Markéta Pilátová (1973), a writer, translator and journalist studied Roman studies and history at the Faculty of Arts, Palackého university in Olomouc, where she also worked as a specialized assistant for 6 years. Afterwards, she worked as a Czech language lecturer at the Department of Slavic Studies in Granada, Spain for two years. Later on she went to Argetina and Brazil to teach the descendants of Czech expatriates for a long time. Now, as a journalist she mainly writes for the weekly magazine Respekt, in which she also used to work for a while.
Nowadays, she lives permanently in the Czech Republic. Markéta Pilátová is an author of various novels, poems, short stories and books for children. Among the most known we can mention Žluté oči vedou domů (2007), Tsunami blues (2014) or S Baťou v džungli (2017). Her latest work is the novel Senzibil, published in 2020 by the Torst publishing house. She counts as one of the most translated contemporary Czech writers.
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker for the Czech Literary Centre
Jan Antonín Baťa
(who led the international expansion of the Baťa shoe company after the death of his stepbrother, Tomáš, who founded the firm)
I’m lying on a white bed. The linen fabric is overstarched. It’s snowing. In the distance I can hear my first violin, a dugout fiddle that my mother bought from a gypsy. I’m riding downhill on a black instrument case, it’s solid, better than a sled, and I’m the first one down. The boys throw snow at each other. They cover my body in snow, trying to bury me in a snowdrift. I fight back, barely able to breathe. My chest aches. Lída hands me a glass of water and switches on the fan. Heavy, with a dark, menacing buzz, like a small plane. Like our Lockheed Electra L-10, serial number 1091, 1937. I was the first Czech to fly around the world, in that plane. I can’t tear my eyes away. I see the fan, then the plane. Fan, plane. Back and forth. Here, there. There, here. The monotonous hum of engines. The clack of wooden propeller blades. Chased into the corner, the heat comes back at me as an engine firing. Every time I look up at that monster on the ceiling, I’m sure it’s going to fall on top of me, either that or I’m going to climb aboard, strap on my seat belt and fly home. One minute I’m sweating, the next I’m shivering with cold. Travel fever, most likely. But I find it reassuring that growing next to the hospital is an old, twisted dama-da-noite. Lady of the night, a tree with small, thick leaves and tiny flowers. Dona Marina Trachta used to say that it grew beneath her window because its fragrance brought good luck to her home. I was recovering from my first heart attack in Batayporã, at the home of Jindra Trachta, where I had an office. I lay there like a leper, feeling terrible. The only other person there was Marina, Jindra’s beautiful wife. Always chipper as a squirrel. I felt dreadful. Like I was pitching back and forth, flying solo through a vacuum. Everyone else was out buzzing around like a balloon with the air let out of it, out at the sawmill, chopping down rainforest, seeing to paperwork. I held Marina’s hand and begged her not to leave. Naturally there was no doctor there. There are no doctors in the rainforest. Marina promised me she wouldn’t go anywhere. “Breathe in the scent, Mr. Baťa,” she whispered. “It brings good luck.” So I breathed as best I could. A dama-da-noite’s flowers are a cross between a cactus and an orchid. When they blossom, they give off an intoxicating fragrance that is fiercely sweet, attracting swarms of nocturnal hummingbirds and moths. Then, after three days, they wilt. Why were they blossoming now, though, when it wasn’t even spring? How did that old Czech folk song go? “Even the old ladies are livelier come spring . . .” What was this lady of the night trying to tell me? That today was a good day to die? I muttered to myself that it was never a good day to die.
When Lída or Marina open the windows in the morning, the fragrance knocks me out, raining down on me and sweeping me away. Far from the hospital in Sao Paulo, far across the ocean, to some other place damp with the smell of earth and springtime snow, where instead of gasping for breath I gulp it up insatiably. I’m not afraid to breathe there. And I’m not afraid to go back there. To go back so I can tell my story, so I can add my own version to the rumors, lies, and conspiracy theories, the truths, both large and small. By that point, people had called me all sorts of things: Nazi, Jew, German Jew, Czech Jew, ordinary Jew, lousy Slav, agent of the Third Reich, deserter, traitor, nation wrecker, great man, sacrificial lamb for the Communists, king of cobblers, successor, boss, and now, supposedly, a turning point in modern Czech history. Pick whichever one you want, but I’m going back, because I have never come to terms with the fact that Lída and Edita, and Dolores after them, had to beg for your unjust justice! Now I’m getting angry again, and I shouldn’t, given that I died of a heart attack. I want to go back over the story in order. Maybe tear it up into little pieces, then patiently put them all back together again, and see if there is a way to do it so all the parts will hold in place. Figure out all the threads, taking pleasure in the fact that now I know which scoundrel was pulling on them, carefully examine it all under the magnifying glass of time. And come to an understanding of why you refused to listen to me for so long. Why you wanted to tell it all yourselves.
I am like a sprawling meadow. Houses, farm buildings, barns rather than the attention getters of functionalist modernism. I feel homey, cozy, settled. In actuality I am a reconstructed farm. Yet what I would like to be is worldly, sweeping, all glass and concrete, magnificent! One hundred and fifty pairs of shoes a day were sewn here, I supported two hundred and fifty people, and ninety-eight homes stood on the slopes of the hills surrounding me, housing the workers who arrived at 6:45 a.m. every day and left again at 5:21 p.m. on the dot. Still, it never seemed like enough to me. Then all the workers would go home to relax on their porches with the wooden railing and columns, such an imperfect imitation of a Moravian country home with their blue shutters, whitewashed walls, red roofs, and outdoor kitchens perpetually smelling of beef with rice and beans. And reigning over it all was the Boss’s functionalist villa on the hill. Today, it has long since been sold to tasteless local upstarts, who built a monstrous waterfall with a peeing boy by the entrance and a fertilizer factory on the grounds around the villa. I have been standing here for fifty years. In Batatuba. That’s in Brazil. Bata from “Baťa” and tuba from the Indian word for “father.” Some hills surrounded by bits of leftover jungle, a pasture or two here and there, and the reek of the million-times-larger Sao Paulo just down the way. The ruins of the rubber plant and the tannery near the stream. A dense mist with rain falls on me, the garoa mist, which can get under your nails and burrow into your skin for months at a time. Then the tropical sun comes out again and the garoa disappears with the springtime rain. But the sun hasn’t come out for me here for decades now. I am wrapped in the mist of time like a moth in a cocoon, from which it can’t emerge even if it wants to, because owing to some oversight, some silly accident, the cocoon has rotted and the butterfly inside is long dead. Since February 10, 1983, when the main manufacturing came to a stop. I stand here and dream that there is a city all around. I would like to be able to smell hot asphalt, the honking of car horns, the sweat of human beings hurrying to get somewhere, the noise and the molecules of stress that they release into the air. I would like to smell the scent of money, wealth, the excitement that comes with chasing it, and I might even like the dusty parks and benches defaced by sensitive, tattooed, stoned young men. I know that it wouldn’t be a city the same as a city overseas. But still. They have told me so much about it, the ones who came here to chop down the rainforest and build me. They inoculated me with their dreams. Implanted them in me like an insect lays eggs in every available crack in the plaster. And then they hatched into ideas.
Now I dream in vain of Zlín, where the factory was the heart of the city. A city where people could be born in a clean, spacious hospital, where they could go to schools that weren’t a waste of time and where the teachers weren’t constantly on strike for better pay, since the factory guaranteed them a decent wage. Schools where the children had shoes and clean clothing, and learned practical skills. Then they could start an apprenticeship and live in the neat and tidy boarding house on the hill, the boys in one set of buildings and the girls in another, symbolically separated by nothing but a strip of carefully trimmed grass. And the boarding houses would also be built with money from the factory. And the young men and women there would learn how to make their beds to look neat and tidy, rise at dawn, and after calisthenics they would be standing rested and ready at their machines at 7 a.m. They would grow up to be frugal yet not greedy, they would learn pride, good manners, languages, and an overall outlook on things. They would keep records of their spending, and their self-confidence would increase with each passing day. They would leave their parents’ outmoded thinking far behind, secure in the belief that their place in the world was guaranteed by the old order of things and could not be altered. They would know exactly how many seconds there are in an hour and how much can be accomplished in the course of a human life. These new young men could then work in the factory and share in its expansion, while the women would just take a quick look around, so they could see what the work of their future husbands entailed, so they could raise their children to understand how important it was for their husbands to work in the factory so they could earn enough money to support the family. There would be shops all around the factory and the main square, and people could bring their purchases from the shops back to their small homes of unplastered brick. And they wouldn’t have to grow fruits and vegetables in the gardens behind their homes, because they wouldn’t need it, since their pay would be twice as high as the pay of the workers in other factories. In their gardens they would have decorative bushes and benches where they could sit and rest their hardworking bodies full of strength and determination, living in the rhythm of the factory, in the abundant rhythm of meaningful and well-organized work. They could recover from their tropical illnesses in a clean hospital, which would be paid for by the factory, and they wouldn’t have to worry that when something happened to them they would be left on a stretcher for hours on end with nobody even coming to take a look at them. They would know that they didn’t have to stand in humiliating lines to get an operation that might go wrong because they didn’t have the right kind of expensive insurance or it was too far to a bigger town. They could go to the movies in a huge theater and visit exhibitions of modern art. They would know who they were and whom to thank for their full lives, provided for by their work in the factory. They wouldn’t have to fear for their futures. They would earn enough and know that it was due solely to their own capabilities, since they would be selected from among thousands of applicants. As a result, they would have plenty of confidence, an awareness of their identity, a harmonious and orderly mind, and wings of success would sprout on their backs. And when they died, replete with the certainty that their lives had been hardworking and good, they could rest in peace in the Forest Cemetery, built for them by the factory. The cemetery would be airy, well-kept, and simple, just as their lives had been. A deserving worker from the factory would serve as groundskeeper, giving him a purpose in his old age. He would chase away the feral cats and anteaters, and maintain the workers’ final resting place in the same condition of orderliness in which they had lived and worked.
If this seems utopian to you, too rigid, too organized, too peculiar, take a look around, if you will . . . look at me. At my smashed windows, where the jungle, or what’s left of it, forces its way in. The creeping vines, the bits of moss and grass in the corners, covered with giant spiders and snakes whose senses come to life at night. The rotting pages of the once so carefully maintained company archive scattered across the moldy floor, the metal boxes corroded with rust. The mournful demeanor of broken machines in the corner. The empty space left behind by stolen parts. Surrounded by the chaos of random dwellings, with no rhyme or reason, all patched together from whatever the house and the forest could offer, sprinkled helter-skelter about the hills, which at every large rainfall came sliding down the slope like children down an ice slide. And take a peek under the clothes of the beggars who lie about with no cause to dedicate their lives to, no idea how to give it direction or what to believe in. And who knows whether or not when they die they will have a place in the cemetery, because the communal section has limited capacity, so if you have no money you have no final resting place. Their relatives can take away their ashes in a paper bag and scatter them in their favorite park. So which is better then, chaos or order? Please, take your pick, and before you answer, take a good look at me. Does it not remind you more of life in a colony of hardworking insects, or the breeding of purebred livestock? Don’t be so crude. What’s wrong with the modern conception of life? With rationality, transparency, systematization, speed, efficiency? What’s wrong with workers earning enough money and having attractive, efficient housing where there isn’t room for accumulating unnecessary things and they live in an airy garden city filled with sunshine, water, greenery, cleanliness, and order? What’s wrong with utopias, with ideals? That they are unattainable, that they last at best as long as their heart—the factory—goes on beating and earning money? Still, wouldn’t it be a beautiful run, like those couple of decades in Zlín? What’s wrong with approaching an ideal, at least for a while, coming close enough to touch it? Would you prefer the chaos of war, the lawlessness of dictatorship, the jungle of irrational happenstance, all of which they so fiercely resisted in Zlín? I would choose the Baťa school for my own children any day over a job with drug traffickers or welfare from the state. So what if their lives were monitored? So what if they weren’t allowed to loaf around and had their schedules set for them? So what if they were prohibited from drinking alcohol or masturbating? So what if their bodies were used mainly for the cyclical repetition of tasks requiring every muscle and every brain cell to be employed for the benefit of a common goal that everyone could be proud of? So what if they had to submit to a hierarchy with one supreme Boss at the top? You think people today don’t have bosses? Why do you think we talk about the precariat? All those young, insecure, frustrated call center operators, supermarket cashiers, freelance creatives, adjunct professors, journalists, part-time and flextime independent contracting slaves to the gig economy? Constantly begging for their invoices to be paid, with no right to retirement or decent parental leave or any vacation at all? You think they aren’t under somebody’s thumb? They stick them in glass-walled cubicles where they can keep an eye on them, monitor them, and squeeze them, body and brain, while they themselves have no control even over their own time, let alone their lives. Yes, control is a part of life, too. It comes naturally with order, that’s what rationalization is, it’s only logical.
Most often and most enjoyably I wrote to Mrs. Gerbecová, typing on ultrathin hotel stationery. I even sent her my rhymes, and she always wrote back what she thought of them. Sometimes she would write that they weren’t worth a hill of beans. The old lady was no ass kisser, buttering me up about what a good writer I was. She may have been my mother-in-law, but nevertheless I felt like, of all the women in my life, she understood me best. I wrote to her about Marie too—Maja, love of my life, my soul mate, her oldest daughter. I never actually told Maja how terribly much I loved her. Somehow there was never time. Not that I didn’t regret that I lacked the eloquence of a legislator. I was no fop and dandy. Still, with or without any lovestruck blather, Maja knew where things stood. She knew that she was a looker and that she had inherited her looks from her mother, so when I said the old lady was a looker, she had to have known that I meant she was too. When I died, they sent Maja back the letters from Zlín that I had written to Mrs. Gerbecová, for her to take some pleasure in. I hope she took this one as my declaration of love, since that’s how I had intended it. The older she was, the fonder I grew of her. As if she were becoming a true “Baťaman.”
On a jet plane to America
What your Maja really deserves is a scolding to make her ears burn. – She’s got such a fanciful head on her, she doesn’t know what to do next. In her golden years she up and decided to make cheese with the milk from her farm. – One day, 15 years ago, she got a notion that I should buy her a cow. So I said to myself, Well, fine, there’s plenty of pasture on the hill up over where we live. – But hell, I didn’t pay it much mind and when I looked up there the other day, she had the animal doctor up there with some 60 head of cow or so. – Now, she’d worked out that the grass up there was good for cows’ milk, so hip hip hooray, she went and planted a meadow full of the stuff. Alfalfa it’s called, and she’s still poking around now and still coming up with ideas for what else she can get up to.
She rises each morning at half past five, cooks breakfast, then chases after the cows and around the garden and the meadow and the fruit trees and the coffee – She’s got close to 20,000 plants and they’ve grown so thick this year that whole big branches of them, and a single branch might have as much as 5 kilos of “cherries,” as they call the coffee beans here, whole branches break off at a time, and it’s a wonder she doesn’t burst into tears and start telling everyone off. – She’s fierce as a dragon and runs us all ragged, even me . . . if I let her. – Then she went and had that accident with her hand. – Rushing around like the place was on fire, carrying a tray full of dishes downstairs in both hands. – The truth is, she isn’t twenty anymore, or even thirty or forty or fifty. – She’s sixty years old, or she will be soon anyway. Me, I’m even older. – But walking downstairs with a tray you can’t rightly see your feet, not with a long robe on, and so she tripped and fell so hard that the whole place shook. – Meanwhile there’s a banister there strong enough to stop even that big bull she got (which I paid for). Ten people walking around the place—Hela, Lída, Dolores, Jana, me, Rosa and Teresa and Tica—but she couldn’t bring herself to say: Here, take this downstairs for me, I’m an old lady and need to hold the banister . . . no. – She had to do it herself and her legs are all wobbly now and what with that long robe she wears, how else is it supposed to turn out? I tell her that all the time, but she argues right back that she isn’t about to be tossed on the scrap heap.
I bounced around her in those days like a monkey in a banana tree, and that day for the first time I saw how many things Maja was in charge of. When she was out of commission with just one hand, I had to take over. And I was glad to. More than glad. I was delighted to have her, delighted that the two of us could be together, that our kids had kids of their own now, Edita had five little nippers even, despite how bad off she was with those blasted joints of hers. Our plants grew out and took root beautifully in the Brazilian soil, where it seemed like everything came to life and happened faster, and everything was always so incredibly fresh and young, like Maja.
But what did I actually write to the old lady? What did we all write, dagnab it? Us and that Moravian dialect of ours, which we were all slowly but surely forgetting, starting to mix it up with Portuguese. All that good-natured bluster about everything being good, better, and best, and even fun? My little rhymes about how “our little Augusta is growing like a kapusta.” Maybe we were really writing those letters to ourselves. Sort of our own personal magic spell, which we sent to Mrs. Gerbecová, so she could give it her blessing by reading it. We wanted to be the way we were in our letters. Free of the burden of doubt, free of worry. The jaunty family successors. Our lives were supposed to be the stories in our letters. Stories about how Maja tripped and slid down the spiral staircase on her rear end. What I didn’t write, however, was that it was my fault. Maja had been bringing me breakfast in bed on that tray, because she wanted me to relax, so I wouldn’t go tramping up and down the stairs, so my temperamental heart wouldn’t get overly exerted, so I could nap in peace and quiet and eat like a king. She didn’t want the maid to bring me breakfast. She wanted to bring it herself, since she was the one who made it. And I haven’t written one word yet about how, afterward, she had bruises all up and down her back and legs, which changed from purple to green and then to black. And how frightened it made us all, since it made us realize how doggone fragile and vulnerable our Maja was. How all it would take was one stupid step onto the edge of her robe and our whole lives would change. She could trip and fall so badly she would never get up again. The thought of it alone terrified me. That was why I was angry with her. That great big thump of hers forced me to realize how I would feel without her.
I blamed myself for all sorts of things in those days. But especially for not having learned more about how to read people from Hugo Vavrečka. He was better at it than any psychologist, and he wanted to teach me too, but I dismissed the idea, telling myself there wasn’t time: I was out to make people into better people and didn’t need to get to know their bad sides to do that. I didn’t want to know their motives. I didn’t want to think about how greedy or thin-skinned they were, and how easy it was to offend their petty little minds just by thinking differently than they did. I had no desire to know about their envy or how downtrodden they felt. I wasn’t interested. What interested me was man’s true character. And I believed that it was good, or at least that it was possible to spark what was good in it, that the essence of man could be polished to a shine through work on his healthy, vibrant core. In a speech before the war, I said, “Our success has been in breaking down the fearful, crestfallen Czechoslovak man, huddled behind the stove, and rebuilding him into a world citizen, a man without fear of people and the world, conscious of what he can achieve, because he wants to achieve it.”
If there was anything in my own life I wanted to change, it was only the fact that I knew so little about people. I should have planned ahead of time to get to know more people, the way they are for real, not just in my head. Maybe that’s why I can’t make up my mind to leave. Now at last I have the chance to observe people and get to know them, much more so than when I was alive. Now I can spy on them. I can follow them around, wherever, whenever, however I want. Finally, I can assess them correctly. If only I had seen through Jiří Udržal, in the days before the war. I made a world citizen of him! The man who went on to cause me more trouble than anyone else. Reporting on me to the Communists, and who knows who else, and all the while pretending to be my righthand man. He claimed he was disgusted by my plan to settle Patagonia! It wasn’t enough for him to feed the National Court false documents and lies, but on top of that he had the nerve to come to Brazil, threaten my workers and gather statements against me. He knew people all right! He knew there were some who were desperate to go home after the war, so he took advantage of them, threatening that unless they signed a statement saying I had prevented them from contributing to the Czechoslovak foreign resistance, they would never see home again. He knew very well that the letters that the Czechs in exile wrote home, full of good news and high spirits, were really just a wistful cry for help couched in the language of optimistic lies. Udržal knew how to find the Achilles’ heel on everyone. The Communist intelligence agency paid him seven hundred dollars a month for his services (I saw that in a documentary about me). And here the whole time I thought he was just an ambitious young man. A bit on the eccentric side and somewhat argumentative, but I liked his combative nature. He was a world citizen, knew foreign languages and good manners, and I liked that too. He moved through society as if he had been born to royalty, with a healthy dose of self-confidence. What I failed to see was that he was a dirty bastard. I failed to see it in a lot of other people as well.
If I had written to Mrs. Gerbecová about how desperate I really felt, how betrayed and befouled, on the edge of total collapse, with a sick heart and financial problems to boot, then maybe I would have seen things as they truly were. But I spent my whole life thinking it was better to face forward, chin raised in pride, facing ill fortunes head on. Things were bad, so what? No matter! Onward and upward. Just as long as we had plans.
Plans, plans, and more plans. I managed to wrap myself in so many plans I couldn’t see what was actually happening. I couldn’t see that people were evil and wicked and that I should expect nothing but the worst from them. That Udržal wasn’t just ambitious, but pathologically envious. Where would I have gone, though, if I had admitted it to myself? Would I have been any better off? Would it have given me any relief to understand? Does reality become any less awful when we understand how awful it is? Would there really have been any point to seeing things as they truly were? Would I have been able to plan things differently? Or would the knowledge have brought me to my knees, never able to rise again?
Hugo used to tell me that nothing was purely black or white, that man is a mixture. Of good and evil, both. But that always struck me as backward-thinking and reactionary. Decadent. Like a chapter from a depressing Russian novel. As I wrote to Mrs. Gerbecová, however, I began to have the feeling that my letters from Brazil were in fact my greatest novel. Even though what I wrote in them wasn’t true. Or was it precisely for that reason? Isn’t what makes a good novel the fact that it isn’t ambiguous or sincere and yet still shows us the way things really are? Everything was as it should be in the letters I wrote about us. Maja, Lída, Jenda and I wrote often, and our letters to her were always chock-full of our children, their shenanigans, their measles, their flus, chicken pox and colds, their world travels by sea and air, farming, descriptions of the beauties of Brazil, their expansion and successes. We did our best for them not to contain a word of sadness, no tears or complaints, nothing but our work, our expanding roots, and our strength. I know that she understood just as well as we did that underneath it all was another letter written in invisible ink, a desperate cry for her caraway bread, slathered with fresh butter. For misty mornings along the Morava River. The swampy land in Otrokovice. The hills surrounding Zlín. The green pines of Valachy. And Forest Cemetery—because that was where Maja and I wanted to be laid to rest. We didn’t like the idea of our bones decomposing quickly, as they would in damp, tropical soil. But we knew that was what would happen. We didn’t write about it. Yet it screamed from every single word. We let slip only a tiny fraction of our doubts. A brave sigh here and there.
“Otherwise, our life here is quite interesting, although we could quite do with a substantial improvement overall. The only child Maja has left in Batatuba is Lída, and there are times when she is so overwhelmed that she bursts into tears in bed. That isn’t often, though. She is a reasonable woman and knows how to take things for what they are. We don’t write about sentimental things. We consider it needless anguish, because nothing can change what has happened. Life goes on.”
So we wrote about how life goes on, sending the old lady snapshots, entire albums of snapshots, and sometimes it would happen that I sent her the same photos as Maja and Lída sent. In all of them we’re smiling, we’re together, there are a lot of us, and we believe that, whatever the reality, it isn’t that awful. But instead of snapshots we all long for the family films with our children in them and the trip around the world and the factory.
And one more thing Hugo Vavrečka instilled in me before he left the country. He tried to make me understand that the moment you move to another country, you are nothing. Especially in wartime. Any pardoned prisoner means more than an upstart outsider. The sooner you get that into your head the better, Boss. Get used to it, and don’t let it get you upset. But I just shook my noggin when I heard advice like that. I was a citizen of the world, not some upstart “outsider”! I was fluent in foreign languages, and I came to bring prosperity, not to sponge off of the state. In my foolishness I failed to realize that no one knows a foreign language perfectly and that most countries aren’t interested in foreigners improving them, but none of that occurred to me in my ebullience. Hugo considered me a miserable student of diplomacy and a perfectly boneheaded exile.