The following is an excerpt from Fischerová’s novel, Bizom aneb Služba a mise (Bizom, or Service and Mission, Druhé město, 2016). In the book Jiří Bizom, who has just turned fifty years old, creates games—but neither board games nor computer games: his games are aimed at life, and you can play them in banal everyday situations. Bizom, the son of a Jew from Budapest, lives in present-day Prague, making his way as an employee in a grant foundation. He surveys and observes the behavior of his colleagues while also seizing words from other people in a tram or a pub.
1. Great. Just Great.
Society has gone dumb and dumber. I am an extension of it; does that make me just like the rest? I refuse to accept that.
A girl—or rather a woman—stepped onto the replacement bus that now runs to Kubáň. Her dark hair cropped short, she was fat and plain and nearly androgynous, as people with Down syndrome usually are. She was wearing a blue tracksuit and carrying a backpack. Before she sat down, she grabbed the Lidl leaflet that someone had left on the seat.
“Oooh, donuts!” she exclaimed happily after a moment of intense studying, and pointed to a picture of two donuts sprinkled with sugar. Her eyes reflected the pure, undiluted joy of having recognized something, and having given it the right name, to this colorful picture that looked just like the real thing, a thing she knew so well and tasted so often—
—and so she went on.
“Apple!” she called out for the whole bus to hear, and kept scanning the piece of paper intently.
“Sausages!”There was so much joy in her voice, and no one in the half-empty bus paid her any attention; only I, Jiří Bizom, freshly turned fifty, listened to her, and was beset with such deep and undeserved gratitude that it nearly made me cry.
A day later, at the tram stop just outside the National Theater, I bumped into Professor Urban. The Professor had once taught me; his classes on nineteenth-century Czech society were nigh on unforgettable. We had almost banged our heads together, and I apologized, but then I recognized him. “Professor!” I exclaimed. “How are you doing?”
“Great! Just great,” he said.
I stared at him as if he had just dropped from a different planet. “Wow, Professor, I hope you won’t take this badly, but no one has said this to me in a really long time. What’s your secret?”
He smiled. “There is no secret,” he said. “I simply decided that whenever anyone asked how I was doing, this would be my answer. Great, just great, I say, and then wait for the reaction. Like yours, for example.”
I couldn’t stop staring at him. “You shouldn’t have explained that, though,” I exclaimed. “You’ve just given the whole thing away!”
“That’s the point of the game,” he said. “Some people I tell, some I don’t. There are actually two groups of people. The first—oh, my tram’s here. Must dash, sorry. I’m sure you can figure it out on your own. You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders. Oh, and have a great day!”
And with that, the red and yellow tram swallowed him, and he disappeared across the river.
There are two categories of people. One inspires and brings out the best ideas in you; the other makes you bemoan the fact that people have no ideas at all.
Actually, that is not quite right. There are two categories of people. One likes to play games; the other merely watches others play.
No, wrong again. There is only one category of people. We all play games. The difference is that some of us are aware of it, and some are not.
I decided to play the Professor’s game. Because there are two categories of people: some will fall for it; but others, like me, suspicious lot that we are, will simply stare in disbelief. How is that possible? How can anyone be doing just great? we will ask.
Oh, Jiří. Don’t forget that there is still another group of people: those who are really doing great, and so have no problem believing that others are doing just as well as they are.
I disagree. I’ve never met anyone who would fall into this group. They must be hidden somewhere in the depths of the Andromeda Galaxy. Or maybe they live on Mars. Or they are mentally retarded. Or they are Christians. No, not Christians. Fulka claims that Christians are always unhappy, on account of their permanently guilty consciences. Fulka also says that people simply don’t know how to live.
The game only seems simple; in fact, it’s anything but. Obviously, like everyone, I’ve built up a stockpile of answers for the eventuality that I bump into someone who is convinced that asking people how they are doing makes them a paragon of politeness, and that polite manners are the linchpin of society; it is, after all, a fairly accepted belief that without politeness, society would end up in the gutter. Just imagine what it would be like if people were always honest and outspoken, or if they only did what they wanted to, not what they had to—actually, this is a notion that I’m quite happy to push into the back of my mind, lest I realize that most of my days are made up of things I have no desire to do, like brushing teeth or all those activities related to my metabolic processes, which I honestly can’t say I really want to be doing—well, you get the idea. The argument has no resolution and frankly, it’s most likely flawed from the start. Anyway, my own assortment of polite answers to the HAY question (HAY meaning HOW ARE YOU, obviously) includes such gems as the purely neutral “Oh, all right,” or “Busy as usual,” or the slightly more inane “Been better” (which is only a step away from the totally and unacceptably idiotic “Oh, you know how it is” —really? how is the other person supposed to know if you don’t tell them?), but also such incisive counter-attacks as “What kind of question is that?,” as well as a retort that I would happily and proudly claim as my own invention, but the heuristic principle commands that I admit it’s actually a quote from Petronius. “Sometimes it’s one way and sometimes it’s another, as the countryman said who had lost a spotted pig,” says one of his brilliantly half-witted freedmen. This is such a good rejoinder that I only reserve it for a chosen few, often female counterparts, usually those I wish to impress.
So, even though I have decided that I would be doing great, at least on the conversational level, my mouth has yet failed to grasp this resolution, and seems stuck in the rut of its usual stereotype whenever confronted with the standard question; interestingly enough, the spotted pig never comes into play—that particular jewel has to be chosen consciously, and unlike my mouth, my mind is aware that PIG, unlike GREAT, is not an option.
Enough of those automated speech mechanisms, you stupid sod. Start working on it.
I have to say that my efforts have already brought forth some interesting results, which could broadly be sorted into three categories. The first group includes those who, in response to my GREAT, feel compelled to ask What happened? or How so?, which can again be divided in two subgroups: those who only get “Nothing much” or “Just great,” and those who get the game explained to them.
The second group, so far, only includes Cyril, a prominent scientist; in response to my GREAT, he immediately offered “So am I!,” and proceeded to bombard me with a detailed report: he had just completed a treatise on A, is nearly finished with a paper on B, and will publish about five books this year, all fruits of long years of labor, including translations of other authors’ works, and so on and so forth. He’s always been an idiot, ever since high school.
The last group is by far the most interesting: they react to the strangeness of my answer by not reacting at all, simply going on as if I did not say anything; as if this very short, albeit interesting part of the conversation simply never happened. They make this sort of expression—actually, sometimes they make no expression at all, and simply move on to a different topic, or go back to the previous one. But in every case, there is this peculiar moment of silence, in which nothing is said, the conversation pauses—and then resumes itself, as if I never said anything. This is really weird; I would never have thought something like that could happen.