Feature image by Svatopluk Klimeš, a Czech graphic artist who teaches applied art and design at university. The technique he has used for this book is “drawing by three matches:” a match on fire, a smoking match, a burnt-out match.
The following is an excerpt from Which Way Out (Kudy ven, Dokořán, 2008), a work of fiction addressing the twin contradictions of freedom in a time of unfreedom and unfreedom in a time of freedom. The book’s three pairs of stories alternate in pace and style, from the slow motion of a mountain pilgrimage to the stroboscopic delirium of a marijuana buzz, from the fantastical parade of surrealist ghosts in a Berlin ghetto to a dialogic treatise on the death of freedom in the New World, all topped off with a heaping helping of sexist farce.
(Velvet November, 1989)
Three days before the end of military service: a two-hour interrogation by counterintel about a picture of Popieluszko, the Polish priest, which they found on Franta’s person during the morning inspection.
Back to civilian life. An envelope in the mailbox from some do-gooder, with a photo of Franta’s girl Alenka getting it on with two guys. Whatever, that wasn’t exactly news.
A punk rock concert, in a hotel right in the center of town, totally legal . . . and who else stage diving smack onto Franta’s head but Aneta, his former student from design school.
He sank his teeth into her elbow and said, “Come back to my place.”
“I can’t tonight.”
When he got to his front door, Franta discovered that his keys must have bounced out of his pocket while he was pogoing. How cool would that’ve been if Aneta had said yes? He decided to sleep at his mother’s, but passed out on the bus and didn’t wake up till the end stop, by the side of some stinky pond in a suburb on the outskirts. On the way back, he passed out again and woke up at the opposite end of the line, by a big crater dug in the ground for a new Metro station. For Chrissake, what was he gonna do now? Riding back and forth all night between a stinky-ass pond and a hole in the ground?
The voluptuous valedictorian from Class 3B in Franta’s bed. Or, to be more precise, on a heap of mattresses laid on the floor of his empty apartment in place of a bed. He had often dreamed of this glorious night during his worst moments in training with the 56th Signal Regiment. The next day he drove her to school only to find out that there’d been a revolution.
It swept him up on Wenceslas Square. He would never experience anything like this again. It’s here. My God, it’s here. It can’t be real. It’s all going to come to some terrible end.
After he gave what was really a pretty tame speech at the morning meeting of the student strike committee, held in the gymnasium, his coworker the German teacher whispered in his ear: “Just to be on the safe side, I’d get myself measured for a coffin if I were you.”
The rest of the day Franta spent trying to think of how he could explain away the speech, visiting the men’s room with unusual frequency so he could practice his defense in there, standing at the urinal. But, come afternoon, he was back out on the square.
All of those feelings that had been stuffed down into the depths—buried and frozen and beaten and crushed—now came rushing up like a furious storm, throwing off the routine of consciously corrected behavior, pulsing through his body in waves, washing away the dams of control, overheating his brain’s finely tuned thermoregulators, wild tides of turbulence rushing back and forth in his veins, mixing icy cold and fiery hot.
For a brief moment, Franta’s typical attitude of detachment came flooding back, his cynical, ironic smirk, as the crowds surged back and forth in front of the glass-walled theater from whose upper floors the stiff figures of the nation’s most beloved actors bowed to them so graciously. Christ, not them! Cold War criminals who deserved to swing from the lampposts next to the Communist Party leaders and secret police. Cultural genocidaires. Televisual prostitutes. Ever ready to feed the herds to keep us all mired in shit. Yeah, go ahead, churn out all the shit you can and shove it right in our mouths!
Franta went back to the square after midnight for the bulldog edition of the next day’s papers from which he would read to his students later that morning, in a voice shaky with excitement, those unheard of words calling into question the personnel of the Party’s highest organs. On the street he ran into Pohvizda, a former editor of the trade union papers, all fired up and ready to fight.
“Hey, c’mere and sign this petition. You’re a teacher, right, and a freelance music writer, that pulls some weight.”
Luckily, Dasha happened by to save him.
“Sure, I’ll sign it. Just wait a minute, I’ll be right back, there’s something I need to take care of.”
Franta pulled Dasha aside.
As it happened, he had a lot of things to take care of with Dasha, but in this case, one was enough to allow him to make his escape. Back in summer Dasha had come to beg him, in her sophisticated squeal, if he would help her prepare for her make-up exam. You see, she had gotten an F from the feared troll Mrs. Sádlová who sat with Franta on the examination committee and whose teaching methods Franta fundamentally disagreed with. Ha-ha, Sádlová, just you wait, Franta thought. Dasha’s going to blow this test away so hard your glasses will shatter—and not only that, she’ll probably even let me get in her pants. As it turned out, he was half right. Dasha passed the exam. But instead of him, it was the ginger-haired Pepa, the freshly elected deputy chair of the student strike committee, who popped her cherry. Franta screwed up big time. He already had the delectable Dasha lying on his couch with her ass invitingly propped in the air encased in a pair of stretch leggings! As she paged through her textbooks, Franta pictured himself sliding them down over her marzipan buns, and her panties along with them . . . while in reality his hands remained hanging loosely at his side. Perhaps he was blinded by the radiant shine of her long blonde hair—so long that it licked at her behind like a golden serpent guarding the entrance to the cave of treasures. In short, Franta chose to wait. After all, she had promised him they’d go for a shot as soon as she passed the exam! Which would no doubt be an infinitely preferable arrangement. If he fucked her now and she ended up failing the exam, she might get mad and decide to take revenge on him. She could make things pretty hot for him at school. The right thing to do was wait until afterwards to claim his reward. Fine, Franta, if that’s what you think. No one’s going to pop your bubble. So let’s jump right ahead to that long-awaited day of heavenly delights. Dasha passes with a D and invites Franta out for lunch at a place where a friend of hers works as waiter. And her friend is treating! Franta wolfs down his Way Chung How in five minutes flat, so he and Dasha can clear out ASAP and—at last!—jump into bed. But the waiter insists: Won’t the gentleman have a drink to celebrate the occasion? Sure! Make it a vodka! Then another. And another. The waiter brings numbers five and six with undisguised glee. As the two of them depart, he mischievously urges them to have fun and stay out of trouble. Fuckin’ A, it’s been a long time since Franta got this trashed. Dasha patiently guides him out of the public’s view so he can vomit discreetly out of sight. But he doesn’t feel any better. He apologizes up and down. “You fucked up, Franta, but that’s life.” She propped him up against the wall of the National Theater and went along her way.
Dasha cautiously said hello, eyes flitting left and right, pushed away his lips as he moved them toward hers, and said: “Just wait a sec, I’ll be right back, there’s something I need to take care of.”
Franta steered a wide berth away from where he’d left his friend, and rode home to type up some fresh material from the big city for his small-town friends.
Every hour, every half hour, every minute of the day was broken up into ever-decreasing fragments of time. His body was absorbing larger and larger doses of emotion at ever-increasing frequencies. His dimensions of perception were piling up to make room for a previously nonexistent spectrum of words and meanings of heightened impact and power.
Franta wore a hole through the rug from running around the room. It was the only way he knew to relieve the pressure. From morning to night he sat listening to the radio, jumping out of his chair and running circles around the table. God, what a declaration! Wow, what an appeal! But careful, did you hear that warning? Jesus Christ, the danger! Man, did you hear that speech? Holy shit, that guy came back from exile! Christ on crutches, that guy too? He’s going to give a speech? I must be losing my mind, you mean that guy’s back in the country? That could be risky! Oh, of course, they’re getting ready for us! We can’t even blink for a second!
It was a few days before Franta felt relaxed enough to post a “Kocáb to the Castle” sign on the bulletin board at school. It was purely tongue in cheek of course. Nobody in his right mind would seriously consider a rock star for president. Well, maybe. But the same colleague who had warned him about the coffin took Franta aside and whispered in his ear: “You’d better take that down. We’re all for Havel now.”
Meanwhile, on TV, they were cutting down the barbwire. So who cares who wins the elections? (Franta himself harbored no illusions. For years now he’d been carrying on the same argument with his opposition-minded pals. “The West made a tragic mistake at the human rights talks in Helsinki,” his buddies would say. “They should’ve insisted that every country in Europe hold free elections with international monitoring.” Franta laughed. “If we had free elections, most of the country would vote for the Commies anyway. You don’t think so? Think again. People here have everything they need: a guaranteed job till retirement and they don’t have to do shit for work. Instead they stand in line all day for a piece of fatty meat, go home, throw on their sweats, pig out, watch TV and fart for four hours, suck down five brews, and roll into bed. What do they miss that’s forbidden? Jan Patocka’s essays on phenomenology? Teilhard de Chardin? Who gives a shit about Point Omega? Andy Warhol? You call that art? Captain Beefheart live in concert? Captain who? Western newspapers? Give me something I can read without a dictionary. In one hour they earn enough to buy 10 beers, and every Thursday after lunch they climb in their Škoda and drive out to their cottage in the countryside to sit around and get hammered. Travel? They’ve been to the Black Sea in Romania three times: the first time they got the runs; the second time they got the runs; the third time they got the runs; and the fourth time they stayed home. What would they do in the West anyhow? Walk around staring at all the stuff they can’t afford? I don’t think so. So what if all the dissidents are locked up? Serves ’em right for disturbing the peace.”)
If we let our guard down, even for a minute, no doubt the Commies will put something over on us and the secret police’ll cook something up, but at least they won’t be rolling out the barbwire anymore. Those days are over. Even amid all the fears and concerns, of that much Franta was certain.
And boom, next thing he knew, the teachers were going to Austria for a Christmas shopping trip. Franta probably wouldn’t have bothered except that he urgently needed a refill of Penis Marathon: a sexual aid that a discreet buddy of his had once imported for him from Amsterdam. The urgency of this need was testified to by the distressing fact that the voluptuous valedictorian hadn’t been back to Franta’s, each time awkwardly excusing herself with the most implausible of explanations. He must have been pretty awful for her not to want to come back, since at least for the grade, you would think she’d be willing to make the sacrifice. The teachers had four hours to spend in Linz, so Franta decided to scour the town until he found a sexshop. Boy, did he do some walking that day: One hour, nada. Two hours, zip. Three hours, still nothing. Then finally, running by this point, he turned a corner and Ha! At last! Only the woman behind the counter hadn’t heard of Penis Marathon, so Franta had to quick think of a way to describe the product so she could find it under another name: “An anesthetic spray, typically containing Lidocaine, which desensitizes tissue.” “Oh, you must mean Fuck4Ever. We have it in stock for 300 schillings.” Franta stood there in shock, vocal cords frozen, unable to speak. He had the money, but for that much he had been hoping to buy five cans of spray, not one, with money enough left over for a pair of Mozart balls.
He returned home from the trip to find an ethereal creature sitting on the doorstep of his apartment, arms wrapped around her knees, with a blonde head of the sort that only one exists in the world perched atop them. Her hair flowed over her legs like a waterfall.
“Franta,” she said urgently, “remember that waiter? I just found out he’s been with the secret police this whole time. Can I stay here tonight? You’re my friend, right? You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you?”
Franta caught himself thinking, “Well, we’ll see about that.”