Foreiger Bodies

Foreign Bodies, 2011, a public reading, from Brno Art Open — Sculptures in the Streets, organized by The Brno House of Arts, 2011, photo: Barbora Mrázková

There’s something I must confess right at the outset: what you are about to hear never happened. I made it all up. Well, alright, I might actually have experienced a few of the incidents, but I’m only including those to make the story believable. I should also tell you that I never heard it told anywhere, nor did I find it in the form of a short manuscript hidden in a dusty book on the top shelf of the farthest aisle of the most out-of-the-way library in the world. No, really, believe me, it’s all just pure fabrication.

It began like this: my friend and I were sitting in a pub having a conversation about how we’d like to be laid to rest after we die. When he came out with Louis Buňuel’s bizarre notion, I countered: “I’d like to be buried opposite that military cemetery in Normandy with the graves of the unknown soldiers. I’d like to have a magnificent tomb made of Carrara marble with a huge neon sign visible from far away above the entrance that would say: HERE LIES JIŘÍ SKÁLA, PENSIONED STATE EMPLOYEE WHO NEVER FELT ANY PAIN AND PASSED AWAY PEACEFULLY.”

This joke slipped out of the drunken emptiness of my brain quite unexpectedly. Well, it’s actually quite strange the way ideas occur to me. Sometimes I don’t even have to make any effort, they simply come to me of their own accord... the ideas, I mean... from out of the formless matter of everyday situations. To begin with they appear and behave just like a bit of lighthearted fun, like a rough, as yet unprocessed thought which keeps nagging at me, detaching me from the ritualised humdrum of the everyday. It breaks down everything I had laboriously constructed to act as a barrier against all things alien in order to function properly; to eat, pay the rent and exist.

At home I laid out a map of Normandy and put my finger on the place where the tomb could be built. What had stuck in my mind more than anything else was the wording of the sign. In fact I even made a drawing of it. And then it vanished from my mind. Instead my imagination began rendering an image of the person who would plan and implement all this. I made a list of every task that he would have to perform. And in the end this person and his life story engrossed me so much that everything else disappeared and only he – JAN KRÁL, civil servant - remained.

I pictured him being born in a bed at home. In a mouldy old tenement in Žižkov where everyone shared a toilet. One toilet bowl and one tap on each floor.

They were really quite poor. The siblings, parents and grandparents all lived together in the cramped conditions of a small three-room flat. Just picture it: the kitchen was so small they couldn’t all fit into it at same time and one of them always had to stand in the doorway.

He would make use of every opportunity to flee from this tiny flat to the enclosed courtyards at the back of the building. Unlike the apartment, the hallways and the balconies, the courtyards were devoid of people. A gazebo with an octagonal floor-plan and a slightly sloping roof stood in one corner. The paint on its walls was tarnished and blistered and in some places long strips of paint had peeled away. In other places there were bulges in the paint which would crack when touched, sending flakes of paint showering down onto the concrete paving.

Then the family’s financial situation improved and they moved to a high-rise housing estate in Petřiny. From the balcony of the spacious apartment on the twelfth floor one could see Šárka valley. Finally he got his own room, but what impressed him most was the light. It was everywhere, in each and every room. It touched every object, accentuating outline and volume.

I can see him in the playground, messing about on the climbing frames and swings giving off a smell of fresh paint. The metal bars were smooth and unworn and the little rascals’ hands slipped on them. The kids would fall into the sand below and laugh.

I can see him with his mates climbing up young trees in the parks around the tower block. Their thin trunks bent like bows beneath the weight of the youngsters.

In this micro-world he got into his first fight. It wasn’t one of those kids’ scuffles during which immature bodies with as yet undefined personalities bump into each other without even knowing why. This was something else. He was no longer a child. An unknown desire had stirred in his belly, darting downwards into his loins and then outwards. He had no idea what was happening to him. He simply began to be attracted to girls; up to that point he’d always said they were pretty stupid.

The fight broke out in the hallway on the ground floor. He fought the other guy because of a girl and he got his face kicked in good and proper. He came home, locked himself in the bathroom and watched in the mirror as blood ran out of his nostrils, down over his lips onto his chin, his shirt and his trousers.

When he came round in the morning he went to the bathroom and saw his bruised and swollen face in the mirror. He did not recognise himself. It wasn’t him, surely it was someone else. When he touched his bruises and his black eyes he felt no pain. Suddenly he couldn’t feel anything at all. He touched his image in the mirror with his fingers and – he felt nothing. He couldn’t feel the cool surface of the mirror; nothing. He touched his skin and still he couldn’t feel anything.

I imagine that this is how it was right up to the moment of his death. When he touched something, a person or an object, it was always the same. He saw his hand moving over the surface but he couldn’t feel a thing, he felt nothing at all.

He never told anyone about this transformation. He waited until it would go away, but his ability to feel just wouldn’t come back. In desperation he began to help himself out with childhood memories. Only the recollections of feelings that he had experienced back then could stir any emotion within him. But as he got older the memories faded and faded until they dissipated altogether.

In the end he reconciled himself with his fate and began a career as a high level civil servant. Office 231 on the second floor of the Ministry of Defence became the theatre of his life and he continued to work there as an advisor even after he had retired. He remained in his leatherette armchair until a scandal broke concerning fraudulent tenders. He only died a few weeks ago. The inscription on the small gravestone in the Olšany cemetery reads: HERE LIES JAN KRÁL, PENSIONED CIVIL SERVANT WHO NEVER FELT ANY PAIN AND PASSED AWAY PEACEFULLY.