Where to in Bratislava: A Musical for the Movies, the Tram, or the Saddle

Jana Beňová

Illustration by Leif Engström

I want to thank the Nová Scéna Theatera
for serving as a source of inspiration and
Theater Stoka for the spectacular and expansive production
of this musical.
 

Von Langenau shifts in his saddle and says: "Marquis..."
His neighbor, the little fine Frenchman, has been talking
and laughing for three days. Now he has nothing more
to say. He is like a child who wants to sleep. Dust settles
on his fine white lace collar; he does not notice it. He is slowly
wilting in his velvet saddle.

Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke
R. M. Rilke



I'm thirty-five and I'm a ropewalker. If you stretched seven long ropes across the city I live in, you could cover each of my footsteps and diagram each of my paths.

A regular rope would do, since my stride is narrow and my paths are like straight lines or two-dimensional line segments, not unlike those of the chess player who at one point decided to incorporate chess moves into his life. He moved across the city the way he moved across the board, changing paths and imagining his life as a game—now, that ended badly. It seems to me that these times are unfavorable to walking.

I remember once, when the Pope came to town, a girlfriend of mine headed for the empty church where he was scheduled to hold mass. She went a day prior because she knew she wouldn't be able to get in a day later because of the crowds. For half a day she walked the empty church, methodically and diligently, and when I say walked, I mean she put one foot right in front of the other, touching heel to toe, covering the entire floor space, hoping that her soles would meet the Pope's.

But following in someone's footsteps is exhausting—the Pope fainted and the Mass was left unfinished.

I make sure that ropes I walk are solely mine, so that I can walk at my own pace, quickly, because when you can walk quickly, the movement keeps you warm and you don't get cold, not even in winter.

During my school years I fell in love with one of my professors. I followed his paths because I'd hoped that we would overlap. But it was exhausting, the city started to disappear and even walking stopped making sense.

When the professor and I fell in love, our ropes often crossed but they didn't form a fisherman's or a sailor's knot, only a temporary magician's knot, which looks sturdy, but if you pull on the rope gently, it unravels without warning like a magic trick that children amuse themselves with after they come home from the circus.

After we broke things off, I tugged at my ropes and untangled our paths. I gave up some of my favorite streets, the ones where I felt if I ran into him by chance he might still think I walked them because of him. Since then I'm careful not to connect the streets with the men who walk them or the apartments where I make love to them.

The same goes for the man who has thread for hair—not silk or yarn, but more like the thread you'd use to sew a button on a winter coat.

These threads of his are rather long and white, and there's a knot at the end of each one so they can't be pulled in or out.

He usually appears in December—actually around the end of November, and then stands at the Christmas market, with mulled wine in his hand, for an entire month.

I like him because he stands in the same spot on the square, whereas I've been carried through the streets my entire life. Sometimes I even go up to him, unbutton his coat and place the palms of my hands against his chest, shoulders, and sometimes even his Adam's apple. That's how I communicate with him.

"You're giving me static!" He shrinks back and spills some mulled wine on my shoes. I can sense the paths running inside his body, his mind and his soul, they're mercilessly conductive and through them he perceives a million things. Love is a million people, and the Christmas market is a million opportunities. My legs move, I have wings on my heels and a wand in my hand but as far as my brain and heart go I'm a stationary cyclist.

Sometimes my ropes weave through stores. I can estimate the season by the merchandise. The stores in our city are so colorful that I call them galleries, and so punctual that they take the place not only of my planner but also my desk and my wall calendar. For example—I know that it's either March or April because the stores are full of Easter eggs and bunnies.

The chocolate bunnies grow bigger and bigger with each year. Two-foot chocolate mammoths stacked into pyramids that reach up to the ceiling. I freeze and stare into the dark pupils of their eyes, then crouch down and prepare for their attack. I imagine that they'll leap from the shelves and crown those who can't escape them with thorns of bunny incisors.

Behind the bunnies, they sell books. I hear a sales girl complain that people don't read poetry but that everyone would like to read Mein Kampf by Mr. Adolf Hitler. She says she doesn't understand it and that she'd even flipped through the book but couldn't find anything interesting, not even a sex scene.

I read a study describing the tremendous level of stress that the sales girls are under during the holidays. They start listening to Christmas carols in October and as soon as that's over they're accosted by the perversely winking bunnies and colossal Easter eggs. And with the coming of spring their scheming bosses start luring customers into the stores by leaving the doors and windows wide open so the sales girls are constantly ill, sometimes all the way up until summer.

"God, we women have to be careful all the time. I even sleep with my socks on. And when I'm outdoors I can't sit on the ground, not even during the summer."

"I already had a urinary tract infection three times this year!"

"Me, too! Even the chairs in bars are starting to feel too cold for me."

"It's true. It's not like with men, they can sit wherever they please."

"Yes, they don't have to worry about a thing."

"Well, you know they don't have bladders."

"Oh, they're so lucky!"

Then for a while they sit in silence, counting their money and ringing up a few things.

"But if they don't have bladders, what do they have?"

"A prostate!"

"Of course! I forgot!"

When my rope weaves through these stores, I realize that there are still things in life that can still surprise me, despite the fact that I'm already thirty-five.

By thirty-five, people are entitled to a mid-life crisis. That's why one of my ropes goes through the city's movie theaters and scrapes lightly against Castle Hill from which I spend most of my time observing the city below. I'm in the eye of a hurricane, feeling like a monarch on that hilltop, I inhale the calmness of that elevated space beneath which the vortex of the last thirty-five years of my life has been spinning.

My sister Klarisa's husband recently confided in me that he is going through an old-life crisis—apparently the symptoms are nearly identical to my mid-life crisis—mainly, a desire for the movies. It doesn't matter what they're showing, you sit in the dark and don't have to bother with anyone. No one looks at you and you can't think about anything because you're absorbed in the big screen. Still, sometimes I can't shake the feeling that the movies are not what they used to be.

For instance, at movies in the old days, people didn't stuff themselves all the time and their cell phones didn't go off incessantly, not like the cell phone of the girl right next to me. Her phone rings for the twelfth time, for the twelfth time she picks it up, and for the twelfth time she says, "I'm at the movies."

The other day I sat on the tram next to a man whose affliction was the same as the girl's. His phone kept ringing and each time he picked it up he said, "I'm on the tram."

"Jeez..." says the girl at the movies when her phone rings for the thirteenth time.

"Turn it off," the man next to her says while holding her other hand.

"But I don't want to turn it off!" She shouts. "You hear me? I don't want to turn it off!"

It occurs to me then that this might be the man from the tram. When they leave the movie theater they'll probably say to each other,

"I'm at the movies."

"I'm on the tram."

"I'm at the movies."

"I'm on the tram."

"I'm at the movies."

"I'm on the tram."

Klarisa told me she noticed that modern women don't call their phones mobil but mobilka. Some women still manage to surprise us.

Even Klarisa. I see her at night galloping through the city on the back of her golden greyhound. A bottle of pink wine in one hand, a Bulgakov book in the other, she sings to the Bratislava rooftops: "I'm not a doe, I'm not a doe, but an enchanted maiden." I look at her narrow horseman's hips and can't shake the lines from the poem:

"In the saddle, in the saddle, in the saddle, night after night, day after day/ In the saddle, in the saddle, in the saddle."

I gallop all night long, when the two of us sit in one chair—me and the man with the thread for hair—the armor falling to my knees and our helmeted heads thrown back. If someone called my mobilka I would have picked up and said: "I'm in the saddle."

Seasons are very important to the citizens of our city. Especially if they walk through the same places all the time. In the town square all day today my paths kept crossing with a jolly vendor—a pedestrian, who sells Where to Go in Bratislava city guides. He roams the city with his arms full of small guide books and shouts, "Kam v Bra-ti-sla-ve, Wohin in Bra-ti-sla-va, Where to go in Bra-ti-sla-va..." He walks the streets, tripping over the stretched-out legs of the homeless and sings, "new Where to, spring edition of the Where to. Where to, Where too."

When I leave the movie theater at midnight and walk through Old Town, I see the homeless man who sits at the old city hall get up and end his workday. He dusts off his work outfit and strolls briskly through the old city square. Then, suddenly, he breaks out in a song and starts banging the samba rhythm with his crutches. When I catch his silly song lyrics, I feel I'm back at the movies, like I'm in a modern day Bratislava musical: "We have the new Where to, we have the spring Where to, Where too."

The Primatial Palace is one of my favorite buildings. The first time I got drunk, I announced that the only man I'd marry would be one who'd bring me the cardinal's hat from the rooftop of the Primatial Palace. Those "Know Your City" walks left a permanent mark on me.

"Do I need to chop off my hands for you to believe me?" A man in a Swedish movie says to the wife who'd left him.

"I'll never hit you again, I swear. Do I need to chop off my hands for you to believe me?"

Last night, during the course of our lovemaking, I had a feeling that the man with thread for hair had his hands in his pockets—where else? Maybe in the pockets of the pants he left scrunched up on the floor. He didn't touch me, let alone caress me. That's why today I've been walking since dawn. When I was little I read a proverb in a fortune cookie that said that all of life's problems could be solved through walking, so I walk hoping that I'll chance upon those hands of his somewhere.

I'll give you a piece of bread—and you'll give me a fortune cookie, the man with thread for hair says laughing. Where there is danger, there is also a chance for a rescue—that's what my sister Klarisa brought me in that fortune cookie.

You ask how long it took before it dawned on me that if a man has thread for hair his head must be a ball of yarn. Do you think it would be obvious from the way the cat's eyes filled with desire each time it saw him?

I'm asking you, bartenders, who graciously water down my gin, fair bar maidens, who take me for your children, waiters, who lean over me peering deep into my eyes—what am I supposed to do with all that time until his hair is hanging over my body again, what am I to do?

Check into a hospital. Consult the doctors...lay in bed...put your head down on the pillow...they'll give you pills...the white ones are best...the white ones help the most. I open the glass hospital doors and bump into Nurse Rilke who's carrying a little boy in oversized pajamas. The boy is the only child in the men's ward. He must have poked his eye out while playing. He has post-surgery shivers and keeps repeating: "Daddy, I'm scared, Daddy, I'm really scared."

A few hours later he's waiting for eye drops, filed in a line of men with his father.

"I don't want any eye drops! They'll make my eye explode. I don't want any eye drops! I want to see!"

His screams make the men smile, but they sympathize. He's their mouthpiece, the Archangel Gabriel with a gilded sword and a burning red face.

"Everybody can just go to hell!" shouts the little blond-haired Gabriel at the woman doctor.

"My god!" Doctor Hohenlohe exclaims. "What do you mean by everybody? Your daddy's here too. You should be ashamed of yourself!"

"Daddy, too! Daddy can go to hell too!" The boy breaks free from the doctor and runs down the hallway. He looks like an angel, until he opens his mouth...

Then after a few seconds he faints.

"I don't know if we can deal with him, Mr. Karamazov," the doctor says angrily as the silent father carefully picks the boy up from the cold floor.

"Every angel is terrible," adds Nurse Rilke.

Ever since one of my ropes passed through the hospital, I admit that I've been watching Dr. Hohenlohe's life with great interest.

Klarisa says there is something tragic about her, I think it has something to do with her husband being a pop singer...

You know, the one who's always singing about the douche—I explain to Klarisa.

"About the douche?"

The one who sings: "blinded by the light, wrapped up like a douche, another runner in the night"

Klarisa laughs and I grab her hand. Sometimes I feel like her older brother, or at least, just as powerless.

"Not to be afraid of anything and to be able to bear a lot, that's the point." Hölderlin wrote in a letter to his mother. To not be afraid of anything and to be able to bear a lot, I wrote in a letter to the man with the thread for hair.

"I have an empty head, empty stomach, empty bed." Dr. Hohenlohe's husband sings in one of his songs: "Gotta get something I'm so hungry all the time/ I don't know how to stop/ Have to gimme something sweet, I'm so nervous in the night/ I don't know how to stop/ Gotta pick up the phone, Gotta talk to anyone/ No, I don't know how to stop, I don't know how to stop..." The music video features a Slovak actor who emigrated to Australia in 1970. He said he left because he loved music and wanted to own records, cassette tapes, CDs and equipment of the highest quality—good loudspeakers, good amplifiers, basically good-quality stereo for high-quality sound. He's seventy and now owns all the CDs and stereo equipment he wanted and left the country for. He sits in a room with good acoustics, screaming in despair.

After forty years the Australian visits Bratislava and asks, "Where's a good place to eat?"

"Nowhere." Klarisa and I answer in unison.

"So what do you do?"

"We cook."

Sometimes I feel like the man with thread for hair is a woman. The way he forgets to clip his fingernails and then plows over my back, my arms and my shoulders. The way he would sometimes talk and laugh rather than make love. Sometimes I feel like the man with the thread for hair is my girlfriend. But then I think about the swiftness of his hips.

Galloping night and day, day and night and night and day.

Galloping, galloping, galloping.

Meanwhile I'm just sitting in a stupid bar, hugging the chair with one arm, drinking gin and eating those Chinese fortune cookies they bring with your meal. I'm with people, goofing around, entertaining without effort and everything is adding up the way it always does when I don't take things seriously—I'm entertaining the entire table, a dozen or so important men. Klarisa is mesmerized. I kiss her cheeks and call her Mrs. Gullible, then, I laugh and laugh and can't stop—this is how I'm going to die one day. I have tears running down the back of my throat. I know how to channel them, right behind my ears, between my shoulders and down my hips. They collect in my legs, I have water up to my ankles now. It's dangerous when the level of tears reaches up to the knees. That's when I can't prevent the little splashing noises when I walk to the restroom. It's immediately suspicious—hey what's that splashing—are those tears in your legs?

I'm thirty-five and I'm a ropewalker. If you stretched seven long ropes across the city I live in, you could cover each of my footsteps and diagram each of my paths.

The seventh rope cuts through a lake just a few inches under the dark surface.

During the night the lake is slick like oil. I slip on it and stargazer fish light up under my feet.

Someone is calling for help:

"Galloping night and day, day and night and night and day...Galloping, galloping, galloping."

Galloping. The man with thread for hair has been home for a long time now. The water's surface reflects light from his window. I dive in alone, without the accompaniment of breaking glass.

translated from the Slovak by Beatrice Smigasiewicz



Read the original in Slovak

Read translator’s note

Jana Beňová was born in Bratislava (Slovak Republic) in 1974. Her novel, Plán odprevádzania (Seeing People Off), won the 2012 European Union Prize for Literature. She's the author of three books of poetry, the novels: Parker The love novel (2001), and Plán odprevádzania (Seeing People Off) (subtitled Café Hyena) (2008),"and a collection of her newspaper columns, Jana Beňová—Dnes (Jana Beňová—Today). Her latest novel, Preč! Preč! (Away! Away!), was published in 2012. Since 2002, she has been a regular contributor to the popular Slovak daily, SME. She took part in Iowa's International Writing Program last Fall.

Beatrice Smigasiewicz is currently in the MFA in Nonfiction and Translation programs at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Art Papers, Words Without Borders, and B O D Y, among others.


It's not easy to guess just where you're heading when you start reading Jan Benova's work. She is known to experiment with form, sometimes using labyrinths or puzzles as structures. Her pieces are often described as something like travelogue. It reveals itself slowly, organically, like Michelangelo finding David in a piece of marble, the process of revealing is a crucial part of her writing, and of the experience of reading her work.

This translation came about during Jana Beňová's residency at the International Writing Program in Iowa. The sample provided to the IWP by Viridiana Carleo served as a point of departure for my collaborative translation with the author. My goal was to reconstruct the original by focusing especially on rhythm and syntax, the musical and dramaturgical aspects of the piece, where I found her writing to be most expressive and challenging.