The action of the novel takes place in one day (as in Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway). The main character is Simon Blef, a man who has emigrated to Holland, where he met his future wife, a Mexican-Dutch girl named Estrella. As he waits for Estrella, who is returning from Spain, Simon wanders into the Amsterdam pubs and starts drinking. As time passes, all kinds of memories surface from the past. There is no striking action in the novel; it is rather an impressionistic reverie with glimpses of humour and a mordant commentary on the main character’s ambition to become a writer. This novel was shortlisted for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary award, Anasoft Litera Prize, in 2011.
1. There’s somebody
whose refuge is a pub like this, neither filthy nor speckless, but the sort of place where a passer-by does not stay too long. Battered, creaky chairs, dust-coated wooden panelling, a slot machine. For somebody refuge means a bar counter, subdued conversation, light music, world-famous glances from bronzed faces. For someone, again, it’s a woman willing to hear the cycled effusions of pain, morning and evening. Hear them, care for them, cultivate and protect them. Fantasies of alleged wrongs and menaces. For Simon Blef, whom no misery is tormenting today and therefore he claims no concern, refuge means this Amsterdam pub, neither filthy nor speckless, scrunched at the corner of Gravensstraat and Nieuwe Zijdsvoorburgwal. From there Simon Blef gazes at the world, observes passers-by, how they borrow and steal gestures, each in a way that is both unique and custom-worn. Not quite half an hour ago he was boring through the crowds that came hurtling out from the platforms of Centraal Station and wondering whether to go left and find some quiet boozer in the Red Light District sidestreets, or if he ought to go right and cast anchor as ever in this unprepossessing drinking shop, which basically serves as an entrance hall for a hotel and restaurant on the first floor.
Simon has picked his spot by the window so as to be able to see the doings not only on the street but also by the bar counter. Encompassing with one’s gaze the largest possible segment of the world currently served up: then he feels in a place of refuge.
Indifferently he tracks the translocation of torsos, their jostling, swishing, hesitancy, and then a renewed repelling decisiveness. Voices, hair, eyes, chests. Some shift this way, others that. Footsteps squelch, figures hunch, limbs seesaw. Shoesoles stick and unstick themselves from the dark-grey pavingstones strewn with squashed-out bits of chewing gum, spittle blobs, remnants of ice-cream, sandwiches and fruit. Plans, itineraries, turbulence in stomachs. Bodies prevaricating, bodies galloping, bodies embodying something. Announcing something, concealing something. Out-thrust inquisitive jawbones, nervous eyeballs. These this way, those that way. Bags of dreams, bladders of words. Bladders of phlegm.
Some push bicycles, more have wives dragging them. Certain wives grip umbrellas or guidebooks, while a number are shoving prams. Howls come out of some of those, babble from others, and a rustling sound from still others. But Simon, behind this glass, hears nothing, only gazes; analyses nothing, only props up his jaw. And contentedly he breathes, blows on his tot of Holland gin. And torsos flow. Flow here, flow there, limbs in the current.
And he gazes, gazes at the bristly bricks of Nieuwe Kerk, gazes at those especially, at that sullen gothic which someone denied a belfry. Truly: no belfry, not like Oude Kerk in the red lamps quarter: that marketstall of God can boast of a sturdy rearing spire that may be seen across the roofs and canals, the barges and bicycles, across the hordes of scruffs leering in front of the display windows with the pink-lighted benefactresses; it can pride itself on a smartly tapering helmet, not like its younger sibling where, you’d never believe it, the rulers of Holland take their oaths of office. The black bricks of Nieuwe Kerk. A delight to gaze at, gape at for hours on end, which Simon alone knows.
Some of those fluent torsos stop and look thitherwards too, at Simon, into this brown twilight; they gape through the greasy windows, curious whether there mightn’t be a space for them here, two or three chairs, a table, a slot by the bar; they gape just for a moment, without deeper interest, then they pass on to the window opposite which is all laid out with women’s party shoes. So the torsos shift over there and afterwards move on further, gaping at the summer shoes, the white, the pink and the blue, they examine the merchandise, they examine the sales assistant and her customers within, working out what’s the point of them, what they’ve got on and what they have on their minds, they gape at them, just for a moment, before being washed on further, to another shop, to another bar, or they betake themselves straight to Spui Square for a beer in the smoke-dusky Cafe De Zwart.
Simon diverts his attention to the bar counter and the jovial barmaid. Scraps of foreign languages filter to him from the handful of men sitting on the high chairs; sometimes he seems to be hearing American, then again Spanish; the foreigners guffaw, they arrive and depart, some descend to the cellar to relieve themselves in the cramped toilet smelling of suds and then clamber back up the breakneck stairs, and they order another beer or another short.
Like sailors on dry land hit by a rainstorm, Simon muses. And now we’re drying off, we’re in an interlude. We’re waiting for a favourable wind in our skulls. Simon taps his forehead and grimaces. A favourable wind. Holland gin, old, yellow and strong, first stings you and burns you, then it starts to warm you up and finally gives regular heating. The little stoker in the steamship’s bowels. And a beer for company. Two golden liquids. By their light the soaked sailor immediately picks up courage: to murmur under his moustache or scribble something in his notebook.
Simon Blef, notorious note-taker.
Favourable wind, blow away these thoughts and blow in something… something…
The golden light of the beer and the golden light of Oude Jenever. These two lights have a mutual understanding. They stand facing, one in a quarter-litre measure, the other in a sovereignly moulded spirits glass. They comprehend each other, whispering something; Simon bends closer, but so far he cannot distinguish even a word of their dispute. So he cranes forward and again looks for the hostess, whose round face might have been cut from a painting by Franz Hals. And he sees, in her movements he sees, in the motions of her fat he sees very well, that this woman is not, quite certainly not, this woman does not belong to the clan of soaked sailors: the sea did not cast her up on a port lashed by rainstorms; she is waiting for nothing, her fat is not waiting for a favourable wind. She, Simon mentally names her Jooske, is no castaway, she need not wait for a merciful boat, an ark that will take her on deck, dry her off and feed her; not for one second does she await such a ship, she has never awaited it, for she herself is the ship that must be waited for, and she will arrive, she will sail up alongside, tilt the bottle and rescue the throat of the mariner.
2. A blond-haired youngster
comes running into the pub and straightaway he starts clawing, grappling his way up onto one of the dry-swabbed bar chairs. He leans against the counter, stretches his neck, looking for a barman, for anyone, for movement irrespective.
This young fellow doesn’t yet know dismay, not yet. He doesn’t yet know he could slide and how he could slide off that rickety bar seat, topple and go thwack on the floor in a pool of beer or melted ice, or the puddle between one spitblob and another.
Atoms, oh, atoms! Child’s molecules, child’s sweat, boyish breath, putrid socks, sticky fingers, dried chocolate behind the nails. Shit-stained underwear; stink of sprayed urine. The monkey hormone of youth. Chemistry of unrestraint. Bruises on the knees, the elbows. Falling milk teeth. Snots and spits; laughter and chatter. And yet again those sticky fingers. Does anything more repulsive currently exist on earth than a small boy’s sticky fingers? Simon imagines how those sticky fingers with dried chocolate behind the nails leaf through a freshly-printed new book and destroy it. What a good thing it is that all those years which so many remember so lovingly, how good it is that those sticky-fingered and kids’-sweat-smelly-socked years, those years of unbridled howling and screeching in the schoolyard, years of casual shoves and elbow jabs, sweaty bread and oranges in plastic bags, what a good thing that all those and similar years are gone forever, those years of stomach upset, parental slaps and the physical education masters’ cruel jests. What a good thing Simon now can just sit as he’s doing, pour yellow liquid into himself, and indifferently watch the muck-daubed crush on the streets. And what a bad thing that he will never ever have one hundred percent protection against a fagan-warren like this, which by voice, stink and motion instantly hurls him into the hullabaloo of school!
They’ll break up eventually, all of those wells, canals and piping that distribute hormonal rabies and nourishments through the body, they’ll all dissolve; all of those networks of soft engineering will dissolve. All the glands and veins, all the bladders and reservoirs, the eyeballs and hollows. The atoms will split like hazelnut shells. Eventually even this child will begin to lose the elasticity of muscles and mind; first he will lose flexibility of mind, and afterwards his fixed ideas will fetter his muscles, sucking away their power, and the muscles will shrink, they’ll surrender, the child will begin to shuffle, one day he’ll discover that he’s seventy years old, and yet still he’s that child who is climbing up on the bar counter. And then he’ll no longer be bothered that at any moment he’s going to die; all that’ll worry him is that in seventy years he has not moved anywhere (and actually where should he have moved to?) and now he must die as a child. What an idea! Simon immediately starts to come to life. And afterwards those worms that chew the ancient’s body will dissolve, they’ll disintegrate, and something smaller, something much smaller and more wretched will bear off their scraps to their version of a den, to a further safety, to the safety of further ruin. And there in that ruin, in that workshop and forge, those miniature scraps will be reassembled, and from their combination once more something greater will grow, once more only some miserable chirping thing. Simon reaches for the tot of Holland gin.
Mariner, he records words like that.
He would love to write a novel one day. About sailors, because they are licensed to drink, to drink lots. While reading about sailors, or more precisely about writers who had signed up for lengthy voyages on the great seas, he has the feeling of doing something propitious to good health. Not everyone can sail the oceans, after all; the mariner must be a man, he must have steel-like muscles, use strong language and drink lots. The sailor cannot be sitting around with fragile creatures who imagine that they’re writers and in reality are afraid of living life. A sailor: that means above all the chance of becoming a writer. The sailor does plenty of travelling and so he experiences plenty, he involves himself in everything and gets himself out of all kinds of scrapes, ducking right under the swinging scythe of Death, and afterwards either he writes about it or he doesn’t write about it. Either. Precisely that either – or impresses Simon. The sailor can choose freely; he can spurn the chance of eternalising experiences such as the fragile writers cannot even dream of. Simon would like to have a sailor’s body, he would like to inhabit some sailor, but only just sort of gingerly, so it wouldn’t do him much harm. Not harm the sailor. Looking at the hostelry guests by the bar, there are one or two that he’d bet were sailors. Only, what would they be doing here in the middle of town? And what is he doing here when he dreams so much of the society of strong men? Why not take himself off to the port, why not seek there his pub, his lifetime opportunity? He should leave for there without delay, the fact is he’s never met a genuine sailor in his life. Actually, he’s never even been on a sea voyage. He delights to look at the ocean waves crashing, but no account would he commit himself to the marine element’s care. That’s also why he’s such a weak swimmer. Paddling close to the shore, that’s fine, but to lie flat on the water – unthinkable. In his secret thoughts he would love to humble the water. Joyfully he would walk on it; such an act would express his pleasure in violating the laws of physics. If he were able to walk on water, if he did not have to fear Nature, to whose principles everyone gives approval, as if life on a planet with such physical principles was first prize in some transcendental lottery, then he would also have the courage to be a sailor. For today (because once again some of Nature’s laws are here regarded as natural) it is not only his exaggerated caution that inhibits him but also his age. At his time of life, with such enfeebled muscles, he’d no longer be employed on any deck. So then, he’ll have to make do just with novels about sailors. Except that those bring further disquiet upon him: the tang of salt, fish, sea wind, the unreachable horizon of steely health. Yes, if something in the sailor novels excites him, it’s a physical condition such as he will never attain. But if sometime or other he got down to writing a novel, he would not do a fine analysis of his personal state of health, nor would he distribute his valetudinarian fears and handicaps among the characters. He would write about the sea, about sailorly introspection, about a writer who for the while had become a sailor. As the saying goes, he’d put the theme in the bag. Needless to say, first he’d compress it, afterwards, though, he’d bag it. Motif by motif, detail by detail. He would write about a sailor so that the sailor in his novel could drink with a good conscience. For what can be more wretched than a novel with a drinking writer? The sailor would sit in a hostelry like this one, or even right here, in this pub at the corner of Gravenstraat and Nieuwe Zijdsvoorburgwal, he’d stare at the street and drink. No sententiousness about novels and questions of being. Questions of being? Simon’s sailor would roar. Look, there’s the sea, go taste some life! And then you can chatter.
Rushing into the barroom after the youngster comes a robust, self-confident women: big thighs fully filling the pallid jeans, her white blouse loose, wind-blown, earthy: breasts of the indestructible peasant. Breasts ridging over gloomy potato fields. Beyond doubt: a mother. A woman, quite some bit of stuff, a tigress racing about in protective mode. The name Hanneke would suit her well, or Marjon. Flustered, she smiles at the tapster, at that half-shot, taciturn, red-cheeked philanthropist who has surfaced from devil-knows-where, most likely from a secret coop under the counter, and asks for a lemonade for the lad. The woman, who probably isn’t really called Marjon, to all appearances has just hopped out of a car parked somewhere nearby. A model northerner, the kind who never feels the cold, never, not even if she’s strolling through town in a blizzard dressed like this. She rattles her carkeys. A single mother. Or is there after all a successful daddy hunched in the stationary car? In the front passenger seat, the father-in-law seat? Daddy, daddy, veins, lung, masculine smell. Even I’ve got one somewhere, Simon thinks, I’ve got one too.
Translated from the Slovak by John Minahane
Peter Macsovszky (1966) is a bilingual Slovak-Hungarian writer and poet, author of two novels, including Making Skeleton Dance (Mykať kostlivcami, 2010) and several story collections, and some ten volumes of poetry in Slovak, as well as and five collections poetry in Hungarian. He lived in Enschede, Holland, for six years and is currently based in the state of Sao Paolo, Brazil.
John Minahane is an Irish translator of Slovak literature based in Bratislava, Slovakia.
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