Molly Antopol, "The Quietest Man"
Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” (One Story 132, March 10, 2010) is a good story, with piquant insights and interesting situations. It’s a story about Tomás Novak, a man from the Czech Republic who came to the States as a political émigré. He was offered a teaching job in a small college in a small town as a way to escape persecution in Prague. By persecution, I mean that he and his wife (Katka) wrote articles for an underground newspaper. When Tomás was discovered, he kept quiet during interrogation, earning him the nickname “The Quietest Man.” Despite Tomás’s apparent poise, Katka was a far fiercer and more engaged intellectual than he was.
When they were shunted to the States, they had a two-year-old daughter (Daniela), and Katka was forced to work as a janitor cleaning up the very rooms Tomás lectured in. (This contrast was over the top: too literalized a metaphorical way to illustrate the different paths immigrant lives follow.) Katka’s discontent puts incredibly pressure on the marriage, and they get a divorce: Katka moves away to New York, and Tomás stays behind. He is denied tenure when communism falls. The next interesting subject for academics has become Serbia, and tenure is given to a female Serbian professor who was also brought as a guest.
Here begins Tomás’s pathetic quest for a stable teaching post, which he aptly describes thus: “my thirties and forties would be about mastering the delicate, tricky dance of pleading for adjunct work through the east coast” (9). Tomás is also shown struggling with the fact of having to care for a child. He received Daniela over the summers, and was completely inept and frustrated in taking care of her. After the last of those visits, when Daniela was twelve, Katka confronts him: “‘I’ve always known you saw her as a burden, but you had to let her know that?’” (23). This is all told through flashbacks (some of them quite obviously workshopped into the narrative).
In the narrative present, Tomás is incredibly concerned because Daniela—who’s only 23—has sold a play in New York, and he knows—because Katka told him—it’s about the family. The play brings back worries associated with the communist interrogations. For instance, Tomás worries that he’ll be presented disgracefully on stage, his story controlled by what Katka had told Daniela about him: “Katka’s version of the story would become the official one. My entire legacy as The Quietest Man would be erased” (17).
Daniela agrees to fly over and visit Tomás for a weekend, before the play is staged, and he uses to opportunity to grind her for information, betraying Katka’s secrets in order to make Daniela talk. After a short interrogation, she breaks down and talks (“Part of me was saddened that my daughter was the kind of person who would crack so quickly” ). The play turns out to be in fact about Tomás’s years in Prague, when he became known as The Quietest Man. He lies to her about how he cared for her as a baby in Prague, in order to present himself as a better father than he ever was. The story ends with a fake, fleeting, gossamer connection between father and daughter.
The story has room for improvement here and there, but it’s one of the best I’ve discussed on this One Story series. The interview reveals that Antopol is working on a collection of short stories, one of which is “The Quietest Man.”