Jan Balabán: Kudy šel anděl? (Where Was the Angel Going?)
Generally, reading novels set in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era can be quite depressing, as things are usually grim. Yes, there are certainly are some Czech novels (and films) which make fun of the situation. This is not one of those. The novel is set in Ostrava, the site of a huge coalfield. Many of the people mentioned in this book work in the mines.
Our hero is Martin Vrána. He is the third of three sons with older brothers Petr and Tomáš. Their father is a doctor. As with most characters in this book, things do not go well for him. Much of the book is set in the Communist era. Initially, Martin is doing well as he has a girlfriend, Eva. They have found a secluded wood where they go off and have sex, though how much sex is not clear. One day, when she is wearing his shirt, she announces that she is going to have a baby but not by him. It seems that she is not pregnant, only that she wants to have a baby but not with him. In other words, she is dumping him even while they are playing around. He walks off, despondent, leaving her with his shirt.
We will follow his subsequent life. It seems that he does not really get over Eva. Indeed, early in the book, we find him in the post-communist era, living alone in a fifth floor flat, struggling to make ends meet, as he has to pay alimony and child support. He had been married to Daniela for ten years and they had a son and a daughter. His memory of Daniela seems to focus on her last words to him: I hate you. Eva, however, has not been forgotten and they will meet up in Lambeth North tube station in London later in the book.
Eva does not fare much better. She has a brief fling with Ivan, a former school sports star. He persuades her to have sex with him but, during the whole episode, she just lies there, not moving. Ivan is disappointed. When he learns of Martin – she is still wearing Martin’s shirt – he hunts him down to find out what Martin has that he does not. Not surprisingly, the meeting does not go well.
Ivan has not had a happy childhood. His father was a thug, routinely badly beating up his wife, and generally being a bully to all and sundry. He is eventually found out and loses his job and then contracts cirrhosis of the liver. He is not mourned by his wife or son.
Later Eva gets pregnant, not by Ivan but by Michael, a man she doesn’t want, but she does want the baby. She, too, has father issues. He is described as the man whom she learned to forget about since childhood. A well situated man who has never done her any good. Her father.
The book is divided into forty-six numbered chapters but starts with Chapter Nineteen, the chapter in which we learn about Martin’s life in the fifth floor flat and his financial woes. In this and other Communist era books, the characters seem to have two forms of escape – alcohol and sex/love. Sex/love is not working for Martin so we see him turning to alcohol, though not excessively. We also see that life in the post-Communist Czech Republic has its problems as, from his window, he sees three men break into the computer shop opposite and steal computer equipment. He cannot phone the police as his phone battery has died.
Alcohol is the recourse for many. The miners tend to come out of the mines and head for the bars. Several of the characters drink heavily. Of Martin’s two older brothers, Petr manages to flee to West Germany, while Tomáš goes to Prague to work as a photographer – and drinks heavily. He makes a grim prophecy: a scorched Earth and concentration camps everywhere. It’s not heading in any other direction. Humanity has nothing in front of it, no future. God is silent. When their aunt dies and the family go to Prague for her funeral, on the return journey, the mother starts crying. The boys assume that she is sad at the death of the aunt. However, this is very much not the case. She feels that this is the last time they will travel to and from Prague as a family, as her growing boys will soon disappear and though she is not yet fifty, she will have nothing left in her life.
We see other cases. Tonda Gona is abused by the teacher as his family is very poor and he has tatty clothes, dirty books and is unkempt. Martin, to his credit, stands up for him. They meet many years later. Martin well remembers the incident, Tonda does not. He too will die of excess drinking.
Religion comes into the book. Martin’s family are Protestant. This is unusual in a country which is not religious, particularly under communism but even afterwards and, when it is, it is Catholicism that is usually the religion of choice. Ivan’s father, mentioned above, goes to church when he is dying. We meet Marie Snehová, a virgin and religious.
Several times we are given words of gloom, in addition to Tomáš’ prophecy mentioned above. People are not fated to one another, people are condemned to their fate. They can’t belong to one another, they can’t belong to themselves, they belong nowhere. and here we are building a new world, here everybody fucks everybody else over, everybody fucks everyone. Here nobody gives a shit, nobody gives a second glance.
Yes, there is hope, albeit a glimmer. As mentioned he meets up with Eva in London but nothing comes of it. He does meet Monika who has her own problems, namely she has no idea who her father is but, because, of her appearance, assumes he is South-East Asian. Even then, things do not go smoothly for Monika and Martin.
But back in those days, when they heroically laid down suffocatingly thick eiderdowns of smog upon the city quarters, Martin would find in secret, hidden and crouched places and moments, something white, shining in the gloom like a miracle. Maybe it wasn’t a whiteness at all, but merely the desire for such, unattainable, a sort of faith which cannot be stained by that filth seeping from the Communist machines. The implication is that it was awful in the Communist era but now it is somewhat – but only somewhat – better.
If you are not pedantic like me,skip this paragraph. 1) I mentioned above that Martin and Eva meet at Lambeth North tube station, which they do. However, in the book it is merely called Lambeth. There is no Lambeth station.
2) Balabán tells a story of William Wordsworth visiting William Blake and his wife in their garden and finding them both totally naked. This did not happen or, rather, it did happen but it was not Wordsworth but it was Thomas Butts, a patron of Blake.
While certainly grim, Balabán tells his story really well in his forty-six episodes. He clearly has a message – it was really grim back under the Communists and while it is better now, it is not hugely better. Far too many people suffer from working conditions, alcohol, the police/secret service and, of course, the travails of love. Are the travails of love caused by the system they lived in? The implication seems to be that they are, at least to some degree. The only person that seems to be really happy is Petr, Martin’s brother, who has escaped to West Germany and returns for his father’s seventieth birthday, with his wife and family. In other words, happiness is not really to be found in the Czech Republic. He does not lay it on. We see no terrible agonising. People die but we do not watch their death agonies. People are arrested and/or questioned by the police but we do not see any brutal treatment. Nevertheless, life is hard and alcohol and sex/love may be an escape but a far from perfect and with their own problems.
First published by Vetus Via in 2003
First published in English by Glagoslav in 2020
Translated by Charles S Kraszewski