(Translated by Alex Zucker)
How Did Max Ever Get the Idea of Writing a Novel That Takes Place Entirely on a Sightseeing Tour?
Max couldn't remember anymore exactly when he first got the idea of writing a
novel that takes place entirely on a sightseeing tour to a foreign country – it
was 1993, probably sometime in the spring, or maybe it was summer. While even he
himself wasn't able to give a straightforward answer to the question of why he
had chosen precisely this topic, he had begun to be attracted to it more and
more. Whenever he imagined the protagonists of his next book, God knows why but
he saw them boarding charter buses, having a smoke at highway rest stops, or
unpacking suitcases in hotel rooms. He spent long evenings jotting down all
kinds of compositional ideas, outlines of prospective scenes – and more and more
often he found that they were exclusively scenes on a bus or a beach, and that
all of the invented characters he had been making the necessary notes on were
without exception participants in a fictitious sightseeing tour. At this point
he knew he would in fact write his sightseeing novel, regardless of whether or
not he could sufficiently convincingly explain his initial obsession.
There was, however, a certain logic to it: above all, he had always enjoyed traveling. After Czechoslovakia's borders had finally opened in late 1989, he spent the next two years enthusiastically undertaking everyone of the then virtually obligatory, exhausting bus tours to Passau, Vienna, Venice, Paris, and London; later he also visited Italy, Slovenia, Denmark, Finland, Israel, and even one of the small islands in the Caribbean. Although all of these were more or less nothing but banal sightseeing excursions, Max's travels represented for him an unusually adventurous, remarkable, and enjoyable variation from his otherwise quite settled, unenjoyable, and basically unremarkable life. He had spent the last three years shut away either in a publishing house office or at home in front of his computer, and so it sometimes seemed to him that if he had experienced anything even halfway noteworthy in the past few years, it was on these tours.
Ignac was the first person to whom Max confided his intention to write a novel with the working title Sightseers.
„A novel about people on a sightseeing tour, you say?“ Ignac remarked thoughtfully. „All right then, dear Marco Polo. But – forgive me my asking, Dr. Holub, Poet-Traveler – why?“
After all, Max was definitely not, and never had been, what one would call a traveler, Ignac objected. Wouldn't Max's travel experiences seem rather run-of-the-mill compared to the experiences of all those countless adventurers who routinely hitchhike across the U.S. or roam around the Far East? After all, Max was a mere rank-and-file tourist who –like many of us – had been on a couple excursions to Paris and the Adriatic since the revolution.
„First of all, of course it's not going to be a travelogue,“ Max contended, „and secondly, look at how I live now. Shut up alone at home writing for days on end. And if I do get out in the evening with anyone, it's almost always disgusting literary types like you. Poets. Deviants. So when do I get a chance to meet any normal, healthy, ordinary human beings I could write about? Only on two occasions,“ Max answered himself: „When the mailwoman brings me a registered letter, or else on a tour. The only people I know at all are sightseers.“
„And the mailwoman,“ Ignac reminded him. „Why don't you write Woman with a Mailbag?“
Underneath Max's exaggeration was a grain of truth. Just in the last four years he had undertaken a total of fifteen different trips on which he had met countless people: bus drivers, tour guides, children and their parents, married and unmarried couples, teenagers, successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs, students, retirees.
One politician and his family.
Two young homosexual men.
A man with a videocamera, whose marriage fell apart during a sightseeing trip to Copenhagen.
A courteous roadworker and his wonderful family.
Another man, who gratified himself during night stops on the way to Italy (he always pretended to be urinating but secretly watched the women who didn't dare go too deep into the dark, feces-filled woods and meekly relieved themselves behind the not exactly mighty trunks of the nearest spruce trees).
A man with an inflamed red complexion, who spent the entire day in Vienna patiently holding up his dead-drunk father.
A kind, hard-of-hearing retired lady, who died on the bus coming back from Italy.
A married couple in Paris whose two children had years ago burned to death.
A cheerful obese lady from Teplice who for nearly an hour stood having her portrait done by a street artist in Venice – with Gérard Depardieu at her side.
Another lady who confided everything terrible about her life to Max over coffee at the Hotel Kriváň, only to say with a guilty smile: „But I must be keeping you…“
And the Slovak trucker and his little boy at a rest stop near the French border. They sat on little folding stools on hot, dusty asphalt in the shade behind the truck, the father warming up some food on a propane stove. The sun was too high for the shadow cast by the truck body to cover them completely.
„When are we going to see Mommy?“ the son asked.
„Don 't talk to me about Mommy!“ the father snapped.
And dozens of others.
Some trips and sightseers Max had only heard about.
The Guy Across the Aisle
Last fall Max got together with a former college classmate of his at
Gany's Café. She had gotten married two weeks earlier, so Max expected her
to talk about the wedding and her husband. They had barely taken their seats,
however, when she said she had to tell him about her vacation in Spain.
At first Max couldn't understand why she attached so much importance to the trip.
" And sitting across the aisle from me was this nondescript, sheepish guy, a bit over thirty," Max's classmate recounted. „Your typical pushover. Besides that, he seemed old and just not of any interest to me: puffy, sleep-deprived eyes, rumpled hair, face full of pimples – you can imagine what a crazy bus trip it is. In short, I wasn't interested in him at all.“
She brushed her hair off her forehead. The waiter came to take away the empty glasses and asked if they wanted more wine.
„Yes, thanks,“ said Max.
„He had a spot on his fly.“
„The waiter?“ said Max. „Or the guy?“
„The guy,“ she said with a smile. „One night at some piss stop he turned to me and asked something – where we were, or how long we would be stopped, some stupid thing, I can't remember exactly what. All I know is he had a little wet stain on his fly. – Sorry about the details, but I want you to see it as much as possible the same way I did at the time.“
„It's okay,“ said Max. „Go on.“
He recalled that at that exact moment she threw up her arms.
„Actually, that's it. You see: I wasn't interested in him. I found him repulsive,“ she said.
"And two days later on account of that guy I stayed up all night smoking and – for the first time in my life – writing poems. "
Max didn't say anything.
„Tours, yep…“ Max's classmate said. „We got married a month after we got back.“
Max's surprise was indescribable.
„Great story,“ he finally praised her.
„Oh yeah, but can you figure it out?“ Max's classmate urgently appealed. „I can't.“
The Person Next to Jolana
Jolana was sitting in front of her parents.
The seat by the window was still free, and Jolana was trying to guess which of the sightseers standing outside would be her neighbor – in view of her motion sickness she definitely would have chosen some nice old lady. A nurse would have been ideal. Unfortunately, though, her neighbor turned out to be a man of about forty. Conspicuously tanned. And – Jolana inwardly grimaced with a chain around his neck, of course. Cheap, shoddy blue jeans, tacky black shoes, and a synthetic yellow T-shirt. A third-class playboy, Jolana thought scornfully. His smile, however, slightly contradicted her preceding categorization: it came across as distinctly shy.
„Izvineetyeh,“ the man said apologetically.
So he's Russian, Jolana realized with surprise. She made room for him to slip by her. She noticed many scrapes on his ravaged hands. A broken nail. Those hands disgusted her a little. She peeked discreetly at his clothes, but they were clean. Except for his fly – though she may have just been imagining it – which seemed to have a little stain on it. She silently drew air into her nose, but he didn't seem to smell. The smile on his face now gave way to a serious expression, almost deliberately dignified.
Jolana by and large welcomed the fact that her neighbor was a foreigner. At least she wouldn't have to engage in any obligatory conversation. Nevertheless, she made a tentative attempt to recall what was left of her high school Russian: to her astonishment, she couldn't recall a single useful phrase; all her memory could offer her was an often-parodied excerpt from a Soviet officer's 1st of May speech – and then the opening of Tatiana's letter to Onegin, which Jolana had once had learn by heart: „Ya k vam pishu, chevo zhe bolye, shto ya magu yeshcho skazat. Tepyer, ya znayu, v vashei volye menya prezrenyem nakazat,“ she summoned up after a while.
What a conversation opener that would be, she thought with amusement. Imagine the look on that Russkie's face!
She smiled at him cordially:
„Do you speak English?“
He shook his head and shrugged helplessly.
„I no speak Czech good,“ he said.
He smiled again apologetically.
„Nichevo. Ya tozhe uzheh zabyla rusky yazyk,“ Jolana said cheerfully.
She felt a certain superiority over this man, and that comforted her. If she wasn't at all embarrassed to speak in front of him, she might not be so embarrassed to vomit in front of him.
A Girl Who Literally Loves Her Work
Oskar showed up ten minutes before the scheduled departure; most of the
sightseers were already sitting primly in their seats.
„I was starting to get anxious,“ the tour guide said with mock reproach, and she beamed at him. Oskar shrugged diffidently and scanned the bus for Ignac and Max; he headed over to them and with visible relief seated himself in the free seat next to Ignac.
„Sorry,“ Ignac turned to Max. „We are joined forever by a love of John Lennon's music, distrust for people over thirty, and faith in a more just societal arrangement.“
Max's neighbor laughed. It sounded unforced.
„Right,“ said Max. „In short, you believe that one day there will be peace. So why shouldn't you sit together?“
" And we also believe that all you need is love," said Ignac with an infectious smile.
Oskar smiled too, and with the expression of someone who owns a Honda Accord and hasn't ridden a bus in six years he took a look around, slightly awed. The guide cleared her throat and introduced herself. She then told them that her friends call her Pamela and she invited all the sightseers to call her that too.
„All right, Pamela,“ Ignac said loudly.
Pamela smiled amiably at him, but then immediately became serious as she told them that this was only her second tour, but in spite of her brief experience she could now say that she literally loved her work. She then glanced down at her notes and expressed her belief that in the course of their week-long sojourn, breathing in invigorating sea air and ancient Italian history at every step, the voyagers would expand their spiritual horizons. Next, she informed them that during the bus ride the drivers would be selling filtered coffee, Bonita multivitamin drink, and beer – as well as Becherovka and Fernet for more discriminating drinkers.
„According to the latest medical research, each person should drink roughly two liters of fluids daily,“ she read from her notes. „The feeling of thirst, however, is not necessarily crucial. In hot weather the daily fluid intake may be increased to as much as three liters, but any greater volume of fluids places an excessive burden on the kidneys.“
Ignac turned to Max and looked at him quizzically.
Pamela meanwhile had moved on from the matter of drinking regimes to the matter of bus seats.
„Your seat has several adjustable positions,“ she continued reading. „You will find the control lever on the outer side under each seat. To adjust the position, pull up vertically.“ While some of the passengers patted around under their seats, others – including Max, Oskar, and Ignac – fixed the tender young tour guide with thoughtful looks.
„Naturally, our bus is equipped with air-conditioning,“ Pamela continued. „So you can turn it on yourself if you get hot.“
„Where's the lever, Pamela?“ Ignac called out. A few of the passengers laughed.
„Ignac,“ Oskar admonished him gently.
Pamela smiled, wished all the sightseers a pleasant journey, and at last put down the microphone. Max, Ignac, and Oskar pulled out the newspapers they'd bought and made themselves comfortable, assuming they had at least two uninterrupted hours ahead of them before the bus stopped in České Budějovice. But to their great surprise, the onboard PA came right back on again.
They looked up in annoyance.
„We are just passing the Smetana Theater,“ Pamela announced to all the passengers. „And now we are driving by the famous National Museum!“
Ignac closed his paper.
„What?“ he called out loudly. „What was that?“
„The National Museum,“ Pamela kindly repeated for him, and she glanced at her notes. „As many of you may know, this neorenaissance structure by architect Josef Schulz was completed in 1885.“
The passengers gazed in dismay across the highway at the museum.
„On the right is the renowned monument of St. Václav by Josef Václav Myslbek,“ Pamela solemnly went on.
„When was it completed?“ Ignac shouted.
„Myslbek completed the statue in the years 1912 to 1913,“ Pamela smiled triumphantly.
„I could use a Fernet,“ Ignac immediately retorted. „Large!“ he called out to the driver.
„Make that two,“ Jolana's father called out.
Ignac looked approvingly at her father.
" Meeting people who literally love their work," he cheerfully explained to Jolana, „can sometimes be a considerable burden on the human kidneys.“