I was tired from a long car journey and wanted to stroll around the café for a while, but a woman’s raised hand restrained me.
”It’s me who wrote that letter,” she said somewhat loudly and pointed to an armchair opposite her.
The environment itself excluded surprises, the blows did not come and everything drowned in everyday routine. A small town in the north country, once a center of the national movement, survived thanks to a machine plant that employed the people from the nearby villages. There was a community center, attempts at striptease, a milkshake bar, suburbs full of railroad settlements covered in soot, and a theatre with actors resigned to their small town lives. But they were all alive and could sit in this café, if they wanted.
A letter this woman recently sent me was an ordinary letter that authors receive from women. It evinced the intimacy with which women between thirty and forty express themselves only in bed and their letters. I learned to respect these testimonials of confidence. After all, I am not so young any more and one should not avoid opportunities when they present themselves, or fail to be of use to others. ”I am writing to you, because I feel we are spiritual twins … Your books and articles … there are people whom we trust, even though nowadays … I would like to meet you in person. I am not embarrassed to say that I am asking you for a meeting … I worry about the world of words.”
I don’t get too many letters like this one. I’m used to reply to them with customary politeness. I do not rush to any subsequent meetings. Why risk any mutual harm?
I found myself in this small town only because I had to go there on business. I phoned the woman who wrote the letter. ”Yes, I’m here in your town. We’re leaving after lunch. Perhaps we could meet? Right. In the café.”
And so we sat in the café with yellow-blue quadrangles on the wall, while people around us were drinking beer. I was sipping my juice, observing the woman who, out of solidarity with me, suffered while drinking the same juice.
The surprise failed to materialize. The woman was like her letter. She was careful and more thoughtful than is usual. There was a genuine fear in her eyes, if one could characterize it so simply. What confused me was that she did not pretend to be calm and disinterested like other experienced players. Her uncertainty was too visible and not a consequence of her unkempt appearance.
I am not sure how I‘ll succeed to reproduce that one-hour conversation. She was the one who was speaking most of the time, without looking around or even at me. First she toyed with her glass, then she reached for my sunglasses and I became worried that she might break them while she twirled them around.
She wanted to hear from me, the master of the word (and here she could not escape a smile), something very essential about word. Yes, word. She wanted to check on something by consulting a specialist. I was waiting for her to reach into her purse for a manuscript of poems written in a nice hand.
”Could words kill?”
I got scared. What sort of a mine-field was this thirty-five year old trying to tempt me into? A moment later it turned out it was rather a sea made of play dough that one sinks into, that one inescapably gets stuck onto with one’s fingers, or one’s brain. The sort of thing you couldn’t comb out of your hair.
The woman finished her juice and put my glasses on the tablecloth. I quickly lit a cigarette for her. I had to distract her from the pathetic topic and her loaded question.
She went on smoking and began her story. It seemed I was saved. It was a simple tale. It depends on the kind of words we use. An all too common story in the Central Europe. Her older sister was married. Her husband was forty-eight. Until recently he worked in the local machine plant. In the fall they placed him in an interrogation cell. It turned out that he used to be a State Security officer and in 1950, together with three accomplices, had killed three of our citizens: Dr. A. F., J. A. and Captain C. L. His wife had no idea until then who she had been living with. A banal story, right?
”My brother-in-law is a murderer.”
I reached for my glasses. I thought feverishly how to wriggle out of the trap in which she wanted to catch me. She gave me no rest. Out of her purse she took out some press cuttings. ”THE TRIAL OF THE FOURSOME” had been the focus of attention of the uncensured press.
”I see,” I nodded, ”You’d like to express a doubt about the motivation. Or perhaps you are wrestling with the problem suggested by the journalists: Who is guilty? Or is it, rather, the psychological impact on your sister? Yes, of course, I remember now. The accused”—here I hesitated—”with the three men under his command was ordered by his superior officer to escort the three prisoners from the capital and to liquidate them on the way. They were to pretend”—I reached for a press cutting and read from it—”that a prisoner, Dr. A. F. attempted an escape on the way and encouraged the others to do the same. In some suitable place they were to use their weapons against all three prisoners, exactly in accordance with the service regulations. One of the security officers—”
”That was my brother-in-law,” she interrupted me, ”himself.”
”But your brother-in-law had qualms about the order. Through the chain of command he reached the Minister himself. The Minister told him harshly: ”Are you a Party member? Did you get an order? You did. Do you have to obey your commanding officers? Yes. Then why are you bothering me?”
”And so the three men in those woods were really …”
We fell silent.
”If you want to hear from me, my dear lady, that it had not been a crime or, that the person who issued the order was a bigger criminal, I cannot help you. This sort of problem has been solved in its political, ethical, and legal dimensions decades ago after the Nazi crimes. Did you see the film The Nuremberg Trial? It was on TV recently …”
My companion got up from her armchair at this point, looked at me in fear and suppressed a shout. I had to get up and take her by the hand. I tried to carress her hair with my other hand, but in reality I tried to push her back in her chair. ”Please, it’s okay, really, it’s all right.” The people around us began to notice.
”I’m not that stupid, you know? I don’t give a damn about your political or Nuremberg justification! You must understand that I’m not crazy, you arrogant, arrogant …” perhaps she was searching for a fitting expression for an appropriate invective.
”But the case against the four security men was recently dropped. Why are you torturing yourself?”
She sat down and listlessly looked ahead.
”There were Party officials involved and some of them are even now in the highest…”
”Yes, that was the immediate reason. But I am worried about something else. Does that smoke bother you? … No. It’s about something else. You as a writer should know.”
She began to tell me about her brother-in-law. A familiar biography in our part of the world. A childhood spent in a village. An altar boy. Then the maturing, the crisis, the unemployment, the decision to join the communists, and what the idea of socialism meant to him. A decent, straightforward man, well grounded, with solid principles from his grandmother. Then the war, the resistance, the partisan group. Fighting for a peacefull and humane world, he had believed in the ideals of his leaders who taught him how to understand the world. He had not pursued the career after the war. He had remained an insignificant employee at the Ministry of the Interior. He had known the enemy during the war and had accepted there was to be no mercy for them. No, he was not a blind follower of orders. That’s nonsense. That’s what they say in the papers now, so easily, so apropos, and so democratically. He believed when he followed the orders, he did it of his own will. During the war he could see the enemies clearly. And he saw them clearly after the revolution and the take-over of the power. The big words gave him the space to develop his dreams. Who can gage the real content of such words? … And today he is accused … You´ll say that the ignorance of the law is no excuse … However, then it had been the law, in the name of humaneness and socialism. Oh, but you know that all those things are done in the name of humaneness. Even the racing car driver is pushed into the cockpit of an untried model of a car and his death is considered the necessary sacrifice to progress.
”And so my sister and I sit night after night in a dark room and examine the monsters of abstraction as they emerge from the dark. We follow the causal chain from superior to superior, search for the orders and those who originated them. We get entangled. You won’t find the guilty party, my dear master of the word. I’m horrified by the world of words. It all started with the words, you see. Do you see it, you who make your living with the words and not a bad living either? The supremacy of words … As if the words were flying about in the sky. Sometimes it seems that the words remain hanging in the air, searching for the one whom they could saddle —”
”They land on us like the butterflies land on flowers,” I attempted to finish the thought poetically, happy that this tired image occurred to me, but she continued. She said that she was not an idiot and was not about to listen to any literary critical nonsense, as she knew something about linguistics, semantics, and even mentioned a book by Max Bense. She was tormented by the mystery of words. She did not know how to defend herself against the words. How to prevent the words from saddling decent people. Her brother-in-law loved and still loves his children, doesn’t drink, recently approved of the student strike, and really, believe me, is a progressive person. How is it possible that words took over of his heart and lead him to his destruction?
”You know, I work in a hospital, as a lab technician. I provide the cardiograms for the patients. Those are signs, graphic representations. Why is it that words are so unreliable?”
”You are young and beautiful,” I interrupted her. I stooped to this compliment to save the world of words, which was said to provide me with decent living. ”The gulf between the inner world of a person and the words that attempt to express it is a topic for countless others who may be wiser than the two of us. Why worry yourself, my dear? Take up something else. Say, everyday politics. We are enjoying a semblance of freedom. Well, let’s take advantage of it. Let us grant ourselves the feeling of being useful by being actively present in the world by changing it.” I meant to add that she could take up sex as well, but it seemed somewhat inappropriate at the occasion.
The woman took a cardiogram out of her purse and unravelled it in front of me like an ancient parchment. ”For example, there could exist another way of communicating with our inner world. Who will guarantee that a cardiogram isn’t as reliable a record about a person as are the words? Cardiograms do not take us over. The words, these groups of letters and noise, rule over us. They attain content above their means. They enter the mind, they disintegrate it, turn it to an unknown force.”
”Your brother-in-law was driven to murder by words. And it will be words again that will save him. Isn’t it beautiful? Aren’t you at least glad? Tell me, where is the person who is above words, who succeeded in resisting them? In your offensive against the world of words you forgot about the human being. Isn’t it convenient to blame everything on words? After all, they are produced by people, they are responsible!”
She grabbed my hand and I was ready to swear to her not to say, or write anything, to switch over to another form of human communication (was it encephalograms? Tom-toms? Ballet)? Only a waiter could save me. But she did not let me say a thing. Maybe paintings then, or electronic compositions, or Beethoven symphonies are better, more human than words. She was afraid that we were destined for word-communication. The words were murderers. Although the victims of words perish, the words remain. They live alone, as if catapulted from a burning plane.
”It reminds me of Starfighters, the planes,” I said.
”I don‘t follow. Words, words …”
”The bill!” I called out pressed for time.
”Very good,” said the woman, ”I am in a hurry too. Tonight is the beginning of the Easter confessions.”
She was a Catholic and was going to a confession. I relaxed and also experienced a desire to kneel in the anonymous obscurity.
”But those will be words as well,” I tried to challenge her.
”Very well, but they will stay locked. You’ve heard about St. John Nepomuk? There is a statue of him on the Charles Bridge in Prague.”
I told her that I knew the statue and that I approved of the words remaining locked in the depth of the soul, in each soul separately, and that perhaps this was the only solution available. For we always need a solution, even when we are in a café, and there is no solution.
I paid for the two juices, thanked her for the letter and we shook our hands. I apologized, for my colleagues were already impatiently awaiting me in the car.
After all, at home there was so much writing waiting for me. So many words.
(Bratislava, March 15, 1969)
Author’s Note to ”Murderers”
I wrote the short story in March of 1969, before Alexander Dubcek had completely been removed from his office and before the onset of the ”Normalization” in former Czechoslovakia.
The story had never been published in the legal press at home. In that sense it is a samizdat work. I took the story in April 1969 along to West Germany to the last literary symposium in which I could participate. Our Germanist, the late Peter Hrivnák, kindly translated it. I read the German translation entitled ”Mörder” at the International Colloquium of Short Prose in Neheim-Hüsten (Rheinland-Westphalen, ) and it was published in an anthology entitled Befunde (1969).
The story ”Murderers” has its Slovak premiere almost thirty years later It will remind us not only of the events of the years 1968-1969. The message of one’s responsibility for one’s words has not lost its applicability in our time. (Bratislava 1998)
Slovak original in: Anton Hykisch, Sám v cudzích mestách, Hajko & Hajková, Bratislava 2006