Monday, October 6, 2008

Give It Here!

     It was early in the morning in 1965 or 1966—I no longer remember when—when my friend Ján N.1 and I arrived at the airport in Bratislava sleep-deprived, fatigued, and quite decimated by the hectic events of the preceding days, with the goal of collecting signatures from our Slovak colleagues for a petition to convene an extra plenary session of the Czechoslovak Writers Union on the subject of several absurd anti-cultural offensives of the current government. (There had to be a session if a third of the members signed, pursuant to the Union’s statutes, but how was this possible? Today it seems like a tale from A Thousand and One Nights, but back then everything was different: the state was really quite terrified about the matter, and was in no way clear on how to see to it that we did not collect that third). I sat with Ján N. in the airport terminal, and we debated who to see in what order and how to actually find them all (as far as I can remember we didn’t have their addresses and didn’t know Bratislava).

     When day broke a bit we went out on the street and a few minutes later a voice rang out behind us: “Where are you going, boys?”2 It was Juraj Špitzer, and we told him what we were after, He told us that we were already expected in Bratislava (and we had not decided to fly in until midnight!) because the Central Committee of the KSČ3 had called all of the Slovak writers—party members—to forbid them from signing. We said “Lord!” Špitzer replied: “Never fear, come with me!” We said: “Where?” Špitzer: “Well, we’re having a meeting of the extended Union leadership, where [Vojtech] Mihálik is going to explain one more time why we must not sign.” Us: “And can we go there with you?” Him: “Why not? At least say what you came to say.”

     And so he took us there. There were about twenty people there, some whom we knew a little, others not. We surreptitiously took a few alertness pills4 and I succeeded (with the substantial help of Ján N.) to explain, over the course of an hour-long exposé, the cultural, historical, moral, and political importance of our position. Then came the debate, we replied to questions, explained, argued, etc. Mihálik explained at length how our business was a blow below the belt to the Party and therefore to the whole “cultural front,” others said the opposite, time flew, it was already noon, there was no end in sight, but all was well: the longer the went the more of those present were on our side, saying that we were right and there were situations where the truth was more important than the will of the Party. In such deliberations with petitions (and how many have I experienced in my life!) it is always most important to select the proper moment to take the signature sheets out of your briefcase and put them on the table: occasionally there are moments where it is clear you have gotten through to them and they will sign, but it could be the case that they would not a moment earlier or a moment later.

     It happened that the decisive moment came. I looked inquisitively at Ján N., he nodded, so I took them out and put them on the table; at that moment nearly two-thirds of those present had clearly decided to sign. The first of them—they were already standing up—were approaching the papers, I was a little nervous—and then Mihálik suddenly stood and said: “Leave it like it is, the Slovaks must act as one!” Everyone started, a deep silence fell, Mihálik headed for the doors and then everyone—including those standing over the papers, already reaching into their pockets for a pen—started to turn (or should I say squirm)5 quietly and a little bashfully for the door and the coathooks where they had their coats, hats, and caps. It was clear to us that we wouldn’t be bringing back many signatures from Slovakia, and I started to furtively stuff the pages back in my briefcase.

     And at that moment something happened, the reason why I’m writing about this ancient history: suddenly a handsome guy with a striking face stood up, though he had said nothing the whole morning, walked up to me and said: “Give it here!” Completely at a loss from all this, I took the signature sheets out of my briefcase again, and put them on the table. This man took out a pen and wrote: Dominík Tatarka, clapped me on the back, and left without looking at anyone or saying anything else. Ján N. and I just stared after him in surprise. I probably don’t even have to tell the rest: the others, already in their coats and hats, returned, lined up quietly, and signed, one after the other. Mihálik slammed the door and vanished, maybe one other person with him, I don’t remember. The Slovaks didn't act as one—almost, though.

Dominík, be well and strong and may you always be the way you are — and as far as I can recall — as you have always been!

--Václav Havel, on Dominík Tatarka’s 70th birthday, February 1983

1 Possibly a real person, though this was written under Communism and Ján N[ovák] is also the Czech equivalent of ‘John Doe’
2 Italicized text is in Slovak in the Czech original.
3 The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia
4 !! I'm guessing these weren't caffeine.
5 A nearly identical match in the original: blížit ‘draw near’ and ‘plížit’ creep

[I think this is a fun story, and I needed a fun little sub-project to get me moving again. From a collection of Hável essays and letters from 1983-1989 I picked up at Moe's in Berkeley Thursday night.]

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