the psychopathology of collecting: bruce chatwin’s utz

Bruce Chatwin’s 1988 novel Utz takes place in Communist Prague of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The narrator is an anonymous British art historian who travels to the city to research a pathological sixteenth-century art collector, Rudolf II of Habsburg. However, the narrator soon becomes enthralled with the Sudeten German Baron Kaspar Joachim Utz, who ekes out his days in a shabby two-room apartment in the historic centre of Prague. Utz considers defecting to the West, but realizing he cannot take his collection of Meissen porcelain with him, he becomes a knowing yet helpless prisoner of it . . .

 

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Persecuted first by the German Gestapo because of his Jewish ancestors, then by the Communist secret police as a member of the nobility, Utz, almost as nondescript as Franz Kafka’s K., appears to be an admirable survival artist. However, the motives for his own actions are unveiled as questionable whenever Chatwin affords him the opportunity to express his philosophy of life: Wars, pogroms and revolutions . . . offer excellent opportunities for the collector. With maniacal single-mindedness, the consummate aesthete Utz measures everything around him — the Stock Market Crash or the Reichskristallnach — according to its consequences for his exceptional collection of Meissen porcelain, which the Czechoslovak government has allowed him to keep until his death, due to the dearth of specialists on the subject and the lack of museum space. For his collection of approximately 1,000 porcelain figurines (porcelain serves as the central metaphor for the fragility of European culture in a century characterised by two world wars and the cold war) Utz is even ready to risk his life. Indeed, he is completely obsessed by his prized possessions and has become, according to Chatwin’s own theory of nomadology as laid out in The Songlines (1987), an example of the civilisatory illnesses which exist because western man continues to repress his instinctive migratory drive and remains unnaturally sedentary.

—from Richard Utz (a Borgesian coincidence!), "Utz," The Literary Encyclopedia: http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=8579


UTZ

 

Bruce Chatwin


Published in 1989


For Diana Phipps


An hour before dawn on March 7th 1974, Kaspar Joachim Utz died of a second and long-expected stroke, in his apartment at No. 5 Siroką Street, overlooking the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

Three days later, at 7.45 a.m., his friend Dr Vaclav Orlik was standing outside the Church of St Sigismund, awaiting the arrival of the hearse and clutching seven of the ten pink carnations he had hoped to afford at the florist’s. He noted with approval the first signs of spring. In a garden across the street, jackdaws with twigs in their beaks were wheeling above the lindens, and now and then a minor avalanche would slide from the pan tiled roof of a tenement.

While Orlik waited, he was approached by a man with a curtain of grey hair that fell below the collar of his raincoat.

‘Do you play the organ?’ the man asked in a catarrhal voice.

‘I fear not,’ said Orlik.

‘Nor do I,’ the man said, and shuffled off down a side-street.

At 7.57 a.m., the same man unbolted from inside the immense baroque doors of the Church. Without a nod to Orlik he then climbed into the organ loft and, seating himself amid its choir of giltwood and trumpeting angels, began to play a funeral march composed of the two sonorous chords he had learned the day before: from the organist who was too lazy to stir from bed at this hour and had found, in the janitor, a replacement.

At 8 a.m., the hearse — a Tatra 603 — drew up outside the steps: in order to divert the People’s attention from retrograde Christian rituals, the authorities had decreed that all baptisms, weddings and funerals must be over by 8.30. Three of the pall-bearers got out, and helped each other open the rear door.

Utz had planned his own funeral with meticulous care. A blanket of white carnations covered the oak coffin — although he had not foreseen the wreath of Bolshevik vulgarity that had been placed on top: red poinsettias, red gladioli, red satin ribbon and a frieze of shiny laurel leaves. A card offered condolences (to whom?) from the Director of the Rudolfine Museum and his staff.

Orlik added his modest tribute.

A second Tatra brought the three remaining pallbearers. They had squeezed themselves into the front seat beside the chauffeur while, on the back seat, sat a solitary woman in black, her black veil awash with tears. Since none of the men showed any inclination to help her, she pushed the door open and, shaking with grief, almost fell onto the slushy cobbles.

To relieve the pressure on her bunions the sides of her shoes were slit open.

Recognising her as Utz’s faithful servant Marta, Orlik rushed to her assistance — and she, collapsing onto his shoulder, allowed him to escort her. When he attempted to carry her brown leatherette bag, she wrenched it from his grasp.

The bearers — employees of a rubber factory who worked night-shift and doubled for the undertaker by day — had shouldered the coffin and were advancing up the main aisle: to music that reminded Orlik of the tramp of soldiers on parade.

Halfway to the altar the procession met the cleaning woman, who, with soap, water and a scrubbing-brush, was scrubbing at the blazon of the Rožmberk family, inlaid into the floor in many-coloured marbles.

The leading bearer asked the woman, most politely, to allow the coffin to pass. She scowled and went on scrubbing.

The bearers had no alternative but to take a left turn between two pews, a right turn up the side aisle, and another right to pass the pulpit. Eventually, they arrived before the altar where a youngish priest, his surplice stained with sacramental wine, was anxiously biting his fingernails.

They set down the coffin with a show of reverence. Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast leaving Orlík and the faithful Marta as the only mourners.

The priest mumbled the service at the speed of a patter number and, from time to time, lifted his eyes towards a fresco of the Heavenly Heights. After commending the dead man’s soul, they had to wait at least ten minutes before the bearers condescended to return, at 8.26.

At the cemetery, from which the snow had almost melted, the priest, though wrapped in a thick serge overcoat, began to suffer from a fit of shivers. The coffin had hardly been lowered into the earth when he began to shove the moaning Marta, by the shoulder-blades, towards the waiting limousine. He declined Orlik’s invitation to breakfast at the Hotel Bristol. At the corner of Jungmannova Street he shouted for the chauffeur to stop, and jumped out slamming the door.

It was Utz who had arranged, and paid for, this valedictory breakfast. An acrid smell of disinfectant flowed through the dining-room. Chairs were piled on tables, and more cleaning women were swabbing up the mess from a banquet held the previous evening, in honour of East German and Soviet computer experts. In the far left corner, a table covered in white damask was set for twenty people, with a fluted tokay glass at each place.

Utz had miscalculated. He had counted on at least a handful of his more venal cousins turning up, in case there was anything to be had. He had counted, too, on a delegation from the Museum: if only to arrange the transfer of his porcelains into their grasping hands.

As it was, Marta and Orlík sat alone, side by side, ordering smoked ham, cheese pancakes and wine from the slovenly waiter.

At the far end of the table stood a huge stuffed bear, reared on its hind-legs, mouth agape, forepaws outstretched — placed there by some humorous person to remind the clientele of their country’s fraternal protector. On its plinth, a brass plaque announced that it had been shot by a Bohemian baron, not in the Tatras or Carpathians, but in the Yukon in 1926. The bear was a grizzly.

After a glass or two of tokay, Marta had apparently given up grieving for her dead employer. After four glasses, she twisted her mouth into a mocking grin and shouted at the top of her voice: ‘To the Bear! … To the Bear!’

In the summer of 1967 – a year before the Soviet tanks overran Czechoslovakia — I went to Prague for a week of historical research. The editor of a magazine, knowing of my interest in the Northern Renaissance, had commissioned me to write an article on the Emperor Rudolf II’s passion for collecting exotica: a passion which, in his later years, was his only cure for depression.

I intended the article to be part of a larger work on the psychology — or psychopathology — of the compulsive collector. As it turned out, due to idleness and my ignorance of the languages, this particular foray into Middle European studies came to nothing. I remember the episode as a very enjoyable holiday, at others’ expense.


On my way to Czechoslovakia I had stopped at Schloss Ambras, outside Innsbruck, to see the Kunstkammer or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ assembled by Rudolfs uncle, Archduke Ferdinand of the Tyrol. (Uncle and nephew had a friendly but long-standing quarrel as to who should possess the Hapsburg family narwhal horn, and a Late Roman agate tazza that might or might not be the Holy Grail.)

The Ambras Collection, with its Cellini salt-cellar and Montezuma’s headdress of quetzal plumes, had survived intact from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries when imperial officials, mindful of the revolutionary mob, removed its more spectacular treasures to Vienna. Rudolf’s treasures — his man-dragoras, his basilisk, his bezoar stone, his unicorn cup, his gold-mounted coco-de-mer, his homunculus in alcohol, his nails from Noah’s Ark and the phial of dust from which God created Adam — had long ago vanished from Prague.

All the same, I wanted to see the gloomy palace-fortress, the Hradschin, where this secretive bachelor — who spoke Italian to his mistresses, Spanish to his God, German to his courtiers and Czech, seldom, to his rebellious peasants — would, for weeks on end, neglect the affairs of his Holy and Roman Empire and shut himself away with his astronomers (Tycho Brahé and Kepler were his protégés). Or search with his alchemists for the Philosopher’s Stone. Or debate with learned rabbis the mysteries of the Cabbala. Or, as the crises of his reign intensified, imagine himself a hermit in the mountains. Or have his portrait done by Arcimboldo, who painted the Emperor’s visage as a mound of fruit and vegetables, with a courgette and aubergine for the neck, and a radish for the Adam’s apple.

Knowing no one in Prague, I asked a friend, a historian who specialised in the Iron Curtain countries, if there was anyone he’d recommend me to see.

He replied that Prague was still the most mysterious of European cities, where the supernatural was always a possibility. The Czechs’ propensity to ‘bend’ before superior force was not necessarily a weakness. Rather, their metaphysical view of life encouraged them to look on acts of force as ephemera.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I could send you to any number of intellectuals. Poets, painters, film-makers.’ Providing I could face an interminable whine about the role of the artist in a totalitarian state, or wished to go to a party that would end in a partouse.

I protested. Surely he was exaggerating?

‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘I don’t think so.’

He would be the last to denigrate a man who risked the labour camp for publishing a poem in a foreign journal. But, in his view, the true heroes of this impossible situation were people who wouldn’t raise a murmur against the Party or State — yet who seemed to carry the sum of Western Civilisation in their heads.

‘With their silence,’ he said, ‘they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist.’

Where else would one find, as he had, a tram-ticket salesman who was a scholar of the Elizabethan stage? Or a street-sweeper who had written a philosophical commentary on the Anaximander Fragment?

He finished by observing that Marx’s vision of an age of infinite leisure had, in one sense, come true. The State, in its efforts to wipe out ‘traces of individualism’, offered limitless time for the intelligent individual to dream his private and heretical thoughts.

I said my motive for visiting Prague was perhaps more frivolous than his — and I explained my interest in the Emperor Rudolf.

‘In that case I’ll send you to Utz,’ he said. ‘Utz is a Rudolf of our time.’

Utz was the owner of a spectacular collection of Meissen porcelain which, through his adroit manoeuvres, had survived the Second World War and the years of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia. By 1967 it numbered over a thousand pieces — all crammed into the tiny two-roomed flat on Široká Street.

The Utzes of Krondorf had been a family of minor Saxon landowners with farms in the Sudetenland, prosperous enough to maintain a town house in Dresden, insufficiently grand to figure on the Almanach de Gotha. Among their ancestors they could point to a Crusading Knight. But better-born Saxons would pronounce their name with an air of bewilderment, even of disgust: ‘Utz? Utz? No. It is impossible. Who is this people?’

There were reasons for their scorn. In Grimm’s Etymological Wordbook, ‘utz’ carries any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses’. ‘Heinzen, Kunzen, Utzen oder Butzen’, in the dialect of Lower Swabia, is the equivalent of ‘Any old Tom, Dick or Harry’.

Utz’s father was killed on the Somme in 1916, not before he had redeemed the family honour by winning Germany’s highest military decoration ‘Pour le Mérite’. His widow, whom he had met at Marienbad in 1905 – and had married to the anguish of his parents – was the daughter of a Czech revivalist historian, and of a Jewish heiress whose fortune came from railway shares.

Kašpar was her only grandchild.

As a boy, he spent a month of each summer at Céske Krížové, a neo-mediaeval castle between Prague and Tábor where this wasted old woman, whose sallow skin refused to wrinkle or hair turn to grey, sat crippled with arthritis in a salon hung with crimson brocade and overvarnished paintings of the Virgin.

A convert to Catholicism, she surrounded herself with unctuous and genuflecting priests who would extol the purity of her faith in the hope of financial rewards. The banks of begonias and cinerarias in her conservatory protected her from a magnificent sweep of the Central Bohemian countryside.

Various neighbours were affronted that a woman of her race should affect the outward forms of aristocratic life: to the extent of peopling her staircase with suits of armour, and of keeping a bear in a walled-off section of the moat. Yet, even before Sarajevo, she had foreseen the rising tide of Socialism in Europe, and, twirling a terrestrial globe as another woman might recite the rosary, she would point a finger to the far-flung places in which she had diversified her investments: a copper-mine in Chile, cotton in Egypt, a cannery in Australia, gold in South Africa.

She rejoiced in the thought that her fortune would go on increasing after her death. Theirs would vanish: in war or revolution; on horses, women and the gaming-tables. In Kašpar, a dark-haired, introspective boy with none of his father’s high complexion, she recognised the pallor of the ghetto — and adored him.

It was at Céske Krížové that this precocious child, standing on tiptoe before a vitrine of antique porcelain, found himself bewitched by a figurine of Harlequin that had been modelled by the greatest of Meissen modellers, J. J. Kaendler.

The Harlequin sat on a tree trunk. His taut frame was sheathed in a costume of multi-coloured chevrons. In one hand he waved an oxidised silver tankard; in the other a floppy yellow hat. Over his face there was a leering orange mask.

‘I want him,’ said Kašpar.

The grandmother blanched. Her impulse was to give him everything he asked for. But this time she said, ‘No! One day perhaps. Not now.’

Four years later, to console him for the death of his father, the Harlequin arrived in Dresden in a specially made leather box, in time for a dismal Christmas celebration. Kašpar pivoted the figurine in the flickering candlelight and ran his pudgy fingers, lovingly, over the glaze and brilliant enamels. He had found his vocation: he would devote his life to collecting — ‘rescuing’ as he came to call it — the porcelains of the Meissen factory.

He neglected his schoolroom studies, yet studied the history of porcelain manufacture, from its origins in China to its rediscovery in Saxony in the reign of Augustus the Strong. He bought new pieces. He sold off those which were inferior, or cracked. By the age of nineteen he had published in the journal Nunc a lively defence of the Rococo style in porcelain — an art of playful curves from an age when men adored women — against the slur of the pederast Winckelmann: ‘Porcelain is almost always made into idiotic puppets.’

Utz spent hours in the museums of Dresden, scrutinising the ranks of Commedia dell’ Arte figures that had come from the royal collections. Locked behind glass, they seemed to beckon him into their secret, Lilliputian world — and also to cry for their release. His second publication was entitled ‘The Private Collector’:

‘An object in a museum case’, he wrote, ‘must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo. In any museum the object dies — of suffocation and the public gaze – whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch. As a young child will reach out to handle the thing it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker. The collector’s enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned to circulation . . . ‘

‘What’, Utz’s mother asked the family physician, ‘is this mania of Kaspar’s for porcelain?’

‘A perversion,’ he answered. ‘Same as any other.’

The sexual career of Augustus the Strong, as recounted by Von Pôllnitz in ‘La Saxe Galant’, served Utz as an exemplary model. But when, in a Viennese establishment, he aspired to imitate the conquests of that grandiose and insatiable monarch — hoping to discover in Mitzi, Suzi and Liesl the charms of an Aurora, Countess of Kônigsmark, a Mlle Kessel or any other goddess of the Dresden court – the girls were perplexed by the scientific seriousness of the young man’s approach, and collapsed with giggles at the minuscule scale of his equipment.

He left, walking the wet streets alone to his hotel.

He got a warmer welcome from the antiquaires. The sale of his Sudetenland farms, in 1932, allowed him to spend money freely. The deaths, in quick succession, of his mother and grandmother, allowed him to bid against a Rothschild.

Politically, Utz was neutral. There was a timid side to his character that would tolerate any ideology providing it left him in peace. There was a stubborn side that refused to be bullied. He detested violence, yet welcomed the cataclysms that flung fresh works of art onto the market. ‘Wars, pogroms and revolutions’, he used to say, ‘offer excellent opportunities for the collector.’

The Stock Market Crash had been one such opportunity. Kristallnacht was another. In the same week he hastened to Berlin to buy porcelains, in U.S. dollars, from Jewish connoisseurs who wished to emigrate. At the end of the War he would offer a similar service to aristocrats fleeing from the Soviet Army.

As a citizen of the Reich he accepted the annexation of the Sudetenland, albeit without enthusiasm. The

occupation of Prague, however, made him realise that Hitler would soon unleash a European war. He also realised, on the principle that invaders invariably come to grief, that Germany would fail to win.

Acting on this insight, he succeeded in removing thirty-seven crates of porcelain from the family house in Dresden. These arrived at Céske Krížové during the summer of 1939. He did not unpack them.

About a year later, shortly after the Blitzkrieg, he had a visit from his red-headed second cousin, Reinhold: a clever but fundamentally silly character, who, as a student, had sworn that Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’ was the greatest book ever written; who now expounded his views of racial biology with analogies culled from dog-breeding. An Utz, he insinuated, even if tainted with alien blood, should at once assume the uniform of the Wehrmacht.

At dinner, Utz listened politely while his cousin crowed over the victories in France: but when the man prophesied that Germans would occupy Buckingham Palace before the end of the year, he felt, despite his better judgement, a surge of latent anglophilia.

‘I do not believe so,’ he heard himself saying. ‘You underestimate this people. I know them. I was in England myself.’

”Also,” the cousin murmured, and, with a click of the heels, marched out towards his waiting staff-car.

Utz had indeed been to England, to learn English at the age of sixteen. During an autumn and dismal December, he had boarded at Bexhill-on-Sea with his mother’s former nanny, Miss Beryl Parkinson, in a house of cats and cuckoo-clocks from which he would gaze at the turgid waves that broke across the pier.

He did learn some English — not much! He also made a short trip to London, and came away with a vivid notion of how an English gentleman behaved, and how he dressed. He returned to Dresden in a racily-cut tweed jacket, and a pair of hand-made brogues.

It was this same brown jacket, a little threadbare, a couple of sizes too small, and with leather patches sewn onto the elbows, that he would wear throughout the War — as an act of faith and defiance — whenever German officers were present.

He wore it, too, his racial purity called into question, during the reign of Reinhard Heydrich, ‘The Butcher of Prague’: one afternoon, he confounded his interrogators by pulling from its pocket his father’s First War decoration. How dare they! he shouted, as he slapped the medal onto the table. How dare they insult the son of a great German soldier?

It was a bold stroke, and it worked. They gave him no further trouble. He lay low at Čéske Krížové and, for the first time in his life, took regular exercise: working with his foresters at the saw-mill. On February 16th 1945 news came that the Dresden house was flattened. His love of England vanished forever on hearing the B.B.C. announcer, ‘There is no china in Dresden today.’ He gave the jacket to a gipsy who had escaped the camps.

A month after the surrender, when Germans and German-supporters were being hounded from their homes — or escorted to the frontier ‘in the clothes they stood up in1 – Utz succeeded in disavowing his German passport and obtaining Czech nationality. He had a harder time dispelling rumours that he had helped in the activities of Goering’s art squad.

The rumours were true. He had collaborated. He had given information: a trickle of information as to the whereabouts of certain works of art — information available to anyone who knew how to use an art library. By doing so, he had been able to protect, even to hide, a number of his Jewish friends: among them the celebrated Hebraist, Zikmund Kraus. What, after all, was the value of a Titian or a Tiepolo if one human life could be saved?

As for the Communists, once he realised the Beneš Government would fall, he began to curry favour with the bosses-to-be. On learning that Klement Gottwald had installed himself in Prague Castle, ‘a worker on the throne of the Bohemian kings’, Utz’s reaction was to give his lands to a farming collective, and his own castle for use as an insane asylum.

These measures gave him time: sufficient at least to evacuate the porcelains, without loss or breakage, before they were requisitioned by the canaille.

His next move was to make a show of taking up Hebrew studies under the guidance of Dr Kraus: these were the years when pictures of Marx and Lenin used to hang in Israeli kibbutzes. He got a poorly paid job, as a cataloguer in the National Library. He installed himself in an inconspicuous flat in Židovské Město: its previous inhabitant having vanished in the Heyd-richiada.

Twice a week he went loyally to watch a Soviet film.

When his friend Dr Orlík suggested they both flee to the West, Utz pointed to the ranks of Meissen figurines, six deep on the shelves, and said, ‘I cannot leave them.’

‘How did he get away with it?’

‘With what?’

‘The porcelain. How did he hang on to it?’

‘He did a deal.’

My friend the historian gave me an outline of the facts as he knew them. It seems that the Communist authorities — ever ready to assume a veneer of legality — had allowed Utz to keep the collection providing every piece was photographed and numbered. It was also agreed — although never put in writing — that, after his death, the State Museums would get the lot.

Besides, Marxist-Leninism had never got to grips with the concept of the private collection. Trotsky, around the time of the Third International, had made a few offhand comments on the subject. But no one had ever decided if the ownership of a work of art damned its owner in the eyes of the Proletariat. Was the collector a class-enemy? If so, how?

The Revolution, of course, postulated the abolition of private property without ever defining the tenuous borderline between property (which was harmful to society) and household goods (which were not). A painting by a great master might rank as a national treasure, and be liable for confiscation — and there were families in Prague who kept their Picassos and Matisses rolled up between the floor joists. But porcelain? Porcelain could also be classed as crockery. So, providing it wasn’t smuggled from the country, it was, in theory, valueless. To start confiscating ceramic statuettes could turn into an administrative nightmare:

‘Imagine trying to confiscate an infinite quantity of plaster-of-Paris Lenins . . . ‘

His face was immediately forgettable. It was a round face, waxy in texture, without a hint of the passions beneath its surface, set with narrow eyes behind steel-framed spectacles: a face so featureless it gave the impression of not being there. Did he have a moustache? I forget. Add a moustache, subtract a moustache: nothing would alter his utterly nondescript appearance. Supposing, then, we add a moustache? A precise, bristly moustache to go with the precise, toy-soldierish gestures that were the only evidence of his Teuton ancestry? He had combed his hair in greasy snakes across his scalp. He wore a suit of striped grey worsted slightly frayed at the cuffs, and had doused himself with Knize Ten cologne.

On reflection, I think I’d better withdraw the moustache. To add a moustache might so overwhelm the face that nothing would linger in the memory but the spectacles and a moustache — with a few drops of paprika-coloured fish-soup adhering to it — across our table at the Restaurant Pstruh.

‘Pstruh’ is Czech for ‘trout’ — and trout there were! The cadences of the ‘Trout’ Quintet flowed methodically through hidden speakers and shoals of trout — pink, freckled, their undersides shimmering in the neon — swam this way and that way in an aquarium which occupied most of one wall.

‘You will eat trout,’ said Utz.

I had called him on the day of my arrival, but at first he seemed reluctant to see me:

‘Ja! Ja! I know it. But it will be difficult

On the advice of my friend, I had brought from London some packets of his favourite Earl Grey tea. I mentioned these. He relented and asked me to luncheon: on the Thursday, the day before I was due to leave — not, as I had hoped, at his flat, but in a restaurant.

The restaurant, a relic of the Thirties in an arcade off Wenceslas Square, had a machine-age décor of plate-glass, chromium and leather. A model galleon, with sails of billowing parchment, hung from the ceiling. One wondered, glancing at the photo of Comrade Novotný, how a man with so disagreeable a mouth would consent to being photographed at all. The head-waiter, sweltering in the July heat, offered each of us a menu that resembled a mediaeval missal.

We were expecting the arrival of Utz’s friend, Dr Orlík, with whom he had lunched here on Thursdays since 1946.

‘Orlík’, he told me, ‘is an illustrious scientist from our National Museum. He is a palaeontologue. His speciality is the mammoth, but he is also experienced in flies. You will enjoy him. He is full of jokes and charm.’

We did not have long to wait before a gaunt, bearded figure in a shiny double-breasted suit pushed its way through the revolving doors. Orlík removed his beret, revealing a mass of wiry salt-and-pepper hair, and sat down. His hand — rather a crustacean claw than a hand – gave mine a painful nip and moved on to attack the pretzels. His forehead was scoured with deep furrows. I stared with amazement at the see-saw motion of his jaw.

‘Ah! Ha!’ he leered at me. ‘English, he? Englishman! Yes. YES! Tell me, is Professor Horsefield still living?’

‘Who’s Horsefield?’ I asked.

‘He wrote kind words about my article in the "Journal of Animal Psychology".’

‘When was that?’

‘1935,’ he said. ‘Maybe ’36.’

‘I’ve never heard of Horsefield.’

‘A pity,’ said Orlík. ‘He was an illustrious scientist.’

He paused to crunch the remaining pretzel. His green eyes glinted with playful malice.

‘Normally,’ he continued, ‘I do not have high regard for your compatriots. You betrayed us at Munchen . . . You betrayed us at Yalta . . . ‘

Utz, alarmed by this dangerous turn to the conversation, interrupted and said, solemnly, ‘I cannot believe that animals have souls.’

‘How can you say that?’ Orlík snapped.

‘I say it.’

‘I know you say it. I know not how you can say it.’

‘I will order,’ said Utz, who waved his napkin, like a flag of truce, at the head-waiter. ‘I will order trout. "Au bleu", isn’t it?’

‘Blau,’ Orlík bantered.

‘Blau yourself.’

Orlík tugged at my sleeve: ‘My friend Mr Utz here believes that the trout, when it is immersed in boiling water, does not feel more than a tickling. That is not my opinion.’

‘There are no trout,’ said the head-waiter.

‘What can you mean, no trout?’ said Utz. ‘There are trout. Many trout.’

‘There is no net.’

‘What can you mean, no net? Last week there was a net.’

‘Is broken.’

‘Broken, I do not believe.’

The head-waiter put a finger to his lips, and whispered, ‘These trout are reserved.’

‘For them?’

‘Them,’ he nodded.

Four fat men were eating trout at a nearby table.

‘Very well,’ said Utz. ‘I will eat eels. You also will eat eels?’

‘I will,’ I said.

‘There are no eels,’ said the waiter.

‘No eels? This is bad. What have you?’

‘We have carp.’

‘Carp only?’

‘Carp.’

‘How shall you cook this carp?’

‘Many ways,’ the waiter gestured to the menu. ‘Which way you like.’

The menu was multilingual: in Czech, Russian, German, French and English. But whoever had compiled the English page had mistaken the word ‘carp’ for ‘crap’. Under the heading CRAP DISHES, the list contained ‘Crap soup with paprika’, ‘Stuffed crap’, ‘Crap cooked in beer’, ‘Fried crap’, ‘Crap balls’, ‘Crap à la juive . . . ‘

‘In England,’ I said, ‘this fish is called "carp". "Crap" has a different meaning.’

‘Oh?’ said Dr Orlík. ‘What meaning?’

‘Faeces,’ I said.’Shit.’

I regretted saying this because Utz looked exceedingly embarrassed. The narrow eyes blinked, as if he hoped he hadn’t heard correctly. Orlik’s wheezy carapace shook with laughter.

‘Ha! Ha!’ he jeered. ‘Crap à la juive . . . My friend Mr Utz will eat Crap à la juive . . . !’

I was afraid Utz was going to leave, but he rose above his discomfiture and ordered soup and the ‘Carpe meunière’. I took the line of least resistance and ordered the same. Orlík clamoured in his loud and crackly voice, ‘No. No. I will eat "Crap à la juive" . . . !’

‘And to begin?’ asked the waiter.

‘Nothing,’ said Orlík. ‘Only the crap!’

I tried to swing the conversation to Utz’s collection of porcelain. His reaction was to swivel his neck inside his collar and say, blankly, ‘Dr Orlík is also a collector. But he is a collector of flies.’

‘Flies?’

‘Flies,’ assented Orlík.

I began to form a mental picture of his lodgings: the unmade bed and unemptied ash-trays; the avalanche of yellowing periodicals; the microscope; the killing-jars and, lining the walls, glass-fronted cases containing flies from every corner of the globe, each specimen pierced with a pin. I mentioned some beautiful dragonflies I had seen in Brazil.

‘Dragonflies?’ Orlík frowned. ‘I have not interest. I have only interest for Musca domestica.’

‘The common house-fly?’

‘That is what it is.’

‘Answer me,’ Utz interrupted again. ‘On which day did God create the fly? Day Five? Or Day Six?’

‘How many times will I tell you?’ Orlík clamoured. ‘We have one hundred ninety million years of flies. But you will always speak of days!’

‘Hard words,’ said Utz, philosophically.

A fly had landed on the tablecloth and was sopping up some soup that the waiter had let fall from the ladle. With a flick of the wrist Orlík upturned a glass tumbler, and trapped the insect beneath it. He slid the glass to the edge of the table and transferred the fly to the killing-jar he took from his pocket. There was an angry buzzing, then silence.

He flourished a magnifying glass and scrutinised the victim.

‘Interesting example,’ he said. ‘Hatched, I would say, in the kitchen here. I will ask . . . ‘

‘You will not ask,’ said Utz.

‘I will. I will ask.’

‘You will not.’

‘And what’, I asked, ‘brought you and the house-fly together?’

Expelling carp bones through his beard, Orlík described how he had devoted thirty years to studying certain aspects of the woolly mammoth: a labour which had taken him to the tundras of Siberia where mammoths are occasionally found deep-frozen in permafrost. The fruit of these researches — though he was usually too modest to mention it — had culminated in his magisterial paper ‘The Mammoth and His Parasites’. But no sooner was it published than he felt the need to study some lowlier creature.

‘I chose’, he said, ‘to study Musca domestica within the Prague Metropolitan area.’

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