The Weak Go East

Matěj Hořava is supposedly 37 years old and lives in Georgia. What we know for certain is that his debut collection of short stories Palinka, released a few years ago, received the Magnesia Litera Award in the Discovery of the Year category. A well-known Czech critic said that for many years there had been no such debut in domestic literature.

The book consists of 40 small chunks of prose. The reader quickly succumbs to the temptation to treat them like pieces of a puzzle; to reconstruct the biography of Hořava (it is a pen name) and in a sense replace the author or at least make friends with him. When you do that, reminiscences from childhood and youth, fragmentary but extremely suggestive, often marked by tragic death of friends, loss of loved ones, form a surprisingly coherent story.

The protagonist of Palinka is a thirty-something, lonely man. He was born in the last decade of communism in one of those cities in the north of Czechia where a presence of an old German woman, a music teacher, requires a comment from the author that she was an “un-expelled” German, “a Sudetenland German, who for some reason was not expelled”. The narrator apparently thinks that if he did not justify (twice!) the presence of a would-be victim of expulsions in his family home, the thread of understanding binding him with the reader—the autobiographical thread founded on the credibility of the events described—could break.

And he is probably right. The post-war expulsion of three million Germans from Bohemia and Moravia is as obvious as the Czech ending of the surname of this “lady full of interwar charm” (Böhmová). Although in the interwar period she had been certainly called Böhm (Böhme–Czech). No one seems to remember that Bohemianising German names and often simply changing them into Czech ones was a stage of a nationalist-Bolshevik erasing of all traces of Germanness (and Jewishness) in Czech lands (in such circumstances, in the early 1950s, the sports journalist Otto Popper became Ota Pavel).

Since the name of the protagonist is never mentioned in the book, it is easier to believe that it was Matěj Hořava himself who as a 10-year-old moved with his parents and sister to Brno, to live with his blind grandmother. Like in many books of contemporary authors from Central and Eastern Eu- rope, also in Palinka the grandmother is a “noble savage” of the Internet and memes era; she personifies the good old times from before communism (and post-communism).

But in the Czech context, grandmother means even more; the Czech reader makes a knowing nod at the very sound of the word babička, for he or she realizes that the author decided to use the strongest weapon from the arsenal of native culture—the “grandma” topos. In her novel from 1855, the great Božena Němcová created the myth of a happy childhood land, the myth of bucolic and angelic Czech countryside. Němcová escaped there— in her dreams—in the most di cult moment of her life, when her son was dying. Today, thousands of Czechs every weekend find respite from urban life in their “concentration gardens” consisting of post-German cottages and dachas. Genuine countryside is elsewhere.

The narrator’s grandmother spent a holiday in Marmarash (which was then within the borders of Czechoslovakia) when she was young. Her grandson is also pulled in this direction, towards the east. The boy hates Brno, “this accursed city in the south of Moravia,” where we only “drank in the evenings after training, in a deserted park close to the gym; grim and dumb: a bottle of vodka and back home to sleep; the next day the same thing all over again…” He first goes with his girlfriend to Germany, to a small town on the Danube; there his beloved dumps him for another (and eventually ends up with an American husband in the US). But this is not important, we do not even learn her name. The narrator does not want to remember about her; Palinka is a testimony to forgetting a failed love, a history of escaping from puberty—there is not a single sex scene in the entire book. It is a diary of escape into the land of childhood. Under the grandmother’s apron.

And at the same time it is a travel journal. It is a strange journey; the author does not struggle with collective inhibitions, he is neither for nor against East European stereotypes. A Romanian is a Romanian, a gypsy is a gypsy (usually a neighbor). There is no ideology here, no cheap punditry, no Facebook wisdom. There is a moving record of everyday life in the Czech village of Gârnic in the Romanian Banat, where the narrator finds a job as a teacher.

Gârnic (Czech Gerník) is a real village on the Danube, inhabited by descendants of Czechs who 200 years ago got downriver by rafts (“enthusiasts tasked with colonizing the military border of the Empire”). Under the author’s pen it resembles a stage in a journey to the sources of time (perhaps for this reason he uses exclusively the old German name Waitzenried). “I realize,” writes Hořava, “that this is how my grandmother lived, that when a couple of years ago I got into my car and drove a mere couple of hundred kilometers along the Danube, I suddenly found myself in her childhood: in a different, older, quieter, more fragrant time…”

In this Czech village near the border of Romania and Serbia, the author discovers an idyllic native past, which is impossible to nd in his asphalted homeland. He sips “weak palinka” with his neighbors, he prays with them in a church, and he teaches their children at school, he portrays the children in his notes, but above all he remembers the dead. Two sisters, struck by lightning. The dumb Lojzik, told by the boys that he will get a folding bicycle if he swims across the Danube. A junkie friend from Brno, whom he may have met in the Albanian Korçë.

He got there in his jalopy with Romanian registration plates, and next to an Orthodox cathedral he noticed a stolen city bus “with a still glittering digital inscription Königswiesen, a Bavarian bus, a bus from my former place of residence.” Because everywhere, from Brno to Banat, from Lake Ohrid to the Bay of Douarnenez, the narrator meets specters of his youth. He meets them until he realizes that his youth has passed.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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