“Two days ago---Saturday---we find you in the middle of Cÿeské Budeÿjovice, walking the main street in a daze. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. You don’t have the documents to be in Cÿeské Budeÿjovice, because you’re supposed to be here, in Prague. You’re a student of . . .” The Slovak officer bent over the table, the ceiling lamp shining on his hairless scalp as he squinted at his clipboard. “Musicology. A musician?”
“I study theory,” said Peter, “but I don’t play.”
“I see.” As the officer stood, his chair scratched the stone floor. “I’m not a mystic, comrade; I can’t read minds. So, before sitting down with you here, I ask the faculty; I ask your roommate, this Josef. A feisty one, he is. Almost spits in my face when he tells me you’re in Austria by now---safe from the Russian tanks that, as he puts it, will never crush the flowers of Prague’s spring.” The officer rubbed the edge of his long nose, mustache twitching. “But headstrong Josef is wrong, because by the time of his rash statement you’re back in Prague, aren’t you? Our esteemed Warsaw Pact comrade-soldiers have brought you and other sundry hooligans back from the Austrian border. Funny, no?”
He blinked twice, waiting, but Peter didn’t answer.
“According to your roommate, you left on the twentieth of August, just before the liberating tanks arrived. With your two friends. And now---Josef Kucera tells me---you’re all free.” The officer tapped a brief rhythm on the tabletop. “Josef tells me that you and your friends will take the plight of Czechoslovakia to the ears of the world. He’s very melodramatic, don’t you think?”
Ten minutes earlier, this Slovak officer had introduced himself as Comrade Captain Poborsky, but Peter had trouble matching that name to the bald, mustached uniform that squatted beside him and rapped knuckles on the table.
“Yes,” Peter told him. “Josef can sometimes be melodramatic.”
Captain Poborsky stood again. “Now, I feel relatively sure, at least, of who you are. Peter Husák, student of musicology, amateur rabble-rouser. We have reports on you---nothing deeply troubling, just the occasional demonstration against Russian . . . occupation, as you put it. Would you put it that way?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Trust me. As a man who works closely with the Russians, I can honestly inform you that their intent here is not occupation, nor is it to control us---a country simply cannot control the actions of another. No, their intent is normalization. The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic had already been invaded before the twentieth of August---by ideologues and saboteurs from the West. They just didn’t use tanks. And the Warsaw Pact soldiers you see around here, they’re volunteers from all the People’s Republics, helping us to begin the process of normalization. Nineteen sixty-eight will go down as the year Western expansionism was stopped in its tracks.” He tilted his head. “You’re a bright kid, I can tell that. You know what I’m talking about.”
Poborsky---and this was hardest to believe---winked.
“I’m less interested in your minor transgressions---under the sway, of course, of foreign influences---than in the identity of your friends. The ones you left with. I’ll find out soon enough, but you might as well tell me now. You see, with those open borders we have no idea who’s in or out of the country. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare. You can imagine.”
Peter affirmed this with a quick nod.
Peter focused beyond the bald Státn’ bezpecÿnost, or simply StB, officer to the corner of the damp room. From there, Poborsky’s assistant, a stocky Czech worker with a three-day beard, had stared at Peter during the whole talk. He looked tired in the eyes, because Peter was only one of hundreds he’d had to manhandle from their humid cells down to this cool basement over the last week.
“Peter,” said Captain Poborsky. “I don’t have all day.”
“Toman. My best friend. Toman Samulka.”
The state security officer produced a pencil and a notepad from his breast pocket. “Toman’s twenty-two as well?”
“And the other friend?”
Saying Toman’s name was as simple as revealing your favorite brand of beer. Budweiser Budvar. Bood-vahr, almost liking it merely for the rhythm of the name.
“Come on.” Captain Poborsky bent so his hands were on his knees and he was looking into Peter’s face. “Our prisons are bloated, but that has no effect on how many jokers we send to them.”
“You’re not lying to me, right?”
“Of course not.”
“And where are they now?”
“You’re sure of this?”
“I watched them cross over.”
“What about me?”
“You’re not in Austria,” said the captain, “though that’s why you left Prague. Your two comrades, Toman and Ivana, they made it. And you---as you’ve admitted---were there to watch them cross the border. Why did you stay behind?”
“Because . . .” Peter had talked himself into this lie without thinking, and now he’d have to hold on to it. “I don’t know why.”
“Do you regret your decision?”
“Sitting here, now, in this claustrophobic room. Do you regret your decision to remain in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic?”
Peter raised his head to look at the officer squarely, because this might save him. “No,” he said. “I’d never leave my country.”
They held him two more days in a hot cell with ten other students who had been picked up in western Czechoslovakia on their way to Austria, but the questions were over. He sat against the stone wall, sweating, and listened to his fellow prisoners, their pronouncements of outrage and their honest but short-lived bursts of fear. Daniel, a Slovak philologist, announced that he was going underground as soon as they let him out. “There’ll be partisans, you can bet on it. And I’ll join them. Fucking Russians.”
The tanks had entered Prague on the night of 20 August, last Tuesday. The crowds that over that heady spring and summer had filled the streets, forming impromptu committees and rallies to reevaluate socialism in their country, came out once again, now to debate theories of socialist independence with soldiers on the backs of tanks. Dubcÿek had insisted that no one fight the soldiers---he didn’t want another Budapest---and so in nearly all cases the arguments were only verbal.
But Peter had seen none of it. As soon as the tanks were sighted in the suburbs, he and Toman and Ivana loaded up their rucksacks and packed themselves into the back of a Russian ZIL truck Toman’s father had borrowed from his factory. That only took them as far as Tábor, where the engine gave out. Toman’s father kissed all their cheeks, wiped away a single tear, and took the train back to Prague. Then they began to walk.
When the prisoners’ lectures went on, Peter smiled and nodded but seldom spoke. He had marched with these kinds of people before the tanks arrived, never really understanding the slogans. He understood the language---socialismu lidskou tvár, socialism with a human face, was one of his favorites---but politics and economics had never been in his sphere of interest. He’d grown up in this system, and it was because of this system that he’d been able to leave that miserable farm in Encs and begin studies in Prague. Yet he marched, because, more than language or even music, he was interested in Ivana Vogler, girlfriend of his oldest friend, Toman. When she announced that it was time for them all to become politically involved, he learned to march and shout as if he knew what it was all about.
“You’re not a spy, are you?”
Peter looked up as Daniel squatted beside him. “What?”
The philologist scratched his ten-day beard. “You sit here and listen to everything we say, as if you’re collecting information. Where did you resist?”
“I tried to get out. To Austria.”
“But you didn’t make it?”
“The soldiers caught up with me.”
Daniel glanced back at the others in the cell. “Did they get anything out of you? Names?”
“I didn’t have any names to give.”
“So you’re one of us?” He grinned. “A hooligan?”
“I marched,” said Peter. “I signed petitions. I suppose that makes me a hooligan, too.”
Copyright © 2006 by Olen Steinhauer