Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Memory has a heavy backspin, yet it's still impossible to land exactly where we took off. My mother was a nurse from Ireland, my father a dockworker from Slovakia. Mam hailed from a little seaside village in Donegal. She was forever tilted sideways by the notion that pain was inevitable, chance was
cruel, and all human ingenuity should go towards the making of a good cup of tea. My father emigrated to Britain in the early years of the century when he changed his last name to Swann, but didn't alter his soul; in later years he described himself as a Communist, a pacifist, and a Catholic in no particular order.
Home from the docklands, he used to put a dark thumbprint on the bread in order that I would know where it came from.
From a young age I was hooked on the plot of my father's homeland. We sat together on crates in the coalshed searching the radio bands. In the laneway behind, my friends played football. My father spent hours trying to tune in to the long-wave broadcasts from Bratislava, Kosice, Prague, while the ball thumped against the wall. Only at odd moments did the weather allow the radio a crackle from the beyond—we leaned forward and our heads touched. He wrote it down and later translated for me. At night, my prayers were in his native tongue.
When the Second World War struck, it didn't seem at all unusual that he took off to join the partisans in the Czechoslo-vakian mountains—he said he wanted to become a medic and that he'd carry stretchers, that wars were useless and God was democratic, and, with that in mind, he'd return shortly. He left me his wristwatch and a copy of Engels in the Slovak language. I found out, years later, that he had become an expert with dynamite; his specialty was blowing up bridges. The news that he had died in an ambush came in a two-line telegram. My mother wilted away. She took me on a trip back to Donegal for a week, but for whatever reason it was not the same place that she had left behind. “Nobody lives where they grew up anymore,” she said to me shortly before she died.
I was made a ward of the state and spent the last two of my
school years with the Jesuits in Woolton, walking around the edges of rugby fields in a gray V-neck sweater.
What I recall of growing up: redbrick houses, rough stones from the worked-out pit, shaved shoulders of sunlight on street corners, dockside cranes, penny sweets, gulls, confessionals, brushing gray frost from the bicycle seat. It was not exactly violins I heard when I stuck my head out the train window and bid Liverpool goodbye. I'd missed the war—a measure of luck and youth and a dose of cowardice. I went south to London where I spent two years on a scholarship, studying Slovak. I ran with the Marxists and mouthed off on the soapboxes of Hyde Park, to little success. My work was published intermittently, but mostly I sat at a small window that looked out beyond the half-open blinds at a dark wall and the faded edge of an Oval-tine advertisement.
I fell in love, briefly, with a beautiful young librarian, Cait-lin, from Cardiff. I bumped into her on a ladder, quite literally, while she was shelving a book by Gramsci, but our politics didn't match and Caitlin sent me packing with a note that her life was too dull for revolution.
In my flat, the skyline became a shelf of books. I wrote long letters to novelists and playwrights in my old man's country, yet they seldom wrote back. I was fairly sure the letters were being censored in London, but every now and then a reply fell on the welcome mat and I brought it down to the local teashop where, amid the stains and the day-old cakes, I opened it.
The replies was always terse and clean and to the point: I burned them in the ashtray with the tip of a cigarette. But then in 1948, after a burst of ink-spattered correspondence, I was on my way to Czechoslovakia to translate for a literary journal run by the celebrated poet Martin Stränsky, who wrote to say
that he could well do with a new set of legs—would it be possible, he asked, to bring a few bottles of Scotch whisky in my bags?
In Vienna the small wooden huts of the Russian sector were warmed by single-bar electric heaters. The guards interrogated me over cups of black tea. I was passed from hut to hut and finally put on a train. At the Czechoslovakian border, some leftover fascist guards roughed me over, rifled through my suitcase, took the bottles, and threw me into a makeshift cell. My hands were tied and they beat the bottoms of my feet with sticks rolled in newspaper. I was accused of falsifying documents, but two weeks later the door opened to Martin Stränsky who seemed, at first, just a shadow. He said my name, lifted me up, put his sleeve in a cold bucket of water, and cleaned my wounds. He was, against expectations, a small man, tough and balding.
“Did you bring the booze?” he asked.
As a youngster he had been friends with my father in an illegal Socialist youth group, and now he ‘d come full circle; he ‘d been instrumental in the Communist coup and was well liked by those newly in power. He slapped my back, put his arm around me, and walked me beyond the tin-roofed sheds where he had already taken care of the last of my paperwork. The two guards who'd beaten me and taken the bottles were sitting handcuffed in the back of an open truck. One stared down at the truckbed but the other was moving his bloodshot eyes side to side.
“Oh, don't worry about them, Comrade,” Stränsky said. “They'll be all right.”
He kept a tight grip on my arm and helped me towards a military train. The white headlamps burned and a brand-new Czechoslovakian flag fluttered from the roof. We took our seats
and I felt buoyed by the shrill whistle and the blast of steam. As the train chugged off, I caught a last glimpse of the handcuffed guards. Stränsky laughed and slapped my knee.
“It's not so serious,” he said. “They'll have a day or two in lockup to recover from their hangovers, that's all.”
The train jolted forward and we passed through rows oftall forest and low cornfields towards Bratislava. Pylons. Chimneys. Red and white railway barriers.
From Hlvanä Station, we walked along the tramtracks, down the hill towards the old town. It struck me as medieval, wiry, even quaint, but revolutionary posters were pasted on the walls and thumping music rose from loudspeakers. I still had a slight limp from my beating, but I skipped along in the light rain, carrying, of all things, a cardboard suitcase. Stränsky chuckled when it opened up—a nightshirt fell out and a long sleeve trailed the cobblestones.
“A nightshirt?” he laughed. “Two weeks of political reeducation for you.”
He clapped his arm around me. In a vaulted beerhall, full of drunks and hanging pottery, we clinked glasses for the Revolution and for what Stränsky called, as he looked out the window towards the street, other fathers.
In the winter of 1950 I was sick for quite a while. When the day came for me to leave hospital, the doctor signed me out, undiagnosed, and told me to go home to rest.
I lived in a worker's flat in the old part of town. The communal kitchen, on the first floor, ran with mice. Laundry was strung up and down the length of the corridor—boiler suits, overcoats, shirts eaten through with acid. The staircase quite
literally swayed under my feet. When I got up to my tiny fourth-floor room, a patch of snow lay on the wooden floor. The concierge had forgotten to fix the smashed window— a week before, in a dizzy spell, I had fallen against the pane—and a cold wind blew through. I took my bedding to the only warm part of the room, where the poppet valve on the radiator hissed. In gloves and overcoat I curled up near the valve and slept. I woke coughing in the early morning. It had snowed heavily again during the night, and the floor was already covered in stray flakes. Around the radiator pipes was a patch of wet wood. The things I adored the most, my books, lay ranged on the shelves, so many different volumes that it was impossible to see the wallpaper. Three translations awaited me—chapters from Theodore Dreiser, Jack Lindsay, and an article by Duncan Hallas—but the thought of delving into them filled me with dread.
I had bought a secondhand pair of boots, stamped by a Russian bootmaker, and, although they leaked, I liked them, they seemed to have a history. I went out into the cold streets, stepping over gutters and cobblestone, past the barracks, beyond the checkpoint.
At the mill Stränsky had set up a small room where, in between printing jobs, he often sat and read. The room had no ceiling, and so one could look up to the high roof of the mill and watch the pigeons flap from eave to eave. I lay down on the green army bed he kept in the corner, and the noise of the machines rocked me to sleep. I have no idea how long I slept, but I woke disoriented, not even sure what day it was.
“Put your socks on for crying out loud,” said Stränsky from the doorway.
Behind him, a little confused, stood a tall young woman.
She was in her early twenties, not beautiful, or not traditionally so anyway, but the sort of woman who stalled the breath. She held herself at the door nervously, as if she were a bowl of water that would not be allowed to spill. Her skin was dark and her eyes were as black as any I'd ever seen. She wore a man's dark overcoat, but beneath it a wide skirt with a tripled-over hem: it appeared she had patched two or three skirts together and rolled the hems over each other. Her hair was tied back beneath a kerchief, and two thick plaits hung down either side of her face. She wore no earrings, no bracelets, no jangling necklaces. I rose from under the covers and slipped on my wet socks.
“Forgotten your manners, young scholar?” said Stränsky as he pushed past me. “Meet Zoli Novotna.”
I extended my hand for her to shake, but she did not take it. She stepped beyond the threshold only when Stränsky beckoned, and went to the table where he had already taken a bottle from his jacket.
“Comrade,” she said, nodding at me.
Stränsky had found Zoli, by chance, outside the Musicians Union and he had been given permission, through one of the elders, to talk to her about her songs. They were a secretive bunch, the Gypsies, but Stränsky had always been able to comb people out of themselves. He spoke a little Romani, knew their customs, how and where to tread, and he was one of the few they trusted. They also owed him a couple of favors—during the national uprising, he had commanded a regiment that had a few Gypsy fighters, in the hills, and had, by all accounts, saved some of them with the aid of a few bottles of penicillin.
The afternoon returns to me now as a step back into what
we all once believed: revolution, equality, poetry. We pulled up chairs to the table and sat for hours, the clock ticking away. Zoli kept her head slightly bent, her glass untouched in front of her. She rattled off a few verses of the older songs. The words were in Slovak, but there was a touch of wildness to them: she wasn't used to speaking them aloud, she ‘d always sung them. Her style was to quietly build layer upon layer until, by the end, the songs became sad and declamatory, tales of bitterness and treachery, the verses repeated over and over, like the falling and layering of so many leaves. When she was finished, Zoli locked her knuckles and stared straight ahead.
“Good,” said Stränsky, rapping on the table.
She looked upwards as a bird feather fell from the ceiling and spun silently down to the floor, then smiled as she watched the pigeons fly around the ceiling beams; some of the birds were darkened with ink.
“Do they get out?”
“Only to shit,” said Stränsky, and she laughed, picked the feather up, and, for whatever reason, put it in the pocket of her overcoat.
I didn't know it then, but there'd only ever been a few Gypsy writers scattered across Europe and Russia before, and never any who were part of the establishment. It was an oral culture, they had no books or written-down stories to speak of, they distrusted the unchangeable word. But Zoli had grown up with a grandfather who had taught her how to read and write, an extraordinary thing among her people.
Stränsky ran a journal,
in which he was always trying to push the limits: he was known for publishing daring young Socialist playwrights and obscure intellectuals and anyone else
who vaguely amplified his beliefs. I was there to translate whatever foreigners he could get his hands on: Mexican poets, Cuban Communists, pamphlets by Welsh trade unionists, anyone whom Stränsky saw as a fellow traveler. Many of the Slo-vakian intellectuals had already moved north to Prague, but Stränsky wanted to stay in Bratislava where, he said, the heart of the Revolution could be. He himself wrote in Slovak against the idea that a smaller language was useless. And now, with Zoli, he thought he'd come upon the perfect proletarian poet.