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On the bus to the death camp, Landau searches for an image, some brilliant incisive metaphor for the fields of stunted brown sunflowers, their fat dwarfish heads drooping stupidly on their crackling stalks. These are not Van Gogh sunflowers, these are ... Anselm Kiefer, their dead round faces fatally kissed by a parching breeze from Chernobyl. These flowers that survived the gassing of the Jews are finally succumbing to the asphyxiation of the planet. Or: These flowers committed suicide to protest the death camp's reincarnationlandscaped, refurbished, a tourist attraction. Honey, look! The delousing chamber!
But the truth is: What the nodding sunflower heads really remind Landau of are human heads, specifically, the heads of last night's audience, dropping off to sleep, one by one, all through Landau's reading.
This has been Landau's problem ever since he got to Prague. Tiny nips of transcendence nibble at his line, but given even the gentlest tug, they slip back into the water, the oily shoals of boredom, ego and resentment, and, let's be honest, fury at Jiri Krakauer, that terrible poet and memoirist whose only claim to fame is that he survived two years in the camp, where he somehow conducted a love affair with Kafka's sister, Ottla.
In the four daysthe endless four daysthat the First International Kafka Congress has been in session here in Prague, Landau has heard Jiri tell a dozen versions of how he fell for Ottla Kafka, a spitfire and a saint, Jiri sculpts the air with his paws, Oof, the curves of a saint, how he was overcome by passion as he watched herbreeze through the camp with blankets, water, cups of tea, words of comfort and reassurance. When Jiri tells the elderly rabbi from Tel Aviv or the critic from Toronto, Ottla was kissing the shiny bald heads of the tiny ailing grandpas. But when he tells the feminist novelist from Croatia, the professor of Slavic languages from Vassarthe women hear how Jiri never saw Ottla without a baby in her arms and how he last saw her defiantly heading the children's transport to Auschwitz.
And what did Ottla see in Jiri? No one has to ask. That gangsterish mane of snowy hair, Mr. Larger-than-Life. Eventually everyone wants to know: What did Ottla say about Kafka? And Jiri has no problem repeating himself: Ottla always said how kind and gentle her brother was, how he cared about the workers whose disability claims he processed at the insurance firm, and how the Kafka family worried about his digestion and how boring it was to sit and watch him Fletcherize his food. Jiri imitates Kafka chewing every bite thirty times, and the professors show their slick pink gums and laugh their knowing laughs at this detail so irreverent they know it has to be true.
Well, better chew it a million times, the shit these people eat, no wonder Kafka was constipated, the man never saw a green vegetable. The fat stringy pork, the dimpled yellow pods clinging to the duck skin, the deep-fried cutlets oozing grease, every morsel daring Landau to push aside the most lethal delicious parts as Jiri Krakauer's handsome face wrinkles lightly with scorn. Kafka was permitted his stomach complaints. But Landau, apparently, isn't, so he is trying not to think about the low-grade nausea and diarrhea from which he has suffered since he arrived in Prague, probably thanks to the very same toxins that have turned the sunflowers such a crispy shade of dark brown.
Jiri is several rows back on the bus, but Landau can hear every word he bellows at his seatmate, Eva Kaprova, the Kafka Congress Director. Why shouldn't Jiri tell the whole bus: "This fucking country looked better when I was on my way to the camp!"
And all of Landau's metaphors are pulverized into rubble under the weight of experience that gives Jiri the right to say this. All of Landau's false metaphors: In fact the sunflower's problem isn't Chernobyl, their problem isn't the camps, but rather the summerlong heat wave that last week warped the train tracks so that the Kafka Congress had to change plans and hire a bus for the trip to the camp.
Outside, the greasy black landscape streams by, lumpy hills striped with stubble, powdery slag heaps, and compounds hidden behind high walls.
"Pigs!" Jiri announces. It takes Landau a moment to realize they're passing a pig farm.
"Ha, ha," says Landau pathetically, but Jiri isn't listening.
Landau wants Jiri to notice him, wants to ask him a million questions, Jiri is living history, an eyewitness to what Landau can't even bear to imagine. Unlike the Kafka scholars, those pussies and old maids, Landau would have the balls to ask: What was the camp like, exactly? What single true thing has Jiri left out of all his memoirs and stories and poems?
But it's neither Chernobyl nor the War that's poisoned the air between them. It's ego, Landau's ego, pettiness, resentment. Jiri is a star here, a celebrity based on nothing but bad luck, then good luck, endurance, nerve, resilience, no Survivor Guilt for this guy. Mr. Appetite-for-Life has a story to tell and they eat it up, these pathetic Kafka groupies, these idiots who dozed through Landau's reading of his play To Kafka from Felice.
Landau knew that the reading was strange. His drama in letters, his made-up lost half of that brilliant correspondence, was, after all, a one-woman play, to be read by a serious actress, as it was in the off-off-Broadway production that got such terrific reviews. Those female outcries of wounded pride and love were scored for a contralto with a sonorous vibrato for moments of hope and pain (Landau suspects that Felice's voice was a good deal shriller) and not for Landau's tenor, his dash of a Brooklyn accent. But that was no reason for Landau to look out over his audience and see vacant faces, half-shut eyes, the nodding tops of heads.
Only after Landau sat down did the etherized crowd regain consciousness, make a miraculous recovery, and instantly go hog-wild for Jiri's booming oration of his goopy narrative poem about the children's art class at the camp, about a little boy who keeps drawing people burning in a furnace, though that didn't happen at this camp but at Auschwitz, miles to the East, so there was no way the boy could have known, etc., etc. In tears, the audience listened as Jiri ended his poem with the art teacher bravely leading her students toward the transport to the East, hand in hand with the tiny artist who had already foreseen this. They rose to their feet to cheer Jiri's last line, "I was that little boy!"
Afterwards they'd mobbed Jiri, begging him to sign copies of his books in a dozen languages. No one came near Landauthat is, no one but Natalie Zigbaum, the Slavic languages professor from Vassar, who tried to engage Landau in an earnest discussion of Kafka and Felice, a conversation so screamingly dull that Landau found himself near tears, especially when he looked over Natalie's head at Jiri, accepting hugs and handshakes like a star athlete after a game.
Landau and Jiri have lots in common, even if no one but Landau knows it. Both are writers, obviously. Both do a little teaching: Landau as an occasional adjunct at Pace and Adelphi, and Jiri at Princeton, where he holds an endowed chair in modern European history. History! What does Jiri know? The history of Jiri Krakauer! Also, both Landau and Jiri know a thing or two about women who want to be good: Ottla Kafka, the saint of the camp, must have shared some personality traits with Landau's wife, Mimi, a therapist with the lowest fees on the Upper West Side, a woman who not only works long hours for practically no pay but volunteers at a shelter where she gives out her telephone number for battered mothers to call at all hours of the day and night. She spends so much time at the shelter that Landau often asks her to bring home the free-meal leftovers in a doggy bag for his dinner.
Oh, what is Landau thinking! He and Jiri have nothing in common. Mimi Landau, commiserating with her friends about their menopausal woes, Mimi who, to her credit, never directly accuses Landau of having sponged forhow long?fifteen years off her hard work and low pay, though she does have one very particular mournful, maddening smile that tells the whole sad story of the years she's supported Landau's self-indulgent arty plays by listening, hour after hour, to New York's most self-indulgentand cheapneurotics. Mimi is nothing like Ottla Kafka: always young, always lovely, always heroic and tragic....
Among the letters in Landau's play is one that Landau wrote for Felice in reply to Kafka's nagging insistence that it would be good for her to work with refugee children at the Jewish People's Home. Felice (in Landau's letter) writes that she wants to be good but doesn't have the gift for it, she has no talent for goodness. What she wants is children of her own, she would be good to them, but she knows that Kafka doesn't want children, and she respects his wish, so maybe it will be good for her to work with someone else's children.
Landau knew how this should sound. Mimi had wanted children. He'd read the letter aloud to her, as he had most of the play. She'd gotten up and left the house and didn't return for five hours. Landau was surprised. He'd expected her to be moved by how well he'd listened and translated her pain into art. He'd felt wronged, undermined by Mimi. He went to make a cup of tea and couldn't at first find the tea bags and, until he came to his senses, thought she'd hidden them on purpose.
Three sharp blasts jolt the passengers: static from the bus driver's radio, then a blare of jazz, Eastern European Dixieland, Basin Street with a wailing Levantine gypsy edge. Landau turns to look at Jiri, whose memoirs describe the Ghetto Sultans, the jazz band in the camp, free concerts every Monday, until the drummer and the alto sax were sent to Birkenau by mistake.
But Jiri isn't looking to exchange a flash of recognition with Landau, a shared association on the subject of Dixieland jazz. Jiri is whispering into the ear of the Congress Director, Eva Kaprova, who inclines her head toward him like a gloomy attractive plant.
When Eva shakes the conferees' hands she stares deeply into their eyes, which Landau finds so magnetic that he feels himself tilting toward her. Landau knows she's married, but that is clearly not a concern for Mr. Devour-Life-with-Both-Hands, who was the first to figure out that Eva, fortyish and sexy in that sour Eastern European way, is the Congress's only viable female. Jiri jumped in and grabbed her, which she has evidently allowed, so Jiri's wife back home in Princeton must not be a problem, either.
Eva's speech at the plenary session affirmed the Congress's purpose: to foster peace and friendship between nations and ethnic communities. This, she said, was the true subject of the work of Franz Kafka, who in her opinion was a life-loving guy with a sense of humor and not the quivering neurotic wreck the world chooses to imagine: in other words, like Jiri, not at all like Landau. Eva said all this in the cigarette voice, the smoky tragic tones in which Landau's To Kafka from Felice should have been delivered.
Right in front of Landau and the other conferees, Eva and Jiri have begun to plan another conference for some time this winter, a private session just for Jiri, at which he will meet the donors and funders of the Kafka Foundation and work his rough magic on them and persuade them to fork over millions. None of the other conferees will be invited to this event, which Jiri and Eva contrive with the breathless urgency of lovers arranging a stolen weekend, a dream escape that may never occur, but still their faces shine as they find every reason to mention it in front of the women who look at Eva, the men who stare at Jiri to discern what secret quality can make a member of the opposite sex behave so shamelessly, abandoning everything, families, duties, decorum, on the sweet unlikely promise of February in Prague.
Now traffic stalls in a stagnant pool of exhaust that makes Landau's eyes burn. Outside the window, a roadside stand sells huge stuffed animals, plush neon-pink panthers with black button noses sucking up pollution. Landau nudges his seatmate, a depressed Albanian novelist. The Albanian glances over and nods and emits a tragic snort.
Even in the August heat, the Albanian wears a scratchy brown cardigan; a muffler of the same fabric bandages his throat. At the welcome cocktail party, the whole Congress overheard Jiri complimenting the Albanian's outfit, recalling how in the camps he'd worn every scrap of scrounged clothing. If you "slipped into something more comfortable," everything else you owned was stolen. The Albanian had made the same melancholy snort with which he's just responded to Landau. And what is Jiri wearing? An expensive pale blue silk shirt with the top buttons undone, revealing a freckled chest, thatched with white hair, and, even, Christ, a gold chain!
Landau hadn't wanted to go to the camp; he changed his mind ten times, erasing and rewriting his name until he dug a hole in the sign-up sheet. He hates to think of the Holocaust, or rather he feels it too deeply, unlike all those slobs who take dates to Schindler's List so they can provide a manly shoulder for their girls to burrow their faces in during the scene in which the naked female prisoners don't know if the shower will spray water or poison gas.
Isn't there something by definition obscene about guided tours of hellexcept, of course, if you're Dante? Yet plenty of people visit the camp, for as many different reasons. At the last minute Landau decided to go, to shut up and take his medicine, maybe it would do him good, just as working with children was supposed to be good for Felice. And it isn't as if he's making a special effort, going out of his way to satisfy a ghoulish curiosity. The whole Kafka Congress is making the trip, so it must be perfectly normal. Landau will probably feel left out if he doesn't go. Also he'd hate to look like a coward who can't even visit the camp where Jiri spent three hellish years, which is another reason not to go: The camp is Jiri's kingdom.
They turn a corner, and there it is: a solid brick fortress, not unlike the state colleges built after the Vietnam War, after students like Landau ran around smashing windows. And there is the sign over the gate, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Makes You Free. Oh, the fabulous ironies of the German sense of humor, and how amazing, how incredible that you can see it from a tour bus, which for the first time since they left Prague hits a reasonable speed and zips past the camp, then past parking lots crammed with dusty cars, campers, and fully loaded German-made RVs.
The passengers murmur anxiously. Could they have missed their stop? Wait, this bus was hired to take them where they are going! Eva Kaprova holds up a calming hand. The bus is just going to parkmiles away from the camp. How will the frail Israeli rabbi manage the long hike back?
But first they must drive past another tourist attraction. Eva Kaprova points out the National Memorial Cemetery, the tidy straight rows of pale identical markers, over which the state has recently erected a monumental gleaming silver cross. The passengers fall silent and gaze dully at the cross.
Then something startling happens. Jiri lopes to the front of the bus. He turns to mug at his colleagues and, with broad clownish gestures, spreads his arms out wide, as if he is hanging on the cross. But he doesn't look like Jesus. Jiri's in much better shape, a condor about to flap its wings and fly up through the bus ceiling. The conferees gaze at him worshipfully. Why did Landau come here? He'd told himself it would be worth it for the free ticket to Prague, andlet's be honesthe was flattered that he'd been invited, that the news of his little play had somehow crossed the ocean.
The bus squeezes into a parking space; its passengers don't notice. They go on staring at Jiri until he collapses his arms and laughs. The moment's over, they too can laugh and be released to stand and gather their things and follow Jiri off the bus and up the road to the camp.
The Kafka Congress flocks around Eva Kaprova, who collects them on the drawbridge and invites them to look down at the moat that the Nazi engineers designed so they could flood it in an emergency with water from the nearby river.
Landau stares down into the weedy moat, which is dry, of course, and littered with paper, broken glass: Eastern European landscaping. The parching sun sears the back of his neck. He lifts his head too quickly, and tiny black spots swim before his eyes. Oh God, what if he faints here?
"Kafka's castle," says Eva, with a bitter actressy chuckle. But no one's paying attention. Once more they're watching Jiri, who has gone ahead of them and is heading into the camp.
What is it like for Jiri to walk up that cobblestone road and under that soot-blackened stone arch? Could this be the first-time since...? Landau can't help wondering. But Jiri's beyond cheap psychology or sentimental melodrama. He enters the camp like its owner, a hero or messenger storming the fortress with urgent news for the king.
The Kafka Congress ditches poor Eva and rushes ducklinglike up the path, scurrying after Mr. Pied-Piper. Even the elderly rabbi lifts his cuffs and hurries. Landau lingers, watching Eva's generous sullen mouth droop even lower as she shades her eyes with her hand and watches the others run away. Landau, her solace, her gallant knight, is drifting in her direction when he nearly falls over Natalie Zigbaum, the Slavic languages professor from Vassar.
It's like tripping over an armchair, an armchair in a brown dress blotched with cruelly girlish pink tea roses, an armchair with long canines, thick spectacles, a helmet of gray hair and a grimly determined smile for Landau, who all through the conference has noticed Natalie finding reasons to be near him, noticed Natalie eyeing him even as he eyes Eva Kaprova, who has been eyeing Jiri Krakauer. In other words, the usual daisy chain, even here in the death camp.
"Look at Mr. Full-of-Shit," Natalie says, jerking her head toward Jiri. She was the one who started itmaking up names for Jiriand now Landau can't help doing it; it's become a new habit, a tic.
"Mr. Resurrected-Saint," hisses Natalie. "Mr. God-the-Survivor. When the whole world knows how he survived, all those confessionsboasts, reallyparaded in his memoirs, how he traded soggy matches and leaky shoes for extra rations of bread, how he hardened himself to shaft everyone else, and we're supposed to think: Bravo! Good for him! That's what I would have done! Well, maybe we would have given the bread to the dying boy who Jiri knew he had to refuse in that famous chapter from our hero's brilliant memoir"
"Then you wouldn't have survived," Landau says. "Isn't that the point?"
Natalie's face implodes like a puffy doughnut, bitten into, leaving only her increasingly self-conscious and rigid smile.
"Is it?" she says. "Is that the point?"
"Sure it is," says Landau harshly. "The point is: We don't know what we'd do. Nobody knows what accident of fate or DNA or character will determine how we act when the shit hits the fan."
"I guess," agrees Natalie, retreating, and as she turns away, her eyes, magnified by thick lenses, film with gelid tears.
Landau feels awful! Terrible! How badly he has behaved, here where every cobblestone should be teaching him a lesson about cruelty and kindness. Oh, really? Is that the lesson? What is Landau thinking? The ethical lesson of these stones is that it's smart to withhold your stale crust of bread from a little boy dying of hunger.
What did Jiri do to survive? Landau would rather not know, though he suspects that Jiri's confessions in print are only the tip of the iceberg. There have been some moments since the start of the conference when Jiri has acted in ways that must have distressed even his acolytes and fawning devotees.
Yesterday they were on the tram, headed for yet another reception that would begin with yet another minor official conveying the apologies of a slightly less minor official who was scheduled to greet them but was called away at the last minute. On the trambecause the tour bus scheduled to convey them there had also been called away at the last minute, a scenario so familiar by now that Landau wonders if the Congress budget is lower than Eva will admit, so that she stages these charades in which they wait twenty minutes for a nonexistent bus and then give up and wait another twenty minutes (or more) for the tram. Everything requires waiting, punitively protracted, sometimes an hour for breakfast, though they all get the same plate of slimy flamingo-colored bologna, rubbery gherkins, and pewter-ringed slices of egg, so it's not as if the kitchen has to cook fifty separate orders. The budget must be rock-bottom, judging from the hotel, a grisly state socialist dump untouched by the cushiony strokings of the Velvet Revolution, staffed by a chilly sadistic crew unschooled in the decadent good manners bourgeois tourists expect, a dank prison to which the conferees are returned each night to bash their aching heads against granite pillows encased in cold damp linen, on beds no wider than coffins.
The grim hotel, the elusive officials, the buses that never comeHey, welcome to the Kafka Congress (this is the sort of thing that Natalie Zigbaum sidles up to Landau to whisper along with the news that Jiri isn't staying at their hotel but at a five-star palace not far from Eva's apartment), where, fittingly, they've come to honor the spirit of a man who wrote the book on claustrophobic living quarters, on thuggish servants of the state refusing to show their faces, and on mysterious obstacles that make it hard to get from place to place.
During the long hot wait for the tram, several conferees suggested taking taxis, to which Eva replied that the Russian mob now controls the taxi business; last week a German tourist was stabbed for the gold fillings in his teeth. A rebellious ripple stirred the group, a disturbance that Jiri quieted with the observation that compared to a boxcar, the tram would do just fine. Besides, he said, what camp life taught you was the dangerous folly of simply waiting, of not living in the moment, an idea that Jiri has discussed with the Dalai Lama, who shares Jiri's opinion completely. Jiri name-drops constantly: Milos Forman. Vaclav Havel. Still, Landau couldn't believe that Jiri could name-drop the Dalai Lama, whom Landau has always wanted to meet. Oh, unfair! Unfair!
At last the tram arrived, packed full, so it was quickly arranged that half the Kafka conferees would board and the other half would wait another twenty minutes (or more) for another tram. Mr. Every-Man-for-Himself leaped onto the first tram while everyone else was still negotiating, and Eva boarded after Jiri, irresponsibly leaving the remaining conferees to find the right tram and the reception. Landau was swept onto the tram, along with Natalie Zigbaum. As it lurched forward, she fell against him and giggled and stepped away, readjusting her upholstery. Landau had thoughtjust as he thinks now, walking up the path to the campthat he and Natalie (squat, bespectacled, American) are a parody couple, a cruel parody of tall, handsome, clear-eyed, European Jiri and Eva.
More people got on the tram at each stop. "Another boxcar!" boomed Jiri. Did none of the Czechs speak English? Everyone stared straight ahead. At the stop in front of the Prague Kmart, three Gypsy women got on, and the other passengers shifted as far as possible from that trio of cackling birds with their bright ruffled plumage. The Czechs emitted clucking noises and muted syllables of threat and warning, and mimedfor the benefit of the Kafka conferees, whom until then they hadn't acknowledgedthe wary sensible safeguarding of wallets, pockets, and purses.
Then Jiri went to the front of the tram and spoke to the driver, who was unaware of the crisis. The driver came back and yelled at the Gypsies, who yelled at him, everyone yelled, then the Gypsies got off. The Czechs resumed their blank stares, as if nothing had happened, as did the Kafka conferees, though perhaps for different reasons.
"Did you see that?" Natalie had shouted into Landau's ear. "It took Jiri about five seconds to make the tram Gypsy free."
Landau's only answer was an irritated shrug, as if Natalie were a stinging bug that had gotten under his collar.
Natalie keeps on nipping at him, even now as they walk up the cobblestone road to the camp, and worse, she seems to have read Landau's mind, to know what he's been thinking. How else to explain itit couldn't be coincidencewhen she says, "Did you believe how Mr. Human-Rights treated those Gypsies on the tram!"
Again Landau shrugs, just one shoulder this time. "What were the choices?" he says. "Sit there grinning like liberal schmucks and get our passports stolen?" Why is he defending Jiri for doing something morally vile (although, to be perfectly frank, Landau had felt relieved). Because the people who disapprove of him are people like Landau and Natalie Zigbaum!
"The choices?" Natalie Zigbaum snarls. "Liberal schmucks ... or Nazis?"
Suddenly fearing that he's bullied Natalie to the point at which her fragile crush (or whatever) on him has been blasted out of existence, Landau feels bereft. Her attention is better than nothing. There is so little sexual buzz going around this conference, Natalie's choosing Landau must mean that he is its second most attractive man.
"Watch your step," warns Landau. "These cobblestones are murder." In fact they are like vicious stone eggs, pressing into Landau's tender arches. Natalie's shoes have thicker soles than his, but she smiles so gratefully, leans so pliantly against him that she could be clicking over the stones in the thinnest highest heels. Landau grasps her elbow and guides her up the path as they approach the dark looming archway in which Jiri stands with outstretched arms, welcoming them all.
What does the camp remind Landau of? A zoo without animals, maybe. A wide pebbled path lined with overgrown borders and inviting park benches, without the parklike promise of pleasure and relaxation, but rather the zoolike reminder that one is here on a mission, there is something to see here, a fixed route to be taken. And how could they go anywhere except where Jiri steers them? Jiri stands off to one side and bows, waving them on. The conferees smile and nod at him, a tiny bit nervous, but jolly....
As Landau and Natalie Zigbaum pass, Jiri whispers, "This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen."
Landau stops, as does Natalie. The others squeeze timidly past them. Landau says, "What an amazing book! This Way for the Gas. Have you read Borowski?" he asks Natalie. "What an astonishing life! Borowski and his girlfriend were sent to Auschwitz for distributing anti-Nazi poetry and miraculously they both survive, are separated, reunited, they get married, and she gets pregnant, has a daughter, he visits them at the hospital and that night goes home and turns on the gas and kills himself."
Some instinct is kicking in here, Landau's showing off for a woman. So what if it's Natalie? She's the only one here to compete for. In one of the letters Landau wrote for Felice, she scolds Kafka for showing off the first time they met at Max Brod's, for bringing along the manuscript of his first book of stories and photos from a trip that he and Max made to Weimar, including pictures of a beautiful girl with whom Kafka had a flirtation. In Landau's letter, Felice scolds Kafka and then confesses that it made her happy; she knew he was showing off for her. But Landau has no plans for a long neurotic engagement to Natalie. Maybe it's Jiri he wants to impress....
"Lying shit," says Jiri. "Borowski was never at Auschwitz."
"He wasn't?" says Landau. But Jiri's gaze skims over their heads, and Natalie and Landau turn to see Eva rushing up the path. Eva is wearing high heels, and her stumbling run reminds Landau of postwar Italian films in which beautiful actresses spill out of their ripped flimsy dresses as they flee the smoldering ruins of villages ravaged by battle.
"Jiri," Eva says. "Where did you disappear to?" A thorn of panic snags Eva's throaty voice.
Jiri laughs. "I couldn't wait to get back to this place!" Then Mr. Joie-de-Vivre puts his arm around Eva and sweeps her along, while Landau and Natalie must dazedly pick themselves up and follow. The entire Kafka Congress straggles into the dusty sunbaked courtyard, yet Landau feels that he and Natalie are alone with Jiri and Eva: the homely couple, the beautiful couple, double-dating at the death camp.
"Achtung!" Natalie whispers to Landau as Jiri whisks them through a lot surrounded by faded brick walls pocked with dark low entrances without doors, like the holes in a birdhouse.
Tourists rouse themselves from their dreamy sight-seeing just long enough to observe the ragtag parade of Kafka Congress conferees. Then they resume popping in and out doorways like figures on a cuckoo clock, blinking and bent double.
Jiri points out the high spots.
"Brooks Brothers!" He waves and shouts.
"The clothing depot," translates Eva. "That's where the prisoners picked up their monthly changes of clothing."
"Bastards!" says Jiri. "Bastards!" They pass empty rooms with wooden chairs and desks. Offices? Interrogation rooms? Jiri isn't saying, and they're moving too fast for Landau to consult the map he grabbed as they rushed past the ticket booth. Mr. Live-for-Today had insisted on paying for the whole group, though Eva said, "Jiri, you mustn't do that!" Let the guy pay, thought Landau. Save the money for the Congress. Next timeif there is a next timethey could be put up in a halfway decent hotel and even hire a real bus and skip the charades with the trams.
They turn into a courtyard, a narrow alley lined on one side with cagelike cells and on the other with larger stalls crammed with wooden bunks. Landau thinks again of a zoo, of a decrepit roadside animal park with a pair of big cats pacing their boxes and a few starved monkeys shivering in the corners.
"Here you have your single rooms," Jiri declares. "And here you have your accommodations for five hundred skeletons rubbing together in fifty narrow beds."
"The guy drives me nuts!" says Natalie, clinging to Landau like one of those birds that peck the bugs off the backs of bison. "I will just throw up if I hear him tell one more time about Ottla Kafka leading the children's transport to Auschwitz."
Jiri raises both arms, Mr. Human-Candelabra, flicking one wrist, then the other at the tiny cages on one side, the large holding pens opposite. His face is crimson, streaked with sweat, and the glaring August sun turns his white hair incandescent.
Natalie whispers to Landau, "Eva's got her hands full with him. The guy's had two serious coronaries and a triple bypass. The woman's a wreck. Did you see her face when she came running up to us? She's afraid he'll die on her. Right here in Prague, at the camp! Fabulous for her career at the Kafka Foundation!"
Apparently, sexless Natalie Zigbaum has no idea that Eva's pre-occupation and strain is all about Eros, not Thanatos, about her affair with Jiri and not his imminent death! Natalie wouldn't know Eros if it crept up behind her and pinched her ass!
"Don't kid yourself," says Landau. "He's in better shape than we are!"
This time Natalie backs off, and it's just as well. Landau doesn't need her pecking at him as he peeks into the rooms, which he tries in vain to populate with jammed-together skeletal Jews, then peers into the cells on the other side, in which he tries to picture political prisoners in solitary confinement. What efficient cruelty to border one yard with two opposite tortures!
But the ghosts are hiding from Landau. All he sees are walls, scratched paint, bare bunks. No one's staring at him with raccoon eyes, and frankly, Landau's just as glad. The whole trip is filthy, filthy. What people will do for sensation!
Jiri nearly mows Landau down, hurrying out of the courtyard. The group rushes after Jiri, who is standing outside a weathered wooden shack.
"The KB," says Jiri. "The Krankenbauer. Everything in order! First they have to cure us so afterwards they can kill us. My home away from home!" Jiri has written about the ruses he came up with to get himself sent to the hospital, where he could rest and eat slightly thicker gruel before being sent back to work, duties which, as his readers and every literary prize committee know, included pulling wedding rings from the fingers of the dead.
The feminist from Zagreb, who has a gift for investing the most banal utterances with urgent meaning, pushes forward and grabs Jiri's arm. "Did the doctors ... experiment...?
Oh, please, thinks Landau, then notices Eva Kaprova watching. Is there a triangle forming? Jiri, Eva, the Croatian ...
Jiri glares at the twiglike novelist. How can she ask him this? Hasn't she read his work? He roars at her, he blows her away. "The whole camp was an experiment!"
And now, holding her proud head higher, Eva runs after Jiri, again leaving the rest of the group (how fitting that the Kafka Congress should spend so much time chasing blindly after each other) to inspect the hospital and catch up with her and Jiri.
The sick bay is the most decorated, the most elaborately furnished. A certain wax museum aesthetic prevails, Dr. Adolf's Chamber of Horrors, with charming period details, examining tables with real stirrups, leather straps, no sterile chrome imitations, a dental chair, and cabinets with many tiny drawers the perfect size for torture implements: toenail extractors neatly divided from testicle squeezers.
Landau can hardly endure it, but something compels him to look. He finds himself remembering the ophthalmologist he was taken to as a boy, the gloomy office, the shelves of reference books, graphic instructions for tortures involving the eye, the pool-table-green carpet, the leather couches permeated with a sugary alcohol smell, the clunking apparatus that held the prescriptive lenses, looming over you, pressing into your face.
By Damien Wilkins
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright © 1997 Damien Wilkins. All rights reserved.