Category Archives: Provenance: elsewhere in Europe

From Czech: POSTMORTEM by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Zločin na poště, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

“Justice,” said Police Constable Brejcha. “I’d like to know why it’s shown as a blindfolded woman carryin’ scales, as if she was sellin’ pepper. I’m more inclined to fink Justice looks more like a policeman. You can’ imagine ’ow many fings we policemen decide without all that fussin’ with judges an’ scales an’ all that. In less serious cases we smack ’em across the gob, in more serious we use the strap. In ninety cases out of an ’undred, that’s the beginnin’ an’ the end of justice. An’ would you believe, on one occasion I meself convicted two people of murder, an’ I meself passed sentence on ’em, an’ I meself carried it out… I’ll tell you about it, if you like.

Well, you remember that young lady ’oo used to work in the local pos’ office. ’elenka, that was ’er name. A lovely girl, pri’y as a picture… Maybe you don’ remember… Well, anyway, she drowned ’erself last year, in the summer. She jumped into the lake an’ waded about fifty metres until she got out of ’er depf. An’ do you know why she done it? That very day, before she wen’ an’ drowned ’erself, the inspectors turned up at the pos’ office, from Prague, an’ they discovered that ’elenka ’ad two ’undred missin’ from ’er till. I ask you! A measly two ’undred. The chief inspector said ’e’d ’ave to report it an’ that it’d be investigated as a case of fraud. Well, that evenin’ ’elenka wen’ an’ drowned ’erself. From the shame of it.

When they pulled ’er to the bank, I ’ad to stand by ’er body until the specialists come. The poor fing weren’ a pri’y sight any more, but all I could fink of was ’er smilin’ behind the counter in the pos’ office. Everyone liked ’er, an’ she liked everyone. Sod it! I says to meself. That girl didn’ steal two ’undred. Firs’ly, coz I don’ believe it an’, secondly, coz she didn’ need to steal.

’er father was the miller, over there on the other side of the village. The only reason she went to work at the pos’ office was the same as all the young women ’oo want to go to work nowadays – to be independent. I knew ’er dad well. A bit of a writer, an’ an evangelical an’, I tell you, them evangelicals an’ spiritualists an’ the like round ’ere, they don’ never steal. If there was two ’undred missin’ at the pos’ office, the fief ’ad to be someone else. So I promised that dead girl, as I stood by ’er on the bank, that I wouldn’ leave it at that.

Well, in the meantime they sent this young fellow from Prague to take ’er place in the pos’ office. Filípek ’e was called. A toofy, clever chap. So I goes to see this Filípek in the pos’ office, so as I can ’ave a look around. Of course, it’s like any little pos’ office. A stool on the other side of the window an’ a drawer with money an’ stamps under the counter. An’ at the back there’s a shelf with all the bumf about prices an’ tariffs, an’ a scale for weighin’ parcels.

Mr Filípek, I says to ’im, ’ave a look what a telegram to Buenos Aires costs, if you would.

Three crowns a word, says Filípek, without even lookin’.

An’ what would a telegram to ’ong Kong cost, I asks ’im again.

I’ll ’ave to ’ave a look, says Filípek, an’ ’e gets up an’ goes over to the shelf. An’ while ’e’s lookin’ at the prices, an’ ’is back’s turned, I squeezes me shoulder through the gap in the window, I stretches out me arm, an’ I opens the drawer with the money. Dead easy. Not a sound.

Aha! I says to meself. So that’s ’ow it could’ve ’appened. Suppose ’elenka ’ad been lookin’ for summut on the shelf. Someone could’ve whipped two ’undred ou’ of the drawer, no trouble.

Mr Filípek, would you ’ave a look ’oo sent summut from ’ere in the past few days.

Mr Filípek scratches ’is ’ead an’ says, I can’ do that, Constable. It’s confidential. Unless you was legally authorised. An’ I’d ’ave to report it to me superiors.

’old on, I says to ’im. I wouldn’ want to do that jus’ at the moment. But look, Mr Filípek, what about if… when you’ve got a minute or two… you ’as a look in them there registers to see ’oo ’ad some business that might’ve caused ’elenka, say, to go an’ look on the shelf…

Well, says Filípek, there’s the sent telegram forms. But, for the registered letters an’ the parcels, we’ve only got ’oo they was sent to, not ’oo sent ’em. I’ll write you down all the names I can find there. I shouldn’ really, but I’ll do it for you. But I fink it will be a fat lot of use, to be honest.

An’ ’e was dead right, that Filípek. ’e brought me about firty names – of course, there’s not much goes through a village pos’ office. The odd little parcel for a lad ’oo’s away with the army, that sor’ of fing. An’ I couldn’ get nuffin’ at all from the names ’e give me. So there was me wrackin’ me brains an’ worryin’ meself that I weren’ gonna keep me promise to the dead girl.

But, about a week ago, I goes back to the pos’ office. Filípek grins at me an’ says, No time for skittles. I’m packin’ up. There’s a new young lady comin’ tomorra, from the Pardubice pos’ office.

Aha! I says. That’ll be punishment, sendin’ ’er from a town to a piddlin’ little village.

No, not at all, says Filípek, givin’ me a funny look. The young lady is muvin’ ’ere at ’er own request, Constable.

That’s strange, I says. Seein’ as ’ow young ladies want to move up in the world nowadays.

It is, says Filípek, still givin’ me that look. An’ what’s even stranger is the anonymous tip-off that led to the surprise inspection, it also came from Pardubice.

I gives a little whistle through me teeth. I was probably lookin’ at Filípek like ’e was lookin’ at me. When suddenly U’er, the postie, ’oo was standin’ there arrangin’ ’is sack, says: The estate manager writes to some missy at the pos’ office there almost every day. Mus’ be love, eh?!

’old on, says Filípek. Would you ’appen to know the young lady’s name. Julie Touf… Toufar… Touferová. Yes? Well, she’s the one ’oo’s comin’ ’ere.

Mr ’oudek, like the estate manager, says the postie, also gets a letter from Pardubice almost every day. Mr Manager, I says to ’im, ’ere’s another letter from yer beloved. (Mr ’oudek always comes to meet me ’alfway, to save me ’avin’ to walk all the way down the drive like.) An’ today I’ve got a little box or summut for ’im, but it’s from Prague. An’, looky ’ere, it’s been returned. Address unknown. Mr Manager must’ve got the address wrong. So I’ll take it back to ’im.

Give it ’ere, says Filípek. It was addressed to a Dr Novák, Spálená Street, Prague. Two kilos of butter. Date stamp fourteenf of July.

Miss ’elenka were still ’ere then, says the postie.

Let me ’ave a look, I says to Filípek, an’ I sniffs the little box. That’s strange, Mr Filípek, I says, the butter was sent ten days ago, an’ it don’ smell. Off you go, postie, we’ll keep this ’ere.

’ardly ’ad the postie gone, when Filípek says to me: it’s not really right, Constable, but ’ere’s a chisel. An’ ’e clears off, so’s ’e won’ ’ave to look.

Well, I opens the box an’ inside there’s two kilo of soil. So I goes after Filípek an’ I says to ’im: Don’ say nuffin’ to no one about this, OK? I’ll sort it meself.

It goes without sayin’, I ups an’ goes straight off to see ’oudek at the estate. ’e was sittin’ on a pile of logs, lookin’ at the ground. Mr Manager, I says, there’s been a mix-up in the post. Do you remember where you sent a box like this a couple of weeks ago?

’oudek goes a little pale an’ says: It don’ matter. I can’ remember ’oo I sent it to meself.

An’ what sort of butter was it, Mr Manager? I says.

At which, ’oudek jumps up, white as a sheet. What’s the meanin’ of this, ’e shouts. Why are you botherin’ me?!

Mr Manager, I says to ’im. It’s like this. You murdered ’elenka, from the pos’ office. You took a box there with a made-up address, so’s she’d ’ave to go an’ weigh it. An’ while she was weighin’ it, you leans over the counter an’ steals two ’undred crowns from the drawer. ’elenka drowned ’erself coz of them two ’undred crowns. That’s why I’m botherin’ you, Mr Manager.

Well, Mr ’oudek starts shakin’ like a leaf. That’s a lie! ’e shouts. Why would I steal two ’undred?

Coz you wanted to get Miss Tauferová, yer sweetheart, over to the pos’ office ’ere. An’ yer sweetheart sent an anonymous letter, sayin’ ’elenka ’ad money missin’. The two of yous drove ’elenka into the lake. The two of yous killed ’er. You ’ave a crime on yer conscience, Mr ’oudek.

’oudek collapsed on to the logs an’ ’id ’is face. I never ever seen a man cry like that. Christ Almighty! ’e wails. I couldn’ ’ave known she’d drown ’erself. I jus’ thought she’d get the sack… She could’ve jus’ gone ’ome. All I wanted was to marry Julie, Constable. But one of us would’ve ’ad to give up work if we’d married… An’ then we wouldn’ ’ave been able to cope with jus’ one wage… That’s why I wanted so much for Julie to work at the pos’ office ’ere. We’ve been waitin’ five years for it… We was so much in love, Constable!

I won’ go on about it. It was already night, the fellow was kneelin’ in front of me, an’ I meself ’ad tears rollin’ down me cheeks like an old softie. Weepin’ for ’elenka an’ everyfin’.

That’ll do, I says to ’im in the end, I’ve ’ad it up to ’ere. Give me them two ’undred crowns… Right. An’ if you even fink of goin’ to see Miss Tauferová before I sort it all out, I’ll ’ave you arraigned for feft, understand? An’ if you shoot yerself or summut of that sort, I’ll let everyone know why you done it. As sure as sure!

That night, my friend, I sat under the stars in judgment on them two. I asked God ’ow I should punish ’em, an’ I understood the bitterness an’ the joy of justice. If I ’anded ’em over, ’oudek would get sentenced, conditionally, to a couple of weeks in prison. If that. ’e killed that girl, but ’e wasn’ a common fief. Any sentence seemed too much an’ too little. That’s why I judged ’em meself.

The next mornin’, I goes to the pos’ office. A tall, pale young lady with rather piercin’ eyes is sittin’ behind the counter. Miss Tauferová, I says, I’ve got a recorded letter ’ere.

I gave ’er the letter, addressed to ‘The Directorate of Posts & Telegraphs, Prague.’ She looks at me an’ sticks a stamp on the envelope.

One moment, Miss, I says. The letter tells ’em ’oo stole two ’undred crowns from yer predecessor… ’ow much does it cost?

Well, I tell you, she seemed pri’y unflappable at first. Until she went ash-pale an’ rigid as a stone. Free crowns fifty, she whispered. I counts out free crowns fifty, an’ I says: ’ere you are, Miss. An’ if these two ’undreds – ’ere I puts on the counter the two stolen banknotes – if these two ’undreds are found ’ere or ’ereabouts, understand? – so that it’s clear the late ’elenka didn’ steal ’em… well, in that case, I won’ send the letter. What do you fink?

She didn’ say nuffin’. Jus’ stared an’ stared into the distance. The postie will be ’ere in five minutes, Miss, I says. So do you wan’ me to take this letter away with me or not?

She nods ’er ’ead quickly.

I picks up the letter, walks out of the pos’ office an’ waits outside. A bag of nerves.

After twenty minutes, old U’er, the postie, runs out an’ shouts: Constable, Constable! They’ve found them two ’undred Miss ’elenka was missin’! The new lady found ’em in one of the books! What a coincidence!

Thank goodness for that, postie! I says. Do us a favour an’ tell everyone you meet that they’ve been found. So they all knows ’elenka didn’ steal ‘em. OK?

So that was the first fing. The second was, I goes to the old fellow ’oo owns the estate. You won’ know ’im. A count. A bit touched in the ’ead, but very nice. Count, I says to ’im, don’ ask me no questions. It’s summut important, an’ I jus’ need you to trus’ me. Call yer manager, Mr ’oudek, an’ tell ’im you’re transferrin’ ’im to yer estate in Morava. An’ if ’e don’ like it, that you’re givin’ ’im immediate notice to quit.

The old count raises an eyebrow an’ looks at me for a while. Of course, there’s me lookin’ as serious as serious can be.

Well, alright, says the count. I won’ ask nuffin’.

An’ ’e gets ’em to summon ’oudek. When ’oudek sees me with the count, ’e goes as white as the driven snow.

’oudek, says the count. Tell ’em to get the carriage ready to take you to the station. You’ll take up work tonight at me estate in ’ulín. I’ll send ’em a telegram for ’em to expect you. Alright?

Yes, says ’oudek. So quiet you could ’ardly ’ear ’im, an’ ’e stares at me with eyes like… like a lost soul in ’ell.

Do you ’ave any objections, says the count.

No, says ’oudek in a gruff voice, an’ still not takin’ ’is eyes off me. I didn’ like ’is eyes, I can tell you.

Alright, you may go, says the count. An’ that was that.

After a while, I see ’em takin’ ’oudek off in the carriage. ’e’s sittin’ there like a wooden doll.

When you go to the pos’ office next time, you’ll see the tall, pale lady. Nasty. Nasty to everyone, an’ she’s gettin’ nasty, old woman wrinkles. I don’ know if she ever meets up with ’er manager friend. Maybe she goes to see ’im sometimes but, if she does, she comes back even more bitter an’ nasty. An’ when I looks at ’er, I finks: Justice.

I’m a police constable, my friend, an’ I’ll tell you this from me own experience: I don’ know whether there’s some all-knowin’ an’ all-powerful God. But if there is, it ain’ no use to us. But let me tell you: There ’as to be someone ‘oo’s as fair as fair can be. Oh yes! All we can do is punish, but there ’as to be someone ’oo forgives. An’ I’ll tell you sumfin for nuffin’: That real an’ ’ighest justice will – strange as it may seem – be summut like love.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

About Poets: GEORGE SZIRTES

Guardian, 2 July 2016: "The Hungarian-born British poet on the racism that has emerged during the campaign and since the vote to leave" Photo: Graham Turner.

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BOOKSINTERVIEWSREVIEWS

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: EDIFYING REMINISCENCES AND A FLYING LAMP by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Nejdříve mluvili o vzdělanosti a pak jí hodil lampu na hlavu, which was published in Večerní České slovo on 26 June 1929 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

*

“My, oh my!” cooed Mrs Klinkáčová, gazing tenderly at her husband. “Those were the days! Yes, indeed. When my hubby was courting me,” – here she gestured towards her husband, who had a corn on his toe and was soaking his foot in a basin of hot water – “we had a fine old time. We went on excursions, we ate bread and butter and drank coffee, and in the evenings we hit the town, didn’t we, sweetheart?”

“Uh,” muttered the man with the corn.

“And sometimes… Sometimes, if it was raining, we’d go to a pub where they played lovely music, didn’t we, sweetheart?”

The man with the corn made a sound like distant thunder.

Mrs Klinkáčová continued as if in a trance: “Ah, young love… What fond memories! It’s no fun for youngsters nowadays, all those modern goings-on. It was different for us. My hubby didn’t have the courage even to ask me for a kiss! As I say, the youngsters of today won’t have any nice memories, and it’s so nice to have nice memories, isn’t it, sweetheart?”

The man with the corn glanced at his wife and made a sound rather like a groan. His wife understood it to be agreement.

“And we took trouble to educate ourselves at the same time. The money we spent on theatre tickets! Once – I can remember it as if it was yesterday – we saw such a wonderful show. The young ladies were all holding hands and dancing on the stage, and the men were clapping along to the music. What was it called, now? Garmen, I think, wasn’t it, sweetheart?”

“No, it wasn’t,” growled the man with the corn. “It was A Waltz Dream. And it’s not Garmen, it’s Carmen.”

“Well, Garmen, Carmen, whatever, it’s all the same to me. I’m just a silly woman…”

“If I say it’s Carmen,” bellowed the man with the corn, banging his fist on the table, “it’s Carmen!”

Seeing that things were heading towards a domestic misunderstanding, their visitor stood up.

“I better be going,” she said. “It seems there’s going to be a domestic misunderstanding…”

The lady who didn’t care whether it was Garmen or Carmen, bristled:

“I beg your pardon! Misunderstanding?! I’ll have you know we never ever argue. We’re like a pair of turtle doves. Loving and faithful. Off you go, you old trout!”

“Excuse me!” said the departing visitor, “I didn’t know you have a mouth like a fishwife’s.”

“What?!” roared the man with the corn. “No one calls my wife a fishwife.”

At which, he grabbed the lamp from the shelf beside him and hurled it at the departing visitor.

***

Yesterday he appeared in court, accused of defamation and actual bodily harm. He was sentenced to three days, suspended for a year.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: THE ENMITY OF X AND Y by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Potyčka jistého rolníka s jistou bábou, which was published in České slovo on 11 June 1933 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

*

This is about two villages not far from the town of Příbram. I won’t give their names because I don’t want to get into trouble, so I’ll just call them X and Y.

There are lots of similar villages in our country, but the point about X and Y is that they detest each other, even though the residents of X can’t explain why, and nor can the residents of Y. The origins of this enmity are lost in the mists of time – which doesn’t stop X and Y still being as nasty as possible to each other.

*

***

*

On the fifth of April this year – how could we forget?! – Farmer Prouříslo, from X, met Babička Pejšáková from Y. Babička Pejšáková was carrying a basket of alfafa on her back and was unable to avoid Farmer Prouříslo. As soon as he saw Babička Pejšáková, Farmer Prouříslo started making obscene gestures and shouting offensive remarks.

“Babička Pejšáková!” he hollered. “When shall we get married? I can’t live without you. I dream about you all the time.”

Now, Babička Pejšácka is as deaf as a post, but she guessed that Farmer Prouříslo was insulting her in public by casting aspersions upon her chastity. What helped her to guess correctly was that, a little way off, she could see some other residents from X, who were nearly pissing themselves with laughter.

Enfuriated, she lifted her skirt.

“Here’s what I think of you, you sack of shite!” she screeched.

*

***

*

It ended up in court, each accusing the other of defamation.

One of Babička Pejšáková’s witnesses was a young woman from Y who would have liked nothing better than to see Farmer Prouříslo rotting in prison. Under her oath on the Bible, she testified that it was completely untrue that Babička Pejšáková had lifted her skirt. She was an upstanding resident of Y. Whereas Farmer Prouříslo was a foul-mouthed swine.

That caused the plot to thicken, because Farmer Prouříslo’s lawyer laid a charge of false testimony against the witness. So the witness found herself sitting in the dock alongside Babička Pejšáková, who was being accused by Prosecuting Attorney Urban of offending public morals.

It was a very difficult hearing. At first, Judge Hraba thought he was speaking loud enough for Babička Pejšáková to understand what he was saying. Not a chance! And even when he raised his voice so high that the windows started to rattle, she still shook her head.

In the end, the judge lifted the charges against the two women. In doing so, he took into account the enmity between X and Y, and the fact that Babička Pejšáková had a basket of alfafa on her back: it would have been difficult for her to lift her skirt so high as to offend public morality.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: RUSTIC REVELS by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Radovánky lidu venkovského, which was published in České slovo on 30 April 1931 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

*

Yay! What fun there was that day in Lochov, a charming little village not far from Prague. On the fifteenth of September 1930, six of the residents had met up in the pub. Three of them were bricklayers, and the others were the miller, the barber and the blacksmith. Once they’d settled down to their drinks, it occurred to them they might have a bit of fun, liven things up, so to speak.

On the other side of the pub, there was a hurdy-gurdy man who was – forgive the expression – so pissed that he didn’t know what year it was, let alone what day of the week. He was lying flat-out on the floor by the wall and wouldn’t have stirred a muscle even if a cannon had gone off right over his head. Alcohol had got the better of him, the beer had won out, drink held him firmly in its grip.

What occurred to the six drinking companions was that a funeral for the hurdy-gurdy man would be just the thing. And the landlady was all for it too; she lent them a table and a tablecloth, the blacksmith putting the latter round his shoulders to look like the priest. They placed the hurdy-gurdy man on the table, the three bricklayers lifted it on to their shoulders, and they shuffled out of the pub.

The blacksmith walked behind the deceased, holding some scraps of paper and mumbling Latin words as if he were reciting the funeral rites. The miller was playing a funeral march on his accordion. And off they went over the village green.

People – boggle-eyed – came spilling out of their cottages, and in no time there was a crowd of youngsters and children accompanying the dear deceased and making a merry din. The older villagers, too, said they couldn’t remember such fun. Some of them were doubled-up with laughter.

But, as they say, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some of them were scandalised at the sight of such depravity and dissipation. It wasn’t right. It was the road to ruin. A fine example for the youngsters. And one of them went straight off to the authorities.

***

The six drinking companions and the landlady were charged with sacrilege on account of publicly making fun of the teachings, customs and decrees of the Roman Catholic Church or, at least, of disrespecting the same. At the end of the hearing, His Honour Dr Masák sentenced all seven of them to fourteen days in jail. The prosecutor was Dr Stibral.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: OPERATICS by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Studující zpěvu, which was published in České slovo on 2 February 1932 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

*

He’s about forty-five years old. He’s wearing a rusty-coloured raglan sweater. His bald pate is shiny. He’s standing before Judge Nedvěda in the Regional Court. In response to a question from the judge, he says he’s a student.

The judge sounds surprised: “A student?!”

Unphased, the man replies, “Yes, Your Honour, a student.”

“And what are you studying? You look rather too old to be studying…”

The man looks taken aback: “You’re never too old to learn something new, Your Honour. I’m a qualified pharmacist, but I gave that up for health reasons. I’ve always had an inclination for the arts. So I’m currently taking singing lessons in order to become an opera singer.”

The judge sounds even more surprised: “An opera singer?!”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater nods enthusiastically: “Yes, Your Honour. What’s so unusual about that?”

(Indeed, why shouldn’t the man in the rusty-coloured sweater become an opera singer?)

“My friends tell me,” he continues, “that I’ve got a wonderful voice, that I’d be excellent as a heroic tenor. I can easily convince Your Honour of that.”

And, as good as his word, he opens his mouth and out comes: “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, Do-Ti-La…”

He’s interrupted by the guard rushing into the court to find out what’s going on. The judge tells the man in the rusty-coloured sweater that the courtroom is a place for speaking, not singing. So…

“How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, Your Honour.”

“So what about Miss Kristýna?”

“Oh, she made it all up. She was voluntarily supporting me in my studies. I was going to pay it all back when I become a successful opera singer. I’d applied to the Royal Theatre but, before I even got a reply, I was arrested. So I wasn’t able to pay it back.”

“Did you promise to marry her?”

“Well, erm… Well, erm… I… I… She kept going on about marriage, so I didn’t want to disappoint her. I was looking for a flat for the purposes of marital cohabitation but, as Your Honour will understand, the problem with getting a flat nowadays… I spent a lot of money in the process.”

“How could you offer to marry her, when you’re already married and have two teenage sons?!”

“I was aware of that, Your Honour. A man can’t have two wives at the same time – that would be a crime. But she kept going on about marriage and I was too reluctant to hurt her feelings. I didn’t want to break her heart. I thought it would be better to break it to her slowly, she’d have a cry about her dreams coming to nothing, and I’d repay everything when I become a success.”

“Alright, but what about Miss Jindřiška?”

The man in the rusty-coloured sweater frowns: “She can speak! She offered me sixteen thousand and only gave me six. She was really demanding. I had to keep shelling out for her. And she kept going on about marriage as well. Whereas Kristýna… she was something else! She gave me twenty thousand straight up, she didn’t whinge, she was satisfied with a coffee and a bread roll. She was another story altogether! If I was single and ten years younger, I’d have married her in the blink of an eye. But she was unlucky, that’s all I can say. It’s no use going on about it, it’s fate.”

When the hearing concludes, the accused, Václav Sedmera, is found guilty of fraud and sentenced to eight months in jail. When the judge asks whether he wants to say anything, he thinks for a few moments before replying:

“Eight months is a bit much, but I’ll accept it, just to show willing. However, I’d like to ask for a slight delay, Your Honour.”

“Why?”

“The singing. I’m working on a difficult aria at the moment.”

He’s told he can sing in jail, and the guard leads him away.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: DICK’S DINNER JACKET by Karel Poláček

(My translation of Karel Poláček’s short story Osudy jednoho smokingu, which was published in Lidové noviny on 5 March 1939 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

4 March 1939

*

Dick Sakulajda is a good-looking young fellow who has recently graduated from business school. At present he’s selling typewriters, playing second fiddle in a group, and supporting his mother financially. He’s a good lad and deserves better luck than he’s had so far.

Bessie – full name: Alžběta Vyťápla – is a personable young lady. Slim, blue-eyed, and with a turned-up nose, she sews gloves, loves modern dance and had started learning English but gave that up in favour of trying to become a film star. Her father, however, threatened to give her what for if she dared do such a thing, and her mother said they hadn’t brought her up to be a floozy. So, as film stardom was a no-go, she would have liked to date an airman but, as no airmen were available at that moment, she made do with Dick, who took her to the cinema and tea dances.

And so their courtship continued. Dick, who was straightforward but rather sentimental, loved her to bits. Bessie intimated to her friends that she could have had any number of suitors, but she wasn’t bothered about them, even though Dick wasn’t all that much fun and certainly wasn’t a man of the world. So she kept going to see him. He’d make a pot of tea and play some of the latest records on his gramophone.

*

***

Time went by, until the day when Dick’s flat was burgled. Amongst other things, the thief had stolen his opera glasses, his How to Do Magic book, his watch, and several items of clothing, including his dinner jacket. Whoever had done it evidently knew where to find what.

Dick was furious, but eventually managed to calm himself down a bit: no use crying over spilt milk etc. But it was difficult, in particular, to get over the loss of his dinner jacket. Just to think of everything he’d been through with that coat! … sweating in it when he did his final exams, going to his friend’s wedding, being photographed with his fellow musicians. It was imbued with so many memories – too many to tell. It was as if he’d lost a close family member. He just couldn’t get it out of his head.

***

Once more, time went by until the day when something remarkable happened. Dick had taken Bessie to a 5 o’clock tea dance. In between stepping out for foxtrot, swing and other such delights, they sat at a little table, where she drank vermouth and he sipped a grenadine cocktail. And while he was sipping his grenadine cocktail, and watching the couples dancing, he noticed a little fellow with a slight limp, who was doing his best to guide his large, stunningly beautiful partner round the dancefloor. The little fellow seemed familiar, or rather, not exactly the little fellow himself, but something about him – something that seemed very familiar. Dick couldn’t work out what it was, so he just kept staring and racking his brain.

Then he thought he heard a plaintive voice:“Dick, my old friend! Don’t you remember me?!”

Dick turned around to try and locate where the voice was coming from, until he realised it was coming from the little fellow’s dinner jacket. The jacket continued:

“Dick, Dick! I don’t deserve this. You soaked me with sweat when you couldn’t work out that actuarial maths question in your exam, and now you don’t even want to know me. Well, that’s nice, isn’t it?!”

Now, Dick’s not one to be ashamed of his old dinner jacket, so he got up, stopped the little fellow in his twirling and whirling, and asked him how he came to be wearing that jacket. At first, the little fellow was indignant: what sort of manners was that? he’d come here to enjoy a dance, to forget everyday cares, and here he was, all of a sudden, being interrogated as if he was in a police station! But it wasn’t long before the little fellow said he had nothing to hide and that he bought the dinner jacket at Jakub Parťas’s junk shop. He then gave Dick the address of the shop and wished him well, before leading his partner into a tango.

When Dick returned to Bessie, he found her out of sorts. She said she wasn’t enjoying it any more and that she had to meet a lady friend; and off she went. Whereupon Dick went straight to the police.

***

It should be pointed out that Mr Parťas was notorious for buying and selling stolen goods; and, indeed, almost all of Dick’s things were found in his shop. But Dick was in for an unpleasant surprise, not to say disillusionment: it turned out it was Bessie who’d stolen his things and sold them to Mr Parťas.

Today, both Bessie and Mr Parťas were before Judge Petřík. Bessie was sentenced, unconditionally, to two months’ hard labour, and Mr Parťas, for buying and selling suspect goods, to a month in prison – also unconditionally.

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

From Czech: RELEASED by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Propuštěný, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

“Do you understand, Záruba?” asked the prison director, after he’d read out the decision from the Ministry of Justice in an almost ceremonial voice. “It means you’ve had the remainder of your life sentence conditionally remitted. You’ve served twelve and a half years, during the whole of which time your behaviour has been… erm, yes, exemplary. We gave you the best possible reference and… ah… the fact of the matter is, you can go home. Do you understand? But remember, Záruba, if you put a foot wrong, the conditional remittance will be revoked and you’ll have to serve out the rest of your life sentence for murdering your wife Marie. And then not even God himself would be able to help you. So be careful, Záruba. The next time, life will really mean life.”

Moved by the situation, the prison director paused and blew his nose.

“Although we liked having you here, Záruba, I wouldn’t want to see you here again. So, goodbye. The administrator will give you your money. You can go.”

Záruba, a six-and-a-half-foot tall beanpole, shifted awkwardly from foot to foot and muttered something that suggested he was so happy that it hurt; and something rattled and rustled inside him that suggested he was sobbing.

“There now, there now,” the director said gruffly. “You’re not going to burst into tears here, are you?! We’ve prepared some clothes for you, and Málek the builder promised me he’d give you a job… What’s that? You want to take a look back home first? Ah, at your wife’s grave. Well, that’s commendable… So, all the best, Mr Záruba. And, for God’s sake, be careful. Don’t forget it’s just conditional release.”

“What a nice man!” the director said, as soon as he’d shut the door. “You know what, Formánek? Murderers can be very decent people. Not like fraudsters – they’re never satisfied when they’re in jail. I’ll miss Záruba.”

***

Once Záruba had left behind the courtyard and the iron gates of the Pankrác prison, he couldn’t rid himself of the uneasy feeling that, at any moment, a guard would appear and take him back. He slowed down, so it wouldn’t look like he was escaping.

When he got to the road, it made his head spin. So many people! A group of children chasing each other over there. Two chauffeurs having an argument. Dear God! There didn’t used to be so many people. Where should I go? Doesn’t matter. Vehicles all over the place, and so many women. Is anyone following me? No. But all those vehicles!

He wandered down into Prague, trying to get as far away from Pankrác as possible. He could smell salami from a butcher’s, but not now, not yet. And now he could smell a building site. He used to be a bricklayer before he was imprisoned. He stopped and breathed in the smell of mortar and wooden beams. He looked at an old fellow who was mixing lime; he’d have liked to have a chat with him, but he couldn’t summon his voice – you get out of the habit of talking when you’ve been in solitary a long time.

He carried on down into Prague. Goodness gracious! So many new buildings! Made entirely of concrete. It wasn’t like that twelve years ago, not in my day. But the pillars are so narrow! Surely they’ll collapse!

“Watch out! Are you blind or something?!”

A car had almost run him over, and then he nearly got hit by a clanging and clanking tram. Jesus! You don’t even know how to walk down the street after twelve years!

He wanted to ask someone what that big building was; and how to get to the North-Western Station. A lorry full of iron rods rumbled past, so he took the opportunity to practise saying aloud: “Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station.” No, that won’t do. It doesn’t sound at all like a human voice. Your voice box goes rusty and mute up there in Pankrác. You ask about something here and there during the first three years, but then it stops.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

Something crackled in his throat, but it wasn’t a human voice.

He stepped out and hurried into the tangle of streets. He felt as if he were drunk or dreaming. Everything was completely different from twelve years ago: it was all bigger, noisier and more confusing. Just the people! So many of them! It made him feel sad: as if he were in a foreign country and wouldn’t be able to make himself understood. If only he could get to the station and take a train home. Home… His brother had got a cottage there, and children.

“Excuse me, please would you…”

But only his lips moved. Oh well! I’ll get over it when I’m back home. I’ll start speaking again. If only I can find the station.

Suddenly someone shouted at him and pulled him back on to the pavement.

“Why don’t you walk on the pavement, you idiot?!”

He wanted to reply but couldn’t. He just coughed and hurried forward. Kept to the pavement, but the pavement was so narrow. People, I’m in a hurry! I want to be back home! Please, how do I get to the North-Western Station? Probably through the busiest street, over there with all the trams. Where have all these people come from?! Crowds and crowds of them, all going the same way. The station must be that way. That’s why they’re running, so they won’t miss the train.

Záruba the Beanstalk sped up once again, so he wouldn’t be left behind. And just look at that! These people can’t keep on the pavement either! Rolling along down the middle of the road. What a packed and noisy crowd! And new people appearing all the time. Running and shouting something. And then the voices became one mighty voice.

The din makes Záruba dizzy. Dear God, how beautiful! So many people! Up ahead they’ve started singing a marching song. He gets into step with the others and feels happy, marching alongside them. Yay! Everyone’s singing now!

His throat is thawing, and something’s pushing its way through it. It has to come out. And it’s song. He’s singing. Singing without words. Humming. Da-da-da-ing in a deep bass. What’s the song? It doesn’t matter. I’m going home, I’m going home.

He’s got to the front row. He’s singing. Not words. But it’s so beautiful. “Da-da-da,” he trumpets, arm raised. Trumpeting like an elephant. The song resounding throughout his body, his stomach like a drum, his chest like a double-bass. And it feels so good in his throat, so good. As if he’s been drinking, or crying for joy.

Thousands of people are shouting “Throw them out! Throw them out!” but Záruba can’t make out the words. He just trumpets “Da-da-da!” At the head of the marchers, head and shoulders above the rest, he waves his arm, braying like a donkey, shouting, singing, thundering, beating his chest, and the noise he makes is like a great big banner. “Roo! Dey! Ow!” is what comes blasting out of his mouth. He’s totally immersed. He’s crowing like a cockerel. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

And now the crowd’s come to a halt because something’s blocking the way. They retreat like a seething wave flung back on itself. But Záruba holds his ground, eyes closed, lost in that great, liberating voice from deep within. “Ow! Aah! Hoorah!”

Suddenly someone grabs him, and a breathless voice hisses into his ear, “I’m arresting you in the name of the law!”

His eyes open wide. A policeman is dragging him by the arm, away from the panicking crowd. Záruba cries out in horror and tries to pull his arm away. The policeman twists it. Záruba yells with pain and punches the policeman in the head with his free fist. The policeman’s face turns red. He lets go of Záruba, but then a truncheon hits Záruba on the head. And again. And again. And again. Záruba’s fists wheel round like a windmill, connecting with various heads. Two men in helmets are hanging on to him like bulldogs. Grunting in terror, Záruba tries to shake them off, kicking and wriggling like mad. But the two policemen are dragging and pushing him somewhere, his arms twisted behind him, through an empty street. Left, right! Left, right!

And now he’s like a lamb. Excuse me. Please would you tell me the way to the North-Western Station. I need to go home.

In the police station, they almost throw him in front of the desk.

“Name?” The voice is unpleasant and cold.

“Záruba,” Záruba wants to answer, but all he does is move his lips.

“I said, ‘What’s your name?’”

“Antonín Záruba,” he wheezes.

“Address?”

Helplessly, he shrugs his shoulders.

“Pankrác. Solitary.”

***

It was highly irregular, of course, but this is how it was. The judge, the state prosecutor and the defence counsel got together to discuss how to get Záruba off.

“Best if he just denies it,” said the prosecutor.

“That won’t do,” said the judge. “In the interview, he admitted fighting with the police. What an idiot!”

“What if the police say they can’t be sure it was him?” said the defence counsel. “That it could have been someone else?”

“Do me a favour!” objected the prosecutor. “You want us to teach the police to lie?! When it’s clear as clear could be they recognised him? … I’d go for insanity. Suggest he undergo a mental examination.”

“Well,” said the defence counsel. “I’ll suggest it. But what if the doctors don’t find him to be mad?”

“I’ll have a word with them,” said the judge. “It’s highly irregular, of course, but – damn it! – I wouldn’t want Záruba to spend the rest of his life in jail for something stupid like that. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d give him six months without batting an eyelid, but, colleagues, I’d hate to see him spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“But if insanity won’t work,” said the prosecutor, “it’s not looking at all good. For Christ’s sake! I’ll have to prosecute it as a crime. What else can I do?! If only the fool had dropped off somewhere in a pub! Then we could put together some sort of defence of inebriation…”

“Colleagues,” pleaded the judge. “Please think up some way of me letting him off. I’m an old man, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for… You understand.”

***

But there was no hearing. That night, Antonín Záruba hung himself, evidently from dread of returning to jail. Because he was so tall, his corpse was hanging in a weird way. Almost as if he were sitting on the ground.

“A wretched business,” muttered the state prosecutor. “A damned stupid business. But at least it wasn’t our fault.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925

About Artists: CAROLINE ACHAINTRE

From Czech: MIDNIGHT MASS by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I  was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

Continue…

About Poets: DEAN ATTA

From Czech: A STAR VANISHES by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Zmizení herce Bendy, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Jan Benda disappeared on the second of September. He’d been known as The Brilliant Benda ever since he shot to fame as a young actor.

Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary on the second of September. The cleaner had arrived at 9 a.m. and had found the bedclothes all over the place and the flat like a pigsty. Which was perfectly normal. Jan wasn’t at home, but that wasn’t unusual either, so she gave everything a quick once-over and continued on her way. All fine, except that, from that time onwards, there was neither sight nor sound of The Brilliant Benda.
Even that, however, didn’t particularly surprise Mrs Marešová – that was her name. These actors, they’re like gypsies: here today, gone tomorrow, off performing or galavanting God knows where.
But on the tenth of September there was cause for concern. Jan should have turned up at the theatre for the rehearsals for King Lear. Apprehension turned to panic when he didn’t even appear for the dress rehearsal. The theatre phoned Jan’s friend Dr Goldberg to see if he knew what was going on.
Dr Goldberg was a surgeon who’d made a fortune out of inflamed appendixes. (Inflamed appendixes were a sort of Jewish speciality.) He was a stout man with thick, gold-framed glasses and an equally stout heart of gold. He was passionate about art, the walls in his flat were full of pictures, and he was a devotee of Jan – to which the actor responded with benevolent contempt, mixed with magnanimity in allowing Dr Goldberg to foot the bill. The sight of The Brilliant Benda’s tragic mask of a face alongside the doctor’s beaming smile had become a fixture of their Sardanapalian excursions. That was the flip side of the great actor’s fame. (To be fair to the doctor, it should be pointed out that he only drank water.)
So, they phoned Dr Goldberg to find out where Jan was. The doctor didn’t have a clue, but he did offer to try and find out. What he didn’t say was that he himself had been searching for him for a week, looking in all the night spots and excursion hotels with mounting apprehension. He had a nasty feeling that something untoward had happened.
As far as Dr Goldberg could make out, he was the last person who’d seen The Brilliant Benda. Some time at the end of August, the two of them had gone on an epic pub crawl through Prague. But then Jan had stopped turning up at any of their regular meeting places. Thinking that Jan might be unwell, the doctor went to his flat one evening – that would have been the first of September. No one came to the door when the doctor rang the bell, but he could hear a sort of rustling sound inside. He rang repeatedly for a good five minutes before there was the sound of footsteps, the door opened, and there was The Brilliant Benda in a dressing-gown. The famous actor was unkempt: dirty, tired-looking, unshaven and his hair a mess.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “What do you want?”
“What’s happened to you, for God’s sake?” the doctor blurted out in amazement.
“Nothing. I’m not going anywhere, do you understand? Leave me in peace.”
Whereupon The Brilliant Benda slammed the door in Dr Goldberg’s face. And the very next day, he disappeared.
The doctor squinted behind his thick lenses. Something wasn’t right. All he’d managed to find out, from the caretaker of the block of flats where Jan lived, was that, later that same night, about 3 a.m., a car had stopped in front of the building. No one had got out, but the driver had given a blast of the horn. After which, the caretaker had heard someone leaving the building and shutting the front door, and the car driving away. No, he hadn’t seen what sort of car it was. At 3 a.m., you don’t get out of bed if you don’t have to. But, by the sound of the horn, the driver was in an awful hurry.
Mrs Marešová had said that, before his disappearance, the famous actor hadn’t left his flat for a week (unless at night). He looked as if he hadn’t shaved and hadn’t even washed. He had food brought to him in the flat, he drank cognac, and he lounged about on the sofa. That’s all.
But now that other people were beginning to worry about Jan’s disappearance, Dr Goldberg went to see her again.
“Do you remember what Mr Benda was wearing when he left the flat?”
“Nuffin,” said Mrs Marešová. “That’s exacly what I don’ like about it. ’e weren’t wearin’ no clothes. I knows all ’is clothes, an’ they’re all ’angin’ in the flat. There ain’t a thread missin’.”
“You don’t mean to say he left in his underwear?!”
“Not even in ’is underwear, an’ not even in ’is shoes. It’s very odd, sir. You know, I’ve got a list of all ’is clothes coz I takes ’em to the laundry. They’ve just washed ’em, and I checked it all afterward. Eighteen shirts, not one missin’. Not one single ’ankerchief. Nuffin. Jus’ one little case missin’, what ’e always takes with ’im. If ’e left, ’e mus’ve been stark naked.”
The doctor’s brow wrinkled.
“My dear madam, when you came next day in the morning, hadn’t something been disturbed? You know, something knocked over, or a door broken down…?”
“No, jus’ the same mess as always. ’e kep’ the place like a pigsty, that Mr Benda, sir. But there weren’ no, like, special mess, nuffin like that. But where could ’e ’ave gorn, when ’e din’ even ’ave ’is braces on ’im?!”
Doctor Goldberg, of course, didn’t know any more than she did. So, as a last resort, he turned to the police.
·

“Alright,” said the police inspector, after the doctor had told him everything he knew. “we’ll look into it, Doctor. But according to what you’ve just told me, a whole week locked in his flat, unshaven and unwashed, lounging on the sofa, knocking back the cognac, and then disappearing, naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden, I’d say it all points to… erm…”

“Insanity?”
“Yes. Could be suicide whilst out of his mind. And, you know what? When it comes to The Brilliant Benda, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
“But, in that case, wouldn’t his body be found, at least? And then, how far could he get, start naked?! And why would he take his case with him? And that car, waiting outside…? Doesn’t it look more like deliberate disappearance?”
“Debts,” said the police officer all of a sudden. “Did he have any debts?”
“No… Or rather, he had debts coming out of his ears, but he never gave them a second thought.”
“Or… what about a skeleton in the cupboard? A love affair gone terribly wrong? Or anything at all weighing on his mind?”
Dr Goldberg hesitated for a fraction of a second before replying, “No, nothing I’m aware of.”
He did remember a couple of things, but he kept them to himself. In any case, they could scarcely have anything to do with the actor’s disappearance. I’m sure the police will do all they can, he told himself.
·

But when he got home, he had a good think about what he knew of Jan in that respect. Not that there was much:
1. He had a lawfully wedded wife somewhere abroad, but that was as far as that went.
2. He had a mistress in Holešovice.
3. He had a relationship – indeed, what is commonly called a “scandalous relationship” – with Gréta Korbelová, the wife of the prominent industrialist. Gréta desperately wanted to be a famous actress, so Mr Korbel had stumped up the money for some films in which his wife had, of course, a starring role. So, it was known that Jan and Gréta were lovers, that Gréta visited him regularly and wasn’t even bothering to be circumspect any more. But Jan never talked about such things. He dismissed the whole thing with hauteur and with a cynicism that Dr Goldberg, truth to tell, found chilling. No, no one could make head nor tail of Jan’s personal affairs. How could the doctor know if there was something terribly unsavoury behind it all? But, in any case, it was up to the police now.

Of course, the doctor didn’t know how the police would go about investigating the matter, and so he waited, with growing disquiet, for some news. A month had already passed since the actor’s disappearance, and people had started talking about The Brilliant Benda in the past tense.
·

One evening Dr Goldberg bumped into old Mr Lebdušek, the actor. In the course of their conversation, the subject of Jan’s disappearance popped up, naturally enough.

“My goodness! What an actor he was!” said Mr Lebdušek. “I remember him when he was about twenty-five. I tell you, the way he played Osvald! So convincing that even young medical students went, to see what paralysis really looks like. It was round about then that he first played King Lear. Although, to tell you the truth, I can’t really comment on his acting, because I was so fascinated by his hands. He had the hands of an 80-year-old. Withered, dessicated, pitiable. I still don’t understand how he did it. I can do make-up, of course, but no one could do it like Jan. Only an actor can really appreciate it.”
Dr Goldberg felt a melancholic glow at listening to this thespian appreciation of The Brilliant Benda.
“A proper actor, Doctor! I remember the rollicking he gave the wardrobe director that time. ‘How can I play the king,” he bellowed, “if you’re going to put that awful lacy stuff on the coat?! He wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. When he was going to play Othello, he searched through all the antique shops until he found just the right genuine Renaissance ring. He had to wear it on his finger if he was going to be Othello! He always said he performed better if he was wearing something original. It wasn’t really even acting any more, it was… transmogrification!”
It seemed that Mr Lebdušek wasn’t quite sure if that was the correct word, but he continued:
“Between scenes, he was as foul-mouthed as a butcher’s boy, and he’d lock himself in his dressing-room so that no one could bother him. It all got on his nerves really. That’s why he drank so much… I’m going to see a film in the cinema here, Doctor. Nice to meet you. Good night.”
“Do you mind if I go with you?” asked Dr Goldberg, who had no plans for the evening.
·

It was some kind of seafaring film, but he didn’t have much idea of what it was about because he was listening, almost with tears in his eyes, as Mr Lebdušek carried on talking, sotto voce, about The Brilliant Benda.

“He wasn’t an actor; he was the very devil! One life wasn’t enough for him, that’s what it was. In real life, he was a pig, but on the stage, he was the most kingly king or the most trampish tramp. He could gesture, doctor, as if ordering people about came as naturally to him as breathing. And yet his father was a travelling knife sharpener… Look at that ship-wrecked fellow: he’s on a desert island, but his finger nails are perfectly manicured, the idiot! And you can see how his beard’s been stuck on. If Jan had the role, he’d have grown a proper beard, and he’d have long, dirty finger nails… What’s the matter, Doctor?! Are you unwell?”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” the doctor muttered as he got to his feet. “I’ve just remembered something. Lovely to meet you.”
As he headed for the exit, he kept thinking, Jan would have grown a proper beard. Jan was growing a proper beard. Why didn’t it occur to me sooner?!
·

“The police headquarters!” he shouted, as he climbed into the nearest taxi; and when he was finally standing in front of the desk sergeant, he alternately demanded and begged, for the love of God, that a check be made immediately as to whether the body of a tramp had been found anywhere on the second of September. Somewhat to the doctor’s surprise, the desk sergeant promptly went off to check, or to ask someone, although probably more to relieve his boredom than out of real zeal, or even interest. Meanwhile, the doctor had started sweating, because something awful had occurred to him.

“Well, sir,” said the desk sergeant when he returned, “a gamekeeper found the body of an unidentified vagrant, about forty years old, in the Křivoklátsko Woods on the morning of the second. On the third, the body of an unidentified man, about thirty years old, was pulled out of the Elb. He’d been in the water for maybe two weeks. In Německý Brod, on the tenth, an unidentified man, about sixty years old, was found hanging…”
The doctor interrupted him. “Have you got any more details about the vagrant?”
The desk sergeant looked him in the eyes. “Murder. According to the report from the local police station, his skull had been bashed in with a blunt instrument. The postmortem found that he was an alcoholic and that the cause of death was injury to the brain. Here’s the photograph… They made a right mess of him.”
The photograph showed the body of the man from the waist up. He was dressed in rags, and his calico shirt was open. Where the forehead and eyes should have been, there was just a dreadful tangled mass of hair and something else that could have been either skin or bone. Only the man’s stubbly chin still looked human. Dr Goldberg started shaking uncontrollably. Was that… Could it be Jan?
When he felt able to speak, he asked, “Did he… did he have any distinctive features?”
The desk sergeant looked into a folder.
“Hm. One metre eight, grey hair, decayed teeth…”
The doctor sighed loudly with relief: “It can’t be him then. Mr Benda’s teeth were as healthy as a wild animal’s. It’s not him. Forgive me for troubling you, but it can’t be him. That’s out of the question.”
·

Out of the question, he repeated to himself when he got home. He might still be alive. Perhaps he’s sitting in the Olympus or the Black Duck at this very moment.

That night he went walking through Prague again. He drank his glass of water in all the pubs where The Brilliant Benda used to be the centre of attention, and he peered through his gold-rimmed glasses into every corner. But Jan was nowhere to be seen. In the small hours, pale and wan, he told himself, aloud, that he was an idiot, and he slunk off home.
·

The next morning, he went to a regional council office and asked to see the director. Fortunately, it turned out that, at some time in the past, the doctor had excised the man’s inflamed appendix, sewn up the wound and presented him with the offending object in a little bottle of alcohol. And thanks to that by no means superficial aquaintance, two hours later, with a warrant for exhumation in his hand, he was observing, alongside a very disgruntled local doctor, the body of the unknown tramp being dug up.

“The Prague police have already enquired about it, Dr Goldberg. There’s no chance of it being Mr Benda. It’s just a filthy nobody.”
“Did he have lice, Dr Černý?” Dr Goldberg asked.
“I don’t know. You won’t be able to make out anything, Dr Goldberg. His body’s been buried for over a month…”
When the soil was dug out, Dr Goldberg had to order some spirits: the only way to get the gravediggers to lift and carry to the mortuary the object that was lying, sewn into a sack, at the bottom of the grave.
Dr Černý stopped outside the mortuary and took a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket.
“I’ll leave you to go and look at it yourself, Dr Goldberg.”
After a while, Dr Goldberg came stumbling out. He was deathly pale.
“Come and look, Dr Černý.”
Inside he pointed to the place where the man’s head had been. Then, with a pair of tweezers, he rolled back what used to be the man’s lips, revealing the dreadfully decayed black and yellow teeth.
“And now…” he said.
He poked the tweezers between two teeth and pulled out a piece of the black decay. This revealed that the teeth were actually strong and shiny. But that was all that Dr Goldberg could stand; he hurried from the mortuary with his hands clasped to his head.
Eventually, pale and crestfallen, he came back in.
“So there you have it, Dr Černý. Bitumen, that actors stick to their teeth when they play decrepit old men or tramps. Your ‘filthy nobody’ was an actor.” He waved his hand impatiently. “And a great actor, at that.”
·

That evening, Dr Goldberg went to see Mr Korbel, the industrialist. He was a big, strong man with a square jaw and a body like a heavyweight boxer.

They were sitting in armchairs in the lounge. The curtains were drawn, and the only light came from a lamp on the wall.
“I’ve come about… about the actor Jan Benda, Mr Korbel.”
“Ah!” the industrialist placed his hands behind his head. “Has The Brilliant Benda turned up again?”
“Sort of. I think you should be interested… because of that film you wanted to make with him… or rather, to finance.”
“What film? I don’t know anything about a film.”
“I mean the film in which Mr Benda was meant to play a tramp… and in which your wife would be the female lead. That was the real reason for it, your wife.”
“That’s none of your business. I suppose Benda told you some story… There was nothing definite… Benda told you, didn’t he?”
“Not at all! You told him not to tell anyone. You wanted to keep it all under wraps. But you do know that Jan had started letting his hair and beard grow, so that he’d end up looking like a tramp. He took details like that very seriously, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” Mr Korbel barked. “I haven’t got anything else to…”
“Filming was due to start on the second of September, wasn’t it? The first scene was scheduled for the Křivoklátsko Woods at daybreak: a tramp wakes up at the edge of a glade… in the mist… he brushes the leaves and pine needles from his rags… I’m imagining how Jan would have played it. I know he’d have got into character by wearing the worst rags and the most battered old shoes possible. He had a box full of that sort of stuff in the loft. That’s why after his… disappearance, none of his clothes were missing. It’s amazing it didn’t occur to anyone! It might have been expected he’d have turned himself into a real tramp, the tattered sleeves, the rope around the waist… it was what he did: getting the costume right.”
“So what?” said the big man, leaning back in his armchair so that the light from the lamp no longer fell on his face. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this.”
“Because,” the doctor continued imperturbably, “at about 3 a.m. on the second of September, you stopped for him in… probably in a hired car. I think your brother would have been driving, him being reliable and all that. As you’d arranged with Jan, you didn’t go up to the flat but just tooted the horn. After a while, he emerged… or rather, a dirty, dishevilled old tramp emerged. You told him to hurry up, because the director had already gone ahead. And you drove to the Křivoklátsko Woods.”
“I don’t suppose you know the car’s registration number,” Mr Korbel said sarcastically.
“If I knew that, they’d already have arrested you. You were at the place by daybreak. It’s a sort of glade, or rather a grove of ancient oak trees. A beautiful scenario, I’ll grant you that. I think your brother would have stayed in the road by the car and pretended to be mending something in the engine. After leading Jan four hundred paces from the path, you said, ‘This is the place.’ He’d have asked where the director was. And that’s when you gave him the first blow.”
“With what?” came the voice from the shadows.
“With a lump hammer. Because a monkey wrench would have been too light for a skull like Jan’s, and you wanted to make it completely unrecognisable. After you’d killed him, you went back to the car. ‘All done?’ your brother asked. And you said nothing, because, after all, murdering someone is no small thing.”
“You’re mad,” said the voice in the shadows.
“No, I’m not. I just wanted to let you know how I think it might have happened. You wanted to put an end to Jan because of the scandal with your wife. It was all becoming too public…”
“You stinking Jew!” thundered Mr Korbel. “How dare you!”
Dr Goldberg adjusted his glasses, to make himself look sterner.
“I’m not afraid of you, Mr Korbel. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, you can’t do anything to me. How could you harm me, anyway? By refusing to let me remove your appendix perhaps? But I wouldn’t recommend that anyway.”
A chuckle came from the shadows.
“Listen. If you were convinced about just a tenth of what you’ve just been blabbering about, you wouldn’t have come to me, you’d have gone to the police, wouldn’t you?”
“But that’s the point,” said Dr Goldberg. “If I could prove even a tenth of it, I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t think it will be proven. It won’t even be proven that that dirty old tramp was The Brilliant Benda. That’s precisely why I’ve come.”
“To threaten me, eh?”
Mr Korbel reached for the electric bell.
“No, just to scare you. You don’t have much of a conscience, Mr Korbel. You’re too rich for that. But knowing that someone else knows the full horror, knowing that someone else knows you’re a murderer, and that your brother’s a murderer, that you both murdered Jan Benda, a knife-sharpener’s son, an actor – that will disturb your smug equanimity. You won’t have any peace for as long as I live. I’d prefer to see you on the gallows, Mr Korbel, but while I’m alive, I’ll make the lives of you and your brother a misery. Mr Benda was a bad lot. I should know better than anyone how evil he was, how vain, how cynical, how shameless and whatever else. But he was an actor. None of your millions can equal that drunken actor, nor compare with that regal gesture. That pretend, but amazing, magnificence.”
Dr Goldberg clasped his hands.
“How could you do it? You’ll never have peace. I’ll never let you forget. Till my dying day, I’ll remind you. What an artist! Do you hear?”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH