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Seven Days to the Funeral

by Ján Rozner
Translated from Slovak by
Julia Sherwood


It was around seven o’clock by the time he got home, somewhat later than in the previous few days, his head empty from hours of the intense effort to stay alert but also feeling hungry and, as a result, angry and irritable. He decided that this time he wouldn’t just cut a few slices of bread, spread them with some butter and cheese, and proceed to chew on them the way he’d been stuffing himself at breakfast and dinner for over a week now. On his last visit to the supermarket he’d bought some canned meat; on the can it said that all you had to do was put it into boiling water, unopened, for five or ten minutes.

He filled a pot with water and set it on the gas stove. He laid out a plate and cutlery, and removed empty bottles of mineral water and fruit juice and two thick books from the bag he had brought home. Tomorrow he would take the books back to the library and choose another two. He left the bottles in the corner of the kitchen and carried the books into the living room. When he returned to the kitchen he found the water in the pot already hissing so he placed the can in the water and it was only then that he remembered he hadn’t checked whether you were supposed to leave it there for five or ten minutes. But he didn’t take it out. He sat down on a bench at the kitchen table, and when he thought he’d waited long enough he turned off the gas, quickly took the can out of the hot water, opened it, tipped half the contents onto a plate, and cut himself a slice of bread even though he could see small bits of potatoes floating in the unappetizing looking sauce among the pieces of meat.

The canned meat was lukewarm. It tasted disgusting and sticky like industrial rubber but that made sense, it made sense, fitting into everything else that had conspired against him.

Lately he’d taken to talking to himself—only short sentences though, mainly curses (directed at himself ) and questions (so what else was I supposed to do?) meant to conclude a particular chain of reminiscences. This time, too, he felt the urge to give loud, succinct, and strong expression to his annoyance with the foul-tasting canned meat, which was why he followed each gulp with a loud and accusatory scream at the wall opposite: “Damned canned meat!”—“Fucking life!”

The screaming helped him to calm down a bit and made him realize how ridiculous it was for him to swear, especially using words he normally never used. But at least it was a way of unburdening himself to someone invisible. He was fully aware that it wasn’t the fault of the disgusting canned meat and that there was nothing stopping him from tipping the contents of the plate into the toilet and making himself a sandwich with some cheese from the fridge, but it was doing him good to berate everything that couldn’t be tipped into the toilet and so, after swallowing each chewy piece of the disgusting canned meat, he continued insisting to himself, only now more calmly—as if he had discovered the immutable nature of things—and much more quietly, over and over: “Damned canned meat.”—“Fucking life.” The repetition turned his swearing into some feeble-minded child’s game and as he continued mindlessly, he suddenly heard the telephone ring. He remained seated for a while, not interested in hearing what someone might want to say to him on the phone. What if it’s something else though, he thought, as the names of three or four friends flashed through his mind but then again, as he began to walk toward the phone in the living room, he thought: this had to be it, irredeemably, definitively.

He crossed the living room, picked up the phone and spoke into it. Since a voice on the other end asked who was speaking, he introduced himself. The voice said its name was “Doctor Marton.” It flashed through his mind that there was a time when he used to hear this name more often, he thought it belonged to a urologist and for a moment he wasn’t so sure he was going to hear the news he was expecting, but once the voice on the telephone started explaining “I’m calling from the oncology ward, I just happen to be on night duty here tonight,” he was quite certain again he would hear what he’d been expecting.

Actually, he wasn’t expecting it at all; it’s just that sometimes it had vaguely occurred to him that this call might come, perhaps the day after tomorrow, in a week, or in a couple of weeks. But he wasn’t expecting it just yet…

However, the voice on the other end of the phone didn’t continue with the news he was fearing but proceeded instead to give him a detailed account of how he hadn’t been able to find his name in the telephone directory, and that’s why he had to call at least three people who he thought might know him, but none of them had his number, and only then had he remembered a fourth person from whom he finally got the number. That was why he hadn’t called earlier.

The voice on the other end of the phone paused, so, just to say something, he offered: “Yes, my name isn’t listed in the phone book.” Then the doctor moved on to the crux of the matter: “The thing is, your wife’s condition has deteriorated. The situation is critical.”

Again, he just said “yes,” as if to encourage the doctor to say more but the doctor digressed once again: “I’m sure you remember that before we admitted her we told you that something like this couldn’t be ruled out…that you had to be prepared for it.”

What does he mean by “we,” he thought, annoyed; he had talked to the chief physician and nobody else was present at the time. But out loud he just said “yes” again and then finally, as he’d been expecting, the doctor moved on to the reason why he was calling: “And that’s why it would be a good idea for you to come straight away.”

Again, he repeated mechanically, “Yes, I’ll be there straight away,” to which the doctor added: “It would be a good idea for you to bring someone along.”

He didn’t understand why he should bring someone along just because his wife’s condition had deteriorated, but again he just repeated his “yes” but this time the voice on the other end of the telephone quickly went on, like someone who had inadvertently forgotten to mention something important: “Obviously you have to be prepared for the fact that your wife is already dead.”

Now the voice at the other end of the line had nothing more to announce, and he repeated his “yes, I’ll be there straight away” and put the receiver down.

For a moment, he stood by the telephone without moving, as if the last sentence had to be chewed first and then swallowed, like another chewy piece of the disgusting canned meat. But he hadn’t swallowed it yet. He focused on something that had nothing to do with the content of the telephone conversation. Like an editor or a dramaturge editing other people’s texts he reviewed the doctor’s last few sentences, as if proofreading a manuscript on his desk. Where’s the logic in this—first he tells him about the situation getting critical and then he ends by saying the critical situation is over. And then this “obviously you have to be prepared…” Obviously! He didn’t mind that it was an ugly word but it bothered him that in this sentence it didn’t make any sense. Surely the doctor didn’t mean to say “obviously”; what was so obvious about it, surely he wanted to say “of course,” in the sense of “but”: “but you have to be prepared for…”; there would have been some stylistic logic in that.

Having finished his proofreading he went back to the kitchen, slowly and deliberately, as if carrying a secret. Once in the kitchen he sat down on the bench again to ponder something and it took him a while to realize he wasn’t thinking of anything, and that all he had to do was go to the hospital and take someone along. So he got up, picked up the plate so that the smell of the canned meat wouldn’t linger in the kitchen, tipped the rest into the toilet, flushed it down, put everything away, and sat down on the kitchen bench again, as if he now needed a little rest before leaving.

He sat there with his shoulders drooping, his hands in his lap. He would no longer have to…yes, there were quite a few things he would no longer have to…think about what she might like in hospital and what he would say to her…or to think, as he had done so often over the past two weeks, whether she would ever come back to this apartment…and if she did, for how long. He no longer had to be petrified, nothing would change, everything had settled down. She simply was no longer. He was unhappy with himself for not feeling a sudden alarm that was supposed to shake him up. But then again, could it have ended any other way? She was likely to have been thinking the same way. And maybe she’d even wanted it. Nonsense. But still, sometimes over the past few days these ideas had crossed his mind. The thought had lodged itself in his brain and now he felt ashamed to think that she, unlike him, had come to terms with it… and she had left him here alone. Surely she must have known he wouldn’t be able to cope by himself. He’d be left sitting in this huge apartment from morning till night. Surrounded only by an immutable silence. And a vast emptiness. Suddenly he seemed to have gotten a grip, noticing his mind had gone blank again and that he had to go to the hospital. The doctor had ordered him to come. Although right now it no longer mattered if he went there straight away or if he went on sitting here. He wasn’t going to the hospital to see her anyway; he was only going there because of her.

Ján Rozner was a leading Slovak journalist and literary, theater, and film critic and theorist, and translator from German and English. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Rozner and his wife Zora Jesenská a distinguished translator of Russian literature, both of them active proponents of the Prague Spring, were blacklisted and lost their jobs. When Jesenská died of cancer in 1972, her funeral turned into a political event and everyone who attended it faced recriminations. In 1976 Ján Rozner emigrated to Germany with his second wife. Throughout his thirty years in exile, Ján Rozner worked on a series of autobiographical works, lavishing particular attention on Seven Days to the Funeral, which he regarded as his seminal work and kept rewriting and fine-tuning it. He died in Munich in 2006.
Slovak-born Julia Sherwood was educated in Germany and England and settled in London where she worked for Amnesty International and Save the Children. Since moving to the U.S. in 2008, she has worked as a freelance translator. She has translated Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová (Garnett Press, London, 2011) from the Slovak and is currently translating the novel Freshta by Petra Procházková from the Czech.