Richard de Nooy’s new book, Van kleine helden, was launched in the Netherlands earlier this month. He’s currently working on the English translation, which will be titled ‘All The Little Heroes’, and has shared an exclusive excerpt with The JRB.
De Nooy grew up in Johannesburg, but has lived in Amsterdam for the past thirty years. He writes his novels in English and Dutch. His first novel, Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot, won the 2007 University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book. It was published in Dutch as Zes beetwonden en een tetanusprik. His second novel, Zacht als Staal, was longlisted for the prestigious AKO Literatuurprijs in 2011. It was published in English as The Big Stick. These two books form a loose trilogy with his third novel, Zendingsdrang or The Unsaid.
Van kleine helden is a kaleidoscopic novel, made up of a chain of stories woven together by a thread. The below excerpt, ‘Pavel Buys an Ejector Seat’, is set in Prague in the Czech Republic, and will also be published in translation by the Czech literary magazine PLAV. It has already been published in Dutch in De Revisor. This is its English debut.
Pavel Buys an Ejector Seat
Richard de Nooy
‘How is Iveta? Is she dying yet?’
It’s Pavel from next door. He blinks a lot, as if he’s collecting snapshots of his world. Jaroslav has learned that the brakes on his inhibitions are faulty, making his blunt questions easier to accept.
‘Good evening, Pavel. Nice slippers.’
‘Bear feet. Grizzly. It says so inside. Maminka bought them for me. To wear when I work.’
‘Very handy. Have you been up in the attic?’
‘I’ve got an ejector seat,’ he whispers, rocking from side to side expectantly, like a dog wagging its tail. The zipper on his purple jacket goes down-up-down-up-zip-zip-zip.
‘An ejector seat?’
‘I’ve measured everything. It’s a go. I’m working on it now. Top secret. That’s American. It’s on all the documents. Don’t tell Maminka. It’s from a MiG-29. It doesn’t say so on the seat, but I saw it straight away. It came in pieces. I brought them upstairs one by one. When Iveta was in hospital. Maminka said I shouldn’t disturb you. But I’m ready now. Have you ever assembled an ejector seat, Engineer Formánek?’
‘Shouldn’t you be in bed, Pavel?’
‘Did I say it properly: assembled? That’s a word, right?
‘Yes, that’s a word: to assemble, to construct, to put together.
‘Do you know what’s most difficult?’
Jaroslav pretends to think. Then shakes his head.
‘Finding the right cosmic path. Plotting the trajectory. All paths lead to the Spirit Sun. But which path will Iveta take?’
Again he savours every syllable of her name, as if he’s tasting a dish for the first time. Pavel is deeply honoured to be on first-name terms with Iveta. He knows all about her cancer: why this variety is so deadly; that they moved to Prague to get the best treatment; what her therapy entails; the success rates; the risks; the side-effects; the costs. Pavel even has a theory about the cause: their house in Třebíč was too close to the nuclear power plant in Dukovany, where Jaroslav had worked as an engineer.
That had made a deep impression on Pavel, Mr Procházka explained when he and his wife had dropped in to welcome their new neighbours a few months before. The couple had played tennis on the topic of their son, knocking him back and forth over the net—a friendly, grumbling bear versus a tired, squawking goose.
‘Pavel is crazy about engineering.’
‘He didn’t want to join us.’
‘He loves technology.’
‘He can’t cope with change, with anything new.’
‘Pavel was close with Mrs Krejzlová. She used to live here.’
‘He’s afraid of your house. Everyone dies there, he says.’
‘Pavel used to make tea and soup for Mrs Krejzlová. They finished a puzzle together the day before she died.’
‘He’d rather not come here.’
‘She left him some money. To thank him. I manage it for him.’
‘He’s vulnerable. Still a child.’
‘Do you know what he used the money for?’
‘He’s always bringing home all sorts of magazines.’
‘A second-hand computer! Pavel is smarter than you think. He knows how to translate things into Czech. And he’s learning more and more words in German and English.’
‘He talks funny sometimes.’
‘He isn’t mad. He’s special.’
That evening Jaroslav had learned a lot more about Pavel: he was twenty-three; he had some form of autism; there was no suitable school for him; he had worn out six or seven private tutors; he often wandered the streets; he spent hours in his workshop up in the attic; he kept more and more secrets from his parents.
The latter was confirmed when Pavel had summoned up the courage to consult Jaroslav about the Rotalitnev. When Jaroslav opened the door, Pavel had leapt back, scratching his head nervously with both hands, as if his hair was infested with lice. He whispered encouragement to himself: ‘Stop! Stop! You can do this. You’re brave. Ask him! Ask him now!’
‘What is it you want to ask, Pavel?’ smiled Jaroslav.
‘Tatínek says you’re an engineer. Is that right?’
‘I am, yes,’ Jaroslav replied. ‘I was.’
On hearing this, Pavel’s knees seemed to dissolve into jelly. A blissful expression of adoration appeared on the lad’s face, which Jaroslav found both heart-warming and disconcerting, as if he had been mistaken for a saint and would be unable to rectify this misconception.
‘You can help me,’ said Pavel. ‘I’m building a Rotalitnev.’
‘A back-to-front ventilator. An auxiliary power unit. Did I say that right: auxiliary power unit? I’ve got the windmills. Fifteen. All different, of course, but still. I’ve turned them around, but they’re not generating any auxiliary power.’
Fascinated by the intensity of Pavel’s conviction, Jaroslav followed the lad up to the attic. At the door of his workshop, Pavel had asked Jaroslav to turn around so that he could ‘punch in the secret code’. He also made Jaroslav promise he wouldn’t tell anyone what he had seen inside. Having sworn a solemn oath, Jaroslav entered a bewildering universe created by a mind that was clearly hardwired to connect everything with everything else. The walls and slanted roof were covered in collages of photos Pavel had torn from magazines. One of these collages, measuring approximately one by two metres, was made entirely of shredded images of fire. Within this paper gateway to hell, Pavel had pasted lines of text consisting of letters he had cut from newspapers, much like an incomprehensible ransom note:
THE PATH OF MAGNETIC LOGOISM
PORTAL TO THE INFERNAL EARTH
FROM THE 4TH TO THE 5TH HIERARCHY
DRIVEN BY GEMINI AND INCANDESCENCE
GOAL! FLOWING SWIFT-WISDOM AND LIGHT-CONSCIOUSNESS!
As he stared at the sprawling collage, Jaroslav discovered more and more portals: shredded trees and plants overgrowing each other in verdant shades of green; overlapping rivers, waterfalls, placid seas and monstrous waves, thrashing and churning; animals, dragons and mythical beasts driven together in a tight herd; faces of innumerable ethnicities laughing, crying, screaming, staring, crowded into a festive group portrait of humanity. And scattered in the midst of this mind-boggling vortex floated banners of hermetic text that seemed at once profound and profoundly nonsensical to Jaroslav.
‘Don’t look too long, Engineer Formánek,’ said Pavel.
‘Why not?’ asked Jaroslav.
‘Look out here,’ said Pavel, opening the only window in the attic. ‘This is my auxiliary power unit.’
Fifteen table ventilators were lined up in the gutter, with their feet in the rainwater. White cables ran through the gutter from each ventilator to a hole in the wall under the window. Inside, the cables had been gathered into a bundle that looked like an unravelling rope. The blue and brown wires of each cable had been stripped and neatly connected to separate terminal blocks.
‘This needs to be powered,’ said Pavel, pointing at a wooden structure with a fitting and light bulb mounted on top.
‘Why don’t you just plug it into the socket?’ asked Jaroslav.
‘Fifteen ventilators. That should be enough, right?’ said Pavel.
‘What exactly do you have in mind?’
‘The hatch has to open self-sufficiently.’
‘The Portal to the Infernal Earth. Look, here it is,’ said Pavel, rolling out a drawing on the workbench. It was a rough sketch of the attic room. The slanted roof had been fitted with the canopy of a fighter jet.
‘And you want to mount that on the roof?’ said Jaroslav.
‘The hatch has to open self-sufficiently. That’s the key attribute of the First Path of Sirius: Self-Sufficiency. That means: using its own power. Otherwise you get deviations in the rhythm-heat-energy constellation.’
‘Is that a fighter-jet canopy?’
‘Look,’ said Pavel, walking to a corner of the attic, where a hippopotamus seemed to be hiding under a tarpaulin. Having removed two sturdy clamps, he flipped back the canvas and began rattling like a telex machine: ‘Mikoyan-Gurevich-25. That’s a jet fighter. Lots of people write MIG, using all capitals, but that’s just wrong. It’s big M, little i, big G, because the M and i are the first letters of Mikoyan, and the G is for Gurevich. Speeds of up to Mach 3.2 when diving. That’s 3,600 kilometres per hour. That’s is incredibly fast, but our Lightship is quicker. This here is transparent acrylic and aluminium. Unbreakable with a hammer. Try it. Go ahead. The explosive hinges weren’t included, but I’ve got an electromotor off a factory gate that will pop it open in a jiffy.’
‘Did you paste all those in there?’ asked Jaroslav, pointing out the collage of newspaper clippings on the inside of the canopy.
‘Look,’ said Pavel, opening the canopy. The interior was decked with a collage of flames. Dropping the canopy with a thud, he walked over to the fiery portal on the slanted roof. ‘That goes here. Fire with fire! Cosmic camouflage!’
‘But you’ll still see the canopy from the outside,’ said Jaroslav.
‘What colour is the roof?’
‘Orange-ish?’ Jaroslav shrugged.
‘Exactly! Over there!’ said Pavel, pointing to a paint tin standing beside the tarpaulin. ‘You really are very clever, Engineer Formánek! Very, very clever indeed! I’ll let you help me. This electromotor goes where that light bulb is. That would be your job! You could do it!’
‘I’d be honoured,’ Jaroslav laughed. ‘But are you sure I’m worthy?’
‘Of course you are!’ said Pavel. ‘I have faith in your abilities. I’d give you the secret access code and your own bunch of keys. Then you could come up here whenever you want!’
And so they agreed that Jaroslav would contribute his technical skills, on condition that Pavel would keep an eye on Iveta while he was away. They then went straight down to Jaroslav’s apartment so that Pavel could meet Iveta. Winding their way downstairs, Jaroslav was pursued by a swarm of questions from Pavel, who wanted to be fully prepared for the encounter: ‘Does she lie in bed all day, like a queen? Does she look sick? Is she ugly or is she lovely? How does she pee and poo? Does she eat ordinary food? What’s her favourite beverage? Does she drink tea? I can make tea. And soup. Has she ever had Coca-Cola? That’s tasty, but Maminka says it’s very bad for your teeth. Does Iveta have any teeth?’
On arrival at the door, Pavel fell silent. ‘I can do this,’ he whispered to himself. ‘I can do this.’
Jaroslav said that they should go in quietly, as Iveta might be sleeping. Pavel nodded slowly, blinking wide-eyed like a child receiving instructions for a visit with Father Christmas. Then they tiptoed down the passage to the bedroom, where they found Iveta with a book on her lap, staring expectantly at the door. What followed was one of the most poignant meetings Jaroslav had ever witnessed. In the years thereafter, he would revisit it often when he needed to wash out his pent-up grief with tears.
‘It’s you,’ Pavel said softly, standing at the foot of the bed, as if he didn’t dare get any closer.
Iveta put her book aside, smiled at Jaroslav and then answered as if she knew exactly what Pavel meant: ‘Yes, it’s me, Iveta.’
‘You are made of love,’ Pavel said.
‘I hope so,’ she laughed.
‘You are Engineer Formánek’s queen.’
‘Am I?’ she asked, smiling at Jaroslav.
‘But you are dying.’
‘Yes,’ said Iveta. ‘We must all die in the end. But today I am still alive.’
‘Then you’ll move on,’ said Pavel.
‘Yes, probably,’ laughed Iveta.
‘I’ll be looking after you,’ said Pavel. ‘Engineer Formánek said I could.’
‘But only when I’m away,’ Jaroslav quickly added.
‘That would be lovely,’ said Iveta.
‘I feel you searching!’
‘Searching?’ said Iveta.
‘You’re searching for the right path. I can help you find it.’
‘That would be nice,’ said Iveta. ‘I’m not very good at searching, am I, Jaroslav?’
‘Not very, no,’ Jaroslav smiled.
‘I’m very good at searching!’ said Pavel. ‘I always find everything. I know where everything is!’
‘That sounds very handy,’ said Iveta.
‘Shall we check if we can hear you knocking on the wall with your stick?’ said Jaroslav.
‘You’re like a beautiful, little bird,’ said Pavel.
‘How kind of you to say so,’ said Iveta.
‘A small, sick bird,’ said Pavel.
Jaroslav laughed. ‘Come on, let’s go and listen.’
‘I’ll be back to look after you, Iveta Bird Queen,’ said Pavel, but he recoiled in horror when Iveta extended her hand. ‘I can’t touch you! You’ll be kicked out of your nest! I wouldn’t want that!’
‘You’re absolutely right,’ Iveta laughed. ‘That would be awful.’
‘I’m going with Engineer Formánek now, but I’m sure I’ll be able to hear you, because I don’t listen with my ears. That’s what Mrs Krejzlová always said: ‘You never listen, Pavel, but you hear everything.’ She died here, in this room. But I will save you, Iveta Bird Queen.’