A Slovenian, a Latvian, a Russian, and a Czech
It's 4am, late September 2012, and I am at the station in Ljubljana, Slovenia, waiting for the bus that will take me to Trieste from where I will fly home. I had been staying with the Slovenian writer and my good friend, Cvetka Bevc. We'd met at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain earlier that year. By day we worked, took turns making each other coffee, swapped chit-chat that usually referenced our present surroundings – pimiento trees, roman curtains, barrel vaults, olive presses, sudden scorpions, firewind, and a mercury thermometer clamped to the side of our building that was well past the forty Celsius mark. After dinner we took walks together through the darkened valley backroads during which Cvetka told me her stories.
One time, she was stranded at a train station in Central Europe. Her train still hadn't arrived and it was getting late, uncomfortably so. All she had for company was a posse of skinheads, replete with provocative tattoos, combat gear, and black, kick-hard boots. Cvetka reached in her bag for some postcards and began to write. Quickly, she convinced herself that so long as she stayed writing the skinheads would leave her alone. From time to time, they catcalled at her. Soon, however, they tired of this and one or two of them approached her table and launched into a series of increasingly lewd pantomimes. Another of the skinheads – the leader, perhaps – called to his minions: “Leave her be. Can't you see she is busy writing?” Without looking up Cvetka kept going, her hand working her pen nervously along the postcard's white space while reaching for a fresh card as soon as she ran out of room. There was still no sign of the train. One or two skinheads continued to menace. Cvetka kept her head down, kept her pen moving, and prayed she would not run out of postcards. Eventually her train arrived and, abandoning the table of postcards, she made a fast dash for it. She jumped aboard, secured herself a window seat, and the train had just started to judder out of the station when one of the skinheads – their spokesman – appeared on the platform. He was clearly looking for someone and he moved evermore swiftly along the platform, glancing into every carriage, as the train began to pick up speed. He had broken into a sprint by the time he reached Cvetka's carriage and she could see that he was waving the batch of postcards she had left behind her. Thinking she had forgotten them, he was desperately trying to reach her carriage in order that he could reunite the postcards with their owner before the train fully left the station, a gesture as unlikely as it was thoughtful, as surprising to her as it was absurd.
Later, I told Cvetka the entire incident had played out like something in a novel by the Irish writer Flann O'Brien. She, in turn, mentioned a Czech writer I hadn't read up till that point: Bohumil Hrabal. “I think you will like this writer,” Cvetka said in her soft though certain voice. “What did you write on those postcards?” I recalled asking her, at which point she looked, smiled and said, “I will let you decide when you write this story”.
Over the course of that same summer I became acquainted with Hrabal who, it turned out, would go a long way towards contributing to something for which I had been casting about for quite a while – a writing voice.
Bohumil Hrabal is a maverick. He freewheels, veers off-piste, delights in side-trips, anecdote, blather, exaggeration, contradiction. He writes like a man recently let loose, with a thrilling sense of freedom, an abandonment to savour. He also writes for the ear, his penchant for palaver is second-to-none. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, Hrabal's one-hundred-and-twelve-page meditation on past love, is comprised of one beautifully reckless utterance. I felt an immediate kinship, as though I had discovered a portal that had been waiting for me all this time, a pathway that might serve as a creative sluice. This meandering, no-holds-barred Czech would be my spirit guide. Eagerly, I sought out further titles. I Served the King of England, Closely Observed Trains, Too Loud a Solitude, and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still. The prose was headlong, took wild swings, moved as fast as thought, faster even. It seemed to violate how fiction works or ought to work and, whether I fully realised it or not, this is something I had been searching for upon discovering him.
There was something else I detected and adored: his novels – if they can be classified as novels – read like quest stories. Quests that are ultimately a search for the self. And stories that quickly proceed in every direction other than the one that they have perhaps set out to proceed in. Through instinct and spontaneity, through devil-may-care and let’s-see-what’s-around-this-corner abandon he takes us into surprising and unexpected places, places the author himself may not have expected or wished to find himself in, yet welcomes nonetheless. And in doing so the writing achieves a kind of purity, a generosity of spirit, nobility even, that no one can have foreseen.
But what I most adored is that Hrabal is bewildered by the real. A reality that, through a narrative crew of hotel waiters, brewers, cobblers, railway workers, trash compacters and more, Hrabal is determined to twist and stretch and reshape. Hrabal’s is a reality that revels in anecdote and exaggeration, in digression and evasion, in palaver, in absurdist leaps and swerves, in uncertainty and ambiguity, in contradiction. And yet a fragility seeps through; a fragility that pertains to a search for and acceptance of beauty in places where one might little expect to find it. And though they are constantly thwarted, his narrators remain hopeful. It’s a delicate balancing act, so delicate it goes off practically unnoticed. A line that forms part of the preface to Dancing Lessons encapsulates it all: victory is made up exclusively of beatings. It is a sensibility that very much chimes with my own. A bravura display of stylistic and thematic union I am constantly striving for in my own writing. He is an open-hearted writer and that is what I love about him.
I am still pacing the waiting area of Ljubljana Station. It is now 6am. First light is breaking and there is no sign of my bus. A British couple paces around the station forecourt. As do a couple of young American backpackers. And a lad from Holland observant enough to point out that there are only foreigners waiting for the phantom bus. One or two locals make themselves known to us, self-anointed taxi drivers here to deliver us safely to Trieste airport and on time for the flights we need to catch. They gesture towards the battered cars crucial to their enterprise. The British couple politely demurs. As do I. The Americans don't need to be asked twice. Moments later, having instantly consented to the price quoted them, they are packed away inside the beaten-up vehicles which cough copious gusts of black smoke into the morning light as they growl their way out of the station.
Also in residence at the Fundación was a broth of a man from Latvia, the poet and translator, Uldis Bērziņš. He had to come to Spain to work on translating into his native Latvian the great Spanish novel Don Quixote. He liked a glass or two of red wine before dinner, as did I, and we got into the habit of sitting together before the others in residence came together in the communal dining room.
From the get-go I enjoyed his gentle humour, his infectious willingness to play with language every chance he got. He told me his name means ‘old’ and ‘rich’. Deciding it might be fun to make friends with his linguistic spirit, I said my own name means ‘handsome’, ‘son of valour’, and told Uldis he reminded me of Hemingway. “In Latvia we have a saying,” he said to that, “you look so strange a horse will laugh.” He told me he was born in 1944 in Adolf Hitler-Straße. I said I was born in 61 St Anne's Terrace over a quarter of a century after that. Later, it became Freedom Street, he said. Then Lenin Street. And again, Freedom Street. I still live there in a three-storey house with ten family members. If I lived with ten family members, I said, freedom is the last name I would call the street. Days passed and we talked some more, sometimes meeting in the barrel vault, sometimes in the quiet kitchen. Come evening time a firewind picked up. Olive trees bristled. Tall flowers swished. A little bird sang a strange song. Uldis said he was married to Llena. He told me he spent fifteen years translating the Quran into his native language. That he had spent three years and six hours in the Soviet army. His mother had been a poet. His father was lost in the war. It was so hot. The sky over a distant mountain looked as though it might burst into flame. “Let me hear your language,” Uldis said to me, and I tried telling him about the Children of Lir. “Beautiful,” he said. We finished another glass. We tucked into another. He said some more things: “Language is my god; a little man, too, can build a mountain”: Sergei Dovlatov, a Russian I might like.
I fell hard for Dovlatov. His narratives and stories are set in the nineteen-sixties, in that great Russian literary city of Leningrad. It is a Russia of socialist ideology; the thought police are watching your every move; big brother hovers. However, rather than merely railing against the oppressive system, Dovlatov upends expectations by embracing the terms of his existence as further demonstration of the human condition and of the absurdity inside us all. His approach is original and delightful, and chastises the circumstances of his life without raising a word in anger or presenting his alter-ego narrator as embittered casualty. And so the stories are perfectly suited to their first-person narrations. They favour characterisation and situations over plotting. The lend-me-your-ears tone gives the impression that these mordantly comic tales are for you and no one else. The atmosphere is fraught, chaotic, yet compellingly human. And for all the disappointments and missteps and frustrated ambitions and plans gone awry, for all the broken promises and thwarted dreams, Dovlatov never allows his narrators to position themselves as victims. Nor are his adversaries ever quite the villains of the piece. If there is one essential truth trying to break through the chaotic world of his writing, it is that the terms of our existence are oftentimes unfair, harsh, and even cruel; but, hey, let's get on with it.
I came to adore Dovlatov's characters. His women are tough, demonstrative, and unafraid to act. Meantime his men drink, flirt, bumble from moment to moment, dice with authority, and, by extension, a regime that can snuff them out like chaff in a breeze. Life in a Dovlatov story is moment-by-moment disarray, fraught with casual cruelties, self-mockery, and spirited defiance; and then, when you least expect it, tenderness seeps through, a tantalising hint at a lurking vulnerability; a yearning for another, brighter world.
On our last evening together the Latvian and myself swapped pieces of writing inspired by our chats, the wine, the mordant Russian we both enjoyed. His was about an unlikely giant who looked out for a wayward youth. Mine was about a pair of opportunists who would rather skip off to the beach than sit at their desks and work.
At the station in Ljubljana it is now well after 9am. The British couple is very worried. They should have taken the taxi when they had the chance. They wander over to the information booth. A woman tells them the bus has originated in Bulgaria and that there have been delays at the border. Beyond the booth, an early bar is in full swing. Youths sit around thin, metal tables. Large bottles of beer arrive. Early toasts, loud and aggressive, ensue. Part of me considers walking back to Cvetka's place; another part of me considers taking a table outside the bar.
I am still no closer to Trieste and the clock is running down on my 1.30pm flight when the bus, crammed to capacity, pulls into the station. Along with the British couple and the loquacious Dutchman, I clamber aboard. I bag a seat beside an elderly woman happily knitting – a scarf, socks, her newest set of mittens – who knows. She smiles benignly at me. For a moment or two, the bus idles, then strains its way out of the station and through Ljubljana's early-morning streets. I sit back, glance at the British couple and wonder will we make our flights.
Three or four hours later the bus is snarled up in a street march in downtown Trieste. Banner-wielding protestors (I am too bleary-eyed to identify their cause) theatrically clog up every inch of available road. That's that, I tell myself, while beside me the old woman offers me another smile. My thoughts drift to my time in Spain with Uldis and Cvetka. In time to come I will think of them often. Their infectious and generous spirit; their subtle and intelligent humour; their singlemindedness and devotion to their craft. Their willingness to share their knowledge and the way they told their stories. Their idiosyncrasies; their talent and optimism. And writing this, it now occurs to me that they have come to represent for me a version of Europe I reach for and cling to. A version steeped in language and curiosity and imagination and talent and hope. A version that inspires me, makes me want to be better, more curious, more hopeful. Beside me the smiling woman continues with her knitting. I smile back at her, reach inside my bag, and take out my notebook and pen.
An earlier version of this story appeared as “Woman Waiting at a Station” in The Lonely Crowd, 28 April 2016.