Blesok no. 87, November-December, 2012
Two Short Stories
Translated by Jason Blake
Let’s Listen to the Radio
Radio was especially important during real socialism. It was the only instrument that let one come into direct contact with the West. To be able to feel like a dissident, all you needed was a good radio tuned to the frequency of “Radio Free Europe” or “Voice of America.” If three people gathered around a radio to split a bottle of schnapps, you could already speak of a resistance movement. Radio was a wondrous thing because, unlike schnapps, it made everybody feel like a hero. And everyone loved it.
Sarko Kischev loved it, too, though his feelings had another story behind them. Until 1987 radio had played next to no role in his life. In the fall of that same year everything would change. Sarko left for Plovdiv to study agronomy and he rented a room from a retired primary school teacher. The walls of this apartment, however, were so thin that Sarko could hear his landlady in the next room, not just as she flipped through the photo album she was looking at, but even her quietest of sighs. None of this would have mattered much had he not met Weneta two weeks later. The closer he came to Weneta, the more important the walls around him became.
One day also the last unseen wall between them fell, immediately followed by their clothes, and, as he had feared, this happened in his room. In the next room the owner of the apartment was at that very moment stirring her coffee.
“You can hear everything here,” he said, breathless.
“Turn the radio on,” whispered Weneta.
From then on radio became a constant companion to their love life. They knew practically every programme. Sometimes they listened to music, sometimes the news, sometimes reports about the water level of the Danube, but also treatises on the successes of socialist planned economy with their laudatory words for all those brigades that had fulfilled their plan ahead of schedule. And so it was that whenever the two of them wanted to sleep together, they only had to utter a single sentence: “Let's listen to the radio.”
The programmes influenced their loving play in a variety of ways. While revolutionary and partisan songs stimulated Weneta the most and made her more eager to experiment, more inventive and fiery, Sarko could go longest if he was listening to speeches by high-ranking party functionaries. Perhaps because his fantasy was caught up in communism, whose own coming was increasingly protracted. This is how Sarko joined the useful to the pleasurable, since not only his class awareness was made firmer by these speeches. He had never been a dissident, but radio sometimes lent him, too, a heroic feeling. Unfortunately other times were soon to come, and with them other heroes. After the collapse of communism Weneta broke up with Sarko because their love life no longer wanted to function properly. And how could it? True, many new stations had been created, but the party speeches had disappeared. Nothing solid or steady remained for Sarko. He had no steady relationship, no steady employment, no steady place of residence, not to speak of a steady sense of class. And so like many other others he left to try his luck in the West. Through an irony of fate he was smuggled into Austria in a truck loaded up with radios. That's how, as he himself later put it, the longest interruption of programmes in his life began. And yet compared to other immigrants Sarko was fortunate. Already after one year he could rent an apartment on his own, and after three years he had steady employment. One of the first things he bought himself was a radio. But he never turned it on. He waited.
Even though it no longer gave anyone the feeling that he was a hero, radio continued to play an important role in the lives of immigrants. Those who used to listen to stations from the West now searched the ether with the same ardour to find stations from their homeland. There was hardly a workshop or construction site where they didn't listen to the radio. It was no coincidence that the first sentences that immigrants could pronounce without an accent were borrowed from radio commercials. “Schau in die Krone,” often sang Sarko's Polish co-workers at the building site as they mixed concrete. Sarko, in contrast, never looked for a station and never switched on a radio. Now and then he merely wiped the dust from his unit and waited.
One day his waiting was rewarded. At the baptism of the daughter of a Serbian co-worker, after the fourth slivovitz, he got to know Jasminka.
If you feel like it, we can go to my place,” he said as the party was dwindling.
And what should we do there?” The question seemed to have wiped off some of the colour from her lips, since she immediately pulled some lipstick out of her purse and dabbed some more on.
Sarko took a deep breath, for he had waited 7 years, 3 months and 12 days to utter that sentence again.
“Listen to the radio,” he said loudly.
The sun is shining, the temperature’s rising, and in Vienna three illegal workers are building a house for six Euros an hour. They build quickly. They build in the mornings, they build in the afternoons, they build in the evenings. They are paid on Fridays, sometimes later, depending on the mood of the gentleman who hired them. If he wanted his house to reach to the heavens, they would gladly build it that high. But nobody wants to pay them that much. The gentleman who hired them is humble. He wants only two stories and a swimming pool. And he would prefer to pay them some time later.
And so the three of them build up to two stories and the Lord in heaven remains calm because the wages are so low and the lords over the earth are so cheap that nobody is interested anymore in building a tower that may reach unto heaven.
The three workers come from Eastern Europe. The first, the head-builder, is Czech. He's seen 50 winters in this world, and has been in Vienna for five summers. His name is Karel Nemetz, his face is still young, his eyes small and blue, his head bald, his thoughts in the homeland, his German good. He has also worked in Italy. He worked there with his father and his son. They picked apples. It is said to have been hard work. They had to climb trees. In one of them, his 70-year-old father, in the other, his 22-year-old son, and in the middle, him, Karel. Not only the Nemetz family‘s men, all the men from Pobeda Street in Brno hung from Italian apple trees. They were chased up and down the trees, for four Euros an hour. Bad. Very bad. After that Karel found better work in Austria.
His father has, unfortunately, died in the meantime; otherwise he could have also come here. “It’s peaceful for him below ground. Nobody can chase him anymore, up or down,” says Karel as they build.
The second worker comes from Romania, is called Dan, is 28, has been living illegally in Vienna for seven years, has lost seven kilograms, always sends money home to his seven siblings and, although he can get by well enough in German, still doesn't know what the word Wahrheit means. In all these years he has never needed it. He has needed a visa, a certificate of registration, a job, but never the truth. A few days ago Karel was relating something in German and used the word. Dan did not know it. Karel tried, for a while, to explain the word’s meaning to him but soon gave up. It wasn't that important. Dan got along well without the word “truth.“
The third worker still doesn’t know the meaning of many words. He’s called Juri, is 33, comes from Moldavia, got off a ship in Italy a year ago, mixed in with the people and six months later suddenly surfaced in Vienna. He doesn’t speak much German. Mostly he uses two sentences, which he has since learned to pronounce irreproachably. Both are questions. “Is the boss coming today?” is one, “How long do we still have to wait for our wages?“ the other.
Now the three of them are building a house together. They build in the mornings, and the afternoons and the evenings. They are only paid when the boss feels like paying.
One morning Juri’s hands start to bleed. The stigmata appeared overnight, while he was sleeping in his sleeping bag at the building site. Since he does not have any insurance and since he did not dare to show his wounds to a doctor, the people have been deprived of a miracle and the church of a saint. “It’s from shovelling,” says Karel, and picks up some bandages from the pharmacy. “Be quick,” advises Dan, “don’t let the boss see that, or he’ll hire somebody else.” Juri wraps up his hands and gets back to work.
The sun is shining, the temperature’s rising, in Vienna three illegal workers are building a house for six Euros an hour. They speak German to each other. The first one talks a lot, most happily, however, about the fact that his father can no longer be chased up an apple tree or down from an apple tree. The second does not talk much and still doesn’t know what the word Wahrheit means. The third listens, sometimes looks at his colleagues, sometimes into the heavens, and asks, “Is the boss coming today?” and “How long do we still have to wait for our wages?“ Yesterday the stigmata appeared on him. But nobody should learn about this, or he’ll lose his job.