Anna Asbury
Déjà vu
DOOR Marek Šindelka
29-11-2012

I think back to Antwerp. A damp evening, streets full of puddles, eventually I caught a glimpse of sky between ragged clouds. Autumn in an unfamiliar city, cold air, my slowly developing sore throat, sleep deprivation turning unnoticed into flu. It was dark, mist had set in, I wandered the empty streets, a luxury shopping district, mannequins in shop windows frozen in elegant gestures, staring into infinity. I thought of Poland, remembering a similar street in another city, another country, another time and place. The memory no longer seemed to belong to me.

It was ten years ago in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast. At half past two in the morning two friends and I got onto a train which would take us right across Poland. There was a division of the Polish army on the train. All the way we stood in the aisle in a crammed, smoke-filled carriage exchanging cigarettes and gulps of Czech and Polish vodka with the soldiers (not much older than us) and teaching each other swear words, something that greatly interested the soldiers. Suddenly we stood, a little drunk, watery eyed and stiff jawed from laughing, on a platform in the cold Baltic night. You could smell the salt in the air, the city was empty, just the last few drunkards and the shop window mannequins, staring into infinity (as in Antwerp but with slightly different poses and gestures, to fit the fashions of that season long ago).

There were three of us: me, Ondra and Vojta. The overnight bus dropped us somewhere outside the city. We followed the smell in search of the sea, but we must have lost our way. We spent the night in a goal on an abandoned football pitch. In the morning we wandered the pine forests without map or compass. Everything was salty, pines grew in the sand, we even saw a few shells among the pine needles, but still no sea. When we finally found the beach we were euphoric: there was no one to be seen, miles of empty beach, the wind snatched our breath away, high waves pounded the sand, we jumped into the sea and for a long while we rode the breakers.

I’m not sure who noticed first, but suddenly we became aware of the sea’s strength. We realised we were being pulled away from the coast, drifting further and further out. We saw the beach, our rucksacks dumped on the sand, everything disappearing behind the walls of water to reappear moments later. I remember the panic, the fleeting shock of body and mind. We all began to swim desperately but made no headway. I could see Ondra and Vojta, we went through this together, but at the same time we were each terribly alone. Those fifteen or twenty metres were suddenly an uncrossable border.

After ages wasting our energy it finally occurred to us to swim under water, dive to the bottom, where the hollow echo of breaking waves pounded and the current was less powerful. Finally when we crawled back up the beach, we were so tired we just lay in the sand until evening, strewn across the beach, like parachutists after a bad landing. In the evening we were joined by friends we had last seen in Wroclaw, where we had gone our separate ways for a few days. We camped for a while on the beaches, but as far as I can remember I didn’t venture back into the sea at all.

Strange: the first day in The Hague thanks to a TV news report I thought about the sea all day long, and in parting on the last day in Antwerp I thought of the sea again. Under the gaze of the mannequins I was taken back as if through a time tunnel to the Polish coast. At ten I walked into the hotel and realised that the pounding I had been hearing in my head all evening was not the memory of the Polish waves, but rising fever. I wrapped myself in the bed covers, the hotel was right next to the theatre where the festival was in progress. As I fell asleep Andrew Bird’s performance, which I had planned to attend, was beginning. The walls and frame of the building faithfully relayed the remnants of music back to me. In The Hague I had heard an argument between strangers through the wall, in Antwerp bass tones muffled by bricks and concrete. It sounded as if it was under water, on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. I covered myself in the waves, let the current take me. Everything repeats, I thought, all borders are imaginary, you can swim underneath. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Alle vertalingen van Anna Asbury
Déjà vu
29-11-12

I think back to Antwerp. A damp evening, streets full of puddles, eventually I caught a glimpse of sky between ragged clouds. Autumn in an unfamiliar city, cold air, my slowly developing sore throat, sleep deprivation turning unnoticed into flu. It was dark, mist had set in, I wandered the empty streets, a luxury shopping district, mannequins in shop windows frozen in elegant gestures, staring into infinity. I thought of Poland, remembering a similar street in another city, another country, another time and place. The memory no longer seemed to belong to me.

It was ten years ago in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast. At half past two in the morning two friends and I got onto a train which would take us right across Poland. There was a division of the Polish army on the train. All the way we stood in the aisle in a crammed, smoke-filled carriage exchanging cigarettes and gulps of Czech and Polish vodka with the soldiers (not much older than us) and teaching each other swear words, something that greatly interested the soldiers. Suddenly we stood, a little drunk, watery eyed and stiff jawed from laughing, on a platform in the cold Baltic night. You could smell the salt in the air, the city was empty, just the last few drunkards and the shop window mannequins, staring into infinity (as in Antwerp but with slightly different poses and gestures, to fit the fashions of that season long ago).

There were three of us: me, Ondra and Vojta. The overnight bus dropped us somewhere outside the city. We followed the smell in search of the sea, but we must have lost our way. We spent the night in a goal on an abandoned football pitch. In the morning we wandered the pine forests without map or compass. Everything was salty, pines grew in the sand, we even saw a few shells among the pine needles, but still no sea. When we finally found the beach we were euphoric: there was no one to be seen, miles of empty beach, the wind snatched our breath away, high waves pounded the sand, we jumped into the sea and for a long while we rode the breakers.

I’m not sure who noticed first, but suddenly we became aware of the sea’s strength. We realised we were being pulled away from the coast, drifting further and further out. We saw the beach, our rucksacks dumped on the sand, everything disappearing behind the walls of water to reappear moments later. I remember the panic, the fleeting shock of body and mind. We all began to swim desperately but made no headway. I could see Ondra and Vojta, we went through this together, but at the same time we were each terribly alone. Those fifteen or twenty metres were suddenly an uncrossable border.

After ages wasting our energy it finally occurred to us to swim under water, dive to the bottom, where the hollow echo of breaking waves pounded and the current was less powerful. Finally when we crawled back up the beach, we were so tired we just lay in the sand until evening, strewn across the beach, like parachutists after a bad landing. In the evening we were joined by friends we had last seen in Wroclaw, where we had gone our separate ways for a few days. We camped for a while on the beaches, but as far as I can remember I didn’t venture back into the sea at all.

Strange: the first day in The Hague thanks to a TV news report I thought about the sea all day long, and in parting on the last day in Antwerp I thought of the sea again. Under the gaze of the mannequins I was taken back as if through a time tunnel to the Polish coast. At ten I walked into the hotel and realised that the pounding I had been hearing in my head all evening was not the memory of the Polish waves, but rising fever. I wrapped myself in the bed covers, the hotel was right next to the theatre where the festival was in progress. As I fell asleep Andrew Bird’s performance, which I had planned to attend, was beginning. The walls and frame of the building faithfully relayed the remnants of music back to me. In The Hague I had heard an argument between strangers through the wall, in Antwerp bass tones muffled by bricks and concrete. It sounded as if it was under water, on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. I covered myself in the waves, let the current take me. Everything repeats, I thought, all borders are imaginary, you can swim underneath. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

How to preserve silence and darkness
18-11-12

The festival moved to Belgium and after a solid five hours’ sleep we followed it there. The landscape on the way to Antwerp was hypnotically monotonous. I looked at the geometry of Dutch forests: strange, chessboard-shaped woods, as if marked out with a ruler. We came to an enormous lighted greenhouse, which looked like an incubator for a gigantic alien creature. On the horizon the silhouettes of cranes rose over the harbour. Everything trailing off into the mist, and the raindrops on the bus window.

I explained to Wiam how to pronounce the Czech word ‘řeřicha’, which, as it turns out, is unpronounceable. I learnt a few unpronounceable Arabic words and then we started talking about silence. About people who claim we are infected with noise, who capture silence, collect it and try to secretly reintroduce it into the world like a rare plant. About John Cage who composed a piece of music for four and a half minutes of silence.

We talked about people who try to slow time down. Once I read an interview with the chairman of the Society for the Deceleration of Time: he prescribed everyone at least an hour of boredom a day, because when you’re bored you immediately begin to feel the passing of time, almost as a physical sensation. We talked about people who try to preserve darkness, like a threatened species of light. They set out to combat light pollution, to limit light in big cities, where darkness has died out completely, replaced by a greyish orange fog enveloping the streets at night.

All these people are crossing borders in the opposite direction to current world developments. We should support them in their attempt. I too sometimes long for darkness that really allows you to see the stars. Forests that don’t look like a mathematical problem, dangerous forests you would be afraid to enter. Silence in which you can hear your own breath and heartbeat. Sometimes I feel homesick for childhood boredom, when days were at least as long as weeks are now and the world sometimes stopped moving altogether, stayed still, frozen in the dizzying present.

Wiam says that’s precisely what we’re missing: the present. Someone should set up a Society for the Conservation of Movement. We live in our pasts and our futures, but the present eludes us. We’ve long been unable to deal with the present, whereas in childhood it was the most ordinary thing in the world. I woke up in The Hague, fell asleep in Antwerp, awoke in Prague. All of it like flashes of light when a film roll breaks. A strange world.

The sign of the rat
17-11-12

I find myself constantly pondering what the word ‘border’ means to me. It’s a real puzzle. Yesterday was the first day of the festival: music and literature flooded the centre of The Hague. I imagined it as India ink poured into water, billowing out until it eventually mixes in completely. On the way to the theatre where we were to appear with the other authors and the translators later in the evening, Yan Ge explained my Chinese horoscope to me: we discovered we were born in the same month and year, only a couple of days apart, making us both rats according to the Chinese horoscope (mice, said Yan Ge, since she doesn’t like rats). We’re focused, hard workers, stubborn and continually restless. We collect and hoard things, like spiritual capitalists. I’ve never believed in horoscopes, that something seemingly unimportant like a date of birth can connect two people on different sides of the planet. Later in the evening I wasn’t so sure.

In the interview I was asked what participating in the festival meant to me, what was interesting about it. I said something insignificant in broken English and it was only much later that I realised that the title of the event might even be the theme of my life. That there really is a restlessness in me, which constantly pushes me onwards. To keep on reformulating my life, seeking new goals, developing myself, above all moving, not staying still. Crossing borders.

Perhaps it really has nothing to do with a horoscope, but with the form of today’s Euro-American culture in general. We are programmed like machines to cross borders. Our whole world nowadays is geared towards development, self fulfilment, the whole economic system based on the magical illusion of infinite growth. We are a neurotic civilisation. History, constantly breathing down our necks, explains our development, continually pushing us on. Even our lives now seem like projects. As if at the point of death someone will bring us the bill, the itinerary of our journey, of our memory, like some kind of exotic butterfly collection.

I realised that pretty much everything I write relates to these issues. How the culture we’re born into forms and deforms us, determining the way we develop. My first book was a collection of poems with the title Strychnine. In these texts I tried to catch the fragile border that marks the end of childhood. I was nineteen at the time, in a curious no man’s land trying to collect those vague, old memories, which seemed to belong to someone completely different. At the time I was fascinated by memory. Memory as the human habitat. Memory as capital to be stored up. Memories as the building blocks of our lives. Because in some sense a person with no memory has never lived.

We meet new people, pass on memories, exchange the shards and splinters of our lives, summon the past back into the light. Sometimes I have the feeling that the whole of western civilisation is born under the sign of the rat: we are so focused, work so hard, we grow into infinity, trade in time, expand. All the borders we cross simply present new limits, which we must again overcome. We are on a dizzying journey to infinity. The question is whether in the long term the rest of the planet will be able to keep up.

The first evening
16-11-12

Yesterday I crossed the Dutch border. I met the other participants of the festival now beginning in The Hague, which has made crossing artistic borders its primary objective. I hadn’t slept well, I followed the movement of the conversation as it flowed from subject to subject, language to language, the information wandering freely from one person to another, and I suddenly realised that what had been happening around me all evening was nothing other than the crossing of all kinds of borders.

Even in the hotel lobby, as we waited for the others, something strange happened. It seemed like a sign: as we talked, a TV news story about beached whales caught my eye. For reasons which remained unclear, a couple of these gigantic creatures had crossed the ocean border and now lay inspecting their new world in confusion, betrayed by gravity. It happens, though no one knows why. Occasionally it is romantically described as a suicide attempt; sometimes even whales find life too difficult. Sonar technology has been suggested as the culprit, disrupting their communication and disorienting them, but given that beached whales appear in drawings from the Renaissance, it is probably something completely different.

We left the whales to their fate on the TV in the hotel lobby and went off for a drink. We had a long discussion with Edgar de Bruin yesterday about what literature really is, what use it is nowadays and its function in society. I have never thought of art as a form of entertainment. It is first and foremost a way of crossing borders, of understanding that the world is “a hundred million times richer than is healthy”, as Witold Grombowicz said. In reality the world is an extremely complex thing, and people will try anything to make it easy and comprehensible. Adverts, pop culture and politics reduce reality to sayings, witticisms and primitive clichés. Art should counterbalance all this, it should force people to cross the borders of their egocentrism, teach them to look at things from different perspectives. From time to time (keeping the whales in mind) it should wash them up on the beach, show them that the water in which they float, weightless, is not to be taken for granted, that their prejudices weigh hundreds of tons.

In the evening, as I almost fell asleep on the walk back from the pub (already on my way across the border of wakefulness), poet and translator Wiam described her trip to the seaside. She had walked through the streets of The Hague and was surprised to find herself continually going uphill. “The sea can’t be up a hill,” she laughed (but I knew it was true, there must be at least one sea up a hill, there must be something to make us doubt). Wiam continued: when she came to the beach the sea was nowhere to be seen, in the thick fog she could barely make out anyone, only some girl walking resolutely towards the waves. Eventually Wiam was afraid the girl had come here to drown herself, so she walked in her direction. My ears pricked up, I thought of the whales. Half asleep as I was it seemed magical – whales washed up on the beach and a girl stepping into the waves, a kind of suicidal exchange between two worlds. But in the end the girl only walked as far as the tide boundary. She stepped carefully onto the wet sand, turned and walked away, and at that moment I went after her, I followed the girl from another person’s story until I lost her altogether in the mist.

At six o’clock this morning I was woken by people arguing next door.

A Czech take on crossing borders
05-11-12

In the Czech Republic the word “border” arouses a subconscious sense of foreboding in many people. It sends them into self-preservation mode. To Czechs the border is as good as forbidden territory. Even today, when you walk through the forests of the Czech border region, you still come across massive bunkers which rise from the ground like strange concrete mushrooms, overgrown with moss and crooked little trees, clinging on with their roots in the pine needles on the roofs. Inside, the cave damp mixes with the smell of rusted iron, reminiscent of blood. As children we used to play soldiers around the bunkers, but not one of us dared to enter the narrow, pitch black passageways.

We were little boys shooting at each other with catapults, collapsing dramatically on the fallen pine needles and playing dead. Subconsciously, though, we were enacting a ritual. Those children’s games, the forest riddled with invisible bullets, invisible blood, the invisible dead in an invisible fight, all these things filled these places year after year in a war that once was all too real.

The border was fortified in 1935 to provide support against Nazi Germany, which had started to lay claim to the Czech border regions. The network of bunkers was never used. President Beneš resigned after the Munich Pact in 1938 and called on the Czechs to lay down their weapons, avoiding a bloodbath, but simultaneously creating one of the greatest traumas of modern Czech history. The Czechs lost both their ideals and their borders, becoming citizens of a “protectorate”, a cynically ambiguous name for the new state.

When the war came to an end and the Czechs recovered their ideals, the border conflict continued. With a deep sense of rage, work began on the expulsion of the German population, involving many atrocities towards people who had nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism. Although people later decided to resettle the border area, they never succeeded in breathing new life into this dying region. Entire villages fell into ruin and within a few decades they had disappeared without trace.

These places show just how fast the forest moves. In no time at all, mould and decay consume roof girders and weeds tear into walls, growing through roofs and reducing houses to rubble, which soon disappears under the soil. Given time, the landscape can deal with whatever people throw at it. It is indifferent to human endeavour, to borders, to what happened in the past or other such abstractions for which people have been murdering each other for centuries.

I love walking in the border region, where deer graze peacefully in ruined churches. Wandering through this deserted zone, as if in a scene from a psychological drama by Russian filmmaker Tarkovski. From time to time you come across a stretch of unexpectedly flat ground, overgrown with saplings, a relic of another period of history. These strange flat spaces were once part of the forbidden zone of the Iron Curtain. Earth broken up and smoothed down, where the footprints of anyone trying to cross the border would remain. Not far off stood the first of three electric fences.

Just a few decades ago a shoot to kill policy was applied to those attempting the border crossing. The word “border” always has uncomfortable undertones, but in the Czech context the phrase “cross the border” invokes dread. Czech tourists are nervous about border crossings all over the world, as if they had been caught doing something wrong. They are always orderly and polite, and once through the usual passport checks they feel a great flood of relief, a sort of suppressed cheer of joy. The same holds for cultural borders. We are still too shy, too concerned with what “ought to be done” culturally, we still have too little self confidence.

Nature is swift and unrestrained. She can take on almost anything, consuming the remains of the borders of totalitarian states and transforming them back into forest, where you can take a peaceful walk and children can play murder in the dark to their hearts’ content. The borders of human memory are much slower to decay. It might be generations before they disappear altogether and we can move freely in the world of modern day European culture.