Bruno Vandersarren leaned on the bar and ordered a glass of wine. He was worn out, because for three days he had been searching in vain for a replacement for Erik. If he couldn’t recruit someone, he might just give up. Replacing Erik, who had been laid up with appendicitis, seemed more difficult than he had expected. The fishing season was at its peak and finding someone was impossible. Although he knew everybody in the harbor, they all just shrugged. Nevertheless, he wasn’t asking for the impossible, it was enough if someone had his papers in order and was ready to work.
“Nothing yet?” the bartender asked.
Vandersarren only shook his head futilely.
At that, a middle-aged man rose from the chair in the corner and spoke:
“I heard that you’re looking for a foreman. If it doesn’t matter that I’m not an old sea dog, I’m at your service. My name’s Štěpán. . .” Bruno didn’t catch the last name, but it didn’t matter.
Štěpán’s face was faintly familiar to Vandersarren. He remembered that he had met him here and there in the harbor, but as to what was hidden behind his appearance, he knew absolutely nothing. The middle-aged man in front of him was healthy and full of energy. Although it went against Bruno’s nature, he had learned to be careful in estimating people. The ship squeezed qualities out of people that not even they would have known about on land. There was no shortage of surprises. A likeable guy could turn out to be a moron and vice versa. Bruno asked Štěpán what he wanted to drink and started talking to him. Štěpán expressed himself in a rather confused way and it wasn’t easy to understand him, but the overall impression he gave was favorable. The well-built man with a distinctive nose and strong jaws could undoubtedly fulfill the meager demands that Bruno would make of him. On top of that, Bruno was not in the situation to be very choosy. The sooner this was resolved, the smaller his financial loss would be. He was tempted to shake hands with Štěpán on the spot, when he was taken aback by a sort of softness in his face that was difficult to understand. Thus he agreed to meet with Štěpán the following day at the same time and place, to gain some time to think it over and ask around. Bruno didn’t need to know the twists and turns of Štěpán’s life, he couldn’t care less how many lovers he’d had and what his girlfriend looked like; he didn’t need to know what he did in his free time. He only needed to ease the doubt that had unexpectedly seized him. The hand that Štěpán had offered him as they parted increased his suspicions. It was soft, almost lifeless. He set off for the pubs to find out more.
The harbor was so full of strange types, complicated destinies, distinctive natives, foreigners burdened with their fascinating pasts, and other mysterious characters that Štěpán would have needed a strong personality to draw attention to himself. The inhabitants took notice of his existence for the first time after years of passing by. And it was with effort that they dug into their memories. Nonetheless an image was gradually created.
No one knew exactly when, how and why Štěpán had appeared in the harbor. He wasn’t there before, and then he was. People gradually took notice of his presence, depending where they went. They could catch sight of him at the marketplace, at a shopping center, in a bistro. Later, when they were used to him, they noticed him in the park or on the way to the train station.
At first he only impressed people with his clothing, which was just the type that people had normally worn in the harbor. Twenty years earlier. Štěpán was one generation behind the locals. It’s normal for an Indian to try to attract Indian women, a Moroccan Moroccan women, and an Italian Italian women, and his clothing also fits this. It’s easy to see where a person comes from by his clothing. You could say that Štěpán was seducing the locals of his mother’s generation. Even if seduce is slightly too strong a word. You could say more precisely, make an impression. Essentially it came down to what he felt comfortable wearing, because no one had ever seen him flirting, although even in the harbor, like anywhere else, love stories were a main source of interest. It took him five or six years before he set aside his checkered flannel shirts, army parka, blue jeans and suede shoes, in which he felt that he looked irresistible. But finally he was transformed into an attractive, if perhaps overly ostentatious man.
It was taboo in the harbor to ask about someone’s source of income. There were many people living there at the edge of the law and sometimes far beyond it. No one cared how someone paid his rent or what he drank at the bistro. Therefore Bruno Vandersarren had real difficulties in determining what Štěpán lived from. Only thanks to his good reputation and his well-applied diplomatic skills, he was able to come up with a certain result. The answers trickled out reluctantly. Štěpán’s main source of income was his wife, with whom he could be seen regularly leaving and returning to his home in the eastern part of the city. But it was nobody’s business, and no one commented on it either.
Only the oldest witnesses could remember that right after his arrival, in his initial zest Štěpán had made an effort to earn a living. Although he didn’t know how to do anything, he found a few part-time jobs from the locals. Dishwasher, stockman, doorkeeper, and mover were practically the only pursuits he could be entrusted with. But even these less demanding jobs ended in disaster. He ran away from all of them without bothering to inform anyone of the reason. One day he simply exploded, made a scene, slammed the door behind him and never returned. He managed to antagonize not only his bosses, but also the people who had arranged the work for him. In the end he didn’t trouble his benefactors with any gratitude. The regal generosity with which he accepted a helping hand deterred the remaining candidates for philanthropy.
In the meantime, Štěpán had married and fathered an offspring. No one had the slightest idea how he had met his wife. It was known only that she was local and had always shown an exclusive interest in foreigners.
When Bruno Vandersarren had reached this point in his investigation, it was clear to him that he couldn’t employ Štěpán. He couldn’t allow himself to take a guy on board who solved his problems by running away. At sea, it was much easier to handle a character flaw than laziness. Of course, it wasn’t pleasant to spend whole days with a cheat, a swindler, a braggart or a chronic liar, but if he did his job, you could handle it. But a weakling could completely break down the crew. And it made no difference if it was from laziness or just that he collapsed. Three months at sea are much longer than on dry land.
It was long past midnight and most of the dives were closing. Only someone who was truly familiar with the harbor would know where to go next. There was still some doubt in Bruno’s mind and he decided to continue his investigation, although his decision had already been made. Štěpán’s slow-wittedness and misunderstanding of the causes that had helped to keep him alive aroused something more in Bruno than sheer interest. They awakened a force that made him powerless and carried him somewhere into the unknown. Bruno was not the type of person to go beyond his assigned task. Štěpán didn’t create the impression of a hopeless case, or an unlucky lost soul, a castaway to whom you needed to throw a lifejacket. The almost complete absence of points of reference forced Bruno to ask around further, although he knew that the result would be unsatisfactory. But he couldn’t stop until he had the feeling that he had exhausted every possibility.
Because the harbor was such a favored refuge for people escaping from various regimes, a lot of former political prisoners lived here. Bruno Vandersarren learned from them that after his arrival, Štěpán was drawn to beings who lived in extreme conditions. He liked to visit them and talk. Former inmates of concentration camps, penitentiaries, prisons and other corrective institutions agreed that at one time Štěpán had been exceptionally interested in their past. But then his visits had suddenly stopped. They couldn’t explain it. Bruno, however, was beginning to feel that Štěpán had come to them to gather his strength. He had carefully searched for instructions, a solution and answer from them at the same time. He had looked for someone into whose care he could entrust himself without qualms. But the result was just more disappointment. Not even one of them showed a willingness to take him under their wings.
As the years went by, Štěpán’s shadowy existence had become an ordinary part of the local panopticon. His daily schedule was simple. He spent the mornings at home. In the afternoon he went shopping. In late afternoon he had the habit of stopping at a Turkish bar for a drink. In the evening, he roamed around the harbor. He kept company at a distance and didn’t expend any effort in making friends. More precisely, in his years in the harbor, he hadn’t made either friends or enemies.
Yet it wasn’t possible to call Štěpán an intractable loner. He was married, dispelling suspicion that he was a hermit. At the same time, because he was a father, his son’s classmates exchanged a few words with him occasionally. At irregular intervals he was visited by acquaintances who spoke to him in a language that no one in the harbor understood. Of course it was worth noticing that even the visits were continually rarer.
It could not be said, however, that Štěpán completely avoided people. There was just something in him that didn’t create the desire to get closer to him. Even in the dives where he was a regular customer, he sat to the side, as far as possible from where he might be at the risk of meeting people. When someone sat by him, he sometimes struck up a conversation, but in that case he gave the impression that it was disturbing him. He didn’t try to make any contact; it was always left to others to take the first step.
The problem was above all in the fact that it was hard to understand him. People in the harbor were used to the most diverse accents, mistakes, and mutilated language, they knew how to guess, from hints that would be incomprehensible elsewhere, what the person in question wanted to say, but there are limits that cannot be crossed. It was simply natural, and so everyone understood that at the beginning Štěpán needed time to learn the language. Even after eight years, he came up with such monstrous sentences that even with the greatest willpower, you still couldn’t understand what he really meant. And this willpower had slowly but certainly vanished. When people determined that he wasn’t able to exert the slightest effort to learn the language, they also stopped trying.
Understandably, his passive vocabulary grew over time, but it had no effect on Štěpán’s expression. Any time the discussion went beyond the framework of ordinary understanding, his broken speech became incomprehensible. Obviously he tried sometimes, notably under the effect of alcohol, to communicate something, but the content of his communication remained a mystery. The only thing that was clear was what had not been put into words. It was beyond human power to understand if he had been marked by some trauma or tragic past, or just by laziness and stupidity.
Nothing could be determined about the period before his arrival or about the causes that had led him to the harbor, because the only source of information was Štěpán himself. But even if he tried to convey something from his past, the information was so muddled that the most curious listener gave up the attempt to decode it. The cause of this was not simply his weak knowledge of the language. The confusion in his head would have been difficult to follow even if the listener spoke Štěpán’s native tongue. He didn’t finish his sentences, jumped from one topic to another, discussed banal topics with a passionate expression and made perplexing allusions. Following the theme of his talk was prevented above all by things which he took, with unshakeable certainty, as perfectly understandable and commonly human. It didn’t occur to him that his listeners had different experiences and that the same word can be translated with a different meaning. Even if he was drunk, he jabbered away constantly and it wasn’t possible to stop him.
Štěpán had one talent that no one denied. He had an amazing ability to reshape the past so that he came out of it as the winner. Even when he was speaking with a direct witness of the events described, he had no difficulty in altering the facts so they came out in his favor. It wasn’t possible to call him a liar, because he really believed his inventions. Because he was a master of shaping reality according to his changing needs, nothing prevented him from describing his far-reaching plans to anyone who could decode his speech. He was so devoid of any self-doubt that even his incomprehensible speech didn’t prevent him from presenting himself as a journalist. But it was enough that there was a TV report on gold-diggers, and he was convinced that he had found the way to extricate himself from poverty. Another time, he considered starting a company for distributing fish, although he had no experience with fishing. His plans were numerous, surprising, far-ranging and revolutionary. Of course, to try to bring one of these to fruition was beneath Štěpán’s level. He was satisfied with the conviction that nothing was impossible for him. He had a dizzying ability to deceive himself. He didn’t allow a shadow of a doubt that might disturb the image he had created of himself. In his own eyes, he was either a victim who deserved understanding, or an admirable guy gifted with almost superhuman abilities. There was nothing in between. It was hardly surprising that no one stayed around him for long. His individual parts could be tolerated more or less, but when they were combined in a single whole, Štěpán became unbearable and – what was even worse – boring and indigestible.
Strangely, it didn’t matter to Štěpán that people had started to avoid him. Although his bleating produced only individual words without any general meaning, the expression on his pleasant face mainly expressed self-satisfaction. Because he passably understood his listeners, he lived in the conviction that his speech was also clear and lucid. From the words that you could catch, it seemed that he was concerned exclusively with serious matters. Politics, art, religion were all familiar to him. At the same time, he was a man of firm moral principles, which he didn’t hesitate to share with anyone who could listen to his stammering babble. Naturally he didn’t bother to explain where these principles had come from, because it was clear in his head. Alas, only in his. At the same time he did not hide his sufferings. He suffered responsibly, as befits a born sufferer: constantly, heroically and honorably. His sensitive soul was saddened by earthquakes, epidemics, famines, wars, poverty, dictatorships. His life certainly hadn’t been easy. Because he had been touched by all kinds of villainy and hurt by every sort of vulgarity, he dreamed of an artificial world of immaculate purity. Purity was his keyword, and he pronounced it more or less comprehensibly. When he wanted to praise someone, he announced that he was pure. He didn’t even shrink from the word freedom. In fact he liked to speak of it, often, bombastically, and with conviction. He asked profound questions with pleasure. So profound that after a few outbursts, the people around him were usually overtaken with dizziness and moved elsewhere. The observers agreed that Štěpán liked to be listened to but couldn’t stand it when someone told him what he should do. But none of them had ever caught him lifting a finger to make himself independent. The backdrop and the actors changed over the years, but the play remained dismally the same. His high-flown speeches about freedom only confirmed his horror of narrow-minded independence, from which he took shelter. The question was where. The answer to this simple question was beyond the power of the witnesses. Not a single one of them had glimpsed the slightest sign of passion or obsession which would counterbalance the conflict or create some kind of incomprehensible substitute. Štěpán did not act either as a devotee of the family or an announcer of the rules, either as a proponent of utopia or a defender of fate, either as an admirer of action, or a prophet of the apocalypse. It was hardly possible to say what excited him, after years of meeting him and passing him by. From where Štěpán drew the uplifting feeling of superiority that regularly flashed in his speech remained an impenetrable mystery.
The harbor was not a place where someone would frown at alcohol. Drunkenness was an inseparable part of the local lifestyle. The bars were open from morning until night, famous drinking bouts and sprees were among the favorite topics of conversation. Thus it seemed suspicious to Bruno how often the witnesses mentioned Štěpán’s drunken episodes. He didn’t give the impression of being a drunkard at all. On the contrary, a completely indisputable calm emanated from him. Yet at least once every two months he drank so much that he couldn’t see what he was doing. His systematic drinking suggested many things about where he came from, but it didn’t bring a definitive answer. In this state he broke lights, overturned ashtrays, kicked the rear-view mirrors of cars, scuffled with police. When he was able to start a fight, he usually ran off before he could get a punch in the mouth. Even in arguments, he was only able to put up a fight when he was in a state that he had no chance of remembering anything the next day. His vomiting, snoring on park benches, and bursts of aggression had become an inseparable part of the nightlife of the harbor. The conflict between the chaos in his head and his outward appearance was so amazing that it deserved admiration, if someone who was able to praise it had found himself nearby. The unlucky thing was that the inhabitants of the harbor had their own troubles. Regular drinking was simply a means for him to vent. As soon as Štěpán had gotten rid of this excess pressure, he set about loafing with renewed gusto.
It was daybreak, Bruno walked down an alley where dogs dictated their needs to their masters, and he was astonished. Although no one knew where Štěpán came from, it was clear that in his homeland, a person was neither the master of his destiny, nor was he subject to natural disasters that allowed him to reveal hidden powers. Each of the witnesses added another piece to the mosaic which was so clear that it would be difficult to admit that it could be true. All of the observations that Bruno was able to gather led to a single conclusion. Štěpán had never given himself a single task, had never set out in a single direction, had never tried to overcome a single obstacle. He had let himself be carried by circumstances, dragged by opportunities, he had floated through life without the slightest attempt to resist the current that was carrying him. Defiance was a word that went against his nature. No one mentioned him having the slightest sign of resistance or resolve. Štěpán’s colorless life lacked even failure, which would have lent it some sort of human dimension. His plans were mere games that could not be taken seriously. His lack of willpower was almost enviable, because it allowed him to be satisfied with anything. None of the people Bruno had asked about Štěpán could remember him showing the slightest doubt in his own abilities. This made it easier for him to reflect on the world in which he had been destined to live. Oddly he didn’t avoid these conflicts, as shown by his outbursts of aggression when he was drunk, as long as these weren’t part of a wider strategy that escaped Bruno.
Everyone who knew Štěpán was strangely consistent. People discussed him without interest. It was clear that they didn’t have the slightest personal connection with him after years of passing him by. At the very most, Štěpán inspired a patient smile or a helpless shrug. Even malicious tongues had no idea about a lover or a hobby. That is, if you didn’t count shallow moralizing as a hobby. In the flow of their speech, some scraps of memory rose to the surface, but Štěpán appeared in all of them as so void of character that something in Bruno refused to accept that such an inhospitable life could exist. When he was able to gather an adequate number of testimonials, he started to squirm. It couldn’t be said that Štěpán’s story had affected him, because you couldn’t call it a story. The lack of any personality was so limitless that it acted as a whirlpool that pulled him in with ever greater force.
The sleepless night started to announce his weariness, but there was no question of sleeping. Bruno needed time for the things he had learned to find their proper place and form a shape. At noon it was already clear that Štěpán was only a pitiable, obvious wretch without any secrets. The closer it came to the meeting time, the more repellent Štěpán was to Vandersarren. A dull weakling, who had been lucky for his whole life. Cowardice and conformism unexpectedly merged. There was nothing left for Štěpán but to steal strangers’ lives and distort the past, so he could stand himself. He had gotten a chance that he hadn’t taken advantage of. A coward, of whom it could only be acknowledged that he had the courage to be ridiculous. He brought nothing, he had nothing that he could offer in exchange, and – what was even stranger – it never occurred to him that he should have something to offer. He only accepted gifts and took them for granted, perhaps as some kind of payment of debt for being in the world. As if his colorless and shapeless existence was a sufficient reason for other people to make a fuss over him. If they didn’t do so, he considered them callous and contemptible. While he had entered the second half of his life, he remained a crybaby before whom roads were opening for the first time. Old age was approaching and Štěpán had nothing that would fill it up. Bruno shivered unwittingly in horror.
That didn’t mean, however, that Štěpán didn’t deserve a kind of twisted admiration. Just for floating through life without learning some things that were a normal part of it, he deserved at least some recognition. Štěpán’s constant escape from it made him in his own way a cripple. It didn’t even occur to him that people around him could perceive him as a pitiable loser. In the depths of his soul, he yearned for recognition, and because he didn’t receive it, he was disappointed and transferred his disappointment to the whole harbor. But he couldn’t leave, because he wouldn’t have made it anywhere else. Since he couldn’t get ahead, since he had nothing to offer, to make other people appreciate him, he put them in the category of unfeeling dunces.
In addition, he was lacking in shame. He wasn’t ashamed of being ridiculed and humiliated. For example, Štěpán had no problem in skipping out on the job at the moment he started to feel tired. He didn’t mind shamelessly showing his wounds to people whose past was full of real tragedy. Just as his stuttering speech didn’t push him to learn the language, even contempt didn’t push him to change anything. When he had arrived at the harbor, he had been freshly dug up from some distant province. At that time he still had an excuse. Over the following years, he had squandered the understanding that had been generously offered to him at the beginning by people around him. He got through life only with the help of women, but even as a gigolo he didn’t make it. He slept most of the day and bumbled through the rest of it as best he could.
It wasn’t surprising that Štěpán constantly searched for an authority in whose shadow he could finally lay himself down and take a little rest from his exhausting life. In that regard, however, he was unlucky. It was a bad time which didn’t even offer the comfort of tradition, or the escape to a utopia which it wouldn’t be shameful to join. There were even very few charismatic leaders. While this allowed Štěpán to expand his list of complaints, it didn’t resolve the situation.
The slamming door, the dirty tablecloth, the draft, the sound of the slot machine, this time, a fat woman behind the bar. When Bruno Vandersarren reached the meeting the following evening, Štěpán was waiting for him.
The sagging shoulders, the scarf around his throat, the uncertain smile on his face, the deep voice. If his face expressed anything, it was a questioning guiltiness. There was someone of a whipped dog about him. This made Bruno’s task even harder. The inner conviction that he had a weakling before him was unbreakable. Even if he had conquered this feeling and hired Štěpán, he would have done him a disservice. He couldn’t allow himself to take a coward on board a ship who couldn’t escape the moment he got into a situation over his head. There was no sense in beating around the bush, but when he tried to say why he couldn’t hire him, he didn’t feel at ease. He babbled something about the sea and fish and craftsmanship and he could see that Štěpán didn’t believe him. Even if he took into account that some of the witnesses were wrong or had some accounts to settle with Štěpán, he had seen too many of them for the image to have been entirely false. It would have been possible to fill in things even longer, but the fact that he had before him a guy at the prime of life, longing in vain for recognition and simply unable to attain it, wouldn’t really have changed anything. Štěpán took the refusal calmly, almost indifferently. He didn’t try to convince Bruno, or to show him why he should take him on the ship. Although Bruno Vandersarren had no idea what had really led him to offer his services, he had gathered enough reasons to reject them. He didn’t know how badly Štěpán needed money, but he couldn’t risk it. He didn’t know how to express his regret to this guy who was sentenced to live, because he doubted whether Štěpán would be able to understand it. In one respect Štěpán was right. He really was a victim of an irreversible injustice, at least in the sense that he had been thrown into an overly complicated world, in which he didn’t have the slightest chance to orient himself with his weak mental abilities. And it was remarkable that he had withdrawn into an almost invisible seclusion. Although he had nothing with which to succeed, at least he didn’t do any harm. Even the greatest attempt could not have broken through the armor of narrow-mindedness in which the cruelty of nature had enclosed him. Unable to see that he wasn’t lacking anything, worried by the problems of the world, which didn’t concern him, he was drowning in the feelings that smothered him. Štěpán was an unlucky soul, who wasn’t able to pull himself out of his problems with his own powers. There was no solution for him and no one could give him a helping hand.
Like the others whom he had asked about Štěpán, Bruno felt neither hatred nor friendship toward him. But he was the only one whom circumstances had forced to be concerned with him for a little while. He felt helpless. And his perplexity gradually changed into a dislike that became more and more difficult to conceal. But it wasn’t Bruno’s task to look into the causes of Štěpán’s problems and resolve them. What’s more, the testimony had given him the impression that Štěpán was happy in his misfortune. Štěpán was lucky that he didn’t see the wasteland of years stretching out before him. It left a bad taste in Bruno’s mouth, it wasn’t in his nature to leave someone in the lurch, but his captain’s duties were above all to look out for the success of his fishing and the well-being of his crew.
Nonetheless he felt some remnants of doubt. They disappeared later at the end of the fishing season, when he saw Štěpán a few times. Štěpán acted as if he didn’t see him, or crossed to the opposite sidewalk.
When Štěpán disappeared without saying goodbye one day after living in the harbor for twenty-one years, Bruno Vandersarren was the only one who remembered him now and then. For the others, he hadn’t left even a blank space behind.
LUBOMÍR MARTÍNEK was born in 1954 in České Budějovice, in then Czechoslovakia. He was educated at a college of engineering, was a factory worker and a stagehand before emigrating to France in 1979, where he had a string of jobs (among other things, social services helper, design engineer, driver, interior decorator, interpreter, shipbuilder and sailor). In Paris he collaborated with Jiří Kolář on Revue K. Since 1989 he has lived alternately in Bohemia and Paris.
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.