,:
Flocks of wild grey geese..”
In his choice of song the dead shoemaker displays unusually good taste of a clearly archetypally superindividualistic origin.
Kukula has piously arranged the beautiful, simple, mildly melancholy melody, without forgetting to make use of the “waldhornquinten” harmonies, to which the melody lends itself. The main harmonic tricks occur in the second tenor and Zderad is performing them with gusto.
It is not Lake Stachov, which he doesn’t know, that emerges in his mind’s eye, but the wide and glistening surface of Lake Posel. He contemplates the fact that he not only has enough money to take up his detective work, but also to drop in on Sylva’s birthplace, to surprise both wife and son and possibly even to establish a friendly relationship with the old ram. After all he might have conceded by now that it’s no use by his own standards, since he recognises neither illegitimate children nor divorces.
The second “flaa-aa-ying” glides into the tonic through a plagal cadence and Krùta’s deep C drones softly. No doubt about it, he’s the best bass of all the stiffsingers in all the graveyards. Kukula’s voice glistens like a goldfish reflecting in a shoemaker’s brass ball and all would appear to be somehow as it should be. It is as if the wailing of the widow is but a small detail in an incomprehensible but nevertheless vaguely benign space-time horologue.
The coffin has slid into the grave, clods of soil fall, thrown by the mourners, and the dead cobbler takes his leave of the world through the mouths of the four singers:
“Not wild geese but goslings
Can you hear the call?
Wher’ve you gone to, fine girls:
Pretty, one and all?
Not wild geese but ganders
Can you hear the call?
Wher’ve you gone to, fine lads
Where to, where at all?
- Where to, where at all -
Zderad picked up his battered briefcase, bulging with the necessary for a short trip to the country from the ground and shot off for the train. The lads will look after his share of the money until Monday.
He felt suddenly the way he had felt as a child when going for outings with his parents. In an attempt to take a short cut, but, in reality, out of boisterousness, Zderad leapt over graves, and finally, he even jumped over the low cemetery wall.
“Ou commence par une croix de bois la route qui mene jusq’a Dieu, bordée de tristes petits pommiers qui s’en vont indéfinitement deux par deux”, the educated Zderad says to himself with his inner voice as he takes pleasure in scanning the scenery, looking as if it had been cut from the poem by the French Consul to Austria, residing in Prague (Paul Claudel).
Autumn might have been better suited to the mood, but even so those little apple-trees travelling two by two up the hill caused the appropriate tugging at the heart-strings. In the end, it cannot be denied that he was a poet, even though he knew next to nothing about us and that he mucked about with the little he did know, a fact which is basically clear from the four poems for which the Catholic intelligentsia to this day bows down with gratitude in front of the night-light of his Gallic ésprit. They’re out of fashion now, in exile, or in jails, whilst a different array of western Slavs goes through similar motions before the Soviet Union. While making these literary and historical deliberations, Zderad was gradually ascending the long hill and sweating considerably because his briefcase was heavy, the sun was baking, and the relevant corner of the homeland, despite the other details which conformed, was not quite so ‘tout plat’ as the poet tries to tell us. Because of this Zderad was in an irritable and unforgiving mood.
The closer he got to the church and, he assumed, to the parsonage the more foolish all this travelling was now beginning to seem to him. He was, as they say, clutching at straws. He had resolved to do something about his situation, come what may. The monster, you see, had been getting constantly more and more distasteful.
It had started when he brought a large suitcase to one of their rendezvous. It was difficult to steer the suitcase through the narrow gothic door of the tomb or mausoleum, and just as they were trying to do this, voices could be heard beyond the curve of the path. Luckily they were inside in time, otherwise those people would have probably raised the alarm about grave robbers. Out of the trunk came a bridal gown and - o horrors - a top hat and tails for Zderad.
It must have been on hire, or otherwise it would have cost a fortune.
In view of the Homeric ode to Stalin there was no alternative and Zderad had to through a sort of wedding service. The monster wore a floral wreath over a blonde wig. Occasionally he would take off the wig and wreath and put on priest’s clothes, thus playing the role of the celebrant.
Then there were also rings: Zderad never wore his later, which was understandable (he didn’t have a real wedding ring because at the time he and Sylva couldn’t afford it), but he had to put it on for the rendezvous.
The ring was gold and massive.
There was no inscription on it, the monster was too cautious. The monster had also brought a sort of improvised wedding feast, including a bottle of champagne and two seemingly rare small chalices, such as might be used for a mass. The embarrassment merged with revulsion when he finally asked Zderad to piss in one and then drank the foaming liquid with gusto. Fortunately his perversion remained otherwise unchanged: the consummation of their “marriage” ended in the usual rimming fashion, and he didn’t even ask Zderad to kiss him on the lips beforehand. Zderad breathed a huge sigh of relief.
When he looked back on it he himself was surprised at what a man will do out of fear and - let’s admit it - for money! That time the reward was especially large: A “wedding gift,” the monster had said.
This had not exhausted the freak’s fantasies yet.
The next time he turned as he normally did, up without a suitcase but as soon as they were inside the tomb he stripped and appeared in black lingerie and stockings. From his briefcase he not only produced a wig and high heeled shoes to complete the illusion, but also a cane. He told Zderad that “she’d been unfaithful” and “asks to be punished” whereupon Zderad had to beat his backside with the cane. The monster yelled for mercy and promised to be good etc.
It was therefore high time to get out, and Zderad firmly decided on that the moment the monster limped off.
Things were beginning to get worse and worse. Who knows what else he would come up with next time.
What Zderad didn’t know, however, was that the sudden blossoming of the monster’s erotic fantasies was connected with external circumstances, and later external circumstances once again reduced them somewhat.
On the bed in his coffin-dwelling he considered for a long time how to get hold of the fatal Stalinist apotheosis for it appeared his serfdom hinged on it. At that moment he chose to overlook the financial aspect of the thing in a most refined manner.
At that time the slum house reeked of all manner of gutter and sewage smells and Zderad felt as if he was imprisoned in a gigantic cesspit. Like most people in times of great difficulty, Zderad also turned to the God of his childhood, begging to be released from his curse. But he imagined that the strict phantom demanded greater suffering and death from him by honourably refusing the monster and bearing the consequences.
This alternative did not appeal to him one bit, so he prayed fervently to have it exchanged for something milder even though he knew that such a request was heretical from the point of view of the faith of his childhood. When he came out of it he was richer for the experience. He had understood the religious zeal of prostitutes.
He fell asleep very late.
His dream was extremely peculiar.
He dreamt that he was at some kind of religious festival, perhaps to do with the Blessed Virgin, but possibly not Catholic but some kind of Orthodox, Armenian perhaps, judging by the exotic and strange paintings and details of embroidery on the garments.
The festival seemed somehow to be taking place on a bridge of sorts. The participants of the festival were not people, however, but quasi-human animals as if from the Island of Doctor Moreau. Since they had originally been of quite different sizes, they presented a monstrous sight because of their disproportion.
There were small hamster- and rat-men, slender cat-men, dog-men of various sizes from the small to the larger-than-life clearly derived from St. Bernard's and wolfhounds, and finally giants arising from horses, cows and camels.
The kneeling cameloids were still grotesquely taller than the standing people who had originated from smaller animals, and they were also taking up an enormous amount of room.
They sang in bizarre voices corresponding to their original animal cries, but on the whole it harmonised reasonably well. The monster was at the altar and it appeared that he was conducting the Mass.
Somehow or other Zderad found himself at the altar. The monster cut his garment open at the front with a ritual sword, to the applause of the assembled creatures, just as Italians applaud the Holy Host. Having exposed the length of Zderad’s body at the front, he held a chalice for him to urinate into.
Zderad refused to do this.
The monster therefore turned to the altar and held up the text of prayers for Mass in a gold frame, several of which can usually be found on an altar.
He pushed it towards Zderad.
Of course, once again it was the ode to Stalin, printed in ligature as it used to be done in the past, with a parallel Latin translation:
“Te domine Stalin adoro, tu Cremlo albosaxo
Russis et Tataris dominaris omnibus sedens.”
Zderad, however, grasped the monster by the throat and he began to change like Proteus in the grip of Menelaos. Finally he stopped, changed back into a man and that man was BRVA.
At this point Zderad awoke, feeling that perhaps he was onto something.
Brva was Zderad’s old classmate from the grammar school. He was very kind and gentle, but extremely stupid. The religious instruction master helped push him through the school year by year, since Brva intended to become a priest.
Zderad used to help Brva out with his studies, particularly with Greek and Latin, in which Brva seemed to be particularly obtuse which was of course highly unfortunate for his future theological studies.
Zderad even used to visit Brva’s home. Brva’s father was a house porter in a decent part of town. They lived in a basement flat, and Zderad recalled that at the time the abode seemed miserable and lugubrious. It was of course much better than his own present coffin-dwelling.
Brva was not Zderad’s only client: Zderad had a whole cohort of academically retarded and morally fallen pupils, though by rights he should have kept in with the élite of the class. Perhaps the fact that he was drawn to the relative dregs was already a manifestation forecasting his future fall.
During Greek and Latin composition he took care to guide his flock of black sheep through its rocky mountain passes.
He would always do his own work first. He was always the first to finish way ahead of the other better pupils. Instead of handing in his exercise book and waiting outside the classroom, he would spend the rest of the lesson preparing cribsheets for his protégés, with special allowance for the style of the individual. So as not to give the game away he would leave in a few relatively minor mistakes, since it was inconceivable that pupils like Brva or Garbušek could hand in faultless work. By mimicking individual styles and stupidities, and by the skilled colportation of the finished articles, the rest of the lesson would pass by in a way which was both amusing and generally beneficial.
By now most of Zderad’s former protégés were Doctors and Professionals, enjoying at least some degree of esteem, and earning decent daily bread without the aid of physical prostitution. As far as Zderad knew, Brva had become a priest after all.
Now he recalled that once when he was sitting with Brva in their cellar flat struggling with something from Homer, Mrs Brva had brought them some sort of home made fruit wine or something. It was just before Christmas, or maybe just after. Zderad kept drinking until he got fired up and began showing off to poor Brva.
It was then that he penned the ode to Stalin in order to prove his Greek erudition... the magazines which came from the Soviet Union and from the home produced communist press were already beginning to provoke such a reaction, even though the joyful dawn was still to come.
Brva had kept the poem, out of awe.
So Brva was the key, albeit not a promising one.
Let us find Brva then.
According to the last news he’d had Brva had started as chaplain in the parish of X. That was convenient, because the village of Mlno on the shore of Lake Posel was basically on the same route.
It was possible to undertake the trip using the money earned in a degrading manner.
Zderad was walking on toward X., calling himself a variety of names.
The last news he’d had about Brva was well out of date, the trail was very cold. Possibly Brva had long since gone, given the peculiar things that happened to priests in those days.
At last he stopped on the village green, with its typical duck pond and found his way to the parsonage quite easily. He pulled at the ancient bellpull by the door, on which a brass plate read:
After some time a mature bespectacled woman came to the door, dressed in a domestic manner in an apron, with the appearance typical of a parsonage “Miss”. She looked Zderad up and down with certain mistrust.
Zderad stammered out his wish to find Father Brva and added that he was a former schoolmate.
The woman’s face became very sad:
“Father Brva is not with us any longer. You see he - perhaps you should speak to my brother. He’s in the orchard with the bees. Come in.”
“Miss” led him through the garden to the back door of the building and disappeared around the corner in the orchard.
“Vince”, she called, “there’s a gentleman here looking for Zdenĕk. He’s his schoolmate.”
“I’m coming”, answered a far-off male voice. “I’m almost done - just the lid to put back.”
At this the Miss reappeared, at a gallop, furiously waving her arms around. She burst through the door and pulled Zderad in.
“A bee was after me,” she said apologetically, out of breath, when they had stopped in a small anteroom with a brick floor and smoky walls, on which hung even more blackened paintings of saints. “My brother will be here in a minute. He’s a beekeeper, you see,” she added superfluously with a kind of maternal smile. “Meanwhile, do sit down.”
Zderad sank into a wicker armchair and waited.
The parsonage anteroom was pleasantly cool with a somewhat damp, but pleasant smell of apples, wax, and perhaps incense; the air was calming and conciliatory, clearly religious. Soon, walking past the window with the rolling gait portly people have, he saw a large figure, clad from head to toe in white overalls.
On his head the parson wore an oldy-worldy beekeeper’s straw hat, from the rim of which hung a veil, tucked in under the collar of the overalls. In his hand he held a smoker with which he was puffing ferociously all round and at his body. Around him swarmed a cloud of clearly angry bees.
He passed the window and, a moment later, the opening and closing of a door and heavy footsteps could be heard somewhere inside. Then a door into the anteroom opened and the Hierarch entered. He was still in the overalls but his head was now visible.
It was massive, covered in thick tidy grey hair. His face was heavy and fleshy, like a farmer’s, with good-natured but somehow sad furrows around the mouth and eyes. They in turn were dark and wise, equally sad and well meaning in a resigned way.
“One of my colonies is very vicious”, he said without introduction, in a deep, slightly nasal voice somewhat resembling a trombone, or a bulbous-beaked Chinese goose Cygnopsis cygnoides which had learned to articulate speach. “My friends keep advising me to put them down with sulphur smoke - but I can’t - I tried to catch the queen to change her for a gentle one, you know? Because when you exchange the queen for a docile one from a docile colony, then her progeny will also be docile, you know? But that’s the second time I haven’t found the vicious one. She’s there all right, the broodchamber is full, but she gave me the slip again somehow. It’s a big colony, you know. So, drawn another blank. My sister is complaining she can’t go into the garden - what can I do? I’ll have to try again sometime. And what brings you to these parts?”
The last phrase did not sound like an affectation, coming from his lips. He looked at Zderad mildly and ponderously, but piercingly, as if he could see right inside him.
Confused by this X-ray scan, Zderad once more stammered out his enquiry, and the necessary details about himself.
“Well, come on in,” said the parson. “Something rather strange happened there, you see. Let’s find a quiet place to talk about it. Perhaps you could clear up a few things for me as well.”
The Parson led Zderad into a small room which looked like rooms in all older, wealthy country parsonages, in the same way that the priest himself was a typical example of a good village parson. He disappeared again for a moment, and returning without the overalls in just shirt and trousers, he poured Zderad some cranberry or some such wine, sat down opposite him at a little table with a doily, and once again scrutinised him wisely and heavily with his dark eyes.
“So you are Mr. Zderad” he trumpeted again quietly. “Young Zdenĕk - father Brva - told me about you, how good you were at school, and in particular at Greek. But he said you used to needle him about the truth of scripture - you shouldn’t have done that.”
Zderad became confused again. It was quite true of course. Zderad often enjoyed showing Brva his own intellectual superiority even by pointing out the absurdities of his faith and confusing him that way. He had thought at the time that stupid Brva was letting it in one ear and out the other, but he was brought up sharply when he realised that in doing so he had touched him and tortured him more that he had intended.
“And what are you doing now, - at the University I suppose?”
Zderad felt the usual taste of bile in his mouth and aggressively confessed that he was only a funeral singer.
“Oh, why’s that? - Ah, I see. - Still, be glad you’re free at least. While a man has a full belly and a roof over his head he has good reason to be content and praise God!”
Zderad had long since acquired this wisdom - even though he did not praise God for it - but alas his current situation turned it all to naught.
He felt a strong urge to tell the priest everything - he looked trustworthy - but in the end he changed his mind after all.
“You know,” the priest continued in his trombone manner, “but don’t tell anyone - dear Zdenĕk died. He died” - the priest lowered his voice to a horrified whisper - “by his own hand! Just think - a priest - and here, in a village. We kept it from the villagers, even his family doesn’t know - the doctor was helpful. - We told them all that he died because his heart gave out. - When a man hangs himself his heart does stop beating - so we weren’t lying, really,” he added with the usual clerical circumlocution.
“And then - to do something like that - his heart gave out in a moral sense too, he lost heart as we say, don’t we? So we didn’t really lie. The bishop gave permission for a Church funeral, that’s common enough now, and we told his mother she couldn’t see him - that he was decomposing already, poor thing - he looked awful - dear God” - the parson crossed himself. “ We don’t even know why - hard to tell. There was a man who came to visit him out here, from the City, who he was or why it’s difficult to say, - we thought perhaps that he might be from the police or something - but we don’t know. Zdenĕk was afraid of him. But he never confided in us. They used to go to the woods together - they used to be gone a long time - and Zdenĕk, - he was obviously unhappy about it, he would pray in the chapel long into the night, - and he would weep, - he was such a sensitive boy, but you knew him. He never confided in me, you know. And I - I must say - didn’t pressure him to, to be honest I was half afraid of what he might tell me, even though I can’t think what it could have been. I thought even, - but then I know that Zdenĕk liked girls - in all decency, you understand, but we are also only human - but he used to look, I noticed that. Lord knows... He didn’t come to me for confession - that’s not usual practice - so I don’t know - though, of course I wouldn’t have said to anyone. - He used to go to the late Ješina, on his bicycle, across the woods. Quite often. Then Ješina passed away and no one took her place. Dear Zdenĕk became sadder and sadder - and then finally it happened. God have mercy on his soul. You see I thought, as a schoolmate of his, since you used to be friends, perhaps you could throw some light on it all?”
Zderad felt he probably could, but not to this old priest, who seemed too naive in that way priests do. Besides, he wasn’t sure. He just asked what the man had looked like.
“He’s difficult to describe, he had sort of strange pale eyes - like - like the water sprite in folk tales. That’s why we thought he might be, you know - a secret agent. But then again, that didn’t seem to be it. He was dressed well and so on. -- But why the devil should a man like that - sit venia - visit a chaplain in the country.”
So it was clear.
But Zderad couldn’t tell the priest what was what. That was probably another mistake. Had he told the truth, the old parson might have advised him. It’s an age old fact that Catholic priests may look and talk as if they are clueless, but in fact often they are not so naive at all. The Holy Roman Church is the foxiest of foxes, and a Catholic parson, unlike various other pastors, gets to hear the most peculiar things in the confessional. Apart from that, Father Plicka also seemed to be reasonable in an ordinary, non-religious way. He’d even let slip that he had the right suspicion- but - no - not that!
Had Zderad decided to speak then, he might still have got out of it, but he didn’t. Instead the conversation turned to Brva, his studies, home circumstances etc., to Zderad himself, his wife on vacation, how he was on his way to see her, and later when Zderad was rising to leave, the parson told him he’d better stay the night, as there would be no more trains to Mlno by then. And that is what happened.