translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood
This excerpt first appeared in the anthology Into the Spotlight, 2017.
Reprinted with permission.
He admired authors who were capable of reading their work out in public, noting the passages that didn’t work, yet still managed to hold the audience spellbound. In theory he, too, knew what face to make and what to say but: how could he do it with the face he had? What sort of face was it?
It was a face that turned a serious expression into a caricature.
So he combined the caricature of the face with a caricature of the voice and in this way he often managed to pull off the caricature of a performance on stage. But the audience was real and quite reasonably expected a real experience. His disfigured appearance and disfigured utterances were automatically accompanied by disfigured opinions, fractured syntax, disjointed sentences – smoke is still rising from the wreckage – logic has suffered a major head-on collision – the fire brigade in the audience is deploying specialized equipment to rescue fragments of meaning and sense from the smashed-up wreckage of his text.
A single accidentally uttered word – in these situations he only ever uttered words accidentally – was enough to conjure up memories. All of a sudden he would freeze and become catatonic, convinced that he would never be able to move again, that he’d never escape from this accursed place because an accidentally uttered word amidst the wreck of an unfinished sentence would prevent any further verbal means of expression; with his eyes popping he would try to mumble something but couldn’t even bring himself to repeat the wretched word that had unleashed the stream of memories, so he would just sit there with bulging eyes, saying nothing, and the audience sat there with bulging eyes, whispering, while he was overwhelmed by the memory inside his head, some detail to do with Laura; or maybe he recalled the curse Diana had put on him one night ten years ago; to cut a long story short, it was something in his memory that had turned toxic, as if his brain had excreted some acid that dissolved memories into the disgusting glop now filling his head, and the glop paralysed him, in extreme cases forcing him to seek God or some other kind of salvation, and the next day the papers would report that this was yet another awkward reading by a very awkward writer.
If he were now in the village of Nová Vieska near Štúrovo, the pub would be filled with smoke like in the good old days. Despite the monstrosities of history, geraniums would be blooming on the windowsills. It would have been a good place for deleting lines and a good time for regrets, all washed down with four shots of Fernet. However, when he realised what his exes probably thought of him, and that included Laura who was also about to turn into an ex, what his subordinates as well as his bosses at work thought of him, what his father thought of him, the father he hadn’t seen for eleven years, and even then their encounter had taken place in a courtroom, his face froze and at that moment definitively turned into a caricature.
As he left the bar with Laura and her daughter, he tripped and tumbled into the snow.
The little girl burst out laughing and started running around him in circles.
He adjusted his hat and watched Laura from the snowdrift, wondering: will this woman ever remember me later, when all this has completely crumbled?
Then he looked at her daughter and wondered if this child would ever think of him, if she would remember him making a fool of himself just to humour her, something he had, incidentally, never done before.
Then he looked at the surrounding mountains, houses, villas, and hotels and wondered if he himself would one day, many years from now, ever think of this little town in the Tatra mountains, this place called Starý Smokovec.
And suddenly he wasn’t even sure why he would want to remember any of this – maybe to make his own wretched existence seem fulfilled, satisfied in some way – surely not Smokovec? – so that his life didn’t consist of just empty, gradual ageing, ebbing away, weakening, vanishing, a departure, so that later he could feel that he too had once cherished illusions, that he too had managed to blurt out something when carried away by his feelings, that he had touched another human body.
As he lay there in the snow he was suddenly frightened that maybe it was not him but Panza who was lying there.
That he himself had disappeared, got lost in a twist of the plot; had he been left behind in Nová Vieska?
He sprang up nimbly from the snowdrift, almost knocking over Laura’s surprised daughter, stamped his feet to shake the snow off his trainers – he only ever wore trainers, whether in Starý Smokovec or Nová Vieska – but hang on, wasn’t he confusing Nová Vieska with Devínska Nová Ves?
He clutched his head, feeling his thinning hair; his hat was gone.
He never wore a hat.