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?”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

03/05/2022

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