THE LAST COMMUNIST IN SUSICE
“I don’t know like who, I haven’t been here, that’s why I asked”.
“What makes you think I’d know anything about that”?
“Because you’re always here”.
“You said you were”.
“I could have been lying. I mean, you don’t even know where you are, you said that yourself”.
“Was my father here”?
“You said your father was dead”?
“Yep. Last time you were here. You said ‘My father died today’”.
“But how could I have said that? My father’s alive and well. Why would I say that”?
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger kid, I’m only relaying what you said back to you”.
“But you could be lying, you said that yourself”.
“I could be. But I’m not. I only lie about things that have value to me and whether your father is alive or not has no value to me, believe it or not. You’re not that important”.
Milan Krupnik paused and looked around the room. The same room as before. Dark and empty. The table unfinished; the chairs opposite, sitting exactly as last time. Nothing had moved, not even the air, it seemed.
Did nothing happen here? Ever? And how did the man sitting at the head of the table come to the conclusion that Milan’s father had passed away?
“Why do you never ask me any questions”? Milan said.
Uncle Joe raised an eyebrow as if to punctuate the stupidity of the idea.
“What’s for me to ask “?
“Well, you’ve never asked my name or anything”.
“But I know your name. I know all about you. I know your past, your present and your future”.
“You know my future? How could you know my future”?
Stalin laughed. A genuine laugh, as if reacting to a cute dog trick. Amusement.
“You think you are here now, am I right? I mean, as far as you are concerned this is all normal. Even though, when you first arrived here you didn’t understand. You couldn’t get to grips on the fact that there was a room like this and that you were in it”.
They were questions but not the type you answered.
“Have you ever wondered where this is and what this is and why this is? Also, equally as important and maybe even more so, when this is? You sit there in your little boy pyjamas as if you’re heading off to bed, but there’s no bed. Show me the bed. There’s no bed time because there’s no time. Not here. Tell me what time it is. Show me the clock”.
“You can’t” Stalin went on, his face impassive and body movements minimal. Like the wax work doll thawing from a spell in a freezer.
“You can’t because you have nothing to relate to here. Nothing is familiar, am I right? No need to answer because I know I’m right. I’m always right. Fucking shoot any man that says I’m not right. Not that I see a lot of men any more, just boys in their pyjamas, Good grief. But back in the day, if any man had said what I just suggested they might say then I would have had them shot. By someone else. Remember Beria? I had him shot. Bloody traitor. 1976 your boys won the European Cup. Do you remember that? Czechoslo-bloody-vakia European champions. How did that happen? Anyway, I’m veering off the point a little. What I am attempting to relay to you so that it gets into your thick skull is that this ‘place’ that we sit in is somewhere you go, it would appear, when you need to ask your stupid bloody questions”.
“So it’s not real”?
Stalin looked Milan square in the eye, “Did I say that? Did I say this isn’t real? How could it not be real? You’re in it aren’t you? If you’re in it then it has to be real. Not real is the plate of steak and potatoes not in front of you. Not real is the elephant playing football not in this room. That’s not real. For fuck sake, did they teach you people nothing in those schools”?
“But if it’s real, then why don’t I remember getting here and why would you say that my father was dead and what do you mean about Czechoslovakia winning the European championships? None of that makes sense”.
“Look” said the great dictator, “I’m not here to provide you with answers sonny boy. I’m here for you to project you’re stupid shit onto. That’s the way I see it. If you needed to do more, there would be more. As it stands, I’m here and you’re here. Why me, I have no idea. I wish I knew. I have better things to do with my time than sit here and listen to you rambling on. I think. I think I have better things to do. Doesn’t matter. My point is, you’re here for some weird fucked up reason. And I’m here representing whatever the hell you think is wrong with your life. Maybe you blame me and want to kick the crap out of me, which I won’t allow, I state that categorically now. However, for the sake of argument let’s pretend that is why you are here, then that’s a reason and a good enough one to begin with. Do I make myself clear”?
He didn’t. To Milan it just sounded as confusing as when he first sat in the chair back whenever that was. If indeed, it was.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter to me if you ‘get’ it or not anyway. What do I care? I ran this joint for crying out loud. Ran it well too. OK, there were some bumps along the way and I didn’t shoot my own wife, but once people did exactly as I said at all times then everything worked out. So, whether you in your beddy-bye-bye clothes wants to believe me, is in no way of any interest to me. And I can say that with all honesty. What’ya think about that”?
The words were spoken with such passion and velocity, yet the body remained static, as if only the words mattered. As if the message was more important than the medium. Having said that, Josef Stalin was some medium. The main aspect of the conversation to this point that perplexed Milan was not the re-emerging in this strange, yet calming room. It wasn’t the fact that Stalin sat before him again half alive and half plastic, nor was it that he knew this could not be a dream because it had a completely alien quality to it. What confused Milan most was that he may have said his own father was dead. That made no sense. He saw him that morning at the breakfast table, eating the French bread, drinking his special coffee and talking about maps. If something had happened in the meantime then he would have been told. There he was in his pyjamas, so the day was apparently over, and he had heard nothing. Therefore, nothing happened. His father was a very popular man, so word of his death would have spread quickly.
“He’s not dead”.
Stalin looked away to the distance again. “Fine” he said. Just that. The dis-interest screaming from his every pore.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I know”?
“I don’t ask questions, you do. And I don’t give answers either”.
“Well if you don’t give answers, then who does”?
“Take a wild guess, Einstein”.
“That’s not fair. I can’t ask the question and give the answer to the question I just asked. If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask the question would I”?
“Oh come on, give me more than that. You sort of asked questions earlier when you asked my opinion on something, I can’t remember what it was now because my mind’s muddled up, but at least converse with me”.
“How do you suggest I do that”? Stalin asked.
“You tell me”.
“I might lie”.
“Did you lie before”?
“Everything has the potential to be a lie”.
“Well, did you lie when you said that I said my father was dead”?
“If you lied when you said it originally and I repeated what you said, then yes, by proxy I lied”.
“But I don’t remember saying it”.
“Then we’ll never know if you lied about it so we’ll never know if my repeating it was the doubling up of that lie. If it were a lie, that is”.
“That doesn’t help me”.
“I’m not here to help you”.
“The why are you here”?
“Because I like to sit in this chair”.
“Ok. Ok” Milan wavered. Arguing with a man who won’t argue is basically an argument with yourself. What’s the point in that?
Stalin was so unlike his father, it was unbelievable. Where Petr Krupnik liked nothing more than to instigate a debate, this guy seemed to abhor the thought of it. Petr Krupnik enjoyed voicing his opinion. Stalin didn’t even seem to hold one. How did he end up ruling over the entire Soviet Union and satellite countries if he didn’t care”?
“Do you care about anything”?
“You think I don’t care about things”? Stalin asked (yes actually asked – a fact that Milan noticed but decided not to comment on, just in case he jinxed it).
“That’s what I said”, Milan poked.
“Yes but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you think, just because you said it”.
“Don’t you always say what you think”? Milan asked.
“So you say”.
“That’s right. So I say”, Stalin said.
“So if a woman in an ugly dress were to ask you what you think of the dress, would you say what you think”?
“Really? You would tell her that you think the dress is ugly”?
“Then you have fallen back on your word”.
“That wasn’t my word”, Stalin said.
“You’re the one that described the dress as ugly, not me”.
“It’s a fictional dress, I’m presuming it to be ugly”.
“Maybe ugly to you is mysterious to me and therefore the dress in my opinion would be a thing of beauty”.
“Well then for the sake of argument, let’s suppose you did find the dress ugly. Then would you say it to her”?
“Well then, that means you wouldn’t say what you thought”, Milan went on.
“Yes it would”.
“Wait, wait, wait. You think the dress is ugly, yes”?
“In theory, yes”.
“OK, in theory. But you tell the lady that it’s not. Is that right”?
“Yes, yes. Quite right”.
“Well, then you’re not saying what you think”.
Stalin turned once again and looked Milan in the eye.
“If a woman in an ugly dress asks my opinion of the dress, I will think the best course of action is to tell a lie and say it is pretty. That would be my thought and that would be what I would relay. I would tell her what I thought”.
“But then it would be impossible for her to ever be able to tell if what you are saying is the truth or if you are holding back your real thoughts”.
“Congratulations. You have just come full circle”, he smirked.
He was right. The dirty bastard of a dictator was right.
Milan wanted to jump away from the table, throw his chair across the floor and wake up in his bed in his apartment with his dad and get back to normal.
“Jožin z bažin močálem se plíží,
Jožin z bažin k vesnici se blíží,
Jožin z bažin už si zuby brousí,
Jožin z bažin kouše, saje, rdousí.
Na Jožina z bažin, koho by to napadlo,
platí jen a pouze práškovací letadlo”.
One night, a song appeared on TV that affected his father in a way Milan had never seen before. At first the act on the screen was greeted with curiosity – who’s this? What’s this about? Then, the curiosity appeared to turn into inquisitiveness and interest. As the funny looking man with the huge bow tie sang about catching a monster in a bog, Petr Krupnik started to make a ‘Tsk’ noise with his mouth. The type of noise that a person makes when they are experiencing a disappointment tinged with a hesitant and slightly suppressed fury. He sat forward in his seat, locked in position.
The song continued with the man in the bow tie joined by another man who suddenly popped up on his left hand side. This other man, wearing a dark suit whose shirt and tie sat covered by a beard hanging down over his chest, began a crazy dance. His movements seemed random, yet they managed to magically stay in time with the beat. Flinging his arms about, his shoulders jumping up and down as if two ferrets were living inside the lining of his jacket, the second man added a sense of ridiculousness to the scene.
“Turn the TV off Petr”.
“What was that dad”?
Clearing his mind in order to properly answer his son, Petr began speaking – not knowing which words to use until he heard them depart his mouth and enter into the air.
“That…was something…I haven’t seen in a few years Milan”.
“Is it someone you know”?
“No. I don’t know them, but it certainly is…familiar”.
“Is that a good thing”?
Petr paused: “Not always son…not always”.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha”!!!!!
He really was laughing.
“Fucking hilarious son, fuck-ing high-layer-ee-uss. Oh dear. That was a funny song wasn’t it? Your dada had no sense of humour back then. None”.
Josef Stalin had tears streaming down his cheeks.
“But it was about you” Milan said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe, maybe. Bloody smart though. That fellow was bloody smart to write that. Oh dear”.
“It was definitely about you” Milan stressed.
“I know, I know. But ya gotta hand it to them – when it’s good, it’s good”.
“I thought you would have hated that song”.
“Well” Stalin conceded slightly as he began to regain his poise, “I probably would have had them shot, but they would have been shot knowing that they made a bloody funny song”.
The logic I suppose was there.
“Why did you say my Dad had no sense of humour”?
Catching his breath in deep gulps and settling his body into a natural rhythm, Stalin began to resemble the Stalin Milan had known from his other visits.
The old politician bluff. The re-direct would be next, where he says something on the lines of ‘Why do you need to ask me that’? or ‘You seem to be obsessed with what other people say’.
“Yes, you said my Dad had no sense of humour ‘back then’. That’s what you said”.
“Did I? Oh, don’t mind me – I’m just an old dictator, probably mistaking him for someone else. Anyway, why are you so concerned with what other people say”?
There it was! Milan felt he was onto something here and didn’t want to let this go. Dog with a bone and all that.
“No no, come now Joseph Stalin – you know exactly what I’m talking about. You made a comment about my father and I want to know what it means. Did you know him? Did he know you? What’s the meaning”?
Stalin laughed again, more to buy time than anything else it appeared.
Ha ha ha.
Tick tick tock.
“Answer me you fuck” Milan blurted ! Fine words from a twelve year old, it has to be said.
“OK, OK. You want all the answers don’t you, you little shit. You want everything handed to you in a nice wrapped package. Here Milan Krupnik – here’s your youth and that’s why that happened and that’s why that happened. Hope that makes sense. Now, here’s your father and this is what he did and this is what other people said about him. Oh and he was a cruel and selfish bastard, you want to hear that? He was cruel and self serving. All he thought about was himself and how you could maintain the legacy of him. You like that? Let’s see, what else have I got. You think the worst thing is that your father had no sense of humour? Ha, that’s not even the start”.
“But how do you know? My dad never met Joseph Stalin”!
Again, the laugh. A hearty, throaty bellow which in actual fact reminded Milan very much of his own father’s laugh. The one he reserved for those moments when the stupidity of a situation seemed so ridiculous, the only course of action left to him was to laugh. Loudly.
“You’re still convinced that I’m Stalin aren’t you? You still sit there thinking that Joseph Stalin, ruler of the Soviet Union, the man who had Lenin and Trotsky bumped off purely for his own means, the man who practically annihilated Georgia, who put millions to the labour camps and certain death , is actually happy to just sit here and discuss the domestic ramblings of a permanently time-frozen twelve year old Czech boy. You really believe that don’t you? Not for one second have you questioned the whole scenario you find yourself in and why this has been conjoured up. I’ll have you know, yours is not the only situation I’ve been called to correct. Oh no. I’ve had thousands upon thousands of people bring me into their lives to set them straight, to answer their questions, to fucking do their hard work for them. Maybe that’s my punishment for all that I did. Maybe that’s it – maybe I have to sit here and listen to all of this shit from you people because I brought all onto you so therefore I have to get a big ole shovel and try and put that shit out of your way. Is that it? Maybe. Probably deserve it – I was a mad bastard. But, for you to think that I’m actually sitting here, for real – flesh and blood in front of you, well that IS funny”.
Wow: the best mis-direct ever.
“So. What did you mean when you said my father had no sense of humour”?
Stalin held his breath, sighed deeply and resigned himself to his situation.
“Ask. Your. Self” he said. “Ask yourself. That’s what I’m saying. Ask your bloody stupid self”.
“Is there something different in the room today” Milan asked.
“Different? In what way ‘different”?
He didn’t know.
“I don’t know. Something”.
“I had a dream about that song you know”.
“I know” replied Stalin.
“Oh. Of course. What did it mean do you think”.
“I don’t think boy, you know that. I just like to sit here”.
“But, they sang the Jozin z Bazin song and the American tanks rolled in and it was a man from the village driving it and everything stopped. I don’t understand that”.
“Russian tanks liberated Susice. Don’t forget that”.
“I know” said Milan “But in the dream they were American”.
“That’s how you know it was a dream then – couldn’t have been real. Was Red Army”.
“Well, yeah. That and the fact that the tower leaned to one side and everything stopped. They were clues too”.
“No need for sarcasm. You’re one of Husak’s Children aren’t you? You weren’t raised to be sarcastic”.
“Husak’s Children…that’s a joke. It was all black and white with that lot. Everything was boring and dull and you had to do what you were told. I hated all that”.
“You seemed to like it”.
“I only did that because I wanted to keep my Dad happy. I thought he was the greatest man in the world, I didn’t want to upset him. Why would I want to do that”?
“Why would anyone want to do anything”?
“Well, it’s better than doing nothing but sit in a chair all day”.
“That’s quite hurtful you know” said Stalin.
“OK, look I’m sorry” Milan said “I know you haven’t always sat in that chair”.
“Damn right I haven’t. I ran this place you know. Ran it for years and people like Beria tried to snatch it away from me, so you know what I did? I had him shot. There I said it. Should have shot Brezhnev too”.
“Would have saved us all a lot of trouble if you had”.
Stalin remained rooted to the spot, expressionless.
“Brezhnev didn’t do anything to harm you. You harmed yourselves with all that Prague Spring nonsense. Prague Spring….what was that supposed to mean? A bunch of hippies reading books and drinking coffee? Give me a break”.
“Just because people wanted to read books and listen to music and drink coffee doesn’t mean you have to invade them you know”.
“ I didn’t”!!
“I don’t mean you – I mean the Soviets. You probably would have anyway”.
“Damn right I would have. Bunch of longhaired hippies trying to tell us how we can control you? I don’t think so. We gave you bunch the freedom to do as we said and for that all we got was abuse. Worse than dogs we were treated”.
“That’s because you invaded”!!
“See? Never grateful. Then you have those fuckers taking the piss out of me with that song”?
“ I thought you said you liked it”.
“Never believe a word that comes out of my mouth kid. I lie to save my ass, remember? I had Trotsky done in because he saw through me. Ice pick. In through the ear. That’s painful”.
“The energy in here is different” Milan said again. Something had changed since the last time, if indeed there had been a last time. As he had been told many times up to this point in painstaking detail – there is no time here. It just is and what was past is now and what is in the future is now. So maybe he had never left. Maybe he had never arrived. If he had never arrived then where was he and who was this sitting in his Young Pioneer uniform asking questions and how had he changed from pyjamas back into the uniform? And why was Josef Stalin still here? Something had changed. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Novotny was my man, y’know. He knew what he was doing. Neo-Stalinism he called it. I liked anything with my name on it. Ever been to Stalingrad son? What a town. I wanted everything to have my name on in – football teams, the sea, mountains. That would have been great. Could you imagine someone driving to Stalingrad over the Stalin mountains to get a boat across the Stalin sea. Fantastic. Loved his censorship Novotny. He was worse than me for that shit. What a player”.
Milan had stopped listening; he just wanted to leave again. This room sapped your spirit and drained you right down to your reserves. No wonder Stalin sat all day, he probably had no energy left to do anything else. Just sit and listen and talk. That’s all you could muster here. Maybe that’s why there was nothing else in that room – because it was impossible to move about. Not that the air was heavy, more that every thought you had in your head popped out and sat on your lap and the next thought on top of that and so on. Until all your thoughts weighed onto your body and covered your line of sight and fell onto your feel and covered your head and the more you thought about it the more they popped out. But just their energy, not the physical manifestation of them. Just the energy, so you could feel their weight but never see them. The room still felt endless, no that wasn’t even the right way to define it. Rather, it had no end because it was impossible to mark out it’s beginning. If something has no beginning then how does it have an end? So his thoughts could keep popping out and popping out all day long and always have room to sit.
Just like Stalin. Sitting there.
“Is my father dead”?
“We’re all dead at some level boy”.
“That’s not an answer”.
“I don’t give answers”.
“Yes you do. It’s questions you don’t do. Answers you give”.
“Nope. You ask and you answer. I just sit here”.
“I ask and I answer. Half the time I don’t even know what questions I’m supposed to ask”.
“The don’t ask any. Just sit”
“I am sitting”.
“Hmm, not properly. Your body is sitting but your mind is dancing all over the place. It’s a little unsettling if I’m to be honest.”.
“Yes. Have you ever tried that? Just sitting? Not thinking? That’s why you’re tired and confused. Your thoughts are messed up all over the floor and on the table here, it’s a disgrace”.
“You can see them”?
“Well, of course I can’t see them. I’m not a bloody clairvoyant. But I can feel them and there’s way too many for me to be dealing with. You need to sort your shit out on your own”.
“So why are you here then, if I need to sort it out on my own”?
“Haven’t you asked me this before? I’m here because you need me here. As soon as you don’t need me, then I’m gone”.
“Why would I need you”?
Stalin smiled “That sounds awfully like a question…”
Company day out.
The annual gathering. Usually a great day, especially for kids. Milan had loved it every year up until now. Not that he had any way of predicting that he wouldn’t enjoy it that year, just a feeling that’s all. A feeling that maybe it wouldn’t be the same. Probably down to getting older. Nobody had said that to him, no one ever spoke about things like that. Not that he liked them to – much too embarrassing a subject. Could you imagine him sitting in the living room across from his father as the elder Krupnik put on his serious voice to tell Petr all about the birds and the bees? Ugh, no thanks. He’d be fine finding out like everyone else – through rumour and awkward experiences.
Up to now the day out meant travel, packed lunches, events, games and laughter. It meant sunshine, treats, good humour and more laughter. It meant excitement, adventure and novelty. Friends playing ‘I Spy’ on the bus, adults busy with cards.
Arriving at the destination, usually somewhere within a two-hour radius, not too far but far enough to look different. Ceske Budejovice maybe. The adults taken to the winery, the children brought to see the factory. That part was boring enough, but after there was always the lunch and cakes. Zemlovka or Misa…whatever the women had made and brought along. Things always tasted better on those trips. They could have fed them cabbage soup and it would have tasted nice on the trip.
Well, maybe that’s stretching it a little bit.
Milan noticed his father on these days out. He looked in control, in charge and proud of himself. His chest puffed more than usual as he wandered about shaking hands and speaking genially to the men and their wives. A laugh here and a comforting shoulder pat there – everyone looked to him. The words silent from afar, but the meaning obvious: “Hello, I’m Petr Krupnik, I will look after you. See the wonderful day I’ve arranged? It’s all for your benefit and it’s my pleasure”.
Thank you the eyes say in return. The men then turning to look at their wives who see them as smaller than they did that morning.
The women taking out shotguns and shooting their husbands in the head. Blood, silent screams, more blood.
His father standing passively in the background, arms folded, feet criss-crossed casually. A slight smile on his handsome face. More handsome than before.
Mrs Novotna walking over to him, but not the same Mrs Novotna of now. A younger version of her. Younger and sexier. Beautiful in fact. Wearing a bright white dress covered in large flower patterns, the contours of the material moving suggestively, accentuating her womanly parts. Milan had never noticed womanly parts like that before and wasn’t sure what it meant. Her legs striking him as the most delectable things he had ever seen. Tanned and enticing. She stands in front of his father and strokes his hair delicately, like a child absent-mindedly grooming the mane of her rocking horse. Carefully, softly and practiced. She had done this before. His father paid little attention to her. Even though it didn’t look like the old bag from the apartment building, somehow Milan knew it was. Now he could see her close up. Her nose like a movie queen’s, her cheekbones sharp enough to cut a finger and her eyes sparkling like a pond at summers dawn.
She kissed his father on the mouth, forcefully. Did he return the kiss? It was impossible to say because all Milan could do was stare into those eyes. His father’s eyes. They were looking directly at the boy, through him, as if seeing into him, searching for his thoughts. It felt as though his father’s eyes had gained access to his body and was inside him now searching around with a torch, shuffling in the darkness trying to find his true thoughts. The thoughts he had hidden from view, even from himself. Thoughts of love and betrayal, of malice and weakness, of loss and hope, desire and hate. All thoughts lived somewhere inside his mind and if he couldn’t break free of his father’s gaze soon then they would be discovered, removed and taken away for analysis.
Mrs Novotna had stopped kissing his father’s mouth now and had returned to stroking his face and looking up at him. He was a tall, magnificently built man. The bodies of the lesser men came back into view as Milan surveyed the scene of carnage around him. Women with shotguns by the side, stood next to their fallen spouses. All the men were dead. Except his father and Karel Gott.
“You shouldn’t be here you see kid”, Karel Gott, dressed as a movie cowboy in a white jacket with frayed edges, white tight trouser, black boots and an oversized white stetson said.
“Not meant to be here. I tried to warn you but couldn’t get through to you before”.
“Yes” he continued, jumping dramatically down from the bale of hay he appeared to be standing on and coming to a stop, close by Milan. Roughly five feet away, close enough to see the gleaming white teeth, ecstatic eyes and ivory skin. His right foot now resting on the end of a wagon, right arm on his thigh as he struck the classic “Gee Whizz Golly” cowboy pose.
“Look at all of this” he waved across at the bodies and his father with Mrs Novotna “It’s all wrong. These men shouldn’t have been shot and you shouldn’t see your father like this”.
“Like he truly was kid, like he truly was”.
Like he truly was?
“How do you know my father”?
Mr Gott laughed and slapped his thigh “ Well, if that don’t just beat all.
Everyone knows your father” he shouted “Everyone”!
The dead men stood up and walked away. Just like that, they all rose and left. Walking, all the way to the horizon like the closing of a play. Their part was over and they could leave now. Their blood had disappeared with them; it was no longer on the ground. The women stood in place, not moving, heads bowed. Shotguns by their sides.
Milan looked at Karel Gott who continued to hold his pose and smiled readily and brightly.
“Why did they shoot their husbands”?
The laugh and thigh slap again “Well, that’s a tough question to answer kid, truth be told. I guess in the end we are all accountable for our actions and our past deeds. Maybe those men had it coming and who better to mete out justice than the party offended against”.
Milan didn’t know what this meant, but Karel Gott the cowboy had seemed so happy with his statement that it seemed churlish to ruin the moment for him. He realised how silly that was – that he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of a Czech man dressed up as an American cowboy who had appeared out of nowhere to tell explain to him why more than two dozen men being shot to death was possibly not a bad thing.
“D’ya get me boy”?
“Yes, yes indeed. I really do. This isn’t really happening though is it”?
“What’s not really happening”?
“This” Milan said pointing back at the scene, which was becoming starker each time he looked.
“Not sure I follow you son”.
“It’s like at the town square when the clocks stopped and the American tank drove in”.
“At the end of the war when the tanks rolled in to Susice”.
“Yeah…I think you’ll find them there tanks were Red Army ma boy, none of yer Yankee business”.
“Whatever. It’s similar. It’s some sort of illusion isn’t it? It’s not real”.
“Real is whatever you want it to be kid”. Karel Gott put both feet on the ground, stood erect in front of Milan and placed his hands over the holsters on either side of his magnificent silver belt buckle. Built to impress.
“Illusions last as long as you need them to”.
“Well, I’d like this one to end” Milan said.
“And yet we’re still here”.
And yet, they were. They were still there. His father had faded away into the distance, still there with Mrs Novotna but blurred as if they had been shrouded in some sort of mist and became out of focus. They were smaller too, or further away.
“What did you mean when you said that I shouldn’t be here”?
“Just that. I only say what I need to say”.
That didn’t help at all. It was like asking a waiter what ingredients are in a dish and him telling you that they’re food ingredients.
“Should I be afraid of something”?
“I don’t know. I have these illusions, these dreams, these ‘things’ happen to me and I don’t know what they have to do with reality”.
“All depends on your definition of reality”.
“I don’t know my definition of reality, that’s part of the problem. It was hidden from me. Is Mrs Novotna my mother or something? I mean, what the hell is she doing over there with my father”.
“Why don’t you ask her if she’s your mother. Or ask you father”.
“I’m afraid one of them might say yes”.
“Then that would be the reality of it”.
“But I’m afraid of that”.
“But you don’t know if it’s true or not”.
“But that’s what I’m afraid of – finding out”.
“How can you be afraid of something you don’t know? If you don’t know what your reality is then how can you be afraid of it? You can only be afraid of knowns. There’s no such thing as being afraid of the unknown because it’s unknown. Why not be excited by the thought of the unknown”?
“I don’t know”.
The women had left. They were gone. Only Milan, Karel Gott and Milan’s father remained in that field. The mist was rolling in quickly now, the air temperature falling as the sun became shrouded in its wispy blanket. Milan’s father was waving at him and shouting words that arrived muffled by the moisture in the air. Each word delivered in a sound-proof liquid bubble, bursting before they reached his ears. Stark trees appeared, their branches brown and crisp from a Winter’s neglect. Pointing west, each one. Each branch pointing west.
“Be seeing ya kid and remember – this lasts as long as you need it to last. Yee Haaaaar”!
With that, Karel Gott rode off on a white steed, the clippity clop sound of the horses hooves the only noise penetrating the void.
“Come on Son…they’re waiting for us”.
Stalin sat hunched over the table, like an old man. His hair seemed to have greyed and his frame appeared lighter, bonier. No discernable muscle tone under the clothes. The face gaunt and strained, haunted eyes so far back in their sockets they seemed to have shrunk. Lines deeply etched into this skin from the pulled down lips to the elongated nose. His essence screaming helplessness and vulnerability. Easy prey for a more capable and virile hunter.
Milan looked at him in, less in shock than curiosity.
He had no feelings for the man, how could he? He was Joseph Stalin - responsible for the deaths of millions. A psychopathic, paranoid megalomaniac.
What was there to like? What was there to feel empathy for? What could he possibly relate to in that man’s mind?
Stalin’s breath rattled around his body, echoing the cavernous interior. The wasted insides of a shell, hollow and void. Like rolling a frozen pea in a metal barrel – bouncing randomly, looking for somewhere to rest.
“Boy” he rasped, looking neither one way nor the other.
Milan sat non-plussed, not fully sure if he was the ‘boy’ referred to, or if the boy lived somewhere in Stalin’s brain.
“Boy” again the rasping quality, this time with a little more force.
“Yes”? Milan ventured.
“Tell me something boy”.
Wheezing intake of breath followed by a high pitched whistling outtake. The energy required to utter those few words seemed immense; a lone ant lifting a stone.
“Do I look like him, boy”?
“Look like him”?
Slow, gentle, patient nodding of the head.
He looked like a man who had aged a hundred years, that’s what he looked like. But it’s not nice to say things like that to people.
“Do not resist. There is nothing we can do”.
What was he talking about?
“Do I look like him”?
And then it dawned on Milan. It struck him coldly between the eyes like a wet fish.
The room was the same – table, chairs, black endless void etcetera. It had become a second home at this stage so to not notice the dark view into oblivion would seem normal. In the same way if I was to ask you what colour your bedroom wallpaper is you would be able to picture it immediately, but tend not to notice it when you’re in bed. Why would you purposely look at your wallpaper and comment on it unless it was brought up in conversation with someone else? Same with the despairing lurch into eternity that hung perilously near and to which neither Milan or Stalin referred.
Yes the room was the same – chairs, table, void-like energy.
He himself seemed the same as ever, this time decked out in the Young Pioneer uniform again for no apparent reason. None that he could fathom, anyway. He still felt about twelve years old, so time couldn’t have passed so rapidly that it aged the man in front of him so much. Then again, didn’t Stalin argue that time here was what you decided it to be? Or something like that. He’s twelve years old for goodness sake – he should be kicking a ball and chasing friends in a field, not deliberating existential problems with a dead dictator.
The wet fish that slapped him on the face and leapt back into the Stalin Sea was none of this.
It was the dawning acknowledgement that the man in front of him wearing Stalin’s clothes loosely and sitting in Stalin’s seat gingerly was not Stalin.
“Do not resist”.
He knew those words.
“There is nothing we can do”.
Those words too.
“Do not resist, there is nothing we can do”.
Surrender, inevitability, failure.
The thoughts punched him in the gut. The little guy from the kitchen that morning re-appearing in his life and socking it to him good in the solar plexus, winding and wounding at the same time. Gone before you know it, but the punch temporarily sitting in the physical before permanently taking up residence in the physiological.
All dreams, all goals, all plans sat listening to those words.
Nothing, what? The opposite of nothing is something. Every ying has a yang, one can’t exist without the other, so ‘nothing’ had to have a ‘something’ as its counter point. Therefore…there had to be something. It had to be an option.
“You think I didn’t think of that”? Alexander Dubcek said, looking empty eyed at the point far distant.
“You think I didn’t go through all of the options”?
“I don’t know” Milan answered “I wasn’t born. How could I know”?
The former operator of the Prague Spring waved his hand lightly and dismissively in the air and spoke with the voice of Mrs Prazakova, “Ach, weak boy”.
A voice Milan had never heard before but recognised at once.
Nothing in this room surprised him any more.
“Why are we talking about this and what are you doing here instead of Stalin”?
“Ha” the half-ghost laughed, almost raising his head “Ha…you tell me young man. You tell me. It’s a bit ironic though don’t you think? Me, taking over the seat of a Soviet leader? Eh? Don’t you think that’s ironic? Almost funny really. Ha. Funny if it weren’t so ridiculous”.
“So I put you here for some reason, that’s what you’re saying isn’t it? I put you in that seat, looking the way you do, saying what you’re saying and I need to figure all of this out, isn’t that what you’re saying”?
“That’s what you’re saying, I’m just…”
“I know – you’re just sitting there. Jesus, you’re as bad a bloody Stalin, do you know that”??
“You have your father’s passion, I’ll give you that”.
Milan looked at the old wreck to his right.
“You knew my father”?
“You tell me”.
“Ok, I’ll tell you”. Milan sat upright as if he had realised he might miss an important meeting and needed to put this business to bed right here, right now. It was his turn to take charge; the twelve-year-old boy in the Pioneer uniform.
“You say, we could do nothing”.
“Don’t interrupt me. I say the opposite of nothing is something. Opposites have to exist otherwise the first element doesn’t exist, do you agree”?
“You can speak when I ask you a question”
“Oh sorry” Dubcek said patronisingly, “I thought you told me not to interrupt. What was the question again? I wasn’t really listening”.
“I said, would you agree that in order for something to exist, there has to be a ‘nothing’ to counter balance it”.
Dubcek nodded “Night and day, black and white…that sort of thing”?
“Right. So if we always have two elements, two sides to any given situation, then they both become possibilities. True”?
“If you say so”.
“No, NOT if I say so. I’m asking you a question”.
“You’re asking yourself a question”.
“But I’m asking it through you”!!
“I think you need to ask yourself why you need to ask me and not go to yourself directly”.
“Will you please stop with the psycho-analytical bullshit and just answer my question?? Any two sides to a situation are, by their nature, possibilities. Would you agree”?
“I would agree with that”.
“So, when you said ‘Do not resist, there is nothing we can do’, did you not know that there was something we could do”.
The old man smiled warmly.
“The something was to do nothing. The action of doing nothing is what we ‘did’” he said.
“So you felt that by doing nothing, you were protecting the people and therefore you had done something”.
“Spot on. Is there tea…”?
“Pay attention. I’m not finished”.
“I’d love a cup of tea. With a little honey”.
“After” Milan insisted.
“After I finish working this out”.
“Well, why don’t you work it out on your own and I’ll have some tea and then you can tell me how it all ended up for you, how does that sound”?
“You will stay because I have brought you here for some reason and I’m on the brink of figuring it out. So, your tea will bloody well wait”.
Dubcek sunk into the back of the seat in a huff. Like a little boy who has been told he can get his ice cream if he’s good and does what his mummy says for the next five minutes, while she talks to her friend.
“But this isn’t about you and it’s not about Stalin, or the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution…”
“Ah, the Velvet revolution…”
“Not now” Milan verbally punched. “This is about me. This is about the opposite of what I’m supposed to be, isn’t it. Let me see, let me see…if everything has an opposite, then that would mean everything I have done so far would have had an opposite. Go to school, don’t go to school. Eat bread, don’t eat bread. Like sports, don’t like sports. It all has an opposite sitting there. So everything was a choice, right”?
“What do you mean”?
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted”.
“No, no, no – what do you mean, ‘was it’”?
Reluctantly shifting his weight from one side of his body to the other in an effort to be more comfortable, Dubcek said “We all think we make our own choices, but that’s not always the case. Look at those people in Wenceslas Square shouting at the Russian soldiers. Was that their choice? It was their choice to shout, or so they thought. But was it? Maybe they were being bullied by their friends to confront the soldiers, I don’t know. They felt they had no choice but to stand up and fight, I said the choice was to ‘let it go’ and see what happens. At least you don’t get shot for letting go”.
“But all that only means that you made decisions in a round about way that set the path for the others to follow. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about every choice having it’s alternate choice and why we choose one way and not the other”?
“That’s what I’m saying you young fool”, suddenly Dubcek became animated, as if he too had a vested interest in Milan arriving at a conclusion.
“Yes, every situation opens the possibility to make a choice. This road or that. Understood. What I’m saying is, someone needed to build the roads first, otherwise you wouldn’t have anywhere to travel. Someone before you made the rules, set up the devices for you to adhere to and decided that this goes here and that goes there. Did you ever want to move a building because it was in your way? No. Probably not. Might never have dawned on you. So you don’t move a building. But guess what? Somebody moved a building once. If they hadn’t, our towns would be full of every building ever made. Ever. Someone at one point said ‘I don’t like that building anymore, so I’m going to tear it down and build a new one’. An action. Just because we don’t think a thing is possible, doesn’t mean it’s impossible”.
“But you said to do nothing. That’s giving up”.
“Ok OK, let me ask you a question – how old do you think most buildings in Susice are”?
“I don’t know”.
“Well, some are old, some are new enough, I suppose”.
“Right. Did you think that the builders of the original houses and cafes and the hotel said to themselves – that’s it , we’ve built the town. It’s over”.
“Of course not”.
“Of course not. So, over time the changes occurred. Slowly. Gradually. The door might need fixing, a roof might need to be repaired, windows start rattling, floor boards warp. The original premise begins to show flaws. The solid structure needs
up- keep and maintenance until eventually some one says – ‘I think we need to build a new house here’”.
Milan paused and thought. Speaking slowly, he picked through his thoughts, plucking words that only served his purpose “So….you’re saying that…you were waiting”?
“What were you waiting for”?
“For their house to fall down. The Soviet house. It was badly built. I knew that it would need lots of repairs, lots of scaffolding to hold it up, but that eventually it would collapse and we would be there to build a new one. It was just a matter of time”.
“You said to do nothing…”
“I never said for how long, did I? I never put a time frame on how long that nothing should last for”.
“No. No you never did”.
“The doing nothing business had purpose. It took patience to see it through to the end and we had that patience. My point young Milan is this – just because something is presented to you as fact, doesn’t mean it is in fact…a fact! You thought we had given up by doing nothing whereas the ‘fact’ of the matter was, as you quite rightly described, the opposite”.
“So, what I have been told is not necessarily the truth, is that it”?
Dubcek folded his arms “You tell me”.
The tea arrived.
“Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life”
Vaclav Havel, 1986.
It really was like a brand new world, a different planet.
Words couldn’t begin to describe how it felt.
To actually travel, on a bus – a Czech bus – across the border and enter into Germany was like jumping into a space ship and travelling to Mars.
The neon signs, the clothes, the food – everywhere you looked, food! Just walk into a shop and buy it. No lining up or being asked how your father is. Just walk in, buy the food and eat it.
Of course, having little money didn’t help and the looks the locals gave as they watched these poor hicks cross over from the dark ages was insulting and degrading at first, but then you just didn’t care.
The air felt free, the breeze could take you anywhere you wanted to go.
“I bought bubble gum”.
“Did you see the fashion”?
“I don’t want to go back”!
But we did go back. There is safety in the familiar.
Rehabilitation takes time, soft encouragement and gentle care.
Poor Czech people. We had been so fooled.
The Kingdom of Forgetting.
All our lives we had heard about Kulaks, Collectivisation, Husak, New Economic Model, STB, KSC, Conformity and Obedience blah blah blah.
All the while the Germans had sausages and bread and butter and coffee and fashion and music. All they wanted.
They certainly fooled us didn’t they?
But we weren’t fools. Far from it.
“Dubcek to the Castle” we all shouted as he emerged on the balcony above us. There he was, our guy! Back from exile working in a lumber yard in Bratislava. Imagine – a politician of such strength and intelligence told to leave politics forever.
Well, forever turned out to be twenty years.
To the Castle – where the President lives!
The older men and women shaking their house keys in the air – anything to make noise. After decades of forced silence, noise of any kind was seen as an act of newly acquired freedom. Force of habit encouraging them to look around and make sure that this was allowed.
People crying and hugging as Mart Kubisova sang ‘A Song For Marta’. She looked shy and nervous standing behind the single microphone. Her voice strengthening as the words flowed and the familiar tune echoed across an attentive Praha and into the homes of every citizen. Not just a song but a symbol of what was taken away and had now been re-claimed. She looked different now. In 1968 her hair was long, her skirts short and her optimism boundless.
We all looked different. That’s what relentlessly living against your true self will do. It will eat away at your very being as you hide the real you because it’s safer to do that than show the world how you really feel.
Yet, here we were – showing the world how we really felt.
It took the students to do it. The students of ’68 started it and then twenty years later their children ended it. Keeping it in the family.
As Dubcek might have said – “We never said how long we would stay quiet for”.
Like the first day of a Summer holiday, we sang and danced and laughed and wished the feeling would never end.
Like a wedding, it was a moment you have dreamed of and now that it arrived found it difficult to comprehend. Yes you were there and yes it was happening but the sounds and smells and sights seem slower and louder and brighter. The buildings were the same, the streets remained steady, but the people changed.
That’s what happened – the people changed.
For a moment, they found their true voice.
“Why did you let him take me away”? Milan asked.
She smiled at him.
“Why didn’t you fight to keep me”? he persisted.
Again, answered by a smile.
“Did you not want me”?
His mother, heavily pregnant lay on the cot in her prison cell.
The smile remained etched on her face as if tattooed permanently. Her eyes, sightless. Karel Gott to her left, dressed like a Beatle. Beside him Ivan Mladec humming Jozin z Bazin.
“I only want to know why, then I’ll leave you alone”.
“I never thought I was good enough to be your mother. I always felt that you would hate me because I wouldn’t be able to tell you what to do. I wouldn’t be able to reprimand you or direct you or steer you from right and wrong. I didn’t have the ability to raise you properly. Raising a child means creating rules and I learned to hate rules and the people who make them up and worst of all, the people that enforce them. Children need rules and I couldn’t do that”.
“You’re probably right. I probably would have hated you”.
“But. I would have liked the choice”.
“”Ha – we’d all like to have had choice,” yelled Ivan Mladec, tuning his banjo studiously.
“What choice”? Alena asked.
“The choice to like you or hate you or not even care about you”.
“But I had no choice”!! she yelled “What choice did I have”??
“I wish I knew” Milan replied softly. “If we had met, I could have asked you that question”.
“I wanted to meet you” she protested.
“You wanted to meet a little boy, mother. That’s what you wanted. You wanted to meet a little boy who would look up to you and not question you and just follow along meekly. That’s what you wanted”.
Alena said nothing.
“But” Milan went on “Little boys grow up and start asking question. The questions become awkward and the truth becomes more difficult to hide. The cracks show, don’t they? Easier to ignore the child, eh?”
“If that’s what you think my boy. If that’s what you think”.
“Well, it’s partly what you think too isn’t it? I didn’t just come up with these thoughts alone. You’re in there somewhere, still in your prison cell, still pregnant, still writing to give birth. So they might be my thoughts, but I can’t exclude you from them because you’re creating with me”.
“I’m breaking out of here Milan. I’m not staying here any longer. They can’t keep me holed up like this forever. I have to get out. Can you show me how to get out”?
Milan shook his head, “No. No I can’t do that for you”.
“But you got in, how did you get in? That must be the way out”.
“You’re right, it is. It’s my way out, but yours is different isn’t it? Your way out is not the same as mine”.
“No. No it’s not”, Alena sat up on the mattress and rubbed her swollen belly. “I have to go a different way don’t I. Why do I”?
“I don’t know mum…I really don’t know”.
“No” she conceded, “I don’t either. Will you stay a little longer”?
Milan sat beside his mother on her prison bed. Karel Gott walked to the other side of the room, lightly humming a Beatles medley to himself.
“As long as you want” Milan said, stroking her hair gently. It felt like silk; warm and lustrous.
He woke the next morning soaked with sweat, the sheets stuck to his bare skin; hair matted to his scalp. It was November, but felt like the like a mid-summer heatwave.
Usually dreams lived in the moments of deep sleep for Milan. The very second his eyes opened, they disappeared. No matter how hard he thought or how much effort he put into it, he could never put the pieces back together.
Except this one time.
His mother was real to him. Very, very real.
She was buried in her hometown of Kutna Hora.
An unremarkable funeral attended by a scattering of old family acquaintances from her youth.
The sun shone for a while that morning then snuck back behind the dark clouds, as if it just wanted to take a quick look and then decided it had seen enough. A funeral even the sun wasn’t too bothered about.
No priest, no religious service, just a few words from the local dignitary and a short cortege to the funeral plot.
Alena Jeritza’s final resting place flying in direct opposition to the life she led – grandiose and highly visible. A mini-crypt in which already lay her parents and sister. The latter falling victim to a drunken Skoda driver one evening in 1977.
And there they all lay again - Mother, father and two daughters. All born and raised to think and behave as directed. The parents parented by men in suits and hats and that parenting handed down to their own children as better than anything they could ever offer.
No wonder her father cried. He cried for himself.
No wonder her mother remained stoic. She would crumble otherwise.
Her sister? Who knows what went through her mind the moment she felt the bumper of the car crush her pelvis?
“I broke his nose,” she laughed. “I broke the bastards’ nose”.
An action so honest, pure and instinctual that it’s effects were felt for another twenty years.
Remembering that night and the events leading up to it always gave Milan a chill. Not just a mental chill but an actual physical chill up his spine.
He knew deep down in his heart that his mother had finally caught up with him that night and they had their meeting. They had their mother and son time. As always, someone else was watching, but they still managed to be honest and real with each other.
He hadn’t been back to her gravesite since the funeral and had no reason to expect he ever would. After all, what had they left to say?
He also knew that she would give him a telling off for travelling so far when he has his own family to look after.
The day he re-buried his grandfather and father behind a tiny church in the German village of Zweisel, just across the border, was also not as monumental as he had expected. It was where his great-grand father had originally come from he discovered and seemed a reasonable final, final resting place for both men. An understanding priest had allowed the transfer to take place. Both remains cremate and placed in a vault within the church grounds.
What more could a son do?
From all the actions and all the deeds and events of the late eighties, Milan felt far removed.
Four years studying journalism in Prague, then taking work as a casual reporter, then staff reporter on a local city paper, before moving to the then dream job of the nationals.
With so much to say and now the armoury with which to say it., Milan Krupnik was approached by the big German nationals. His father would never have believed such a thing could happen and no doubt his grandfather, Libor Krupnik, would see the irony in it all. How a circle will always close over at the point where it began.
His wife, Steffi, often called him ‘Sumava’ as a pet name. Neither of them realising it’s history.
She from Hannover, he from Susisce, their children Peter and Lena born and raised in Munich.
Lifting the collar of his herringbone overcoat to guard his neck from the damp October air, Milan looked skywards as the rain clouds rode in from the west and promised to empty their contents on the good citizens of Munich sometime soon that afternoon.
It was after five pm, but he wasn’t going home.
Steffi and the kids were back in Hannover with her parents for the long weekend and he had nothing else to do but work and kill time.
Friday evening, a bar will be showing a Bundesliga game tonight, he thought.
Yes, good idea. Much better than going back to an empty apartment. He always missed his wife and kids when they were not there. He would rather avoid home at those times. That was probably worth looking into, but right now he was more interested in food, beer and football.
Steffi would say “Why do you feel the need to have us there all the time? Why can’t you just enjoy being by yourself”?
Good questions. One day he would find the answer.
Hurrying past the main town square, the first drops of rain bouncing off the watching heads of the church gargoyles, he managed to make it into a half empty bar with two TVs mounted on the walls.
“Are you showing the football”? he asked the red faced barman.
“Three minutes” he replied.
“It’s on in three minutes”?
“Ja, ja drei minuten”.
Unbuttoning his coat and shaking off the remnants of a working week, Milan took position in a comfortably cushioned wooden back chair, behind a functional bar table a mere ten feet from the big screen.
The height of luxury and opulence.
“I get you a beer first?” the shout from behind the bar was directed his way.
“Oh yes, yes please. A Pilsner”.
The rain was really starting to pour down now. Milan’s sat parallel to the window and it looked like he missed a downpour by seconds. A little victory. They all count.
“Who are you cheering for” the barman asked, coming from behind the counter to hand him a variety of food and drink menus.
“I don’t honestly know who’s playing”.
“Ach” the man laughed “Stuttgart or Hamburg”
“Oh, well in that case I don’t have to make a decision, Either one. I’ll just watch”.
The barman laughed and walked away “Let me know when you decide what you want to eat”.
I will, Milan thought.
Sometimes he wished his dad could be with him to witness all of this. Look at this dad – let me know when you decide what you want to eat. As easy as that.
“Sometimes I see a good game and think we’ll win the World Cup next year. Then sometimes I say to myself we haven’t a hope. What do you think”?
Milan felt this barman was starved of conversation but was in a generous mood and liked to chat about football. It was nice to just give his opinion.
“I don’t know. France are at home, it’s the last World Cup of the Twentieth century…I think they might shade it”.
“Uh Huh. I agree with you”, and the tall, cold Pilsner made its appearance.
“You ready to order”?
“Yes please – can I have the Chicken and fries with coleslaw”.
Writing the order down and without looking up, the barman asked
“You shouting for Germany or the Czechs”? the barman stood before him, smiling.
“In the World Cup”, he continued “Which country are you supporting”?
“Is there still an accent”? Milan asked.
“My wife is from Neratovice. I hear it better than others. But don’t hide it. It’s a great accent”.
“This menu” Milan said “It reminds me of a joke. Your wife will understand it. Tell it to her when you get home”.
“OK” the barman said “Tell me your joke”.
Milan Krupnik, journalist for Der Deutsche Allegmaner, husband to the world’s most beautiful woman, father to cherished daughters, sitting in a bar in Munich with a tall Pilsner on his table, waiting for chicken, fries and coleslaw which he could afford to pay for without a thought relayed a joke:
“A customer walks into a butcher shop in Prague in 1978.
The customer asks the butcher ‘Do you have any lamb?’ The butcher says ‘No’.
‘Do you have any pork?’ The butcher says ‘No’.
‘Do you have any chicken’? The butcher says ‘No’.
The customer leaves the shop.
The butcher looks at the next person in line and says ‘That guy has a fantastic memory’!