chapter05


Spring 1967

I left the state restaurant, passed U Minuti house checked the time on the Hussite Tyn Church and went across Old Town Square. Along the Celetna, I passed the Powder Tower. The plaque mentioned that building started in the year 1475 and was completed four hundred years later. Finally, I arrived at the university at Celetna 20. Above the door, there was a motto in Latin that said: 'Sibi et Posteris (For oneself and the ones who come after)'. I signed in at the porter's desk at exactly 13.47 h according to the punching clock. 1347, I thought that this was a nice touch because Prague Charles University was founded that year. It is one of the oldest universities in Europe. 

Mr Vaňek the porter wore a thoroughly modern uniform. Only the 20th C could come up with nasty-looking grey artificial utilitarian polyester. He told me placidly that the Professor was in the Aula Maxima Assembly Hall. I walked across the campus past the former Charles-Ferdinand University for German-speaking students. Rainer Maria Rilke studied, and this is where Franz Kafka met his fellow alumni and friends Max Brod and Johannes Urzidil when he studied law. The Karl-Ferdinand University was dissolved in 1945 when the department relocated to Munich and became Collegium Carolinum e.V. The Aula Maxima was located in the main building . I peeped inside it. The Aula Maxima was rebuilt between 1946 and 1950. The Fascists closed the university in 1938 when they occupied the country.  But not before the student uprising of November 17th. Each year, the uprising is nationally commemorated as the 'Day of Freedom and Democracy'. 

The Aula Maxima had always been a strong metaphor for a place of learning that survived a tumultuous history. After the war, it picked up the pieces once again yet the political situation has contributed to its slow decline. For example, all students were expected to do army training and this measure was quite unpopular. The Aula Maxima was unadorned except for votive images from the Middle-Ages. It had neon lighting and laminate furniture. If I had harboured any romantic notions of university as a feudal relic from a world of scribes that used Latin, now they were blown to smithereens. In the corridor by the entrance to the Aula Maxima, there were political posters inviting to student debates on socialist-democracy, another one was inviting to a symposium on Comenius whose works had recently been rediscovered. I spotted Professor's Varady's name on another flyer inviting to a presentation on Russian literature and film. There were countless other  notices relating to the various language modules on offer. To this day, Prague Charles University retains a world-class reputation in language teaching. There were over fifty languages on offer in one or another form.  Students in modern clothes were rushing to their lectures in various alpha-numerically named rooms.

The Professor noticed me and joined me just as I was about to look for him inside the Aula Maxima. We went back to the Porter's Lodge. Next to it there was a staircase leading down to the basement. By the staircase, there was a pigeon-hole cupboard labelled with room-numbers. My room was called E111 and I immediately reflected about its purpose. E111 was located at the end of the basement corridor between the caretaker's door and the toilets. The Professor explained that this was part of the admin department. I guessed apart from typing stuff, I would probably be filing papers and similar jobs. E111 was a narrow, grey, monastic office like countless others in this warren. It was lit by neon and sparsely furnished with laminate furniture. There was a cellar-window with bars and it opened to the inner courtyard. A blackbird was singing. I immediately thought: 'The cage seeks the bird'. My previous employers must have told the Professor what a tedious skivvy I was: This new job did not seem any less lonesome. In a way, working on my own suited me just fine. The Professor added that my job at the paper-mill qualified me for the new task.

E111's function was to ensure that cupboards were stocked with enough paper-clips, bleach, brushes, paper, toilet-paper, ink, pens, pencils etc to keep the operations in the basement running smoothly. The cupboard was locked because of pilfering and I was the Keeper of the Key. No-one likes this kind of jobs because it involves a lot of paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy - the admin equivalent of queuing for groceries. I would type letters to the suppliers while upstairs would dictate their requirements to me. Herout-Mikulík shorthand proved quite handy for taking notes. The Professor suggested that if I felt like doing some academic work, I could try and translate an old German-language engineering manual from the Habsburg period, and then perhaps, having a go at translating it into Russian. It was recently rediscovered inside the Carolinum and the university was keen to know more about that aspect of its history. This is how I learnt everything about the imperial sewage system - so I can proudly claim that I studied  at uni.  This was just the start of a daily routine. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I was stuck in E111, dealing with paperwork and learning about the coarse racks (česle), grid chambers (lapač písku), primary clarifiers (usazovací nádrž),  and the sludge barge and sanitation. Construction on the sewerage system in prewar Prague began in 1886 and took twenty years to build. It covered 88.509 square kilometers. The sewage plant was located in Bubeneč beyond the Malá Strana. The manual said that the location was first mentioned in 1197 and it acquired city status in 1904. The plant itself was situated within a triangle of the Technical University, the Castle and the Academy of Fine arts.  I could swear that at times, I could smell imperial effluents but that was just my mind playing tricks. In reality, what interrupted the silence and the clattering of the type-writer were the sounds of people flushing the toilets. I imagined what the people coming and going next door looked like, or could look like, - from their footsteps, I also guessed the kind of shoes they were wearing. Later, I ventured into picturing their body shape according to the sound of their paces - heavy paces or people who tread cautiously. My imagination was not vivid enough to paint portraits of those footsteps' owners. I did not want to piece together fragments of conversation because I did not want to eavesdrop.

I felt like I would get old very quickly in E111. What sort of promotion could I ever expect? Even the translation was pointless. It was neither urgent nor earth-shattering and, with more than one hundred pages, it felt like spinning a blanket on a small loom. I was not sure how the translation of technical papers about sanitation was going to improve my knowledge of the German language but it was miles away from Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Two Stories of Prague'. In the eyes of some, a useful manual is better than a decadent bourgeois novel.

From time to time, I paused and my gaze wandered looking for clues. The cabinet rested against the wall, with cards and papers showing at their open drawers. During the day, I kept the drawers open. Anyone who did come to request a pen or other supplies had to tick the register. There was no clue about the person who worked here before me. I didn't ask any questions because in this country the most anodyne word can become self-incriminating. Never forget: 'loose lips sink ships'.  Ms Sochorová, the light-footed courier was also a research assistant.  She had short bleached blonde hair and wore male clothing and had no time to stop distributing memos. Usually, she never said hello. Mr Huml - the morose caretaker came to take out toilet-rolls and paper towels. Then he did his rounds with his cleaning cart, ticked the register and left E111 after quickly mopping the floor with bleach. Wherever he went, the smell of bleach lingered long after him.The mood in the basement was so downbeat that I could not help thinking that I had been demoted to this job. In hindsight, my time at the army and at the paper-mill almost seemed idyllic. Was it because of my lousy time-keeping? Was my appearance not tidy enough? Did I do anything wrong? These questions came and went. I did not want to speculate too much about my fate. On paper, I was a Professor's assistant at Prague Charles University. My wages would have been much higher if I had stayed at the mill, but the job title pleased my self-esteem.

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