The first book I read by Karel Poláček was a slim collection of Jewish jokes that I had found on my friend’s bookshelf and immediately borrowed, leafing through it and reading out my favorites. I think I found them a lot funnier than she did. I figured that anyone who publishes a collection of Jewish jokes can’t be all that bad, so I picked up what is probably his best-known book, about a young boy growing up in a small city modeled after Poláček’s hometown of Rychnov nad Kněžnou. The back cover called it “unbelievably funny”, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I did enjoy it.
The most striking thing about There Were Five of Us is the narration. It’s told from the point of view of a boy who’s around ten or eleven as he goes about his days, plays with his friends, and lets his overactive imagination run wild. The style is a bit amorphous: it reads like a child’s attempt at writing in a grown-up way, perhaps with a bit of authorial intervention to elevate it somewhat. Much of the humor, then, comes from the way he sees adult language and the adult world, how we see the world through a slightly distorted mirror. At times I found some of the narrator’s verbal tics a bit tedious, but not enough to make the book less readable. At other times, the slightly awkward, puffed-up language really tickled me.
The second half of the book goes off the rails, as the boys leave their small city and take a train trip to India (“India, all aboard!”), which is a bizarre mix of familiar life and what the narrator imagines to be exotic. The whole thing takes place while he’s bedridden with scarlet fever. This part was still enjoyable, but spoke to me less, since it was totally divorced from reality. The sight of Jumbo the talking elephant being vain over a ridiculous red hat was amusing, sure (“India” is based on the narrator’s impressions from the circus, more or less), but my favorite parts were definitely those rooted in the narrator’s perception of the real world.
It was getting nicer and nicer every day, everything was turning green, the cherries bloomed, and when students played pilliards in the pub, they took off their coats. And let me tell you, once, it was right around noon, Mr. Dušánek who works for the city was going around and under his arm he had posters, as well as a glue pot and a brush. He stopped at every corner and us boys talking together walked behind him, insofar as we were curious as to what it was. Bejval was the most curious of all and asked: “Mr. Dušánek, what is it?” and Mr. Dušánek replied: “Scram and go home, your mommy will search you for fleas,” and even otherwise he spoke quite rudely, due to the fact that the wind was taking his posters.
And when he put up one poster, it was an immensely large poster full of pictures, and we read:
For a limited time only!
RUDOLFI’S GRAND CIRCUS!
Afterwards, in block letters, it was written that Rudolfi’s Grand Circus was informing all local spectators, sirs and madams, that it was the greatest circus in the world, insofar as it was guaranteed to have the most refined program, which will satisfy all experts entirely.
Rudolfi’s Grand Circus has performed before all emperors and kings, as well as presidents and ministers, and everywhere garnered appreciation and praise from high nobility, as well as aristocrats, and yes, even mayors of municipalities.
It was also written that spectators, sirs and madams, will see the king of the desert, a giant Nubian lion, whose terrifying roar awakens the natives from their slumber. All may marvel at the trained Bengal tiger, terror of the jungle, and the terrible snake, tiger python by name, which gobbles up live rabbits, as well as other animal beings, a fact of which all may convince themselves.
Lovers of hazardous sights are afforded the rare opportunity to see the Abaldini brothers, an acrobatic team, who were awarded the gold medal for their first-class performance at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.
The program is enriched by freestyle Greco-Roman wrestling. A masked man, the champion of the world and all the colonies, will challenge local citizens to the ring, and whosoever may defeat him shall be honorably rewarded.
The world-famous circus rider Miss Arabella will provide demonstrations of her skill, with which she has dazzled audiences on all continents. In Bohemia for the first time! A unique opportunity!
Jumbo the Indian elephant! A team of trained dogs, spectator darlings!
The owner of the circus himself, Signore Rudolfi, will present himself riding the purebred mare Kismet.
In the intermissions between the individual acts, the spectators, sirs and madams, will be entertained by the eccentrics Pif and Paf and their artful japery.
At the end it was written that school kids and soldiers pay half price.
And all this time we were walking behind Mr. Dušánek to see all the posters and the exotic animals painted on them, and the clowns, and the circus rider, and the elephant, giraffe, lion, and other animal beings, whereby I was late for lunch and Dad said that he would not wait for it to please his lord.
I didn’t say anything to this, but I ate my soup with batter dumplings, even though I don’t like it, and looked very virtuously. When I had finished eating lunch, I said in a strong voice: “Thank you, God, for these gifts,” and Dad looked at Mom and Mom looked at Dad and they stared at each other for a moment.
After lunch I held Mančinka and sang her “The Fairy Tale of Youth Will Never Return” and I sang so long that Mom told me to stop it and get Dad the paper. I didn’t talk back at all and I ran very quickly.
Éda Kemlink came after lunch and told me to come with him because all the boys were waiting. I answered him in a strong voice, so that Dad would hear it all the way in the shop, that I wasn’t going anywhere, because I had to practice my fractions so that I would know them.
I didn’t fight even the tiniest bit with Rampepurda, even though she herself started it. But I told her in a gentle voice: “Dear Kristýna, leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone too.”
On my own initiative, I practiced the violin and I tried both trills and double stops. I made an effort to play without squeaking, and Dad heard it in the shop and muttered with satisfaction.
From time to time I went into the store and greeted customers in a strong voice until a farmer’s wife praised me for being well-raised. Dad liked this, whereupon I gave my politenesses in an ever louder voice until Dad said that I didn’t have to yell so loudly. I also helped at the shop and one man said: “A small fry like that, you can’t even see him behind the counter and he’s already coming into his own.”
At school I sat up straight, I didn’t fidget even the tiniest bit and kept my hands on the bench, I took great care and always raised my hand. I spoke kindly to Páta and Čeněk Jirsák heard and pulled a terrible face like I’m a teacher’s pet. And Zilvar said that he wanted nothing to do with me, and I said that I wouldn’t be seen with him anymore, seeing as there’s nothing to do about him but complain.
I walked slowly and fairly and I looked virtuously, seeing as I wanted to have unusually good behavior, the best behavior of all. Every evening I searched my conscience to see if I had the best behavior yet, and it always seemed to me that I didn’t have the best behavior yet and that I still had to do a great amount of practice in good behavior. And when I met Mrs. Soumarová, I bellowed “Good day, madam” in such a terrifying voice that everyone turned.
One time Dad was drinking coffee, and when he finished, he put his mug in its place and said: “Mommy, there’s something off about Péťa. Did he catch something, is that why he’s so quiet?”
Mom replied: “If he had something, it’s gone now. He’s leaving a good taste in my mouth, you know.”
“I think he did something and now he’s afraid that it’ll get out,” said Dad.
But I didn’t do anything, and I won’t do anything either, even though I could do a whole load of things. I could have pushed away Kuncka the Goat’s fruit cart like Zilvar from the poorhouse told me to and sent it down the hill, she’d have given off an awful scream. Seeing as nobody was looking. I could have done other things, too, but I’ll make sure not to do them, even if who knows, because I’ve decided that I would have the best behavior of all.
How sad I was now that we blew all the cash we had saved up for the trip to Italy! I didn’t want to, but Éda Kemlink kept on trying to get us to buy pop caps, he said we had more than enough. So we bought the caps and Éda said that now a few more pennies wouldn’t hurt us, so we bought Murder in the Armored Wardrobe, candy sticks, and licorice and went to the friendly between Soumar’s eleven and the visiting Clerks from Heřman’s factory F.C. So when the circus comes, we’ll have nothing left and we should still have good behavior all the time. By now I have such good behavior that I’m speaking orthographically and always saying “albeit” and “thereupon”. Dad said: “Enough with the albeit already, it’s making me nervous.”
I walked around both here and there and thought sadly about how the circus might leave and I wouldn’t see it. Every night I prayed a prayer that I invented myself: “Kind God, allow me to see all the circus performances, as well as the feeding of the ferocious wildlife, which is enterable at half price. All the boys will be there and I won’t be allowed? In exchange, I promise You that I will be diligently present at all holy services, and once I have writing assignments, I will make sure to keep my notebooks very neat and not make a single blot.
Do not, oh Lord God, allow Dad to say: “We will not be going to any circus, it’s a pointless waste of money, where’s a man supposed to get all that? All you’ll learn at the circus is mischief and you’ll fill your head with naughtiness.’
May he, on the other hand, say: “Here, go to the circus, here’s money and have a great time.’ In exchange, oh Lord God, you can have from me what your heart desires. I will have good behavior forever always, even if the boys swear at me that I’m like the Holy Fool. I will not skip violin even once, I will not fight with anyone nor throw stones, at lunch I will make sure not to leave a mess. And I will look virtuously, walk slowly, think justly, speak with manners, and greet everyone loudly, including Mr. Fajst, it’s all the same to me.
And I will not make any friendships that lead me into mischief, and I will not band together with the street kids. If I see something, I will walk away from it. And I will never start any more wars and I will love my neighbors, yes, even the Habrov kids and the Ješin kids.
When mom tells me: ‘Go get it, give it to me, hold it, help me!’ I will go get it, give it to her, hold it, help her, and never grumble about it.
Cross my heart hope to die, it’s true.
This is a prayer that I invented myself, insofar as we didn’t have it in Sunday school. Amen.”
After I finished praying, I slept badly, and when I fell asleep, I had a hideous dream. I dreamed that I was locked in a cage with a Bengal tiger, who was pulling a terrible face, seeing as it wasn’t any Bengal tiger, but Čenda Jirsák, but I couldn’t have known that, because I was sleeping. The Bengal tiger said: “Yeah, kid, the circus, sure, but learning? No way. That’ll be the day.”
10. A book of short stories – Karel Čapek, Povídky z jedné kapsy a Povídky z druhé kapsy (Tales from Two Pockets)
4. A book about or inspired by real events – Kateřina Tučková, Fabrika (Factory)
1. A book beginning with the same letter as your first name – Iva Pekárková, Dej mi ty prachy (Gimme the Money)
16. A favorite book from your childhood – Erich Kästner, Emil a detektivové (Emil and the Detectives)
3. One of the top 100 highest rated books on the Database of Books (http://www.databazeknih.cz/zebricky/100-nejlepe-hodnocenych-knih) – Václav Kaplický, Kladivo na čarodějnice (A Hammer for Witches)
15. A book with a number in the title – Karel Poláček, Bylo nás pět (There Were Five of Us)
2. A book first published in 2016
5. A book that has been translated to English
6. A book with fewer than 200 pages
7. A book that has been filmed
8. A book with more than 400 pages
9. A book written by a public figure (not an author)
11. A book by a Czech author
12. A book by an author writing under a pseudonym
13. A book by a Nobel Prize winner
14. A book read in a single day
17. A book recommended by a friend
18. A book about friendship
19. An educational non-fiction book intended for a general audience (pop science, economics, psychology, etc.)
20. A book by an author younger than 30
gender/sexual minority: 0
ethnic/national/racial minority: 0