Category Archives: Translations from Czech

From Czech: FOOTPRINTS, by Karel Čapek

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

Mr Rybka was on his way home that night. He was in a very good mood, mainly because he’d won his game of chess (An excellent checkmate with the knight), but also because it had been snowing and he loved how it crunched under his boots amidst that marvellous, pure silence. Dear God, how beautiful! The town seems to shrink and slip back in time. Conjures up nightwatchmen and stagecoaches. Strange, how snow looks old-fashioned and rustic.

Crunch, crunch. He sought out untrodden snow, just for the pleasure of that crunching sound; and because he lived in a quiet, leafy lane, the further he went, the fewer the footprints in the snow. Well, well! Two sets of footprints ending at this gate – a man and a woman, probably a married couple. I wonder if they’re young. Anyway, may God go with them… A cat’s left its pawprints in the snow here. Like little flowers. I hope your paws aren’t too cold, pussy cat. And now there’s just one set of footprints. A man’s. Deep. A chain of them, straight and clear. A walker out on his own. I wonder which of my neighbours it could be. So few people walk along here. No wheel marks. Out on the edge of things. By the time I get home, the lane will have pulled its snowy eiderdown right up, and it’ll be thinking it’s just a children’s playground. Pity that the old newspaper lady will be criss-crossing all over it in the morning. Like a hare…

Suddenly he stopped. He was just about to cross over the snow-white lane to his front gate when he noticed that the single set of footprints he’d been following had left the pavement and headed towards his gate. Who could it be? He stared at the clear footprints.

There were five of them; and right in the middle of the lane, they came to a halt with a sharp print of the left foot. Beyond it, there was nothing, just snow. Undisturbed, untouched.

I must be going doolally! Or perhaps he came back to the pavement.

But the pavement in front of Mr Rybka was completely covered with a layer of smooth, fresh snow.

Well I’m blowed! Don’t say the footprints carry on on the other pavement.

Skirting round the unfinished chain of footprints, he went over to the other side. But there wasn’t a single mark on the pavement over there. The whole lane ahead shone with silky, pristine snow. A wonderful sight. No-one had been there since the snow had started falling.

Well I never! Perhaps whoever it was went back to the pavement stepping into his own footprints. But in that case, he’d have had to walk backwards because they all aim… Why would he do that? And even if he did walk backwards, how would he have managed to fit his boots precisely into those footprints?

Shaking his head, he unlocked the gate and entered his house. Although he knew it was nonsense, he looked around to see if there weren’t any snowy footprints. But of course, that was nonsense.

Maybe I imagined it.

He opened a window and leant out. The five sharp, deep footprints – coming to a halt in the middle of the lane – could clearly be seen in the light of the streetlamp. He rubbed his eyes.

God damn it! I read a story once about a single footprint in the snow, but here there’s five of them, and then nothing. Where could the fellow have gone?

Shaking his head once more, he started to get undressed. But then he stopped all of a sudden and went to the telephone.

“Hello! Sergeant Bartošek? There’s something strange here. Very strange… If you could send someone. Or even better, come yourself… Thank you. I’ll wait at the corner… It’s too difficult to explain over the phone… No, I don’t think there’s any danger… It’s just these footprints that stop all of a sudden… I haven’t the faintest idea whose footprints they are! … Fine, I’ll be waiting for you.”

He got dressed and went out again, taking care not to disturb the footprints either in the road or on the pavement. Shivering with cold and impatience, he waited for Sergeant Bartošek on the corner of the lane. All was quiet, and our planet shone in the universe.

“Nice and quiet here,” said Sergeant Bartošek, sounding fed-up. “I’ve had one fisticuffs and one drunk so far. Great fun… So, what’s been going on here then?”

“Follow those footprints, Sergeant,” said Mr Rybka, his voice quavering. “Just over there.”

The Sergeant turned on his torch.

“A beanpole of a man. Almost one metre eighty, I’d say, from the depth of the prints and the length of the steps. Good shoes – hand-made most likely. Not drunk, walking deliberately. Can’t see what’s the problem, sir.”

Mr Rybka pointed at the unfinished line of steps in the lane. “That is!”


Without more ado, the Sergeant headed to the last footprint, where he squatted and shone his lamp at it.

“It’s nothing special. Perfectly normal. A firm footstep. His weight was mainly on the heel. If he’d taken another step, or a jump, his weight would have transferred to the ball of the other foot. Do you see?”

“So that means…?” Mr Rybka asked impatiently.

“That means… That means he didn’t go any further.”

“So where did he go?” spluttered Mr Rybka.

The Sergeant shrugged. “Not a clue, sir. Do you have any idea?”

“Do I have any idea?! All I want is to know where he went. Look! Here’s his last step, and where’s the next? There isn’t any next step!”

“I can see that. But why should it bother you where he went? Is it somebody from your house? Is somebody missing? Why should it worry you, for heaven’s sake!”

“B… but there has to be an explanation. Do you think he might have walked backwards in his own footsteps?”

“No chance. When a man walks backwards, he takes shorter steps and he keeps his legs further apart, for balance. And he doesn’t raise his feet so much, so he’d have scraped the snow with his heels. These footprints have been made only once. You see how sharp they are?”

“But if he didn’t go back, where did he go?”

“That’s his business. Look! As long as he didn’t break the law, it’s no business of ours. We’d need to have an accusation of some sort, so that we could carry out an initial investigation…”

“So, are you telling me someone can simply disappear in the middle of a lane?!”

“You’ll just have to wait, sir. If he’s gone missing, I’m sure his family or someone will report it in due course. And then we’d search for him. But until that happens, it’s no business of ours. That’s not how it works.”

Mr Rybka was beginning to get angry.

“Don’t get me wrong, but I’d think the police should be a teeny-weeny bit interested if someone walking calmly along disappears all of a sudden in the middle of a lane!”

“Calm down, sir. Nothing happened to him. There are no signs of a struggle. If someone had attacked or kidnapped him, there’d be signs of it in the snow. So, I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing for me to do here.”

Mr Rybka clasped his hands together. “But Sergeant, at least explain to me… It’s a complete mystery!”

“That it certainly is, sir. You’ve no idea how many mysteries there are in this world of ours. Each house, each family, is a mystery. As I was on my way here, I could hear a young woman sobbing in that little house over there. But mysteries… Mysteries aren’t our business, sir. We’re paid to keep order. I hope you don’t think we hunt down criminals out of mere curiosity! We hunt them down so that we can lock them up, sir. Law and order is what we’re about.”

“In that case, is it law and order if someone in the middle of the lane… if someone in the middle of the lane goes straight up into the sky?”

“That depends on the case, sir. According to the regulations, if someone’s in danger of falling from a great height, they should be secured. The first time is a warning, the second time’s a fine… If this man rose up into the sky voluntarily, a policeman would have warned him to attach a safety belt. But in this case, I’m sorry to say there was no policeman on hand. If there had been, you’d be able to see the footprints of the policeman. And, in any case, it’s possible that the man disappeared in another way, isn’t it?”

“What other way?”

“Difficult to say. Maybe a sort of ascension, or Jacob’s ladder… Ascension could be considered kidnapping. If it was accompanied by violence, that is. But I think it normally occurs with the agreement of the person concerned. It’s possible that the man knows how to fly. Haven’t you ever felt as if you’re flying, sir? Someone just lifts their feet a little bit, and off they go… Some fly like a balloon, but me, when I dream that I’m flying, I have to keep pushing myself away from the ground with a foot every now and then. I think it’s the effect of the heavy uniform and the sword. Perhaps the man fell asleep and began flying in his sleep. There’s no law against that, sir. Except if it was a busy road, of course. In that case an officer would need to have a word. Or… I’ve got it! … levitation. The transcendentals believe in levitation, and transcendentalism’s not illegal. A certain Mr Baudyš told me once that he’d seen it with his own eyes. Who knows whether there’s any truth in it?”

“But surely, you’re not telling me, Sergeant, that you believe in it yourself! That would be against the laws of nature…”

Sergeant Bartošek gave a shrug.”

“Yes, I know, I know. But people break all sorts of rules and regulations. If you were a policeman, sir, you’d know more about that sort of thing…”

He waved his hand.

“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they break natural laws as well. Nothing as strange as folks. Anyway, good night, sir. Getting proper cold now.”

“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea… or a glass of slivovice before you go?”

“Why not? Why not, indeed? When a body’s wearing this uniform, he can’t even go into a pub, you know. That’s why policemen drink so little.”

“A mystery,” he said, as he sat on the settee watching the snow melting on the tips of his boots. “Ninety-nine percent of people would walk beside those footsteps and not notice anything. And you yourself wouldn’t notice ninety-nine percent of things that are devilish mysterious. Order isn’t mysterious. The law isn’t mysterious. And therefore, sir, the police aren’t mysterious. But everyone else walking down the street is mysterious by the very fact that we haven’t got anything on them. Except if they steal something. Then they stop being mysterious because we lock them up and that’s that. At least we know what they’re doing, and we can keep an eye on them through the little window, can’t we? You know how you see in the newspapers ‘Mysterious discovery of body’? What’s so mysterious about the discovery of a body? When we come across one, we measure it, photograph it and dissect it. We know every thread of clothing, what the person last ate, what the cause of death was etcetera etcetera. Not only that, but we’ll know if it’s most likely that the person was killed for money. It’s all clear and documented… I like my tea nice and strong, please… All crimes are clear, sir. You can see the motives and everything connected to them. Mysterious, on the other hand, is what your cat’s thinking, or your servant, or why your wife looks so wistfully out of the window. Everything, sir, is mysterious except for criminal cases. A criminal case is a cut and dried piece of reality, a sort of extract that we’ve shone a light on. You know, if I was to have a look around here, I’d find out all sorts of things about you. But instead, I’m looking at the toe caps of my boots because I’ve got no official reason to take an interest in you. That’s to say, you haven’t been accused of anything.”

The sergeant took a sip of his hot, strong tea.

“It’s a strange misconception,” he continued, “that the police – and particularly detectives – are interested in mysteries. We couldn’t care two hoots about mysteries. What we’re interested in is what’s not right. We’re not interested in crime because it’s mysterious, sir. We’re interested in it because it’s forbidden. We don’t hunt down scoundrels out of intellectual curiosity, we do it so we can arrest them in the name of the law. Take, for instance, road sweepers. They don’t sweep the streets so as to read human traces in the dust. They do it to clean up the dirt and filth of everyday life. Order isn’t mysterious, not one little bit. But keeping order, sir, is a pig of a job. Anyone who wants to do it has to be prepared to stick his fingers into all sorts of mess. But someone has to do it, just like someone has to slaughter calves. To slaughter calves out of curiosity would be barbarous. It has to be done as a trade. When something is someone’s duty, at least he knows he’s entitled to do it. For instance, justice has to be beyond doubt, just like the times table. I don’t know if you could prove that every theft is bad, but I could prove to you that every theft is forbidden, because I’d keep arresting you. If you scattered pearls on the road, a policeman would order you not to make a mess. But if you started performing miracles, we couldn’t do anything unless it gave rise to public scandal or a disorderly crowd. In short, for us to get involved, there has to be some sort of impropriety.”

“But, Sergeant,” Mr Rybka objected, shuffling disconsolately in his chair, “is that all? This case concerns… concerns something so strange… so mysterious… and you…”

The sergeant shrugged. “…and I let it be. If you like, sir, I’ll get the footprints removed so you can go to bed without worrying. More than that I can’t do for you. Listen! Do you hear those footsteps? That’s our patrol. And it’s now two hours and seven minutes after midnight. Good night, sir.”

Mr Rybka accompanied the sergeant to the gate, from which the unfinished and inexplicable line of footprints could still be seen.

A policeman was approaching on the opposite pavement.

“Anything new, Mimra?” the sergeant shouted over to him.

“Nothing really, sir. In No. 17 over there, the cat was meowing outside, so I knocked them up to let it in. At No. 9, they hadn’t closed the gate properly. On the corner, where they’d been digging the road, they forgot to leave a red light. And one of the shop signs at Maršík the grocer’s has come loose. They’ll need to take it down in the morning so that it doesn’t fall on someone’s head.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” replied Mimra. “They’ll need to grit the pavements in the morning so someone doesn’t break their leg. The bells should be rung everywhere at six.”

“That’s good,” said Sergeant Bartošek. “Good night!”

Mr Rybka looked once more at the footprints leading nowhere. But where the last prints were, there were now the very definite prints of PC Mimra’s service boots. And those prints continued from there in a regular and clearly visible line.

“Thank God for that,” Mr Rybka muttered to himself as he went back in.


From Czech: LAST JUDGMENT, by Karel Čapek

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

Kugler was a notorious criminal who had several murders to his account. Despite being the subject of various arrest warrants and being pursued by a whole army of policemen and detectives, he vowed he’d never be taken alive. And he wasn’t. That’s to say, not alive. His final – ninth – murderous exploit was shooting a policeman who was trying to arrest him. Before he died, the policeman fired seven bullets at Kugler, three of which were perfectly lethal. And thus, our man escaped earthly justice.

His death was so sudden that he didn’t even have time to feel any particular pain. As his soul left his body, it might have wondered at the marvels of the other world, a world beyond space, a dim and endlessly deserted world. But it didn’t wonder. For a man who’s even been in jail in America, the other world is simply a new environment where, with a bit of pluck, he’ll get by like anywhere else.

Finally, there came the inevitable Last Judgment. Because there’s permanent martial law in Heaven, his case was decided directly by the judges, rather than a jury, which – with his record – he might have expected. The courtroom was simply arranged, just like on earth; for reasons that will become evident, there was no cross by which witnesses might stand to take their oath. The judges were three old, meritorious officials who looked strict and thoroughly miserable. The formalities were boring: Ferdinand Kugler, unemployed, born on such and such a date, died… Here it became apparent that Kugler didn’t know the date of his death; and it became apparent to him that this didn’t help his case.

“What are you guilty of?” asked the presiding judge.

“Nothing,” came Kugler’s resolute reply.

The judge sighed: “Call the witness!”

A huge, powerfully built and extraordinary-looking old man sat down opposite Kugler. He was wearing a blue cloak that was studded with golden stars. When he entered, the judges had got to their feet, as had Kugler, who couldn’t help but be awe-struck. And it was only after the old man had sat down that the others resumed their seats.

“Witness,” said the presiding judge, “Almighty God, this Court of Last Judgment has called you to testify in the case of Ferdinand Kugler. Being All-Truthful, you don’t have to swear. All we ask, for the purposes of the hearing, is that you keep to the point and don’t wander off into matters that aren’t relevant to the law. And no interruptions from you, Kugler! As He knows everything, there’s no point in contesting anything. Witness, please testify.”

Having said all that, the presiding judge placed his elbows comfortably on the desk in front of him and took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, evidently prepared for a rather long speech from the witness. The older of the two other judges arranged himself comfortably for sleep. The recording angel opened the Book of Life.

God, the witness, cleared his throat and began:

“Yes, Ferdinand Kugler, the son of a factory worker, was spoilt ever since he was little. You were a very naughty boy! He loved his mother to bits but was ashamed to show it because he was rebellious and disobedient. Do you remember how you bit your father’s thumb when he was trying to smack you for stealing roses from the notary’s garden?”

“They were for Irma, the tax inspector’s daughter,” said Kugler.

“I know,” said God. “She was seven years old at the time. And do you know what happened to her afterwards?”

“No, I don’t.”

“She married Oskar, the factory owner’s son. He passed on an infection to her, and she died during a miscarriage… Do you remember Ruda Zárubov?”

“What happened to him?”

“He went to sea and died in Bombay. The two of you were the worst boys in the whole town. At the age of ten, Ferdinand Kugler was a confirmed liar and thief; he got into bad company, people like Dlabol, that alcoholic beggar, with whom he shared his food.”

The presiding judge waved his hand to indicate that this probably wasn’t relevant; but Kugler himself asked shyly, “And… what happened to his daughter?”

“To Marka?” said God. “She went off the rails altogether. She became a prostitute at the age of fourteen and died when she was twenty; she remembered you when she was in her death throes. When you were fourteen, you used to get drunk and run away from home. Your father worried himself sick, and your mother couldn’t stop crying. You dishonoured your home, and not a single young man would come into the house of a thief to woo your pretty sister Mamička. She’s still living all alone in poverty, trying to make ends meet with the meagre earnings from the little jobs that kind people deign to give her.”

“What’s she doing at the moment?”

“Right now, she’s at the Vlčeks’ shop buying thread so that she can sew until it gets dark. Do you remember that shop? You bought a rainbow-coloured marble there once; and on the very first day you lost it and couldn’t find it anywhere. Do you remember how you blubbed about it?”

“Where did it roll off to?” Kugler asked eagerly.

“Into the drain under the gutter. And it’s still there, thirty years later. It’s raining there now, and that glass marble is shivering in the cold, gurgling water.”

Overcome, Kugler bowed his head; but the presiding judge put his glasses back on and said:

“We must get to the point, witness. Did the accused commit murder?”

God the witness shook his head.

“He killed nine people. The first one in a brawl. For that, he was sent to prison. The second was an unfaithful girlfriend. He was sentenced to death for that, but he escaped. The third was an old man he robbed. The fourth was a night watchman.”

“Did he die?” Kugler blurted out.

“Yes, after three days,” said God. “He died in terrible pain, and he left behind six children. The fifth and the sixth victims were an old married couple; he killed them with an axe and discovered only sixteen crowns, even though they had twenty thousand hidden away.”

“Where?” shouted Kugler. “Where?”

“Under the straw mattress,” said God. “In a canvas sack, where they kept the money they made from usury and avarice. He killed the seventh person in America – an immigrant, a fellow-countryman, as helpless as a child.”

“So it was under the mattress,” Kugler muttered in amazement.

“Yes,” continued the witness. “The eighth got in Kugler’s way when he was being chased. Kugler’s arthritis was playing up at the time, and he was crazy with pain. My, how you suffered! The last one was the policeman he shot dead just before he died himself.”

“Why did he commit the murders?” asked the presiding judge.

“Like other people,” answered God, “from anger, from lust for money, sometimes with malice aforethought, sometimes on the spur of the moment. He was generous and he helped people sometimes. He was kind to women, he loved animals and he kept his word. Do you want me to list his good deeds?”

“No thank you,” said the presiding judge. “That won’t be necessary. Accused, do you have anything to say in your defence?”

“No,” said Kugler indifferently. It was all one to him by this stage.

“The court will withdraw to consider the matter,” said the presiding judge, and the three judges left the courtroom. God and Kugler remained in the courtroom.

“Who are they?” asked Kugler, nodding towards the judges as they left.

“People like you,” said God. “They were judges on earth, so they carry on judging here.”

Kugler bit his fingers.

“I thought… I mean, it’s no concern of mine, but… I’d have thought you’d do the judging, given that…, given that…”

“Given that I’m God,” the large old man completed the sentence. “But that’s the point, isn’t it? Because I know everything, I can’t be the judge. That wouldn’t be right. You don’t know who turned you in that time, do you, Kugler?”

“No, I don’t,” said Kugler, surprised.

“It was Lucka, the waitress. She did it out of jealousy.”

“Excuse me,” Kugler interrupted, “but you forgot to mention I shot that scoundrel Teddy in Chicago.”

“Not at all!” God objected. “He just about survived. He’s still alive. I know he’s an informer, but he’s a good man otherwise. He loves children. You mustn’t think that everyone is a complete and utter scoundrel.”

“Why don’t you… why don’t you, God, do the judging on your own?” asked Kugler, perplexed.

“Because I know everything. If the judges knew everything – absolutely everything –, they wouldn’t be able to judge either. All they could do would be to understand everything, so much so that their hearts would break. So how could I judge you? The judges only know about your crimes. I know everything about you. Everything, Kugler. And that’s why I can’t judge you.”

“But why do those people… why do they carry on judging… in Heaven as well.”

“Because people belong to people. As you can see, I’m just the witness. But when it comes to punishment, you know, it’s people who decide here in Heaven as well. Believe me, Kugler, it’s quite OK: human beings shouldn’t face any justice other than human justice.”

At that moment, the judges returned from their deliberations, and the presiding judge declared the last judgment in a firm voice:

“Ferdinand Kugler, for nine crimes of murder, including murder aforethought and murder with robbery, for the crime of carrying a gun, and for the theft of roses, the court condemns you to a lifetime in Hell. Next case, please. Is the accused František Machát here?”


From Czech: A MURDEROUS ATTACK, by Karel Čapek

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

That evening, Councillor Tomsa was sitting downstairs enjoying listening, through his headphones, to a beautiful recording of Dvořák’s Dances on the radio. But no sooner had he said to himself, Now, that’s what I call music!, when there were two loud bangs outside and glass came raining down on his head from the window just above him.

Whereupon he did what I suppose any of us would do: first he waited to see what would happen next, then – when nothing else did happen – he took off the headphones and glowered as he tried to work out what had actually happened. And it was only at that point that he really took fright, because he realised that someone had fired two shots through the window. A bullet had lodged itself in the door opposite. His first impulse was to run out into the street and grab hold of the hooligan by the collar; but when you’re getting on in years and cultivate a certain dignity, that impulse tends to give way quite rapidly to a second: call the police.

“Hello, send an officer immediately. Someone just tried to murder me.”

“Where are you?” said the sleepy, indifferent voice.

“I’m here, at home,” shouted Mr Tomsa, as if it were the policeman’s fault. “It’s scandalous – to shoot out of the blue at a peaceable citizen who’s sitting at home minding his own business! This has to be investigated most rigorously, Officer! It would be a fine state of affairs if…”

“OK,” said the sleepy voice. “I’ll send someone.”

The councillor’s impatience knew no bounds; it seemed that he was waiting for hours, but in fact it was only after about twenty minutes that a cool, calm and collected police officer turned up, who proceeded to inspect the holes in the window with great interest.

“Someone shot at the window, sir,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I already know that!” spluttered Mr Tomsa. “I was sitting by the window, wasn’t I!”

“Seven millimetres calibre,” said the officer, as he prised the bullet out of the door with a knife. “It looks like from an old army revolver. Look, the fellow must have been standing on the fence. If he’d been on the pavement the bullet would have lodged itself higher up. That means he was aiming at you, sir.”

“How odd!” Mr Tomsa replied sourly. “I was almost convinced he only wanted to hit the door.”

“And who did it?” asked the officer, without missing a beat.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” said the councillor. “I can’t give you his address; I didn’t actually see him, and I forgot to invite him in.”

“That makes it difficult,” the officer replied calmly. “So who do you suspect?”

That did it for Mr Tomsa. “Suspect!” he growled. “I didn’t even see the scoundrel, man! And even if he’d waited for me to blow him a kiss through the window, I wouldn’t have recognised him in the dark. Do you really think I’d have bothered you if I’d known who it was?”

“I quite understand,” said the officer soothingly, “but maybe you could think of someone who, say, would have something to gain from your death, or who’d want revenge for something… I mean, it wasn’t an attempted robbery; a robber doesn’t shoot if he doesn’t have to. But perhaps someone’s got it in for you. It’s up to you to tell us, sir, and then we can investigate it.”

That stopped Mr Tomsa in his tracks; he hadn’t thought about that side of things.

“I haven’t a clue,” he said hesitantly, as he contemplated his quiet life as an official and a bachelor.

“Who could possibly have it in for me? On my honour, I’m not aware of having any enemies at all.”

He shook his head.

“No, it’s out of the question. I don’t have any disputes with anyone, Officer. I live alone, I don’t go anywhere, I don’t stick my nose into anybody’s business… Why would anyone want to take revenge on me?”

The officer shrugged his shoulders. “That I can’t answer, sir. But perhaps something will occur to you by tomorrow. You won’t be afraid here, will you?”

“I won’t,” said Mr Tomsa.

How strange! he thought when the officer had left. Why, indeed, would someone want to shoot me? I’m virtually a recluse; I do my work in the office, and I go home – I don’t really have anything to do with anyone. So why would they want to shoot me?

He was starting to feel very sorry for himself. And very bitter.

The ingratitude! There I am working my socks off, taking work home, hardly spending anything on myself, not living it up, like a snail in its shell, and – bang! – someone wants to kill me. Dear God! Where do people get such anger? What have I ever done to anyone? How could someone hate me like that?

But then – sitting on the bed and with the shoe hed just taken off in his hand – another thought occurred to him:

Perhaps it was a mistake. Yes, of course! A mistake. They got the wrong person. Whoever it was thought I was someone else, someone he had it in for!

He sighed with relief.

But the original thought returned: Why would someone hate me so much?

The shoe fell out of his hand.

Well, there was that, he remembered, feeling a little embarrassed. That stupid thing I said the other day, but it was just something I said without thinking. Roubal is my friend, after all. I shouldn’t have said that about his wife. But everyone knows she’s seeing other men. He even knows it himself. It’s just that he pretends not to. But I shouldn’t have let that slip, idiot that I am…!

The councillor remembered how Roubal has swallowed heavily and had dug his fingernails into the palm of his hand.

Dear me, how I must have hurt him! He loves his wife. Loves her like crazy! Of course, I immediately changed the subject. But the way he was biting his lips! He certainly has cause to hate me.

Councillor Tomsa felt like a heap of woe.

But I know he didn’t try to shoot me. That’s impossible! Even though, I could hardly wonder if…

Councillor Tomsa stared gloomily at the floor. And then he remembered something else, something he’d have preferred not to remember.

The tailor! Fifteen years he’d been doing my tailoring, and then they told me he was very ill with TB. It’s natural, isn’t it? that you wouldn’t want to keep taking clothes so that a consumptive can cough all over them. So I stopped going to him… And then he came begging, that he hadn’t got any work, that his wife was ill, that he needed to find places for his children. Please would I give him my custom once more?

Christ! How pale he was, and how the sweat was running down him! “Mr Kolinský, I said, look, it’s no good, I need a better tailor, I wasn’t happy with your work.”

“I’ll try to do better, sir,” he muttered, sweating with fear and embarrassment. It’s a wonder he didn’t burst into tears! And I… I of course sent him away with a “We’ll see” – something these poor fellows must be only too familiar with.

Mr Kolinský might well hate me. How awful, to have to go and beg someone to help keep body and soul together, only to be dismissed with such indifference. But what was I meant to do?

I’m certain it couldn’t have been him, but…

The councillor’s conscience was weighing him down more and more. And something else he remembered:

That was awkward as well, the way I laid into the office servant. I couldn’t find that file, so I called the old fellow up and shouted at him as if he was a naughty boy. And in front of the others! “What a mess, you idiot! I said. It’s like a pigsty! I’ve a good mind to sack you.”

And then I found the file in the drawer of my own desk! And the old man just stood there, stood there trembling and blinking…

The councillor came out in a hot sweat.

But you don’t apologise to subordinates, even if you’ve been a bit unfair. Although you could hardly be surprised if they hate their superiors! How about if I give him some old clothes? Except that would be humiliating for him…

The councillor couldn’t lie down anymore; even the blanket was suffocating him. He sat on the bed with his arms round his knees and stared into the dark. And then he remembered something else:

That incident with that young Moravian in the office. He’s educated and writes poetry. But when he didn’t draw up that document properly, I said “Do it again” and I meant to throw it on his desk, but it fell under his legs, and he went all red – even his ears – as he bent down to pick it up… I could kick myself! After all, I rather like the young fellow, and to humiliate him like that, even if unintentionally…

Then another face popped up in his mind: the pale and puffy face of his colleague Wankl.

Poor old Wankl! He wanted to be office manager, the job I had. He’d have got a couple of hundred crowns a year more, and he has six children… Apparently he’d have liked to have paid for singing lessons for his daughter, but he couldn’t afford it. But I got the job because he’s such a plodding old workhorse – and his wife’s a real old shrew, terribly thin from all that scrimping and saving. All Wankl eats at midday is a dry bread roll.

Poor old Wankl! How must he feel when he sees me, with no family to look after, so much better off than him? But is that my fault? I always feel rotten when he gives me those resentful looks…

The councillor wiped the anxious sweat from his brow. And then he remembered something else:

Yes, the other day the waiter in the pub swindled me out of a few crowns, and I called the manager, who sacked him on the spot. “You thief,” he hissed at him, “I’ll make sure you never get a job in any other pub in Prague!” And the fellow sloped off without saying a word… You could see his shoulder blades under his coat.

The councillor couldn’t even endure sitting on the bed any longer; he went and sat by the radio and put on his headphones. But the radio was mute, there were no programmes at this time of night, so he put his head in his hands and remembered the people he’d met, all those strange people, all those young people, who he’d never understood and never thought about.

In the morning he stopped at the police station, rather pale and embarrassed.

“So,” asked the officer. “Have you remembered someone who might have something against you?”

The councillor shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “You see, there are so many of them, so many, that…”

He waved his hand disconsolately.

“Look, a fellow has no idea how many people he’s wronged. I certainly won’t be sitting by that window anymore, that I can tell you. But I just dropped by to ask you to forget about it.”


From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

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




nyone with half a brain will realise that this incident couldn’t have happened here or in France or Germany. As is well known, here and in those countries judges are required to punish wrong-doers according to the letter of the law rather than according to their ineffable acuity as superior gentlemen. This story involves a judge who made a judgement based not on the relevant sections of law but on his trusty common sense. So, as you will see, it has to do with England or, to be more precise, London, or, to be even more precise, Kensington; or perhaps Brompton or Bayswater – anyway, somewhere thereabouts. The judge was His Honour Judge Kelly and the woman who was the object of his ineffable acuity was Miss Edith Myers.

Continue reading From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

From Czech: GOOD LUCK by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Případy pana Janíka, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)


The Mr Janík I’m talking about isn’t Dr Janík from the ministry, or the Janík who shot dead Jirsa the landowner, nor the Janík who’s reputed to have performed 326 consecutive cannons at billiards, but rather the Janík who was the boss of Janík & Holeček’s, paper and cellulose wholesalers – the polite little man who, after unsuccessfully wooing Miss Severa, resolved never to marry. So, to put it in a nutshell and for the avoidance of doubt, that Janík. The paper merchant.

Well, this particular Mr Janík became a paper merchant by sheer chance. It was when he was spending his summer holiday by the River Sázava, just at the time when they were searching for the body of Růžena Regnerová, who was murdered by her fiancé Jindřich Bašta, who poured petrol over her body, set it alight and buried it in the woods. Although Bašta was found guilty of her murder, they weren’t able to find her body. The police combed the woods for nine days, with Bašta telling them it was here or it was there, but they never found anything. It was clear that, at his wits’ end, he was either trying to confuse them or to gain time, or both.

Jindřich Bašta was a young man from a respectable and wealthy family but, when he was born, the doctor probably squeezed the forceps around his head too much, because something about him wasn’t quite right; that’s to say, there was something perverse and strange about him. So, as white as a ghost, and with his nystagmic eyes flitting nervously here and there – a sorry sight –, he led the police hither and thither through the woods for nine days. The police trudged alongside him through bilberry undergrowth and through mud, becoming more and more furious and more and more determined to wear the beast out so much that sooner or later he’d lead them to the right place. Bašta became so exhausted that he could scarcely stand on his feet, and he kept sinking to the ground and croaking, “Here! I buried her here!”

At which point one of the policemen would bellow, “On your feet, Bašta! It’s not here! Get going!” And Bašta would obediently haul himself up and stagger on for a bit, before collapsing once more with exhaustion. So it was quite a procession: four policemen, two detectives, a few gamekeepers, and some old men with hoes; not to mention that wreck of a man, Jindřich Bašta.

Mr Janík had got to know the policemen in the pub. As a result, he too was allowed to accompany that tragic procession, without anyone demanding to know what the hell he was doing there. And it should be noted that he carried with him some boxes containing sardines, salami, a bottle of cognac and similar things, which the other searchers had no objection to partaking of. But the ninth day was so dire that Mr Janík had decided he wouldn’t return on the morrow. The policemen kept shouting in anger, the gamekeepers declared they’d had enough and had better things to do, the old men with the hoes grumbled that twenty crowns a day was a pittance for such drudgery, and Jindřich Bašta lay collapsed on the ground, trembling uncontrollably and no longer even attempting to respond to the yelling and abuse from the policemen.

But at that very moment – that desperate and desolate moment –, Mr Janík did something that wasn’t exactly in the script: he knelt down beside the young man, shoved a cheese roll into his hand and said sympathetically, “Look, Mr Bašta… Come now, Mr Bašta… Can you hear me, Mr Bašta?”

Mr Bašta howled, before bursting into tears. “I’ll find it…,” he sobbed, “I’ll find it, sir.” He tried to stand up, and one of the detectives came and helped him, almost gently.

“Just lean on me, Mr Bašta. Mr Janík will help you on the other side. That’s it! So, Mr Bašta, you’ll show Mr Janík where she’s buried now, won’t you?”

An hour later, Jindřich Bašta was standing, smoking a cigarette, above a shallow grave, out of which a thigh bone was sticking.

“Is that the body of Růžena Regnerová?” asked PC Trnka between gritted teeth.

“It is,” replied Jindřich Bašta calmly, as he tapped the ash from his cigarette into the hole. “Do you need anything else?”


“You know,” said PC Trnka to Mr Janík in the pub that evening, “you’re quite a psychologist, I’ve got to give you that. Your good health! The fellow softened up as soon as you said, “Mr Bašta.” All he wanted was a bit of respect, the miserable so-and-so! And to think of the trouble we’d gone to with him… How did you know politeness would do the trick?”

The hero of the hour blushed slightly. “Well, it’s like this, you know. I… that’s how I speak to everyone, you know. The thing is, I felt sorry for him, for Mr Bašta, so I wanted to give him that cheese roll…”

“Instinct!” declared PC Trnka. “That’s what I call sixth sense and psychology. Your very good health, Mr Janík! You’re wasted! You should have been a detective…”


Some time later, Mr Janík was travelling in the night train to Bratislava, where the annual general meeting of shareholders in a Slovak papermill was going to take place, and because he had some shares in it himself, he was anxious to be there.

“Please wake me before we get to Bratislava,” he asked the conductor. “I don’t want to miss my stop.” Whereupon he headed for his comparment in the sleeping car and crawled into the bottom bunk. As he was alone, he made himself as comfortable as he could, thought for a while about various business matters, and fell asleep.

He had no idea what the time was when the conductor opened the door for another man, who immediately got undressed and climbed up to the top bunk. As he did so, Mr Janík caught a glimpse of a pair of trousers and a pair of unusually hairy legs. Then he heard grunting as the man snuggled beneath the blanket, and then the man turned the light off, leaving darkness again and the rattling and clanking of the train.

Mr Janík dreamt about this and that, but mainly that he was being pursued by a pair of hairy legs. Then he woke up because it was unusually quiet all of a sudden and someone was shouting, “See you in Žilina!” Mr Janík scrambled hurriedly out from his bunk, looked out of the window, and saw that the train was already standing at Bratislava station. The conductor had forgotten to wake him up! He didn’t even have time to swear; instead he got dressed, feverishly, over his pyjamas, stuffed his belongings into his pockets and managed to jump down on to the platform just as the station master was raising his hand for the train to leave.

“Damn you!” he shouted, shaking his fist at the departing train.

Then he went to the gents’ toilets to get dressed properly. And it was when he’d just started to sort out the items in his pockets that he froze: instead of one wallet in his breast pocket, there were two; in the bulkier one, which wasn’t his, there were sixty new Czechoslovak 500-crown banknotes. The wallet clearly belonged to his nocturnal fellow-traveller; but the still sleepy Mr Janík couldn’t begin to think how it had got into his pocket.

It goes without saying that the first thing he did was to find a policeman so that he could give him the stranger’s wallet. And the policeman left Mr Janík dying with hunger while he telephoned Galanta for them to inform the passenger in Couch 14 that his wallet with his money in it was at the police station in Bratislava. Whereupon, after providing his personal details, Mr Janík went to have breakfast. But then someone from the police station came looking for him and asked whether it wasn’t some sort of mistake: the man in Couch 14 said he hadn’t lost his wallet. So Mr Janík had to go to the police station again and explain once more how he came by it. Meanwhile two men in civies took the sixty banknotes somewhere, leaving him to wait for half an hour. When they came back, they took him to some higher-up policeman.

“Sir,” said the higher-up policeman, “we’re just sending a telegraph to Parkány-Nána to ask them to arrest the passenger in Couch 14. Can you give me a precise description of him?” But Mr Janík could only say that the passenger in question had remarkably hairy legs. Which wasn’t a satisfactory answer as far as the higher-up policeman was concerned. “The thing is,” he said all of a sudden, “those banknotes are counterfeit. You’ll have to wait here until we can bring you face to face with your fellow-passenger.”

In his head, Mr Janík cursed the conductor who hadn’t woken him up on time and hence has caused him, in his haste, to put that wretched wallet into his pocket. It wasn’t until about an hour later that a message came back from Parkány-Nána that the passenger in Couch 14 had got out at Nové Zámky and, at the moment, no one knew where he’d gone from there.

“Mr Janík,” the higher-up policeman announced eventually, “we won’t detain you any longer for the time being. We’ll refer the matter to Inspector Hruška in Prague – he deals with counterfeiting. But I can tell you this is serious. Return to Prague as soon as possible and they’ll give you a call. In the meantime, please accept my thanks for so successfully getting hold of these fakes. It won’t be a coincidence, believe you me.”


Mr Janík had hardly got back to Prague before they called him to the police headquarters. There he was greeted by an extraordinarily large man – who everyone called Mr President – and a sinewy, yellowish fellow, who turned out to be the aforementioned Inspector Hruška.

“Have a seat, Mr Janík,” said the large man, as he opened the seal on a small packet. “Is this the wallet that you… erm, that you found in your pocket at Bratislava station?”

“It is,” answered Mr Janík, wearily.

The large man took the banknotes out of the wallet and counted them. “Sixty,” he said. “They all have the serial number 27451. The office in Cheb asked us to look out for that number.”

The sinewy man took hold of one of the notes, closed his eyes and rubbed it between his fingers. Then he sniffed it.

“These are from Štýrský Hradec. The ones from Geneva aren’t so sticky.”

“Štýrský Hradec,” mused the large man. “That’s where they make these things for Pešť, isn’t it?”

The sinewy man only blinked. “I’d need to go to Vienna,” he said. “But the police there won’t hand him over.”

“Hm,” said the large man. “So try to get him here somehow. If that’s not possible, tell them we’ll give them Leberhardt in exchange. Good day, Hruška. And you, sir” – turning to Mr Janík – “I can’t thank you enough. You’re the one who found Jindřich Bašta’s fiancée, aren’t you?”

“It was purely a coincidence,” said Mr Janík emphatically. “I really… I didn’t have any intention…”

“You have the gift of luck,” said the large man, nodding his head. “It’s a gift from God, Mr Janík. One person doesn’t come across anything during his whole life; another stumbles upon the best cases as if by chance. You should join us, Mr Janík.”

“That’s not possible,” said Mr Janík. “I… that’s to say, I have my own business… a successful business that I inherited from my grandfather…”

The large man sighed. “As you wish, but you’d be sorely missed. It’s not everyday you come across someone as damned lucky as you. We’ll meet again, Mr Janík.”


About a month later, Mr Janík was dining with a business friend from Leipzig. Of course, these business lunches are quite something. The cognac, in particular, was of the best. In short, Mr Janík definitely did not wish to go home on foot, so he signalled to the wine waiter: “A taxi, please!”

When he left the hotel, he saw the taxi already waiting at the entrance. He climbed in, shut the door and – rather the worse for wear – forgot to tell the driver his address. Nevertheless, the taxi set off and, comfortably ensconced in the corner, Mr Janík fell asleep.

He had no idea how long they’d been driving, but he woke up when the car stopped and the driver opened the door for him.

“We’re here, sir. You need to go upstairs, sir.”

Mr Janík had no idea where he was, but because the cognac had dulled any concern he might otherwise have had, he went up the stairs and opened a door behind which loud conversation could be heard. There were about twenty people there, who all turned impatiently towards the door. Suddenly there was a strange silence. One of the men stook up and approached Mr Janík.

“What do you want here, sir? Who are you?”

“Mr Janík looked around in amazement. He recognised five or six of the men – rich people who were said to have some sort of special interest in politics. But Mr Janík kept out of politics.

“Goodness gracious!” he said in a friendly tone. “There’s Mr Koubek, and there’s Mr Heller. Hello, chaps! I wouldn’t say No to a drink, lads.”

“Where’s this fellow come from?” one of the men shouted angrily. “He’s not one of us, is he?”

Two of them pushed Mr Janík back out to the landing.

“How did you get here?” asked one of them. “Who invited you?”

All this rough treatment brought Mr Janík to his senses.

“Where am I?” he demanded. “Where the devil have I been taken?”

One of the men ran down the stairs and button-holed the driver.

“Where did you pick up this man, you idiot?”

“In front of the hotel, of course,” said the driver. “They told me in the evening to wait for a gentleman in front of the hotel at ten o’clock and bring him here. That gentleman got into the taxi at ten o’clock without saying anything. So I brought him here…”

“Christ Almighty!” shouted the other. “It’s somebody else! You’ve dropped us right in it!”

Mr Janík sat down resignedly on the top step.

“Ah,” he said, sounding rather amused. “It’s some sort of secret meeting, isn’t it? Now you’ll have to strangle me and bury my body somewhere. A glass of water, please!”

“No,” said the one who’d stayed with him at the top of the stairs. “You’re wrong. Neither Mr Koubek nor Mr Heller are inside there, do you understand? It’s a mistake. We’ll get you taken back to Prague. You’ll have to forgive us. It was a misunderstanding.”

“It’s no problem,” said Mr Janík graciously. “I know that, on the way, the driver will shoot me and bury my body in a wood somewhere. It doesn’t matter. My fault for forgetting to give him my address. What a fool I am!”

“You’re drunk, aren’t you?” said the man, sounding rather relieved.

“Slightly,” agreed Mr Janík, remaining seated on the top step. “The thing is, I was at dinner with Meyer, from Dresden. My name’s Janík, by the way – wholesale paper and cellulose. A well-established company. Founded by my grandfather. Pleased to meet you.”

“Go and sleep it off,” said the other. “Once you’ve had a good sleep, you won’t even remember that… hm, that we treated you so badly.”

“Quite right,” said Mr Janík in a dignified manner. “Go to bed, sir. Where is my bed?”

“At home,” said the other. “The driver will take you home. Allow me to help you to your feet.”

“No need,” said Mr Janík. “I’m not as drunk as you. Go to bed. Driver!”

The car set off back, and Mr Janík made a point of observing where they were going.


The next morning he telephoned the police headquarters to inform them of his night-time adventure. The voice from the other end came after a few moments of silence.

“That’s remarkably interesting, Mr Janík. We’d be most grateful if you’d come over immediately.”


When Mr Janík arrived, four men, including the large, corpulent fellow, were waiting for him. Mr Janík had to repeat what had happened and who he’d seen.

“The car had registration number N XX 705,” said the large man when Mr Janík had finished speaking. “A private car. I don’t know three of the six men Mr Janík recognised. Gentlemen, I’ll leave you now. Mr Janík, come with me, please.”

Mr Janík soon found himself sitting in complete silence in the office of the large man, who was walking up and down, deep in thought.

“Mr Janík,” he said eventually. “I really need to ask you not to say a word about this to anyone. Reasons of state – you understand?”

Mr Janík nodded silently. Jesus Christ! he thought. What have I got myself into now?

But the large man was speaking again.

“Mr Janík. I’m not exaggerating when I say we need you. You’re incredibly lucky. They can talk all they like about methodology, but a detective who doesn’t have plain, down-to-earth luck is of no use. We need people who are lucky. It’s not that we’re not intelligent, but you can’t buy good luck. Join us!”

“But what about my business?” whispered Mr Janík, not looking at all happy.

“Your partner will look after it. You and your extraordinary gift are wasted on it. What do you say?”

“I… I’ll need to think about it,” stuttered Mr Janík. “I’ll come back in a week, but if there’s no avoiding it… and if I’ve got the capability… I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you.”

“Good,” said the large man, offering his large hand. “You needn’t have any doubts about yourself. I’ll see you next week.”


A whole week had not gone by before Mr Janík returned, looking decidedly happier.

“I’m back,” he announced breezily.

“And you’ve made up your mind?” asked the large man.

“Yes, thank goodness! I’ve come to tell you I’m not the person you’re looking for.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Just imagine!” said Mr Janík. “My chief clerk’s been embezzling from my business for five years, and I’ve only just found out. What an idiot I am! So, you tell me, sir, what good I’d be as a detective. God in heaven! I’ve been working with that joker for five years, and I didn’t know anything! So you can see how useless I am! And it was making me sick with worry! Mary, Mother of God! I’m so glad nothing will come of it. I’m off the hook now, aren’t I? Thanks anyway!”


From Czech: THE POET by Karel Čapek

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


It was an entirely routine case: at four in the morning a car had run over a drunk old woman in Žitná Street and had sped off. And now the young Trainee Detective Inspector Mejzlík was tasked with finding out which car it was. A trainee inspector takes something like that seriously.

“Hm,” said Detective Inspector Mejzlík to Police Constable 141, “so you saw, from a distance of three hundred yards, the car speeding away and a body lying in the road. What did you do first of all?”

“First of all, I ran to provide first aid to the lady who’d been run over, sir.”

“First of all, you should have observed the car and only then have taken care of the old granny. But perhaps” – Inspector Mejzlík scratched his head – “perhaps I’d have done the same. So you didn’t get the number of the car. But did you get anything else about it?”

Constable 141 hesitated. “I think it was a sort of dark colour. sir. Maybe blue or red. It wasn’t easy to see, because of the smoke from the exhaust.”

Inspector Mejzlík frowned. “Jesus Christ! How am I supposed to locate the car? Am I meant to run up to every driver and ask, ‘Did you run over an old granny by any chance?’ Well, what would you do?”

Constable 141 shrugged his shoulders in lower-rank helplessness. “Well, one witness appeared, sir, but he doesn’t know anything either. He’s waiting over there, sir.”

Inspector Mejzlik was feeling more and more annoyed. “Well, bring him over.”

When the witness came over, the inspector looked at his crib sheet and, without even looking at him, asked mechanically, “Name and address?”

The answer came loud and clear. “Jan Králík, mechanical engineering student.”

“So you were present at four o’clock this morning when an unidentified car ran over Božena Macháčková.”

“Yes, and I can confirm that the driver was culpable. You see, Inspector, there was no other traffic on the road. If the driver had slowed down at the crossroads…”

How far away were you standing?”

“About ten yards. I was accompanying my friend from… from a café, and when we got to Žitná Street…”

“What’s your friend’s name? I haven’t got a note of that.”

“Jaroslav Nerad, the poet,” the witness replied, with a note of pride. “But he wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

Inspector Mejzlík realised he was clutching at straws. “Why not?”

“Because he… he’s a poet. When the accident happened, he burst into tears and ran off home like a little child. The thing is, we were in Žitná Street when, all of a sudden, a car came speeding up behind us…”

“What was its number?”

“Sorry, Inspector. I didn’t notice. I was just watching as it sped towards us, and I was just saying to myself that…”

“What make of car was it?”

 “A four-stroke combustion engine, but I don’t know anything about makes of cars.”

“And what colour was it? Who was in it? Was it open-top or not?”

The witness looked confused. “I don’t know. I think it was black, but I didn’t really notice because, when the accident happened, I was saying to Nerad, ‘Look! Those scoundrels have run someone over, and they’re not going to stop.”

Inspector Mejzlík wasn’t happy. “Hm… That’s certainly an understandable and ethically correct reaction, but I’d have been happier if you’d noticed the car number. It’s amazing, sir, how inattentive people are. Of course you know the driver is guilty, and you know those people are scoundrels, but you don’t think to look at the number plate. Everyone can judge, but to observe things really closely… Thank you, Mr Králík. I won’t detain you any longer.”

An hour later, Constable 141 rang the doorbell at the house of Jaroslav Nerad’s landlady. Yes, the poet was at home, but he was sleeping.

A few moments later his little, anxious eyes were peeping round the door at the constable. Somehow he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but he did understand, eventually, why he needed to go to the police station. But he wasn’t keen on the idea. “Do I have to? The thing is, I can’t remember anything. Last night I was a bit…”

“Pissed?” suggested Constable 141 sympathetically. “I understand, sir. I’ve known a lot of poets. So, get yourself dressed, please. Shall I wait for you?”

This led to a discussion between the poet and the constable about the best places to go at night, about life in general, about unusual phenomena in the skies, and many things besides. Politics was the only subject neither of them was interested in. So their journey to the police station was accompanied by a friendly and informative conversation.

Inspector Mejzlík was waiting for him. “You are Mr Jaroslav Nerad, poet. And you witnessed an unidentified car running over Božena Macháčková.”

The poet took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what the car looked like? Was it open-top or closed? What colour was it? Who was inside it? What was its registration number?”

The poet racked his brains for a few moments. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice.”

But the inspector was insistent. “Don’t you remember any details at all?”

“None at all. I never pay any attention to details.”

The inspector assumed an ironic tone. “So if you didn’t observe the details, would you care to say what you did observe?”

“The general mood. You know, the empty street… the beginnings of daybreak… the woman lying there…”

And then it struck him. “I’ve just remembered I wrote something about it when I got home!” He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a quantity of envelopes, bills and suchlike. “No, that’s not it,” he muttered. “Nor this… Hold on, maybe this.” He was staring at the back of an envelope.

“Would you be so good as to show me that?” asked Inspector Mejzlík.

“It’s nothing,” said the poet. “But if you like, I’ll read it to you.” At which point his eyes bulged and, drawing out the long syllables in a sing-song voice, he recited the following:

Dark houses march left right halt

dawn plays its mandolin

girl why do you blush

let’s go 120 horse-power

to the end of the world

or Singapore

Stop stop the car flies

our great love bites the dust

trampled girl flower

swan’s neck breasts

the drum sticks drum

why do I cry so

“That’s it.”

“Would you mind awfully,” said the inspector, “to tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”

The poet looked surprised. “Well, of course it’s that terrible accident. Don’t you understand it?”

The inspector frowned. “I think not. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t manage to recognise in it that, on Žitná Street at 4 a.m. on the 15th of July,  a car with registration number such and such ran over a sixty-year-old beggar called Božena Macháčková; and that she was taken to the General Hospital, where she is in a critical condition. As far as I am aware, sir, your poem makes no allusion to those facts. So, no, I didn’t understand it.”

The poet rubbed his nose. “The details you’ve just mentioned are just the raw, outward reality, Inspector. But a poem is the inner reality. A poem contains free, surreal ideas that evoke reality in the mind of the poet. Do you see? Visual and aural associations, for instance. If the reader surrenders to them, he’ll understand.”

A note of admonishment had crept into Jaroslav Nerad’s voice.

“What nonsense, Mr Nerad! Let me have your masterpiece for a moment, would you? Thank you. Right, here we have, hm… ‘Dark houses, march left right halt.’ Kindly tell me what that’s meant to mean.”

“Well, that’s Žitná Street,” explained the poet calmly. “Two rows of houses, you know?”

“And why couldn’t it be the Národní Avenue just as well? … Eh?”

The answer was immediate. “Because that’s not so straight.”

“Well, continuing… ‘Dawn plays its mandolin’… That’s fair enough. ‘Girl, why do you blush’… Where did she come from?”

“The blush of dawn,” said the poet laconically.

“Ah! Sorry… ‘Let’s go 120 horse-power to the end of the world’… What about that, eh?”

“The car must have been coming.”

“And was it 120 HP?”

“That I can’t say, but it means it was going fast. As if the driver wanted to fly to the end of the world.”

“Ah, like that. ‘Or to Singapore’… Why on earth to Singapore exactly?”

This was met with a shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe because Malaysians live there.”

“And what did that car have to do with Malaysians? What, I ask you?”

For a while, the poet knitted his brow and shifted about uncomfortably as if that one had really got him cornered. But eventually he said, “Maybe the car was brown. Something was definitely brown. Why would I have said Singapore otherwise?”

“So there you have it,” said the inspector. “The car was red, blue or black. What am I meant to make of it all?”

“Choose brown,” said the poet. “It’s a pleasant colour.”

Inspector Mejzlík read on: “Our great love bites the dust. Trampled girl flower.” That’s the drunken beggar woman, is it?”

The poet became annoyed. “I’m not going to say ‘drunken beggar woman,’ am I? She was simply a woman. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh! Right! … And what about ‘swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum’? Is that what you call ‘free association’?

Here the poet felt really confused himself. “Let me see it again.” He gazed at the piece of paper. ‘Swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum.’ What’s that meant to mean?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking,” muttered the inspector rather contemptuously.

“Hold on.” The poet frowned again. “There must have been something there that reminded me of… Listen! Doesn’t the number two remind you of a swan’s neck?” He pulled a pencil out of his pocket and wrote a 2.

“Ah!” Now it was Inspector Mejzlík’s turn to frown. “And what about ‘breasts’?”

“That’s easy, isn’t it? Number 3 – two semicircles.”

“And then you’ve got ‘The drum sticks drum’.” A note of excitement was entering the inspector’s voice.

The poet thought again for a moment. “A drum and drum sticks… A drum and drum sticks… That could be number 5, couldn’t it? Look!” and he drew a number 5. “The belly is like a drum, and above it are the drum sticks…”

“Wait!” said Inspector Mejzlík. He wrote down 235. “Are you sure the car’s number was 235?”

“I didn’t notice the number at all,” said Jaroslav Nerad. “But there must be something in it. Where else could it have come from?” He gazed at the poem again. “And, you know what? That’s the best part of the whole poem.”

Two days later, Inspector Mejzlík paid a visit to the poet. The poet wasn’t asleep this time. He had a young woman with him, and his efforts to find a free chair for the inspector proved fruitless.

“Don’t worry!” said the inspector. “I only popped in to say that the car really did have registration number 235.”

The poet looked non-plussed. “Which car?”

“Swan’s neck breasts, the drum sticks drum,” said the inspector, without stopping for breath. “And Singapore as well!”

“Ah! I wondered what you were talking about for a moment,” said the poet. “So you see – inner meaning. Would you like me to read you some other poems, now that you’ll be able to understand them?”

“Not just now,” said Inspector Mejzlík hurriedly. “When I’ve got another knotty case.”