Translation Tuesday: An Extract from “To The Border” by Ondřej Štindl

Remembering the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, exactly 50 years ago to this date

50 years ago on 21 August 1968, the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries marched into Czechoslovakia, crushing the short-lived experiment with democratic socialism known as the Prague Spring. This brutal clampdown marked the beginning of “normalization”: within months of the invasion, before the borders were sealed, thousands of people fled the country. Tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks who refused to pledge allegiance to the new regime and declare their support for the Soviet-led “fraternal assistance” lost their jobs. Free expression was stifled, scores of writers, film and theatre directors, artists, musicians and other artists were banned from publishing or performing. Some, like Milan Kundera or Miloš Forman, were driven into exile, while of those who stayed, dozens were imprisoned, and their children punished for their parents’ “sins.” (My own parents were among those silenced and later jailed, while I was barred from access to higher education). Playwright Václav Havel, who would spend years in prison for his outspoken opposition to the new regime before becoming the country’s first post-communist President following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, articulated the devastating impact of normalization on the people of Czechoslovakia in an open letter addressed to Communist Party Secretary-General Gustáv Husák in 1975:

“Despair leads to apathy, apathy to conformity, conformity to routine performance—which is then cited as evidence of ‘mass political involvement’. All this goes to make up the contemporary concept of ‘normal’ behaviour—a concept which is, in essence, deeply pessimistic…  Order has been established. At the price of a paralysis of the spirit, a deadening of the heart and devastation of life. Surface ‘consolidation’ has been achieved. At the price of a spiritual and moral crisis in society?”

Lest we forget the hard-fought lessons of history that still hold great relevance today, let’s remind ourselves of them again and again through great works of literature, such as this vivid description of a political awakening in the aftermath of this invasion, in Ondřej Štindl’s novel translated for the first time into English by Tereza and Mike Baugh for Asymptote.

—Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-Large for Slovakia

He was on summer holiday with his parents when five Warsaw Pact armies invaded. His father and mother decided to stay until everything passed. Michal was suffocating at the cabin; he imagined tanks rumbling through the streets while he shot starlings off cherry branches with his air rifle. He should have been aiming at something different and been somewhere else than the South Bohemian idyll where the most menacing things were the dragonflies zipping over the pond, steel blue and shiny like miniature fighter planes, engines revving. Something was happening in Prague – finally something as monumental as the city deserved. History was screaming through the streets of Prague and Michal wasn’t there.

For the first time in his life he was devouring the newspaper, sitting by the radio listening to the serious and intent voices, listening to the distant sound of gunfire during newscasts. He cut out the photo of the bloody flag under the statue of St. Wenceslas; he wanted to carry it in his pocket but felt it would be sacrilegious to fold it.

After his return to Prague, he could still feel the reverberations of it all in the walls, but they were fading quickly, just like the passion of the crowds debating in the streets. They were still unafraid to air their thoughts in front of the world, but their numbers were decreasing. Respectable comrades who had just recently championed the courage of those who had come out against the occupation were suddenly saying the most important thing was to remain calm. Michal didn’t want to stay calm. He wasn’t alone. At the funeral of a student who had set himself on fire, he heard the crowds pledge vows of loyalty, and he did as well. He imagined what it must be like to run engulfed in flames, and it made his blood stop in horrified respect.

He finished seventh grade and they took him away from Prague again; he was determined that this time he wouldn’t let his parents lock him away. Everybody expected huge protests for the first anniversary of the occupation and Michal believed it was a war he’d have to fight. He stole money from his father, just enough for the journey, and managed to stay awake all night and climbed out of the window early in the morning to catch the first train. He rushed along an empty road towards the town with the train station. In the crisp and silent cold, Michal trembled with a restlessness and seriousness that he had never known before. He was passing places from his childhood: the forest where they used to pick mushrooms – with his eyes nearly to the ground he would report every discovery, every trampled toadstool, to his amused parents; the flooded old sandpit – “don’t swim out any further, it’s too deep for you;” the footbridge over the creek where you could catch pikes and doctor fish if you had the patience to wait and stare at the surface. He knew he was leaving all that behind, even though he might come back next summer. But by then he’d be someone else because today he was going to taste real life, jump in head first. At thirteen he’d see history up close and find himself in it.

When he got off the train in Prague he could already feel the tension on the platform. The air above the city seemed electric, as if it were gathering its strength to explode. As Michal rushed from the Main Station to Wenceslas Square, he imagined sparks dancing around above his head. He got there on time, hadn’t missed anything – it hadn’t started yet. But there were already lots of people on the square. Many had bleary and angry eyes; they had experienced the battles of the previous day, the agitation, and they were still shaken and furious over those two boys who had been shot. But for now, they were on their own or with their own little group, waiting for a signal, a command that would turn the dawdling crowd into an army. People who were furtively watching one another, guessing which of them was undercover, would go on to merge as one great unified will. Michal was somewhere in the middle of the square when it happened; he couldn’t see what caused it, but all of a sudden the waves running through the crowd stopped being random and chaotic; something was emerging. First, it was just a scream, but fury and determination kicked in when he saw the white helmets of the cops and their batons swinging like sausages over the heads of the crowd, landing with disgusting and painful smacks. Soon he inhaled the sweetish smell of tear gas, his throat itched and his voice strained and sounded adult. He let the crowd drag him; he followed it blindly, ran and stopped, circling back to spots he had run away from only minutes before – sometimes without any clear reason, as if the thousands of people were communicating through some silent broadcast, their words garbled in the transmission, stripped of meaning for the recipients. It didn’t take long before Michal found himself in the midst of the chaos; he was perfectly at home, nobody knew the city so well, nobody had wandered it like him. Now he was no longer following but setting the course since he knew all the shortcuts and escape paths in the center. He wasn’t the only one to find some new resolve with the first hit.

They were becoming a force, as impulsive and chaotic as the city around them. They wanted to conquer it for themselves, for a moment at least, rip it from the clutches of power that kept releasing more and more water cannons and metal monsters, personnel carriers and, eventually, tanks. They hurled rocks. They couldn’t stop them, but they made the camouflaged metal chime, made music. In spaces restricted to a few corners, out from under their feet, new nations, free and ephemeral, never exceeding a few moments, were established – Náměstí Republic, the Commonwealth of Trenches, the United Square of Jungmann. The states crumbled under the enfilades and tank-treads of the attacking savages, only to be resurrected a few streets away with dirty banners flying, fireworks launching, and the briefest, unspoken constitution: “We are the People.”

Michal raced among them in a crazed effort to be everywhere. He ran through courtyards where the mothers of Old Town hung their laundry as if nothing were happening. Their families would have to sleep on sheets smelling of tear gas, but that would fade away, just like the storm outside. He ran past churches with bells silent in their steeples; in another era perhaps they could have offered asylum. He ran down by the embankment, the sound of his shoes on the cobblestones disturbing the swans as they rocked gently with the tide. He had to pump the brakes on his legs, on the springs inside them, to stay on the ground, to keep from flying off over the roofs, and even further, because right then all he wanted was to be in those streets clamoring with gunshots and chants.

After all the escapes and narrow scrapes, the exhausting retreats and counter-attacks, he didn’t feel an ounce of fatigue; the euphoria and the smoke from burning barricades drove him on. He expended energy and absorbed it, experiencing instant harmony with strangers who, like him, found their calling in hurling cobblestones. But they diminished with dusk as the authorities snatched one after the other. Others realized they still had a chance of escaping without consequences; they had gotten their fix of fighting, expressed themselves – that was enough. For a moment they fell for the illusion that there was this day and this day alone, but now they already knew that more days were to come and the powers that be would still be. They’d get stronger, more powerful, swell and roar, and nobody would fight anymore. Today’s spurt, today’s tremor was all worth it, but it would be the last. Still, Michal’s temples throbbed with savage delight; he found new routes through the fragments of liberated land. He ran through the night as specialized units took the town back for good, as tank treads ripped up the pavement and sirens replaced rebel shouts. He ran and ran and took a wrong turn.

One was enough.

He ran right into them. The cops knocked him to the ground and silently began to beat the soul out of him. They threw him in a police wagon, with others they had already caught, bloodied and moaning in pain and fear. All of them snatched abruptly from the community they were willing to spill their blood for moments ago. They were struggling for air, sobbing out of helplessness and certainty that when retribution came, they would face it alone. The car started; it didn’t go far. They hauled them out on Krakovská street, shouting and punching. With their uniforms and guns the fuckers knew they were untouchable. Now they felt completely confident again, strong men at the slaughterhouse gate, their muscles twitching to get to work on the new batch of meat.

Michal dragged himself in the direction of the blows. He was sobbing—he couldn’t control it and later he didn’t even try. They were ordered to stop behind the door of the police station. Then the pigs, the boars, stuffed but hungry for more, emerged from the shadows on both sides of the stairwell. With state police and people’s militia caps pulled down low on their foreheads and their batons raised high they furiously and expertly beat the detained as they ran the gauntlet past them. They were trained; they knew how to cause pain. Michal ran screaming, his beaten palms useless to block the blows raining down from all sides.

His body sweat beneath their base and glistening gaze. This is how the machine gets off. Seeing him exposed, seeing the weakness bare on his face. The path of shame led to the cell door; they slammed the door shut behind them and locked it. Through the bars, a fat cop sneered at them and strutted up and down the hall, his shoes leaving tracks of blood with every step. From time to time, he burped, as if he had just arrived from a particularly sumptuous feast. He hammered the bars with his baton and burst out laughing at their fright. Some pranks never got old.

“You stupid fuck!” said a man with a mustache and overalls looking straight at the cop. In a fair fight he would have mopped the floor with the policeman, and the lump in the uniform must have known it. The man behind the bars smiled. He was the only prisoner who radiated something akin to confidence. Maybe because he worked with his hands. You could read it in his face that since this was a so-called labor state, his opinion should matter.

The pig whistled for backup. They pulled the insubordinate hulk out of the cell and laid into him on the spot, so everyone would see. He tried to fight back, but he didn’t stand a chance. He could scream, though. After a while, he went quiet and it was easier to hear his bones breaking. In the cell, the prisoners held their breath as the big laborer was dragged away, sliding across the floor like a wet rag. After that they only spoke to the police when they were asked a question. That didn’t save them from being hit and humiliated. The police grabbed them out of the cell one by one, found out who they were and delivered the type of lesson that leaves bloodstains on the wall. Michal awaited his turn with muscles clenched – maybe if he practiced, it would hurt less.

Translated from the Czech by Tereza and Mike Baugh

Ondřej Štindl (b. 1966) is a film and music critic, renowned journalist and Radio 1 DJ. He made his debut in 2012 with the dystopian novel Mondschein, a sinister post-apocalyptic vision accompanied by Josef Bolf’s illustrations. A key motive in his writing, like that of other members of his generation, is the legacy of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Coming to terms with recent Czech history, is reflected also in his other work, most prominently in the film Walking Too Fast for which Štindl wrote the screenplay, winning several best screenplay awards, including the prestigious Czech Lion in 2011. the novel To the Border (K hranici), appeared in 2016. 

Tereza and Mike Baugh are a Czech-American translation team based in Prague. Tereza is the Czech translator of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary.  Mike is an editor at Karolinum Press; he studied translation at Queens College, CUNY, and is currently pursuing a PhD in the subject at Charles University. 


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