The Woman Terrorist
Photo: DM Vyleta
A short story by Jan Balabán Translated from the Czech by Alexandra Büchler
"You're asking whether there can be an innocent painting? What kind of question is that? Innocent - how?" Hans glanced at the pictures around him.

"A painting that would bear a direct relationship to reality, simply and openly, without any gimmicks, irony or hyperbole, or any other twisted perspectives," Michal, the painter, developed his idea.

"By saying 'can there be', you also mean whether somebody would be interested in it, whether it might have a social role? That I don't know. But I am sure it exists, it may just not be immediately visible."

"Do you believe in the existence of real innocence?"

"I don't know, it should exist, if nothing else than because of women."

"How do you mean?"

"As I say."

Hans is finding it difficult to speak about this because he knows that all his life he has carried a woman inside him. Despite the fact that he is a husband and a father, he feels the feminine principle to be at the core of his sensibility.

When he was still a small boy, at that blissful age before the first excitement that brutally throws the confused adolescent into the world of intercourse from which there is no return, he used to see everything around him through his mother's rather than his father's eyes and he had thought that it could stay like that forever. It couldn't. Just as his desire to find a place in the world which he would never have to leave again and where he could nest was in vain. That was why he shed tears over every milestone and landmark he had to pass. He suffered every time his parents changed the position of furniture around the flat, longing for the previous constellation as if it were in itself a lost home. As a grown-up man he had a problem leaving places where he stayed, even hotel rooms. He thought that this feeling of anxiety had taken seed in his being precisely at the time when he had wounded the woman inside him, up until that point calmly present and lovely, with his first shameful act.

He was not a homosexual, latent or otherwise. He didn't long to wear women's clothes. On the contrary, he found men dressed as women disgusting and transvestite shows made him sick: those mannequins with padded chests and painted lips insulted the woman nobody knew about, the woman who was also Hans. Pornographic magazines also made him sick. He was sick of himself poring over those magazines, of his own betrayal committed by gazing at those women parting their legs in front of the camera and therefore in front of the whole world. Whenever he bought such a magazine, used it and then threw it into the rubbish bin, he came to realize what sin was. Not against God, the father - his father would probably even understand - it was a sin against her, against the original being lost in the labyrinth, in the unseen but sensed system of caves, in which reside the first human beings with whom we are connected by a fine bond like the thread of Ariadne ...

"That thread can, of course, be broken, but then ..." Hans stopped there, unsure when he had started thinking aloud.

"And then? Go on!" Michal urged him to continue.

"And then? Then we can do nothing more than draw a cunt on the wall and pretend that we have found the entrance to the cave of creation."

"I wouldn't make it sound so dramatic," replied Michal with irritating nonchalance. "I think that, quite on the contrary, every cunt on the wall and every porno girl can be related to those original beings you are talking about. The loss of innocence is a fact and the lost world is lost forever. And you are simply an oversensitive romantic, but you're not consistent. If you were consistent, a real poet, you'd write a great poem and die young. You're not going to survive the broken thread like that! You potter around for forty years, in a labyrinth, as you say, you love women, father children, establish a household like the rest of us, but you consider it all to be false. Hans, that is at best infantile narcism and at worst it's plain hypocrisy and snobbism."

"I thought you were a painter," Hans replied, irritated. "But you are obviously also a psychologist, all that's missing is a pipe for you to clean self-importantly while I tell you my innermost thoughts. You may not have a problem with pornography, you even use it as a model for your paintings. Isn't it the thing to do these days? Why do you painters always have to deal with pornography?"

"I don't know what other painters do, but I do have a problem with pornography and that's precisely why I use it. I find it incredible. I feel shame around those magazines and only buy the ones enclosed in plastic. I don't trust the newsagents or anybody else. Who knows what they do with them? I am obsessed with the idea that I might catch some disease from those things. That goes hand in hand with it, the danger, just like the weird, pretend normalcy of all those acts. I paint these absurd situations and positions in order to externalize them, bring them to light, to be able to look at these bizarre things in peace."

"Bizarre things have taken over the world!" Hans snapped. "These days, everything has to be freakish with an open mouth and legs apart like a shop window. I'll tell you something: you no longer make paintings. What you make are advertisements for paintings and that's where you are going to end up, in a commercial, secretly peeping at Munch in the toilet and saying: Man, this is something!"

"Sure, and it has nothing to do with you because you blether about lofty things and first beings."

Hans didn't reply. In his mind, he saw a painting of a thin girl sitting on a blood-red sofa. She was looking directly into his eyes, carrying him away from this conversation into the world of pure pain against which he and his painter friend were helpless, like small children.

When he saw the news of the Chechen terrorist attack in a Moscow theatre, Hans felt something move within him, as if he had found the broken thread of a momentarily interrupted conversation. Fear spreading. Theatre-goers facing the machine guns of those desperately determined fighters who have nothing to lose and thus threaten innocent women, children and men with death, because their own innocent women, children and men were bombed out of existence in Grozny a long time ago. The theatre is surrounded with that ponderous Russian military mechanism. Everyone knows there will be no negotiations. Only killing. It's the Bolshoi and the scene looks like this: a tight knot of the frightened and desperately determined centre stage, around them units of indifferent armed men waiting for an order, and on the outside a circle of confused people who cannot influence anything.

In the sets, right among the hostages, are Chechen women, wives of the killed comrades, explosives fastened to their bodies, detonators in their hands. It is they who will become the lethal weapons if the impossible conditions are not met.

Hans and Michal, and others who cannot influence anything, are, in their uneasy conversations, making a futile attempt to find at least a hint of a truthful solution to this bizarre situation that is so anomalous.

Then comes the attack. Special units break through ceilings and floors and let in the gas which kills the majority of people inside. Armed men in gas masks then finish off all the terrorists, men and women, and from there on in it's just the usual Russian routine: people suffocating and dying in overcrowded ambulances, army chemists refusing to reveal the composition of the chemical weapon to medics, relatives looking for their missing ones in vain ... Victory is achieved at the cost of great loss.

"But the explosives didn't go off."

"The women terrorists were probably paralysed before they could detonate them."

"Why did they shoot them through the head then?"

"Just to be on the safe side, I guess."

"Nonsense. The gas takes several seconds to have an effect. How long do you need to press a button?"

"Are you thinking that in the end they showed mercy?"

"God knows what happened, but I think that next time they will surely detonate themselves."

A few weeks after the attack Michal invited Hans to his studio and they spoke again about the innocent picture.

"You might find this interesting," said Michal and turned around a painting leaning against the wall.

A woman's head sticks out from underneath a grey plastic sheet. A pool of blood seeps from the dark hair.

"A dead terrorist. I painted her from a picture in the papers," said Michal matter of factly.

Hans bent close to the painting as if it could help him to make out her features.

"Who does she resemble?" Hans asked, as if talking to himself.

"You, can't you see?" Michal replied awkwardly.


"I wanted her to resemble you."

"Good job," said Hans and was silent for a moment. "Will you sell me the picture?"

"Yes, I thought you were going to want it, but it's not possible. It's been sold and sold very well, thank you."

"Who bought it?"

"Somebody who's rolling in money, a club owner, he paid for it and wanted to take it right away, but I wanted you to see it and we agreed that he was going to collect it tomorrow."

"Why this one? Don't you have more suitable paintings for a club?"

"He wanted this one. Said it was cool to have something like this in a bar."

"We can go and look at it there from time to time - although I do hate clubs," complained Hans and one more time gazed into the dead eyes that were carrying him away into the world of pure pain.

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