We mark International Women’s Day with an extract from the latest novel by the award-winning Czech writer and Nobel laureate Herta Müller translator Radka Denemarková. Disguised as a crime mystery set in Prague and mixing fact and fiction, “A Contribution to the History of Joy” (Příspěvek k dějinám radosti, 2014) is a passionate indictment of all forms of violence against women everywhere, spanning the past 70 years of history. In the extract below Denemarková puts herself in the shoes of a victim of an infamous Manchester (north of England) gang that groomed vulnerable teenagers and forced them into prostitution.
Chandra Namaskar, the moon salutation. This isn’t like Honey’s birthday party. Then, our classmates had swarmed around her parents‘ house sipping drinks and strutted around screaming and shouting and dancing to booming music that made the walls shake.
Here, no noise passes through the walls, only silence. Cigarette smoke and still-glowing ashes in overflowing ashtrays swallow up any trace of noise. The windows aren’t blacked out. At the door to the flat, a boy collects my mobile. I’m not happy about that. I’ve been saving up for it for a long time. This is a compulsory admission ritual. It’s for your own good, the boy says, to make sure you don’t lose it, I’m kind of like a hotel safe here, he says with a reassuring wink. We’ve both been chosen.
I tread across the thick pile of Persian carpet. There are carpets everywhere. They spill across thresholds continually like a dense lawn, sticking out their tongues under my steps. I look forward to having my pictures taken by a professional photographer. That’s what Honey promised me.
The boy ushers me into a smoke-filled lounge. A man is snogging a girl on a sofa. They’re like a classical statue emerging from the mist. The girl might be about thirteen. As they peel away from each other, tiny stones in the girl’s braces sparkle like diamonds in her mouth. The man seems old to me. They glance at me. He looks me up and down, from head to toe. The girl‘s eyes connect with mine, her stare is swept clean and empty, I can read nothing from it, then they latch onto each other again. Two glass bowls of white powder sit on the coffee table before them. The smoke and nicotine mist make me nauseous but I don’t let on, I want to belong, I do belong, I’ve made it. After weeks of soundings and failed attempts I’ve finally done it. Curiosity is making my head spin. Honey is making my head spin. Here she comes. She gives me a welcoming hug. I giggle trying to boost my courage and get rid of my fear. Honey hugs me and charms me, saying how lovely I look, in my excitement all I manage is a stutter. She hands me a bottle of chilled vodka. It’s drunk straight from the bottle here. She swings her arm around me and summons the boy who collects and stores mobiles by the door. She is bossy with him, it’s obvious who’s in charge here. That’ll be all for today, she tells him. I can’t tell if she’s talking about girls or mobiles. The boy rolls me a joint. I take a puff and shake my head. I give him the spliff back. The boy passes the joint to Honey, who sticks it in the hand of the man glued to the lips of the girl with diamonds in her mouth.
The boy lights a cigarette and forces me to take it. He treats me with respect, I’m glad he gets it. I’m here with her. I’m proud to belong to her, the rich and beautiful one, the coolest girl in our school, the mysterious Honey. She has chosen ME. Now the boy puts on some music, not too loud. Plaintive music. Honey begins to dance, her arms raised above her head. Her lips are the colour of raspberries, covered in a thick layer of lipstick. She lets her hair down. She electrifies the whole room. Other girls join in. She dances in their midst. Everything happens in near-silence, yet it’s so deafening, so intense, so beautiful. Honey puts her hair up again. From the adjoining rooms, as if on cue, dark clouds begin to sweep in. They are not boys as Honey promised. And there’s not going to be a fashion show, and I won’t get the make-up she promised. And there will be no photo shoot for a modelling agency as she promised either.
The ants come swarming in and traipse around dancing girls who are tipsy and stoned, joining in and swaying along with them. I feel someone’s shoulder touching me. I don’t like it. I take a step back. The man prises the unsmoked cigarette from my hand, the snake of ash falls off, the man catches it in the palm of his hand. He closes his fist, puts what’s left of the cigarette to his lips, inhales deeply. I look him in the eye. I think of the glowing ashes in his hand. He has beautiful eyes. Black. A serpent of smoke slinks out of his lips. He steps aside and has a word with Honey. He comes back and wordlessly places his hands on my hips, I’m worried he’ll notice my protruding hip bones. He makes me sway and slides his hand inside my knickers as we dance, squeezes my bum, it gives me goosebumps, I don’t like it but I can’t scream in this place, I’d make a laughing stock of myself and Honey would never invite me back, and it would ruin my chance at another life. He keeps sliding his finger between my bum cheeks, a stick moving upwards. I don’t want this, I yank myself free, I want to leave. The man laughs, steps back and says something to a guy in a V-neck T-shirt, it has a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger on it, not sure from which movie, the guy in the T-shirt is old. Everyone around here is old, they’re all over twenty, much older. The guy in the T-shirt isn’t laughing, he now whispers something to Honey while making a white line on the table. Honey’s face turns serious. This is a different Honey, not the one I know. They are playing Chinese whispers.
Honey has stopped smiling at me, she comes up to me, she is cross and tells me to relax, not to be a softie, unless I want to blow the chance of a lifetime. She guides me to a table where the guy in the T-shirt has made a line of cocaine. Have some, Honey says, it goes with photo shoots and filming, it’ll help you relax, you’ll come to like it here, you want your mobile back don’t you, but you’ve got to earn it first, don’t be silly, all this is fucking free, tell me where else you’d get all this stuff for free. She forces another gulp of vodka on me. Or do you want something different? Then one more gulp. Its heat burns my insides, I’m aglow, I’m a torch and I’m slowly starting to like it here, I feel the warmth inside me, it makes me sway and everything around me is swaying, Honey removes my shoes, I walk barefoot on the soft carpet, from time to time someone lifts me up and I make the chandelier above rock, the carpet tickles my feet, it feels funny, grass is growing all the way up to the ceiling, and so is my hair, it’s turning into snakes, I’m in the bathroom, I grab a pair of scissors and cut the snakes, snip their little heads off the way my grandma used to cut slugs on her vegetable patch, she’d snip each one in two so that she wouldn’t have to touch them as she had before when she picked them up and tossed them into salted water, I turn on the tap and let water run through my hands. Honey smells of the expensive perfume that she’ll lend me one day, we’re already wearing the same nail varnish, she’s let me borrow that too, and I’m wearing the T-shirt she’s bought me, she’s my best friend, I hug her, she hugs me, we dance together, I want the other girls to see who I am, she drags me to the back of the room, I stagger, she keeps pouring something down my throat along the way. My head is on fire, my head hangs down, I have the body of a rag doll, I’m a rag doll and I am as beautiful as Honey, we have a laugh, surrounded by subdued faces and subdued sounds and subdued light, which is really darkness, Honey takes me to a room, some figures are lurking there in the semi-darkness. She slams the door shut on me, I start pumping the door handle but I feel hands around my waist and tentacles around my breasts and between my legs, an octopus teasing and tickling me, I laugh, the octopus clings on to me more tightly, I start screaming, I don’t want this, please stop, who are you anyway, I shout, but it’s all so senseless and pointless, I’m reduced to screaming in the chaos and fear without beginning or end, because right at that moment the fear has taken residence and settled inside my body, from now on my body will be its home, it will disturb the delicate mechanism of my soul, it will contaminate my trust in everyone and everything and it will strengthen the part of me that’s never really been me and that I hate, but I need it now, otherwise I’ll fall apart. One of them holds me down and the others take turns. It’s as if my body was being pummelled and hammered inside some diabolical machine to a rhythm that makes me choke and dribble, then my mouth goes dry and I feel paralysed and benumbed as if pumped full of novocaine but then the pain comes back and eventually silences me, the pain is a gag in my mouth, time has dissolved.
When I come to, Honey is standing above me. She pretends that nothing has happened. Call the police. This is what I want to say but words won’t make it past my lips, my lips hurt, everything hurts, I’m all torn like an animal. The memory of an article flashes through my mind, we discussed it at school, I thought it was boring, it was about this student who was raped somewhere in India or some other shithole, over there they lure them into fake buses before tearing their bodies into pieces just like they did mine. I’m also riding a bus but this one won’t stop, it keeps accelerating and it doesn’t even have blacked-out windows, I’m still in the same city and the same country, I live in a civilised country, this is Europe, what do I have in common with filthy India, I know nothing about India and don’t want to know anything, I’m better, I’m chosen, India used to be a colony, India used to belong to us, that’s all I know.
The transfigured Honey lights a cigarette. She no longer behaves like a friend, she no longer behaves like a mum to whom I’ve got attached. Drily, she states that nothing has happened. I’m not going to breathe a word about this. And if I’m sensible, I could earn quite good money. You’re Milenka now, isn’t that cool?
I stare at Honey open-mouthed and my ears can’t believe what she’s saying. The thought crosses my mind that she’s gone round the bend, that I’m only dreaming. No, I’m not dreaming, my body reminds me of that. And my wide open eyes. They’re about to pop out of their sockets. There’s an empty pain between my thighs, the pain has teeth that bite me and the vodka is tearing my insides again, there’s something cool on my neck, I feel a draught coming from somewhere, something’s panting on my neck, a sour breath, I want to throw off the heavy sack of cement, I want to run away, whatever it is sticks its tongue down my throat, I thrash about but it thrusts its full weight on top of me, I can’t move my legs, I’m a flattened frog, I get pins and needles and my thighs go numb, more teeth glittering and ambushing me, what are they waiting for, I resist, now some fingers squeeze my neck, I’m gripped by tentacles and can’t move, I can’t breathe, the pain bites me and won’t let go. I open my mouth to scream, and I see Honey-fairy hovering above me, she places a finger across my mouth and forces another gulp of chilled vodka dusted with white powder between my lips, her sweet face comes closer, whispering into mine, this is just a test, darling, an initiation rite, I’ll reward you if you pass. The vodka trickles down my throat, this time it cools my body, I scream and shout, grinning white teeth slap my face, I stop screaming and start counting in my head, I hang on to numbers, it’s got to stop sometime, no idea how long I have to count, three-digit figures and salvation, the pincers loosen their grip, the sack of cement slides off, as if on cue the bodies surge next door and start to dance.
I have no body. I don’t want this body, this body is theirs, I feel like throwing up, I thrash about, the sack of cement is gone, there’s nobody here I could pummel, only this body, I pull on my trousers and T-shirt, stick my knickers into a pocket, I don’t wear a bra, what would I put in it anyway, my shoes are next door, somewhere in the thick growth of carpet where people are dancing, I see three guys draggging Julia, this girl I know from school, I pretend not to see her, I pretend I don’t know her, one of them twists her arms behind her back and I hear Honey’s voice behind me, look, this is what’ll happen to you if you dare to squeal, this one’s been ratting to the police, and now they’re not so nice to her anymore but they were nice to you, quite gentle actually, you’ll come to like it one day, once they’ve all fondled you, you’ll be ours forever, we’ll look after you, or else everybody will make fun of you, all of them, me, the whole city, the whole world, it’s up to you, but you’re really good, so welcome to the club, and if you get us another kid like you I’ll pay and you’ll make good money.
I am in the club, one of the cool crew that the whole school has been whispering about, one day maybe I’ll find out why this is supposed to be liberation, why this is meant to be heaven, why the girls around me act so different and distant, why they have this unnatural, loud laugh and why they talk like this and are so fucking happy just because someone’s decided that this is what happiness is, why didn’t anyone warn me, I’ll never set foot in this place again, never.
So you won’t, huh? Honey turns serious. You disappoint me. She waves a a mobile in front of me and plays some footage, it’s a girl I’ve seen before, she’s all blurry, naked, totally naked, you almost can’t make her out, there’s a guy sprawled on top of her skinny body. You behave yourself, or I post this on the internet, no one will believe this wasn’t what you wanted, no one. Then she hugs me. You’ve finally started to live your life to the full, something’s happening at last now, and I love you, you know that, don’t you. My body recoils from her, pricked by tiny needles. Honey gives me her sweatshirt, here, borrow that. She props me up. She’s being nice. We go down the stairs and out into the street where a guy in a car is waiting to give me a lift home. Honey is being nice. I won’t get in. The guy starts the engine and drives off.
I’m standing inside an unfamiliar body in a familiar street.
Honey has now turned into another girl and nobody seems to be surprised by anything, I’m out in the street, it’s night and I’m barefoot and I toss my knickers into a dustbin, I throw up on top of it, I don’t know what to do, I think of Julia who is being battered up there, Honey said nobody believed her at the police station and everybody now thinks she’s a total loser. Two people pass by, an elderly couple out walking their dog, they recoil from me in disgust. Please, I want to say, please help me. I say nothing. A couple of drunks stagger after them, look at the lovely little cunt, isn’t she a hot little cunt, that’s what I hear in their laughter and I start to weep. Please someone, help me, I want to say. Chandra Namaskar, the moon salutation.
Translated from the Czech by Julia and Peter Sherwood
Radka Denemarková is a Czech writer, literary historian, playwright, essayist, and translator based in Prague. She has taught creative writing, and worked as a dramaturg at the Theatre on the Balustrade, which staged her play Spací vady (Sleeping Deficiencies) in 2010. Her novels include A já pořád kdo to tluče (The Devil by the Nose, 2005), Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler, 2006, winner of the prestigious Magnesia Litera prize) and Kobold (2011). Her latest novel, Příspěvek k dějinám radosti (A Contribution to the History of Joy) appeared in 2014. Radka Denemarková’s books have been translated into fifteen languages and the German edition of Money from Hitler (Ein Herrlicher Flecken Erde) won the Usedom Prize for Literature and the Georg Dehio Prize. In 2009 she won the Magnesia Litera in the non-fiction category for Smrt, nebudeš se báti aneb Příběh Petra Lébla (You Will Not Be Afraid of Death, or the Story of Petr Lébl, 2008), followed in 2011 by the Magnesia Litera for her translation of Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel.
Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. After working for Amnesty International for over 20 years, she became a freelance translator in 2008. Based in London, she is editor-at-large with Asymptote, the international journal of translation. Jointly with Peter Sherwood, she has translated into English books by Daniela Kapitáňová, Jana Juráňová, Peter Krištúfek and, most recently, Uršuľa Kovalyk’s The Equestrienne from the Slovak; and a novel by Petra Procházková from the Czech and Lullaby for a Hanged Man, a novella by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki from the Polish. She has also translated the latter into Slovak, as well as Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.
Peter Sherwood taught at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) until 2007. From 2008 until 2014 he was Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz, and others, along with works of poetry, drama, and philosophy.
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