The title of Pavlína Zemanová collection of illustrations is a perfect example of what Poles mean when they say Czech sounds childish to them, as if the language is automatically all diminutives. In the New English File Upper-Intermediate course book, which I used plenty of while teaching English here in Kraków (it’s a classic of the trade), there was a listening exercise based around the 2002 floods in Prague. A snippet of a radio broadcast was used, and as the broadcaster began speaking Czech the students would start giggling confusedly, often unable to locate the Slavic tongue while giggling at what sounded like a Polish riddled with diminutives.
Vzpomínky (“Memories“) isn’t that far from the Polish wspomnienia, but that –ínky can make a difference when examining the technique used here. What are we dealing with between the title and these drawings, could they really be portrayals of little memories that factor in this slight mistranslation? Would this littleness signify just smallness, or immateriality, or even triviality? There is a sentimentality possible as well, as in, “hold on to your dear, little, tender memories, they’re all you’ve got,” but this is a patronizing, saccharine approach that should surely be avoided.
Leaving the misreading of the title aside – as well as a potential political reading, as the photo manipulation in Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting immediately springs to mind – it is most useful to look at the space in these drawings and make a quick skip (whether graceful or jerky, I known not) from memory to forgetting. Is the positive space in Zemanová’s drawings the mnemonic and the negative space the forgetting, is it that simple? It is the negative space that remains most powerful, after all, interminably undefinable, but not so opaque that we cannot search for the little forgetting under the surface.
Little forgetting, minor, insignificant forgetting, trivial, even – how to identify this, attach some specific objects to it? Isn’t sifting through whatever substance there may be of the negative space – the space of the little forgetting – just the same as dredging up some quickly flickering memories, searching actively from a desire to produce recollection, to record it textually or in someone’s ear? But what really is produced and recorded, what happens in the negative space? If we think of negative space instead in terms of mandates, little forgetting becomes a series of desires to forget, and these desires may at least be outlined, regardless of the degree of longing or supposed trauma involved, and regardless of the visual (or, in this case, textual) finality.
Forget the ones around no less than those who have left. Forget the cat that can see you through the window. Forget waking up to two men in your room on the other side of the river, near Vítězná at dawn, as they grabbed your wallet and ran. Forget that lump in your throat, that baseball in her stomach. Forget what it is like in the other country. Forget the products you work for, who buys them and what they do. Forget picking strawberries with him. Forget her graham-cracker cake with the coffee icing. Forget that undrinkable śliwowica. Forget that meathead cabby chasing you down Dlouhá with a billy-club, you tripping on the cobblestones in your orange Saucony sneakers, him trying to pull you into his taxi to throw you in the river. Forget the dances to Parno Graszt. Forget riding with a bunch of vodka-reeking soldiers in the dining car on the night train from Poznań. Forget your outrage fatigue. Forget reading three-fourths of A Short History of Decay. Forget your hand shaking and the absinthe dribbling fire on the bar your first time there with A. Forget eating too much fried cheese with Gambrinus. Forget P cycling from Amsterdam to your place in the fourth district, his stories of singing to himself, him dropping his camera in the Vltava. Forget your anxiety over being cursed in front of the Hlavní Nádraží. Forget the “super central location” and that wonderfully hot shower. Forget listening to some psych-rock radio station while trying without success to make a decent spaghetti sauce. Forget N with a bottle of Cisowianka on a train from Warszawa Centralna. Forget seeing the early morning moon sinister over the city on the train from Nyugati Pályaudvar. Forget hightailing it to Vyskočilova to stay at the engineer’s, how he spoke no English and made you weak tea, or at the old lady’s who spoke French and had barely any hot water. Forget the relief you felt each time you left.