[PART 1 OF 4]
Coming this May in 8 octaves, 64 chapters and on 888 pages, Louis Armand’s The Combinations is a “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess, with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after.
Meet Němec, sans first name, his essentials—D.O.B. (04-05-1975), address (Prague 2), occupation (unemployed)—which we glean from a “psychiatric assessment” provided by the Institute for Social Medicine located on the upper floor of the so-called “Faust House,” where the eponymous Doctor of legend supposedly met his doom. Son of Czechoslovak dissidents, orphaned in early youth (following his parents’ arrest by the secret police), Němec grows up in the desert of the surreal that was the 1980s Eastern bloc. The institution he’s entrusted to — a house of horrors run by perverts & psychopaths and fuelled by fear and loathing — bears the insult of a title, CHILDREN’S HOME. “Oh where oh where is my home-of-homes?” In the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution (November 1989) and the collapse of communism, Němec escapes, and thus begins his wanderings through the labyrinth of Golem City (“The shortest way home’s the longest way ‘round…”), plagued by the result of institutional upbringing: sleeplessness, depression, alcoholism, which in turn result in a failed (perhaps even involuntary) “suicide”attempt: the pawn’s gambit declined (for now)…
Too young when the estébáci in their secret cop uniforms came for them — a pair of brown leather coats.* Mamitati? Not a picture even, to wax sentimental by. The nostos of nothingness. About my coming into this world — conceived in the full immaculation of my own ignorance — I knew nothing, which is exactly as it should be. A date, a name. My real existence began in a file in an Interior Ministry archive on Havelkova Street, residues of torn paper where the Tatimami’s photograph should’ve been. Code: A3294. Typed, red ink: 31.X.1983. Whereabouts: UNKNOWN. Inferences on that basis. A charge-sheet stapled to a thick wad of redacted protocol: CRIMINAL SUBVERSION OF THE STATE IN COLLUSION WITH FOREIGN AGENTS… The meaning of the word collusion: n. a fraudulent secret understanding, esp. between ostensible opponents as in a lawsuit — hence a. collu’sive [f. L col (ludere lus-play)].
Black to move…
If I tried to picture them? Matamiti? He: faceless artefact in brown twill clerk-suit, smelling of late nights, beer & tobacco. Tatínek?! She: Daughter-of-Man, face like all the womanly faces I’d ever known peering down, blurred into one pale thinlipped moon of unsmilingness. Mamousch!? Maminka!! In dreams, the perfume & touch of her — mouth eyes hair — & darkness. The snakes of fear. An agoraphobia of empty rooms somewhere in the cul-de-sac of the mind, where once Ozymandiaslike figures watched over — eyes brown&green, & mouths, mouthing undictionaried words, hands, & the longedfor milksour breast. Maybe, at some indefinite future point, all the forgotten things come back to you. The fear. The longing. The stupidity & shame. Teaching the lesson that guilt must never be doubted.
Or you find yourself alone, again, as ever before, in a room, at night, in a city you barely exist in, re-becoming once more that witless snivelling thing lost in the wilderness, afraid of the monster-under-the-bed, the monster-behind-the-door, the monster-in-your-head, with nothing to your name but all of history still to atone for. As they say in the classics, He who seeks the inward path is merely dreaming of a condition in which he’ll one day be able to endure himself…? Or unendure — pulling the world out of your arse so as to abolish it? Some swaddling occult geometer, drawing lines in the undersoil of the night: maps, architectures, secret itineraries of the palsied mind’s eye, all aglitter like a polished turd?
In the place I grew up — the Witch’s House, the Inquisition, the Haunted Castle, the Prison, the Home-is-where-the-heart-lies-bleeding — survival was never the thing it seemed. Horizontal in the dark, unsleeping, wanting to die but too afraid to — grasping the threads of something indefinite, unreal — the intuition of a light at the end — a voice — a caress. They did things to you, so you’d never be right in the head. To punish you, for the sins of your fathers, and of your fathers’ fathers… You bury the thoughts & go on, day after day, year after etc., making a type of procedure out of it — making the gestures demanded by expedience, to negate the routines of boredom, brutalism — to fill the emptiness, blot out the truths, the untruths: little formulae for each of those moments in which — reprieve! — you don’t have to think. The perpetual sunny disposition.
Cut to: “A room… in a city.”
A clock. Someone (“you”) sitting there laughing with all the humour gone out of the situation. A dry, croaking laugh. Thinking: So this’s how the future turned out to be?* No, it wasn’t like that. It happened without anything seeming to happen at all. The time on the clock was almost quarter-past-four. Outside it was snowing. Hoisted myself off the floor two-three-thut feeling along the walls, measuring out the shape of my confinement — an idea stalking itself through the dark like an insomnia — bare feet on cracked parquet — whispers in the shadows, pianissimo — a child alone in a dormitory, sleepwalking towards an unknown precipice — fragments of half-remembered chambermusic. Across the room a window looked out. A strip of curtain hung to one side, made of some lousy plastic. The glass was cold, ice had formed in the gaps around the panes where the rain seeps in, had frozen & was now melting in a temporary thaw: a sheen of brown muck spreading along the sill. The window bulged, forehead against. Below, the street was deserted — the streetlamps, vague orange halos misting in the glass. Sideways reflected there, a pair of eyes: black holes cut from a djinn-mask, of that thing inside the camera of the mind, which dials all the settings, all the reflexes, into a divided point — which sees what I cannot see, knows what I cannot know. A glimpse before it’s gone & where it was, nothing but a smear of light.
Someone said once that there’re two ways to understand what we are: Erdichtung und Geschichte — fiction & history. One, a picture of the imagination with its moods, its poetry & its irrationalism. The other, nothing but a reflection bereft of psychology, meaning, intention — nothing than what it is: a trick of geometry, angles of incidence. Yet, in the eye of the beholder, what could be further from the truth? Forehead pressed to window, the wormeaten crumbling wood frame & panes in duplicate — everything factored by twos — mind wandering out through the eyes, out through overlapping, halfreflected agonist-antiself… Because there, in that theatre of doubles, something’s happening — something’s sizing you up, passing judgement, taking apart the pieces, reversing the distinctions, fitting them back together contrarywise. And what would this agonist-self be, if not some spectre-of-history or even the absence of a history — my own above all? And fiction, antiself? Free to become whatever it willed, like Fantomas? While somewhere between, the thing each barely approximated, contradicted, embellished — the thing that hungered, was conscious, lived supposedly or died — a ghost or the shadow of a ghost, arrested, caught, trapped in the glass: a figment in amber. My very existence seemed like a mirror that to enter I had to turn my back on & creep away.
But in the time of the mirror, all direction had ceased: the time of history & the time of fiction. Outside, where a moment ago it was snowing, everything has come to a standstill. Thousands of bright, tinsel-flecks of white hang suspended in midair. It’s as if the scene in the film in which they were falling had frozen, the celluloid jammed in the projector & at any moment about to dissolve. But the scene doesn’t dissolve, it hovers over an abyss. In the streetlamps’ orange glow, faint white holes open everywhere. Holes multiplying. Holes in the very substance of the world. Holes within holes within holes. Your aching hand reaches out & unlatched the window — the holes so real you want to touch them — thinking, This’s what it looks like on the other side — in the place where images begin? History, fiction, agonist & antiself. You’re back where in your mind you’ve always been: watching — anaesthetised — detached, while there in your proxy-place a thin silhouette stands framed in the open window, ventriloquising you: a rictused mutter in diminuendo, growing thinner still & smaller — a thin-small muttering thing. And then in the blink of an eye it happens, as arbitrary & predetermined as the course of a clock: a white gust of static sweeps in — the silhouette flutters against the light, gesticulates the way a puppet does whose strings are being cut & is already falling — a weightlessness comes over you & the room’s gone.
Meet Prof Hájek, sitting at a chessboard in the Klementinum courtyard, present in a coincidental way like a trap set in a pawn’s path, just as Němec happens to be killing time waiting for a book on Jan Mydlář (infamous 17th-century executioner) to be delivered from the library stacks. The beginning of a beautiful friendship, or an initiation into a “conspiracy” to rival a state security apparatus? The Prof, a returned émigré, is to all outward intents a retired philologist, historian, and collector of esoteric literature, pursuing his proclivities for chess, the cabbala, cosmogony & Gustav Mahler. His current hobbyhorse: the deciphering of the philosopher’s stone among the arcana — foremost of which, the Voynich Manuscript. For a couple of evenings, Němec joins the Prof’s bizarre ménage à trois (wife and mistress) at the former Malá Strana residence of the alchemist Edward Kelley. Němec’s initiation into the mysteries comes to a dead end when the king (a.k.a. the Prof) drowns in his bathtub & his two queens gas themselves within a few days of his funeral. The Prof’s ghost (“If a man can be said to own his own ghost”) keeps dancing attendance on the pawntagonist, egging him onward — toward what? (“I am the eggman…”) Nails may very well carry on growing after death — but what about exchanged/sacrificed knights?
‘They say,’ the ghost mused, holding his left hand palm-out like a juror taking an oath, ‘that the fingernails continue to grow even after death.’
The Prof’s ghost* was sitting by the roadside on a snowdrift, dressed in a brown woollen coat the colour of old chemical jars, paring his fingernails with a pocket knife. Lying barely a metre away was a grey horse. There was no doubt the horse was dead, flogging it was never going to be any use.
Němec stood there like an undertaker after a funeral watching them, the ghost & the dead horse. He wondered who the horse was supposed to belong to. The Prof flicked away a piece of blackened fingernail & peered across at him through pale watery eyes. Němec blinked back. The faintly falling snow made a vortex around a cone of orange lamplight. It was impossible to tell what time it was.
‘Illusionary, of course,’ the ghost added. ‘In reality, a corpse’s skin withers & contracts, causing the fingernails to only appear longer. Hair also.’
The Prof’s voice, as he spoke, was full of unnatural emphasis, like a teacher trying to get a classroom of idiots to enunciate. Fin–ger–na–ils. It made Němec feel like an idiot just listening to it. He ogled the ghost blatantly, with his mouth half-open like someone who’d forgotten their lines & was waiting for a prompt —
‘Fingernails…? But aren’t you…?’
‘Oh sure,’ the Prof yawned, ‘I’m the wits of former days.’
The ghost got creakily up on his feet & put the knife away, brushing snow from his pants. Coughed. Straightened. Arched his spine. He might’ve been some old homeless guy taking a stab at morning callisthenics, thumping his chest optimistically, pulling his elbows back, doing a bit of a softshoe shuffle. Sidling across, the ghost peered into Němec’s face with an expression vaguely quixotic, then winked —
‘But what about you, mein Freund, mmm?’
Němec stood dumbly. Perhaps he expected subtitles to put him wise. The dead horse made unsympathetic eyes.
‘Don’t you at least have something to say for yourself?’ the Prof chuckled.
Němec avoided the horse’s dead stare. He scratched his neck pensively, but nothing came to mind. His shoulders made a helpless shrugging movement inside his dark suit jacket.
‘Well then,’ the Prof pursed his lips, ‘so much for the story. Aren’t you even curious as to why you’re here?’
Němec gave it some thought. “Why” seemed too abstract. “How,” on the other hand. But he had no idea how he’d got there either, only vague impressions that possibly existed merely to fill the blankness. A window. Wind tunnelling in his ears. A falling. But that was all. Maybe, at long last, he’d got the green light from Head Office to jump. Make a bold new start. All that. But the premise, the ground… Perhaps he wasn’t here at all. Perhaps there was no “here.”
The Prof meanwhile yawned, fanning his mouth with a woollen glove. Strange to say, he didn’t look like a ghost. But what was a ghost supposed to look like? There were things you heard about but never actually saw. Cold War spooks, subversives, foreign agents, for example. Spectral crossborder numbers-stations broadcasting on the ether. Silhouettes erased from misty TV pictures. The disappeared & never quite rehabilitated, never quite resurrected. Concocted futures of greater things to come. Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa, etc. Well, what was a ghost after all, but a conspiracy to defraud the senses? A flibbertigibbet? Smoke-in-your-eyes? House of Hammer meets Material Dialectics?
Němec blinked. As for the Prof? He seemed altogether too corporeal to be an hallucination. Or the opposite, maybe: a wispy nothingness of methane & carbon dioxide lingering in the wake of the Old Man’s dear departed composthumous body, given to assume visible form, faculty of speech, all the standard accoutrements. Like an ignis fatuus in a cartoon freezeframe with backing vocals.
The fingernails on the other hand…
The whole thing would obviously have been a bad dream if not for the fact that he was sure he was awake. Němec picked his nose & inspected the end of his finger. A length of nose-hair lay kinked under a glistening film like a fly’s leg in aspic. He wiped it on his jacket & stared down at his shoes, then at the Prof’s shoes. Brown suède. Not much good for getting around in this weather. But the Prof was dead, the horse was dead, the whole of Golem City may as well’ve been dead too & him with it for all the difference it would’ve made to his choice of footware. Careful what you wish for, kiddo. It brought to mind pictures of rooms stacked ceiling-high with confiscated shoes. Maybe somewhere, he mused, there were rooms like that for dead cities like there were mortuaries for dead people. Perhaps this was one & he’d slipped in through a side door by accident. The ghost frowned as if he could read Němec’s thoughts —
‘Bah! So now what? I’m supposed to go puff like a cloud of smoke?’
The Prof waved his arms, bugged his eyes out. Not quite round but folded down at the edges & at the same time stitched up under the eyebrows. Like Peter Lorre in Secret Agent — the “hairless Mexican” look the Old Man always gave him whenever in the past Němec had managed to come out with some particularly novel conception. That, for example, the world was controlled by androids. The recollection made him blush, though at the time he’d been positive about the androids. Even so, deny it as he might, the present situation was clearly getting out of hand. Brushing the Prof aside, he went over to the dead horse & with sudden determination kicked it in the mouth. A row of yellowed teeth gleamed out at him like bits of polished tesserae. The horse didn’t even blink. Němec gave it another kick to be sure & stubbed his toes in the process. The grey horsehead was frozen solid as a curbstone.
‘Bravo!’ the Prof said, clapping him on the back. ‘I was beginning to worry you weren’t the man I took you for.’
‘Christ almighty!’ Němec winced.
The ghost stood beside him as if admiring a piece of his own handiwork.
‘You know what they say,’ the Prof grinned, ‘about gift-horses?’
‘What the hell is all this, comedy hour?’
‘All what, mein Freund?’
Němec cast a despairing sideways glance. He’d never noticed before that the Old Man was missing an earlobe, but he noticed now.
‘You’ve got no ear,’ said Němec, unable to help himself.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. How else could I hear what idiotisch things keep coming out of your mouth?’
The Prof shook his head in disgust & turned away. The glow from a streetlamp caught in the grey stubble that covered his chin, casting a faint one o’clock shadow.
‘Idiotisch!’ he repeated.
Němec’s attention, meanwhile, had been caught by the house across the street. It loomed there behind a gateway, utterly decrepit, with the stucco crumbling from its façade. He was fairly sure it hadn’t been there before, either. He glanced around. On every other side there was only a grey vagueness, as if he was standing in the middle of a soundstage ten metres wide with the set taking up the back wall & a camera crew hidden behind the fog.
While Němec was busy with the scenery, the Prof shuffled away through the snow, his sepia-brown shape receding from the lone lamplight. It was a set-up for a scene by Hitchcock, Carroll, Wilder, Huston, Lang. It’d been done a million times before, but that didn’t change anything, it could always be done again. Němec wondered what the Old Man was up to this time. He stopped in front of the house & pulled a large key from his pocket, stuck it in the lock in the middle of the gate, & turned it. The gate creaked open on rusty hinges. Behind it, the mustard-coloured façade was knotted with snow-covered ivy, baroque scrollwork above doors, mansards, roots poking through the eaves, sheets of ice hanging down.
‘What’re you waiting for?’ the ghost called back, stamping snow from sodden suède, ‘you’ll never get anywhere standing around like that!’
Němec trudged across the street. When he reached the gate, the Prof was gazing up at the eaves above the fifth-floor windows, as if he was looking for something. Němec stuck his hands in his pockets & sighed.
‘I have the feeling,’ the ghost said, ‘you’ve been here before…’
* StB = Státní bezpáteřnost: the Cheskoslovnikian Secret Police. [:]
* So bright — Man wird beim Schlafen Ray–Bans tragen müssen — dah-dum.
* If a man can be said to own his own ghost.