The Ratcatcher is widely considered one of the greatest works of Czech Prose.
Jan Hübsch Slovan magazine
A stranger with a magical fife promises to rid the rat-infested town of Hamelin of its vermin for the sum of one hundred Rhine ducats. But when the town refused to pay him for services rendered, who does he lure under the spell of his fife. Viktor Dyk’s rendition of the medieval Saxon legend of the pied piper masterfully blends lyrical prose with early twentieth century modernism, and has held its own among works of Eastern European literature for over a hundred years. Now this Czech classic is introduced in English translation for the first time.
Viktor Dyk’s The Ratcatcher first appeared in the magazine Lumír published as a series under the title A Tale of Truth between 1911 and 1912. It was printed as full-length novel in 1915 with Zlatokvet Publishing House and has since become one of the most read literary works in the Czech Republic, influencing some of the most prominent figures in Czech culture. Holocaust writer Arnošt Lustig’s mentions The Ratcatcher his novel Dita Saxova. Dyk’s interpretation of the old Saxon legend has laid the foundation of two movies of the same title, an animated version by Jiři Barta (1985) and a cinematic drama (2003) directed by F.A. Brabec. Rock musician Daniel Landa wrote and starred in a musical based on Dyk’s interpretation of The Ratcatcher. The musical was first featured shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The cover page from the first addition of The Ratcatcher in 1915
“And your name is?”
“I have no name. I am nobody. I am less than nobody. I am a ratcatcher.”
The man who spoke these words stood with his head held upright in the doorway of a house where the figure of a woman was gleaming in the twilight. He watched her with his dark inquisitive eyes. He was tall and thin and he appeared even thinner in his tight velvet coat and narrow trousers. His hands were small and gentle, like the hands of a lady. He carried no weapon by his side, not even a walking cane, though it seemed as if he came from far away, traveling on roads that weren’t always secure. He did, however, hold on to a long, ornamental object that sparked curiosity in the woman with whom he was speaking. It was a unique whistle that flaunted the skill of a foreign craftsman. She had never seen anything like it before.
“A ratcatcher,” laughed the woman in the doorway. You’ve come to Hamelin just in time. There are no ratcatchers here, but we have plenty of rats. Explain to me, Ratcatcher, where do these rats come from? I’ve been told that they weren’t always here. However,” she added with a smile, “it’s also true that old folks often claim the world keeps getting worse.”
The Ratcatcher shrugged.
“I don’t know where they come from, but they are in each one of your homes. They continuously gnaw at things, first down in the cellars, in places where you can’t see them. But then they grow more daring and climb to the surface. Let’s say you plan a feast for a wedding, baptism or something of the sort, and then imagine that during that feast, these rats suddenly appear with their long earlobes and whiskers. You must admit such a view spoils the appetite.”
“I agree,” the woman laughed. “During Katherine’s wedding a big rat suddenly appeared. The groom was pale as a ghost and Katherine fainted. Folks can’t bear the sight of anything that would ruin their appetites. That’s when they finally decide to call for a ratcatcher.”
“Are you preparing a wedding or perhaps a baptism?” the Ratcatcher interrupted suddenly.
The woman in the doorway laughed out loud.
“It’s quite obvious that you’re a stranger around these parts. No, Ratcatcher, I am not married.”
The Ratcatcher bowed.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “it doesn’t matter at all… well anyway, people summon the Ratcatcher and he plays and plays his whistle until he lures all vermin from their hideouts. They follow him as if they were in a trance, and he leads them to a river: the Rhine, the Danube, the Havel, the Weser… and then the house is free of rats.”
The Ratcatcher bowed once more. His voice trembled as if it meant to render an elegy of some sort.
The woman was silent, fidgeting with a twig of jasmine.
“And once the work is done, no one remembers the ratcatcher,” he continued. “A ratcatcher, Stranger, is a man who doesn’t stay; he leaves. People are glad to see him come but are even happier to see him go.”
“Is that so?” she said, seemingly encouraging him — or perhaps not. Nevertheless, the Ratcatcher took it as encouragement. His pale cheeks colored, and maybe she would have noticed were it not for the nearing darkness.
She said, “I can sense, Stranger, that people cannot love a ratcatcher; they can only fear him.” She laughed once again. “What makes the rats follow you so blindly, Ratcatcher?”
He pointed to his whistle, which oddly seemed to have come to life. “It’s a strange instrument,” he said.
She gazed curiously upon the whistle and then timidly touched the instrument.
“It’s a whistle,” she said contemptuously, “a nice whistle, but nothing more.”
“Rats have good hearing and this whistle has a good sound.”
The Ratcatcher’s eyes ignited with an odd flame. The woman in the doorway stepped back slightly. The twig in her hand began to tremble.
“I have a special talent for purging rats,” the Ratcatcher continued, “I sometimes play very sad tunes — songs from all the places I’ve traveled. And I have seen many places: lands both sunlit and dark, mountains and plains. My whistle sounds soft. The rats listen to it and follow. There is no ratcatcher like me anywhere. I will tell you something, beautiful Stranger who laughs like a bell. I have never blown my whistle with a full burst of air. I have always softened my blowing. If I gave it all I had, rats would not be the only vermin following me.”
The Ratcatcher finished speaking what he wanted to say. The flame in his eyes died out and he intuitively lowered his arms along with his whistle.
“I haven’t the courage,” he added after a moment. “Something cruel would happen.”
The young woman stood there silently and never took her eyes off the Ratcatcher or his whistle. When he stopped speaking, she said rather quietly, “I like you, Ratcatcher. Before twilight came, I saw silver streaks in your black hair. Before you spoke, I noticed wrinkles on your forehead. Nevertheless, I like what I see. Surely, many women have loved you.”
“Perhaps,” the Ratcatcher replied. “I don’t remember.” His words developed a strange, resonant accent that captivated the woman. Her tone grew serious. She leaned toward him so she could feel his hot breath.
“I like you, Ratcatcher,” she continued encouragingly. “But if I were you, I would blow into that whistle with all the breath I had.”
“Do you realize what could happen?” the Ratcatcher asked in a gloomy voice. “I don’t know myself. All I can tell you is that, time after time, anguish consumes me. I look at my whistle as upon something that has destroyed many and is meant to destroy even more. And then I laugh. It is nothing more than a pretty whistle. You said it yourself. I am nothing more than a ratcatcher who is destined to lead away all unwanted guests. A ratcatcher is like Ahasver,* who travels from town to town, from North to South, from East to West.”
* Translator’s note: Ahasver is better known in medieval Central European mythology as the Wandering Jew.
“No, I don’t know what could happen,” she said. And then she began to whisper. “You can call me Agnes.”
“Agnes,” he said, and as he spoke his voice turned soft and deep. His lips gathered a peculiar sense of magic.
She looked at him intensely.
“Will you be leaving Hamelin soon?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It is not up to me. And…”
He then replied with a glance.
She laughed and it sounded fresh and pure — filled with youth and happiness. It resonated like the bells of resurrection.
“I think that you have your work cut out for you. There are many rats here.” Then she added in a more serious tone, “You should stay, Ratcatcher.”
He did not answer. Their eyes met. She felt uneasy yet gazed inquisitively into his fiery eyes. The jasmine twig trembled in her hand.
“I have a lover,” she said.
The Ratcatcher took her by the hand.
“I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to hear anything about him. I know that there are many ugly things in this world. Why do I need to care about them if they don’t cross my path? However, if I did meet him…”
The Ratcatcher’s voice grew deep and then saddened. It sounded serious and threatening like a passing bell.
“No,” she sighed, but it wasn’t clear to him what that word meant. They both found themselves at the edge of a steep crevice where neither dared to take that extra step; where flight was the only alternative. He held her hand in his own and she allowed him to. He squeezed it. He squeezed her with a force and passion that made her gasp in pain. Nevertheless, she returned the gesture and the pain he felt was numbing.
“Agnes,” he said and it sounded like a question as well as a plea. She looked at him and smiled.
“Yes,” she replied, and it was clear to him what that word meant. It was utterly naked, without timidity or reservation. And the woman in the doorway handed the Ratcatcher her twig of jasmine.