Ivan Kraus: NO SOIL

Rubrika: Literatura – Fejetony

On that August day in 1968, my father was lying on the pavement in Wenceslas Square. He didn’t lie down to attract attention, but because he had heard gunfire and caught sight of tanks.
He wasn’t the only one lying on the pavement
Just nearby a professor of Czech had dropped to the ground.
Alongside the professor lay a man from Senohraby who was worried about his wife. My father reassured him that Senohraby was of no strategic importance.
“Every occupation has started on this square. It’s a good place for photography and it looks well in the press,” he said.
“That’s true,” the professor agreed and recalled the year of 1939, saying he happened to be at the bottom of the square at the time.
Father said that every liberation looked different. It chiefly depended on where the army was coming from. He said the Germans were a punctual nation, so their armies always arrived on time.
The professor agreed and said the Slav origin of the Russians made Athem more instinctive.
“What have they come here for?” asked the man from Senohraby.
“They’ve come on a visit,” my father said and explained that Czechoslovakia was an attractive country, even it was small. It had a pleasant climate, lots of places of interest and nice countryside, all of which made it a natural travel destination.
“But not in a tank!” objected a man who had just lain down alongside the professor with a copy of the Communist daily under him so that his clothes didn’t get dirty.
One of the tanks, from which smoke was billowing, suddenly turned, aimed its gun at the Museum and opened fire. A hole appeared in the wall of the building. From the other side of the square came the sound of machine-gun-fire. At that moment all the men huddled together.
Then the man on the newspaper said he hoped there wouldn’t be bloodshed.
The professor declared that the hospital was the only place where the Czech nation shed its blood.
The man from Senohraby said in a loud voice that it served the Czechs right. Masaryk was originally to blame. But for him, the country would have been neutral long ago. The man conceded that he ought to have his head tested for not having emigrated to Austria long ago. The professor didn’t agree with neutrality. He claimed it was an erroneous attitude that totally ignored historical development and he would have gone on to address various other related matters, except that the man from Senohraby wasn’t interested and was talking about his brother who had already been living in Vienna for twenty years.
“I’m in favour of socialism with a human face, like comrade Dubãek,” said the man on the newspaper.
“And I’m more worried about whether there’ll be any potatoes,” said the man from Senohraby. That irritated the other man. He said he couldn’t understand how someone could think of food at such a crucial moment and said he ought to be ashamed. Then the two gentlemen lying on the pavement started to quarrel.
“There you have it - the Czech nation! Even when it’s laid low it goes on arguing!” the professor sighed and bemoaned the fact it should happen to him, a translator of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky.
Later, when the situation had calmed down bit and people started milling around the tanks, the man on the newspaper decided he would go and reason with the Soviet troops. The man from Senohraby said he would go to see if he could find some potatoes and the professor indicated he was retiring into himself. Father got up too and went off to his office.
When he discovered that the building was occupied and was told he was to go home and keep the peace, he set off for Letná Plain.
Mother was already waiting for him there.
“What will happen now?” she asked.
“We’ll have to close ranks even more than before, of course...” my father began, but my mother told him to kindly spare her his stupid comments, and surprisingly enough, he did as he was told.
Some while later, he was summoned by the Party. The comrade who represented the Party at the interview asked my father just one question: whether he regarded the arrival of the fraternal Warsaw Pact armies as assistance to the country.
“Of course,” my father replied, and his answer clearly pleased the man, as he was about to list him among those who had answered correctly.
But my father went on to add that it was the sort of assistance we’d once received from the Germans.
The Party’s representative was taken aback and requested my father to reconsider his answer, particularly as he was still on party soil, but he refused to do so. When he realised he wouldn’t have to pay subscriptions any more my father was even happier.
And when they told him at the office that he couldn’t work there any more as he was no longer trustworthy, he became a pensioner, an occupation which suited him down to the ground.
He bought himself a dog and took it on walks to the park. There he would meet lots of friends and acquaintances who had also failed the test. Their conversation would centre on dogs: how clever theirs was, what it ate and how fit it was. My father taught his dog to carry its collar in its mouth. He used to maintain it was a proper Czech dog as it knew what was required of it.
And since he had plenty of time at last, he was again able to devote himself to growing house plants. One day, when he was intending to re-plant one of his plants, the flower shop had a sign outside saying NO SOIL.
That odd notice perplexed him.
“No soil, no soil...” he repeated over and over again, wherever he went. Maybe at that moment he realised just where he was living - in a country that he had never managed to leave, because he himself was afraid of being transplanted, even though it had been transformed over the years into what the party called its “soil”.
Then mother overheard him making a phone call.
He tried to disguise his voice and act as if he was calling from Head Office.
He spoke sharply to the manageress of the flower shop, ordering her get in a stock of the stuff immediately, seeing it was in plentiful supply, otherwise he’d have her transferred. Mother maintained that Father put on a good performance for a beginner. She said that he lacked her thirty years’ practice, naturally, and he’d have to work on his voice production and characterisation, but overall she was very pleased with his performance.
I believe it was a crucial moment, because that day my father went underground and our family achieved political unity.
No wonder my mother was pleased with my father’s performance.
It was also the first time he had adopted her attitude to life and finally planted his feet on the ground. 

Knihu Ivana Krause Číslo do nebe
vydalo nakladatelství Academia
03 /1.Konfrontace 78

Tento článek byl v Pozitivních novinách poprvé publikován 20. 08. 2006.