The following is an excerpt from Chapter 17 of Jiri Pilucha’s novel Se srpem v zádech (tentative English title: Sickle to my stomach), published in Czech by Dokořán. This excerpt has been translated into English by Alex Zucker. The English translation has not yet been published.
N.B. Wherever *** occur in the text, they have been put there by the editors of the SRL and not by author Jiri Pilucha. This is only to make the text easier to read in an online format. Pilucha uses double line breaks to separate sections of text.
All that was left was for me to finish one important thing, the most important thing of all, in fact, that would close the circle, making it whole. My first book. It was written already, but waiting to be bound. I wanted it to be lying on the table in front of me, between hard covers, tangible, real—the first thing in my life that was truly finished, that you could pick up in your hand and look through. I reserved the next free date at Pydlík’s book bindery.
On the way there, in the subway, I read through the best parts for the umpteenth time. I couldn’t resist. I flipped back and forth through the typewritten pages, chuckling excitedly to myself: Hey, this thing’s great. Míra and Liquor Boy are gonna laugh their asses off. And: This really came out good. I can’t quite believe it.
To get to Pydlík’s from the subway, you walk down a dark street for a little way. Then take hold of the door handle—the door itself’s a little tough, it scrapes against the cobblestone, so you have to lean into it—the super oughta raise it up a little. Elevator isn’t running, as usual—tough luck for my lungs. I haven’t been smoking that long, maybe a year or two, but still, climbing those five flights I practically need an oxygen tank.
From downstairs I hear the sound of the door scrape again, then another unfortunate soul huffing and panting behind me. His lungs can’t handle it either . . . or maybe he’s obese. I buzz Pydlík’s
buzzer, he opens up—and a breathless voice calls out from landing beneath us: “Excuse me, excuse me! Hello, could you wait up? Come quick. It’s important.”
I give Pydlík an apologetic look: “Be right back.”
He shrugs, shuts the door, and I head down a flight.
Wow, he really is obese. Greasy hair and cheap glasses.
This isn’t the idiot who caught me the other week at Smichov train station. The recognition comes quickly, along with total paralysis.
“Could you show me yours first?” I manage to get out, buying myself a few more seconds.
“Why of course, as you like.”
He waves a card in front of my face, but I can’t tell what it says.
I pull out my ID.
“Now the bag. Show me what you have in the bag.”
An attempt at heroism: “First show me your warrant.”
Greaseball jabs a finger into my chest and goes off: “If you want me to take you in, just keep on making problems, got it? Otherwise shut your mouth.”
I pull my book from my bag.
“Hmmm. You’re a in a heap of shit, young man.”
“Why would I be in a heap of shit?”
He fires back, blindly: “You know very well that book’s on the forbidden list.”
A golden opportunity. Even frozen with fear, Pilstein couldn’t resist: “Well, I guess I’m better than I thought. I just finished it yesterday and it’s already banned.”
This only slightly ruffled him. “You wrote that? That’s even worse.”
“This is the only copy, though. It isn’t distributed.”
“You think we don’t know how to make more? You’re up the creek, my friend.”
My mind went blank.
“Of course, I’m no fan of drastic measures,” he went on. “There’s always a way to reach an agreement.”
Right. This is like some bad satire. I gave him a puzzled look.
“The two of us need to have a nice, quiet talk. I’ll come by your school tomorrow. What time is best?”
“I’m pretty busy. On Saturday I start army service.”
“I’ll come at the break.”
“All right then . . . could you give me back the book meanwhile?”
He shoved it in his briefcase and started down the stairs.
“Oh yeah, and one other thing,” he said over his shoulder. “Don’t say anything to the bookbinders upstairs.”
Bookbinders. I see.
Pydlík took a bottle of lemon vodka out of the cupboard.
“Have a shot.”
I was having a hard time breathing.
“Have another. Don’t worry, relax. You’ll go see Bobik. He’ll know what to do.”
Pydlík dialed the number: “Hi, Bobik. I got a friend I’m sending over. He needs some advice.”
He explained how to get there. “Then go home and take a look whether it might be a good idea to move some stuff out of your flat. Just in case.”
Jesus Christ, this’ll take all night.
I forgot to tell him that he should, too.
Bobik put a bottle of Becherovka on the table. “Have a drink and tell me about it.”
He wanted to know all the details. How the whole thing went down. What he said, what I answered . . . and what compromising stuff did I say about who in my book.
Hm. All right then. Tomorrow it would be better for me to say x, y, and z. Bobik ran through all the possible outcomes. And told me to hide my typewriter well. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to make any copies, every machine can be identified by its keystrokes.
“But I wrote this on more than one typewriter.”
I could already see myself sneaking into the staff room to swipe that heavy-ass piece of equipment they keep in there. I’d written several chapters on it, evenings, after work.
“That’s okay, one is enough. That should keep you safe. You’re lucky.
That was very smart, doing just one copy.”
It’s funny how fast your fear can turn into defiance. “Thanks a lot,” I said. “But what if they don’t give it back?”
“Well, son, you’ll just have to get over it. Yeah, I know exactly how you feel. They took a manuscript of poems that I’d been working on for six years. Six years.”
Get over it? How in the hell was I supposed to do that? The first thing in my life that I’d finished—and I would never see it again. Just like the Teacher of Nations, Comenius. He managed to get all his manuscripts out of the country but they all burned up in the Great Fire of Leszno. He was never the same after that. Drank himself to death, I think.
Liquor Boy helped me carry all the stuff out of my flat. My estimate was correct: it really did take all night.
“Just take it somewhere, and don’t tell me where. It’s better for me not to know,” I said.
A couple years from now I’ll find out he just went and stuck it in Míra’s attic. Now that would be really slick.
My man was waiting in front of the staff room. I came out of the classroom with my arms full of stuffed animals. My students—all girls—had said good-bye, and some even promised to come visit.
“Ah, there you are. Come have a seat here behind the curtain.”
That was our smoking lounge. I could tell right away that he wasn’t feeling as confident as the day before. He didn’t issue any more threats. It was obvious that he realized he didn’t have anything on
“So, I read that book of yours. It’s actually pretty good, you know. I’ll tell you something: I could arrange for it to be published. You don’t have a chance otherwise. Without my help, it’ll never get
Jesus, what a loser. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t scared at all anymore, but I was beginning to feel I had the upper hand. Just let him beg me!
“It would be advantageous for both of us,” he went on. “You could also be useful to me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You know lots of people.”
“Me? I hardly know anyone.”
“Oh, come on. I know you do.”
“But what does it matter who I know?”
“It matters because you could tell me about them.”
I acted surprised: “Oooh, so that’s what you mean! Well, I’m not the right person for that.”
“Sure you are! Sure! In fact, you’re exactly the right person for that!”
“Anyway, it’s too late. On Saturday I’m going away to the army for a year.”
“That’s all right. We can work together when you get out.”
“I can’t make any promises.”
“You’ll see. I’ll come find you again in a year.”
“Who knows what could happen in a year.”
I was just bluffing. Maybe I had a vague idea that there was some sort of change in the air, but I didn’t really have anything particular in mind.
“I know exactly what will happen.”
He got up and offered me a sweaty hand. I let it hang in the air.
Oh… one more thing. “You forgot to return me my book.”
I no longer had the upper hand. He grinned and walked away.
I thought about how our conversation might have gone if he’d said: “What if I offered you a waiver from the army?” Or: “Just think it over. You never know what funny accidents could happen while you’re in the service.”
Jiri Pilucha is a Czech writer and translator. For his literary debut (Hádala se duše s pérem, or Screw and Pray – a piece of grotesque moral-theological pornography subtitled Sex and God and Rock’n’Roll), he chose a pen name Jiri Puluh-Pilstein. Afterwards he published two books under the pen name Jiri Pilous: Se srpem v zádech, or Sickle to my Stomach, set in the former communist Czechoslovakia between the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Kudy ven, or Which Way Out, sketching mental and emotional histories in the subsequent transition from one historical epoch to the next. He lives in Prague.
Alex Zucker is a translator of Czech literature into English. He has translated novels by Miloslava Holubová, Jáchym Topol, Petra Hůlová, and Patrik Ouředník. His translation of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation, and was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. His forthcoming translations include Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street, and Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform. He lives in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY.