Printed 01.12.2020 01:14
16-04-2011 David Vaughan
In today's Czech Books we meet a writer who is a master of the short story. Andrej Gina, who won the Open Society Institute's Roma Literary Award in 2003, lives in the western Czech town of Rokycany. He writes in the Romany language spoken by generations of his ancestors from the rural Romany settlements of Eastern Slovakia. Andrej was still a small child when the family came to the Prague after the Second World War, leaving behind an ancient and rural world, where Roma life had changed little for centuries.
"I'm going to the dump. Maybe I'll find some old paper, rags or iron. I'll sell them to the old Jew," Pop said. "I can't just hang around here."
The next morning before sunrise, Pop said goodbye and left. He went to the dump. He had been there a thousand times. He knew every inch of it, but today there was nothing to be found. Rubbish was blowing around - nothing but junk, nothing that could make you a few crowns. "Mother of God, may this mangy world go to Hell!" Pop cursed. "I needn't have come! The paper is all wet. It falls to pieces the moment you touch it. And my shoes will fall apart, I'll end up going home bare foot!" Then it occurred to Pop to try to use a stick to stir up the rubbish. He found one and went on. But there was nothing. He poked the stick into a pile of junk and listened as it hit something tin. "At least a decent bit of iron would bring a few crowns!" He pushed the rubbish away. He looked and saw a tin box in front of him.
An extract from Andrej Gina's edition of three short stories published in a parallel Czech and Romany version, under the title Svatba - The Wedding. The working English translation is mine, as unfortunately none of Gina's work has yet been published in English.
Andrej Gina and his wife live in a modest modern house in Rokycany. It is a world away from the old Romany settlements of Eastern Slovakia, and perhaps because of this all his stories recall that old world, with a mixture of nostalgia and a very raw portrayal of the poverty in which they lived.
"We had a smithy. There wasn't a smith in the neighbouring villages so dad usually had work. He was very clever. People liked him. He was also an excellent and well-known musician - a band leader. When he had work, we lived well. We even had a very fine cottage - almost like the houses over in the village where the Gadjo lived.
"There were seven families in our settlement. In 1942 the Slovak fascists came and made us move. They demolished our cottages and we had to move two kilometres out of the village. I was six. We were very poor. That year it was very dry. My parents begged and went to collect rotten potatoes left on the fields. It was dreadful."
Just by the dump there was a nice enough place where the grass grew. "I'll sit down for a minute. Rest my old legs," he said to himself. He put the box down next to him. "Why cart this junk along with me?" He threw it aside. But again, he couldn't bring himself to throw it away. He picked it up again. He tried to open it. It wouldn't give. It was padlocked. "You just wait, I'll show you, just you wait till I've found a bit of iron or a decent stone! I'll break you to pieces!" he said to the box. He hit it with a stone, the lock broke and the box opened. Little wads of paper! Bound up one next to the other with bands round them. What could they be? In Prešov he'd seen the Jew selling lottery tickets. "That's what they must be!" Pop said to himself. "At least I might win something, if there's so many of them."
Pop couldn't read or write, and he'd never seen a thousand crown note in
his life. He had no idea what he'd found. He looked through the wads of
paper and concluded they must be lottery tickets. They were wet.
Gina has a great gift for creating the atmosphere of a time and place in just a few words, and then bringing that world alive with vivid characters. His gift of story-telling and the isolated, rural world he depicts remind me a lot of the stories of Sholem Aleichem from the 19th century. He was the writer who - writing in Yiddish - most vividly depicted the life of the Jewish villages or "shtetls" of today's Ukraine. His stories were the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, and it was a world that was probably not so very different from life in the Romany settlements.
Another parallel is the role of music: many of the characters that come and go in Andrej Gina's stories are musicians. In the old days it was often the only way of making a living. Andrej himself used to play in a professional band.
"I'm a musician after my father. We are all musical in the family. My older brother started at thirteen or fourteen playing with Dad. We small kids would follow behind. I learned the violin, but somehow I just wasn't good at it. So I went over to the guitar, and that's the instrument I've stayed with."
He told her about the dump and the "lottery tickets". His wife
turned to him, eyes wide open in disbelief.
"You gave these papers to a woman from the village?" A whole
apron-full? Are you mad? Don't you know it's money! A thousand
Dula and Lajos couldn't bear it any more, seeing what their mother was
doing to their father. "Stop it!" cried Dula. "Aren't you
sorry for him? Leave him be!"
Writing is not part of Romany tradition, but story-telling - passing tales from generation to generation - most definitely is. Tales would shift and change with the teller. The story we've just been hearing, for example, is one that was passed down to Andrej's wife through her grandfather. Andrej came to realize that times were changing, that the tradition, once broken, would be lost for ever; and this was how he came to write.
"In Rokycany there used to be a very cultivated, educated man, Dr Jagr. He got on very, very well with Roma, especially children. He would come to see us. One day Mum was telling some old Romany stories. He heard them and was impressed. He said this should all be written down. I remember to this day a comparison he made. He said, 'Andrej, look. There's an old church in Rokycany. It is full of history and if it were demolished, then we would really lose something. It's the same if a story is lost.' This captured my imagination. I talked about it with my mother. I recorded her telling the stories and then I wrote it all down."
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 11, 2005.
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