When Every Neighbor’s a Firecracker: Seeing People Off by Jana Beňová

Paige Webb

Translated by Janet Livingstone. Columbus, OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2017. 126 pages. $14.99.

Petržalka is that seedier part of town just past the river, the entrance marked by an amusement park where children are flung from mechanical swans and cry as they clutch plastic horses on the merry-go-round. The carny turns up the speed, saying, “This is what I call life.” To live there is to “keep marching on,” as Jana Beňová writes: “We stroll to avoid company and patiently, step by step, to evoke a feeling of freedom. In reality, we’re members of a carousel sect with rigid rules of the circle.”

In an interview, after winning the European Prize for Literature, Beňová describes Petržalka as “blocks of flats,” as though the district is one oversized apartment complex. The borough is in Bratislava, Slovakia—once annexed by Nazi Germany, it was the site of a labor camp, then an internment camp—and is filled with unglamorous, enormous, high-rise apartments designed for a tightly concentrated population. This is the primary location of Beňová’s novel Seeing People Off and perhaps its most powerful character, one haunted by its Gestapo past and teeming with tenants inside walls that are far too thin. Every raucous and sacred sound penetrates those walls: porn screams through one, while an old man (a “firecracker”) blares his weeping as loud as his TV and ex-lovers dramatize their final curses on a balcony. Then there’s the muezzins bouncing their calls to prayer off every corner. The people and their voices crowd the district, wedging characters in, breaking down their relationships and sanity.

Seeing People Off encompasses all of these voices but focuses on Elza and her three friends—the Quartet. They are artists who have set up their own economic system, their so-called Trinity Foundation, in which one of them works for a time to support the other three. It is their attempt to isolate themselves from Petržalka’s “carousel sect” way of life. They lounge with wine at the Café Hyena instead, carefree and excessive, “people who buy only what they can pee, poop, and blow out—recycle in 24 hours.” Despite the real grit in and surrounding their lives, Beňová doesn’t excuse their bohemian affectation. They never get the freedom they seek. While “Café Hyena” is the subtitle of this book’s first edition (2008), the days of lazing around the café are only one thread in this web of stories. In fact, the “novel” seems to be composed of interlocking flash fiction. Some call it a mosaic, which also rings true: an assemblage of stories where the points of view shift among members of the Quartet, forming this portrait of life in Petržalka. But just when you sense an overall narrative arc—such as one of the Quartet’s descent into insanity—Seeing People Off pulls back, wagging a surreal finger.

These stories, then, don’t culminate. They accrue, each in their own brilliance. We see Elza and her partner, Ian, buying a sack full of rat poison from a twitchy man in a wine cellar; see their friend’s carnivalesque stint in a psychiatric ward under the care of Dr. Typhoon; Elza’s job working at a (flailing) reality television show that reenacts life at a concentration camp (with the air of a youth summer camp); Elza as a child, euthanizing her family’s “Nazi” dog that has bitten so many in the face; Elza chasing down Ian’s dying mother with the woman’s false teeth; Elza’s palms bitten by Ian’s mother. Each story is told with flat certainty, deadpan humor, and irony—we never know what’s coming next. “It’s okay,” Ian says while they’re lost on a road trip, “according to The Way of Not Knowing, you’ll reach enlightenment and save all living beings from their suffering.”

These characters are continually getting lost, physically and mentally. In this way, Petržalka feels like the mirror maze featured at its amusement park. And the structure of Seeing People Off enacts the feeling of moving through this borough. Compiled, these stories behave much like a labyrinthine apartment building (which way to the next story, please?—oh, down the other hall). The book takes on this structure in its aversion to conventional narrative, in its associative leaps from story to story, in its loosely patterned tropes. It even has some dead ends and alternate pathways. The third chapter ends with a dramatically boldfaced “The End,” and the fifth ends, “The Second End.” A later chapter is titled “The End (of childhood and youth).” When Elza murders her dog, we are given two endings; each version feels real in its rich detail, as if both occurred.

Rather than getting lost, the reader moves along the serpentine path and is rewarded with glimmers of the unexpected. This structure (as well as the editorial footnotes) recalls Jorge Luis Borges—his Labyrinths—who in fact gets a cameo: he’s the neighbor accused of throwing balls into another’s lawn. But Seeing People Off isn’t interested in tightly bound, erudite puzzles (as with Borges). Instead, it has the loose effusion of poets like Whitman or Ginsberg (who also makes an appearance; he’s paid to walk the streets in an effort to boost tourism). Seeing People Off is at once gritty yet beautiful, intelligent yet unpretentious, with a strange humor reminiscent of Daniil Kharms but with more tenderness.

Over the course of Seeing People Off, these stories move from strange to surreal—magical realism also comes to mind—but these labels don’t quite capture the portrait of this Slavic borough and its characters. In Café Hyena, Elza reads from her novel Seeing People Off to disturbed patrons; one member of the Quartet develops (almost imperceptible) telekinesis after working as a tennis line judge for too long; and imaginary friends make more than a few appearances. Near the end of the book, Elza watches an erratic seven-year-old on a mechanical toy horse—the boy is Ian: “In twelve years they would see each other again at Café Hyena and that very evening would sleep together in Petržalka . . . And Ian would begin to grow old seven times faster than usual.” The characters’ frequent dreams are just one or two notches higher on the surrealist spectrum than the novel’s landscape.

In this landscape, this place where people live uncomfortably close, Beňová speaks to the ways we “see people off.” It’s less like the ritual of a goodbye and more like Ian and Elza arguing about a B movie while his mother passes away in the next room. There’s no room in Petržalka for sentimentality. Instead, these stories explore death and other kinds of leaving in wry, fresh ways. The end of childhood, the end of an affair, the end of sanity—when I arrived at the end of this book, I found myself returning to the beginning. This is a merry-go-round one can hold on to.

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