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In this excerpt from Czech writer Radka Denemarková’s novel “A Contribution to the History of Joy”, ...
2020-04-08 09:00:00
Fiction

A Fragile Autumn and Restless Hummingbirds

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
A Fragile Autumn and Restless Hummingbirds
A Fragile Autumn and Restless Hummingbirds

The body of a wealthy middle-aged businessman is found in his luxury villa in Prague. Initially nothing suggests foul play, but the man’s widow insists it couldn’t possibly be suicide. As he begins to investigate, the Policeman finds himself attracted to the young and beautiful Widow. A trail leads him to an orange house with a red roof on Prague’s Petřín hill, where three old ladies are involved in mysterious activities that turn out to relate to decades-long sexual atrocities carried out against women around the world. Blending fiction and fact, award-winning Czech writer Radka Denemarková’s fourth novel A Contribution to the History of Joy (Příspěvek k dějinám radosti, 2014) is a passionate indictment of all forms of violence against women, whenever and wherever it occurs. This extract, from the opening of the book, is published with the kind permission of the author.

Read in 11 minutes

The man is seated with his back against a massive wooden beam. His bowed head is examining his belly and the belly is oblivious to the surrounding activity. The body is dressed in a tight black vest, fashionable shorts and a chequered silk pyjama top that is unbuttoned. The top, bought in Scotland, sports a clan emblem on the chest. All that is lacking is a kilt. The man is hatless and barefoot. His legs are stiff and spread out like those of a wind-up doll. His toes are rounded and smooth. If you tickled the crinkled pink soles of his feet with a feather the toes would curl inwards, their spine cracking. The man seems embarrassed; he is carelessly dressed. His eyes are lowered.

The place where he is reclining is spick and span, well organized and half-empty. The attic, which the owners call the loft lounge, forms part of a newly-built villa. It boasts a metal staircase, a long tongue ascended by misfortune, and sets of flashy, expensive suitcases, bags and ski boots lounging on the shelves. Downhill skis and cross-country skis and ski sticks extend along tall narrow white racks, followed by golf clubs, shoes and sports bags. The loft bristles with metal laundry stands bolted to the floor. The bristling metal stands are not used for drying laundry; the family uses the drier in the basement laundry room. The man’s hair is grey. It is a firm turf, like a thick and evenly cut brush. The doll’s legs are muscular, the biceps on its arms lean, its back broad and masculine.

The well-maintained body is deceiving itself.

In fact, the man is getting on. Even though he would go swimming at the weekends to wash away the sins of the working week. A mighty stroke of the arm, an intake of breath, a dive below the surface. The chlorine would wash away the stress and dissolve the importuning of the years. He didn’t need to work but he did. He liked to work because he didn’t need to.

The attic is busy. A police investigator kneels down to the man as if to tickle the soles of his bare feet with a feather or a stalk of grass. Or as if to have a quiet word with the body.

The man doesn’t react. He remains silent, doesn’t answer. A swallow, its eyes misted with rain, flies into the loft in the lonely evening of the autumn. The men who are present welcome the distraction; the collective laughter of powerful baritone voices startles the delicate swallow. In a panic, the bird keeps hitting its head against the wall, circles around the dormer window until it finds a way out, to freedom. In its little beak it carries a mauve Japanese cherry blossom, the kind that doesn’t grow in these parts. One swallow most certainly won’t make a summer at this time of the year, and only among Japanese cherry blossom is a tent caterpillar truly at home.

 

With a duck-like waddle the Policeman approaches the man’s left temple. His trousers bulge out at the knees. The seated man’s eyes are lowered to his own chest, the Policeman lowers his eyes towards the man's neck. He crouches down and watches as a young doctor carefully lays the body, dressed in shorts and the silk pyjama top, down on the floor, palpating it again with his fingers. The man offers no resistance. There is a white noose coiled around his neck. Somebody has stashed his body here, tethering it with a white rope so it wouldn’t run away. Like a pet dog tied to its kennel. An overturned teak chair with a curved lattice back lies next to the beam, its indecently spread legs flailing in the air. Three more chairs with tall latticed backs stand guard puritanically by the wall. They are expecting visitors to flop down on them and enjoy the puppet show seated on their squashed rears. A further eight teak chairs, their spitting images, proudly jut out on the ground floor next to a folding kitchen table. None of the chairs has any doubt that it was suicide.

It was suicide.

 

The men pack up their stuff.

Compared to the seated body, the Policeman is young; he is thirty-seven. He enjoys his work even though he does need to work. He is zealous and his memory serves him although he’s not sure how well. The Policeman’s body totters and he waddles, duck-like, to the other side of the face lying on the floor. Hesitantly, like a blind man, he feels up the face, taking in the skin and the wrinkles. Hesitation is the thief of time; perplexed by a pair of grooves on the man’s neck, he ransacks his memory for details of that course on suicide and murder by hanging. One of the grooves is at an angle. That’s just as it should be. But there’s also another, hardly noticeable. And that one is straight. He points this out to the doctor. The doctor waves his hand dismissively, it’s obviously a suicide, don’t be silly, shush.

The Policeman stands up. His knees give a crack. He disturbs some dust and a swallow's feather that had got caught on the man’s full lips. The Policeman looks out of the open window and into the rain. Bodies of swallows line up along the telegraph wires behind the garden like music notes on a stave. They are a stone's throw away. But is this the time to be casting stones?

It is.

 

The Policeman climbs down the metal staircase to the first floor. There is a wide glass-covered terrace with a view of the city. A small child is playing on a fluffy rug appliquéd with toy motifs. With a toy engine the child imitates the rail tracks woven into the rug. A young woman on a black leather sofa with metal armrests has now stopped weeping. A mirror on the opposite wall, made up of dozens of oval teardrops, multiplies the reflection of her golden hair, pinned into a topnot, and her small, scrunched up nose. In a hushed voice she is answering the questions of an experienced, portly policewoman who is taking notes with one hand and holding the woman’s wrist with the other, in order to take her panicked pulse. The distance between the weeping body and the body affixed to the beam in the loft spans more than thirty years. She has just returned home from a late summer holiday by the sea. Yes, it was today, yes, yes, this Saturday afternoon. She was taking her empty suitcases up to the loft, my husband likes ... liked everything to be neat and tidy. Routine and ritual, he used to say, that’s the strategy for getting through the day, darling, otherwise life will hollow out and crumble away.

He wasn’t meant to be at home, the tear-choked voice rasps. On Friday he went to... was supposed to go hiking, although he no longer indulged in mountain-climbing as passionately as he onced used to, but he still went skiing and in the summer and autumn he liked to go hiking with friends. No, he isn’t... wasn’t sick... he was... really fit, even though he was nearly seventy. The Widow breaks down in tears.

The Policeman interrupts the two women. He offers a handkerchief to the one who is weeping. The Widow has run out of paper handkerchiefs. The Policeman’s handkerchief is linen, with an old-fashioned embroidered monogram. The policewoman steps aside. The Policeman fires off a fresh battery of questions. Hurt and surprise sweep the Widow’s face. But she’s already explained all that, she was taking the empty suitcases to the loft. No, she has no idea why he might have done it. No, they didn’t have an argument. In fact, he was bursting with fresh energy after the charges against him were dropped under a presidential amnesty.

The Widow grabs the Policeman by the hand. She drags him to the bedroom like an eager courtisan. There’s a piece of paper on the bedside table. The policeman’s eyes take in the scribbled words: contact lenses, sunglasses, suntan lotion, lip balm, compression bandage, notes on chapter 86, medication. The Widow’s hips give an exultant wiggle. The Policeman registers the wiggle. As he does the outline of her breasts and the presumably blood-red nipples and the slim waist and rounded hips. A vast king-size bed with chubby, plumped up white pillows winks at him. She taps the paper with a long fingernail covered in peach-coloured varnish, pecking out individual words. He would always draw up a list before he went on a trip, when he couldn’t contain his joy and anticipation. He always wrote it out in longhand. Whenever he really cared about something and was in a hurry, he would write by hand, something he rarely did otherwise. So why on earth would he have made a list if he’d decided to go on his final journey, what would have been the point. Well, I really have no idea where he was planning to go and why, I don’t know what kind of list he might have drawn up for his final journey and what the point would have been, says the Policeman putting her down brusquely. The woman won’t give up. But surely he would have scribbled at least a few lines addressed to her. The young Widow’s eyes glimmer. The tears spill over. The three-year-old boy with his toy engine gets under her feet. She isn't weeping, she is merely staring. No, he had no enemies. Well, a while ago he had been upset by this small matter relating to his former assistants. But all that turned out to be nonsense. They’d accused him of sexual harassement at work, one even claimed he had raped her or something of the sort.

 

The Policeman feels ill at ease in the bedroom. He moves next door, to the man’s study. The Widow and the little boy dutifully scurry after him. One of the walls in the study is also made of glass. Raindrops trickle down the pane. They are living in a fish bowl, the Policeman thinks. The bodies of swallows on the telegraph wires reassemble, composing a new tune echoing the rhythm of the raindrops.

On the corner of a massive semi-circular desk a slender carafe of water with a crystal embedded within it gleams on the dark-brown surface. A similar crystal, only smaller and with a bevelled edge, glitters in the window. It is a teardrop sparkling blue in the pane, its reflection shimmering in the double glazing. The other walls are covered with framed photographs, crammed cheek by jowl, a kind of black-and-white wallpaper. Across the wall facing the window run metal rails the same colour as the photo frames. The Policeman plants a stubby finger on a round button next to the shining carafe of water and looks at the woman. She sniffles and her nostrils flare in an indication of security and trustworthiness. She nods by way of approval. His index finger presses the button.

The photos begin to slide along the wall rattling and rolling. The Policeman presses the button again. The moving pictures jerk, stop and jiggle as if someone had breathed on them lightly. The Policeman’s eyes scour the photos. He turns around, his index finger again reaching for the button. The female voice behind him patiently explains that this was her husband’s invention. It allowed him to alternate photos of his visitors without having to rummage through piles of pictures. The people shown in the photos with the man include some presidents. They all share the same thick grey mop of hair. Besuited, they are seated in a theatre auditorium, laughing. Casually attired, they are at a tennis match, all looking in the same direction, following the path of the ball. Besuited, they are sitting at chess boards. Wrapped in heavy fur coats they are assembled at the North Pole. They are on a golf course with filmstars. They are judging a beauty contest. They are drinking Becherovka liqueur at a table laden with food. All the pictures were taken after 1989.

Have a go, the Policeman encourages the small boy to press the button, a misshapen beetle. The boy hides behind his mother’s back. This is ... was strictly forbidden by his father, the Widow explains, somewhat embarrassed. Why aren’t there any pictures of you, the Policeman asks, looking around the room. The Widow’s face is reflected in the window, she says nothing. The Policeman asks more questions, glueing the story together with his saliva like a swallow’s nest. The air grows heavy with the unspoken answer, they both ponder the question. The unspoken answer glues them to each other.

 

This is an excerpt from the novel “Příspěvek k dějinám radosti” (2014) by Radka Denemarková, translated from the Czech by Julia and Peter Sherwood. 

Copyright © 2014 by Radka Denemarková

Copyright ©  Julia and Peter Sherwood

You can read our interview with Radka Denemarková here.

 

Published:

Radka Denemarková

is a Czech writer, literary historian, playwright, essayist and translator based in Prague. She has taught creative writing, and worked as a dramaturg at the Theatre on the Balustrade. Her novels include “Peníze od Hitlera” (Money from Hitler, 2006, winner of the prestigious Magnesia Litera prize), “Kobold” (2011), and “Příspěvek k dějinám radosti” (A Contribution to the History of Joy, 2014). Radka’s books have been translated into more than 20 languages, winning numerous literary prizes abroad. Her latest novel, “Hodiny z olova” (Hours of Lead, 2018) was named Magnesia Litera Book of the Year in 2019.