She was pathetic. I was so much more sophisticated. I couldn’t help sneering at her.
I said: “My God, to be with that woman is like keeping an eye on a bag full of rabbits while every one of them is trying to escape in all different directions.”
She said in the taxi: “You are so destructive, in a way. I wonder how any man can live with you for long.”
I thought: “Look who’s talking. Just look at YOURSELF!”
After the three days we spent together, I was so fed up with her that I deliberately got lost at Heathrow Airport just to avoid spending the last two hours in her company. When I finally surfaced at the gate, just in time to board the plane, she didn’t ask where I had been. She didn’t even look up at me. She was sitting there lifeless, a big sad lump of fat, almost crying.
“What happened?” I asked.
She pointed at a bright red bag crumpled at her feet and said: “I bought a bottle of whiskey. For 80 quid.”
Knowing by now her obsessive saving habits, I instantly seized on the proportions of the disaster. In London, 3 pounds for a bowl of soup was too much for her. So much in fact that she would have done without, if I hadn’t offered to pay. I didn’t have more money than she did.
“80 pounds? Why?”
She spent more on that bottle than two-thirds of the allowance Mrs. Skřivánková paid us in crisp new bills, in exchange for our signature, at her office at the Czech Ministry of Culture in Prague.
“There was a tasting. They made me to taste it and then…I thought it was really good. I didn’t know it was that expensive. Oh well,” she strove to put on some kind of spendthrift cheer. “I did save that money, didn’t I? And I will have a nice present for my daughter.”
I felt genuinely friendly towards her, when I said: “No way, Iva. You are going to drink yourself, drop by drop, like medicine.
Iva was a Czech writer. When her first book came out, in the mid 1980s, I was 14 or 15. I remember reading it on my way home from school (I always liked walking while reading) and being excited, not only because her stories were lively and touching, but because Iva’s collection was the first readable contemporary Czech work of fiction I ever came across in my life that could be borrowed from a library or bought in a shop. I even remember seeing her paperback being sold at newspaper stands in Prague, an unprecedented experiment probably carried out by some progressive branch of the Young Czech Communist League. Iva’s book was one of the then multiplying signs of Gorbachev’s Perestrojka in Czech culture. Her stories about women and girls were not exactly critical, but bleak and funny enough not to have gotten past the censors even a couple of years earlier.
The books by Czech authors that I grew up with, apart from inoffensive children’s books, were published up to the year 1969, or 1970 at the latest. Or in Samizdat. Or by exile publishing houses such as Škvorecký’s Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto and then smuggled to Prague.
I didn’t read Iva’s two next novels that came out after the revolution in 1989, but I did read the one that came out after that, the one that marked the beginning of her proclaimed feminism.
The novel’s title was Love, Love! and as far as I remember, it was a monologue of a woman trapped in a bad marriage. Clearly, the narrator was being psychologically abused but you couldn’t figure out what was actually going on and what was only happening in her aching mind. There were plenty of violent, surreal images, like that of her husband’s head (or was it hers?) being cut off and planted in a pot, where it was watered and cared for. As I am writing this, I realize it must have been her head, of course. That was the problem. The narrator did too much thinking and her husband didn’t approve of that, so he called her a sloppy housekeeper, a madwoman, a freak, all the usual stuff, and then he left her for somebody younger and dumber. Unless she left him, mobilizing all her strength and courage and moving out of the comfortable but sick arrangement.
The critics at the time hailed the book’s visceral feminism, the kind of feminism that went over well with Czechs-men and women. It was all right to howl and hurt, to clamber through the painful undergrowth of one’s emotions, even to show off some blood and slime. But the moment a feminist became political, she was asking for trouble. In fact, anything political was ridiculed in those early years after the revolution, when Czechs were fed up with politics and ideology in general. The political feminists got a lot of sneers, even from women. Especially from women, I would say; all those celebrities of the day, who proclaimed themselves non-feminist publicly, in interviews and on TV. There was a funny phrase they used to use: “I am not a feminist because I like men.”
I am not sure if Iva ever stepped over the red line and started to address issues like equal pay or parental leave. In any case, her next book, the autobiographical account of her life-saving romance with a Ukrainian worker, proved that indeed, Iva’s feminism melted away with the first taste of love. With all her head-cutting experience she continued to be so naïve it could make you weep. That big, middle-aged girl fell for some Vasil or Ivan and married him, thus granting him access to precious permanent residence papers. She even took his name and abandoned her own, the famous one. Well, in the Czech Republic she was famous. Women were opening their hearts to her in many letters, she had appeared on TV, she was the head of a creative writing program at the first private university in Prague.
Her “true” love was ridiculous and everybody knew how it would end, which didn’t save her any of the disappointment when the man left her the moment he obtained his papers.
When we met at the Prague Airport to travel together to the Edinburgh Literary Festival and then to London to present an anthology of short stories written by Czech women writers that had just come out in English translation, she still had her Ukrainian surname on her ID card. I happened to know because at some point she dropped her ID and would have left it on the ground had I not noticed and picked it up. I thought his surname worked rather well with her first name “Iva,” though by then their divorce was already under way.
The Edinburgh Literary Festival takes place in August, so it must have been in August that we traveled, but it was cold and rainy, and when we met at the airport Iva was wearing a pair of sandals. She said they were all she had. Her boots wouldn’t fit into her luggage; with a pair of socks they’ll do, she said.
I was slightly surprised, as she had called me two days before and insisted I pack a pair of proper walking shoes, because the Weather Channel predictions for the British Isles were for pouring rain and cold. In order to call me and tell me this, she must have contacted Mrs. Skřivánková at the Czech Ministry of Culture since she didn’t have my phone number and we had no common friends.
Still at the airport she realized she had forgotten to take her “dressy” pants. She did have a blouse , but it was to have gone with long black pants that had stayed at home. The pants she was wearing now were beige cotton crop pants with slightly baggy knees, the kind of pants you might wear for a picnic. Iva seemed to be taking it lightly.
The Czech Ministry of Culture, in charge of our airline tickets, proved itself highly resourceful. Which meant that to get to Edinburgh, we had to change planes twice. Iva was delighted, as on every plane we were served a drink and a sandwich. That was three sandwiches (white bun with cheese and/or salami) Iva put away that morning, plus one of mine. And she asked the stewardess if she had any buns left, yes, she had. Iva beamed. She would save those for later.
Of course, she wasn’t supposed to eat any white bread, fat cheese or salami, she confided in me, as she suffered from a severe form of diabetes. She showed me her case with insulin, syringe and her blood sugar measuring equipment.
The Edinburgh reading went fine. When it was over, the organizers showed us to a spacious tent, where the invited literary guests could refresh themselves with coffee and tea and several kinds of Scotch. Of course, if we had been in the Czech Republic, it would be Pilsner Urquell or Budweiser, but here it was whisky. Lovely, smoky taste. We had a couple of shots, although Iva said with her diabetes, she shouldn’t. After, she felt tired and headed for the hotel. I was finally free. Sarah, the young woman behind the anthology project, and I went to a bar in the center of Edinburgh where the barman was a handsome Slovak guy who said he loved living in Scotland as opposed to England. And he was not alone in this, he said, since most of his Slovak friends who worked in pubs and bars in Edinburgh had the same experience of feeling welcome here.
Next morning, the summer was back. The air was sparkling fresh and the sun poured down on Iva, Sarah and me as we pulled our bags toward the railway station. When we passed a playground, I thought of my little son, just two then, and how he would have enjoyed playing there on this wonderful morning.
Iva mused aloud over the surprisingly beneficial effect the whiskey she drank last night had on the sugar in her blood. Her morning blood-sugar levels were down to normal, well almost, which was miraculous given the amount of white bread, cheese and salami she had eaten the day before.
On the train, Iva nibbled on the rice cakes she had brought with her from Prague and talked about her creative writing teaching methods. She said her students were encouraged to start with a journey into their own hidden self. They spent many hours exploring their childhood experience, their desires and fears, before moving on to other things.
I recalled her Love, Love!, her own interior journey. It had been a liberating breakthrough for her, and now she was sharing it with her students, pushing them in the same direction. But the only thing she could have achieved with those 18, 19 year-olds, I thought, was that they would start emulating her style, rolling out their self-absorbed emotions and superfluous images in the unorganized way that once worked for her. But for them, now? Iva went on with her theory, saying the next step for her students was to write about the world outside with the same level of intensity.
“I tell them, if one tries hard enough, one can get into the things themselves. One can write what a tree feels, write the essence of a tree.”
With my background in philosophy I was inclined to challenge her notion of “things themselves,” but Iva was bulletproof and anyway was already moving ahead to another topic: her lonely life and cooking. She said now that she lives alone in her small prefab apartment on the outskirts of Prague (her old large comfortable apartment in the more chic part of the city having remained in the possession of her first husband) she doesn’t really care to cook for herself. She married young, had children young, and always had to attend to somebody. Now, she’s unmotivated, despite the fact that with her diabetes she should eat regularly and well. Just once in a while she’ll buy some chicken and vegetables and make herself a big Chinese meal that she’ll eat all by herself directly from the frying pan.
She really talked too much. She babbled away, happy not to be alone, to be with Sarah and me on the train, going from Edinburgh to London.
Sarah said goodbye at the railway station. She lived in London and was going home to have a little rest and to change clothes for the evening. She would be back at the Embassy just before our reading.
Iva and I were to be put up by Czech Cultural Center, which had at its disposal some rooms at the Czech Embassy, a prison-like, heavy structure of grey concrete, built in the late 1960’s on the borderline between Kensington and Notting Hill. The building featured a large conference hall, where we were going to have, that very night, the first of our two London appearances. The next day, we would read in a bookshop on The Strand and the day after that we would leave for Prague, which made our visit very brief.
Still, I was happy to be back after so many years, in that city that I once considered my second home, which I knew so well at 16, 17, and 18, when my great aunt was still alive. I loved London’s introverted charm, its shabbiness, its lush green parks and above all, its free museums. I could spend entire days alone in the British museum or the Tate, dreaming, learning; it was all very intense. And people would always compliment me on my English. It was nice to be back.
The female assistant to the Czech Cultural Center director was waiting for Iva and me to take us by taxi to the Embassy. She said His Excellency the Ambassador would receive us first, then she would show us to our room. She hoped we did’t mind sharing.
Iva said of course, with pleasure.
I was mortified. I needed a rest. I needed to be alone. I couldn’t bear Iva’s continuous presence.
“If possible,” I said, “I would really prefer to sleep alone.”
When we arrived and Iva went to the toilet, I said to the assistant: “Look, if you don’t find a spare room for me, I am going to sleep on a bench in Kensington Palace Gardens. I mean it. It is as bad as that.”
“Oh,” she said. “We thought since you are two ladies and both writers…. Well, never mind. I will see what I can do.”
She was back in no time, and yes, I would have a room of my own.
The truth was, there was plenty of room. They just wanted to save on cleaning.
With that danger averted, we went on to meet His Excellency the Ambassador. And I quietly endured another hour of Iva’s boasting.
The literary event that evening was festive. The conference hall, decorated by glass elements from the workshop of famous René Roubíček, was full. There were many bright young people, no doubt friends and acquaintances of Sarah’s. Not the usual crowd at the Czech Cultural Center events, I could guess that much from the look of surprise on the director’s face.
After the reading, there was some wine and crackers and when those were gone, the director invited a whole bunch of us for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.
Besides Iva, myself and Sarah, there was his assistant, two translators, one of them very old and highly esteemed, and a youngish friend of Czech culture, whose profession or name I forgot, but with whom I would close the evening drinking beer at some bar. There was another Czech author, Hana, who at the time lived in London, supporting herself with some terrible menial job. Hana was well-known in the Czech Republic, where she could certainly have made her living in a more suitable way, let’s say in journalism. She preferred London.
Hana was Iva’s old friend and Iva asked the director if Hana could join us for dinner. He couldn’t say no, although by then, Hana was already drunk, her round face gleaming red.
On the way to the restaurant, Iva took me aside and said: “Should Hana ask you to put her up for the night, make sure to say no. She would be in your bed in no time. She is quite a drag really, a man eater but she likes women too and I noticed her eyeing you.”
No need to warn me. After having warded off sharing with Iva I was certainly not going to put up this elderly bisexual nymphomaniac, whose hot erotic stories I remember reading in an underground literary magazine at approximately the same time I discovered Iva’s first officially published book.
Hana was wild even by the standards of the Czech underground, which was far from prudish. She had emigrated young to United States, where she made her living as a barmaid in New York City. That was what her first novel was about. She returned to the Czech Republic after the revolution and wrote some more books, did some translations and contributed to different journals. But as time went by, she wasn’t able to find any fresh lovers. The Czech Republic is small. So she traveled all the way to Africa and brought back a nice, quiet black boy, who, when his time was up, ran away. After which Hana wrote a book about her sexual awakening in Africa and disappeared to London. According to Iva, in whom Hana confided, she chose London for its bottomless reserve of young black men.
She was short and fat, with a big graying mane of hair.
In the restaurant, Iva and Hana kept apart from the others. Iva was probably nervous about bringing her friend along. Fearing she might do or say something akward, she kept hushing her. She also was nervous about ordering her food. Not wanting to order anything too expensive or too cheap, she asked me what I was having and had the same.
In the end, while the director was paying, Iva and Hana emptied both of the table’s bread baskets.
“For breakfast,” Iva whispered in my ear. “Take some too. Why leave it behind?” She pocketed the slices of bread without wrapping them in a napkin. She was discreet about it, her instinct that of a poor traveler from the East in a rich Western country. But Hana was an old punk rocker and she stuffed her pockets with proud defiance.
It was getting very late and Hana had a long way to travel to her suburb. Iva kindly offered to put her up, giving me a little nod which meant to say: “Don’t worry, I know how to defend myself.”
Not that I cared.
The next day it was summer again, a lovely morning. I got up early and snuck out unseen. I walked through the city, its gardens, all the way to the center, where in one coffee shop I bought myself coffee, orange juice and a sandwich. The thought of those slices of bread Iva and Hana were having for breakfast passed through my mind and I wondered why Iva was doing all this. As the head of a department at a private university, she must have had a decent salary. Her books sold well. And she wrote for TV. She lived alone in her small apartment on the outskirts of Prague, both her children were grown-up now, working. Why would she want to eat stale bread stolen from a restaurant instead of treating herself to a normal breakfast?
With only a few hours left to myself (I had to be back around 5pm to get ready for the reading) I decided to visit my beloved British Museum. It was as great as ever; the only thing that disappointed me was that people no longer complimented me on my English. When I opened my mouth, the Londoners presumed I was Polish and when I said I was Czech, they didn’t seem to know the difference. One could see that they were fed up with all the cheap labor from Eastern Europe. Our accents were no longer exotic, nor were we as attractive as we used to be when safely tucked away behind our Iron Curtain.
For the first time in my life, that summer in London, I felt like a second class citizen, a member of a club that didn’t want me.
I knocked on Iva’s door a few minutes before 6pm. She was ready. We thought it wise to leave early as we were not sure how long the trip would take. Sarah, who was to meet us at the bookshop, printed out a map for us from Google and drew a bright yellow green circle around the Charing Cross tube station and the bookstore itself.
While getting out at Charing Cross, Iva hesitated before sliding her one-way ticket into the turnstile. She suspected treason and she was right; the machine let Iva out but swallowed her ticket.
Iva banged the machine with her fists and almost screamed. She looked around for help. Without the ticket, she would not get her money back from Mrs. Skřivánková at the Czech Ministry of Culture, who had said clearly: “Be sure to keep all your travel documents such as underground and bus tickets, so that we can reimburse you when you come back.” As I refused to go with her and look for an employee to whom she could complain and as we were running late, Iva gave up, but said that under these circumstances, she would take a taxi home. There at least, she could keep the receipt for Mrs. Skřivánková, who actually encouraged her to take a taxi, should the necessity arise.
Once out of the tube , on a busy street, we had to stop and consult our map.
There were two men standing next to us, apparently doing the same thing. They too had their printed Google map with its bright yellow green circles and had been discussing which way to go.
They were smartly dressed and handsome in the way young men in finance and young lawyers are. All clean and square jawed. Their yellow green circle most likely marked a bar where another young man from their office was throwing a stag party. Or a bar where they were going to drink some beer and shots with other clean and square jawed men with promising careers in finance or law.
But Iva thought otherwise. Glimpsing their Google map, so similar to ours, the poor woman thought the men were going to our reading. She gleamed with pride but was too shy to approach them directly. She pulled my sleeve and discreetly pointed in their direction. “You see?”
I didn’t feel like disappointing her so I said: “You think? Really?”, glad that her loss of two pounds fifty had been forgotten.
After the reading, Sarah, her boyfriend, Iva and myself went for a beer. Sarah apologized: the funds of Czech Cultural Center have been exhausted for the moment, she couldn’t treat us for dinner today. But she would, at least, buy us a drink.
As I suspected that she is paying out of her own pocket, I wouldn’t let her get us a second round, although Iva was calling for it. We certainly could pay for our own beer.
Then we went home. By taxi, as Iva had planned. She offered to take me and pay the fare, confident of Mrs. Skřivánková’s promise.
It was Friday night and the city was jammed. We moved very slowly from one traffic light to the next. At times we stopped all together and waited for a long while; I really regretted not having taken the tube home.
But Iva was determined not to lose any more money and besides, she was in no hurry at all. She enjoyed being stuck with me in that taxi and was going to take full advantage of the situation. Now that she had me cornered, she could talk.
I think this was the moment when I hated her most.
She started to expose me to all her thoughts based on her observations of me the past three days.
She said: “You really should start going into yourself, you know? Without that, you are stuck, you won’t be able to move any further in life or writing.”
But I had no problem, I was fine! I had my man at home taking care of my son. I was still attractive enough to be asked out by a youngish friend of Czech culture. And, that coming fall, I was going to publish my first novel that, I was confident, was good. Perhaps better than anything she had ever written, including her stories. How dare she?
She went on. About my loud confidence which betrayed my hidden insecurity. About my inner chaos.
I didn’t respond to her. Instead, I watched the red numbers climbing on the taxi meter and hoped Mrs. Skřivánková would refuse to reimburse Iva’s excessive bill.
Yet, the next day at the airport, when she bought that overpriced bottle, I did feel sorry for her.
You only had to see her fretting, eating her rice crisps and stale bread, banging at that turnstile, to understand what she had done to herself. What a powerful destructive force she had been to her own life.
It was also clear at the airport that she had done it again. And it was this repetition that had broken her, I am sure. To hell with 80 pounds. Her sandals, her forgotten dressy pants, all that suddenly made sense to me. There was no way out of it, she was too old to change. And she knew it.
I didn’t see Iva after our trip to Great Britain. Not that I avoided her, but our lives had no crossing points.
Some time later, I started to work full time as cultural editor in a weekly magazine in Prague. I broke up with the father of my son, thinking our estrangement had been all his fault.
It was the summer of our separation that I had learned of Iva’s death. I ran out of the office, up the stairs, where I collapsed, crying.
It hurt to think of Iva dead in her lonely little apartment on the outskirts of Prague. A blood vessel broken in her brain. The ultimate act of self-destruction.
After four or five years, I married again, and had more kids. I went to live in United States and then in France. I have been exposed to many new things, but curiously, I’ve remained the same.
The same old things follow me around. The same frictions, the same conflicts; no, it’s not enough to change the man.
Sometimes, I look at myself and feel vertigo. Who are all these contradictory people who, just by habit, I call “myself”?
Then, I think of Iva. Is that where it will end?
MAGDALÉNA PLATZOVÁ is the author of six books, including two novels published in English: Aaron’s Leap, a Lidové Noviny Book of the Year Award finalist, and The Attempt, a Czech Book Award finalist. Her fiction has also appeared in A Public Space, Words Without Borders and Two Lines. Platzová grew up in the Czech Republic, studied in Washington, DC, and England, received her MA in Philosophy at Charles University in Prague, and has taught at New York University’s Gallatin School. She is now a freelance journalist based in Lyon, France.
“Iva”, edited by Michael Stein and Erika Goldman, is Platzová’s first work written originally in English.