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TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

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THE GOLEM BY GUSTAV MEYRINK

I was, I must confess, disgracefully hungover and sleep deprived; and I had, yes, already had something of a meltdown in the Kafka museum; but these things can, I feel, only provide a partial explanation for what happened on the Karluv Most bridge. It was early in the afternoon, around 12:30, as we left the museum and started the crossing. Straightaway, I noted a woman having her portrait drawn, a smile stretched grotesquely across her face as though it was intent on swallowing it. Further on, a spidery old man was playing an over-large accordion, and what appeared to be circus performers were blithely strolling in the midday sun. Yet, while these things all contributed to the surreal atmosphere, it was the dogs, the dogs wearing scarves, that truly did for me.

The walk along the bridge seemed to be unending. My feet moved, but I appeared to make no progress. The dogs, so many dogs, all the same breed, and all wearing scarves, passed by me at regular intervals. It was as though I was standing still, and they – the dogs – were going round in circles, were circling me, coming back around, time and time again. Where were they coming from? How could it be that ten or fifteen of the same breed had found themselves on the bridge that day? And why were they dressed so suavely? I have lost my mind, I suddenly thought to myself; then, gripping my friend’s arm, I asked him, straight-faced, with great seriousness: ‘You can see those dogs, can’t you?’

Thankfully, he could; but the point of this story is not the existence, or non-existence, of dogs, but rather to demonstrate something of the special atmosphere of Prague. It is a city, a beautiful city, that invites madness; it is a city of weirdness and wonder, where, one feels, or certainly I feel, anything is possible. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that much of the literature it has generated – The Maimed by Hermann Unger, for example – has that particular quality to it, as though the strange air of Prague has seeped into the pages. In this way, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem held few surprises for me; which is to say that I expected odd, and odd is what I got.

“A brief rustling that broke off short, as if startled at itself, then deadly silence, that agonising, watchful hush, fraught with its own betrayal, that stretched each minute to an excruciating eternity.”

First published serially in 1913-14, The Golem is, on the surface at least, a gothic thriller. With little subtlety, but great relish, Meyrink turns Prague’s Jewish ghetto into a nightmare, with its ‘dark corners,’ ‘tomblike silence’ and generally gloomy, and threatening, atmosphere. It is a place where a ‘human spider’ with a hare lip [Aaron Wassertrum] lurks; and where a malevolent being, said to be the Golem, stalks the streets and the inhabitants, including the narrator, Athanasius Pernath. As one works one’s way through the book there are murders, robberies, secret rooms, inexplicable events, and suicide plots; there are references to cabbala and tarot; and all of this is great, dumb fun.

Yet there is, I believe, an underlying gravitas to the descriptions of life in the Jewish quarter. At the time that the novel was written it was, in fact, in the process of being demolished or cleaned up. For many years it had the reputation of being excessively dirty, over populated, and run down; and it was thought to be a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. With this in mind, Meyrink’s gothic thriller has perhaps more in common with Emile Zola’s theatrical naturalism than it does Lovecraft, Poe or Dracula. Moreover, this historical knowledge has the effect of altering the tone of much of what you read, so that when Pernath describes the houses as turning their backs on each other one sees in it, not something sinister, but something rather moving. Likewise, when he says of the inhabitants that they are ‘strange people’ who ‘seem to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends.’

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This is not to say that Meyrink, or at least his narrator, is entirely in sympathy with the people of the ghetto. Certainly, in the early stages I detected elements of anti-semitism, for there is obvious disgust in the way that Wassertrum and Rosina, for example, are depicted. Indeed, Aaron is said to have a ‘horrible face’ and ’round fish’s eyes’; he is a crook, who once sold a woman into prostitution. Rosina, on the other hand, is ‘repulsive’ and lascivious. Moreover, the evils of Wassertrum and his son are both linked to money, bringing to mind the Jewish stereotype of avariciousness. In contrast, the Czech characters, who are also living in poverty of course, are lovable rascals with hearts of gold. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Meyrink introduces Hillel and Miriam, who are positive Jewish characters; and this did go some way to soothing my concerns, especially as they are both self-denying and generous with money.

It is usually the case with these reviews that I spend a considerable proportion of them discussing the principle character[s], their motivations, psychology and personality. This is made more difficult in this instance, because Pernath is, for much of the novel, a man is search of himself, literally and spiritually. Indeed, at the beginning, he is handed a book with a prominent letter ‘I’ etched on it, which is not, of course, insignificant; and later it is hinted that the narrator may not be Pernath at all, having assumed this identity from a name in a hat he mistakenly picked up. In any case, he does not, we are told, remember anything about his childhood; there is the suggestion that he had some kind of mental breakdown, underwent hypnosis, and therefore repressed, or in some way lost, those memories, and with them his sense of self.

“The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call ‘immortality’. Your soul is still composed of many ‘selves’, just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants.”

It is interesting, in this regard, that when we meet him he is alive, certainly, but could not be said to be living, as though one’s past enables one to have a present and a future. In fact, it is only when he starts to recover his memories that he takes an active part in life. He romances two women, for example, and forms deeper, more valuable friendships. However, I ought to point out that this is, I’m sure, not how Meyrink intended his novel to be understood. It is full of obscure mysticism, or ‘waffle’ if you were being uncharitable, which, based on what I know about the author and his interests, would likely mean that he had something more philosophically complex in mind. Moreover, if you have read the book you will know that I have completely disregarded the ‘twist’, and the questions it raises about the nature of reality, dreams, and so on. But well, fuck it, I most enjoyed The Golem as a story, not about a man’s spiritual awakening, but rather as about a man beginning to feel some joy in living.

THE MAIMED BY HERMANN UNGAR

‘I’m starting to believe in God,’ I said to someone the other day. Not in a positive way. No. More and more I am convinced that a higher power exists, and that He is fucking with me. What other explanation could there be, I ask myself with despicable arrogance, for the relentless misfortune that has befallen me in recent times? Twelve months ago, things were not perfect, of course, but I was happy, carefree; my life had meaning, direction. And now? Disaster and misery, that twin-headed dog, has pinned me to the ground and is slobbering on my face. Yet on occasions I find myself laughing. Sitting in my room or walking down the street. It’s funny, because it’s absurd. Something else? Another one? Whatever next? Chaos dominates my existence; it is standing on my bollocks in high-heels and calling me a dirty bitch.

So, right now I feel especially drawn to, and sympathetic towards, Franz Polzer – poor Franz Polzer – whose life unravels over the course of just over two-hundred pages. However, as one would expect, The Maimed begins in an unassuming manner, as Ungar sketches the ‘monotonous routine’ that constitutes Franz’s existence prior to the unpleasantness that makes up most of the action. Polzer works in a bank, we are told, and has held the same position for seventeen years. He leaves the house at the same time every day, ‘never a minute earlier or later.’ He is a capable man, who is not fulfilling his potential, principally because he is desperate to maintain the status quo. He wishes to remain unnoticed; he prizes order and habit; he finds solace in the monotony; so much so, in fact, that when later in the novel he is offered a promotion he turns it down.

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[Staircase of Old Prague, 1924, Jaromír Funke]

At this early stage one might believe that one has stumbled upon something like a Bohemian version of The Book of Disquiet. Yet Polzer’s primary emotion is not disappointment, or a resigned acceptance of his dreary fate, but fear. He is afraid of thieves and murderers, of the unknown or unseen something that is ‘standing in the dark, waiting’; he fixates upon creaks and noises during the night. He sees disapproving looks, or outright threat, in every glance. He worries about his conversations being overheard; he worries about being forced out of his room, and of being thrown out of the apartment altogether. He even frets about the shabbiness of his clothes, spending an entire evening hiding a hole in his trousers with his hat. In short, everything frightens Polzer, including, or especially, children.

It is interesting in this respect to compare him to Karl Fanta, his childhood friend. While Karl is certainly more outspoken than Polzer, more handsome, more rich and successful, he too is almost constantly afraid. Indeed, he believes his wife to be not only unfaithful, but intent on killing him off and taking his money. This is not, however, the only, nor most interesting, similarity between the two men. Both are, or consider themselves to be, persecuted, and taken advantage of, by others, particularly the women in their lives. Moreover, both could be said to be enfeebled, one mentally and the other physically. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining the title of the novel. Karl is maimed externally, by virtue of the loss of his legs and his arm, by the illness that will take his life; Polzer, on the other hand, is maimed internally, psychologically.

“What Polzer feared had begun. The door had been opened. Once order had been disrupted, ever increasing chaos was bound to follow. The breach had been made through which the unforeseen could pour in, spreading fear.”

As with many socially awkward people, a number of Franz’s problems arise because he is incapable of successfully articulating his desires. He cannot, or will not, stand up for himself or put his foot down with any authority. This means that even when he says ‘no’ to something he isn’t taken seriously, or is, in a sense, overruled by someone who is more confident and aggressive. [This also happens when someone wishes to do him a kindness, such as the doctor who ‘loans’ him money for a new suit]. Therefore, Klara Porges, his nemesis and landlady, does not have to force or outright threaten him into taking her for a walk, and ultimately taking her as a lover, she merely has to apply a small amount of mental or emotional pressure and Polzer will crumble.

There is, however, one incident that takes place between the couple that one would describe as actual physical intimidation. This is when Porges whips Polzer with the buckle-end of a belt in order to make him strip. I was, at this point, put in mind of Thomas Mann’s description of The Maimed as ‘a sexual hell.’ In the most literal way this phrase strikes one as odd, as there is very little actual sex in the book, certainly nothing graphic. Yet it is apt when one considers the sadistic [and masochistic – although this is less pronounced] impulses of many of the characters. Early in the narrative, for example, it is revealed that Polzer was often held down by his father and beaten by his aunt. This, I would argue, goes beyond mere punishment and, as with Frau Porges and the belt, enters into the realm of sexual punishment; it is about getting off on power and the helplessness of others [especially when bearing in mind that it is suggested that the man and his sister were engaged in a incestuous relationship]. Moreover, Karl Fanta enjoys berating his wife Dora, making her strip for him; and it is her unhappiness, discomfort, and possible disgust, that is the source of this enjoyment.

Probably the most noteworthy [or controversial depending upon your religious stance] exploration of sadistic and masochistic impulses is in relation to Christianity. When Karl Fanta insists on a male nurse, he is given Sonntag, a former butcher. Initially, he seems reserved and dutiful, but after a while it is revealed that he is a born again Christian, who has peculiar, albeit not unique, ideas about sin and atonement. For Sonntag it seems that one atones for ones sins through submission and humiliation, and, to this end, he pays particular attention to the ‘haughty’ Dora. So once again one sees the powerful glorying in their ability to make the weak do their bidding, in their capacity for making these people suffer. Likewise, the weak are not only accepting of their punishment, but are willingly submitting to it.

Before I conclude I want to acknowledge the author, and, specifically, emphasise the quality of his prose. At first it struck me as artless – with its short sentences and the repetition of banal words and phrases – but before long I understood its purpose. It is unexciting, pedestrian, sometimes a chore to read; it is, therefore, perfectly in tune with its protagonist. Furthermore, in many novels of this sort – The Tenant by Roland Topor, for example – there is a lack of character depth, a necessary human dimension that is missing. The everyman; the average man; the boring man…how does one make it seem as though he is alive? Well, Hermann Ungar managed it; he gave life to the dead, to Franz Polzer, poor Franz Polzer, and that is ultimately what makes The Maimed a masterpiece.

MARKETA LAZAROVA BY VLADISLAV VANCURA

Prague. Praha. City of a Hundred Spires. I have left so much of myself there. At a bus stop in I.P. Pavlova with Daria. On the Vltava river with Shazir. With Eliška in Old Town Square. There are traces of me all over the city, like the mucus trail of a snail. Vyšehrad, Karlův most, Riegrovy Sady, Liliová. I have left so much of myself that I am not sure what exactly I have brought home. Except memories and longing. On the day of my return, the most recent return, I had a panic attack in the Václav Havel airport lounge, brought on by the sight of the plane that was to take me away. I felt as though I was being abducted, and I knew that all my captor would leave me with would be memories and longing. And a copy of Marketa Lazarová.

I had not intended to buy a book. The act was a kind of muscle memory. I opened it more than once while I was away, but words were a chore. I was done with reading. I saw it as a form of cowardice, as a way of hiding, rather than, as I have sometimes tried to convince myself in my more positive moments, a way of finding myself. But then I left, came homeand once again I was happy to hide. However, I didn’t pick up Marketa Lazarová straightaway. I read around it, anything but it, for not only did I want to hide from my life in England, I wanted to hide from my memories of Prague also. It has taken nearly three months for me to be able to confront Vladislav Vančura’s novel, to become comfortable with what it represents, for the humdrum to eat away at my anguish.

“What do you want with glory? Life is what’s glorious, or rather, what one creates, and death is loathsome.”

Published in 1931, Marketa Lazarová casts back into the past, to Medieval Bohemia. It focuses on a family of ‘crafty nobles’, the Kozliks, and their feud with the neighbouring Lazar family and their war with the King’s army. The Kozliks are, despite their aristocratic title, criminals, the kind who ‘laugh aloud as they spill blood.’ Indeed, Vančura repeatedly stresses how violent, crude and primitive they are. For example, when Mikolaš is badly beaten by the Lazars, he does not receive sympathy from his own family, but rather disdain for not having defended himself, or at least killed one or two of the enemy in the process of trying to defend himself. Nothing, it seems, is morally impermissible for these people, not even murder and rape.

However, one gets the impression that many of Vančura’s criticisms are ironic, that in fact he admires the Kozlik clan or at least what they represent. First of all, he contrasts them with the Lazars, who, unlike the Kozliks, would rob an unarmed man. Secondly, he invites you to draw comparisons with the king’s soldiers, who he describes as ‘swords for hire, gluttons for pork, rats in the larder.’ They are a band of men ‘whose sins are dressed up as honor and glory,’ with the implication being that it is the Kozlik family who demonstrate true honour, bravery, etc. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he draws regular distinctions between the ‘Herculean times’ of yore and modern society, gently mocking the refined reader’s probable unease over certain elements of the story and chiding you for not fighting and loving as ferociously as men and women had once done.

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You may be wondering at this stage who Marketa Lazarová is and why Vančura thought fit to name his novel after her. The first question is easy to answer, of course; she is Lazar’s seventeen year old daughter, who is abducted by Mikolaš as part of the feud between the two families. However, as to the second question, I am not so sure, for although she plays a major role in the text, she is, for me, not as engaging as some of the other characters, most notably her abductor. When we first meet her she is described as a ‘charming maiden,’ who was promised to God. Therefore, one thinks that she will be the conventional moral/religious heart of the tale. Even more so when Mikolaš forces himself upon her, and Marketa prays for death, believing herself to have been defiled and made impure in the eyes of God.

“Devil take it! Let us dispel once and for all any doubt about her innocence. She is Mikolaš’s slut, who sucks passionately at his shoulder, bruises his throat, writhes in mad desire on the snow. What’s the point, though once a placid virgin, the situation has been different some time already. She has become a more splendid lover than even rumour has it, for the purple robe in which love clothes its mistresses was lined with spurned azure.”

Yet soon the nature of her sin changes, as she begins to enjoy the sex. I have encountered this sort of thing before, in Love in the Time of Cholera for example, and I find it indefensible to suggest that women might enjoy being raped, and may come to love their rapist. However, while I would rather he had found another way to do so, I believe that what the author wanted to do was to make a point about being true to oneself, to one’s nature. One sees this in the Kozliks, of course, who are truly, fully themselves and only themselves, living by, and absolutely committed to, their own moral code [regardless of how it might strike someone else].

Marketa, on the other hand, is in conflict. She is bound by traditional Christian ideals and values, and yet the suggestion is that these do not represent who she is really is. Her journey in the novel is one of self discovery, yes, but it is a journey in reverse, so to speak; she does not travel towards refinement, but rather backwards, as she gets in touch with her sensual, passionate, barbarian side. In this way, it is interesting to compare her to Mikolaš, who begins the novel as a knuckle-dragging criminal and rapist, but who, by the end, has shown that he is capable of great love and compassion. For this reason, I would have named the book after him, but who am I to argue with the author? It is also worth noting that the one character – Kristian – who doesn’t act in accordance with his true nature is afforded the most humiliating fate, that of being cudgelled by his wildcat lover.

THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS BY JOSEF SKVORECKY

I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a healthy ex-pat community; and what I found is that many of these people were damaged in some way, were running from something [even if only themselves], just as I am and would be. Yet many of them still seemed to yearn for ‘the old country,’ without, it seemed, having any intention of actually returning there. And as I sat in various bars talking to these people, I started to wonder how I would feel, years from now, as an ex-pat myself. Would I begin to view the place of my birth romantically? Would a snatch of British accent on a street corner send me into sentimental reverie?

“All of my thoughts are memories.”

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Škvorecký begins with mention of a ‘wilderness’, which is, for the narrator, the grounds of Edenvale College in snowy Toronto. The use of this word is, of course, intended to emphasise that Danny Smiricky, a Czech by birth, has in a sense been cast out, or, more accurately, has cast himself out, from his home country. Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, was first invaded by the Nazis, and then, after the war, became one of the Soviet Communist satellite states; and so it was, without question, a dangerous, unstable place for quite some time. Therefore, Danny is, in essence, a refugee; his decision to move was not made in search of adventure, as is the case with many novels dealing with the émigré experience, but in order to live without being in a constant state of anxiety or uneasiness. Indeed, he calls Canada ‘wonderful’, because ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.’

As you would expect then, oppression plays a major role in the novel, although it is often dealt with in a lighthearted, almost good-natured way consistent with the narrator’s personality and outlook on life. For example, the father of Nadia, the girl who a young Danny spends much of his time trying to lay, is sent to a concentration camp, and is presumed dead. Danny himself, meanwhile, is, as are many of the inhabitants of Kostelec, forced by the Nazis to work in a Messerschmitt factory, and subsequently becomes embroiled in a sabotage caper that he believes may cost him his life. Likewise, the evils of communism are frequently alluded to: Veronika, one of Smiricky’s students, was, we’re told, thrown out of a Prague theatre group for having Jewish blood; and, in one of the old letters that pepper the text, letters from Danny’s friends and fellow artists, a playwright informs him that his work has been suppressed, including a play that seems to have involved little more than a bunch of people shitting.

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[“Memorial to the Victims of Communism” – Prague, Czech Republic]

Yet even in present day Canada Danny and the Czech community he regularly interacts with are not entirely safe from what he describes as ‘the many horrors of our life.’ There are numerous amusing chapters devoted to Czech informers and secret police officers and their attempts to entrap or, in the case of Magister Maslo, take out, these enemies of the state. However, even when recounting the most obviously comedic episodes – such as the female informer who Danny manages to get so horrendously drunk that she cannot keep her cover story straight – Škvorecký has a serious point to make, about freedom, the kinds of freedom that people like me often take for granted. For example, he notes Dotty’s crude t-shirt, which depicts a naked couple in the act of copulation, and for which she would have been arrested ‘back home.’ And one gets the sense that this is why she is wearing it: because she can, and because at one time she could not. One also sees something of this in Mrs. Santner’s passionate defence of a Czech author and his right to be as blasphemous or inappropriate in his work as he sees fit.

It is worth saying a little more about the Czech community, and indeed all of the minor characters in the novel, for they are so lovingly, finely drawn: autumn-eyed Veronika, who misses Czechoslovakia so much and feels out of place in Canada; skinny Nadia with the big appetite, who displays more genuine heroism than anyone else in the novel, and who, I have to admit, made my poor heart ache; Novak, who brings Danny a replacement for a record he had played a part, a long time ago, in losing; and many many others. But this, as noted previously, is due to Danny and the way that he sees the world. He describes himself as ‘a sadist with a soft heart,’ and that is a nice phrase, but I would lose the sadist bit, for he is a pure sentimentalist; indeed, he is the best kind of sentimentalist, which is to say that he isn’t naive, he merely tries to see the best in people. Even the informers and secret police officers are given something of the benefit of the doubt, and he treats them all with warmth. Moreover, he understands that if something bad happens, something much worse could have happened instead, and does happen, and is happening somewhere else in the world. Make no mistake, The Engineer of Human Souls is a relentlessly moving and beautiful book, written in the loveliest blue-eyed style.

“The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” – Joseph Stalin

In my introduction I wrote about yearning for ‘the old country’, and have mentioned how Veronika does just that, yet it is Danny who lives in his memories the most. Everything reminds him of Czechoslovakia, everything transports him back home, everything is a madeleine. So, for example, when his English is praised in the present, this instantly brings to mind for him a story from his youth, an incident whereby he spoke English to a German officer, and of course immediately regretted it. Indeed, while watching a film at the Svenssons’, as he experiences another of his flashbacks, he states that ‘associations’ are ‘the essence of everything.’ And, if you have read a number of my reviews, you will know that I agree with him, that, without question, were I to emigrate to Prague, that beautiful city that Danny left behind with such a heavy heart, I would still spend much of my time here.

THE TRIAL BY FRANZ KAFKA

[P] was woken one morning by the sound of sniggering coming from the corner of his room. As he opened his eyes he saw two figures emerge out of the shadows and approach the bed. ‘We are here to investigate,’ one said. ‘We are the police,’ said the other. [P] was disconcerted, he had never woken to find two policemen in his room before. ‘I haven’t reported a crime,’ said [P]. ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘There is no mistake,’ said one of the policemen. His colleague had taken up a position beside [P]’s bookshelves. ‘See here, your copy of The Trial is missing!’ [P] laughed meekly. This must be some kind of practical joke, he thought to himself, but if it was a joke it wasn’t funny, and, besides, who let the men into the room? ‘I can see,’ he said seriously, ‘that my copy of The Trial has indeed been moved. Perhaps it is somewhere else in the room.’ The two policemen solemnly shook their heads. ‘In any case, even if it has been stolen, a criminal investigation is unnecessary. I will simply buy a new copy, maybe even a nicer copy.’ ‘No, that won’t do,’ said the first policeman. ‘Whenever there is a crime, it must be investigated…’ 

Before I started rereading The Trial it was my intention to compose one of my pastiche reviews for it. My thought was that the above situation, i.e. being harangued by policemen who want to investigate a crime that you yourself don’t want them to investigate, a crime that you doubt has even been committed, was suitably absurd and Kafkaesque [I hate that word!]. To some extent I mourn the loss of that review; it would have been fun to write. The reason that I didn’t continue any further than the opening paragraph is that I found, to my surprise, so much to say about the book. I tend to compose those pastiche reviews when I am dealing with something that either didn’t inspire me to think too much or that has been poured over and analysed to the point that it becomes impossible to say anything new or even interesting about it. Now, I don’t claim that my take on The Trial is completely original, but I certainly found that it wasn’t the book I remembered it being, that the most commonly discussed aspects are underpinned by, I would argue, more compelling themes that commentators often ignore or do not give sufficient weight to.

To fully engage with, or even enjoy, The Trial one has to primarily concern oneself with ideas, because Kafka was not, I think it is fair to say, a master of plot or characterisation. Both of Kafka’s novels, although obviously unfinished, meander shamelessly, they proceed with apparent aimlessness; one might even call them repetitive and largely uneventful. Furthermore, Josef K. is not complex, or certainly not in the way that, say, Tolstoy’s creations are; nor is he is believable [whatever that means]. He has moods, of course, but they are all of one type; his emotional range is limited; and what he does feel tends to be negative. For example, he could be said to exhibit exasperation, despair, frustration, anger, confusion and so on. For me, Josef K. as a man, as a character, is really only interesting in relation to another of Kafka’s creations, K. from The Castle, who, on the surface, he appears to closely resemble.

In The Trial Josef K. is caught up in a situation beyond his control; he has, specifically, been arrested, and so it is logical, understandable, that he would want to find out why and to attempt to clear his name. He is, in this way, a relatable figure, because he does what most of us would do. Moreover, he is, despite some less than admirable qualities, sympathetic because, unless one is of the opinion that he has committed a crime, which would put you in a minority, the situation he finds himself in is not his fault. In fact, one might even call him heroic, in that he seeks, and fights for, an explanation or, if you prefer, justice; he also vows to improve or even destroy the system that he believes is persecuting him. This is not at all like what happens in The Castle. In that book, K. is under the impression that he has been summoned to a town in order to work as a land surveyor; yet when he gets there he finds that the locals do not want a land surveyor, and that they would rather he leave as soon as possible. However, K. refuses, even though his experience of the town and its inhabitants galls him. There is nothing sympathetic about K. because he does, unlike Josef K., have the option to free himself from the situation that oppresses him. That he doesn’t, that he stays out of stubbornness, out of sheer pig-headedness, that he will not do what is actually in his own best interests, is what, for me, means that The Castle is a much more depressing take on humanity.

“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.”

The Trial Is often, or most popularly, described as a novel about the insane nature of bureaucracy; and there is certainly evidence in the text to back that up. At the most basic level, Josef K. finds himself entangled in an absurd, confusing system, involving interviews and appointments, petitions and pleas. No matter how much he attempts to progress, or further his case, he is unable to do so. Of course, almost everyone can relate to this. For example, I once had a job, and part of this job was what we called ‘customer-facing’ i.e. you saw people who dropped in with queries. However, the customer-facing staff could not actually resolve queries; oh no, we could listen to them, we could make note of them, but we had to refer, via email, all queries to the appropriate section of the business, which was not, of course, even located in the same city. The customers themselves, we were often forced to confess, could not directly speak to the people trained, and expected, to resolve their queries. They – the customers – simply had to take it on trust that their query would be investigated and dealt with appropriately. This more-or-less universal experience does, I think, go some way to accounting for Kafka’s appeal. However, I would argue that it is important, in terms of understanding The Trial, to consider what is at the heart of people’s frustrations regarding bureaucracy. For me, it is about being unable to make a human connection. Of course, it is sometimes the case that people are literally interacting with a machine [some kind of automated service], but, even when one is able to speak with a human being, that human being, with few exceptions, hides behind impersonal regulations and procedures. In this way, bureaucracy is always cold and inhuman. No matter how much you plead, or argue your position, the bureaucrat will stare you down and repeat their mantra: ‘you must go through the proper channels.’

So while I accept that The Trial is, to some extent, about bureaucracy, I think that it is only one facet of the novel’s broader concerns about the difficulty of human interaction and our [often futile] attempts to make a connection with other people. There are abundant clues to this throughout the text, for example, when K. offers his hand to the supervisor, at the very beginning of the book, it is ignored. In his position of power, K has ceased to be a contemporary or an equal. A desire for human contact is also responsible for K. waiting for Fraülein Bürstner and for him impulsively kissing her. His relationship, if you can call it that, with Bürstner is particularly humiliating. When K. wants to see her again, after the impulsive kiss, he sends her notes or letters, which she ignores; she, on the other hand, dispatches the lame Fraülein Montag to speak to K. in her stead, which makes him exceedingly uneasy. It’s the kind of horribly uncomfortable moment most of us have experienced at one time or another, when someone you like or are attracted to, someone who you have reached out to, rejects you, feels compelled to let you know, through an intermediary no less, that they are not interested. Moreover, the awkwardness is on both sides: from Bürstner, who doesn’t want to speak to K., and from K., who is being given the brush-off.

“Whether she was to blame now was not clear. K. could only see that a man had drawn her into a corner by the door and was pressing her against his body. But it was not she who was shrieking but the man.”

As with bureaucracy, a lot is made of the role of women in The Trial, and rightly so, because there is something disconcerting about the way that they are presented. They are, almost without exception, sexualised to the point at which one might consider them loose women or even prostitutes. For instance, when K. visits the courts he meets a married woman who aggressively makes a play for him and asks that he take her away. Crucially, K., although initially resistant, begins to feel tempted, and it is then that she is picked up [literally] by another man and whisked away. When K. tries to intervene and plead his case, the woman rejects him. Yet, while this might say something about the way that Kafka himself saw women, it does, once again, feed into, is simply another example of, what I believe were the writer’s more general preoccupations. People focus specifically on the women because of what we know about Kafka’s personal life, and because it is often the way that scholars will want to bring a kind of gender analysis to novels, but one should not overlook that it is the case that all of the human interaction in the novel is awkward, strained, and painful. Consider the scene at the court’s offices, when K. approaches a man and asks him what he is there for. The man finds himself speechless, due to either shame or shyness, and when K. touches him he actually starts to scream. This is, in one sense, very amusing, but it is, for me, also immensely sad.

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[Fenced in. One of Franz Kafka’s own illustrations]

I mentioned humour just now, and it has become popular [even perhaps a cliché] to describe Kafka’s work as incredibly funny, which, it strikes me, is an opinion that has, in classic contrarian fashion, emerged only to contradict the previously commonly held opinion that it is entirely bleak and foreboding. The truth, as is often the case, is actually somewhere between the two extremes. There are undeniably comedic passages, situations, and lines, such as when K. visits the courthouse, which turns out to be some kind of high-rise block of flats, and, afraid of giving himself away, goes knocking on doors asking for the joiner Lanz. This is amusing in numerous ways; first of all, because one would expect the courthouse to be located in an impressive, official building, not what is seemingly a cramped and dirty place full of tenants [the kids running around the corridors is a nice touch]; secondly, because when K. asks about Lanz some of the inhabitants of the building take the request very seriously and start directing him and trying to help him find the non-existent joiner. It is the jolting absurdity that provides the comedy and the sense that K. is surrounded by fools and foolishness. However, in spite of all that, I must say that I think that the humour is overstated these days, and that the book, more than anything, is unsettling and nightmarish. The word ‘nightmarish’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing literature and art and film, and it often denotes nothing more than something that is grotesque. In my opinion, The Trial more closely resembles real nightmares, or mine anyway, which often involve odd and abrupt temporal shifts [minutes for K. are sometimes hours for others], the inversion of space [things that you expect to be large are small, and vice versa], and people behaving in incomprehensible ways or entering scenes in an inexplicable or eerie manner [more than one person literally emerges out of the shadows]. Many, many things are called Kafkaesque, but if anything genuinely deserves that tag it would be the films of David Lynch, and you don’t find those in the comedy section on Netflix.

To conclude, I have tried, in this review, to give some idea of what I found impressive and enjoyable and engaging about The Trial, a book that is, for me, one of world literature’s most imposing masterpieces. I have also tried to explore what I think are the significant themes. However, the great genius of the work is that one could see almost anything in it. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote something about how great literature actually becomes greater with age, that, as time passes, it gains meaning, becomes more, not less, relevant. This is certainly the case with all of Kafka’s work, and The Trial in particular. Think about the basic premise again: a man arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, who, when he seeks an explanation, is met with illogical resistance and endless bureaucracy. The similarities between this situation and accounts of what happened to large numbers of citizens in Stalin’s Russia, and other Communist countries, is uncanny. Or what about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, where people found themselves suddenly relieved of their basic rights, where official bodies could, and did, turn lives upside down [and take them away, of course] without any wrong-doing on their part? It is no surprise, in this regard, that there are acclaimed Russian authors who lived and worked under Stalin, and Jewish writers affected by the Holocaust, that have been heavily influenced by Prague’s finest. Yet for all his influence, for all the talented writers that have stepped in the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail, Franz Kafka – the originator – remains unsurpassed.