Post Road Magazine #1

Translation: Angel Station

by Jachym Topol (translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker)

Editor’s Note:
Angel Station (Andel, 1995) is Prague native Jachym Topol’s second novel. Although it has been translated into English by Alex Zucker, it is, as yet, unpublished. The book’s title refers to the bustling Prague Metro stop of the same name, located in Smichov, a tough neighborhood filled with factories and a brewery. One interesting historical note about the following excerpt: the “pub on the hill,” referred to by the narrator Jatek is a real place, located in a small park called Klamovka. Toward the end of Czechoslovakia’s communist era (i.e., the late 1980s), Klamovka was often raided by police, because it was a known hangout for young dissidents. Whether these dissidents had actually gathered there to plan the overthrow of the government, or simply to drink beer, gossip and discuss sports, literature, etc., is a matter of some debate.

Jatek grew up in a library. Maybe that was the reason why later on real life seemed so hard for him.

He longed for independence, actually you might say: like hawks soaring through the autumn sky thirst for the unknown. Hawks of course, besides that pale membrane that mysteriously veils their bleary eyes, also have wings and flight paths built into their genes; Jatek stood there, at a loss, with a creepy grin and two left hands.

He forgot his childhood, muddled through his adolescence running instinctively from the cops, somehow or other he’d gotten through it and traded it for what he was now. All his jobs had merged into a single blurry smudge of boredom, drudgery, and forced contact with people who didn’t matter to him or else got under his skin. When possible he’d avoided work, tracking down life, peering around corners.

As for the parents he had once so eagerly observed from his crib—a typical family: father, mother, child—he’d told them adios before you could say “toy boat” three times fast.

Occasionally they talked on the phone. Jatek would call from a booth. Usually when he needed something. Usually money. But he’d taken it too far, and his parental support had been cut off as abruptly and inexorably as an antique grandfather clock, which to Jatek meant eternity, coming to a halt. He knew that by taking an allowance, and a negligent one at that, at least he provided his parents with proof that he was alive. The moment the cash flow stopped, he’d logically concluded that the two of them didn’t care whether he lived or died.

It happened one fall morning. A timid shadow split off from the furiously arguing figure in the phone booth. Jatek was swearing and his girl was leaving him. That was the last one. A few months later, he couldn’t remember her name.

He stood in the phone booth alone. Alright then, he’d said to himself. Leaned back against the glass, took a deep breath. He was yet to encounter loneliness, mental confusion, true cruelty, he was to get a whiff of death. A struggle with faith awaited him, he was to discover hope. All this awaited him, he didn’t know it. But he had a hunch. It was in the air. His new job had seemed pretty fun at first. He’d never come across anything like it in his reading. But he soon realized it was lousy work, worse than all the rest, the kind of work that plucks only the worst extremes out of the pristine flames and the incredible filth that go into it, first scarring, then destroying, anyone who wanders into the furnaces’ way. It didn’t take him long to realize that the guys who worked down in the factory basement were true lowlifes. At first he’d felt like a spy in enemy territory. Till it all melded into one.

The first day, in his honor they said, they tossed a cat in the furnace. It didn’t even yowl as the flames, now more alive than the cat, swallowed its scrawny body with a barely audible hiss. Jatek walked out. Thought about leaving. Went back in. They made fun of him. There was no way not to notice, so he said something back… they were sweeping up the coal with rakes, a broom would’ve ignited at the first lump of glowing coal, burning like a torch. They explained that to him.

But he liked to watch the flames. The furnaces were like ovens, built out of fireproof bricks and plated with iron. He liked to watch the flames, liked jumping back from the blaze, the fiery tongue that came hissing out whenever he opened up the hatch to feed the searing heat.
The books had stood on shelves around the walls of his bedroom, level with the room’s only window. It was always dim in there, probably that was why mornings when he got up at 4 to go to work it reminded him of his childhood. He still remembered the dimness.

It was grueling work, his hands were soon covered with calluses and blisters. Sometimes he would take a book and climb up on the platform on top of the furnaces, but still he couldn’t concentrate. The other workers would tease him for reading. One of them said only queers read books. They threw chunks of coke at him. Sometimes when he was up there he could see white foam where the iron plates met. Deposits from the toxic fumes. If he stayed up there too long, he might pass out.

The heat up top was suffocating, down below the giant fans blew a cool breeze. When he hunched down right in the middle of the furnace, where the lightbulb hung on a wire from the ceiling, he felt stifling hot from his eyes up and his chin and cheeks were cold.

He walked out back through the tunnel to fetch the coal, clanging his shovel against the walls to scare the rats. He soon came to dislike his coworkers even more than those ravenous beasts. They called him Screw-up, because he kept hurting himself. He didn’t find it amusing, but he wasn’t surprised.

20 wheelbarrows here, smoke, 20 wheelbarrows there, smoke, 15 wheelbarrows there, and stop, it’s burning, stupid. Turn on the alarm, isn’t working… wait a sec, okay. Now take a breather. Lie down on the rags, stick a brick cleverly wrapped in newspaper under your poison-addled head. Just then your pile of coke collapses.

The other workers switched his shifts, gave him low-grade coal, and one time they stole money from his coat pocket. They grinned as he gaped at the shrunken sum. The mythical heroes Jatek had once read about with such pleasure would have slain them on the spot.

He got himself a small room in a divided flat on Plzenska Street, a long thoroughfare lined with run-down, beat-up buildings. He collected his meager belongings from wherever he’d been sleeping, a couple friends’, around, and moved them into his new home.

The dirty, noisy street led to a feeder road that each day bore thousands of cars rumbling out of Prague.

There, on the second floor, he had a window on the courtyard. He would’ve felt better with bars on it.

Inside the building it was permanently dark, the tenants pilfered the lightbulbs. One night as he was cautiously groping his way up the creaky stairs, a shadowy figure had come darting out of a corner at him, seized him by the neck with a pair of powerful hands, and flung him to the ground. It was his neighbor Machata, the one who worked in the smokes shop downstairs. He stammered out some excuse, actually more like a growl, shoved Jatek out of his way, and slammed the door to his flat behind him.
On Saturday nights the street came to life, groups of Gypsies promenading, crowding into taprooms, weaving in and out of traffic, the women pushing baby carriages, shouting out to one another, passing bottles back and forth.

They’re goin to the movies, his neighbor told him. Whatever village they dug em up in had a theater showed movies once a week, now it’s like a regular thing for em, Machata the newsdealer enlightened him.

Jatek’s room gave onto the walkway lining the courtyard. In the late morning, when he was still trying to sleep, the women screamed insults and obscenities at each other. Smashed dishes. They would argue over attic space, who was next in the laundry room, whatever. Never again did Jatek hear the words cunt, whore, bitch, and dylina, delivered in a machine-gun staccato or a powerful, semisloshed bass, used so frequently.

Red banners and posters hung along the street here as they did on every other. LENIN LIVES, NOW MORE THAN EVER, AND HE WILL LIVE ON, AS OUR CONSCIENCE, OUR STRENGTH, AND OUR WEAPON! This poster was right by the building’s front door. About a week after Jatek moved in, someone drew swastikas over Lenin’s eyes and horns on his head. The first time he saw the devilized portrait, Jatek had been worried. That it was meant for him. He’d just moved in. But the next day someone tore it down. All that was left were the rusty thumbtacks. Before long, they got used to pin up something else. Jatek barely noticed. Nowhere else had he felt so immune to that tired propaganda. And nowhere else had he ever seen children battered so viciously. The neighbors’ little girl got a beating almost like clockwork. Sometimes at night he could hear her cries.
What’m I sposta do? he rolled over in bed. I gotta get up at 4 a.m. I oughta say something about it to Machata… it’s not like I can go to the authorities… if I turn em in, what’ll they say, I’ll lose my place… they’ll say that I’m a pervert, they’ll say… Jatek’s teeth chattered. In the dark. The girl stopped screaming. He fell asleep.

Business was brisk, both in and around the building. Every now and then the courtyard would be stacked high with crates, five or six burly guys lounging around on them. Their flashy, pseudo-suave clothing stood out here. But their drink-worn faces, muscled arms, and paunches bulging out of their white polyester shirts attested to their membership in the local underworld. They addressed the cops on the street by name. The women on the walkway, spent shapeless biddies who spent their lives in factories and lines, cheerfully hollered down at them, inviting them up for a beer.
I’m surrounded, Jatek thought. What do those old bags want with them anyway… those’re their moms, take it easy, he said to himself.
In the hallway he tried to be polite, and always said hello first. His neighbors would look back at him, surprised and suspicious.
Any one a these characters could kick my door in, just for laughs, an stomp all over my face. Maybe they think I’m an agent, or a spy from the competition, or maybe just some kina nut…

One day he noticed spatters of blood on the staircase. He tried to walk around it, but rubbed against the wall. There was blood on there too. Another time he opened the front door and a guy came running out with a knife in his hand. He slammed into Jatek, knocking loose his paper bag of groceries, it smashed on the steps, the bottles broke. Sometimes at night he was woken by screams, the neighbors, fighting or partying or both. He didn’t get much sleep. He was afraid to take pills, but soon found he could get to sleep after a couple of beers. Until he nodded off, the alcohol altered his senses, and the noise from the yard, the slamming doors and curses, sounded as if from another world, a world away.

For food he had a supply of cheap army rations. Purchased downstairs, of course. Every now and then, his stomach acted up. His job at the furnace drained him. One day a rat in the cellar tried to gnaw on his boot, he busted its spine with a shovel and smashed in its head. The next day the corpse was gone. Did the other guys clean it up, or had it been a hallucination? Maybe it’s time to get back to the books. But where? How? Am I in a trap? Maybe I should get a different job, another place to live. How? Where?

Whenever Jatek ran into a friend, it ended up over beer. Where’ve you been holin up? his buddies would ask. Where you at? Cops been hasslin you?
A lot of people were locked up in those days. People he knew, too. Usually they didn’t keep them there for long. The powers-that-be were losing confidence; brutality was on the rise. At the factory, rumor was they’d caught one of the managers at a demonstration, so they drove him to the woods outside of Prague and beat the hell out of him. Jatek could believe it, Cap, this guy he’d met at the pub, had been kicked in the head by cops. They’d killed Mitlin’s cousin. Soldiers shot him at the border, dragged him out of no-man’s-land, and left him to bleed to death in the middle of the Czech woods. There were whispers the trials were starting again.

The guys working the furnace had a blast. They kept two cats down in the cellar, Lisa and Mao they called them. Huge cats, killers, supposedly it was hormone shots that had made them so big. They were mutants, they killed rats. Mao had only one eye, with a deep scar where the other one should’ve been, the bald spot from the old wound ran all the way up his forehead. Jatek already knew what they did with the kittens.

Sometimes at night, when he was on duty alone, he would climb up on the platform and throw pieces of salami down at the tunnel, the rats began to swarm. He knew how it worked by now, first Mao would pounce, then Lisa, and the killing would begin. He couldn’t understand why the rats always fell for it. Maybe they don’t care, he thought. Maybe they know someone’s always gotta pay. Meanwhile, though, the others get their fill, he walked out of the darkness and stifling heat and stood in the factory yard among the heaps of coal and iron, among the heaps of scrap. He didn’t want to go back until the cats were gone. He raised his head, the moon up above, glowing dully in the silence.

One day at the intersection, he ran into Nothin Much pushing a baby carriage. She had a stack of flyers under the kid, gave him a few. He mischievously stuck them into the mailboxes in his building. He’d seen the protests on TV at the pub. He headed up there every once in a while, to the pub on the hill. Karla leaned across the table to him and whispered: Shorty’s on the lam! He’s hidin out in Poland! But don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret… all sorts of rumors were going around… hey, just as soon as I settle in an get my act together, I’ll be ready to lend a hand, Jatek told his pals…one day he’d been standing on Coal Market Square, underneath the scaffolding, and somewhere up above, someone… shouted something, pieces of paper, flyers, began floating down like giant snowflakes onto the vendors’ stalls… suddenly the street was full of cops, somebody somewhere ran for it, elbowing through the crowd, there was a tweet and then another, all the whistles merged into one, Jatek sidestepped a guy reaching out his hand for him, and ducked into a passageway… soon as I get settled in, I’ll be round, Jatek assured his drinking buddies… but today I gotta go, I got a job now! You, a job? That’s a good one.

But one day he stopped going to work. He had enough money to last a while. His papers were in order for the time being, too. One morning he just didn’t get out of bed. Half asleep still, he flung the alarm clock against the wall and woke up two days later.

Winter was coming. He needed to store away coal in the cellar, but one of the other tenants had tossed his junk out into the cellar water and put a padlock on the door. Jatek took a little axe. He kept it under his bed. Walking down the stairs, the handle solid in his hand, at the other end the metal blade, cold and naked, he didn’t feel bad at all. He knocked off the lock, left it lying on the floor, and put on his own. He started up the stairs again, but then turned around and went back. He kicked at the lock lying useless on the dirty floor, then bashed away at it with the dull end of the axe until it was nothing more than a shapeless piece of iron. He left it there for everyone to see.

On the walkway stood a young woman. He’d never seen her before. It was Ljuba.

Lookin for me? he asked.

I’m your neighbor, she replied.

You mean you’re takin the Machatas’ place? he brightened.

No, she smiled. I’m your neighbor from the other side.

C’mon in. If you want, said Jatek.

Hm, she said. She peered down from the walkway, the yard was empty. His grubby quilted jacket, even the axe, didn’t rate a glance. She lit up a smoke, took a drag. She had red lipstick on. Long black hair tied in a bun. A massive black barrette. Rings on every finger. One of the silver bands was shaped like a spider, with eyes. The rings and the barrette, the heavy barbarian adornments, she wore them all with ease, it seemed. Her hair looked thick and rough. He had an urge to touch it.

He found out that the old lady who lived next door had died recently. Jatek had sometimes heard her cough. Those rabbit hutches had been made by splitting one flat into two. The Red Guard had evicted the bourgeoisie and divided up their spacious flats using thin partitions. Just walled up the doors and moved in the poor folk. Once upon a time. Back in the day.
I had no idea, he said, setting up the cooker. That she was dead. Would you like some tea?

Have you got anything to drink?

Beer.

Wait, I’ll go grab some brandy.

Jatek wrestled with the cooker, where did she come from? What’s she want here? Her pale face… people around here don’t expect any kindness from strangers, in fact they’re usually scared of em. He tried to clean the place up a little, but it was no use. He tossed his clothes under the bed, put his books on top of the wardrobe. He still had a few.

Tidying up? She walked back in holding two glasses.

He learned that her family had once owned the buildings on this street. This divided flat was all they’d been allowed to keep.

The District Committee always had one of their people planted here, she stamped her heel on the floor. How’d you get in?

All at once I had no place to live. They gave it to me. Thanks to the psychiatrists.

Problems?

Not really.

She’d left her husband, she said, but now that a flat had opened up she was planning to move in. Had the papers for it and everything.
When did that lady die? Jatek asked.

She was lying in there a couple days. They just took her out today.
What? She didn’t even stink. Or maybe I’ve got a cold, Jatek said.
She was my mother. But we didn’t talk.

My sincere condolences, he said.

Seriously, we hadn’t seen each other for years, she laid her hand on her heart, her death doesn’t mean a thing to me. Maybe it’ll hit me later.
If it did, she never said so. He noticed she had the flat repainted. He could smell the whitewashed plaster from over in his place.

Sometimes at night he would stand in front of the walled-up door, he couldn’t believe a young woman was sleeping over there. A young woman like her. They would run into each other in the hallway. She often wore her hair in a bun.

Sometimes they’d stop and talk.

One night a fight broke out on the stairwell. Then the quarreling voices were drowned out by a woman’s shrieks. Jatek, half asleep, heard a rapping come from the walled-up door. Ljuba signaling him with her knuckles. It sounded more amused than alarmed. Can knocking sound that way? He rapped back. Then he heard her voice.

Are you asleep? she said.

No.

You don’t have to talk so loud. Come over here, it sounded as if her lips were right in his ear.

Right around then, things started to go downhill for Jatek. With no papers to prove he had steady employment, he was terrified of the police. With the law the way it was, they could easily lock him up. He tried to wear a jumpsuit whenever he walked the streets. It was the best camouflage, and not just according to him. He avoided his friends, stopped going to protests. He had barely escaped a raid at the pub on the hill one day, and now didn’t dare go back. His new neighbor, Ljuba, intrigued him, and the last thing he wanted now was to end up in jail for parasitism.
His night with Ljuba, and what came after, must have been heaven-sent.
When he walked through the halls of the building now, he tried to make like a shadow. From the newsdealer’s comments he’d gathered the neighbors knew that he wasn’t working. He was paranoid that they’d take him for an informer. On top of that, he was afraid of being denounced, and he was scared stiff of the secret police. He hardly ever went out. The saleswoman at the store down the street would always ask where he lived. She started to make advances, putting the expensive cheeses she kept under the counter into the paper bags along with his rolls. He had no choice but to pay for them. Machata, who he bought his cigarettes from, slammed them down on the counter without giving back his change. Jatek didn’t have the nerve to remind him. The old bags in the building didn’t answer his greetings and looked at him askance.
He tried to read sometimes, curled up in his lair. But the letters waged war on each other. The book’s plot got tangled up with the stories and characters in his head. And none of it made any sense.
Is insanity making a play for me? he wondered sometimes, late at night. He tried to calm down by taking deep breaths… then again there were times he would exercise so frantically that he dropped to the floor in exhaustion.

He had opened the door to her flat and seen her lying in bed. The noise from out in the hallway grew more and more distant, finally ceasing altogether.

Maybe his manias and her loneliness (no one ever visited her) had merged in a single body. He assumed she’d understood what he told her, she gave almost no reply. But they didn’t do much talking. Toward morning, they made a bed on the floor to give themselves more room.

You might not believe me, she said. But I was still sleeping when you came in. I dreamed you were walking into my dream, and then suddenly there you were.

But we knocked on the wall to each other.

Huh?

Yeah, I guess you got scared by that fight, that racket outside.

What fight? What’re you talking about?

Alright. Maybe I was the one that was dreaming. Doesn’t matter now.

Nope, not anymore, she said.

Ljuba, he said her name to himself over and over that night. Ljuba,… Ljuba, he kept on saying her name, repeating it like an incantation, a reminder of something hidden away deep inside him, a riddle, a question posed without end. But even if he had gotten an answer, it wouldn’t have made any difference.





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