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The Short Form

“This Part of Town Is No Place for Old Timers”

Jachym Topol


Mum, who had long since determined that she could take almost anything that came her way, wept buckets – and she hung feeders outside the window for their souls. It's an old Czech custom. Neither the Christians, nor the Communists ever managed to kill it off. All it takes is bacon fat, some bread and, above all, clean water. The souls of the dead descend on the feeder like the shades of little birds. If you speak to them, and if they take the food, you feel your grief gradually ebbing away. Souls may appear up to nine months after death. After that, they don't need your care.

Dad never put a single crumb on the feeder. And although both little avian shades hovered patiently at the feeder, sometimes during the severest of frosts, and turned their little heads towards his window, he never spoke a word to them. He didn't have the time, he was writing. It was then that he wrote Grasping at Straws, a play that gives vent to his profound suffering at his inability to shed his fatherly love for the dead daughters who he cared sod-all for in their lifetime. Their deaths left him so drugged up that the transition to Degeneration came smoothly. This time he projected the heartache wrought by the chill indifference of the universe into his immediate environment, which inevitably made it partly descriptive. And that was taken as being critical of the regime. The Prague of late socialism was beginning to disintegrate. The poem sang of the descent of all living organisms towards death, comparing the dissolution of the state to the fate of any superannuated organism; Dad's words reeked of prolapsed drains, putrefying plasterwork, marasmic air rippling to the limp flapping of Bolshevik banners above police stations and torture ‘Stinking Brain’ was what he called this poem.

We read it in The Guardian.