The Past: a story by Michal Ajvaz

The Past

I’m sitting at the Slavia, people-watching. In one corner I recognize the pointed bird-like profile of the man who one stormy night, Malay dagger in hand, chased me past locked compartments along empty corridors of the Orient Express. I recall his long night-shirt flashing intermittently with the lightning, the curtains fluttering through the open windows and whipping me in the face. How long ago was it? Five years, maybe ten. What was our quarrel about anyway? Something to do with rubies buried in a snow-drift in the woods, I think, or whether linguistic signs are motivated. That woman over there, thoughtfully combing her wavy red locks, their quivering ends sparkling in the low, October-afternoon sun, lived with me for seven years in a squalid house built on concrete stilts in the middle of a rotting lake surrounded on all sides by a jungle, a house with empty rooms and white walls covered with eerie maps of mould, a house where the sound of dripping water never ceased and where we whiled away the evenings on the terrace, gazing out at the water’s cold surface and the darkening jungle, listening to the screeching of the beasts, and talking of the life we would live once we were back in Europe. The man arguing with the waiter at the bar is a friend from my days in Freiburg in Breisgau, the one I collaborated with on Grundstrukturen der Wirklichkeit, a thousand-page tome we were certain would turn philosophy on its ear and rank as the most important contribution to the field since Aristotle (as it happened, the sole copy of the manuscript was ingested by a crocodile under circumstances I can’t quite recall). I see a few more faces familiar from various catacombs, Buddhist monasteries, and a night spent on the narrow, eightieth-story ledge of a skyscraper above a sleeping city; I see faces I have knows in the throes of ecstasy, eyes I have met at the bottom of the sea staring out ominously through a diving suit. But now we pretend not to know one another: we don’t say hello; we do our best to avoid one another’s eyes, though we each try to steal a glance at the other when we think the other isn’t looking.

Sometimes – quite often, actually – I get into ticklish situations. Once I asked a friend to come to the Slavia after a meeting she’d had with some television people. She appeared in the glass door with a man of about forty-five with short hair brushed down over his forehead. Czech-intellectual style. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. They spotted my table, and my friend introduced him. “I want you to meet M. He’s with Kratky Film.” Suddenly it came to me: he was a man I’d spent a whole day fighting to the death. We were in a ghost city in a marble square dotted with fountains. It was terribly, numbingly hot; the sun beat mercilessly on our heads. The only sound in the empty square came from the jets of water in the fountains and the blows of our heavy swords and their echoes as the ricocheted off the palatial facades and monotonous rows of Corinthian columns. I could tell he recognized me too. We gave each other wry smiles, shook each other’s limp hands, and mumbled a word or two. How awful these showdowns with ghosts of an unbridled past” We tried not to let it show, but carrying on a conversation proved a greater torture than battling it out on the sun-scorched marble. Instead of talking directly, we went through our friend, resorting to the most complex devices to avoid addressing each other and keep out eyes from meeting, but every once in a while I stole a glance at him and behind the lost, purple face caught a glimpse of the hard samurai features silhouetted against the white colonnade. He had worn a pointed gold helmet somewhat like a large radish in form. It shone in the sun, its malevolent lustre burning my weary eyes.

The miserable conversation centred on a dachshund cartoon he was working on. The samurai/script writer started rummaging in his briefcase for his script, but because I made him nervous he had trouble finding it and kept pulling out crumpled sheets of paper, piling them on the table with trembling hands that swept them onto the floor. And to top it all off what should fall out of the briefcase but the gold radish helmet, ringing with so pure and provocative a tone that the entire room fell silent and looked over at it, rocking gently before the paralyzed script writer to the tune of “L’important, c’est la rose,” which a bloated cavalier with a red waistcoat and a dreamy smile was playing on the piano. (Why is it we constantly drag around with us in our handbags and briefcases the weapons of our nocturnal wars, crystals of solidified poison in boxes lined with scarlet velvet, the head of the Gorgon Medusa, a tongue ripped from a dragon’s maw, the mummy of a homunculus, compromising correspondence in Sumerian? Why is it that we drag around the terrifying innards of the past, fearing them as we do, smelling the pus they exude, and knowing full well that in a bar, a café, or a friend’s flat moira the inexorable will spill them out on the table?)

Translated by Michael Henry Heim and originally published on Michal’s blog.

Michal Ajvaz will be reading on Friday, 16th September with Siobhan Fallon  at 7.30pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork



1 Comment

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One response to “The Past: a story by Michal Ajvaz

  1. Pingback: Readings at the Cork International Short Story Festival | Cork International Short Story Festival

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