This week’s PEN Atlas features a moving piece of writing by Jáchym Topol about a man and his ailing mother. Jáchym is one of a stellar line-up of writers who have been selected to read at this year’s European Literature Night in London on 15th May.
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Winter breathes its last gasp, leaving mounds of black ice and frozen chunks on the sidewalks. The sun occasionally climbs above the city now, edging across the glassy sky.
The curtains here are always shut, except for a narrow crack. The sun’s rays pour into the room in a single spot. She says they’re easier to catch that way.
She keeps a mirror in bed, the little kind girls use to look at the tip of their nose.
She uses it often these days. Sometimes it slips beneath her pillow or gets lost in the blankets. That’s all right. She always manages to dig it out somehow.
She doesn’t use it to look at herself. My mom never was very fashionable, she didn’t get dolled up unless there was a reason. Instead of studying the wrinkles on her face, she uses the mirror to fish for rays of sunlight, assuming they’re the last ones she’ll see.
Though who knows? We didn’t talk much about that.
Over the last two years she’s gotten accustomed to staying in bed. Before, we used to go out for walks . . . down to the river, say . . . gulls chasing across the sky, colors, noise, people . . . the slow click-clack of her crutches.
Nowadays the most adventurous trip she takes is to the bathroom. She recounts these expeditions to me by text message. She keeps her senior cell phone on a string looped over her shoulder, like an Indian quiver full of arrows. If she stops to rest on her way through the jungle, or trips and falls, she shoots out a signal — “dresser,” for instance. As soon as I can, I drop everything and head over to her place, scoop her up, and carry her back to bed or to the bathroom, depending what she wants. We’ve got a few other signals besides “dresser.”
So what’s it like, anyway, Mom?
Remember how when you’re little and you have to run through the hallway in the middle of the night? When your parents aren’t around, or they’re asleep, and you’re nervous and afraid, but you do it?
She smiles, or tries to. It’s just a series of minor victories, she says.
Stop it, you’re blinding me . . .
She’s catching a ray of sunshine and flashing it in my eyes.
She sets the mirror aside. She doesn’t mean to torture me. We’ve always liked each other. Well, up until I was sixteen and I finally got out, she was totally smashed every night, or just about. If she wasn’t smashed she had a hangover, which was even worse. When she was around fifty, though — thank God! — she gave up drinking and started visiting churches, beginning and ending every day with prayer. She had, after all, grown up in a religious orphanage. Her dad, my grandfather, had died during the war. She said her mom had “cast her off.” The Order of English Virgins played a big part in her upbringing. Till the Communists squelched them. When she was young, fueled by the bottle, she often made fun of the sisterhood’s name. She didn’t spare me any of her stories from the girls’ home. As a boy, unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate them. There was nothing forced about her conversion. Her life calmed down. It really is better to get up and say a prayer in the morning instead of tossing back shots. And she didn’t force anything on me, no waving the Bible at me and carrying on about booze. She just carried the news from the stone churches . . . the Templars, the Hospitallers . . . Prague is full of that stuff . . . I enjoyed it.
Here’s some honey for you, Mom. From the Galilee.
I was casual about it . . . announcing my gift in an offhand way, like it was nothing special. But yes, I was proud. I mean, how many sons bring their dying mother honey from the Holy Land?
I did the shopping, too . . . groceries, personal hygiene, entertainment . . . I brought her stuff all the time, who else was going to do it? Not long after she agreed to visits from social services, I caught her dumping the food from them down the toilet, or feeding it to the birds. She wouldn’t let anybody else wash her or make her bed, a monstrous nest of books, magazines, crumbs, and pills that was such a mess sometimes it was hard to tell what was what. Hospitals? She hated them. We’d already tried that.
The other people bother me, she said.
I was only gone a week. She didn’t look dirty, but she still had the same sheets on her bed . . . well, we’d deal with that later.
Today I’d left the bag of groceries out in the entryway. The only thing I brought to her bedside was the little jar of Israeli honey. It was a fancy terracotta jar, sealed with wax.
Here’s that Israeli honey, Mom, just like you asked for! I set it down on the table next to her bed. It made a little cracking sound.
Is it really from the Galilee? Does it say it there? Let me see! Why does it have that silly tourist packaging?
It’s written right there, see? . . . Galilee! . . . but in Hebrew, that’s what they speak there.
Well, of course . . . but I’m not at all surprised that your books are published in Hebrew. They have everything over there! My father’s books only came out in German, Polish, Hungarian . . . places around here. I suppose translation is easier now, isn’t it? With all those machines.
Oh yeah, it’s easy now. No big deal.
Is there any country where you aren’t published?
Oh, mm-hm. That’s only natural, though. Don’t even bother. Did you bring anything back for Bolek and Lolek?
That’s what my mom calls my sons. After the Polish cartoon.
Model fighter planes, Kalashnikov water pistols, some T-shirts, fresh dates and stuff. The boys were thrilled.
T-shirts with Hebrew? Have you lost your mind? They’ll beat the living daylights out of them . . .
My mom still thought of children’s homes as brutal institutions, like they were after the war. As she got older, I think, her Mom, please, this isn’t the ’50s anymore. You want to taste the honey? How’ve you been, anyway?
Good. I wasn’t alone for a minute. He’s been with me the whole time. We talk.
Who is “he”?
Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer.
Oh, come on, Mom. It’s all in your head.
So what? Even if it is, I like what he says.
Are you going to taste it or not? And what does he say?
The usual stuff. Like I don’t have to worry. And I should prepare myself for the journey . . . well, I realize it sounds like a movie . . . but he also explains why everything is the way it is.
What do you mean, everything?
You know, life and death. I never knew he knew all that.
I suddenly have the idea that when she dies, I’ll burn the apartment down. I mean I won’t, but I’d like to. In the days of the Bible, nobody would’ve been surprised. That I want all of this . . . the bed, the books and pictures, blankets, pillows, the pots and pans she hasn’t used in ages . . . the dried-out flowerpots, all her old-lady stuff, everything here in this flat drenched in that sour smell, coated in it . . . I wish it could all just disappear. Once she’s gone, the flat will be mine, weighing me down like a terrible burden. Why would I want that? I’ll lock the door and walk away. All I’ll keep is that tiny little mirror of hers. It’ll easily fit in my pocket.
So why is everything the way it is, then?
He says that’s the right question. And we’ll all find out. In time. That is, at the end of time. We’ll find out, but gradually.
I open the jar and bring in two teaspoons from the kitchen. They’re sticky, but that’s all right. I’ll wash the dishes later.
She lifts her head. I insert the tip of the spoon between her teeth. She takes it in, her head drops back against the pillow. She savors the honey in peace.
It seems like she sank into a hole during the the week I was gone. Even deeper than before. Fading away. Seriously, her face looks like a skeleton. And when was the last time I washed her hair? Does she really look that pitiful? Or is it just that I haven’t seen her in a week? When a person is dying, I think it’s better to be with them all the time. That way the changes don’t startle you as much.
Hm. I don’t think this honey’s anything special, she says.
You’re right, I say. The last time I had honey was probably ten, fifteen years ago.
I offer to open the curtains. It’s almost spring! I say.
Just leave it!
I step towards the window and suddenly I hear it. The crash as the mirror slips out of her hand and shatters on the floor. Into slivers, tiny little pieces of broken glass.
Well, now I’ve gone and done it!
That’s all right, I’ll clean it up. I sweep the pieces under the bed with my shoe, I’ll deal with it later.
Give me another taste, she says.
I have some too. But not too much. I never was much for sweets.
What did you eat all this time?
Oh, this and that. Those biscuits and things you brought. It was good.
I still can’t get over what she said. About Jesus talking to her. So I ask again. Firmly.
So tell me, Mom. What else did he say?
And then . . . I can’t believe it! My mother’s face lights up and she grins in this indescribable way, a flirty smile spreading across her ravaged old face. Then she even blushes. Her face turns red like a little girl’s!
Well, I can’t tell you . . . everything, she says coyly. But he also says nice things!
Well, things about the two of us. Delightful things!
What? About me?
No, no! She squirms in her bed. He talks about him and me. As for the rest, well . . . I’m keeping that to myself.
Fine! You want to hear about my trip? The boys’re doing really well. They say hi and they’ll send some pictures. You need anything?
No. Maybe later.
I sit on the chair, my mom in bed. We look at each other. There’s nobody else here, I don’t think, and nobody talking, except maybe in her head. We just sit. In peace and quiet. But we’re waiting. That’s right, waiting for an answer. Soon it’ll be spring. Maybe my mom will still recover, maybe she’ll get better? Oh, definitely. I’m sure of it.
About the Author
Jáchym Topol is the leading Czech author of his generation. Famous in his youth as an underground poet and songwriter, since the Velvet Revolution he has written the books that have most successfully and imaginatively captured the dislocation brought about by the fall of communism. His novels include Gargling with Tar, which was published by Portobello in 2011, The Devil’s Workshop (Portobello 2013) and Nightworks (Portobello 2014).
About the translator
The Devil’s Workshop, Alex Zucker’s translation of Jáchym Topol’s latest novel, is out next month from Portobello Books. Zucker currently works out of his third-floor apartment in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY.
Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop, translated by Alex Zucker won an English PEN Writers in Translation Award for 2013. It is published by Portobello Books in June.
European Literature Night London takes place on 15 May 2013 at the British Library, for more information and to buy tickets please visit the British Library website.
Jáchym Topol will also be in conversation with Tan Twan Eng and Jo Glanville at the Hay Festival on Saturday 25 May 2013 at 2.30pm