Farewell to Agneša Kalinová: No Tears, Only Laughter!

Agneša Kalinová, a Slovak intellectual of world stature, is suddenly no longer with us and the time around her has vanished. All that is left is her concentrated timeless essence.

It is often said that when people die, they see a film of their whole life flash before them in a single moment. Maybe it is true; we have no way of verifying it empirically. But when someone who has been part of our life dies, this is exactly what is triggered in our heads and time comes to a standstill. Since Agneša Kalinová has gone, time around her has vanished and I see her the way she was a long time ago, I hear laughter, fragments of conversations, I see her handbag, her shoes. I see her some forty years ago as she gets into her white Škoda in Kúpeľná Street, starts the engine, steps on the gas and speeds off to go to a swimming pool, leaving her Peking duck roasting in the oven. Why waste your life hanging around the kitchen to make sure nothing goes wrong with a duck in the oven! In the middle of summer! I can even picture Ági as a young girl, the way I have never actually seen her. And simultaneously, I also see her engrossed in a newspaper, in a photo taken a few days ago, austerely graceful, like Jeanne Moreau.

All of a sudden Ági Kalinová is no longer with us and time around her has vanished. All that’s left is her concentrated, timeless essence. A star that is unattainable and, unlike us, eternal.

Yesterday [the feminist publisher] Aspekt bid her farewell by quoting her own words from Jana Juráňová’s book My Seven Lives: in Conversation with Agneša Kalinová: “I was brought up never to cry in public; this is what my father and my governess, Adrienne, drilled into me. That was how you were meant to show self-control. But nobody told me I should also suppress my laughter.”

I think she might be the only one of her generation of Slovak journalists capable of such a punchline. It sums up Ági and her triumph: the triumphant story of her battle for dignity in demeaning times and in a demeaning backwater that passed from one humiliating regime to another. When she was sixteen, the Slovak Republic gradually forbade her, among other things, to go skiing, go to cafés, go swimming and finally, to live. Then it murdered both her parents. She never talked much about it; after all, she had been brought up not to cry in public, and speaking about these things really amounts to crying.

However, nobody told her to suppress her laughter! In our neck of the woods laughter is quite a special source of defiance and in the early days of the 1970s normalization a high culture of laughter was cultivated in the Kalina home. It was their family brand. The walls of their apartment in Kúpeľná Street were lined with books from floor to ceiling, and any remaining surfaces were covered with famous cabaret posters. And above the sofa in the study two white masks laughed at each other—I think I may have found them slightly scary, the two household gods, the Czech comedians Voskovec and Werich.

Their apartment was famous because those who visited it could feel they were still in Europe, part of a civilization of humor and irony, where it was normal to behave as if we were free, because the hosts were free. Even the food they served was different, more exotic. People loved this apartment; it was like a bomb shelter that was safe from boredom, greyness, even fear. Even the toilet was brightened up by a psychedelic picture: circles of orange, green and red, which constantly changed color as you moved.

Of all Bratislava intellectuals—proponents of Socialism with a Human Face—no other family had been the target of such uncompromising punishment by the 1970s normalization regime as the Kalinas. Not only were they banned from pursuing their profession, they were also thrown into jail just for good measure. As their 18-year-old daughter Julka was about to graduate from high school, both her parents were imprisoned: for incitement, right-wing extremism and for organizing a Zionist group. And although Julka graduated with top grades, she was never accepted by any university. Why were the Kalinas singled out as a special target of the regime’s hatred? Was it because they viewed life with humor and detachment, something that stupid people instinctively fear? Or was it because all power, however dim, is guided by an unfailing instinct that assured them they could always rely on an undercurrent of Slovak anti-Semitism and that persecuting the Kalinas would serve as a warning to others. And sure enough, some of their ex-colleagues and friends were so intimidated that they preferred to cross over to the other side of the street when they saw Ági coming. When Julka’s application for university was turned down the fifth or sixth time and it became obvious that she would never be accepted, they decided to do something that the secret police didn’t object to: they applied for permission to emigrate and went into exile in Germany, leaving Bratislava all the more provincial and desolate.

Those who listened to Radio Free Europe in the 1980s knew her from her political commentaries. Originally, in the 1960s, while working for the Kultúrny život [Cultural Weekly], Agneša Kalinová wrote mostly on film, offering a window into the unfettered art and the world of European cinema. It’s worth checking out her articles about the demolition of Podhradie (the old quarter below Bratislava Castle) written at the time Kultúrny život waged a battle for the future shape of Bratislava—arguing whether Bratislava would become a “small metropolis” or a “large backwater.” The position she took is thoroughly modern and intellectually incisive; it hasn’t dated, though half a century has passed since.

Right after the revolution, as soon as it became possible, she got into her car in Munich and set out for Bratislava. I remember that she got slightly lost around Schwechat airport, having taken a wrong turn. She was confused by a sign that declared, in large letters, FISCHAMEND (a small village in Austria near the border), failing to spot the tiny letters underneath that read “Bratislava”—perhaps in those days Fischamend was more of a magnet than Bratislava. She fumed about the sign only briefly, in an understanding way—exploding but fizzling out very quickly, as was her custom. It may have been the first thing she told us when we met, explaining why she was late coming home: the big Fischamend and the tiny Bratislava. We can still hear the fast, urgent cadences of her voice that was unlike any other voice in the world, with a husky giggle at the end. It might be this sentence about the traffic sign that still rings most vividly, most authentically in my mind. It was an improbable, unbelievable, dreamy moment—she was back after eleven years, yet it felt as if she’d only been gone for a few days. Her return was the ultimate proof that we had regained our freedom, not partly but completely, the kind of freedom we had no longer dared to hope for.

Agneša Kalinová turned 90 in July this year. Instead of a big celebration in Bratislava she clinked glasses with her daughter Julka in a Munich hospital. The champagne was a birthday gift from the Mayor of Munich.

Over the past 25 years she visited Bratislava several times a year, always rushed off her feet, dashing from one meeting to the next, from morning till night, to fit in coffees and lunches with all the friends who absolutely had to meet her, at least for a little while: she would have hated to offend anyone. Then, in the evening, off to the theatre or a concert, to make sure she didn’t miss out on anything important. When you met Ági for a coffee you would learn about all the interesting things that were happening in Bratislava at that moment, what play had just opened, what book had been published. When I told her I had seen a fantastic film set, say, in Ethiopia, she would tell me right away who had directed it. She was interested in everything. I don’t know anyone else who was so passionately interested in the whole world, in anything and everything. It might have been a waterfall in the Jamnická Valley or a street in Saint-Germain, a café, a little souvenir shop, a Romanesque church with an exhibition of Fra Angelico miniatures. It was always a joy to be with her because she showed us that the world must be interesting enough for the rest of us, too, and that we too have the chance to keep enjoying it, even though we could never possess her grace, elegance and flair.

All her life she really seemed to have been a character from a French movie. Over the years her friends were relieved to discover that she never changed. She was always herself: and the more she was interested in the world, the more she knew about it. And that’s what the trick was: the more she knew about the world, the more she was able to enjoy it, worry about it, be upset or happy, because once you reach a certain degree of erudition, every new tidbit of information that someone else might not find at all interesting, will fit in with all the other bits, giving it meaning, confirming it or mystifying us, turning itself into a revelation.

In her last photograph Ági is holding a German broadsheet: perhaps she is reading an analysis of the forthcoming Scottish referendum, maybe she has just skimmed the news from eastern Ukraine or Iraq. Or a review. I’m sure it was exactly the way it looks in the photo, that this is what she is fully focused on in this natural, normal moment. Illness, exhaustion, dying, all that is just a trivial, boring obstacle, a distraction. An annoying, a dreadfully annoying detail.

It may sound a bit absurd but I’m sure that all of Ági’s friends now feel sort of cheated that the miracle only lasted ninety years, even though everything seemed to indicate that it would last forever. She will never again tell us anything funny or angry in her urgent, hoarse voice, grabbing us by the elbow, and all we can do is weep with self-pity or kick the furniture (depending on how we were brought up). What consolation is it that a first-class star now shines in our imagined firmament? A cliché comes to mind—clichés can be quite apposite—that with Agneša Kalinová a whole generation has now left Czechoslovakia for good. And a disagreeable, worrying question suggests itself: what will we radiate, we who are still here and haven’t yet retired? How many battles, how much humor, grace and defiance, how much inquisitiveness and dignity do we have to our credit? How much will remain of us when the physical substance of our own lives finally dissipates?

Marta Frišová

Marta Frišová is a journalist, editor, and interpreter. She was editor-in-chief of the Czecho-Slovak weekly Mosty (Bridges), and worked at the weekly Domino-Fórum as well as the daily SME. Jointly with Andrea Puková she edited Fórum, a supplement of the daily SME, and since 2007 has co-edited the online journal salon.eu.sk, and co-organized the Central European Forum, an annual conference held in Bratislava every November.

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