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Andrej Gina: recalling the poetry and poverty of the old Romany settlements
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.

Andrej Gina They combed all Prešov several times, but there was no work to be had. They came home worn out and hungry. What now?

"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.
"I'll put them in the sun to dry." He took the money out and spread it on the grass. He sat on the ground, smoking and waiting for the "tickets" to dry.
A woman from the village came by. A peasant woman in the old-fashioned dress they used to wear round Prešov. She stopped, looked, her eyes nearly popped out of her head. But she didn't let it show.
"So, old man, waiting for those papers to dry?"
"You've got it, my girl, just waiting."
"Nice papers, those. Won't you give me a couple?"
"Heavens, take what you want, take the lot if you like. I'm fed up waiting for them to dry."
The peasant woman bent down and quick as a flash collected the money in her apron. She thanked Pop and threw him twenty crowns. Pop was delighted. He wanted to head off straight away, but saw one last paper lying by the box. He put it in his pocket and headed home.
When he arrived, he handed his wife the twenty crowns with great pride.

Andrej Gina, photo: Chad Evans Wyatt 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.
"Where are those tickets?" she began to shake him.
"I gave them to some woman from the village."
"Show me!" she shrieked like a madwoman. He slowly pulled out the thousand crown note and handed it to his wife. She began to scream and spit curses, she began to swoon, her head spinning.

"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 crowns!"
Pop sank to the ground, as if someone had pulled his legs from under him. "Come here everyone!" shrieked Pavlina, "come and look at the biggest idiot who ever walked this earth!"
First came Dula, their oldest son, then their other sons Lajos and Janus, and then the other Roma from the settlement. His wife spouted the most crude oaths imaginable, ignoring the little children around them.
Gradually the Roma realised what had happened. They began to laugh at Pop.

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!"
Mother stood still like a pillar of salt.
"Go home, and mind your own business!" Dula shouted at the crowd. "How many of you know what a thousand crown note looks like? Which of you has ever seen one? You, or you maybe?" He pointed at them one after another. "What would you have done with those papers if it'd been you?"
The Roma were ashamed. Dula was right. Not many of them would have recognised that it was money. They gradually drifted away. Pavlina went home.
For the rest of that day neither of them spoke.
The next morning Pop and Dula went with Lajos and Pavlina to the dump. The turned everything upside down. They found one thousand crown note that the wind had blown into the bushes. His wife went into the town to do the shopping. Pop stayed at home and was ashamed of himself. He didn't feel like a person any more, again and again he could see the events of the previous day before his eyes.
The rumour that Pop had found so much money spread as far as the village itself. Even the constable found out. And that was bad news! For a whole week, every day, they would drag Pop down to the station, question him and never let him go without a beating first. Every day he came back black and blue from their truncheons. They came into his shack and looked everywhere - of course they didn't find a thing. In the end they realised that Pop really wasn't too bright, that he really had never seen a thousand crown note, and at last they left him in peace. One constable then explained what had happened. A bank had been robbed in Prešov and they'd hidden the money at the dump. Two million. "See, that's how much you gave that woman!"
A million was beyond Pop's dreams! He could just about cope with twenty crowns - that was five shots of rum or twenty little pockets of tobacco. As for his wife, to the day she died she never forgave Pop for failing to make her a millionaire.

Rokycany 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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