‘Necklace/Choker’ by Jana Bodnárová: An Excerpt
In this highly acclaimed novel, Jana Bodnárová offers an engrossing portrayal of a small Slovak town and its inhabitants in the north of the country against the backdrop of the tumultuous history of the twentieth century. As Sara, the protagonist of Necklace/Choker, returns to her native town after many years in exile to sell the old family house and garden, she begins to piece together her family’s history from snippets and fragments of her own memory and the diaries of her artist father, Imro. A talented painter, he survived the Holocaust only to be crushed by the constraints imposed on his art by Stalinist censorship, and Sara herself was later driven into exile after dreams of socialism with a human face were shattered by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Translated from the Slovak by Jonathan Gresty
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MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, AN ABANDONED HOUSE, A FORGOTTEN GARDEN.
A sultry night, phantom voices, eddies of wind . . . The house cracking, creaking, whistling: its wood, glass, furniture, wallpaper, floorboards. And then, when Sára turned on the lights, the bodies of moths crackled with a deathly sound on the bare lightbulbs.
How many people pass through life, undiscovered, like those moths, or like summer annuals, fleeting, weightless, almost invisible, ashamed they even exist for no one will miss them, removing almost all trace of themselves after their gossamer-like existences? With such thoughts, Sára sat down on the bed.
If an occasional car passed along the street at night, perhaps a taxi with a passenger for the night train bound for the nearby station, shadows shimmered across the walls. Like translucent belly dancers, they slipped across the once-green wallpaper with silver shells, then disappeared.
The sounds of the house awakened Sára; at night, they revived and were released from their silent captivity. Surely it was those sounds that roused her from her sleep, not the trains or the cars. She was used to those from her flat. The voices of the villa roused but didn’t trouble her, though. They were intimate, confidential and hers alone. She felt the dust and the mustiness in her nostrils—she had not had time during the day to properly clean out this, her old bedroom.
After the scorching day, the night was cool, damp and pleasant and enticed Sára out into the garden. It was just as wild and abandoned as the house, only its sounds were different. The wind fluttered the leaves, making them rustle for a moment. For Sára, it was another familiar sound—like that of an arrow when fired from a bow. She picked out the shape of the abandoned flower bed. Tulips, crocuses, pansies, dahlias, petunias, slipper orchids, hortensias and autumn asters used to grow there, and all had left confused signals and traces behind them.
Everything was listening to the night-time silence, even the silence itself.
Sára gazed into the depths of the garden and it seemed that at the far end a vagrant girl was sleeping, a drug addict perhaps. But when she drew closer, through the long grass, she saw only a clump of thistles and dock leaves. And then, unexpectedly, she scratched her forearm on a wild rosebush. She shuddered and squealed slightly; a bird, roused from its sleep, twittered, and a cat hissed, perhaps one with its shelter in the garden or one that had lost its shyness and fear and was gravitating towards sleeping humankind. Sára breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t a girl lying in the garden, after all! Of course there are neglected children who wander the streets and sleep in deserted gardens, unseen like those moths in the house a moment before. And such deserted gardens attract people. They are like hotels—places for temporary journeys, overnights, discoveries, losing oneself, sex, murders, suicides . . .
She sat on the rickety old bench and looked at the dilapidated summerhouse, or ‘garden parlour’, as Sára’s mother used to call it. Sára would be so happy to see her mother again: drying her hair after washing it with egg shampoo, tilting her head so that her long blonde mane could almost touch the ground, running her fingers through it and listening to a song on the radio coming through the open window:
‘Turn off the lanterns, I want to see the dark. He hasn’t come, he hasn’t come ...let the fireflies lead me home ...’