The following is an excerpt from David Zábransky’s book Slabost pro každou jinou pláž/ Any Beach but This (Argo, 2006), which won the Czech Magnesia Litera prize for Discovery of the Year in 2007. The book tells the story of two couples (Sam and Polina, Erik and Kattrin) in the Europe of today. Both couples are stereotypical products of European culture; despite all their surface activity, their lack of character turns them into passive victims.
A couple of tables away I spot a young couple—honeymooners, lovers? I’m not sure about him, but she is certainly not Spanish. Her hair is too fair, her skin is too fair, her features too Slavic.
Her manner lacks a certain type of femininity natural to women born under a scorching sun. Her body is incapable of that rapidity, that severity and simplicity that seems to relax every muscle under their skins. Unlike Spanish women, she has no vestige of the animal about her, of the beast that seeks out the shade. Her cheekbones are not prominent, her lips are not half-parted in a constant sucking-in of air, nor does her body remind you of a sculpted wooden torso. Unlike Spanish women, she does not look like an animal tormented by sun and thirst. Nothing about her suggests primal suffering or physical thirst or physical fatigue. Or, for that matter, physical passion.
Unlike Spanish women she seems fluid, washed-out—in fact she reminds me of a watercolor, an artist’s attempt to express disillusionment with the present, nostalgia, or at any rate some feeling that feeds on the past, not like the feeling I get when I look at those boldly striding Spanish women, confident in their bodies and clothes and gestures.
She gets up and goes to look at a poster for an exhibition in the Prado. Then, left foot turned out, hips relaxed, she starts fiddling with the end of the scarf draped casually round her neck, first winding it onto her finger, then unwinding it until the scarf hangs once more against her blouse.
She does this several times, until the scarf slips off her shoulder and drops to the floor. Quickly, glancing around in furtive embarrassment, she stoops to pick it up.
She’s out of place here—she’d be out of place even in Vienna. Years of democracy have eliminated embarrassment from public life without a trace. Maybe it survives as an endangered species in private life, in intimate situations. Maybe there is still a place for embarrassment and coyness in the bedroom (possibly as the most effective form of titillation, since it’s the only place you’ll find it). But on the street, in cafes and museums, in planes, trains, and offices, it has become extinct.
Just as history disappeared in the West after the Second World War (since it only concerned those on the other side of the wall), then, crossing the finishing line with a casual wave at the last stroke of historical time (as the wall came crashing down) seemed to stop altogether—so, too, embarrassment has vanished and been replaced by absolute naturalness. Man is the measure of all things. In the post-war era Western man blossomed at an unthinkable pace. No democratic or humanist system in history has ever borne such luscious human fruits, so unselfconscious, so self-possessed, so natural. It was the naturalness of the Viennese, and of the tourists in Vienna, that transmuted the vast weight of culture and history into – dadada! —a bland amusement for tourists.
Watching her—she’s still looking at the poster for a Tiepolo exhibition—I feel increasingly sure she’s not from Madrid, she’s not from the West, and she definitely doesn’t belong in the West.
Where does she belong? In the Eastern reservation. On the other side of the fence that still separates the West from the East (although, historically speaking, the East has collapsed and the West is helping itself to more and more of it). She belongs on the other side of the fence, in that place where occasionally they bark, but otherwise just gaze in envy at the West.
“Hey, there’s Polina!” says Bartlett, reaching over the table with one hand to shake mine while waving to her with the other.
“Sam’s a teacher. Where was he born? Bradford. And Polina’s from Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine and most likely she’ll die in Sam’s arms in Madrid. What a wonderful fate, eh Polina?”
Again she’s embarrassed. She says “they” don’t want to disturb us.
“They met in Ukraine. She talked him into leaving Ukraine and taking her with him. Goodbye and good riddance! Said she couldn’t lead a decent life in her native land, same as me in fact. Goodbye to all that. Grappa?”
“She’s not very natural,” I say, as he returns with two glasses. “I was watching her. She kept twiddling her scarf round her finger. Then she dropped it and looked quite embarrassed. She’s out of place here. She doesn’t belong in the West.”
“She doesn’t belong in the West because she’s not natural? Nonsense! She doesn’t belong in the West because she’s not original. Her main aim in life is to look the same as everyone else, but in her attempts to be the same she’s never had to deal with the terrifying need to be different—which has now become absolutely suffocating, even here.”
“But fancy making such a fuss about a scarf! I wonder what she’d do if she were naked? Imagine: her blouse falls apart at the seams, her skirt drops round her ankles, she steps out of it; maybe she’s still holding her glass; maybe it slips out of her hand and shatters on the floor, but she pretends not to notice and carries on walking round the room. She’s just the same as before, except now she’s naked. Then and only then will nobody doubt she belongs here.”
“Very original! Any crazy streaker who runs onto a football pitch gets his picture in El Mundo the next day. Nudity is the preferred political weapon of those who have no political power. —Imagine you want to cycle from Lavapies to Sol. You don’t work in City Hall so you can’t issue an order banning traffic from the Lavapies-Sol road. What do you do? You find someone who also wants to cycle from Lavapies to Sol, you strip off, and you cycle from Lavapies to Sol. ‘Why strip off?’ people ask. You tell them you want to draw attention to the deplorable lack of cycle paths and the deplorable behavior of motorists. You talk gravely about a grave problem and pretend not to notice you’re naked. You point a finger at the scandalous behavior of drivers, and the next morning you’ll be all over the papers and half of Madrid will be pointing at you. Scandalized cyclists will argue with scandalized motorists and scandalized councillors—but you, unlike them, will be naked, because being naked is the only way you can say something with any hope of being heard. Nudity is the price you pay for not being a politician.”
“But nudity stopped being original years ago! Most people are perfectly happy to undress anywhere, anytime. Being naked doesn’t make you a star, it just makes you ridiculous.”
“To be original you’d need some physical defect. Maybe Polina’s got only four toes on one foot?”
‘Somehow I doubt it.—No, if she really wanted to be what you call original she’d first have to do something about her clothes. She could start by going round this café borrowing stuff from people. The room would fall silent; there’d be expectant looks, catcalls, applause—depending on what she happened to pick. But none of that interests me. What I really want is for her to take her clothes off. I’d like to see her natural charm—after all, when we say ‘personal charm’ don’t we simply mean naturalness? That’s how I’d like to see her—naked, silent, natural.”
“Naked and dead.”
“So she couldn’t talk about her originality.”
“As it is she wears so much lipstick she never dares shut her mouth.”
They met in Ukraine. Sam worked in a language school. In those days he wore rings in his ears and nose. Now, when he shows you a photo of himself from back then, Polina dismisses it with a wave of her hand and an indulgent smile: “Oh, that was ages ago.” But behind the wave and the smile there’s a sense of revulsion, as if she felt like adding: “That’s not how it was!”
Revulsion, because those two loops of metal, which in those days represented freedom (piercing for an Englishmen meant you were somebody, while for a Ukrainian it meant you were nobody), she now found frightening, as if the beast that could be tied up by them—tethered so it couldn’t move—was not him, but her.
He was twenty-seven. —At twenty-five he’d realized he didn’t like living in England, and decided there and then to go to Eastern Europe. But after barely a year in a small Polish mining town full of vodka and ‘lurid tumors’ (as he called the new forms of advertising and dress, the new television programs, and shopping malls) he was convinced that Eastern Europe as such did not exist—here were only varying degrees of East. After barely a year he realized he needed more East, so he left Poland and went to Ukraine. The brochures they sent him about Charkov described Charkov as an ordinary Ukrainian town. Which is precisely why he moved to Charkov.
Ukraine was more bearable than Poland. One of his students was Polina, with her beautiful eyes and poor English. She was secretive, passionate, forever taking refuge behind the slowly crumbling barrier of language. For two years she’d been going out with an ex-schoolmate, who listened every night as she told him, in her mother tongue, about the foreigner who for some weird reason had ended up in Charkov. But gradually the mother tongue was replaced by motherly feelings. Ukrainian became the language they used to misunderstand each other, and before long their life together was so dull it had to come to an end.
She and Sam both longed for something different: she didn’t want to speak Ukrainian with a boy she’d known since she was ten; he was looking for something deeper—something he could only find in another culture and another language.
They rented a flat together. He pampered her and spoke English to her for hours on end. Sam took his stay in Ukraine seriously, because Ukraine was different from England. He took Polina seriously, because she was different from his mother. She listened to him and didn’t contradict. Laughing with those wide-open eyes of hers, she timidly repeated the English words she’d learnt—though her pronunciation was far from English. She had no inhibitions about crying, or about making love. He would stroke her neck and ask her if she knew the English word for what he was doing.
She was a part of all that was new and unknown and unfathomed. In her he saw the headscarf worn by every Ukrainian woman, the dollars sent home by every Ukrainian abroad, the Ukrainian delight in little things, all the thrift and impulsive generosity, all the poetry and half-empty shops, all the absurd old cars on all the absurd Ukrainian streets. She had a big soul, and into it he packed everything he saw around him. In falling in love with Polina he fell in love with Ukraine – and vice-versa.
He was patient. He learned Ukrainian and drank her relatives’ vodka. He was faithful and thought about the future. He knew his place was not in Ukraine, he knew he was and would remain a foreigner, he knew he’d always have difficulty understanding and making himself understood. He talked openly about everything he thought, but there was one thought he never spoke out loud. If he had, it would have been: “We outsiders have to admire these people. They have no idea how beautiful their lives are compared with ours!—Or how quickly they’ll ruin them if they keep copying us!” But it remained unspoken. Besides, Ukraine had no wish to hear such thoughts. Quite the reverse—Ukraine and Polina loved the West. And Sam loved Polina! So what else could he do but start learning to love the West, too —or at least stop hating it.
What else could he do but discard a thought that anyway remained unspoken and yield to Polina’s admiration for everything he had turned his back on? Wasn’t Polina’s soul big enough to contain not just Ukraine but the whole world? And wasn’t Sam the loving parent, incapable of taking away from his beloved child the toy she cuddles at bedtime? Doesn’t there come a point when the loving parent starts to see the once detested toy quite differently, through the eyes of the child? Is not the power of love so great it can sweep aside common sense and replace it with all-embracing acceptance?!
For that is what their love was: all-embracing acceptance—all, that is, except Ukraine. At first, their love-songs were addressed to different corners of the world —Polina’s to the West, Sam’s to the East—but gradually their voices merged in a single deafening harmony. Together they criticized Ukraine: the corruption, the squalor, the shabby people and politics. Polina spoke for both of them when she announced she wanted to get out. To Italy, or France. Anywhere but Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine was beautiful, but who’d want to live there if they didn’t have to?
There’s no future for us here! There’s no future for me here! – And you can teach English anywhere.
Did he go back to the West with her? Yes. Because he loved her? No. He went back with her because he still had that vision of something he longed for.
He said he longed for something deeper, which he could only find in another culture and another language. But that wasn’t strictly true.
What he really longed for was the need to make an effort, to be forced to avoid simplifications. He longed for problems. Ukraine had been his challenge. Now his challenge would be the West. For her sake, he told her, he would sacrifice himself.
He told her he would sacrifice himself (meaning that all of a sudden he would have no more problems), but in fact it was no sacrifice. He didn’t care what sort of burden he shouldered; he only cared how heavy it was. He didn’t care if it was a kilo of feathers or a kilo of iron.
If he was to leave then he would leave with Polina, and he could be quite sure that in the West he would have plenty of problems, since Polina was a Ukrainian and Sam was her lover. A relationship with a Ukrainian changed everything: going back to the West with a Ukrainian girlfriend did not mean going back to an old world of terrifying simplicity, but arriving in a new world of exciting complexity. Suddenly the feathers on the western side of the scales were heavier.
He sent letters to London inquiring about other places. “No, Ukraine is wonderful” (he wrote in reply to the questions that came back) “—We just need a change. I met a girl here.” (he explained) “Her whole family lives here, but they all agree she should get out.” He took the rings off his face and before long he told her they were going to Madrid.
For the first week they lived in the school, then they stayed in a hotel for a few months. Polina spent her days strolling down the wide streets looking at shop windows; Sam went to the language school to teach Spanish children, and in the evenings explored the city on his bike.
He got by with English, but Polina spent hours on end studying Spanish. At first she shed secret tears over her Ukrainian songs, but after a while Flamenco and Spanish folk songs took their place. She bought her first Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, which she painstakingly attempted to translate—at first word by word with a dictionary (a paragraph over her breakfast coffee, a whole page after lunch); then without a dictionary, trying to work out the new words from their context and writing them down on a piece of paper, and only later looking them up and copying them into a little notebook, with which she then sat on the hotel balcony, committing them to memory.
They looked for a flat in the city center—Polina had fallen in love with Madrid and wanted to live in it. Every time they turned up at precisely the appointed hour, and every time the queue of applicants stretched halfway down the stairs. They started turning up an hour early, but the flats (all of which they liked) always went to someone else.
On Sundays they went to the Prado. Polina studied all the leaflets carefully before sliding them unfolded into her bag, over which she then placed a protective hand.
At first they were just worthless handouts. Later, at her request, they began buying ever more expensive booklets and catalogues. Her idea was to cover the walls with posters of famous exhibitions, reproductions of well-known paintings—but she said she wouldn’t put them up until they had their own flat. Meanwhile she stored them under the bed in the hotel.
The only thing she put up on the hotel wall was a photo of them both in Ukraine, arm in arm in front of an Orthodox church—not only to remind her of Ukraine, but most of all to remind her that the hotel they were living in was not yet Madrid, just a more bearable Ukraine. Her purpose was less nostalgic than cautionary.
She loved not only the Prado, but art tout court. After a few weeks in Madrid she was no longer tempted by rock concerts, preferring more intimate music like the Goldberg Variations. How much more sensitive this music was, how much better suited to those lonely hours she spent pouring over the dictionary! It contained all the tears in the world, all the one-way tickets out of Ukraine!
That was when she wrote her first poem.
Like a pinch of salt
Fingers linking hand and ring
Following your every move
Above the white plate
And the clink of cutlery
When she and Sam listened together to the Goldberg Variations, only she knew what the music meant. At such moments she thought about real beauty—a beauty beyond the notes of the piano, a beauty, which unlike that of Bach’s music only she could hear. She became convinced that beauty dwelled in secret things, in things she could not discuss with Sam, in her poem that only made sense in connection with Bach. That was it—her poem could only be understood when accompanied by Bach. (Conversely, Bach could only be understood in connection with the poem, written on the back page of her now almost full notebook.)
She felt like a mother who pretends to her child that the world is simple, while bearing alone the whole inexpressible weight of its complexity.
But just as a mother knows she can’t keep up the pretence of simplicity forever, Polina also knew that in time others would come to see—would have to see—her hidden depths, just as she would come to see the depths of her own poem, however much that might hurt.
Deep down she felt that only poetry could raise her to the level of Madrid—and to other, far more exalted places.
She soon learned where to find bargains, and was amazed to discover that for fifteen minutes’ worth of Sam’s salary she could buy a candlestick, or for twenty a dish-rack. It was all packed away in their hotel room ready for the move, the boxes carefully stacked and marked: bathroom, kitchen, living-room (decoration), bedroom (decoration).
Sam’s new friend and colleague from school (Bartlett) decided to move out of his flat in Calle Calvario near the city center and persuaded the owner to let it to them.
Bartlett became a constant visitor—in fact their only one. Polina, though grateful, had imagined their first family friend somewhat differently. Without so much as a glance at her posters, or even her first attempts at painting that now covered every wall (she’s started painting just for fun, to make her feel good), he would take them off to his favorite bar just round the corner.
At Domingo’s she talked about looking for work and the fantastic atmosphere of the Calle Calvario. She wore a floral skirt and short leather ankle-boots that felt wonderfully light and seemed to her just right for Madrid. She now dressed quite differently—back home she’d never really “dressed.” Madrid was so much more interesting. Polina felt sure that one day she’d be walking down these streets rid at last of all nagging thoughts and cares.
Though she put up with Bartlett, she longed for the day when, having made new and better friends, she’d be able to drop him. His unfashionable suit, his sarcasm, his cigarettes, his divorce—it all reminded her only too painfully of something she would rather forget. Yes, somehow it reminded her of that sense of revulsion she’d had at the sight of Sam’s ring-pierced face, that sense that he was not a human being, but an animal.