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

06/08/2022

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