The Prague City of Literature office offers residential stays for writers and translators in the city. There are six residencies available every year, each lasts two months. The Prague City of Literature office reimburses the resident for a return ticket, provides accommodation for free and a stipend of 600 euros per month.
The first resident was Melbourne-based essayist and journalist Liam Pieper.
The old man was sitting looking out the window, and as she opened the door he stood and smiled at her. He looked wonderful, better than she did after weeks of anxious nights. Although it was barely ten in the morning, he was dressed in a three-piece suit, his shoes shined, his watch glinting on his wrist where it peeped out of his shirt-cuff. He leaned lightly on a cane, which was new, but it matched his style so completely she tried to picture him without it and found already she could not.
‘Hello, Tess,’ he said, his voice clear. ‘I feel I must apologise for my behaviour of late. I was not myself.’
She grinned, wild with relief. Her fears had been for nothing. ‘It’s nothing, Arkady, really, it’s nothing to worry about. You just had a bit of a fall or a nightmare or something, and it happens all the time, and . . .’ Arkady held up a hand, and Tess stopped rambling.
‘Please, Tess. I’m fully aware of my condition. I was a doctor once, when I was a boy, and now I am not a baby. Please don’t treat me like one, just because I have let myself grow old somehow. It is serious, but I have medicine, and things will be fine, I promise you.’
‘Well . . . You look good,’ she declared, and Arkady smiled down at his suit.
‘I sent a courier to the house to pick up some of my things. If a man doesn’t have his dignity, what does he have, after all?’
Tess smiled. ‘Of course.’
Arkady started moving towards the door, slower than before, and with a slight clip in his gait when his right hip locked and he leaned into the cane. It was subtle, almost unnoticeable, like a gear sticking on a bicycle, and if she hadn’t been watching for it she doubted she would have noticed anything had changed. He reached the door and turned back to smile at her.
‘Now, if I can ask one more favour of you, would you take me to lunch? The doctors here are wonderful and I commend them on their professionalism and their kindness, but the kitchen staff are a different story.’ He nodded grimly at a tray on which a grey sandwich and a foil cup of fruit salad lay untouched. ‘I have not eaten so well since Auschwitz.’
Her attention rarely left Arkady through lunch, following his eyes as he read the menu, his hands as they gripped knife and fork – tight and efficient, wrists locked hard in the European fashion. She examined the set of his jaw as he chewed, trying to compare the man that sat before her with her mental picture of him before the stroke. She thought maybe he was moving a little more slowly, taking a little longer to eat. When Arkady read the menu she thought that something was wrong, that his eyes dragged a little, spent too much time moving from one side of the page to the other. Without looking up, Arkady spoke.
‘While I am touched by your concern, I do not require this level of scrutiny. I assure you that if I’m going to keel over dead, then I will give you some kind of warning.’ She blushed, chastened. Even weakened, a little feeble, he still made her feel like a child when he told her off. ‘Sorry.’
‘Do not be sorry. Your worry is good. Your worry makes me happy. I am Russian, after all. Without some kind of angst we feel lonely.’
He flagged down a passing waiter and asked for the wine list.
‘Are you sure you should be drinking, Arkady?’
He waved this away. ‘I have dementia. My brain is dying, Tess. A little wine will not hurt me now. Do you want me to die unhappy, as well as insane?’
‘Don’t tease me. It’s not a joke.’
‘Everything is a joke, Lubovka. If you had seen the things I have, you would know this.’ His smile was sad, but not unkind. ‘And besides, the whole idea that alcohol is bad for medicine is shit and lies. In the war, they were losing soldiers to the brothels, and a soldier goes to visit the women, he comes out with gonorrhoea, he gets sick and he cannot fight. They find that antibiotics will fix the soldier, but only so long as he stays out of the brothels. The second he gets drunk, he goes to the brothel, he gets reinfected. So, they tell the soldier that the antibiotics will not work if he drinks. So, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t go to the brothel, he is cured.’
‘Yes. It, like most of history, is a lie, but a good lie. And one which doctors keep up here, because Australians are animals, and if you do not take away their treat, they would never ever stop drinking.’
‘Animals? Isn’t that a little harsh?’
‘Children, then. If you do not tell them a fairy tale, to scare them, they will not do anything you tell them.’
‘You can thank the war for that. For a great many things, actually: penicillin, amphetamine, the automobile. All the good things in life we owe to the great wars. As difficult as it is to admit, the things the Nazis explored pushed the world forward. The Americans gave amnesty to their physicists and got their nuclear technology. The rockets that made the Blitz possible also sent man to the moon.’
Arkady’s tone was mild, but his eyes were steel. They drilled into Tess as she looked up from the menu, shocked.
‘How can you say that, after what happened to you? Aren’t you angry?’ As the words left her mouth she felt the insignificance of the word ‘anger’, its smallness next to the atrocity she was asking about.
‘Of course, forever, eternally.’ Arkady shrugged, a small smile playing across his lips. ‘But anger is unproductive. It is useful for a minute, if you need to flee, if you need to fight, but in the camps, neither of those things were an option, and in the aftermath, even less so. Those of us who survived had to learn to temper our hatred, or it would destroy us. We are not machines designed to be run red-hot. We must rest, we must heal. If we cannot let go of fear and hatred, we will always be in the camps.’
‘That doesn’t sound like an easy thing to do. How long did it take you to feel okay? After the war, I mean.’
Arkady took a moment to answer. Without taking his eyes off Tess, he put down his knife and fork on the plate in perfect parallel, signalling he was done with food. ‘What do you mean?’
‘When did you stop feeling the weight of . . . what happened?’
‘I feel it every day. It never went away. It never will. Not for me or anyone.’
‘Oh.’ Tess had no idea what to say next. The space between them was a vacuum, a perfect void she had no idea how to enter. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I am too,’ said Arkady, softly. ‘More sorry than anyone could know.’ He paused again, then the silence snapped, was extinguished by Arkady’s booming voice, jolly, rounded, avuncular again. ‘But what can we do now but try to live? We survived; the bad guys did not. And you know, I met my wife through the camps, built a life. If it wasn’t for the war, I would not be here, I would not have Adam, or Kade, or you.’
‘My wife used to joke that Hitler was our matchmaker, that we would never have met without him. She got into a lot of trouble with her people for saying that – it is, of course, a terrible thing to say that anything good came out of the war. But there was that at least. Of course, he killed her in the end. Her poor liver.’
‘So how are you supposed to forgive them?’
‘They can’t be forgiven.’ Arkady put down the wine list and steepled his hands, thought deeply, put his words in order, moving the thoughts from one language to another. ‘If one looks at the rise of the Nazi state, though, one can begin to understand. The German people believed that they were the strongest, the smartest, the most cultured, the most noble in the world, really believed it with all their hearts.’ Here, the old man tapped his chest, and the memory of the scar over his heart came back to Tess. She pushed it away and reached for her drink. ‘But at the same time, they’d just been defeated in a war with an enemy they saw as inferior; not just beaten, but humiliated and impoverished, undeniable evidence that the German State was imperfect. So they had to hold two conflicting ideas in their heads, which is not something a human being can do, and when that happens the ideas begin to mutate, to become perverted, and you start to look for an explanation, a villain. And if you don’t have the strength to look outside your borders, you look for the enemy within. Historically, you take the portion of your society that you don’t understand, the portion that is visibly different and demonstrably parochial and direct your blame and hatred there. Historically, also, sadly, this means Jews. In Germany, in Spain, and England, all the way back to Egypt.
‘So, say you are young, say you are bright enough, but you are poor and frustrated and frightened by life. You grow up being told every day that you are poor because a Jew decided it should be so, that the Jews are after you, the Jews will take your job, the Jews will take your women. You believe it, of course, because you hear it enough times that it becomes fact, and facts become actions, become consequences. So you have a society built strong again, but its engine is hate, and like any engine it does what it is supposed to, which is run, day and night. To a machine, a Jew does not look different from a Gypsy, or a communist, or a homosexual, or a Russian. The machine runs on hate, and there is always something new to hate.
‘Can you forgive it? No, probably not, but if you don’t try and understand it, you risk it happening again.’
Tess was a little unnerved. ‘Do you think it could? Happen again? Not today, surely?’
‘Every great evil in the world was done because someone thought they had the answer. Let’s civilise Africa, or colonise India, or close our borders to protect us from the evil outside them, or purge our cities of the evil people inside them. Then things will be better. Big ideas bring the world closer to its end. It would never occur to an evil man that he is evil, which is, of course, what makes him evil. Of course, that’s what made what happened in the camps all the worse. Normal men, scientists and the bureaucrats who thought they were building a better world by what they did.’
‘Surely the scientists knew better. They have no excuse.’
‘Science is a religion, like any other. Examine your texts long enough and you’ll find a rule that justifies exactly want you want to do, even demands it. What I did learn in the camps, from those scientists, is that a human being is no different from a rat. It will run through a maze if you reward it. It will run fast for cheese, but faster if the punishment is pain. Avoiding death, horrible death, is a very nice reward. Even nicer than cheese.’ He opened the wine list. ‘But not as nice as wine.’