The latest addition to my website is Petra Hůlová‘s Stručné dějiny Hnutí (The Movement). This is a feminist dystopian novel. In this New World, men are sent to a institute – in some cases voluntarily but often at the instigation of their spouses or even simply snatched from the streets, where they are retrained – often fairly harshly – to think of women as people and not as bodies. The training includes masturbating to pictures of ugly older woman and having sex with them. The story is told by Věra, a guard at one of the institutes who seems a lot of her time looking at and handling penises. Once she gets away from the city on a tour, she finds it is women rather than men who are of the most resistant. The book seemed as much a manifesto against men’s view of women as a novel but Hůlová makes her point about the objectification of women and excess pornography.
The latest addition to my website is Vítězslav Nezval‘s Žena v množném čísle (Woman in the Plural). This is not even vaguely a novel but,rather, a collection of pieces – poetry, short prose pieces and a drama – all of which are surrealistic in nature, as Nezval was on one of, if not the leading Czech surrealist, a friend of Breton and other leading French surrealists. The drama, for example, starts off with the Bird of Doom and a Neurasthenic Woman, and an event for which may people have paid but not only do neither we nor they know what it is about, nor do the organisers. It gets worse. The poems and prose pieces are full of surrealistic imagery – no Moon in June or daffodils floating in the breeze, even though his poems are vaguely love poems or, at least, about women, and a few nature poems. Images such as widowed scallops and a chess-playing flea abound. It is all enormous fun but, of course, serious fun. He concludes But what disgusts me most is the fool who laughs at this desperate poem of mine.
The latest addition to my website is Vítězslav Nezval‘s Valérie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) . Nezval was a committed surrealist, friends with André Breton and other surrealists when he wrote this book in 1932 (thirteen years before it was finally published in Czech). It is a spoof Gothic novel with a host of surrealist touches and follows Valerie in her first week of menstruation, when various characters try to corrupt her sexually and otherwise. In particular there is the polecat, a 104 year old devil/vampire/former lover of her grandmother (Valerie’s parents, a bishop and a nun, are dead) who has a host of wicked plans. Fortunately, Orlik, possibly the son or nephew of the polecat and maybe but maybe not Valerie’s (half-)brother helps her, as she helps him. From fowl pest to witch-burning, from secret vaults and premature burials, from magic potions to defiled virgins, Nezval throws it all in for a wonderful Gothic spoof.
The latest addition to my website is Jan Balabán‘s Kudy šel anděl? (Where Was the Angel Going?). The novel is set in Ostrava, site of a huge coalfield, with many of the people involved in mining. We follow primarily Martin Vrána but also various others as they struggle with life. Martin’s first romance (with Eva) goes wrong but he never really gets over her. He later has a failed marriage, before finally meeting Monika. Like for most people in the book, life is grim and the normal recourses – alcohol and sex/love – offer temporary relief but they too have a cost. Even in the post-Communist era, though things are somewhat better – no secret police, for example – they are not hugely better and life remains a struggle, particularly as far as love and sex are concerned. Martin has a glimmer of hope at the end but it really is only a glimmer. For others, things do not work out.
The latest addition to my website is Josef Pánek‘s Láska v době globálních klimatických změn [Love in the Time of Global Climate Change]. This is a witty (with Czech-style wit) novel about racism and racial differences. Tomáš is a divorced molecular biologist, attending a conference in Bangalore. He does not like the place – the heat, the smell, the noise, the food, the lack of alcohol. He has not had sex for some time (exactly how much depends on his mood) and cannot countenance having sex with an Indian woman. He then meets an Indian woman, first in the street and later at the conference and he starts to wonder whether he was mistaken. Throughout the book he mocks those he meets, the places he visits, his family, the Czech institutions and above all, himself and his attitudes. It is very funny but, at the same time, seriously discusses the issue of racism and racial differences.
The latest addition to my website is Egon Hostovský‘s Úkryt (The Hideout). The novel was first published in 1943 but has just been reissued by Pushkin Press. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a Czech engineer who has invented a revolutionary anti-aircraft gun sight. However, the Munich Agreement has happened. As he does not want it to get into the hands of the Germans, the Czechs have no use for it and he is not prepared to give it to the British or the French, as they betrayed his country, he destroys the blueprint, to his boss’s consternation. He then flees the country. Much of what he does, we learn from a letter he is writing to his wife, Hanichka, as he is hiding out in Normandy, under German occupation, in the house of a French friend, and about to embark on what seems to be a suicidal mission. As he lives in the basement in permanent darkness, he isn’t happy and fantasises but also gives his wife a limited account, before we get a more detailed account of what happened to him and why. Hostovský tells an excellent story of man caught up in a grim predicament, partially of his own making but mainly because he is caught up in the war.
The latest addition to my website is Jaroslav Kalfar‘s Spacemen of Bohemia. Kalfar was born in Prague but moved to the US when he was fifteen and wrote this novel in English. It is about Jakub Procházka, the first Czech astronaut (in 2018), who is sent into space to investigate a mysterious purple cloud between Earth and Venus. The novel certainly has science fiction elements – Jakub even meets an extraterrestrial who may or may not be a hallucination – but is also about a lot more, including his relationship with his wife, dealing with isolation (the journey to the cloud lasts four months), political corruption and abuse of power (Jakub’s father was a secret policeman under the Communist regime), the pretensions of small nations and, of course, as in any good Czech novel, outwitting the Russians. It is both funny and serious and a thoroughly first-class first novel, even if you do not generally take to science fiction.
The latest addition to my website is Michal Ajvaz‘s Druhé Město (The Other City). This is a full-blown fantasy tale, telling of the unnamed narrator who discovers that there is another city in Prague, one that lives underground or comes out at night, where the laws of science and everything else that we know have been subverted. His journey start with a book he finds in an antiquarian bookshop, which is written is strange script, and leads him on a journey which involves talking fish, meetings where it is compulsory to bring a weasel, a fight with giant shark, a strange green tram which travels through the suburbs and into the woods, leaving its tracks, and a high priest who is killed by a tiger. All too often we are lost but that does not matter, as our hero is sure to find some different part of the other city to take us to, where nothing much makes sense. It is a wonderfully enjoyable book, if you are prepared to take it for what it is and perhaps it will help you recognise the other city in your home town.
The latest addition to my website is Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age). This is a superbly original novel about an island off the coast of Africa, which though it has had contact with the rest of the world, has a completely different way of doing things. The narrator, an unnamed Czech, gives us a description of a people who generally shun technology, have no crime and whose main activity is enjoying the play of light on water. They mine precious stones from the back of their houses, set into a hill, which they sell to visitors. They have only one book (and only one copy of that book), which anyone can write in and which is thoroughly post-modernist, in that it seems to be a series of nested stories which goes off on all sorts of tangents. History, law, culture in the broadest sense and even relationships seem all relatively unimportant to them. The narrator uses the term effervescent chaos to describe their way of life but, whatever you call it, Ajvaz is clearly showing that there is a different way to look at the world from our conventional way and gives us a first-class novel to show this.
The latest addition to my website is Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic‘s Gotická duše (Gothic Soul). This is Czech Decadence at its best, a response to or, more likely, a homage to J K Huysmans’ classic decadent novel, À rebours (Against the Grain). The unnamed narrator, last scion of a distinguished family, with only a few unhinged female relatives left alive, has been planning to train as a priest or monk, more for the solitude and contemplation than because of any religious fervour but abandons the idea because of melancholy, doubt and fear of people. He lives alone, with only the occasional servant appearing, and wallows in decadence, despair and melancholy. He is obsessed with death, so much so that his image of Prague is of a deserted city, with only churches, chapels, crypts, and cloisters. He only seems to come alive when contemplating death. He struggles with his soul, with his religious views and with life. He shuns people, though occasionally seeking, unsuccessfully, to make friends (though this may well be for sexual purposes, as Karásek was gay at a time when homosexuality was very much frowned upon.) He wanders around the gloomy and deserted city, often ending up at the deserted Barnabite cloisters. He visits his aunt and, after wandering around her large house looking for her, he does find her but she mistakes him for her long dead son. The nihilism of the Czech soul also hangs over him, leaving him with nothing to hope for and nothing to live for. It is a thoroughly gloomy book but is good to finally have one of the classic Czech Decadence novels in English. Indeed, apart from a few stories translated into English, German and Spanish, this is the first work of Karásek’s to be translated and we must be grateful for Twisted Spoon Press for publishing it.
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