– translated from Slovak by Charles Sabatos
“It was a really stupid idea,” she muttered to herself.
The sun ran its fiery finger along the outlines of the objects. It highlighted some of them, carving them out so they rose sharply to the foreground, while it blurred others with the tip of its finger, and quivered in a soft, shimmering haze.
“It was a sssimply ssstupid idea,” she repeated, flattening the sibilants with her tongue on her palate, just like that unpleasant editor at the publishing house. If she hadn’t promised to send the translation manuscript by September, right now she could have been lounging around by the swimming pool. If only it weren’t so hot outside…
The bubbles jumped out of the mineral water on the table like fish jumping out of the warm water of a stream, gasping for breath. She took a blank piece of paper and wrote in capital letters: MONIKA HANSMANN. A female fly landed on the first M and lingered there provocatively for a little while. It spread its legs and smiled meaningfully. It didn’t have to wait long, because a male fly immediately swooped down toward it. They got together on top of the ON and started to copulate. They nestled and squirmed, buzzing furiously all the while. When it was over, the male fly immediately flew off to find another partner. The female fly purred blissfully, stretched out, straightened its wings, rubbed its eyes, and flew off too.
The woman looked at her watch. It was five o’clock, and still so stiflingly hot. She looked at the paper again and with her pen, she retraced the name of the author Monika Hansmann, which had been desecrated by the flies. She would rather have given up on the whole thing, but time was running short, the publishers were waiting, and so far she didn’t have a single poem ready, although in her mind she had translated all of the poems a long time ago.
It had truly been a stupid idea to leave all of this for her vacation. At first she had too much work, and later she just hadn’t felt like doing it. She kept telling herself: tomorrow, tomorrow. . . All day she sat in front of the blank page and waited. That whiteness horrified her! Maybe if she just relaxed for a while, and caught her breath. . . She stood up and paced around the room.
She stretched her stiff lower back, then went over to the window. The air was crawling down the street like a man dying of thirst in the desert. It was so thick that from the fourth floor she could even see dirty grease spots floating in it, where pedestrians were frying like fish fillets.
She went back to her translation and played for a moment with the ray of sunlight that was reflected by the cap of her Chinese pen. The sunbeam scampered around the furniture like a piglet, bouncing from the walls like a ping-pong ball. When that game wasn’t fun anymore, she watched the moth that was flying out of the wardrobe. At other times, she would have jumped up furiously and chased it until she crushed it in her palm, but now she just sat sleepily and watched the moth flying awkwardly around the room. Its honey-golden wings nobly gleamed. The moth flew into a swarm of flies. Among them, she looked like a lady in rich and heavy carnival robes squeezed between her black slaves. The woman traced the letters on the paper again, then started to poke the tip of the pen into the book of poetry lying before her.
She idolized Monika Hansmann, loved her. She had always wanted to meet her, longed for it, but the author stubbornly refused any contact. She had shut herself away from the world, and hated journalists and curiosity-seekers. To avoid them, she changed her address all the time, moved constantly, and wandered around the world, so no one had any idea where she was at the moment.
The book was sliding slowly across the glass top of the table.
She loved her poetry, every line of it. Often, while reading her poems, she even burst into tears. Hansmann was writing about her life; everything was so familiar to her. Even so, in some places, she couldn’t avoid the persistent feeling that something in the author’s poetics had escaped her.
When the book hit an obstacle and stopped, she pressed on its protruding cover and pushed again. The book started to move once more.
In order to better understand Hansmann’s poetry, last summer she had set off in her footsteps.
The book was already getting close to the edge of the table, but she didn’t stop pushing it.
She had visited the same cities, stayed in the same hotels, eaten in the same restaurants, and there remained only one thing. . .
She was absorbed in watching how first one corner of the book, then half of it, slid over the edge of the table. She pushed it just a little more. The book slid forward, seemed to float in the air for a moment, then fell with a crash to the floor. The dull thud brought her back to her senses.
She loved Monika Hansmann, worshipped her.
She picked up the book, dusted it off, and instead of apologizing, stroked it, blowing a hair off the cover. Finally she looked carefully at the page that the book had opened to in its fall:
Mir sagt er
und verschwindet hinter der Tür
und schickt von Reisen
mir nur Karten
(Madrid, Paris, Zürich)
Grüße Dich herzlich
es geht mir fein
(Helsinky, Moskau, Kiel)
und so treibt er nur sein Spiel
er weiß ich warte auf ihn
und ich weiß
werde ich das Licht anmachen
zurück zu mir
While reading the poem, it occurred to her that she could start with these very lines, which were in fact her favorite. She picked up the pen and started to write a title under the author’s name, but hesitated. Schattenspiel. What was the best translation? “Shadow Play”? Or “Play of Shadows”? She liked both names and suddenly she couldn’t decide. She laid down the pen on the table and started walking slowly around the room, repeating aloud to herself: “Shadow Play, Play of Shadows, Shadow Play, Play of Shadows. . .” She listened to the echo of her words and tried to guess which title sounded better. She stopped for a moment at the window and looked outside again. Not far away, several meters away from her apartment building, they were building a hypermarket. The building was growing day by day, with unbelievable speed. Like a giant aggressive fungus, it swallowed up the dried-up lawn beneath it. The construction workers worked on it all day long, twenty-four hours, even now, in this unbearable heat wave. She looked at them and had the feeling that if she stuck out her hand, she could touch them. The sun changed the air into a giant magnifying glass, bringing them closer to her like a mirage. The workers reminded her of frogs or toads. Their bare backs were dark, burned to a chocolate brown, but their chests were creamy white.
She left the title to the end; later she could decide if it would be “Shadow Play” or “Play of Shadows.” She didn’t even need to look at the book; she knew it by heart: “Mir sagt er Lebewohl und verschwindet hinter der Tür …” She wrote the first rough translation: “He bids me farewell and disappears behind the door …” Later she would play with the words a little more, so they would flow more smoothly. “… und schickt von Reisen mir nur Karten …”; “… and he sends me from his travels only postcards …” It would sound better like this: “… and from his travels he sends me only postcards …” Just to be sure, she wrote down both versions. “… (Madrid, Paris, Zürich), Grüße Dich herzlich …” She stopped, because she had run into a rhyme. Now she had to think it over. It annoyed her when her colleagues said that the easiest thing to translate was free verse. Perhaps it was, but only if it were the poetry of some mediocre writers, certainly not Monika Hansmann. In her poems, free verse reflected the author’s unfettered lifestyle, unbound by convention. One Austrian literary scholar had even written a long study of her work. Hansmann’s verse contained many hidden images, messages, metaphors, and besides that, it wasn’t so free, often there occurred deceptive, unexpected rhymes, like now …
“(Madrid, Paris, Zürich)
Grüße Dich herzlich
es geht mir fein”
She poured the flat mineral water from the glass into the sink and poured herself a fresh one. She took three ice cubes from the freezer and dropped them in. The ice broke apart like on St. Matthew’s Day and cracked into smaller pieces. She pressed the dewy glass to her forehead. “Warm wishes to you, I’m doing fine…” What could she rhyme with “you”?
She stood at the window again for a moment. The sky was a poisonous blue and the bricklayers at the hypermarket were still working. They worked there even at night. They shone giant spotlights while they worked. One of them was mounted wrong and shone directly into her bedroom. A month ago she had gone to complain. They had promised to fix it, but so far nothing had been changed. At first she couldn’t sleep because of it, because at night the room was full of bluish-white light. Even closing the drapes didn’t help. But as time went by, she got used to it and started to like it. As she fell asleep, she would look at the wall across from the window. Shadows would dart around on it. When one of the workers walked in front of the spotlight, it was as if he were walking across her bedroom. Her room was always full of guests. They arrived right after sunset. Sometimes they were tall, from the floor to the ceiling, and other times they were as small as her nightstand. They were pleasant visitors, courteous, polite, and undemanding. Every night, the shadows on the projection screen performed a silent play only for her. They bowed, waved their hands, jumped around, and danced. She fell asleep with a feeling of security, because she knew that the shadows were protecting her. She didn’t know that when she fell asleep, one shadow stood by her bedside and gazed at her for a long time, a very, very, very long time. Rome! She could rhyme “home” with “Rome.”
“(Madrid, Paris, Rome)
Warm wishes to you at home
I’m doing fine”
It wasn’t the right number of syllables, but that can get lost at times.
She hadn’t been to Rome yet, but two years ago she had spent a vacation in Rimini. It was wonderful! Sea, golden sunshine and white clouds – a sky like the Papal flag. And the waiter! “Buon giorno, signorina.” Spaghetti every night. They always smiled at her.
“Pasta?” The dark tips of his nipples showed through his shirt like black olives. Extra Vergine di Oliva. “Buona notte.” “Buona notte, Francesco.” Some of the hotel guests took towels, others bathrobes, and others an ashtray or a silver spoon from the restaurant, but she had slept with the waiter.
She looked at the flies circling around the light, her mother called them meteorologists, because supposedly they could forecast the weather. Nice and hot again. The bricklayers on the construction site, like big frogs, were climbing up ladders toward the sun.
“(Helsinky, Moskau, Kiel)
und so treibt er nur sein Spiel”
Another rhyme. “… and so he plays me for a fool …” Kiel – Spiel. All of the cities mentioned in the poem were capitals. Why did Hansmann suddenly use an unimportant Northern German city here? Only for the rhyme? That didn’t seem like her. On the edge of the paper she wrote a little note and underlined the words “find out” twice. Then she thought it over: what was the best way to translate these lines? She would probably have to replace Kiel with something else. What could she rhyme with “fool”? Which city? She thought it over with no results; she couldn’t think of anything right now. As if the sun had dried up not only the ground, but also her thoughts. She was just about to take the world atlas out of the bookcase and look at the index, when a key rattled in the lock. The door opened and a man stepped into the entryway. He took off his fur cap, stamped the snow off his shoes, and stood a little Christmas tree, wrapped up with twine, in the corner.
“Well, I finally got it. Just the kind you wanted,” he said, smiling at the woman, “but you could have told me earlier that you wanted a fir and not a spruce. They were already sold out almost everywhere.” He started to unbutton his coat.
“Who are you?!” she burst out.
The man stopped fumbling with his buttons and lifted his head uncomprehendingly.
“Who are you?!” she repeated.
“What are you doing here?!”
The man looked at her for a moment in astonishment and then burst out laughing: “Good joke!” He bent over and untied his shoelaces. Then he stepped to the carpet, wearing only his socks. “Where are my slippers?”
“Stop!” the woman shrieked.
“All right, we’ve had our laugh …” he said, stepping toward her, but she jumped backward. Her back hit the table. She groped around behind her and grabbed the first thing she touched, the empty bottle of mineral water.
“Stop!!” She raised it threateningly above his head.
“Well, fine, fine, I was out a bit too long, but you don’t have to make such a fuss about it. I ran into a friend and we stopped for a drink …” The man moved toward her again.
“Don’t come near me!”
“I haven’t seen him for a long time …”
“Stop!!” the woman screamed, but the man didn’t stop. She swung her arm wildly and the bottle flew right past his ear. With a crash it shattered against the wall.
The man froze and looked in disbelief at the shards, the emerald blood of the broken bottle, then looked up at the woman: “You were always hysterical, but now you’re overdoing it. What’s all this about?”
“Who the hell are you?” shouted the woman, “tell me, or I’ll start to scream and in a minute the whole building will be here!”
The man frowned at her.
“I’m counting to three,” she warned him, “one, two …” he took a deep breath, “three.”
“Don’t be so stupid, what are you making a scene for?”
“Who are you?”
He still didn’t understand what was going on: “It’s me!”
“Ha!” she burst out.
“I’m not married!”
“Have you completely lost your mind?!”
“Don’t come near me!” she shrieked again and snatched up a knife from the table. She waved it in front of her like a medieval knight and then aimed its point at the man’s heart. “And now tell me the truth, who are you really and what are you looking for?”
“Have you lost your memory? Or are you trying to tease me? About three hours ago I went to town, because at the last minute you decided that you wanted a fir tree for Christmas …”
“Don’t give me that nonsense. If you want to steal from me, you’re out of luck, I’ve caught you. And besides, I only have a hundred in my wallet. There’s my purse, take the money and get lost!”
“But I really am … look, look …” the man slipped his hand into his coat.
“What are you doing! Leave it there!” the woman shouted, and in her panic she swung the knife she was clenching in her fist at him.
“Stop! I’m looking for my ID,” said the man, pulling a leather case out of his coat, and an identification card out of it. “Well?”
The woman looked in confusion at the glossy card. The address was the same, and even the man’s surname was the same as her own.
“Well?” the man asked impatiently. “Have you calmed down yet?”
“That could be a coincidence …” the woman said hesitantly.
“What kind of coincidence?”
“I moved here not long ago, you could have lived here before me.”
“For God’s sake,” exclaimed the man, “and what about the name? Why would I have the same last name as you?”
“Just look at the phone book, there are two pages full of people with the same last name.”
“But I really live here and I’m your …”
“You already said that!” the woman interrupted. “If you’re not a thief, who sent you here? Joseph? That would be just like him.”
“I don’t know any Joseph! I’m not enjoying this anymore, and I’m getting warm!” The man took off his coat and threw it over the backrest of the chair. “I don’t know what’s going on here… A guy spends half a day looking all over town for a Christmas tree and then at home …”
While he was talking, the woman watched him carefully. He could have been around forty, not bad-looking, although the hair was already thinning on the top of his head. It seemed that he hadn’t had time to shave this morning, because the skin on his face was bluish from sprouting stubble. As he gesticulated, she realized that even the backs of his hands were covered with dark hairs and others were sticking out from beneath his collar. His chest must be like a bear’s, she thought. “If you’re really my husband, as you say, then show me,” she proposed.
“How, if an ID card isn’t enough for you?”
“Try it.” She was starting to enjoy the game, but still didn’t let the knife out of her hand.
The man stuck his hand in his pocket and smiled. “I have the key to the apartment!” He lifted the keychain into the air and jingled it.
“Last week I lost one. Maybe you found it …”
The man threw the key on the table in disgust. “What am I arguing with you for? Open the closet and you’ll see whether I’m your husband or not.”
“Why the closet?” The woman didn’t understand.
“My things are there.” He didn’t wait for the woman to do it and went over to the closet himself. He briskly opened the door, and then stood there as if frozen. “Where did she put them?!” The shelves were full of women’s underwear, and on the hangers were dresses, skirts, blouses and women’s suits. “Where are my trousers?! My shirts?! What have you done with them?!” shouted the man in exasperation.
“They were never here,” she retorted.
“My T-shirts, gym shorts, and socks are gone too! Surely you didn’t throw them out?! Even my sweaters? But you knitted them for me yourself!” The man dug around hopelessly in the woman’s clothing.
“That’s enough!” she said, quickly slamming the closet door, and the man almost had his hands slammed in it. “Now you can believe me that you don’t live here, so get out of here. The fun is over, I have work to do!”
“Wait! And what about the glass under the bed?”
“What glass are you talking about?”
“I always leave it there when I’m watching TV at night. It always makes you terribly upset.”
“How do you know that I have a TV in my bedroom?” the woman asked in surprise, but the man didn’t answer.
“Last night there was a hockey game on and I was drinking beer. That glass must still be there!” The man ran hopefully into the bedroom, but under the bed he found nothing but balls of dust.
“Goodbye!” The woman pointed the point of the knife toward the door.
“Let’s try to call someone,” said the man. Giant drops of sweat appeared on his forehead, then streamed together and rolled down off the tip of his nose. “Everyone will tell you that I’m your husband.”
“Who then?” smirked the woman.
“Your mother, for example.”
“She’s at a health spa,” she laughed maliciously. “And if you’re my husband, you know that she doesn’t have a cell phone.”
“So maybe the neighbors …”
“Since I moved here, I’ve seen two of them. Here nobody knows anybody else.”
The man took a deep breath. “But I really am … You took the day off today and yesterday we were together in town. We stopped at the store, bought some apples, but forgot the toilet paper, so we had to use napkins …”
The woman thought it over and tried to remember what she had done yesterday. She had spent the whole day at work, then gathered her things at four o’clock, that nice old man was sitting at the front desk, she said hello to him, he asked her if she was already off work, they joked together for a little while, then she wished him a pleasant shift and went home. On the way she had really stopped at the store and bought apples, and when she came home to the apartment, she realized that she had forgotten to go to the drugstore. “Were you stalking me?”
The man sat down and closed his eyes. “Two years ago we almost got divorced. Don’t you even remember that?”
“Really? And why did we want to get divorced?” the woman asked with interest.
He rubbed his forehead wearily: “Because of our vacation and that waiter.”
“The tall, dark one, the whole time you were giving him that hungry smile. A bedroom kind of smile …”
“We had a terrible fight about it, but you promised me that nothing had happened between you.”
The woman looked at him suspiciously.
“I had a funny feeling, but since you swore to it, I believed you.”
“How do you know about Francesco?” the woman asked, slowly and emphatically.
“Was his name Francesco? Hmm, you still remember his name?”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“In fact, maybe you and he were just …”
The woman hesitated for a moment and then, just as calmly and emphatically as a moment before, said: “Yes, I slept with him.”
“So I was right,” the man opened his eyes, and they were glistening. “I thought so the whole time. Why?”
“I’ve had enough of this!” the woman burst out.
“You swore to me and I believed you!”
“I think that will be enough!”
“Why did you do this to me?” he asked sadly.
“Get out of here, right now!”
“I trusted you …”
“Get out!” she cried. “Get out now!”
The man got up with difficulty. He took his coat from the chair. “I loved you.”
“Beat it, beat it!” screeched the woman, red with fury.
“The whole time,” he whispered and slipped his feet into his shoes, then without even tying them, he slowly went out. The door slammed behind him. He left the Christmas tree standing wrapped up in the corner of the entryway. For a moment, the woman was also left standing, puzzled, in the middle of the empty room, then she sat down at the table. Her throat was dry, so she drank some flat mineral water from the glass and took up the pen.
A rhyme for the word “fool” was the city “Istanbul.”
“(Helsinki, Moscow, Istanbul)
and so he plays me for a fool”
“er weiß ich warte auf ihn
und ich weiß
werde ich das Licht anmachen
zurück zu mir
“he knows that I wait for him
and I know
that when I turn on the light
return to me
It was getting rather dark in the room, so she stood up and went over to the window. Snowflakes were falling to the ground like big fat flies. She had finally made her decision. In the summer she would go to Spain, so she could definitively, perfectly understand Hansmann’s poetry, and take care of the one thing left for her to do. She would find a lover in Madrid. One like she had– not some waiter, but a toreador.
PETER KARPINSKÝ (born 1971) teaches Slovak language, rhetoric, and the theory of comics at the University of Prešov, where he is the chair of the Department of Slovak Language. Following his debut collection Announcement to All the Grave Owners (Oznamujeme všetkým majiteľom hrobov, 1997), he published several books for young readers, including Fairy Tales from the Museum of Mysteries and Secrets (Rozprávky z Múzea záhad a tajomstiev, 2007). His collection The Holy Non-Assumption (Nanebonevzatie, 2010), from which the story “Shadow Play” was taken, was a finalist for the annual Anasoft Literara Prize.
About the Translator:
CHARLES SABATOS is currently Assistant Professor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul. His research is focused on the Central and Eastern European novel, and he has published literary translations from Slovak and Czech.