An excerpt from the novel “Hinterland”
by Jana Šrámková
Translated from the Czech by Andrea Goldbergerová
And then there was an awful humming sound, and it already fell down, flying crossways, it just cut out a portion of our house from the side like this. Wouldn’t you go hide in the cellar? We would, we had been there three times at night, but there was no time, I don’t know why they did not sound the alarm, nobody was expecting it. I went to the window to take a look and the banging was coming from the Emauzy, Baja ran inside, he yelled at me and hid me behind the piano. He saved my life—she stirs cabbage in a saucepan, one step, another, one sway, another, as if she were describing the plot of a movie she had seen a long time ago. She only shivers when she says this dull clang against metal—she’s afraid of similar sounds to this day. A depository of childhood fantasies behind every word of her story, in everything my grandma utters. Flying bombs—I always imagined cooking cylinders, the smaller, dark blue ones, tired and impossible to pick up, maybe that’s why I used to be so scared of them. Whenever we cooked with them while camping on holidays in East Germany, I would go to the coast before a meal under the pretense of writing poetry and then, sifting sand between my fingers, I snuggled into my sweater and pondered how to rhyme a round word like that—wide, rather than long—a bomb.
And these blue, impossible to pick up bombs were falling from the sky and my grandma’s older brother Baja whom I had never met—a legendary figure—hid grandma behind the piano. I can see him with oiled up muscles, he catches the heavy, all-panzer piano in a matter of second—another childhood fascination, having an all-panzer piano, it sounds like an arms industry fad; minuets, sister’s etudes and an army prop—yes, where else to hide grandma, my sizable grandma because I don’t believe she could have ever been a petite little girl, after all she was not such a little girl anymore—at that time, she worked at the Nejedly company, a fashion warehouse, so she was already incredibly mature and what was she even doing at her parents’, I wonder, and it takes me many years to realize that I have already outgrown her, except I’m still not working, or at least not in way where, if asked, I could reply that I’m working somewhere--and Baja hides grandma behind the piano, I picture a blank space in the body of the instrument, a safe hollow in the panzer, he pushes the colossus back to the wall, grandma is hidden there, like a birdling, but it’s not a reassuring image—it’s claustrophobic, I inhale air, my head starts spinning, but it doesn’t matter anymore—it all explodes in a moment, Baja stays outside and loses an eye.
And then it’s all glass, glass is the refrain of the whole story, everything is in pieces and glass falls everywhere and grandma is full of glass, who knows where the panzer had gone off to, and great-grandfather is on his way from the office which was not damaged by the explosion, that does not suit my story, I imagine the whole of Vinohrady in ruins, how could a part of a house be cut off and other rooms remain undamaged, I only know images of complete house demolitions from television, it’s complicated, I think about the man going through the rubble and is searching in the dust clouds for his wife and two nearly adult children who had been home due to a sore throat, but how could he be walking through a room which is cut off, it was on the first floor, wouldn’t it all be weighed out? I imagine the view from the street, I see my great-grandfather through the sliced off wall of the house as in a doll house, and the German neighbors who climbed over the fallen wall and are helping him with his search. He screams through the dusty darkness, but it’s not helping, nothing can be heard, grandpa had burst eardrums, the sharp edge of a burst membrane of my childhood tambourine—to have a drum in one’s ear, that alone seems odd to me, the painful clatter, then the metal strike of the anvil, I don’t want it. An inborn civilization disease. I don’t even want the snail-shaped cochlea. Or the horse thing, I don’t like horses, they’re like a specter, I’ve never ridden one, everything—like a stirrup or frenulum—best not be named.
And that’s basically it. My great story. All in all, five sentences with a long web of incorrect childhood concretizations and associations. Grandma, tell me about the air-raid. My formative story which I wanted to hear over and over again, it was mine, I lived inside it, I dreamed of it, it was more true than the grey reality of notebooks and textbooks tossed around in my school bag—a mythical story and the only right one, it explained everything and everything converged in it.
The story is only missing a couple of details, while putting the episode into any familial or historical context was never amiss. Until I wanted to write it down. Your details. My favorite interlude about apricots which within the narrative, after that sudden Apocalypse, comes earlier than the trip to the hospital—that is just one sentence long, fragmented as your consciousness in that moment. The ambulance was only for Germans, but then one German soldier—so were they evil or were they good?—lifts grandma on the truck bed and caressed her bloodied hair. Perhaps he had also lost someone, you say, moved—that poor guy. And the mess in the flat, you cannot even imagine what it looked like, Janinka. No, I can-not, grandma, as you can see, I cannot imagine anything of it. Glass cut through the wardrobes and the clothes inside them, linen, tablecloths, everything was full of holes and glass—just like me. I caress grandma’s scarred arm, the left one they wanted to amputate, its surface creased with a chaotic clutter of lines—a crazy relief by a layer of of hypodermic fat. Closing my eyes, I trace it with my fingers, caressing it softly, as touching too hard could hurt her, the glass is encased but sharp. When grandma is in good spirits—she is always in good spirits—I touch her lobe. I can feel all the tiny shards inside, religious horror and admiration and respect—I am touching war. Everything had been destroyed and whatever was left, perhaps just the things in the hallway cupboard, vanished from the wreckage. They surely must have known which of the neighbors was likely responsible but that was merely an occasional questioning, not a story itself—but the apricots were undoubtedly a part of it.
The story with the apricots goes like this: the whole flat has been completely destroyed and afterwards—that meant a long time after that, at the hospital, when grandma and great-grandma woke up and screamed themselves into one room, except then everyone lay on mattresses in the cellar anyway so they wouldn't have to be moved, the alarms went off all the time—afterwards, mom had this one regret: I should have let you eaten those apricots, it all went to nothing. And you say this with so much emotion, grandma, that this whole tragic coincidence, the tragedy of just one house in the Rimska street, a coincidence when—on the day when the Allies made a mistake—two children were sick with a sore throat. The coincidence of the allied army bombing us unexpectedly, the whole of the Second World War embodied by fruit dumplings made by great-grandma on the 14 February 1945. When she wanted to put the apricots inside, small Ema, small and delicate Ema who had already been working but was sick at that time—she wanted to eat some of the fruit, so her mother yelled at her, yelled as if she was still the small Ema, Ema the schoolgirl, not working Ema—it's all a blur, I still picture grandma as a little girl sulking and hiding under the table, covered by a tablecloth—so long it touches the floor—and on it she watches shadows: in the rectangle of the window, a small ceramic bell is swaying a little, it looks exactly as if it was set in our kitchen in Zizkov, who knows why there, I have gone through so many kitchens. That bell had a lightbulb inside it and it was alight at night; the kitchen tabletop with a bowl of rising dumpling dough would be behind my grandma's back and the window would be in front of her--under the window, cars speed through Konevka, and you can see into the Sokol house opposite, into the hall, running and bending bodies clad in tank tops. And over that, the thin ridge of Vitkov, children, can you see the greenery, mom exhales every day during the meal. No, we can't, my sister and I are sitting with our backs to it and our brother to the side, the window is at a different angle, our dad is traveling. Perhaps even great-grandma Frantiska would admire this greenery while dining on fruit dumplings, the whole big family around the table. They would have to be squeezed into our kitchen in Zizkov, and someone would definitely see the greenery from a similar angle—a dinner of dumplings filled with apricots which our grandma could not eat, how could have anyone deprived her of anything, don't they know her story? She would have let me eat all of them if I wanted to, even though I don't have a story; she would fill the dumplings with anything she would have around, and she would laugh and caress my face and put my hair behind my ear. But it was war back then, you know, there was not a lot around like nowadays and apricots were a rarity in Prague—and here it goes, horrible apricots, it’s already passed onto me, I cannot eat apricots to this day, even though I like to touch them. Endless regret, the depth of the tragedy of two pounds of apricots saved for a ceremonial dinner gone to waste—the dinner would have happened, had it not been for all the coincidences, had anything ever been anything but a coincidence.
And another part of the story is the nurse who, as you claimed, was an angel—after her shift, she would sit at your bedside, taking out the shards from your body. The memory of them ringing inside the metal bowl, where she crumbled them using gauze—didn’t that hurt, grandma? A shrug, what else could you have said, only when I recorded you did you use awful suffering, that was when you talked about redressing and how they had to tear everything away every day. And the nurse kept telling you something quietly, ringing patiently, even though you were a lost cause and everyone knew it was useless work.
The last addition to the story’s core was my great-grandfather--he surely couldn’t have been a part of it from time immemorial, who knows when it started to seem important to me. Great-grandfather who, apart from burst eardrums, was fine—walking on foot through paralyzed Prague, visiting each and every hospital, looking for his family. Meanwhile, he would make visits to his relatives, his married children, close friends, receiving and sharing messages, leaving messages, returning for messages and walking, walking for days, wandering through Prague from one hill to another, it started sounding wild, I have always seen the city as a flat surface, sure, there are hills and mountains and valleys in the nature, something of the sort exists during the holidays, but not in regular life, Myto is in a flatland and Prague is a labyrinthine map, the subway is below and the sky above, I don’t accept going up or a bit down the track in the city, I demand a specific direction, street, along and against the traffic, everything curls in a chaotic manner and there’s no horizon, but grandfather would go from one hill to another during the war, because there was no traffic and he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know anything because nobody told him this story, he’s the story, he and grandma and Baja and the apricots, and his younger brother Lada does not know anything either—he wrote it down a while ago, concise, condensed, he worked at Vinohrady a short way from there, after the air-raid, he ran home, he managed to get there until they closed down the area due to undetonated bombs, who ran to check up on relatives and acquaintances had to search using this instruction: the living are at the Rieger orchards, others are at the hospitals, but Lada was there immediately, he was helping in the rubble and I read it, it was all very different, all these forgotten details, foreign unknown words, and Ema was not the worst off, he waves grandma off, it was Baja, the older brother, the hero lifting the piano, and that offended me, it wound me up, it was my story and he was crushing it, it’s only now that I manage to laugh at it, I even find comfort in it, every family has a member who tells the formative family stories in disquietingly different ways, that’s how it’s supposed to be, it wouldn’t be a story but a fact, and you wouldn’t be able to tell it, we would have to learn it and write tests on it and nobody would care, after all, grandma made fun out of Lada, the youngest brother, so now I will make fun out of him, for instance of the time when he fell down into the garden pool in Kladno when he was two years old and grandma, a year older than him, started screaming and Gerta Figulusova, who was visiting, the last direct descendant of Jan Amos Komensky, jumped after him in her dress and saved him, what could this kid in a camisole, pulled from the pool by the teacher of the nations, what could he possibly know about who had it worse after the air-raid, after all Baja was in his clothes, but grandma was only wearing a night slip, hence the glass, even months later, a shard from a polished vase cuts an artery in her side.
I’m sure about the story. What I did not know until I started writing about you, grandma, is that you have to tell the story at home. In the kitchen, on the long red bench in the warmth of gas burners, feet underneath the table on top of panting dog fur. What use could your story be to someone who will read it in a paperback on their way to work, on the subway between Kulatak and Rajska zahrada, severed by changing the line, the story is not even that long for that matter, they would have to take out the papers at Palmovka, the story almost isn’t, Prague was full of such stories during Ash Wednesday in 1945, hundreds of them unfolded just between Kulatak and Rajska zahrada, just like on any other day during the war, just like during peace, the only thing that changed is the genre, which family is not a reservoir of its own vivid stories. It might have occurred to me when my second grandma threw in a remark that she had to smuggle food from her relatives from the countryside to Ostrava where they had nothing to eat. That there were inspections on the train, how they hoped that they wouldn’t look through a fourteen-year-old girl’s suitcase. That a whole squad clad in brown went to their compartment once. That the officer pointed a finger as she lifted the lid. A pair of trousers and a sweater on top. Ich fahre nach Ferien. Grandma, why have you never told me this, were you scared? Of course I was scared, as if it was nothing, that was just the way it was. Traumas were not fostered, that was not a time for that, my thin discreet grandma. My second grandma.
Why was this story about an air-raid, these hypertrophied five sentences, so great that I thought it encompassed Your whole life, that it’s an entire novel. There’s nothing remarkable about my great narrative, except that you said it to me. Over and over again, one step and another, one sway and another, stirring cabbage in a saucepan. And so this book about You that everyone who has known you expects to be a cultivated biographical novel, could very well do without the Story. Except me, grandma, not me.