So it begins like this: it is the end of a school day, and I am dragging my steps on the third floor of the English Department building, when I come across the wall of posters on the bulletin board. Course descriptions and graduate program notices – I would not have stopped, I know it, but one of the posters is tacked at an angle. My eye catches this small deviance among the neat crowd, my head turns of its own accord, and my momentum stops. A large black and white photograph of a man in a military suit and a shiny cap dominates every inch of the poster. Where his face might have been is only a mass of opaque smoke. “Reality and fiction, do they mix?” asks the black print on the bottom. The answer is to be found in the Old Chem building at 6pm the next evening.
I am intrigued; the next evening I walk down a series of steps to a deserted hallway. I have never been down this sterile hallway before. Old Chem is the home of the statistics department, a place I associate with hunched backs and dry numbers. I hesitate in the doorway of a room. Am I in the right place? There are fifteen people congregated, and only two of them around my age. I stand near the tray of foodstuffs, filling my plate with a single broccoli and a pink cupcake. The broccoli juices pool unpleasantly, and I set my plate down. Very soon, it becomes obvious I have intruded on a book club. The mysterious poster of the smoky man is actually the cover for a book called hhHh, a meta-fiction depiction of a writer’s investigation into the assassination of a prominent Nazi official. “I couldn’t get through it,” somebody whispers in the corner. “Could you?”
The suit makes sense now. I know nothing of German history, or the author, or why the author has written this book. I look around for a place to throw away my food, so I can leave before anybody notices. But a man with kind eyes and salt-and-pepper hair catches my eye. There is no reason for me to stay. I am not even sure I follow the subject. But there is a magnetic quality about this man who has noticed my discomfort. And I am curious. The room is thrumming with the kind of energy that controversial books will sometimes ignite. An intuition in me grows stronger by the minute. To leave this room would be a terrible mistake. So I sit my sad plate of broccoli beside the man. We begin making pleasant conversation, commenting on the other guests and the selection of food.
“And what do you do?” I ask him. He pauses, and his mouth quirks.
“I suppose I teach,” he says. “I used to teach in some very bad neighborhoods in Paris, high school English. It was not a safe thing to do.”
I am about to pursue this line of questioning, but then an older woman in tweed stands up and claps her hands.
“How excited we are today to welcome Laurent Binet, the author of this wonderful post-modern novel!”
She beams at the man beside me, and gestures for him to stand up. I stop fidgeting. Laurent Binet does not look at me. I can only see one side of his face, but it seems to mock me. Binet thanks the woman for the introduction and launches into an overview of the novel’s main themes. The heat is pooling under my skin. When Binet begins answering questions from the audience, I crumple my plate and duck out. His eyes follow me as I leave.
Registration for the next semester begins that evening, and on a whim, I click a course on writing creative non-fiction. The professor mentions Laurent Binet’s book in a long list of postmodern writings during the introductory first lecture. The other students doodle, but I sit straighter in my seat. The professor does not allude to it again. I forget all about Binet. I write trial pieces, little vignettes on traveling that I submit to the school newspaper. They get published, with no fanfare, but every now and then I receive emails from people who have read them. They remind me of my trip to Russia last summer, a woman writes. You should write more. They’re too long, another asserts. One man writes to invite me to coffee. I do not respond for three days, reading his email over again, starting replies and then deleting them. A feeling of déjà vu emerges; it is the conviction again, originless and overpowering. To refuse this offer would be a mistake. Without thinking too much, I email back the location of a nearby coffee bar. Since I arrive first, I order an Americano, black as coal. When the man walks in, ten minutes late, I am surprised that he is also an undergraduate, like me. Somehow, from the formal tone of his emails, I imagined a sober adult but he is my age, dressed in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He has a nice curving smile that I like instantly and a melodic roll to his voice. I do not ask him where he is from, because I dislike it when others ask me that question. But my face does not match my voice, while his will always match. Eventually he volunteers the information himself.
“I grew up in Prague, but my parents are American,” he explains. “Sometimes it confuses people.”
I have only a vague sense of Prague, associating it with luxury, but he is a good storyteller and as our undrunk coffee cools, he sketches out the city to me, the bridges running parallel across each river, the golden hands of the astronomical clock in the city’s central square, the old houses to the south that bunch together in clusters of red roofs.
“And above it all, Prague castle rests on top. But you must climb hundreds of steps to get to there.” he laughs.
By the time he sits back, his work is done and my mind has cached a glorious image. We go on one more date, to a nice restaurant in the downtown area. Although the seeds of attraction are there and the conversation is good, we do not make plans for a third date. The next day he calls me to tell me that his mother is sick and he has to return to Prague for a week.
“I hope things get better.” I say. He promises to call me when he returns to the states. I never hear from him again.
I go to England in the summer to intern for a publishing house in Kings Cross and my supervisor assigns me to a project for an urban development book. I am trawling through a travel site for photos of cities to include, when I discover cheap plane tickets to Prague. A picturesque image rises in my mind, a draft of the city, lightly sketched. I click to pay then and there. I stuff one pair of walking shoes in a bag and this is how I end up wandering in an area by the Charles Bridge. It is nothing like the city in my mind’s imagination. I thought of Prague as a pretty little town, overshadowed by the bleakness of the surrounding landscape. Instead, it exudes grandeur and pomp. Nothing has been withheld in the building of this city. The churches are tall and imposing, a composite of arches and spires and carvings. The walls of the houses are shades of competing pastel; the gates are edged with gold. Even the Starbucks is a triumphant thing of beauty, blue walls and elegant windows. Women on the street wear electric-blue eye shadow and pink skirts. The clashing colors confuse my eyes. My neck begins to ache from the craning after the first few hours, and the rubber soles of my shoes slip on the hard cobblestones. An intersection of sloping alleyways emerges. I consider making a left and follow the right instead. Right where the road crosses under the Charles Bridge is an English bookstore, a hole in the wall with smoky paperbacks and glossy covers fanned out on tables. Face up in the spread, lying demurely, is Laurent Binet’s book. A man jostles my left arm as he passes because I have halted so abruptly. But here it is. The same mysterious figure, the same smoky intrigue. The Czech bookseller notices me looking, and he moves eagerly from behind the counter.
“It’s a very good book, I’ve heard. Po-mo is very popular now,” he says with a bare trace of accent.
I pick up the book. It’s not slim but it fits neatly in my hand. The old obscured face, the remembered flush of embarrassment. Perhaps the bookseller thinks I will buy it. He waits near me with an expectant air. There is an odd, discordant throb in my head. I want tell this Czech man next to me, another close human being, how unsettling it is that Binet’s book has followed me here, from a poster on a bulletin board to this street by the Charles Bridge.
“I met the writer of this book, but I didn’t know at the time.” I say, stroking the cover. “ I mistook him for some one else.”
“I once mistook a man in the street for my brother,” the bookseller says. “It happens to all of us.”
I tell him I want to buy it, and he wraps it in blue paper for me. It is mine.
When I return to the hostel, I sit down with another traveler who is sleeping in the same 12-bed room, an older Italian woman. She is also alone. She has an airy attitude that I admire, chatting to everyone in a charming, interested manner, but befriending no one. I think about how many hostel living rooms she must have passed through to master such a technique.
“Twenty-six,” she tells me when I ask her. Her name is Francesca. “And that is why I have no savings.”
“But you are now rich in a thousand other ways,” I say.
Francesca looks at me more closely and an expression glints in her eyes, something like pity, or maybe understanding.
“Most days, I think so. But you leave so many people behind too. It has been hard, to leave the people you love behind. But I would not do this any other way. It is a sacrifice to see the places of the world, but it was what I wanted – always I wanted it.”
She pats my arm. “It is good, to be alone and traveling like this. Be careful. I know how it was, when I was your age.”
Francesca spends the next hour regaling me with stories of her encounters with men. At some point, the manageress conjures up some cold bottles of Kozel beer from behind the front desk for 20 czk, and we buy three each. We are both bent-over, laughing, when a group of New Zealanders approach us and ask if we would like to go out with them to a bar.
Francesca refers to me. “Mi’amica. Shall we?”
“I’m a little tired. I might stay and read a little.” I say.
“Well, I could do with one more drink before I go to sleep!” she declares. “Let’s go boys. Or is it mates? Do you use that too or is it just my Australian friend here?”
The New Zealanders are delighted with Francesca’s easy manner. They arrange to meet her in the living room and leave to change their shirts.
Binet’s book is still in its crinkled blue package. I pull it out, but somehow cannot bring myself to open it, just yet. I remember Binet’s eyes following my escape from the classroom. Somehow, I think he has forgiven me.
“You bought that book?” Francesca takes a sip from the Kozel, and pulls a face. “My friend is a friend with the man who wrote it. I think I tried to read it but it was too much for my English. Do you like it?”
“I don’t know.” I say. “I think so.”