The foyer of Martin’s Theater of the Slovak National Uprising was full of chatter and cigarette smoke, broken up by occasional blasts of cold as patrons tramped in off the street, shaking snow from their boots. Otherwise, it was toasty inside, thanks to the bounty of cheap natural gas the Soviet Union still pumped into its former satellites. Alena, my colleague of forty, with light-blonde pixie, pale round face, and thin lips, waited in line with me at the coat check. We understood there was nothing romantic about this outing. She had a “friendship” with the computer science teacher; tonight she was just helping the foreigner get out for a bit of culture.
Once seated, I looked over the program, whose cover read: “Cigáni idú do neba,” “Gypsies go to Heaven.”
It was full of black-and-white images of Gypsy children in ramshackle dwellings. The photos had been manipulated—dark with the edges of faces and other objects brightened, almost like negatives. Black is white and white is black?
“It is based on tale by Maxim Gorky,” said Alena.
Uh-oh, commie stuff. Still, after all the ideologies I’d been exposed to in college, nothing could brainwash me, right?
“It was very popular Soviet film in 1977,” she continued.
“The same year Star Wars came out. I was eleven then, crazy about astronomy and spaceships.”
“Oh, yes, I have heard of this film. Anyway, Gypsies go to Heaven is very well known for its music.”
“Makes sense, given their reputation as strolling violinists.” The only other thing I knew about Roma is that they were originally from India and, according to legend, hadn’t ceased their nomadic ways since leaving home to entertain at a sultan’s banquet. And of course they had a reputation for fortunetelling and thievery. The only Roma I’d encountered thus far worked as street sweepers or black-market moneychangers. There had to be more to this mysterious race.
The lights went down and a farm wagon wobbled onstage, its wooden slats poking up like bare ribs on a supine skeleton. Children in ragged clothes jostled inside, as women in long flowered skirts and men in red silk shirts pushed it along. Two men strummed gut-stringed guitars, accompanying female voices which rang out in a sweet but doleful melody, but after two short verses the music faded, the wagon exited, and a group of men remained on stage.
Hanka, as Alena was known by her Slovak diminutive, occasionally leaned her head to whisper a paraphrase of the action. “The main character is Zobar. He is horse thief.” Uniformed men marched onstage, rifles slung over their shoulders. “They are Austro-Hungarian soldiers,” she continued.
As the Gypsy men fled, a sudden flash of light and the crack of a gunshot made the audience gasp. Zobar stumbled off to stage right. The curtain fell, and a whiff of acrid gunpowder reached my nose. In the next vignette, a beautiful young woman tended to Zobar’s wound. The lights dimmed to the sound of crickets, simulating nightfall. After a brief silence, the lights came up again. Zobar awoke, alone but miraculously healed.
A couple of scenes later, a handful of women and girls entered wearing huge, colorful scarves tied at the corners around their waists. Too light-skinned to be Roma, but they had the audience clapping to the lively refrain:
“Dai, da dada dai, da dada—HOP, HOP, HOP!
yapas tuke, yapas mange—HOP, HOP, HOP!”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It is all in Romani, the Gypsy language.”
The wagon reappeared and Zobar was welcomed into the camp. A minor chord sounded, and a twelve-year-old girl began a slow, undulating melody: Nane tsu-ukha na-ah negah.
The next line climbed and crescendoed: Hmaykyenal mangeyoda-ah. The tempo quickened as the vocal line swooped back down: Tsilvi java pavero-on,
The chorus joined in with a simple na, na nana na, nanana-ah nah. It was the same melody as the first stanza. The whole house clapped to the accelerando. The women onstage swayed and spun. The guitarist emphatically strummed the last three beats of the refrain, stretched forth his right hand as if waving a wand, made a lingering pause, and then reverted to the languid, tantalizing rhythm that began the piece. The lead vocal started anew. Some of the women grabbed their pleated skirts and waved them to the beat. Others held their arms out to the sides, leaned back, and shimmied like belly dancers. Even with only their midriffs exposed, it was erotic, but still much more sublime than a striptease. The blood rushed to my heart more than my loins—the physical chest pain of a lovesick schoolboy. I sat leaning forward in my seat until the intermission.
During the second half, a Hungarian nobleman who had become obsessed with Rada, the beautiful young woman from the earlier scene, came to the camp to ask for her hand in marriage. Carrying a cane in his gloved hands, with a cloak over his shoulders, he was a shining contrast to the vagabonds. Still, Rada rejected his offer of marriage, and with it a life of wealth and comfort.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“To go to the edge of the world.”
“To go there and come back.”
“What kind of people are you? What do you need?”
“We don’t need anything. Nothing but the road.”
The count stood with mouth agape, unable to comprehend their different values.
Suddenly I understood the title, recalling that biblical metaphor about a camel passing through the eye of a needle: Gypsies go to heaven because they aren’t burdened by earthly possessions. And they’re freer to move around without all that stuff.
Rada had developed a romance with Zobar, it’s true, but their passion for each other had its limits. “I love freedom more than I love you,” she told him. “Tomorrow, you will bow to me before the whole camp and kiss my right hand, and then I will be your wife.”
“No, that I will never do,” he replied with a scowl.
In the final scene, she demanded his submission in front of the clan. Infuriated, he whipped out a dagger and stabbed her in the chest. As she lay dying, her father pulled another knife and delivered Zobar a mortal wound. The Gypsies of the camp walked off in silence.
The lights rose and the cast lined up across the stage. I joined in the cascading applause which gradually coalesced as the audience found a common rhythm and began clapping in unison, European-style. After a standing ovation, several rounds of bowing, and bouquets for the principal actors, the cast made its final exit.
Alena and I followed the exuberantly chatting crowd into the lobby and waited in line for our coats. “Whew! That was quite a performance,” I said. “Thank you for suggesting that, that was really wonderful. Can I buy you a drink?” She was not a night person, so she politely said goodnight, leaving me to ponder the performance on my own.
I walked into the tiny theater barroom and ordered a brandy, then turned around and scanned the faces of the crowd. It was packed: I quickly gave up on finding anyone I knew. I held the globous snifter aloft and inhaled the bouquet. The vapors burned my nose ever so slightly. I resigned myself to drinking alone, even taking comfort in the anonymity. It gave me the chance to muse: Does real freedom mean giving up all your possessions and taking to the road? Maybe people who actually do this have discovered something the rest of us haven’t. Am I part-way there myself? After all, I’ve abandoned the familiar middle-class life for…this.
And those Gypsy women—of course they weren’t real Roma. But there was one darker-skinned girl in one of my classes, with long curly black hair. Hmm, Mirka--could she be a Gypsy? Half-gypsy? I could just see her in one of those flowing skirts.
As I wandered through the snowy slush in the streets, the melodies reverberated in my head: Na na nana na, nana na-ah-nah. Such beautiful music, I thought, and such tragedy at the same time. Beauty, tragedy, poverty—how is it they all go hand in hand so well?
Back home, I lay awake for an hour while my thoughts and feelings whirlpooled. I recalled a professor’s digression on naïve readers of great literature who are not adequately “vaccinated against art.” He’d warned us naïve second-years about a young man who’d read Nietzsche and declared himself an atheist; two weeks later, after sinking his teeth into Dostoevsky, he’d started to convert to Orthodox Christianity. I had since absorbed shelves of books, music and cinema, and had considered myself well inoculated—until encountering this highly infectious music.
I sat up in bed. The closest thing to a religious conversion, I supposed, would be to run off and join a band of Gypsies, to permanently give up a stable “bourgeois” existence for their nomadic lifestyle. I understood why a Communist like Gorky would admire the “classless society” of the Roma, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Besides, if everybody lived like that, no work would get done, I chuckled to myself. I lay back down, satisfied that I’d solved my conundrum.
But the music refused to stop playing in my head: “Dai, da dada dai, da dada—HOP, HOP, HOP!
I swung my legs out of bed, clicked the light on and began singing along with the Gypsy chorus: Na, na nana na, nanana-ah nah.