By Daniela Kapitáňová
Translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood
This is the second time I’ve become a writer because I’ve already been a writer once. That time I wrote the first Cemetery Book. Today I’ve become a writer again because it’s raining, and when it’s raining I can’t collect cardboard, because it’s raining. But the most important thing is that my handcart is in the workshop, because my rear-view mirror has been broken off, and I don’t know how to fix it because you need special tools or whatever to fix it and I can’t do that, because I haven’t got them. My rear-view mirror has never ever been broken off before, though I’ve had my handcart for twenty-eight years, because I’m hard-working and people respect me for being hard-working.
The workshop is on the Island and it’s got special tools. The man who fixes things with his special tools is called Ján Boš-Mojš and the funny thing about him is that every time he says his name, Ján Boš-Mojš, he doesn’t say it, he sort of sings it like this: Ján Boš-Mojš. He sings his name to a sort of Ján Boš-Mojš tune. But apart from that he is hardworking and people respect him, because he has a son who is very ill with elypsy, and Ján Boš-Mojš has to look after him because elypsy is the sort of illness where you have to be looked after.
His son’s name is Ján Boš-Mojš Junior.
They’re both in my notebook, because I have three notebooks. One is called Christian Names, the other one is called Surnames and the third one is called Died. That’s where I write down everyone I know, because if I didn’t write down everyone I know, how would I know who I know, right?
I’ve got Ján Boš-Mojš and Ján Boš-Mojš Junior in my Surnames notebook down under the letter B and also under the letter M, because you never know what’s what and why and how.
I’ve got lots of first names in my Christian Names Notebook. Mostly they’re Peters. I’ve got thirty-one Peters, except that one of them writes his name like this: Petr and that’s the Czech way of writing it but I’ve got him down as Peter anyway because he’s not a Czech, he’s a Hungarian. The thing is, when he was born, the person in charge of writing people’s names in the Documents left out the second E, but that was when we still had Czechoslovakia so it was OK to write it that way: Petr, but it’s not OK to write it like that now, and he’d be in big trouble for that, because in proper Slovak you have to write it like this: Peter. Or else change it.
Because that’s the law.
The reason why it’s hard to be a writer is because it makes your hand hurt. Except that I have to be a writer because when I had my fortune told it said:
‘Will write the Cemetery Book.’
It was old Gusto Rúhe who told my fortune and what he said was this: ‘Will write the Cemetery Book.’ But he is an alcoholic because he lives on alcohol and he smells really awful, because he often wets himself.
He’s always sitting in front of the Pub by the Railway Station and he urinates into the Floral Display, and when he tells fortunes he spits, burps and slurps all over the place because he thinks that’s the law for fortune telling.
Old Gusto Rúhe tells fortunes like this:
He tells fortunes due to a Moonstone.
Moonstone is a kind of stone that’s yellow and almost transparent, because you can see right through it. Its name is Moonstone. I haven’t got it down in my Surnames Notebook because it’s a stone and I don’t even know if that’s its real name, or if old Gusto Rúhe just made it up. It’s cold when you touch it. When you’re having your fortune told you have to hold the Moonstone until it gets all warmed up. And then, when it’s warmed up so that it’s all warm, you give it back to old Gusto Rúhe. And when he’s done with all his burping and whatever, he writes your fortune on the tarmac with a piece of chalk like they have at school. This is what he wrote for me:
‘Will write the Cemetery Book.’
But old Gusto Rúhe is an alcoholic and he’d write any old rubbish in the world for an alcoholic drink, just to make people believe that his fortune telling is for real and to make them buy him an alcoholic drink because he is an alcoholic, even though it’s not good for you and it damages your organs.
I gave him some Cat’s Tongue chocolate for telling my fortune, but old Gusto Rúhe got really angry and started shouting that I would come to a bad end, and that frightened me, because even if old Gusto Rúhe is just making it up, it really happened once for real that he put a spell on Erik Rak. When I’m done writing this, I’ll write about him putting a spell on Erik Rak. But because he once put a really bad spell on Erik Rak, I decided to buy him an alcoholic drink. And then old Gusto Rúhe calmed down and he was calm again. And he stopped all his burping and slurping and spitting and wrote the word Boy on the tarmac.
The thing is I hate it when people call me Boy, because I’m not a boy, I’m nearly forty-four years old and people respect me because I’m hardworking, even though I don’t need to work because I have a disability pension due to my kidneys, and I have another illness as well that has a proper name, but that illness has nothing to do with my disability pension, I just have it. My disability pension has gone up quite a lot because people respect me.
People keep on asking me all the time to do deliveries in my handcart and when they ask me I do deliveries, even though I’m not supposed to lift heavy things, because it’s very bad for me. I have to take good care regarding my health because I have a disability pension, so I have to keep healthy because if I’m not healthy I could get ill and that would be very dangerous.
That’s why I have a healthy life of style and I take plenty of exercise out in the fresh air and I only have a light supper in the evening. My hands and feet don’t swell up. In wintertime I wear thermal underpants. One pair of my thermal underpants is called Panther and another one is called Trikota. The underpants called Panther have an animal called a panther embroidered on the leg. The underpants called Trikota don’t have an animal embroidered on them.
Another reason why some people call me Boy is because I’m not very tall because I didn’t grow very much, because I have this illness that has a proper name and with this illness you never have to shave and you don’t grow. But I don’t need to grow anyway because I’m nearly forty-four years old and nobody in the world grows when they’re nearly forty-four, right?
The thing is, even though I haven’t grown like everyone else in the world, it was me they picked to recite the Young Pioneer’s Oath for the whole class, because I was normal just like everyone else and I still am, because I’m no retard and I went to a normal school, not a Special School for retards, because I’m no retard. That’s why I was chosen to recite the Young Pioneer’s Oath.
The Young Pioneer’s Oath is beautiful.
I recited the Young Pioneer’s Oath on stage at the Cultural Centre in Komárno, and it was just me on my own reciting it for the whole class, and I can still remember every word of the Young Pioneer’s Oath. Nobody else remembers it any more, even though they went on to lots of different schools but I do, because I remember everything, because I’ve got I.Q.
My Grandfather, whom we used to call Grandaddy, went with me to take the Young Pioneer’s Oath because when he found out that nobody else wanted to go with me he got angry and said that the High Ups would find out and that anyone who didn’t go would get into big trouble. That’s why he went with me so that he wouldn’t get into big trouble.
When the Young Pioneer’s Oath was over, we went to a café together with Karol Gunár (PhD Social Sciences) and his daughter Darinka Gunárová.
I saw Darinka Gunárová yesterday.
Grandaddy invited us to the café, because I was the one they picked to recite the Young Pioneer’s Oath, and that was a big thing, so we all went to the café and had all sorts of fizzy drinks and pastries. But the worst problem was that my Young Pioneer’s scarf wasn’t really red. It was sort of orange. The good thing was that it didn’t crease and its corners didn’t fray. But it wasn’t like all the other Young Pioneers’ scarves in our class. I still have it because I keep it wrapped up in a napkin in a box and sometimes I think about it a lot. Like why it wasn’t really red, but sort of orange. Then again, it didn’t need ironing. But it wasn’t like all the other Young Pioneer’s scarves in the world.
Grandmummy said that she would make me a Young Pioneer’s scarf that was really red and would crease and have corners that frayed if I wanted one, but I got frightened that Grandmummy might do something that wasn’t allowed, because back then you couldn’t just make your own Young Pioneer’s scarf because it wasn’t allowed. Because then anyone could have made themselves a Young Pioneer’s scarf, or even two, and that would have been quite out of order. Because then some person who had never been a Young Pioneer in their life could have had his own Young Pioneer’s scarf and that would have been a total disaster.
The thing is, Grandmummy was a tailor regarding men’s clothes and that’s why she thought that she was allowed to make Young Pioneers’ scarves.
We used to call our grandparents Grandmummy and Grandaddy, but only at home because it would have been weird to call them Grandmummy and Grandaddy in front of other people, because I don’t know anybody else in the world or in Komárno who’s called Grandmummy or Grandaddy. Because that’s in German and we’re in Slovakia.
But Grandmummy and Grandaddy were not German because they were in Slovakia, except that Grandmummy’s grandmother was Hungarian and her name was Eszter Csonka, meaning that she had a Hungarian name too. And nobody liked that.
I didn’t like it, either.
Grandmummy used to read German detective stories and she read them in German, except that she had to wrap them up in newspaper because Grandaddy was scared that they would get into trouble, because those detective stories came from a woman who had gone to Germany for emigration. The stories were called Allan Wilton. They were in magazines. They had covers too. The covers had lots of different photographs with lots of different people in them. I used to look at the photographs until Grandaddy said that they had to be wrapped up in newspaper regarding unvisibility. Grandmummy always used to tell me all about Allan Wilton and what he was up to, because he was a detective. I loved him because he always solved everything and he was very modest, too. He was especially modest regarding women.
Sometimes the photos were in colour. But I couldn’t understand them in colour either because I don’t speak German because I don’t have time for such silly things. I can speak Slovak because I’m a Slovak and I can speak Hungarian because I’ve learned it because I’ve got I.Q., even though you’re not supposed to do that, because this is Slovakia.
And I also know lots of different sentences in German and Grandmummy taught me a song as well that’s in German and it’s about my dear friend Augustin, except that it doesn’t call him my dear friend, it calls him Duleeber instead. The song goes like this:
‘Oh, Duleeber Augustin, Augustin, Augustin,
Oh, Duleeber Augustin,
Alex is in.’
Meaning there’s somebody with the name Augustin.
Once there was this man in Komárno whose name was Augustýn, only there wasn’t just one but two of them because they were brothers and the two Augustýn brothers worked for the Customs. They had a Mum and she worked at the Post Office and when she was 47 years old, she went round the bend due to believing that all the men in Komárno were in love with her and that they only ever came to the Post Office because of her.
She always made a total disaster at the Post Office and kept saying that all those men were only there due to her, so in the end they had to move her from the Post Office counter to another office at the back of the Post Office but that didn’t help at all, because she went on making a total disaster. And people made fun of her for being like that. Then her sons the young Augustýns took her out of the Post Office and she stayed at home. And then they started to go around with bicycle chains so that they could beat up anyone who made fun of her. And if anyone made fun of their Mum, one of the Augustýns would grab him and the other one would beat him up with the bicycle chain. They carried those bicycle chains in their uniform pockets.
And everyone respected them due to that.
I also respected them due to that.
Then Augustýnová the Mum died of a stroke of bad luck because she swallowed all the rings she used to wear on her fingers and by the time they found her she had gone dead.
Her name was Alenka Augustýnová.
Her sons the young Augustýns were called Tomáš and Tibor.
But they weren’t the same ones as in the German song because they were quite different Augustýns.
There’s just one thing I don’t get and that’s why old Gusto Rúhe had to write this: ‘Will write the Cemetery Book’, because I’ve no idea why I should write about the Cemetery. I’ve already written a book about the Cemetery once, but it was only short, just one page long, so maybe that’s why it wasn’t good enough and I don’t even know what happened to it.
I sent it to this man, he lives in Levice and his name is Koloman Kertész Bagala, and what he does is he asks people to write lots of different books and then he collects them, but not for Recycling but so that he can make a living out of them.
He said that there was this competition and that everyone in the world could send him any book they wrote, so I thought this was a good time for me to write the Cemetery Book, so I wrote it and I sent it to him but I never heard back from him but Koloman Kertész Bagala has to write to me and tell me what’s happened to my Cemetery Book because that’s the law, right?
The thing is, I don’t want to say anything against him, because maybe my biggest mistake was that it was only one page long, because it’s true that books usually have more pages, so maybe he just thought it wasn’t long enough. But now Ján Boš-Mojš is mending my handcart and in addition to that it’s raining outside, so I’ve got time to write a longer book. But there’s just one thing I don’t get, why it’s got to be about a Cemetery? Nobody in the world can write a longer book about a Cemetery than my first Cemetery Book, because what can you write about a Cemetery, right?
Because I’m no retard, I’ve seen all sorts of books and I’ve read all sorts of books too, especially the one that was the most beautiful book in the world. It was called The Young Pioneer’s Heart and it was about this boy who wanted to be a Young Pioneer, but the baddie wouldn’t let him. That was the most beautiful book in the world and sometimes I think that no other book in the world can be more beautiful than The Young Pioneer’s Heart. I used to cry every time I read it but it was OK to cry then because we still had the Communist Party.
I was given The Young Pioneer’s Heart at school because I came top at collecting waste paper and inside the book it said that it was dedicated to Samuel Tále by the Young Pioneers in honour of his outstanding achievements in collecting waste paper.
Ivana used to make fun of this book, because she’s my sister and she’s a great artist from Bratislava but I hate it when people laugh at things that you’re not supposed to make fun of.
For example, Alf Névéry never laughed at this book, but he was very weird like that because he never laughed at anything that was funny and he always laughed at things that weren’t funny at all. I don’t know why he was like that, maybe because he wasn’t humorous because there are people like him that aren’t humorous.
But I’m very humorous.
And the way you can tell that I’m humorous is due to lots of different humorous sentences that I know. Some of them are in foreign languages too because I’ve got I.Q. Like in English I can say Fuck me tender fuck me do. That’s humorous.
Or I can say ‘Eins, zwei, drei, du bist arsehole’. That’s humorous in German. But the most humorous sentence of all is the one this actor from the Hungarian Regional Theatre in Košice taught me. His name was Bátori and he was from Bátorove Kosihy. And the sentence goes like this:
Attention, attention, there’ll be no concert, because that cunt Volodya nicked the balalaika.
This sentence is in Russian, and every time we met in the street, Bátori used to go like this:
‘So is the balalaika concert on, Samko?’
And I used to go like this:
‘There’ll be no concert, because that cunt Volodya nicked the balalaika.’
Meaning we’re humorous and people can have a good laugh.
I always had a good laugh, too.
Then Bátori got diabetes and they had to cut his legs off. And after that he couldn’t be an actor in The Hungarian Regional Theatre any more. His name was Károly Bátori.
Alf Névéry knew lots of different languages too, but he didn’t know any funny sentences, so once I told him all the funny sentences that I knew but they didn’t make him laugh because he wasn’t humorous. But apart from that he had lots of other good qualities, for example he was modest and didn’t make a lot of noise, even though he was an artist. My sister Ivana is a great artist too, but she’s an artist regarding the piano and that makes a lot of noise. And she also keeps pushing herself onto TV and onto records and it’s very embarrassing that she’s like that, always pushing herself everywhere and making a lot of noise.
That’s why I got really worked up and I wanted to know what was what and why after Ivana told me that someone from Bratislava was going to live in the flat after Grandaddy and Uncle Otto, and that he was an artist and that he’d be renting it. But he was an artist.
Luckily, Alf Névéry was not an artist regarding the piano, he was an artist regarding writing. And luckily he didn’t make writing noises, because he was a writer without being noisy. When I asked Ivana about what books he had written she told me that he had written only one book. Then she showed it to me. The book was very thin. And this is what it was called:
100 reliable of ways of committing suicide
99 good reasons for doing so
It was very weird.
Then Ivana told me that Alf Névéry was going to write another book, but he never wrote it because he died and it was a total disaster because they didn’t want to bury him because nobody in the world, not even doctors, could work out what made him die because he had no illnesses even though he was nearly 50 years old. So they investigated him for a long time and then they wrote in the Documents that he died of failure and then he was allowed to be buried.
So he was buried at the Komárno Cemetery, even though he wasn’t from Komárno, he just rented a place here.
He said his name was Alfonz Névéry but I could just call him Alf.
So after that I called him Alf Névéry and he used to give me lots of different Karlsbad Wafers because they’re the best.
He used to live in the flat next door to mine, because I have my own flat. Some people have lots of different degrees and they don’t have their own flat but I have my own flat. My flat has two rooms. One room is for living and there is also another room just for having. This is where I used to live with my parents and my sisters. Grandmummy, Grandaddy and Uncle Otto used to live in a house that had to be pulled down, so they moved into a flat in the same block as us so they could be looked after because Grandmummy wasn’t alive any more and Uncle Otto was disabled regarding his nerves. Then Grandaddy died and later Uncle Otto went missing and since then everyone has been waiting to see if he stops being missing, even though it’s been 19 years since he first went missing.
And that’s how Alf Névéry came to rent the place.
The thing is, his life of style wasn’t healthy at all because he drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes and never went out into the fresh air so really he shouldn’t be surprised that he died, when all he did was take baths and showers like some woman of sleazy virtue. But apart from that he was modest and he didn’t make any noise.
But he wasn’t humorous.
The book he wrote when he was still alive had some really weird things in it. On every page there were poems that didn’t mean anything and they didn’t even rhyme.
It was very weird.
That’s why I thought it was OK to write a Cemetery Book that was just one page long, even though I knew that books are normally longer because I’m no retard and that’s why I sent it to this man in Levice, the one who never wrote back, but I don’t care if he never writes, I’m going to write another Cemetery Book, so there.
Daniela Kapitáňová was born in Komárno, a Slovak town on the Danube. She trained as a theatre director in Prague, and directed in both Slovak and Czech theatres. She works for Slovak Radio, writes opinion pieces and teaches creative writing at the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra. ‘Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book’ was published in 2000 under the pseudonym of the narrator, and remains a bestseller in its fourth edition. It has been translated into Czech, Swedish, French, German, Arabic, Polish, Japanese and English.
Julia Sherwood is a freelance translator. She grew up in Czechoslovakia, has lived in Germany and the UK and is currently based in Chapel Hill, NC. Her book-length translations include ‘Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book’ by Daniela Kapitáňová and ‘Freshta’ by Petra Procházková. She is Asymptote’s Editor-at-large for Slovakia and chairs the NGO Rights in Russia.
This is an excerpt from Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book (Garnett Press, 2011), reprinted with kind permission from the publisher and translator.