Coming this May in 8 octaves, 64 chapters and on 888 pages, Louis Armand’s The Combinationsis 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.
MOVE 5: ENEMY QUEEN: ALICE STEINEROVÁ, TO PAWNTAGONIST’S EN PASSANT (GARDEZ!)
At La Fée Verte, an oneiric cabaret, Němec meets not only Faktor the Redaktor but also, on stage, a damsel harassed by devils and monsters, her name (Volta, Němec’s shrink, reveals afterwards) Alice, Alice Steinerová. An actress, acting many parts & parting many acts – in the one scripted by Němec himself, she’s Alice-sister-of-Jan (for missing surname read Masaryk). The drama queen, sacrificed twice – on stage and on the 64 squares that mean the world; and what if there are two queens? and neither of them real – just a promoted pawn in drag?
THE ALICE VARIATIONS
Her eyes in the mirror trying to separate his voice from the shadows. She pulled the ashtray towards her & lit a cigarette. The flare of the match cast a gaunt cadaverous light upwards across her face — it reminded of that face in Toulouse-Lautrec’s AU MOULIN-ROUGE, ugly as sin, more deathmask than face. She shook the match out & the impression passed. Her hands, the Visitor could see, were shaking, but as he stood up out of the dark her eyes never left him: like gemstones copied in glass paste, depthless blue.
–I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever have the pleasure.
–Don’t imagine it’s on your account.
–Perhaps you should try firing the gun further from your head next time.
–I’ll keep that in mind. Did Níko send you?
–We both know who I mean.
–I expected it sooner.
–Or then again, maybe no-one sent me.
She took a deep drag on the cigarette till it was almost exhausted, leant back in her chair so it creaked under the weight, then took her time crushing the butt out in the ashtray. Her gaze remained fixed on the Visitor’s reflection in the mirror the whole time, eyebrows making question marks. Like the brunette at the baccarat table in Dr No…
–We need to talk about the other night.
He was standing behind her now, close enough to smell the sweat & greasepaint. She leant forward in her chair & began wiping the makeup off her face. Other actors came & went from the stairway, talking without saying anything, not seeing the Visitor at all. Alice reached up & removed the wig she’d been wearing: beneath it was a head of coalblack hair cropped short. It set her features into a wholly different constellation: the angled cheekbones, the wide forehead. The mask unmasked, Parrhasius-like. Arching an eyebrow she watched him watching her. It was like having a stage-side seat at an undress rehearsal: THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF ALICE STEINEROVÁ.*
–Unzip me, she said.
The Visitor reached out. The high-collared dress slipped from her shoulders exposing a tattoo on the nape of her neck. While he stood there looking at her she poured a glass of gin from a bottle beside the mirror.
–To old etceteras.
She downed the drink & slid the empty glass among the jars of greasepaint.
–Excuse me if I don’t invite you to join me…
The Visitor handed her a black kimono that’d been hanging on the rack beside him. There was a musky perfume on the collar. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t place it.
–How about we go somewhere we can talk?
She gave him a long scrutinising look.
–Maybe, she said finally. Do I get dressed, or d’you expect me to go like this?
–I’ll wait outside.
Alice watched him along the length of the dressingroom. There were voices from the street, someone was laughing, but the laughing stopped when he opened the door. The actors watched him make his way along the sidewalk to a spot under the nearest streetlight, then one by one they went inside.
The air was damp, he could taste the river when he breathed. He wondered what would happen next. It wasn’t long before Alice came out, wearing the same kimono open over a singlet & black jeans & a pair of cowboy boots. He thought of the tattoo. The combination did something to the picture of her inside his head. She led him around the corner to a bar. They found a table at the back.
In the subdued light of the bar, Alice’s blue eyes had an even more preternatural lack of depth, like painted glass, framed by eyelashes still heavy with mascara. The eyebrows were sharply pencilled in black, the lips streaked across with rouge. There were traces of blood in a faint line from her temple to the line of her jaw. Gazing past him in threequarter profile, short dark hair & pale throat, she looked like a half-naked facsimile.
A waitress came & they ordered something. When the waitress was gone, Alice leant forward & returned his look.
–Why are we here?
He reached into his jacket pocket & pulled out a photograph.
–That night at the Cabaret? I was there because I found the address in a man’s empty apartment.
He turned the picture so she could see it. It showed the Prof sitting at a table on a restaurant terrace. Alice looked at it strangely…
–The late Tom Hájek. He’s dead. Apparently it was a heart attack, but it’s just possible someone killed him. When I went to the Cabaret, I ran into a couple of familiar faces. Quite a coincidence. And of course there was you. And that was quite a coincidence, too, considering we share the same doctor. Wouldn’t you say?
–Are you sure that’s the man?
–What d’you mean?
–Nothing, just are you sure? That’s all.
–Who are you really? she said, suddenly looking up…
MOVE 6: PAWNTAGONIST’S TOUR.
To kill time & some of his demons, Němec spends most of his waking/sober hours walking the walk: Prague, after all, being a city of strollers, of flâneurs, of passersby. So off he goes, the merrier the rounder: above & underneath the city of Golemville, hitherandthithering, teetering from Nazi propaganda film screenings into underground, out-on-the-islands cabarets, on into bars with bards, up to Barrandovs with trilobites… What’s on and what’s off the celluloid becomes increasingly indistinguishable. And enemies & nightmares lurk at the bottom of every next glass of Frankovka…
‘Don’t think they don’t know about you,’ the voice said.
Němec had taken a path that led the long way around the Island down its western side, where the locks stood quiet under the brooding willowtrees. The mist had parted during the night. Flocks of gulls wheeled & plunged above the weir, graceful & murderous. Watching them, he found himself thinking of Alice Steinerová, it was impossible not to. Her face, her words. Did her story ring false, or was it just that at a certain point every story rings false? Like a tightrope dancer who even when she falls contrives to cheat gravity by suddenly sprouting wings & wheeling back from the brink, to recommence her dance from a yet higher vantage.
His gaze drifted up. High over the river, a jet’s vapour trails bisected what there was of a sky — two faint parallel lines converging into the grey foreground. The spread of the City, the lampposts, trams, statues, cupolas, all appeared unbalanced by this sudden vertigo of reverse-perspective. Like a reflection in a reflection faked by Canaletto on a daub by Escher, undressed by the restorer’s eye as it turned back the veneers to reveal the scored & naked underpainting, all zinc & grisaille & faded neon. Here the protracted arch of a dome, there the apex of a campanile where two pairs of compasses intersect like facsimiled avatars. Francis Seraphinus, John of Nepomuk, the whole sainted host. Ghost cities in overlap.
Approaching the foot of the Island, a river barge sounded its horn. Time, it said, to awaken from that twilight of Mitteleuropa.
Halfway back to the bridge, a bum was sitting on a bench overlooking the water, pensively drinking box wine. A pack of dozing mutts lay at his feet, tethered to one leg. A soiled redblue woollen cap sagged down almost over his eyes. The mutts blinked sleepily at Němec as he came along the path. As he passed, the bum spoke, catching Němec off guard —
‘Don’t think they don’t know about you.’
Němec turned & stared at the back of woollen cap. The bum kept on gazing impassively at the river, as if it was the water he was talking to. One of the mutts whimpered, its muzzle worrying a poplar leaf that a small colony of ants seemed to be transporting on their backs.
‘I’ve seen ’em,’ the bum said through the slit of his mouth. ‘Comin’ in their machines, when they think we’re all asleep. But I’m not sleepin’. Every night they come. From up there.’
The bum pointed with his free hand, blackened fingers poking through the ends of a grey woollen glove, clutching the box-wine closer with the other. Němec followed the man’s gesture with his eyes to a spot in the sky above the midget Eiffel Tower on Petřín Hill, its finial flaring in the first sunspike of dawn like Siegfried’s lofted panto poignard, & all below, the greyblack Erdshadow its mantle of gloom.
‘Outta the sky they come, & land right there in the river. One, two, three. One after the other. There’s always the same number. Then they go down under the water. Like submarines. That’s all. And before sun-up, they go back. Just the way they came. Oh I know about ’em all right. I’m always watchin’…’
Němec blinked down at the greyish floe. Tried to see what the old drunk’d seen. UFOs with strobing carny lights. Martian mugshots framed in portholes. Maybe a quick aerial lap of the Castle, looping-the-loop round St Vít, for snapshots to send home to the in-laws back on Alpha Centauri. Idly he kicked a loose stone into the water. A faint splash. The bum chuckled, took a swig of his wine —
‘Some nights, if you listen real close, you can hear ’em way down there, diggin’ in the mud. They’re buildin’ a secret Martian base no-one knows about, preparin’ for the Big One…’
Němec scratched his chin. It all sounded reasonable enough, from a certain point of view. But not from a Martian’s, he’d’ve thought. All the prime spots must’ve already got snaffled up & these were the guys left holding the short straws. Maybe that was really what the drunk could hear going on down there, some poor wee green fuckers with the pointy ears playing the Golem City Blues. Man, we crossed a million lightyears to end up in this dump, and they ain’t even got no bagels. Life in the far-flung shtetls of the universe, what it must’ve been like.
Němec shrugged, & seeing as there was nothing more to the old drunk’s talk, ambled off in the direction of the bridge. When he’d almost reached it, the bum shouted after him: not turning his head, not moving at all, just shouting, like a mannequin with a loudspeaker wired to it.
‘You’ll deserve what you get! You hear me?’
One of the mutts gave a disheartened yap.
Under the broad arch, stalactites of accumulated limescale hung down in long slivers over a sea of mud, effluent, the night’s regurgitations. Scratched among the stones, a large circle with a cross through it, spraypainted runes, insignias of the tribe writ large. A non-com in feldgrau stood pissing against a post. Němec circumnavigated & headed for the steps.
Casting a backwards glance at the Green Fairy château, Němec caught faint subterranean whispers. The stink of the river drifting in thin wisps of fog through the poplars. The bum’s mad rant faded out to morning-after voices, overhead traffic, the roar & thump of a tram. The bells chimed six. Němec ascended the steps to the pure air, the nitrous pabulum. The island, two flights beneath him now, became less a place & more a problem of perspective. He turned his back on it. To the right, the Home he’d left, to the left, the home he’d borrowed. He knew the directions with his eyes closed, could’ve pointed them out to anybody, like an idiot on a crucifix nailed up on a crossroads. But what sort of crossroads would you expect to find in the middle of a river?
Perhaps a lesser mortal might’ve taken it as a cue to start waxing ponderous about how often he’d walked that road, crossed that bridge, stood on that island, looked at that river, full of approximate longings, contempt, hunger, boredom, fatigue. How much of him had been absorbed in them. How little he’d accomplished or even understood. But not Němec, whose musings were of a different order. Primarily, where at that hour a drink could be obtained, no questions asked. Steam rose from the tramtracks. He turned from the stairhead & followed them westward. What’d it matter if secrets existed within their midst? UFOs under the river or a cabal of madmen? To exist at a tangent to some unknown place, without ever entering its circle — or to inhabit the world the way a reflection inhabits a mirror: what kind of existence was that? Down below the old bum was probably still cackling to himself or no-one, but that was of no concern to Němec. A blackbird on a tramwire barked. The world in its orbit turned. Pascal was right enough: it was ridiculous to speak of a man as if he were a geometrical proposition. But what kind of a proposition was he?
published: 19. 6. 2016