Bohumil Hrabal, Mister Iontek

Translation © James Naughton

I was sitting lost in thought by the open window, with not a single reason to do anything, or think anything, I just sat there and looked out of the window, totally stunned and benumbed by this state of non-being. And two black horses turned off the main road, then a dray, and there on the box a man stood, legs astride, in an enormous white felt hat, he held the reins theatrically, and when he loosened them, the horses took the bridle and sped off down the forest track, and I was startled, to think that the black team was not just driving along, but driving to see me, and sure enough, through the open gate they came, flying and driving the shaft right into my window, so furiously, I was shocked, but a mighty tug of the reins drew the horses back and they came to a halt, but their heads and the shaft were still stuck in my room. The driver jumped off sideways, stroked the horses’ rumps, and the black geldings took it as an invitation and began to munch the geraniums, while in the door came Mister Iontek, whom I knew only by sight, from the local, where once he had brought one of his geldings and let him drink from a half-litre of beer, and gone off with him again. I used to see that white cowboy’s hat of his as he staggered along in the village dusk, I used to see that hat of his in the fields of vegetables, Mister Iontek went there and screwed together long pipes for watering the vegetables, he was always sunburnt, in summer he wore only his overall trousers, while his white hat like a boat floated through the fields of cauliflower and ripening cabbage and kohlrabi. I said to him, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? And he sat himself down, took off his white hat, and great locks of hair dropped down across his sunburnt brow, while he told me how he had found a beautiful stone step in store, and he’d brought me it to give me as a present. You see, he said, I’ve got a liking for writers, because whenever I write a letter, I can never finish it, the writing fags me out so much, I drink one tot of peppermint liqueur after another, till in the end I just chuck away the letter. I offered him a glass and put the bottle down in front of him, and Mister Iontek drank, not the way you drink alcohol, the way you drink mineral water, to quench your thirst, and he said, You see this felt hat I’ve got, well, sometimes it gets so hot that I just drink away non-stop, beer, peppermint liqueur, anything liquid, because I sweat so much, and the sweltering heat gives me a thirst. Says I, this is all wonderful, Mister Iontek, help yourself, but what am I to do with the step? He replied, after stroking the nostrils of his horses, who’d meanwhile started on my two caps and were munching them with the same gusto as Mister Iontek downing my spirits. What to do with the step? he said, A step like that for a writer is something like a step up to another place, and I get the sense, reading about murders and accidents in the black columns, that you’re the dead man, that’s why you’ve got to have this step here, as a sign, a sinister omen... He stood up, put on his hat, and as he was going out, he staggered practically ripping the door from its frame. Then he appeared outside on the dray and with a few powerful movements of a lever he heaved that doorstep out onto the ground, it came from some church or other, I hadn’t seen a step like that for ages, and if I had, only in big churches and cathedrals. He jumped down again with his silver lever he rolled away into the greenery beneath the birch trees, while I turned around and looked at myself in the mirror, to see if I could see what there might be there to connect me with Mister Iontek’s black columns, and sure enough, there it was, I saw in my eyes the mark of a dark shadow. Mister Iontek returned, perspiring all over, and to save time, he took the bottle and drank from it, with powerful movements of his Adam’s apple he gulped and sucked the hard stuff thirstily and with gusto. Then he took a look at me, stroked the back of my hand, and said, If something were to happen to you, d’you want to be buried in Semice here with us, or in Hradišťko? I replied that I thought that I was still far from death’s door. Mister Iontek said, I know, from your natural death, but when I start reading the black columns, all those deaths are unnatural ones, and I reckon if something happened to you, you’d be best to stay here with us, in the Semice graveyard, you see, I reckon a writer ought to know what’s going to happen to him one day, when he’s maybe suddenly no longer there. That’s true, said I and got up and went to fetch a loaf of bread, taking a glance at myself in the mirror, and I saw how I had turned pale and gone all grey. Then I sliced the bread and passed it to both the horses in turn, because they gobbled up three books on the table by the window as well as the newspaper. Mister Iontek said wistfully, if only we had some beer, he said, and I went out and brought in some bottles in a bag, beer cooled in the cellar, and Mister Iontek took the bottle and knocking off the top with one powerful movement on the edge of table, he took a drink of the foaming beer, and then he described to me with enthusiasm, You know, he said, have yourself buried here with us, in Semice, for one thing the cemetery’s beyond the woods, so the pine needles and smell of pine cones will reach you right over your grave, but more important, there’s a football ground out in the woods, and you’re a great fan of football, aren’t you...! I replied softly, I am. So you see, I knew it, it’s a different cemetery from anywhere else, the referee’s whistle will reach easily over to your grave, and the kicking of the ball and the cry of the players and the clapping and jeering of the fans... and looking at me innocently in the eye Mister Iontek took off his hat and raked his rough fingers through his hair, and the locks crackled as that living comb flowed through it. Says I, it’s nice of you to bring me that step, but let’s wait a bit with the funeral, shall we? He put on his hat, and instantly feeling a thirst, he knocked off the top of a beer bottle with a powerful movement against the corner of the table. No, he replied, after drinking it up, You see, I also do funeral orations, and it would be awfully nice if you died or went and killed yourself somewhere, or got killed, if I could be the one to give you your oration... have you ever been in the mortuary? I replied, but the horses having eaten up the bread, I gave each a hankie, which they started to munch with gusto, I’ve never been in the mortuary, I said. Well next time they’re playing football, we’ll meet there, because the football referee gets his gear on in the mortuary, it gives him plenty of time to examine his conscience, it’s close by, just over the wall to the ground, and also in case anything were to happen, we often get into a fight at the ground, we give the referee a hammering with gusto, especially when he fails to whistle for a penalty, which wasn’t, you know, some of our fans are so sensitive, they can chase the referee right out into the fields maybe just for not whistling, or for whistling “out” wrongly, or a corner... But once we really did beat up the referee, for mistakenly not whistling for handling of the ball, which it wasn’t. We chased the ref out of the ground, and there he climbed up a pine tree, which leans over the graveyard, and we roared at him to climb down, and he shouted, I’m scared you’ll beat me up, so for three minutes we called for him to climb down, and he said he wouldn’t, so I nipped off for the two handled saw and we cut down the pine tree, and its top, with the referee clinging on like a woodpecker... but the referee went and fell into the graveyard, and before we could run round the wall, he’d raced off into the fields, and there in the cauliflower he was roughed up just a little, quite a lovely story, isn’t it? Aren’t you just looking forward to the day when something happens to you, and you can get yourself buried here with us? Altogether in a state of confusion I took my laundry basket and offered the horses my socks at the window, and the geldings, as if they hadn’t eaten since yesterday, ate the socks with gusto, and I felt a flash of hope that Mister Iontek was about to go off home now. I replied, Well yes, just in case the black columns are my fate-to-be, in that case I want to be buried in that graveyard past the football field... and I twisted round on my chair, to look at myself in the mirror, and I said in a shaky voice, But I don’t look as if I were about to die yet! Mister Iontek cracked open another bottle and said, the black columns are absolutely stuffed with people who not only never thought they were about to die, they didn’t look the least like it, all of a sudden there it comes, bang! out of the blue. A tile from the roof, a cracked axle on the car, an explosion, a murder, and that’s it, but I’ll tell you this, you’re devilish lucky that I came and brought you this step, for if you was to turn up one day in the black columns, we firemen would come and bury you as if you was one of us! That’s to say the hearse with you inside would come out of the New Inn first, past the fire station, which’ll be open, the red fire-engine with its muzzle half out, two firemen standing on the vehicle in their full equipment, by the hosepipe in front of the Local Council, where the funeral cortege pauses, there another two will be kneeling by the hose and saluting you with their fire-axes... and then the cortege only stops outside the Old Inn, where you and I go, and there’ll be a black banner down from the attic window there and the reserve firehose with another two firemen kneeling at it, and then we firemen’ll take you off to the graveyard past the football ground, I’ll deliver the oration, God willing and health permitting, and I’ll bid a last farewell to you in uniform... The horses had devoured the last sock, one with holes in, like the holes in all the others destined for darning. Says I, will they eat the towels? Mister Iontek said, Towels is what they like best, last year out on the grazing, before I’d managed to rush for my beer, they ate a whole load of washing, line and pegs too, but once we were having these cycle races down the stairs in the Sokol gym and I won, but on the second run I fell head first onto the paving, gashed myself all over, they stuck about thirty pieces of bog roll all over my head, but I had this oration to do the following day, such a lovely one I had too, but I could manage to get on my legs, so I gave the speech, I trimmed that bog so that I could see my text, I always have to write my speeches down, you see, but! I gave my oration, only the wind was blowing, rustling and curling all that dried-up bog roll into those gashes and sores... said Mister Iontek, and taking a look at me, all of a sudden he started to weep, but so much, that the flow of tears dripped down in trickles, he wiped his eyes, and taking another look at me, again he burst into steady weeping, and the tears seemed to fall into the water basin of the water-fountain of his hat, where they were pumped back up into his tear ducts, and so renewed those tear drops that had flowed so abundantly before. I took fright and leant back on the chair, and after I’d had a proper look in the glass, staring at myself eye to eye, I uttered a moan and the front legs of the chair powerfully struck on the floor... Jesus Christ, I said, why are you crying like that, what are you sorry about to make you cry so much like that...? He gave a nod of his head, his locks of hair bouncing up and down, and he said, Yes, yes, I’m crying over you, that’s why I brought you that step as a present... He got up, put on his white hat, his felt stetson, drew it over his brow with his fingers, drained the bottle of spirits in one gulp, and at that moment the sun came out of the clouds, such dazzling sunlight, and its brightness flashed on the buckles, chains and embroidery of the horses’ collars, and rays of sunlight penetrated the tips of the horses’ eyes, casting blue-green tiny splinters, and the horses stood to attention, I could see that they were the funeral team, with protruding from each steed’s head the black geyser of a mourning plume. Mister Iontek staggered out, his white head went into the sunlight, then Mister Iontek laid his arms on the window frame, he stood there between the horses by the shaft, placing his black palms upon it, he smiled at me through the tears, and I took fright because only now did I notice it, Mister Iontek had no teeth, only here and there the black remnants of bony stumps and lumps, all he needed to do was sneeze, and those pitiful remnants in his jaw would have flown in the room like a couple of dried petals of jasmine fluttering in with a gusty breeze from the bushes like a Summery shower of snowflakes. Then Mister Iontek jumped up on the box, unwound the reins from the handbrake, stood legs astride and plucked at the reins, and the reins at the bridle, and the horses reared up wild-eyed on their hind quarters, hammering the gravel track with their hooves, and the chains rattled on the shaft, and the team backed out through the gate, with the narrow clearance of a piston in a cylinder, then the dray turned out, and Mister Iontek loosened the reins, the horses took the bridle and sped off, they flew down the main road, dived into the woods, and I watched as the white felt hat swam there in the branches between the tree trunks, as that white hat was floating off, and then my eyes came to rest for a long time on the great stone step, that step which had once led into some church, some basilica, that foot-worn step, so worn-down that as I sat later lost in thought looking at that step, I saw all the boots and shoes lifting off that step and rising up, and human legs stepping up and later down, human ankles and insteps and shins, cut off by the edges of that step, which had brought to my garden those several centuries past...

From that time on I avoided the white felt hat as much as I could. But I couldn’t avoid those amazing encounters when out of the blue that white hat came hovering past me, out of the blue I saw Mister Iontek wandering zigzag down the road, a cyclist coming the other way, an enormous woman, stamping on the pedals, threatening to brake them off, and if she’d wanted to just a little, she could have lifted the handlebars with her powerful hands and soared up into the air, and opposite her Mister Iontek hopelessly leaped, first to the right, then to the left, and then the woman cyclist knocked him down, ripped his belly with the front brake lever, but she rode on regardless, as if nothing had happened, while Mister Iontek lay there on the road and his white felt hat there beside him, and Mister Iontek sat up and first tenderly wiped his hat with his elbow, then he put it on and said, It’s nothing, it’s nothing, but I was just thinking of you and that funeral of yours, I can’t help thinking of your funeral, because every day I read the black columns, and it’s all stories about you, except with different names for the moment... And I rode on home in a state of horror and looked at myself in the mirror, trying to estimate from my self-portrait, how come Mister Iontek knows I am ripe for the black columns? Another time Mister Iontek came to invite me and immediately he took me to his pig slaughtering, he put a rope round the pig’s lower gum, and as he was leading the pig out, he twitched the rope and the pig lamented and squealed with pain, but Mister Iontek laughed and said to me, Do you hear? He’s afraid too... then the slaughter and the languid smell of disgusting innards, and then soup and pig goulashes and alcohol, and by the middle of the party Mister Iontek was so drunk, he fell into a tub of sliced lard, and in doing so he pulled out the pipe with the stove, so his wife shouted at me too, taking her broomstick and beating at first Mister Iontek and then me, but I never had the strength to move away from the white hat, which horrified, but also attracted me. Whenever I went into the inn, there in the corner by the enormous stove, there in the smoke I saw that white felt hat sitting, Mister Iontek was so sunburnt he blended with the interior gloom, and when he got up, the white hat got up too, and the white newspaper, and Mister Iontek would read me the black columns, which he’d already read for the tenth time. Once, when I was coming back from the inn, where Mister Iontek wasn’t, and so I was merrily tramping along beside the graveyard wall, suddenly in horror I spotted the white hat floating up above the wall, or rather it just slipped along that wall overgrown with houseleek, Mister Iontek’s white hat here and there blanked over by black crosses. I jumped off the bike and heard Mister Iontek’s voice, in solemn tones... Dear relatives and friends, gathered for today’s funeral, how sad it is when we have to consign to the earth that which rose from it! Behold, I have made the days as an handbreath!... No better if I said, vanity of vanities, all is vanity, we bury here a man, who has inscribed himself with golden letters in our nation’s literature, but weep not, he is a man, who hath preceded us, and if there be no resurrection, then we weep in vain... Sadness and sorrow fell upon me and I trembled, a trembling and shaking which came from somewhere in my toenails and passed right through me, finishing at the tips of my fingernails, I walked, and the white hat walked along the wall with me, while Mister Iontek’s voice went on and again declaimed this funeral oration over this open grave, while I walked on still alive along the graveyard wall. And so I arrived at the transport gate in the wall, half of which opened in the breeze with its lances and transparent wrought iron. In front of me stood Mister Iontek, and his white hat shone in the dark and moreover Mister Iontek’s little pug dog was crouched at his feet and the little pug had his ear bandaged with a white rag, and Mister Iontek had his nose bandaged with a white rag, so that the white materials and white calico heightened the melancholy of the graveyard, where the muffled glow of the tomb lanterns feebly illuminated the dry and gleaming ribbons on the withered funeral wreaths. Glad to see you, cried Mister Iontek, I’m glad you’re here, I’m just rehearsing my funeral oration, which, even though I’ve got this broken nose, I could even deliver tomorrow, wouldn’t you like to hear it? Says I, Mister Iontek, you’ve guessed it, I wouldn’t, I heard it over the wall, a moment ago, only a short moment ago, but for goodness sake, what ever happened to your nose? He waved a hand, then sat down on the gravestones, the pig jumped up on his lap and Mister Iontek stroked the dog and the white calico bandaging its head, the stuff blended with the calico round Mister Iontek’s nose. We were just playing, Mister Iontek said, and suddenly out of the blue Muffik bit me on the nose, then flew under the bed, so what was I supposed to do? I flew under the bed too, and I bit his ear in return, and now we’re both walking wounded, eh, Muffitchek, aren’t we now! And he cuddled the little pug, but then he got up and was all elated about the next thing he said to me. D’you know, I haven’t been able to sleep for days, so I come here to the graveyard instead, to be nearer to everything, and so I can think everything out properly on the spot... what I’d really like to do for your funeral is assemble a whole regional exercise of seventy five crews together. One fire crew isn’t enough for someone like you, you deserve seventy of them at the funeral. Out here in the fields of the cooperative farm we have so many pipes and joints for distributing water to irrigate the early vegetables, that if all the piping were put together for the exercise, then for the procession coming from the New Inn with your coffin, all the way through the village to the graveyard, if the fire crews put their hoses into a formation of crossed firemen’s ladders, then the funeral cortege could move along through just a paradise of crossed jets of water from the hoses, squirting down from the extended ladders, on every ladder there would be a fireman with the nozzle of his gushing hose, and below six of them with their axes, with which they’d deliver you their last salute, but the high point would come at the graveyard, that’s the bit I haven’t quite worked out yet, you’ve got some imagination, listen, at this funeral of yours, suppose if for the finale here there were to be hosepipes standing in every corner, and what do you think, could it be done, what if we held your coffin over the grave and that coffin were buoyed up from underneath by those jets from the hoses, and they lifted you right high up, as far as each of the hoses can reach, what do you think, the force of the jets would hold you up, you know, I mean like a pingpong ball when the ball soars up in the castle park in Lysá and the vertical gush of water holds it there for a moment, what do you think, would those jets of water, ten jets of water hold up your coffin? Then, at an agreed signal from the commander of all the commanders of the firemen’s crews, at a signal, the coffin would slowly descend from its height, as the cross-current of the firemen’s hoses slowed down and abated, what do you think, wouldn’t it be lovely to bless the countryside as it were with your coffin, and at the same time carry out a regional exercise with seventy firemen’s crews? Mister Iontek stood and pointed his hand, and I could see it all in the darkness and half-darkness, I could see it all most clearly, and I suddenly knew that Mister Iontek ought to write, Mister Iontek was a writer, the only difference was that Mister Iontek didn’t write, but he just saw everything right, only here at the graveyard did I see how the way Mister Iontek thought was the way I ought to think, I ought to think like that, and from this moment on I too would think in terms of black columns, like the monks... ah, that step, which Mister Iontek brought me, yes, it can be nothing else but the one from that abolished, vanished monastery in Sadská, every Augustinian monastery took one step with it from its maternal monastery, and this will be that step, walked over by those busily writing monks, who wrote and illustrated with gilt beautiful codexes in the style of black columns, their mementa mori... Says I merrily and joyfully... Mister Iontek, give me your hand, you’ve opened my eyes. My inner eyes, that white hat of yours has taught me to see, only now do I see what I could not see before, but what you saw... And Mister Iontek stood there, struck with a shining glow, why didn’t I notice it before, that hat of his, that was no hat such as cowboys wear, but a halo in the shape of a hat.

When I set of a few days later to thank Mister Iontek, they told me he’d died yesterday, died all of a sudden out of the blue, in three hours he was dead. Says I, and where’s his hat, the white felt hat, the hat he even used to sleep in, where’s the hat? They told me Mister Iontek had lost it, not that he would have lost it, but when he’d finished loading a wagon of cauliflower, he’d hung the hat up for a moment on the catch of the last wagon and then the train moved off, the hat rode away on the catch of this last wagon, and when Mister Iontek returned to his horses, the train was gone and the hat with it. And Mister Iontek grew weak without his hat, and when he got home, he lay down, and in three hours, all of a sudden, he just died. But where did the last wagon take Mister Iontek’s halo?


Last revised December 2017