Eszter Bencsik

Youth. The word flickered through my mind unexpectedly, violently, as I watched Magda cross the bridge and approach me, her open coat flying behind her. I clenched my fist in impatience over my sentimentality. I became aware of the marble I’d been fidgeting with, loosened my grip and dropped it into the river running below.

Magda smiled her asymmetric and clumsy smile. More idealistic or less poetic: if I were either, I would be touched by this smile – I thought to myself. Still, looking at her I knew that Magda was the person I had ever been closest to loving.

Magda reached me. I returned her smile, embraced her and kissed into her hair. Her fragility struck me and as always, its lyricism alienated and irritated me. So, I let her go and forced myself to ground myself in reality again. I looked at the street leading to the Old Town, its once pretty houses abandoned and left to fall into their ruins after the Germans fled them in the aftermath of the war.

Magda wanted to walk into the centre of the town.

“It’s odd for a girl, obsessed with beauty as you are, to prefer these run-down and rotting buildings to the hill and the forests,” I said but I didn’t mind not leaving the town. I, too, preferred to walk the dilapidated streets of  Český Krumlov and observe the universal decay, especially on days like this when the harsh April wind had blown away all the dust from the air and all the objects were left exposed to the cool and unforgiving brightness of the sun. Such days didn’t allow for absolution.

“Whoever is awake must not sleep,” replied Magda, smiling, and I was wondering whether it was a fortunately timed quote I didn’t recognise or if there was anything heavier behind her overpowering gentleness. I never made the effort to find out – I couldn’t afford to.

We sat down on the bank of the canal we were walking along and held our faces into the harsh and unrelenting white sun. The Friday afternoon stretched ahead of us motionless and we leaned back on our backs into years past and years to come, huddled up against one another, still and silent.

Yet, on the surface, time seemed to be boiling. This was the spring of 1963 and we only had a few months left of high school. There was an intense sense of expectation in the air, though, probably out of a sense of loyalty, no-one put their sentiments that way. Conversations centred on the years behind us, our friendships, and our youth drawing to an end – but our gaze searched the future. Every now and then one of us would get reduced to tears, seemingly touched by some sort of premature nostalgia and these times others were ready to hold their hands, indicating the loss being mutually shared – but never in these moments did eyes meet, as they would have betrayed that the waves of emotions and tension were brought to us by the yet unknown future, and not the overly familiar past. If I was an exception, it was only that this state of mind was not much new to me – I had never been overly invested in the present as most of my schoolmates were. Still, I shared the general sentiment, the excitement over the approaching future, over adulthood, only, I hid it out of a respect for the conventions of camaraderie, and not at all out of a shame felt over its betrayal. If I did feel shame, it was the consequence of reminding myself over and over again that excitement for, and faith in the future were naïve, just as nostalgy for the past is naïve. The latter, nostalgy, I trained myself out of. It was time to forget about the former. Excitement, I knew, had no roots in reality. Instead, it was grounds for misery and meaningless sorrow. Excitement entailed the significance of one’s life. I realised early on, however, that individual lives weren’t the sort of things capable of significance. Importantly, this sentiment had nothing to do with the regime under which I grew up.

I did have an excuse for looking forward to the post-school life. I wasn’t eager for life just in general. I had a plan. A plan with an origin story that ran as follows:

On a warm night in the summer of 1962, some of the boys from the football team in which I was keeper gathered together on one of the tiny islands of the Vltava just outside Krumlov to celebrate winning the regional cup. That night, being seventeen and drinking beer with those boys, was beautiful in a unique and unusual way. It was camaraderie. But camaraderie emerges from the rare constellation of unpredictable events and so the fact that this was the first and last time in my life I have felt this way is not surprising, neither does it have any significance at all.

At any rate, a couple of hours later Pavel, a boy I’d been long attracted to, and I, ventured up to the Castle, drunk on beer and the confidence the feeling of unexpected and strong friendship gave us. We were walking around the empty cobbled streets of the Castle and weren’t talking much as, though our drunkenness had been wearing off steadily, we pretended that it hadn’t. We were clinging onto the pretence of not being ourselves, of not being concerned with the presence of the other. We were trying to delay the moment of reckoning with one another, of addressing the other: the moment which, nevertheless, was forcing itself on us, weighing on us in the silence of the streets, in the echo of our footsteps. We were still pacing. I looked sideways at Pavel. He was gazing straight forward: his face looked sober and unreadable. I sensed his nervousness, but he didn’t show it. I liked him for it. I liked him for being unreadable, too. In the world we were living, it was proof of strength. It was, I suppose, Pavel’s strength; a quiet, unpretentious strength that had always attracted me to him, though we’d never really talked before. That was going to change at any moment, we both felt that and we both felt threatened by it.

Pavel was still pacing onwards, head high, determined.

“So we beat on, ships against the flow,” I said.

“Teige?” said Pavel, looking at me curiously. This was, I knew, a sign of trust and friendship. For Teige’s works had been destroyed and forbidden.

“No,” I said. “Fitzgerald.” I didn’t expect Pavel to know. No one of my generation in Czechoslovakia knew Fitzgerald. He wasn’t published, let alone translated. That my aunt insisted on talking to me in English and that I found an old edition of Gatsby in the attic were signs of eccentricity as they posed a threat which was deemed not to be worth it by anyone sane.

“I thought you weren’t to be sucked in by pointless romanticism,” said Pavel.

I looked at him, surprised, and his eyes reflected sadness. Still, his voice was gentle and warm, rather than bitter.

“I guess I like the sound of it. Of the sentences,” I replied.

“Well, I wouldn’t know,” said Pavel, “I don’t read English. But my Grandmother told me the story.”

I tried to remember Pavel’s grandmother but I didn’t have any recollections.

“I’ve never quite understood why you were so much against sentimentalism,” said Pavel. “If you dismiss emotions, what else have you got?”

“Truth,” I said.

“In this world? Here?”

“It is precisely in this world that emotions are not real.”

“What about Magda, then?” Pavel didn’t stop pacing but his voice was suddenly devoid of all charm and tenderness.

“I’m not playing with Magda. Magda is…” I hesitated for a second. “She isn’t relational.”

I meant this. Magda wasn’t my love. She wasn’t someone I was attached to. Magda was in my life as someone I respected as a self-contained entity. Though, as I said, Magda was as close to being the subject of my love as possible, our relationship had nothing to do with emotions. Magda was real: she had her desires but was undemanding of others. She was always unfailingly kind, sweet even, and unfailing detached. She was her own and I couldn’t ignore that independence of spirit. Magda had substance. She also had love for me, about this I had no doubt, but all the love was made redundant by her unrelenting and unforgiving substance.

“You do realise,” said Pavel, his voice returning to its usual gentle register, “that to verify whatever you hold true of this world, you have to leave it.”

“Of course,” I replied, even though I had never thought about it this way.

By this time, we reached one of the towers of the Castle wall overlooking the dark and silent town and river below and the abandoned peasants’ cottages on the hill to the right. We stopped and observed the night.

I had an idea.

“Of course,” I repeated. “Which is why I am going to leave this place. Right after graduation. I will verify my notions of reality. And, most importantly: I will return.”

Pavel raised his eyebrows in indication of his disbelief.

“Understand, Pavel: it is essential that I return. Gatsby left his world seeking reality for his ideas, but as he was not ready to return to his origins, he got detached from reality only to die with nothing but romanticism. I, on the other hand, will pursue all the romanticism that abandonment will offer, but – in light of my resolve to return – I will see all of it for what it is. I will eventually acquire the purest sense of reality, laid bare by the abandonment of all sentimental adornment which I will have experienced to be empty. Gatsby sought reality and found romanticism. I will seek romanticism and find reality.”

“How hurt you must be to have such a notion of reality,” said Pavel, but I was no longer listening. I felt the euphoria of this immense enunciation of mine of a principle that I could live by.

That I kept faithful to this slogan over the years is proven by the fact that I always understood this night with Pavel up in the Castle for what it was: a creation of a comfortable narrative that gave my future actions some kind of direction and shape; an easy justification. I understood that it wasn’t the motivation for what was to come. That my life in the coming years wasn’t following a direction bestowed upon me by the light of intellect that manifested itself on a summer night in 1962. Rather, it was set out by my predispositions, stemming not only from the circumstances of my life so far, but at least as much from the conditions preceding my birth.

In my self-destructively sober moments, I could see my story with an almost omniscient clarity, a clarity which confirmed the nonimportance of my existence as an individual.

The background to my life was quite simple: in the December of 1944 my mother, 7 months pregnant, came home to her parents’ Prague house to find that my father, an engineer of Romani descent whom she and her family had been hiding in one of the flats for years at that point, was missing. Safe in the knowledge of her own impotence, my mother sat down in an armchair, waiting for the secret police to come and take her away for hiding her husband. She was sitting in the chair until three in the morning, by which time she realised that no-one was coming for her; that my father must have left the house prior to being captured.

Aggrieved, as well as exhilarated by the life she had miraculously retained only hours after making her peace with its end, my mother set out to find my father. She had heard rumours: she packed a suitcase and decided to set out for Poland first thing the next morning.

She was already walking down the street heading to the central station when her sister, running after her in nothing but a nightgown, caught her by the arm, screaming at her, cursing her for her lack of responsibility for her family and lack of rationale, and dragged my mother back to the family home.

For the next two months until my birth there was always someone supervising my mother so that she wouldn’t set off in search of my father. Once I was born, however, on the 1st of March 1945, her family let her enjoy more freedom convinced that my presence, a baby, would increase her will to live and her readiness to compromise.

This was a miscalculation. In me, my mother only saw my father. Every time she looked at me, she was filled with unbearable self-blame and grief for my father and for not actively seeking to rescue him. It wasn’t more than 3 weeks after my birth that she left her paternal house once more: this time successfully.

How far she got is unclear. There were reports of seeing her near the Polish border, but no-one could trace her route after the 2nd of April 1945. She was most probably shot at the border or killed near a camp.

My aunt’s family, who took me in, moved to Český Krumlov before the Soviet took over, fearing, with reason, the persecution of wealthy families like theirs.

They started their new life in provincial Czechoslovakia, fearing not only the loss of a beloved sister and brother-in-law but above all the meaninglessness of their death. For their death was meaningless, even when granting a fundamental meaning to historical fate. As they came to learn from a neighbour after the end of the war, on the day of my father’s disappearance a black car of the secret service drove down their otherwise quiet street. It parked down right in front of my grand-parents’ house, and the chauffeur entered the house opposite theirs. With reason could my father have thought that the secret police were searching all the house on the street. Seeking to defend my mother’s family, he fled the house. However, there was no searching that day in the street: the chauffeur was an off-duty police officer, taking the car to visit his mother. My father need not have fled.

He didn’t get far, either. He was worse off than Jews in hiding: his dark skin betrayed him immediately. He was never taken to a camp. He was shot just a few streets away by a Nazi mobile killing unit that started roaming the streets of Czechoslovakia that year. This meant that my mother’s search, and ultimately, her death was in vain, too, as my father never left Prague.

So, as I say, my aunt’s family had to deal with not only with my parents’ death, not only the cruelty thereof, but also the meaninglessness of it. There was no narrative to offer the solace of interpretation. There was no redeeming way of remembering them. Their death remained an open wound, never tended to, and it turned my aunt and uncle into newly faithless people. Their disaster was that throughout the first thirty years of their lives, they had internalised the notion that only a metaphysically meaningful life was worth living. But they were no longer able to find any sense in an individual’s life anymore, seeing existence as painfully comic rather than majestically tragic. My aunt and her husband became bitter people.

They did try their best to hold up. They had my cousins, one older and one younger, and me. Me, whose life to them was the ultimate manifestation of meaningless existence. Not that they didn’t love them. They did and, as if out of shame for their feelings, they were giving me the very best opportunities they could to demonstrate the opposite of their innermost convictions: that my life wasn’t, in fact, worth investing in; that it had no inherent value to enhance.

Despite their best efforts, I understood all this, and, crucially, knowing the circumstances of my birth, I understood and sympathised with their way of reaching their conclusion. My thinking differed on one point only: as I never attributed importance to my parents’ death, as it was never immediately painful to me, I didn’t end up considering my life meaningless in any significant sense. I considered it nonsignificant, yes, but not more nonsignificant than anyone else’s. To me, significance of a life was never the precondition of metaphysical peace with life as it was to my aunt’s family. Growing up, I was constantly amazed by the emotional torture that people around me so readily exposed themselves to just by committing the error of overestimating the significance of their own lives or at least the meaning thereof.

At any rate, my aunt and my uncle didn’t have to know that they hadn’t managed to hide from me. They didn’t have to know that I knew why my aunt insisted on talking to me in English or teaching me to play the piano and tennis, the education of her own childhood that neither of my cousins received. In teaching me these skills that had no application in the world we were living in, she set out to prove the unprovable: that my life was worth living and, by entailment, worth investing in. That my life had meaning, not to be found in the practicalities of my existence but in the universal sphere of human culture in which there existed a point, even if that point did not coincide with the present, where my life, endowed with these skills, represented value. I didn’t have my cousins’ privilege: my life didn’t possess any relevance. In the present, my life was redundant and without meaning. But I did have something instead: some sort of atemporal worth.  The hope was, on the part of my aunt, that this would be ammunition enough for the life ahead of me. Still, she lived in a state of perpetual self-blame for not providing her sister’s son with a life to be lived in his own time.

In light of this, the news that my aunt’s family received in the April of the year 1961, only a few months before that summer night in the Castle with Pavel, was redemption.

It was an early Thursday evening and as soon as I arrived back home from school, I heard my younger cousin cry.

“You know, Ljuba, that it wouldn’t make sense for you to go,” my aunt’s voice was coming from the kitchen. “Besides, you don’t have reasons to leave here. Not as many as he does, anyway.”

“Everyone has more than enough reasons to leave here,” sobbed Ljuba. “You’re favouring him again. Your judgement is distorted by your self-blame. But you see him every day: he’s alright. Janek’s doing just as well as us.”

I had taken off my coat and entered the kitchen. Ljuba was sitting at the kitchen table with red eyes and my aunt was leaning at the counter with deep exhaustion on her face.

“Whatever this is about,” I said to my aunt, “Ljuba is right. You ought not to take away any opportunities from your children for my sake.”

My aunt turned to me:

“Janek,” she said, “good evening. Please sit down.”

I took a seat opposite Ljuba who, to avoid looking at me, buried her face into her arms on the table.

“I received a letter today from a cousin of mine you had never met as he and his wife emigrated to America before the war. They settled down in New York and their business, a factory, seems to have taken off. They are now offering to take one of you in and help with starting a new life in the States,” my aunt speaking with her face to the ground so far, turned towards me: “I would like you to go. Right after your graduation from school next year.”

The news filled me with a sense of comfort that I’d always found in events inevitably outside my control. I also immediately recognised the event for what it was: a chance for my aunt to rid herself from her eternal self-blame. I looked at Ljuba, her face still cradled in her arms.

“Ljuba,” said my aunt, catching my glimpse and looking at her daughter, “has three more years of school. I don’t think it wise to keep my cousin waiting for so long. Besides, she doesn’t speak English. I never taught her.”

Ljuba raised her head ready to protest the weakness of the argument but seeing the expression on her mother’s face she said nothing.

“Janek,” my aunt continued, her voice suddenly less rigid, “I just think you have a better chance of making it.”

I understood that there was no more discussion to be had.

In light of my circumstances, the significance of my night with Pavel is bound to fade. Contrary to what might have been seen to be the case, I didn’t develop any new outlook on life, nor did I make any decisions: that I would leave Czechoslovakia was decided the day my aunt got her letter, and that I would return just a couple of weeks later when I realised, to my terror, that I’d been growing excited and hopeful at the prospect of starting a new life in America. This was dangerous as my experience in life had long confirmed that faith in the abstract is vacuous and leads only to emotional torture at the understanding of the groundlessness of all hope. So, to manage my expectation and practice discipline of mind, I soon resolved to myself that I would return, rightly crushing all pointless hope of a brighter future.

The night with Pavel gave me only one thing: the slogan about Gatsby, that only through the full understanding of romanticism can one acquire truth, the clearest enunciation of my theory of life that I could possibly find. I had to thank Pavel for this: it was obvious to both of us that in setting out my ideas of life thus, I was renouncing his. Pave was the one believing that only in romanticism is there any reality. Through realising the fundamental difference between our philosophies, I could see mine in a clearer light than ever. My project of leaving and then returning to Czechoslovakia was to prove me right, of this I was certain. It had to prove me right, otherwise my life would have turned out to be meaningless, just as my aunt feared.

A year passed, and the summer of 1963 was upon us. I was 18 years old, fresh graduate of my school and ready for my emigration to the States. Everything had been arranged by my aunt: I was to take a train to Prague and from there to Gdansk where the ship to New York was to sail from on the 17th of July.

It wasn’t until the 15th that I started saying my farewells, and indeed, no more time was required for me to do so. There was only two people that knew about my emigration beyond my family: Magda and Pavel who, in the proceeding one year had become a friend.

My farewell from Magda was brief: I assured her that I would return and whether or not she believed me, she didn’t want to spend enough time with me to let me see her cry. Pavel didn’t take more time, either: after avoiding me for day, he came to our house on the eve of my departure, shook my hand and said:

“Do just one thing for me if you will: entertain the idea that the promises of New York might be real.”

I shook my head slightly.

“I will be back, Pavel” I replied in a low voice so that my family wouldn’t hear.

I spent the two weeks of my travel carefully observing my environment: the sounds of the train; the boards of the deck of the ship; the various coastlines.

I kept the habit throughout my first few year in the States: I examined the streets; the volume at which New Yorkers spoke; the minute at night each day when it was completely dark; the way my uncle’s hair got whiter and whiter. I examined my needs and analysed all my relationships. Above all, I wanted to stay grounded. I wanted to always be certain of what real and what was merely a feeling, given rise by the inessential circumstances not belonging to me or to the thread of reality worth pursuing.

The intention of staying grounded did not interfere with my satisfaction in, or even the enjoyment of my life. Quite the contrary: by not letting myself be devoured by irrational upsets and other upheavals of emotion, I could focus fully on making myself comfortable in New York. I made as good friendships as one who doesn’t believe in said friendships’ longevity can. Early on, I started working as a stockbroker pretending to be a French ex-banker. The job market in finance was unregulated and between 1962 and 1968 the bull market on Wall Street was booming. By 1966, I was living in my own flat in Manhattan, owner to a wealth the magnitude of which would have, previously, been entirely unimaginable to me.

With financial comfort thus achieved, I was beginning to grow bored. I started to explore the cultural scene of Manhattan. I had the advantage of wealth, a foreign accent which was exotically pleasant and manner which, their origins being obscure enough to my acquaintances, passed me as interesting. I was also well-educated; better-read even than most of the Manhattan-intellectuals in my circles – though this didn’t matter too much.

Thanks to all this, I soon made a name for myself. I threw dinner parties where Eliot E. Cohen and Harvey Swados were regulars as well as Irving Howe before his move to Michigan in 1967. Through Mary McCarty I was introduced to Arendt who was, at the time, working on her book, ‘On Revolution’ and who, sensing that the façade of the French emigré didn’t quite hold up, insisted on discussing the Soviet regime in Eastern-European countries.

My life in these two years was exciting, new and fresh. I revelled in existing in time, in collecting these extraordinary spirits around myself. I enjoyed being anonymous, extremely young, with practically no history, and therefore the freedom to create myself. I no longer felt grounded and I no longer felt the need to be. I was comfortable in the world despite its unpredictability.

Some nights I thought about the promise I made to myself and Magda and Pavel. These times I would get anxious at how detached I was from my former self. I kept returning to the Gatsby-slogan, reminding myself that the glamour was vacuous, that it would collapse just as Gatsby’s glamour did. But I didn’t really believe in it. More than ever, the analogy seemed forced, the creation of someone more hurt than he cared to admit – just as Pavel had suggested. Still, it was clear to me that to transcend the human nature within me that was keeping me from the revelation of reality, I had to give up the pleasures, the excitements and hopes of my current life: I had to keep my promise and return.

Still, this thought didn’t counter me too often, and I continued living my increasingly excessive life in New York.

On the evening of the 21st of August 1968, I had a girlfriend over. We’d finished dinner and I started kissing her on the couch of my living room. It was then that she informed me, in between my kisses, that the Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Prague. I knew instantly that such a radical reminder of my homeland must prompt me to fulfil my promise: to start planning my return. I made love to the girlfriend with more passion than to anyone else ever before. In the act of lovemaking, I was desperately clinging on to my New York-life.

But already then I knew it to be in vain. On the 3rd of September of the same year, I was sitting in my kitchen, having scrambled eggs. It was to be my last lunch in America. At 2.30 pm, I would take a cab to the airport and fly to Paris from where I would take a train to Prague. I thought with bemusement of the Biblical theme of the last supper and how my philosophy required me to dishonour it as much as possible. No radical sentiments. No special preparation. Scrambled eggs and a glass of orange juice, like every Tuesday for the past years.  By keeping myself grounded and refusing the ritualism of commemorating the passing past, I was acknowledging that life was indifferent to individual fates. I was acting true to reality. The last symbol of my radical denial of symbolism. After lunch, I washed up my plate and my glass, left my keys on the kitchen table and left for the airport with nothing but a handbag.

I reached Český Krumlov at the end of September, after having been detained by the police in Prague for a week. Czechoslovakia seemed darker and more terrified that ever before my migration. So did the Krumlov, and my aunt hugged me close when she saw me, being too frightened to remember to ask me anything.

On the day after my arrival, I gave a call to Pavel’s family’s house. He was home. I asked him whether he would like to come over. An hour later, however, there was a knock on the door and Pavel was standing there with Magda on his side. Magda looked at me with tears in her eyes and Pavel was looking, with sorrow, at Magda.

I hugged them both, joyful and peaceful in my heart that my future remained exactly as I left it.

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