Blesok no. 101-102, November-December, 2015
At the time in Lemberg* when a revolution in the hospitality industry was taking place at the beginning of the twenty-first century, most of my friends dreamt of one day running their own café, and engaging in a battle to turn their ideas into money. If one considers carefully the origin of this desire, one needn’t be surprised, nor take it too seriously. Simply, the order of things in life is such that a young man who leads an ordinary life must arrive at such a notion at least once, and quite spontaneously. Imagine the young man after he’s had a few beers and he has the urge to urinate. The moment his bladder is overflowing usually exactly coincides with the moment when his brain cells begin to impose on him the idea that he is Superman. The idea of Superman is associated with power, and power is associated with property, being in charge of people and possibly even with creativity. Finding himself in a venue that makes him happy, the young man will come up with the idea of starting up his own bar, café, restaurant or rock group.
Opening your own café in Lemberg is not as exciting as it might seem. At times you have to be stronger than Superman. In truth, it’s also quite a creative endeavour in which the chance for a few cheap thrills is relatively slim. You get to choose the décor that appeals to you, and play the kind of music you like, create your own club, your own world, one which you’ll share with others. The interior designs of the other cafes, as original as they might be, aren’t patented. You can adapt one of their ideas, copy numerous others from your competitors or import one from abroad, and still feel like a very talented designer.
Although all of my friends talked about opening a café, I knew that it was only me who lived and breathed the idea. And not just when I was drinking beer, but when I was thirsty as well. My dream of owning a café became a reality in 20 Now, eight years later, I wouldn’t say that I regret having opened one, but neither am I overjoyed. One thing’s for sure: at the time, I couldn’t have imagined how much the café would change my life.
I remember that afternoon very well when I was sitting with my friend Kristina in the Golden Ducat Café near old Market Square in Lemberg. I was totally engrossed in leafing through the café’s Book of Compliments and Complaints when female laughter brought me out of my reverie. Kristina and the waitress, who had probably been standing at our table for some time waiting for my order, were laughing because of my slow response. That day I decided on a dark hot chocolate with orange, and Kristina – an Indonesian Toraja coffee. The waitress, who was on the cusp of adulthood, was 175 cm tall, had the body of a dancer and a cute face. When she leant over to put back the two menus, she gently rested her beautiful, soft breasts on the counter.
The two best things in all of Ukraine are found in Lemberg: girls and coffee. In Lemberg, we refer with particular pride to ourselves as citizens of the city of coffee. In the underground Golden Ducat Café, they have possibly the best coffee in Lemberg. That day, while sitting there with Kristina, I remember that I amused myself for a long time reading the Book of Compliments and Complaints. The comments were mainly those written by people from Kiev and Poland: “great coffee,” “fantastic aroma,” “friendly atmosphere,” but there were also poems and prose, nonsense and words of wisdom. At the front of the Book of Compliments and Complaints, the owners had printed the legend of Josepha, who had a connection with the café. On this site four hundred years ago stood the residence of her family, the Korkesi clan. Josepha was the most beautiful woman in Lemberg, but unconquerable. Countless suitors came, offering riches for her hand. She remained unassailable up until that day when she smelt the aroma of coffee. When they told her the aroma emanated from the beans brought by a merchant, Josepha agreed to marry him even before she had laid eyes on him.
‘You’re somewhat distracted today,’ Kristina observed, with a warm, carefree smile spreading across her face.
‘When I open up a café, I’ll have an interesting book like this for compliments and complaints,’ I said to Kristina, changing the subject.
‘Good idea. Hey, you know what? My dad’s hung on to an old Book of Compliments and Complaints from an old café that no longer exits. He says the owner of the café gave it to him to publish, but then never showed up with the money to pay for it or explain what form the book should take. Some claim that he was liquidated that same day. According to rumours, he’d killed a KGB agent. Apparently he wanted to be put in prison and wait for TB to finish him off.’
‘When was that?’
‘I’m not sure exactly. In any case, we can ask my father for the book because he guards those kinds of things with his life. You might even get an idea for your own café, perhaps even come up with a legend of your own. That’s what’s needed these days,’ Kristina flashed a professional smile. I found the liveliness of her expression and manner strange. I put it down to that first sip of coffee that passed her lips and that swiftly absorbed into her bloodstream.
When we emerged from the underground café it had already stopped raining. The sun’s wavering rays raised a light steam over the tram tracks of route No. In that dreamy state of relaxation I detected a mixture of aromas and flavours of coffee, chocolate, rain and cheap women’s perfume. Two scrawny girls in high heels stumbled along the cobblestones, as if in a race to see which of them would reach the finish line (first). ‘Beanpoles,’ commented Kristina in her inimitable style. There were no others around, as if the rain had caused everyone to oversleep. The sun’s rays bounced off broken bits of glass amongst the uneven cobbles. From somewhere came the dull jingling of a rusted tram in its aimless coming and going.
The next day I hastened to the monument to Danilo Galitskiy, glancing anxiously at my watch: 15 pm – I was already fifteen minutes late for my meeting with Kristina but it was difficult to make my way through the mass of people. Teeming crowds had gathered in the central whirl of trams, cars, bicycles, corpulent grandmothers, beggars, and beautiful girlfriends walking hand-in-hand.
We arrived at Muse publishing house half an hour later than expected. Their offices were located in an old residential building at the beginning of Knez Roman street. The door was covered with artificial leather, making it impossible to knock, and the bell wasn’t working. Just as Kristina started to look up her father’s name in her mobile phone, a thin beam of light and a strong smell of rotten wood emerged through the door.
‘Come in, good day, how are you?’ He extended his old hand in greeting. ‘Gennady Kovaljuk.’
‘Pleased to meet you, I’m Orestes,’ I introduced myself.
The entire office had an air of a different era. Virtually everything about it betrayed it as simply being the living room of a lonely old man who stubbornly refuses to retire, despite the effort to pass it off as his own office. On the desk were books and sheets of paper. Right away I had the feeling that they had been lying there for months. Worms were feeding on furniture that was definitely pre-19 We sat on a couch similar to one I’d seen at my grandmother’s in my childhood. Gennady slowly reached over to press the button on the electric kettle. I felt relieved when I realised that my lateness, caused by my encounter with the monument to Danilo Galitskiy, had no bearing other than that Gennady had to reheat the water that had gone cold in the kettle.
‘You’re interested in the book from Gargle,’ Gennady began in an unexpected businesslike manner.
I stared uncomprehendingly first at Gennady, then at Kristina, as if I were awaiting an explanation.
‘Kristina explained to me that you’ve come for the book from the underground café from the ’60s.’
‘Yes, that’s what we discussed,’ I said hesitantly. I wasn’t even sure myself whether my visit to Muse made any sense. I came with the conviction that I might have something to gain, and that I had nothing to lose. In any case, for me time spent with Kristina was never dull.
‘Gargle was one of the most enigmatic cafés in Lemberg, right from when it first opened. And yet, it wasn’t its opening, but rather its closing – in other words its disappearance – that ensured its place amongst the great mysteries of the city. Put some sugar in your tea, Orestes. I know that Kristina drinks tea without sugar.’ The reason for Gennady’s sudden digression was that he detected a spark of curiosity in my eyes. He shifted in his chair and slurped his tea, then continued with his story, this time from the beginning.
‘Gargle was opened by a man called Ivan Volodimirovič in 19 The owner is a figure shrouded in mystery. It’s known that before opening the café he made his living playing the cello in a church orchestra, although I’ve never heard of anyone who knew which church he played in, nor have I ever heard of that instrument being played in a church in Lemberg. His entire family was constantly repressed by the regime. Their house, at 7 Linden Bend, was at that time one of the many favoured bases of the KGB agents. One morning, lying on his back, strumming the cello like a kid, Ivan Volodimirovič came up with the idea of Gargle. That same evening, up to his neck in dust, he cleaned out his cellar. After three nights of hard work underground he had gained a small room and larger premises of 30 square metres. His room in the apartment on the third floor was jammed full with jars of winter preserves brought up from the cellar. It made little difference to Ivan Volodimirovič what his abode up to then looked like because the moment he established Gargle underground, everything above a height of ten metres ceased to exist for him. He moved underground. I don’t know if you’re both aware that beneath Lemberg there are several kilometres of tunnels and various chambers, of which at least three-quarters are yet to be uncovered. At one time there was also talk of the existence of a lost map of the underground city. It was thought that whoever possessed the map would have control over the city. In those days what was customary was precisely controlling everything and everyone. We were all under constant surveillance; we lived from interrogation to interrogation. Two or three years ago, in 2001, those searching underground uncovered a five metre long acoustic tube that was used for tapping. It was embedded in the floor of the Church of the Transfiguration precisely on the spot where believers confessed.’
‘What do you know about the look of Gargle?’ I was interested in whether there was anything original about its décor, which I could possibly appropriate.
‘I personally never went to Gargle, and what I know about it is from hearsay. I’ve heard that soon after it opened there was live music, mostly piano and violin. I find that a bit strange because it’s difficult to imagine how there’d be room for musicians in such a small space. Although I never went inside Gargle, I know how big the cellars are beneath the buildings on Linden Bend. In the café there were ten or so tables, two or three of which were sewing tables. On the walls were framed posters of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, who died that same year in 1962, and Ray Charles, who died just the other day, if I’m not mistaken. Ivan Volodimirovič chose the name Gargle not only because it sounded impressive, but also because it symbolized one of the basic needs of the intellectuals of that time. On the first page of the Book of Compliments and Complaints is written: Those who come to Café Gargle are the ones with the greatest need of rinsing their mouths, clearing their throats and cleansing their souls of the daily portion of shit served up to them by the government, and from the injustice and oppression they suffer.
I saw the owner of Gargle twice. Both meetings took place in 1963 and were in connection with the publishing of his book. At that time our publishing house was well known for publishing Ukrainian literature. Russian authors still prevailed in those days. The first time Ivan Volodimirovič and I met was towards the end of June. He came to talk to me and sat precisely where you two are sitting now. What stayed in my memory from that first meeting was a feeling that that man had achieved a state of tranquility. I’m not sure exactly how old he was. He looked about twenty-seven or eight, but by the way he spoke he gave the impression of being much older, so I guess he was just young looking. His face was familiar and the entire time I wondered where I knew him from. But, if I didn’t remember then, I won’t remember now. He told me that he wanted to publish a book, which seemed entirely normal given that that’s why people come to us. However, when he outlined the whole idea, I looked at him skeptically. Ivan Volodimirovič did not want to publish his own book, but the Book of Compliments and Complaints from his café. I took it as his attempt to promote the café.
It’s not known by which means Ivan Volodimirovič succeeded in spreading information about Gargle’s existence, and yet at the same time for it to be kept a secret. I know that in those days people – let’s refer to them as “hippies” or “alternatives” (these are subsequent terms because neither was in use at the time) – had their own circles, but it’s impossible to imagine those circles spreading the word about a café without the KGB knowing anything about it. Out of the question! At that time there were associations that got together at Porokhova Vezha, for example the so called Association of Chess Players. Its members were Ukrainian nationalists who gathered there ostensibly to play chess. But even in those cases it was only a matter of time before the masks would fall.
And in true resistance fashion, Ivan Volodimirovič struggled to make sure that Gargle possessed all the elements of a café. Among other things, right from the start, after he’d set the menu, he produced the Book of Compliments and Complaints. Such a book might be useful for a proprietor who rarely visits his own café, but in the particular case of Ivan Volodimirovič, the Book of Compliments and Complaints could not reveal anything more to him than he already gathered by sitting there every night with his regular patrons. That’s why he only checked what made his patrons happy and what annoyed them in the first month. He found nothing besides a few aphorisms, a joke, and two or three genuine compliments for Gargle. After that, in the same way now when you open up a website and realise that it takes too long to load and you stop visiting it, Ivan Volodimirovič stopped opening the Book of Compliments and Complaints.’ Here Gennady made a brief pause, deepening the creases on his right cheek with a wry smile, with the pride of someone elderly who understands the internet. ‘When he opened the book again after three months, you could say it had been almost entirely filled. Apart from the stupid remarks, “I love so-and-so”, “so-and-so was here”, “the waitress didn’t smile” or “the waitress has beautiful attributes”, what was clearly evident were two manuscripts that filled up ninety percent of the book. It was obvious that two of the patrons had a personal need to tell their own or someone else’s life story. Writing is a form of gargling for the soul.
Ivan Volodimirovič became keenly interested in what had been written down. He knew right away that they were neither compliments nor complaints about the service in Gargle. They were two narratives, two life paths told in two different languages. After scanning them briefly, he concluded that the account written in Russian had been done by a woman. The other text was written in a Slavic language – Czech or Slovak – this is what Ivan presumed from the diacritical marks for long vowels found in those languages.
Translated by Paul Filev