Monday, August 22, 2011

Douglas Messserli | The Emperor Is an Emperor Is an Emperor (on Daniela Fischerová's Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else)

by Douglas Messerli

Daniela Fischerová Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else, translated from the Czech by Neil Bermel (North Haven, Connecticut: Catbird Press, 2000)

Daniela Fischerová, one of the most accomplished of contemporary Czech writers, composes stories with a quiet and subtle intensity, some of which have recently been collected and translated into English as Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else. In "My Conversations with Aunt Marie," we are presented from a young girl's viewpoint, her and her mother's relations with her Aunt Marie, an incredibly romantic and independent woman who is clearly at odds with the child's mother over issues of love (it's suggested that, perhaps, both were love with the same man, now the young girl's father), behavior, and politics. Marie, it is apparent, was in also love with a German soldier during World War II, and was stoned by the citizens of her small village after the war; the aunt has refused to leave her property since that time. But within the small space of the house and yard, the aunt weaves miraculous tales of beauty and love, and engages the child in fantasies that include her being transformed into a beautiful young woman. The mother, who dresses her like a boy, obviously disapproves, and when authorities enter the aunt's isolated world to vaccinate all within, the aunt's world once more comes crashing down on her head and closes their enchanted relationship.

"A Letter for President Eisenhower" is also told through the eyes of a young girl, in this case a young imaginative schoolgirl, who is chosen for the honor to write a letter from her school to President Eisenhower asking for world peace. Her young friend, Hana—excellent in penmanship—is chosen to actually pen the letter, and the two go ahead with the activities with conspiratorial delight. Hana's mother, however, finds the whole concept ridiculous on political grounds, and the young narrator of the story, so proud of her achievement, is forced to come to terms with reality when she overhears the mother laughing about the letter's content and, later, is made to understand that the letter was never actually sent. Needless to say, her relationship with Hana is destroyed and the new relationship she undertakes with Sasha, is a dramatization of frustrated love.

"Dhum" tells the tale of a mental clinic doctor who has created a highly structured system of points for awards and punishments for his women patients. His own voyage to a swami in India, ends in an enlightenment he could not have expected. And "Two Revolts in One Family" centers upon a dreadfully domineering mother and a rebelling daughter, the latter of whom eventually discovers through her brother (who as a young man attempted and failed to escape their home) that it is not the mother, but the father who has arranged and allowed for the mother to imagine that she is controlling things.

These stories are all well written, narratively well-structured, and (as is evident in Neil Bermel's excellent translations) crafted with superb linguistic skills. With such talent, however, one feels nonetheless somehow a bit disappointed, wishes that the author would take more chances, would abandon the carefully-wrought, slightly old-fashioned tales she has spun in favor of more adventuresome matter. It is almost in answer to these feelings that one encounters, as the last tale in the book, what might almost be read as the author's definitive answer to just such responses to her work.

For "The Thirty-Sixth Chicken of Master Wu" is about a battle between tradition and originality. Cook to the Chinese Emperor and Empress, Wu is asked every year to prepare a new chicken dish in honor of the Emperor's birthday. This year, however, he has clearly having difficulty in coming up with something new, and the visit of his poet-nephew, who rails against the court poets and their inane comparisons of the emperor with elephants, only adds to his agitations. Over the course of the story we discover that, although the chef has little respect for poetry, it was the effects of the court censor (and esteemed poet) that took Wu from his position as an uneducated, unfeeling boy to the sensitive artisan he has become. When his nephew, after composing what seen as a blasphemous poem (The Emperor / is an emperor / is an emperor / is an emperor goes the first stanza in Gertrude Stein-like fashion), is in danger of being condemned to death, the censor queries Wu to discover the motives for his poetic offering, and when the boy's concerns for language become evident, the young poet is allowed to escape. Wu meanwhile creates his new chicken dish to great acclaim; only he discerns that the taste is that of the common vegetable radish. Who is the more original creator in this story? What does originality mean? These and other such questions that cling to Fischerová's delicious tale take us to the very heart of her art, and while the tale may not answer the questions it arouses nor entirely explain her art, it and the other tales of this volume certainly reveal a fully comprehending intelligence at work. One only hopes to see more works of this quality by this talented Czech writer in the future.

Los Angeles, 2000
Reprinted from Green Integer (2008)

Copyright (c)2008 by Douglas Messerli

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