The cabinet

Justin Quinn


1

I’m hearing the story for the first time: ‘So he wanted to make a small door so they could get from the kitchen to the garden without having to go all the way downstairs and then back up the steps to the garden and then the deck. They were getting older, and it wasn’t so easy for them anymore. You can see how nice it is out here: it gets a lot of sun and there’s the walnut tree and the pear tree too. They couldn’t even hand out a cup of coffee from the kitchen – they’d have to go all the way down and up again. So around 1973 or ’4 Deda asked Minka, I mean Grandfather asked Grandmother, would they make a small opening in the wall, but she was dead set against it. She’d often go against an idea, even when it was for her own good, and she’d never explain why, but just dig in her heels and stubbornly keep saying no. Sometimes I thought that she said no just when she saw that Deda wanted something quite badly, and in a bizarre way that made her stop thinking about what would suit her best, just so she could throw a spanner in Deda’s works. (Although the marble steps up to the front door are a different story: they came from a church that was dismantled and nobody wanted them. Deda had them brought around to the house and put in. Minka broke her knee on them later.)

‘He probably explained all the advantages to her, but I think the more enthusiasm she saw in his expression, the more determined she was to forbid it. Maybe he didn’t even ask her because he knew she’d rather have the pleasure of being – what was that word you used? – “ornery”. We were living in the house at the time so my parents and Deda thought up a plan. (We lived here until I was fourteen, then my parents and I moved to an awful tower block on the other side of Strahov hill.) They arranged for her to go to a spa town for a few days (my mother set up that part), and they arranged for the builders to come while she was away. The only thing was that Minka refused to go for longer than a day. They tried to persuade her in various ways – because Deda was a surgeon he was able to give her good medical reasons. But this surge of interest in her medical condition probably made her suspicious and Minka dug her heels in once again. One day and no longer.

‘The next problem that had to be dealt with was the conservation office. All the buildings in this part of Prague are under conservation order: you can’t change the knocker on your door without permission from this office. A few years ago we had to put bars on the ground-floor windows and the office told us exactly how the bars should look and what company should do the job. But people smash things up and build absolutely tasteless stuff in their place all the time, especially if they’re rich. They just have the work done and then they pay the fine later. No one ever forces them to return the building to its original state. But this is under capitalism now. During communism you couldn’t do this unless you were a member of the Central Committee or something like that. So my parents and Deda had to get permission. But they knew that there was no way that the office would agree to an ugly little hole in the wall of a beautiful baroque town-house just beneath Prague Castle purely because two old people couldn’t get up and down the stairs. And we didn’t have enough money for a bribe. There was some connection with the office – maybe Deda had operated on someone from there – but not enough to get the necessary permission. There were always different degrees of pull – or as we call it protekce. Anyway it was enough to get the man with the proverbial rubber stamp to the house, and my father and Deda had a bottle of whiskey prepared. (It was really difficult to get whiskey in those days and I suppose there’s a whole other story about that, but no one’s told me.) Over the course of the evening, they got him drunk and in the end they pulled out the piece of paper and were able to wheedle him into signing it.

‘So a few minutes after Minka went out the door – not to Carlsbad, but some spa nearer Prague – the builders came in. You see how small the door is? That’s because they didn’t have time to make it bigger. About a metre by a half metre? I don’t remember at all what Minka said when she got back (I was probably taken out for an ice-cream on that evening), but she enjoyed it to the full for the few years left to her before she took to her bed (she died in 1986 or ’7). I always remember Deda, though, going in and out of it: he’d have to step up, put one leg out the door, steady himself (he was usually carrying a tray), then put all his weight forward and bring out the second leg. It was always a bit of an ordeal, especially when he was in his late eighties. But funnily enough, it was then that the small size of the door was an advantage as he could steady himself against the frame as he shifted his weight forward. Because he had such broad shoulders he just had to expand his chest a little and he would get, well, kind of stuck in the doorway. He’d stay like that for a second or two until he got his bearings again. I don’t think he ever fell when getting in and out.’


2

Prague survived the vicissitudes of twentieth-century history remarkably well, enduring two occupations and the protracted destruction of four decades of communism. If you visit Warsaw or Frankfurt, you will see only a maquette of the old towns, lovingly reconstructed, but about as authentic as a Loire château in Ohio. Prague’s survival has ensured a large revenue for the city from the tourist industry, but you will rarely, if ever, find Praguers sipping coffee on the Old Town Square, and tourists will not be able to find the cafés, pubs and tea rooms that the natives patronize; these are hidden down side-streets and, in two cases I know of, behind doors that are virtually unmarked apart from a scrawled sign in Czech. Certain streets are for display, holding themselves forth into the tourists’ gaze. Others live their own self-contained life, only rarely discovered by intrepid visitors.

Šporkova is one such street. Though not blind, and only about 100 metres away from the main drag which channels the tourists up to Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge, it gets very little traffic, as there are shorter ways of getting from one end of it to the other. The façades of the buildings are from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of them are two-storey, with two exceptions. The first exception is the apartment building where the street makes a sharp turn: that has four floors, plus some garrets, and is called Dum U Nejsvětější Trojice, the House of the Most Holy Trinity, or more usually Kamenik, which means ‘stone mason’, after the eighteenth-century stone-mason Andreas Kranner whose family owned the building until 1851. The street itself is named after the Šporks family, which owned the small palace on the street during the eighteenth century. The most famous of the Šporks was František Antonín Špork (1662–1738), a well-known patron of the arts. Querulous and litigious, Špork also got into trouble with the Church for writing obscene verses about the Jesuits near his country seat. He despised Prague, speaking of its ‘world renown as a murderous den’. With its three storeys, this palace is the second exception. During the communist period it served as a school for the blind, or, as its official title went, School for Children with Bits of Sight (a direct translation from what sounds just as bizarre in Czech). After 1989 this property was restituted to its pre-war owners, the Oblate Nuns who used to serve in the nearby hospital. Across from that, there’s a residence for out-of-town members of parliament (the parliament itself is fifteen minutes’ walk away). A few years ago they discovered the original timber structure of the house underneath the renovations which date from 1800, and it turned out that before the seventeenth century this was the town hall of a small village named Obora, which stretched up a kilometre or so to meet the city walls at Strahov. The village dates back to the twelfth century and only about two centuries later would the city walls have encompassed it.

Opposite these two buildings, at an angle, is number 8. It has a plain baroque façade and looks to have been a fitting residence for a mildly successful burgher or lower court official. It is sandwiched between two streets: the front gives on to Šporkova and the back on to an even narrower street that is a dead end. The plain style of the sides of the house doesn’t harmonize with the front of the building, which mixes neo-classical and baroque elements. One source says that the façade dates from the late eighteenth century. To the left and right of the façade there are walls which stretch along Šporkova to the neighbouring buildings, and the left-hand wall protects the garden that belongs to number 8. The wall is about two and half metres high, making it impossible to see what the garden is like from the street. For many years a ghost-outline of a door could be seen in the rough masonry of the wall; it had been blocked up in an era when it was cheaper and more usual to use irregular-shaped stones rather than bricks. In front of the same wall, to the left of the door’s outline, there is a statue of John of Nepomuk, an ecclesiastical bureaucrat who was canonized in 1729. He had been tortured on the order of Vaclav IV because, as the official story goes, he would not reveal the confession of the king’s wife. His body was placed in a goat-skin and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the Vltava in 1393. Instead of an aureole, he has a small curved roof which protects his head from the elements, as well as from the walnuts that used to come hurtling down from the nearby tree on the other side of the wall in the garden of number 8 in the late autumn.

A nineteenth-century photogravure shows that the house was once painted purple, which made it stand out from the surrounding buildings, all of which were either shale-coloured or pale grey-blue. What also sets it off is the fact that it is an independent family house with its own garden in a quarter that is made up of apartment buildings and small palaces. People – both natives and tourists – often stop outside and speculate about the life lived inside it, or imagine themselves living there. The wooden door is high and wide and heavy, and is tooled with straightforward baroque carvings; the metal work on the lock and knob is more intensively decorated with swirls of foliage and geometrical designs; the lock’s handle is formed in the shape of large trifoliate leaf that rises and droops to fit neatly into a human hand. Two red marble steps lead up to the front door.

If you stand in front of the door on days when the sun floods the small triangle made by number 8, the Oblate Nuns’ building and the former town hall of Obora, and if you put a key in the door so that it swings cumbrously open to the right, you can see nothing inside, only a deep old darkness. After a minute or two, you might be able to make out more marble steps inside as they pick up odd glints of the weak light which come from the upper floor. The huddled shapes against the wall on the left become identifiable as winter coats; below these, waiting expectantly, are shoes, some neatly aligned, others scattered. There is a long wooden bench beneath the coats, for people to sit upon when taking their shoes on and off. A large carved wooden chest can be made out near what seem to be banisters. What also emerges gradually is the shape of the bathroom door at the end of the hall, in a later style and cheaply done. It is incongruous in a house like this that was probably wedged in the ground five, six or seven centuries ago, a house in which the gloom itself seems medieval. A coolness comes off the dark interior, over the threshold, suggesting access to subterranean spaces that the sun can’t get at, even in the summer when the temperature runs in the thirties for weeks on end. The sun’s heat on the door brings out the pungent smell of its lacquer, and this mixes with the fainter odour of boot polish from your left. Nobody seems to be stirring and you step across the threshold into the darkness.


3

Up to 2001, the label on the bell read: ‘prof. MUDr Zdenek Vahala DrSc.’ Czechs take pleasure in using all their academic titles and arrange them with pride around their names on calling cards, letterheads, forms, name-plates and doorbells. When a person gains a higher title, he or she does not then slough off the lower ones, as is the rule in the English-speaking world, but proudly adds it to the others. Zdeněk Vahala, who was my wife’s grandfather, was typical of the Czechs in this matter.

He was born in 1904 in the Moravian village of Palacov, which is about 300 kilometres from Prague. He came to the capital to study medicine, receiving in 1928 his first degree, MUDr, which stands for medicinæ universæ doctor, in our terms a general practitioner. He married Marie Ostrcilova (to her family, Minka), a girl from a solid Prague family of the professional classes (mainly doctors, as well as a conductor-composer who was one of the early champions of Leoš Janáček at the National Theatre). She herself possessed the degree of JUDr (juris utriusque doctor), although she never practised as a lawyer. During the war he was the head of surgery in a regional hospital, and then from 1945 to 1969 he held the same position in a hospital around the corner from Šporkova Street.

When the communists came to power in 1948 problems began for him. He refused to join the party; he openly mocked the claims of Soviet science; he supported the Oblate Nuns in his hospital in the face of hostility from the communists; and his background was bourgeois (though his grandfather had been a serf). In some cases, these attitudes and orientations were enough to land one in prison. However, the communists seemed to realize that it was better to be operated upon by a good surgeon who did not share their convictions than by a bad one who did, and he was allowed to stay on in the hospital. In the mid 1950s he was proposed as the head of the surgery department. To facilitate this he had to attain the academic title of docent, roughly equivalent to Associate Professor. (This is the one degree that is sloughed off when the adept achieves the highest degree of Professor.) Because the apparatchiks believed him unsound, it was not until 1957, three years after he submitted his thesis for this degree, that he was declared docent.

The 1950s were years of extreme repression in the country (show trials, executions, incarceration of dissidents), and it is strange that the communists agreed to his promotion. For some it would raise the suspicion that Vahala co-operated with State Security, and indeed his name is to be found among the list of informers which was publicized in the 1990s. When Vahala read his name there, he wrote immediately to the Ministry of the Interior asking for clarification. They replied to say that there was nothing in the file to indicate that he had ever co-operated with State Security. The file contains documents in which State Security bureaucrats describe how Vahala would be a good agent to have because of his contacts with the West and in academic circles in Czechoslovakia, and then document how he was sounded out unawares and found wanting by the agent. The file also contains the material the bureaucrats had gathered as evidence to use against him. The only possible explanation, then, for the award of docent was that Vahala had operated upon some communist of consequence, and this had smoothed the way. He took his Hippocratic oath seriously and would have treated such a patient with the same care and expertise that he devoted to his normal patients as well as to German soldiers during the war.

The next title he received was DrSc. (doctor scientiarum) in 1966; it is a different type of doctorate from the MUDr, because it is given in recognition of scientific research. This was possible because the political situation had loosened up considerably in the intervening decade, and it was awarded in preparation for his professorate. However, in 1968 the tanks came into Czechoslovakia at Brezhnev’s behest, ushering in the period of ‘normalization’, when authorities cracked down on all resistance. Vahala’s professorate was blocked at the final stage of approval. The old reasons were still valid and there was also a fresh provocation. In 1968 the philosopher Jan Patočka had asked him to sign the anti-communist petition ‘Two Thousand Words’. He had done so, and refused to retract his signature in 1969. Nevertheless, friends and acquaintances addressed him through the 1970s and ’80s as Professor in recognition of his stature. He became officially Professor in April 1990, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, as part of a large wave of rehabilitations. He spent the period of his retirement writing books, mainly about the effects of incorrect medical diagnosis of the maladies of politicians.

He and his family bought number 8, Šporkova, in 1963. The previous inhabitant, Jan Stundel, a gardener, had hanged himself from a joist in the attic after his wife died; he left the house in his will to a friend, and it was this man who sold the house to the Vahalas. The house had once belonged to Stundel’s mother, Terezie, who was married to a retired official from Prague Town Hall; although it is not stated in the documents, it is possible that she needed a rental income after she became the owner in 1890. In 1963, the house was still divided into apartments and Stundel was landlord to several families at the time of his death. Many of the streets of the quarter were still considered slums; it wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that they became prime real estate. There is a faded photograph of the house from some time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century (to judge by the clothes) in which several families look out of the five windows of the front. The sacristan of a nearby church lived alone in what was later the kitchen on the upper floor, a space measuring about ten square metres. On the same floor there lived a young couple in the back room, and in the front of the house, in the best rooms, there lived the owner and his wife. All these rooms ran around a small yard that had a loggia on the first floor, and there was one toilet for all. A butcher and his wife lived downstairs, and the rest of the ground floor was given over to a large coal bunker.

When the Vahalas bought the house they were legally obliged to find alternative accommodation for all the incumbent tenants. The yard and loggia were then closed up with a large skylight and roofing, and a proper kitchen and bathroom were installed. The former tenants, however, did not completely depart the house. A residue remained in comments and stories, which we often heard during the periods when my wife and I lived there. When cooking in the kitchen, I found it difficult not to think occasionally of the sacristan stretched out, taking a well-deserved rest after his ecclesiastical labours, perhaps where the oil was now crackling on the frying pan. Although the faded photograph from a century back obviously showed a different collection of tenants, over the years the distinction blurred, and I imagined these faces fitting on the young couple, the butcher and his wife, and the important-looking man standing down at the front door with a bowler hat and handlebar moustache. It was the previous owner’s suicide that gave the house its proper pedigree: it seemed only right that there should be the suggestion of a ghost in such an old building. As the seasons changed, the timbers of the building would expand and contract ever so slightly, and those creaks made one think immediately of forlorn Mr Stundel’s body, swinging back and forth on its rope, his spirit having joined his wife’s in the underworld.

The sense of being crowded by other people was intensified by the furniture and pictures that the Vahalas brought into the house. The kitchen cupboards and work surfaces were made out of cherry-wood furniture that had been dismantled, its panels turned inside out and remodelled. Upstairs there was a beautiful enormous sideboard-cum-drinks-cabinet, stretched along the wall of the living room, made in the 1930s in a style that was a sombre counter-note to the more frivolous art deco of the period; this was affectionately known to my wife’s family as ‘the whale’. Downstairs there was a large writing desk obviously by the same carpenter. Beside the desk was an elegant couch that folded out into a bed. The Vahalas also inherited a good deal of furniture from relations in North Bohemia. These were called Jirkovský, or, as their official title and estate went, Jirkovský of Krusec; they were minor aristocracy and some of their furniture dated from the eighteenth century, which meant it fitted excellently into number 8. There was a chest of drawers which had hunting scenes figured in pale marquetry. There were rococo chairs in two different styles, and thus designated to two different rooms. There was a stiff-backed, stiff-sprung couch that turned out to be much more comfortable than it looked. There were several sepia portraits of the Jirkovskýs on the wall behind the couch, along with a photogravure of a proud-looking officer, obviously a Jirkovský who had excelled, or was about to excel, in the service of the Emperor. There was a small pendulum made by a Prague clock-maker, which had more cornices, volutes and triglyphs than a Greek temple. Its ticking gave the upper hall a nineteenth-century pace. If one stood in the middle and looked around, there was very little to remind one that the twentieth century had happened (apart from an unpleasant orange and brown phone from the 1960s). To intensify the feeling of anachronism, there was a violinist in a nearby apartment during the years when we lived in the house and we could often hear him practising the work of Bach and other composers of that period. And yet all was functional and lived-in: the rococo chairs were used, their upholstery flecked in places by food and drink; the table branded here and there by a hot cup; some notes were scattered about – phone numbers, shopping lists, things to do.

The remodelling of the house carried out by the Vahalas in 1964 was merely the latest in a series of renovations that had been going on for centuries. It was difficult to make out the original purposes of rooms, doors and windows. There were two internal windows, like large dinner-hatches between what were now bedrooms and the hall. Deciphering those was easy: they had been external windows before the yard had been covered over. More intriguing were the strange shapes extruding from the walls that had been plastered and whitewashed; these were obviously the remnants of some previous arrangement of rooms and walls, but the exact nature of this arrangement remained elusive. It was possible to work out the function of certain shapes here and there, but one could never join up the dots and imagine the whole. I once asked my father-in-law, who is an architect and had lived in the house with his in-laws for over a decade, about one particularly strange feature of the layout. He told me that he had thought about the whole house for years, but still couldn’t get a clear idea of the sequence of renovations. He agreed to look at the plastered forms in the wall of one room that I was curious about. As he stood there, looking from the shapes in front of us to other parts of the structure, he registered in his face, in quick succession, hope, doubt and then defeat, as the house baffled him once again.

‘No, I just can’t say,’ he remarked, shaking his head.

Then he rallied optimistically:

‘Have you heard the story of the small window in the kitchen, the one that leads to the garden? How Deda Zdeněk got around Minka?’

I listened happily once again.


4

One of the most impressive pieces of furniture was in Minka’s room. This was a large cabinet about two metres high which looked like a wardrobe when closed. My wife is not sure if the cabinet came from the Jirkovskys or whether Minka brought it with her when she got married. When one opened the doors, the interior showed not hanging clothes and a few shelves, but an undulating surface comprising fifty small drawers, delicately inlaid, which ran from top to bottom, making all the polished fronts of the drawers seem to ripple. In the middle there was a small decorative grotto for flowers and figurines. Guests were always dumbfounded when the interior was revealed to them: What earthly use could all these drawers have?

On closer inspection, the cabinet gave up some of its secrets. The two lowest rows of drawers were not in fact eight small drawers, as the trompe l’oeil panels indicated, but two large wide ones. A writing surface could be pulled out from the middle, perhaps for the composition of a billet-doux or a sonnet (it was not firm enough for a Dickensian blockbuster), while the writer glanced now and then at the figurines gambolling in front of a small mirror set against the back panel of the cabinet. Having discovered these two mild deceptions by the cabinet-maker, we were convinced that there must be others, more arcane and subtle. Sometimes I would run my fingers over the joins in the wood, pressing and tapping gently here and there, but without result; as a child, my wife would go through the objects in the drawers repeatedly, looking for something vaguely magical.

Those objects were mainly put there by Minka. Several of the drawers contained bunches of keys of all shapes, ages and sizes. Long before Minka died the family had despaired of ever matching the locked objects with their right keys. There was, though, one small happy ending. On moving to our present apartment we took with us a large chest of drawers that had a matching cabinet standing on top. The cabinet had been locked for time out of mind and the key was lost. My wife, however, found some keys in a drawer belonging to a kitchen cabinet which we also took with us, and one of these, when placed in the lock, miraculously turned, smoothly lifting the tumblers and drawing back the bolt. A frisson – the tiniest fraction of what archaeologists must feel when opening a passage grave – ran through us as the doors opened. I’m not sure what we were hoping for: jewels, a batch of old letters that would change the family history, a shrivelled limb, old photographs or title deeds? In any case, the cabinet was empty, in fact more than empty: its four shelves were covered in a cheap pale green wallpaper that had been glued to the wood. The odour inside was at least old and suggestive, but that was about it.

Here are some of the objects in other drawers of the cabinet in Minka’s room: pretty perfume bottles, each the size of a little finger and all empty; magnifying glasses; decorated paper coasters, some of them with coffee stains; old paper serviettes with historic Bohemian scenes printed on them; old string; an imitation silver bracelet with metal squares that warded off rheumatism; sugar sachets from restaurants and cafés; indelible pencils, the kind with lead which had to be licked and wrote pale violet; blind-tooled opuscule diaries, called in Czech after colibri, as they are small and delicate like hummingbirds and also probably because the Caribbean word incidentally includes the Latin root for book; jewellery boxes empty but for the original cotton-wool bedding for the gems; old letters which sketched out the family’s genealogy; gold fillings; toothpicks only slightly used and bearing the marks of Minka’s lipstick; holy pictures; a pair of opera glasses in a grey suede purse; an octavo book with illustrations explaining the meaning of dream-images, well-thumbed and about two hundred years old; Minka’s student index, which listed her grades at the Law Faculty and suggested that she had no great interest in the subject; gilded ribbons; my mother-in-law’s prayer book from 1946, when she was eight years old; a book of patriotic nursery rhymes printed in black letter, undated, but by all appearances from some time in the nineteenth century, at the height of the National Awakening; a small folded page with vapid proverbs and quotations concerning love (written with indelible pencil); several brochures about historic sights in Czechoslovakia written with the euphoric braggadocio of Stalinist historiography; an enamelled horse, half a finger high; and an old watch.

When the house was sold, the cabinet went to my in-laws’ house outside Prague, and my wife took some of the contents for nostalgic value. As a child, when she went through the drawers she was always disappointed – everything she found seemed then banal. Now she treats these objects with reverence and love. She admits that perhaps one or two of them might have belonged to other drawers in the house, but in general, the rummaging she did in her childhood has fixed them in her head and she can indicate with fair accuracy which drawer each object occupied.

From this, one might think that my wife had some affection for her grandmother. This was not the case. My wife lived with her parents and sister in the house along with Deda and Minka until she was fourteen, but whereas she deeply loved her grandfather, she disliked her grandmother and tried to avoid her company. Minka was sentimental, mainly on two subjects: her own mortality and birds. She complained regularly about her heart and her knees, and more generally that no one loved her, accompanying these complaints with a rising series of groans and emphatic exhalations. These would invariably reach a climax with the interrogation of her granddaughter on the point which was closest to her heart: ‘Will you water the flowers on my grave when I’m gone?’ (Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t.) In the mornings, she would comb out her blond hair, which reached down to her waist, and then wrap it around her head again, fixing it in place with a multitude of pins, the whole process taking about an hour. She would then extricate the loose hairs from the brush and put them on the windowsill, declaring, ‘That’s for the wee nesties of the little birdikins.’ Fifteen years before she died, she had already chosen the song to be played at her funeral.

When my wife would come home from school in the afternoons, the challenge was to get to her bedroom without Minka hearing her. At this stage Minka was bedridden and felt that this allowed her to order the other inhabitants of the house about. Sometimes she wanted them to hand her glasses or her book (which were usually within her own reach), or to bring coffee or water, tell somebody something, run to the shops, etc. Even in her late seventies, her sense of hearing and smell were excellent, so even if my wife was especially careful about avoiding the particular steps and floorboards that creaked, it was possible for Minka to smell her going to her bedroom at the other end of the upper hall. My wife once remarked that she thought of Minka as a spider sitting in the middle of her web, alive to the slightest twitch or shiver on the anchor threads extending to every corner of the house.


5

We lived in the house for several periods during the 1990s, once because we were in between apartments, once to look after my wife’s grandfather, and lastly to mind the house for a year or two after he died and before it was sold. Deda was becoming quite infirm, but every day he would rise early to read and write, working on his memoirs as well as a historical study of the Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš. In his view, Beneš was the cause of most of the ill that had befallen the Czech nation in the twentieth century. First, he capitulated before Hitler. Second, after returning to the presidency in 1945 he capitulated to the communists in 1948. Beneš had suffered two strokes in 1947, but Deda was convinced that he had been suffering from insanity for much longer. Because doctors were reluctant to diagnose such an ailment in a man so powerful, he was not removed from office. On one level, it appeared that Deda wanted a person who could carry most of the guilt for the ruination of Czechoslovakia, but on another level he laid the blame with his own profession, implicitly arguing for the crucial importance of professional integrity in medicine.

Deda was an impressive man of large build, with piercing blue eyes; even in his nineties he had film-star looks. His voice was deep and gravelly, and as he spoke at length in his study about European history and his experiences as a surgeon, with a long wall of books behind him, sitting side-on to his large desk, offering his guest a dram of Scotch from the swivelled jeroboam that he had received from friends for his ninetieth birthday, he seemed the embodiment of so much that is admirable about Central Europe. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he had received a classical education and he could read in four languages, converse in two, and discourse on a wide range of subjects, peppering his talk with quotations from Homer in the original. During his last years he received many visits from historians, colleagues and grateful patients. He could only remember the individuals of the last group if they told him their ailments, at which point Deda’s countenance would be suffused by a beam of recognition as he recalled the particular arrangement of that person’s innards, and it was obvious that these were more vivid to him than the person’s face bent towards him eagerly and respectfully at that moment.

My wife and I would occasionally bring friends and family from abroad ‘to visit Deda’ and most left with a memory that stayed with them for years after. A decade later, one friend in America still refers to it in our correspondence. I imagine that it was nothing particular that was said, but rather his voice, his study, his books, his centuries-old house wedged into the ground of Prague, a few hundred metres beneath the Castle which had hosted the Habsburgs, Hitler’s and Stalin’s puppet-presidents among others. There was also a keen sense that the dark space of the study was an interior which only a few people might visit or see: this was the part which the city withheld for itself; this was what lay behind the baroque façade.

We were very happy to be living in the house, mainly because of the increased space at our disposal (we occupied the upper half, while Deda was on the ground floor). Previously we had lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, out at the edge of the city in an unattractive estate of tower blocks. Now we had about three times as much space, plus a garden. There were some drawbacks. The plumbing, for instance, would often make violent sounds in the middle of the night and I would wake with a start, convinced that the city was being bombarded. The pipes would then stop their furious shuddering as inexplicably as they had started. The kitchen had about three decades of what we referred to as ‘patina’ on the surfaces, as well as on some of the glass and crockery. Occasionally when washing the dishes I would try to clean off some of this grime from a cut-glass bowl, only to find myself standing at the sink two hours later, driving a skewer carefully through the bowl’s final grooves, so my wife tells me, with a flinty determined look in my eyes.

The rubbish was also a problem as the house had no bin, let alone a bin permit from the town hall. Deda told us that he had agreed with the caretaker of Kamenik, the apartment building next door, that he could deposit his rubbish in their bins. For some reason we suspected that this arrangement obtained only in Deda’s mind, and we would wait till dark to scurry next door with our refuse bags. On one evening I heard a man shouting at me from Kamenik: ‘Hey, you down there with rubbish!’ Though I was aware that I was the only person on the pavement carrying rubbish – indeed, was the only person on the street at that moment – I acted as though Šporkova was full of the likes of myself and ignored him, relieved when I reached the safety of the house again. I was still learning Czech at the time and the prospect of arguing the ins and outs of the situation with an officious neighbour did not appeal to me. But the man was not to be fobbed off, and a few minutes later the door-bell rang. Realizing that some local know-how would be needed, I persuaded my wife that she should deal with him. A conversation of about twenty minutes ensued at the threshold, while I rearranged the tablecloth and straightened pictures on the upper floor.

At last there was an outcome. Some Czech surnames are very peculiar and this man was called Mr Heart-throb. This was an unkind caprice of fate, as the man was anything but what his name claimed him to be. A few teeth hung desperately to his gums and his body seemed to be crumpling under the onslaught of middle age. (I was startled some months later to hear my father-in-law greet him on the street outside the house: ‘Ah, young Heart-throb!’ He had known Heart-throb père, but even so, the ridiculousness of what he had just said struck him forcibly as Heart-throb fils came nearer, smiling and in the process revealing his beleaguered teeth.) It turned out that it was Mr Heart-throb’s responsibility to look after the bins of Kamenik and you wouldn’t believe the difficulties involved in the job. People pile up so much rubbish that the lids can’t be closed properly and that brings wasps and only the other day a young girl was stung and people then looked to him wondering if he was attending to his job at all. And he was! And though he had great respect for the Professor, he couldn’t see why the Professor couldn’t at long last get a bin from the municipality. He never had a bin and certainly there was no arrangement that the Professor could deposit his rubbish there. Well, yes, perhaps for one month a long time back, but that was all.

My wife then went upstairs to where Deda was out on the deck facing the windows of Kamenik, enjoying the night air. I tagged along with her. Soon we saw the silhouette of Mr Heart-throb appear at his open window, evidently anxious to hear how the conversation went. Every word was audible as my wife had to raise her voice so Deda could hear. Deda took most of the news equably enough, but when he was told that he had never possessed a bin in the first place, he was indignant.

‘What? That Heart-throb said I never had a bin? It’s a lie!’ The last word was roared and reverberated strongly off Kamenik. At that moment Mr Heart-throb’s silhouette vanished, as though he was afraid that Deda was going to yank him out of his second-floor window and give him a thrashing. After a moment, Deda regained his composure and sent my wife inside to retrieve a small drawing from a drawer in his desk downstairs. He did not have as many drawers as Minka, and they contained for the most part old medical equipment and correspondence. (The two curious objects that my wife now possesses from this desk, which has since gone to her sister’s house, are a little box for phonograph needles, His Master’s Voice, which has the instruction ‘USE EACH POINT ONCE ONLY’ in English, and four types – Condor, Loud Tone, Half-Tone and Soft Tone; and an old metal case for ampoules, about the size and shape of a palm-top.)

When she brought out the drawing, he showed it to us in the glare of the streetlight.

‘There’s the proof. That’s by Moravec,’ Deda proclaimed with satisfaction.

We looked at a small line-drawing of number 8, Šporkova Street, and there was indeed a bin located to the left of the front door. Mr Heart-throb gave us no further trouble with the rubbish. Any time we passed him subsequently on the street he would ask us to convey his especial regards to the Professor and we assured him we would do so.

The story would be recounted occasionally at family dinners, and it would lead to further stories about the rubbish arrangements that obtained on the street decades earlier and whether Moravec, who had been Deda’s patient and his friend, had inserted the bin into the drawing for the purpose of composition rather than verisimilitude and how Moravec had met Deda and where he had ended up and what exactly had Mr Heart-throb done during the communist period and so on. Factual edges would be gradually worn down and certain characters would blend into others under the pressure of anecdotal form. Each time the story was told it would lead to a different chain of stories, some of which hadn’t surfaced for decades, and some of which were frequent set-pieces. One can understand this process as it takes place over several generations, but my wife now reminds me that Mr Heart-throb did not give in quite as easily as I have it here and she won’t corroborate the presence and subsequent disappearance of his silhouette at the window. Other uncertainties abound. Pressed on the point, she herself says she’s unsure if it was Patocka or Patocka’s brother who came with the anti-communist petition. When I asked about the officer in the photogravure among the sepia prints, the family connection could not be clearly established. My wife suggested that Minka was not above buying such a picture from an antique shop and placing it among the other portraits in order to lend a lustre of martial glory to the otherwise stolid Jirkovskýs immediately adjacent.


6

W.G. Sebald used the street, though not the house, for what turned out to be his last novel, Austerlitz. The protagonist is a solitary, polyglot scholar who leads a nomadic existence in Europe without any clear idea of his origins. Only after a long period of research does he eventually discover that his parents lived in Kamenik on Šporkova Street. Because they were Jewish, they were killed in a concentration camp. The protagonist was dispatched by his mother on a transport to England before the crackdown began and that is where he grew up. When he returns to Kamenik after sixty years, he begins to remember the smallest details of the building: the iron railings with the hazelnut-shaped knobs on them, the octofoil flower mosaic set in the stone floor of the hall. He discovers an old woman there, Vera Rysanova, who was a friend of his mother’s and who used to look after him when he was a boy. They speak in French but after a while his Czech starts coming back to him and they switch to that language. Although the novel does not end with this episode, there is a strong sense that the protagonist’s wanderings are finished.

The book never quite declares itself as fiction, though it was sold as such, at least in English translation. As in other works by Sebald, the ambiguity derives in part from the resemblance of the narrator to the novelist. It is he who pieces together the life of the protagonist from scattered conversations spread out over decades and as well as from his own research: one is left uncertain about whether the novelist’s intriguing acquaintance existed or was invented. It is clear that Sebald thoroughly researched Kamenik and its environs, as he describes certain features of the street and its general atmosphere with great accuracy. It is possible that he even visited it when we were living on Šporkova in the early 1990s, pausing outside the house before walking on into the yard and up the steps through Kamenik’s large loggia to choose one door out of the twenty or so in the building and imagine the interior that it protected – the curtains, the furniture, the particular darkness out of which an old lady emerges to resolve Jacques Austerlitz’s uncertainty – before returning to his hotel to write everything up.

There are other aspects, however, which seem to have undergone a fictive shift in the novel. He gives the street number of Kamenik as 12, when it is in fact 10. It could not be number 12, as this is Špork Palace, a building which never held apartments of the type he describes. He tells us that Mrs Rysanova’s apartment is on the top floor of the building and looks down on a small house with a garden that had lilacs in it; this building and house can only be respectively Kamenik and number 8. She tells the protagonist that as a child he would sit on the window sill and watch an old hunchbacked tailor at work in the house opposite, and carefully narrate his every movement. (His name, as coincidence would have it, was Moravec.)

In the warm season of the year in particular, said Vera, she had always had to move the geraniums on the sill aside as soon as we came back from our daily walk, so that I could take my favourite place on the window-seat and look down on the garden with its lilac trees and the low building opposite where the hunchbacked tailor Moravec had his workshop, and while she, so Vera said, cut bread and boiled the kettle, I used to give her a running commentary on whatever Moravec happened to be doing: mending the worn hem of a jacket, rummaging in his button box, or sewing a quilted lining into an overcoat.

Eventually I gave in to the novel’s factual aura and asked my wife to contact an old acquaintance in Kamenik to ask if a Vera Rysanova ever lived there, or indeed any old distinguished lady who spoke French. The acquaintance, who like the fictional character before her lives on the top floor of the building (though below the garrets), said there was never anyone who fitted that description, and she should know as she has been living in Kamenik for thirty years. My wife returned from the visit with lots of other information as well. For instance, how they found a medieval graveyard underneath a more recent one when they were digging the underground garage for the parliamentarians’ residence (they went ahead with the garage). Or for instance about the lamp-lady that my wife was scared of as a child. She was pale, hunchbacked and wizened, and it was her habit to wear two or possibly more black coats when she went around lighting the gas street-lights in the evening and extinguishing them in the morning. She was extremely impoverished and lived alone with about thirty cats who used to go in and out of the broken windows of her house.

‘Ah yes,’ the acquaintance said. ‘That was Mrs Slavikova who died just two or three years ago.’

‘But when I knew her she must have been seventy,’ my wife said.

‘That’s right. She was about a hundred when she died. And that large building down the road which was always in a bad state of repair belonged entirely to her. Where the Greek restaurant is now. The owner bought it from her. So in the end she died a rich woman.’

It seemed as if every window of Kamenik, stretching four floors above number 8, was a repository of arcane information, lore and invention. Stand at the threshold of one of those interiors and you might soon be drawn in by people who enmesh you with themselves, their stories, their ancestry, their hospitality. Perhaps you have other things to do today, or other lives to lead, but for the moment these are put aside to be resumed later. Push that interior back into its place in the array, and open another to find two characters from a novel, conversing about pre-war Prague. Push that back and open another to find it empty except for some keys in a corner that unlock connecting rooms or cabinets or drawers.


7

When we were living in number 8 for the last time, I used to work and sleep downstairs in the old study. I found I could get a lot done hidden away from my family, who had the run of the upper floor. My laptop looked incongruous on Deda’s old desk. I would hear distant thumping sounds now and again, as my wife and son cavorted in the room directly above me. When friends came round with their children and things really got going, a small stream of dust would occasionally be released from a crack in the ceiling and I would have to make sure it didn’t get into the keyboard.

During summer nights I would leave both windows open as the street was very quiet. On rare occasions, however, there would be some disturbance that would wake me – people loading stuff into a car or a gas leak down the road which necessitated a digger gouging out a crater in the street. Once or twice I heard couples quarrelling, most likely on their way home from the pub and having stopped to make a point outside the house. Usually they refrained from shouting and so did not completely wake me. Instead, I was able to take their dialogues into my own dreams, adopting the identity of one of them and grafting it on to whatever issue my unconscious considered important at that time. This could continue for twenty minutes or longer, and could end with my awakening, or simply drifting away into deeper sleep, leaving the couple hammering things out, alone in the street. Their leitmotivs and turns of phrase would echo in my head for a while after, and often it wasn’t till half-way through the next day that I realized where these sound-bites had come from (I couldn’t have said that to my wife, could I?). It provided a strange sensation, as though these other people were flowing through me, slightly changed by my imagination and acting out their roles, which were slowly becoming mine, and they catalysed other changes, as my wife’s acquaintance gradually took on the outline of Vera Rysanova standing at her window looking down at number 8. Further confusion arose when a friend from Ireland wrote a novel set partly in Prague in which she made her own use of the history of the house, inflecting some of its stories into new scenes and situations. We hardly knew where we stood. It was as though, having been dragged into the slipstream of so many inventions and imaginings, the walls of the house themselves were starting to edge away from the foundations.

This, literally, turned out to be the case when the quantity surveyors came to examine the building. The survey was carried out in preparation for the house-sale and it entailed several days of workmen boring holes in the walls and the floor, a visit from the dry- and wet-rot lady, as well as much head-scratching over clipboards with figures and blueprints. After they left we heard nothing for a few weeks. Then we received a panicked phone call from the head surveyor asking if he could come round immediately. When he arrived and we were standing in the downstairs hall, he pointed to the ceiling and said: ‘We don’t exactly know, em, how the upper floor stays up. From our calculations, it should have fallen down years ago.’ His expression was a mixture of concern and professional embarrassment at his inability to provide an explanation. (My wife’s acquaintance in Kamenik told us that she saw the beams being removed from the house during renovation about two years after this conversation. When she put her hand to them, parts collapsed into dust at the contact.) I thought of the wedding party of my sister-in-law in the house in 1994, when there were about 150 people standing upstairs, milling about. The surveyor arranged for metal joists to be inserted, floor to ceiling, on the ground floor and instructed us to walk around the sides of the rooms and across the middle until they arrived in a day or two.


8

Visiting the Museum of the City of Prague this year, I found a map of the city dating from 1769 which clearly shows a graveyard pertaining to a nearby church on the site of number 8. There is no house, shed or any other modest structure visible. The church was subsequently destroyed to make way for apartment buildings (there was no shortage of churches in this area in any case). It seemed from this that the façade could not have dated from 1760, as one book claimed. I was directed to another source-book for historic Prague buildings, and there I read that the house was designed by the architect Matyas Hummel in 1761.

Eventually, I found a detailed description of the history of the house in a large book which covered all the important architectural sites of Prague. This provided partial descriptions of the renovations to number 8 and their dates. The first mention of the house is in 1652, the owner being one Gundaker of Herberstein. For the next few decades the building is listed as being of low quality, but at the end of the seventeenth century it was remodelled and extended. The house provided cheap lodging in several small units up to 1730, and then it was bought by Andreas Kranner, the builder of Kamenik, who installed his masonry workshop in the ground floor. In 1760 the house was bought in a bad state of repair by the builder Matyas Hummel, and he sold it the following year, at which point it underwent some small renovations. The house continued in that state until the 1790s when it was modelled into its present form (although not yet with some of the minor exterior decorations). The only further changes made to the house were in the years 1912 and 1964, the former carried out by Terezie Stundelova and the latter by the Vahalas. Of course, there is still a discrepancy between this information and the map of 1769 – the latter must be mis-dated.

The present owners of the house have clearly invested a lot of money in its renovation and it looks good, except for the pale green colour they have chosen for the exterior. Neither my wife nor I have knocked to ask if the creaks of the hanged man are still to be heard or indeed if people still call to the house asking for Professor Vahala. The furniture, as I’ve indicated along the way, has been scattered to different houses and apartments in the country after its forty-year sojourn in number 8. Certain echoes of it remain in my wife’s paintings, where she homes in on certain details and textures of the house’s interior: an eighteenth-century door ajar against the flowing, riverine shapes of a bare-wood floor; daylight striking those strange shapes in the plaster; the cavernous dark that waits at the bottom of the stairs; the way two hind legs of a chair hang in a blue expanse of carpet. It is not just the particular geometric arrangements that compel her to this work, but the family memories, including those of Minka. She has even suggested that she’ll visit Minka’s grave to find out the exact date she died, but will only do so if I agree not to end this essay with such a pat resolution: if she does go, it’ll be for the date only, as well as for the chance to see her grandfather’s grave again.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 23 Summer 2006