Translated from the Czech by Cyril Simsa
School essay on the subject of borders.
The borders on the south and west of Bohemia are sombre and suspicious, surrounded by a zone of several kilometres where entry is forbidden. Border guards and dogs. In our school primers we read about the tough job of the guards who watch our borders vigilantly to make sure they are not infiltrated by any disruptive elements. The Diversionary, the counter-revolutionary, creeping counter-revolution, enemies of the people’s democratic order, bankrupts who do not want to see the success of really-existing socialism. All these lie in wait on the other side of the border.
(The year is 1975 or ’76, or any year to either side of them. It makes no difference. Ah yes, why, why, why did I not succeed in taking refuge among some interesting people, in the underground, why was I afraid of what people would say, that they would condemn me, that they would judge me, that they would not consider me a good political cadre? I was terrified, took regard of others, hunched myself up so that I would not lose any of the normal opportunities, a normal future, perhaps I would then never manage to drag myself back up into normal society, phew, I’d rather be a good girl…)
And now: what the border looks like to the naked eye.
The border crossing: watch towers, a ploughed-up strip of earth between barbed wire. A concentration camp. The feeling of anxiety when one crosses back on the way in: so, it’s done, the cage has fallen. The trap is sprung. Falling prey to panic, looking for an escape route, pounding with one’s fists. Screaming. (The oppressive feeling that one is inside, that you can’t run away from it, that you can’t escape from it, be a good girl and that will be your protection, nobody will notice you, nobody will pay any attention to you, select you, lock you away, be normal, for God’s sake, be normal, well then, at least try to pass for normal and perhaps step by step it will come easier, surely you don’t want to lose your opportunities in life, to travel, for God’s sake, be normal, to study, for God’s sake, be normal, to have children, for God’s sake, be normal and it will come easier… perhaps in the end you really will be normal, and then everything around you will also be normal and where will be the problem?)
Prospects: forget about the city streets in the West, full of colour, flowers, tempting window displays and smiling people. Most of all, forget about the people themselves — self-confident, open, decent and obliging. Not fed up with life and not down-trodden.
But mental pictures quickly start to lose their colour. The dusty, grey streets of Prague, my friends, my fellow-students and my parents, yes, this is where I belong, all of them know it and all of them behave like that: truth? Hahaha, what kind of fool thing is that, pravda, I know at least three Pravdas, the Moscow Pravda, Komsomolskaya pravda, and… South Bohemian Pravda? There is no one truth, so don’t talk through you hats. Don’t philosophise about anything, that’s the safest thing.
Not that we are afraid or that we feel oppressed. That would sound laughable to us. No. It’s simply that we’ve understood. Understand, comrades, that’s the way it goes. That’s the way it has to be. Actually we’re not so badly off. The Poles have it much worse than we do. That’s because they keep on blathering about freedom instead of getting down to work. We want our pork.
I go out with a boy who hates the communists, we sit on a bench in Old Town Square, beneath the statue of Jan Hus, on which in those days nobody would ever have dreamed of climbing (the police would have intervened), glum Prague burghers go hurrying past and here and there one of those strange, gaudily-dressed, noisy tourists, and he whispers to me that he has to run away from here, that he has to at all costs. I say that I can’t breathe here, that I am suffocating — but at the same time it occurs to me that it isn’t completely true, because the complete truth is that I have already stopped breathing with my lungs. I have sprouted gills and I can breathe here fairly well. I don’t know if I would be capable of drawing breath if they pulled me out of this muddy pond into the open air. Perhaps I would start gasping like a fish.
He wants to run away, but they confiscated his passport, he was getting ready to go with some friends but someone must have said something, he has to find a job immediately, any job, I am losing all perspective on what he is actually threatened with and what he is guilty of, it tires me and I am confused. Is all the nervous tension worth it?
You see, I am going to Italy with my parents in the summer.
Instructions for a journey to the West.
The first thing you have to remember is that the West almost doesn’t exist. You can quietly forget about it, it’s more pleasant that way. Once, in some satirical story, I read the sentence that someone looked around at all three cardinal points of the compass, which struck me as ingenious — yes, here we really did have only three cardinal points of the compass — the north, the south and the east. If despite everything you decide you must go to the West, you either have to buy a tour with our one and only travel agency, with Cedok, only they have very few tours to the West and people stand in line for them perhaps several days and nights when they go on sale each spring. Unless you have someone to pull the strings at Cedok.
Or you can travel independently, but for that you need a banker’s pledge regarding the availability of hard currency. In theory, you have the right to one of these every three years, but in practice the bank doesn’t give them out at all, because, comrades, we just don’t have the money. You have to have a contact at the bank.
So my father set out to see the bank manager and told him that he had never had a banker’s pledge (or at least, not in about the last twenty years) and that he had received a meritorious citation for services to socialist science, and he got they money.
Once you had your banker’s pledge you had to stand in another long line for your travel papers, in the bank to collect your foreign currency, then you had to hand over your military service record, and, oh yes, they had to approve your journey at work (rubber stamps, running around to see people, nerves, the jealousy of others, their suspicion over the fact that it was just you that was getting to go, did you perhaps have something to do with the secret police?), because if you should happen to run away, someone would be responsible for the fact that they let you out in the first place…
In the end, you were so exhausted you swore to yourself you would never again in your whole life travel to the world outside.
At the campsite in Rome, I met a progressive young woman from Bavaria and we became penfriends. She had big plans that she would go and be an aid worker in the developing world, but then she decided to stay in Munich. She was trying to build up the student commune in which she lived into something greater — not just a shared household, but also a set of shared ideals and problems… in short, to cement the collective, as used to be said here in those days whenever there were some festivities at work or a works outing.
Cementing the collective! Notice-boards covered in red crepe paper, slogans written in big yellow lettering: „We will fulfil the resolutions of the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia!“ (Nobody had any idea what these resolutions were. Well, probably something to do with increasing, improving and exceeding. And probably also cementing the collective).
The commune did not want to be cemented. In the end, everybody looked after themselves.
I was thirsty for any kind of information about what was happening in the cultural life of the world outside (I didn’t know precisely what I should be looking for, but if I had had an inkling, it would probably have been post-modernism, punk, and so on), but when the Progressive Bavarian came to Czechoslovakia she brought me a copy of Marx’s Kapital retold in comic-book form and two books about feminism.
I was very disappointed.
Then she went away for a year to the U.S.A. and wrote me a series of letters which could have been taken directly from the Communist Party press: about homelessness, bad health insurance, and unemployment, or about the inconsistent political opinions of Americans who are manipulated by the mass media.
When I myself got to the U.S.A. in 1987, I had completely different impressions — the radiant, hedonistic people who seemed a little childish at times, but terribly happy, who played sport, didn’t smoke, ate healthily and took pride in their achievements and abilities at work.
Whenever you speak with anyone, the border is always there.
But sometimes you can see each other across that border, and hear what the other is saying.
That boy. He can’t meet me, it’s dangerous. A romantic situation just like in a Western. Hang on in there are trust me. Believe me, believe me. But I probably didn’t have anything to believe in.
It bored me and wore me out.
One evening I went to the pub with some women friends. We got acquainted with some students from the conservatoire and went walking with them in the night at Hradcany. One of the conservatoire students, the one who had evidently picked me out, a gentle, sensitive young man, looked down at the lights of the undulating cityscape of Prague beneath us and said, with feeling: „Those bastard immigrants! Tell me, how can they abandon this?“
Prague in May is sweetly scented, drifts of pink and white flowers, fruit orchards, red roofs and chimneys and turrets, the tepid breath of home, which does not scream at you, does not give orders, does not force itself on you, which just quietly waits.
(I have always had the feeling that the world is one giant grotesque. And I have never felt even a jot of nationalism).
„Hm,“ I said.
We are peering through a keyhole.
One of my friends has been outside for the first time. He can’t get over it: „They have such beautiful cars! If I didn’t have a family, I would vanish over the hills straight away!“
And they sit with their beers and tell each other about how they are henpecked by their wives, and they are so melancholicly self-composed and calm. Trabant owners. Our train has left without us. Our train has left for the third dimension, while we flatten ourselves out here in this two-dimensional world and look at what a nice head of foam we have on our beer, and… Well, at least we’re not in it alone. We’re all in it together, friends. We’re all in it together, comrades.
The border. The Wall. East German editors were instructed to delete the word for an exterior wall from all texts before publication, because it could be a political allusion.
It was supposed to be replaced with the word for an interior or partition wall.
The Lennon Wall in Mala strana. Those young people — so terribly young — venerated Lennon, it was almost as if they were praying to him, they brought him candles and painted and wrote on the wall.
The authorities always dispersed them and painted the wall white.
The border. What remains of it in me even today is a feeling: you don’t have to resist things all the time! You can: rejoice… skip and jump… make things up…
Only it doesn’t want to come.
Something sticky on my feet holds me down.