Rosanne Dingli Interviews Edmund Eben from How to Disappear

Disappear_Largest_COVERThis is an interview with Edmund Eben, a character in Rosanne Dingli’s novel in two parts How to Disappear.

RD: Edmund, this name you use – EDMUND EBEN – is not the name you were born with, is it? Why does it change halfway through the story?

EE: That’s a difficult question to start an interview with! The nuns at the orphanage where I was raised called me Moses, because they found me in a basket. They gave me the surname Nalezenec, which means ‘foundling’ in Czech. When I left the orphanage and got out of the rigid communist system, by escaping from Bohemia, I changed my name, to start afresh, and entered free Europe as Edmund Eben, a name I made up one night, lying on a mattress in the dark.

 RD: You are now an older gentleman, an artist of repute in Australia. How did you learn how to paint, and what else have you done to earn a living, if anything?

EE: That’s a long story. I worked in a glass factory in Bohemia for a long time, and I got used to designing patterns to go on crystal vases and bowls. I longed to draw landscapes and portraits. It was hard to get paper to draw on, and to find time – and a quiet clean place to do my art. Even pencils were hard to find at one point. When I was finally in Europe, I met an old couple who ran an art supplies shop. The old man was a wonderful artist, and a great teacher. He also loved to talk! He loved it when I visited, and would spend hours teaching me how to draw birds, but he insisted I was very good at architectural subjects, so I drew a lot of buildings in those days. I grew to love that old man and his wife. I wrote lots of letters and sent them lots of sketches when I came to Australia. I also worked in a hat factory, and later in a hat shop, selling trilbies and homburgs and cloth caps.

RD: Was escaping communist Czechoslovakia difficult?

EE: I think I did it rather well. Just like anything else in life, I was blessed with enormous good luck. I always seemed to meet the right people at the right time; ones that could help me get where I wanted to be, achieve what I wanted to achieve, and give me a good kick in the pants when I needed it. Mind you, I also met some bewildering people, and confusing types.

Escaping was possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. Physically and mentally, I was traumatized and unhappy for a long time. Arriving in a new country as a refugee, where you don’t know anyone, can’t understand the language, and have no money or belongings to speak of, it can be very confusing, frightening, and devoid of hope.

I kind of go numb when I am bewildered and lost, but I know how to accept help, and I’m still very grateful to all those who helped until I got on my feet. It was such hard work.

RD: What’s the best thing about being an immigrant? And the worst?

EE: The best thing for me was the new beginning. It was like I had shed my entire past, my old identity, my entire collection of problems. Of course I took on new ones, but that’s always the case. I started out in Europe – Belgium, to be exact. How I got there was an adventure in itself. Then I got on an English ship on a ten-pound emigrant’s ticket to Australia. Halfway through the voyage I realized my life would never be free of problems. When I started working in that steamy hat factory I felt that even more. When I got to Melbourne it was much worse. But my boss then taught me I would never be free of problems – no one is. But one can choose the kinds of problems one wants to deal with! So I chose a set of knotty problems I knew I could handle one way or another. The best for me was starting afresh. Yes.

The worst was trying to grapple with the customs, language, and people of a country town, where I could not understand anything. It happened in Belgium, and also in Australia in the first months. I taught myself English … taught myself how to get on with perfect strangers, who were all foreigners at first. But they were at home – it was I who was the newcomer. So I had to adjust, and I did it. I did it.

RD: Do you have any hobbies? Did you have spare time in which to enjoy something other than work?

EE: Ha ha! There’s no real time for hobbies when you are escaping from a rigid regime, or when you’re on the run, or when you are struggling in a new country. But when things settle down, and you’re making enough money, and you find someone to love, it’s amazing how everything falls into place.

In Melbourne, I met the young woman who was to become my wife, and suddenly, I turned a corner. There was time to stand still and consider art, culture, music. Ah – music! Perhaps my hobby is listening to music. I have a sizeable collection of … well, records, at first, and then cassettes, and then CDs. All kinds of music. My son is a famous cellist. I love some of what he plays. His mother and I travel to watch him perform. At home, I play our CDs while I paint. The music … ah! The music reminds me of when I first heard sounds coming from a radio. One of my favourite instruments is the saxophone. Did you know it was invented by a Belgian? Ha ha – I thought you might be surprised by that.

RD: What drew you to the person you fell in love with?

EE: At first, I had no idea what attracted me to Vanna. The whole world seemed to vanish the first time I met her. Everything disappeared but her face, her intense eyes, and … and … look – I don’t really know, but I date our relationship from that very first minute. Her mother died shortly after we met, and she was a bit despondent, but we grew very close. She is the most vibrant, happy, optimistic person in the world! And that’s was what I needed at the time. I still need it. Nothing was too much of a problem, and she always encouraged me about my art. She always thought of me as an artist, so I became one! She showed my paintings to her Uncle Mario, and he placed them in his gallery – and I have never looked back. I became a success, I worked really hard, but it’s really all because of her belief in me. Her drive, her energy. Her love for me. Vanna worked just as hard, and when she had the babies – ah! That was such a wonderful time. Difficult, but wonderful. We lost a son, you know, when he was very young. We had several huge problems, but her optimism got us out of every single one. I could have done nothing without Vanna.

RD: When you walk into a room, what do you expect people notice about you?

EE: My hair, it’s always been my ginger hair. Well – I’m almost white now, but I had thick red hair as a youth. People always remarked about it, especially in Melbourne, when I was a new arrival. And I’m very tall, so people see me coming, even in a crowd, even though I have started to stoop with age. My height was a problem when I lived in Prague, because fitting onto a small lumpy mattress in a dusty squat is not easy. It’s not easy for tall people to keep warm. Height was a problem on board the ship that took me to Australia. I didn’t quite fit in the bunk. Nowadays my stoop is noticeable, and what people call my long ‘artist’s’ fingers. Perhaps they notice my big nose. I don’t know.

RD: What is your greatest extravagance?

EE: You know, it’s never been easy for me to be extravagant. Perhaps it’s my background, the fact I was an orphan, the fact I had to run away from my native land, the fact I had to start out in a new country where everything was strange and unfamiliar and very very difficult. Even when I was making enough money painting pictures, which I thought was a miracle, I always saved. Vanna is also very frugal so we never really fought about money. No, no – not about money.

Believe it or not we still use the same crockery and cutlery and glasses that we bought soon after we married. We have some nice tablecloths and things which were gifts from her family, but they are almost threadbare now.

But when it comes to travelling to see our son play his cello, nothing is too expensive. We follow him around the globe and have watched him perform in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. We stay in nice hotels and wear nice clothes and have good serviceable luggage. It all makes for a lovely life, I suppose. Yes, we have a very enjoyable life. So that’s our extravagance, if you like – frequent travel to some very enjoyable destinations, to watch some of the best concerts the world of music can provide.

RD: What is your greatest regret?

EE: I should have searched for my mother. I did for a while, but I never found her. I was only a week or so old when she left me with the nuns in that basket. I was wrapped in a soiled shawl, which they threw away. So I always imagined her wrapped in a soft shawl, a beautiful soft fringed shawl. I would dream about her, and craved just one hour with her, my mother. But I suppose I didn’t look hard enough. I was a young boy … she must have died, either during the war, or when the communists came in from the north, from the east. Life was in turmoil then, in Prague. It was history in the making, but what a history! I spoke to Vanna about my mother, about my desire to have known her. She understood. I think she understood.

RD: And finally, can you tell us the most significant event in your life?

EE: How can I choose? My life has been unusually eventful. Perhaps it was being left in a basket as a baby. Perhaps it was working in that glass factory outside Prague. Or perhaps it was escaping on a potato train to Belgium. It might have been the week I left the hat factory in country Victoria, to seek my fortune in Melbourne. Or perhaps meeting another Czech, who gave me a job in his hat shop.

No, no – it was meeting Vanna, and settling down to have a family. But wait – there has been another significant event, and that is finding my long-lost daughter. But I won’t tell you about that here. Perhaps you can read about it somewhere, sometime!

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ROSANNE DINGLI has authored seven novels, six story collections, a few novellas and a poetry collection. Writing professionally since 1985, when her first pieces were published by literary journals in NSW, she has held various roles in publishing. She has also freelanced successfully, mainly with lifestyle magazines and newspapers. She lectured in Creative Writing, English, and Journalism at ECU for a number of years, and taught several courses at TAFE. Her awards include the Patricia Hackett prize and the Springvale Award. Now the owner of the imprint Yellow Teapot Books, she supports and mentors other Australian writers and champions the concept of professional independent publishing. She lives and writes in Perth, Australia.

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Amazon link to the novel How to Disappear