Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jaroslaw Anders | Review of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver

Review of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver
by Jaroslaw Anders

Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver. Sestra (Brno: Atlantis, 1994). Translated from the Czech by Alan Zucker. (North Haven, Connecticut: Catbird Press, 2000).

Soon after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the literature of the region turned dark and apocalyptic. Younger writers especially, whose formative years coincided with communism's protracted decline in the 1980s, seemed to favor surreal, sinister fantasies, in the mode of William Burroughs. Their writings harsly presented a vision of a violent, fragmented, and incomprehensible reality, whose heroes eagerly participate in the general carnival of transgression, or watch it from the sidelines as horrified, dejected outcasts. There was also a sudden renewal of interest in the darker, more proactive traditions of European writing, from de Sade through the Decadents to the turn of the previous century to Céline, Genet, the American Beats, and Western postmodernism.

This shift in literary sensibility was not entirely unexpected. Underground publications of a new type—an underground within an underground—had begun to appear in Eastern Europe since the early '90s. Probably the best known among them were the Revolver Revue in Czechoslovakia and Burlion in Poland, though similar, often ephemeral, publications sprang up all over the place. Their mostly young authors and editors rejected the falsities of the official Communist culture; but they also looked with skepticism upon the dominant "dissident" literature, which they saw as constricted by formal conservatism, open didacticism, and excessively collective preoccupations. In their own writing they tried to recover a more individualist or "existential" standpoint, and also the more anarchic traditions of literary modernism.

The young writers certainly looked with suspicion upon the programmatic positivism and optimism of their politically involved elders. It was as if they realized that communism had created not one but two utopias. The first one, the utopia of the classless paradise, was in their times thoroughly discredited, and hardly worthy of serious polemic. But there was also its antithesis: the utopia of the world without communism, a "post-political" or "anti-political" era more hospitable to the human spirit that anything created so far by the Western democracies. This latter dream weaved its way through books and statements of many prominent Eastern European intellectuals of the time, including Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, and Miklos Harasti. But the younger writers and intellectuals, who divided their time between clandestine seminars organized by the opposition and noisy rock clubs, were not buying this visionary naïveté; and they were proven right shortly after the fall of the old regime, when the world of material austerity turned into a caricature of Western consumerism, and many of their idealistic mentors turned into squabbling, power-hungry politicians.

An element of generational envy might have also played a role in this sudden change of tone in the Eastern European writing. The dissident culture created mostly by the generation of the 1960s and 1970s was also the swan song of the old "intelligentsia," with its near-reflexive veneration of artistic and intellectual pursuits. To be a writer, especially a writer in the service of a noble cause, conferred almost automatically an extraordinary degree of respect, even reverence. But those who came to literature after the Great Unraveling found themselves in a position with which their Western colleagues are familiar: they were forced to vie for attention and money in a society whose energies were rapidly shifting to other, more material preoccupations. Hence the necessity to speak in a much louder and more dramatic voice of their fathers, who could command attention with only whisper, a touch of irony, a subtle allusion. All these transitions amounted to a certain cultural trauma, whose echoes are still reverberating throughout the new literature of Eastern Europe.

Jáchym Topol, a Czech writer born in 1962, and a founder of the Revolver Revue, is one of the most talented representatives of this ascending generation. He was six years old during the Prague Spring of 1968, and fifteen years old when Charter 77 started to make its rounds. He turned eighteen almost on the day that Solidarity broke out in Poland. He comes from a renowned intellectual family: his father Joseph Topol is a well-known playwright, poet, and translation of Shakespeare, and one of his grandfathers, Karel Schulz, was the author of a monumental work on Michelangelo.

Owing to his father's dissident activities, Topol was denied a college education and spent his youth doing all sorts of menial jobs. One of the youngest signatories of Charter 77, he soon became active in the Czech samizdat movement. In the '80s he made several clandestine trips to Poland and helped to organize a cloak-and-dagger meeting between Polish and Czechoslovak dissidents in a remote mountain location. On one of these outings he was arrested, and he spent a couple of weeks in a Polish military prison.

At the same time Topol was acquiring a reputation in Czechoslovakia's "other" underground as a lyricist for the rock group Psí vojáci, or Dog Soldiers, which was created in the late 70s by his younger brother Filip. He still writes lyrics for Czech singers, and some of his poems have been set to music and issued on a compact disc by his brother. Topol's first novel, City Sister Silver, was published in 1994, and was acclaimed by Czech critics as a turning point in the history of Czech prose. A recent survey placed it rather high on a list of the hundred best Czech novels of the century, among the works of Havel, Hrabal, Kundera, Škvorecký, Klima, and Páral. Such lists are just the gimmicks of literary editors, of course; but there is no doubt that Topol's rich, hypnotic fantasy about the post-Communist wasteland is an impressive literary phenomenon.

The book opens with an anguished, fractured monologue full of somber images, shreds of memories, and references to vague, seemingly disconnected events. It is a voice of the sheerest despondency, pure grief, speaking through time that is "fading in the pale light, turning more translucent, losing its color and taste...." The speaker is on the threshold of insanity, or beyond it: "You still feel the pain in your chewed-up fist, the one you stuff in your mouth to keep from talking, to keep from telling yourself what it really is, what's wrong: with you." The obscurity of this intriguing and (at first glance) purely associative stream of consciousness is relentless, and it may cost the novel some of its readers. But soon things become a bit more transparent: some of the images that appeared at first to be merely poetic figures will turn out to refer to actual facts in what may be called the novel's "reality." Occasionally the book will even relax into a fast-paced yarn closer to an adventure story than to Beckett. Still, the cryptic, disjoined monologue keeps returning, especially when the narrator wishes to conceal from us an event of crucial importance.

The narrator is Potok, a young actor in an experimental theater in Prague, who takes us back in time to what he calls "the Stone Age" shortly before the fall of communism, to the square in front of the West German embassy in Prague crowded with Germans from the DDR lining up for exist visas to the West. As Potok says, "that was the place where I began to feel the motion, where time took on taste and color, where the carnival started for me." the motion in question is undoubtedly the motion of history awakened, but for the novel's protagonists it will soon assume a much more cataclysmic and cosmic character.

The final decline of communism is watched by Potok, his girlfriend Bará, and a group of their young friends. They are more than passive observers. Inspired by Poles, "always bleeding and fighting," they organize street gangs that form a new, more riotous echelon of the dissident movement. They pass around petitions, distribute leaflets, hurl cobblestones at the police. But they are motivated less by politics than by the youthful pursuit of heightened being. "Exploding time can not only crush you," Potok remarks, "you can swim in it, or hold it in your hand, like a piece of fabric or a coin." It can be like a gas, or like earth, sometimes it can feel like wind."

Yet when communism—the "concrete block, stifling anything that tried to move on its own"—is finally removed, the excitement abruptly ends. Topol captures with great accuracy the sense of sudden unsteadiness mixed with a paranoid uncertainly about what really happened to the "old" reality. Is it gone for good, or is it just hidden behind a new stage set? "You're still walking the boards into the same performance, the same familiar set, your rankled nerves detect the presence of the board of directors, the one that're running the show, and is it? or is it not? part of a plan? is it be design? You still sense the nasty looks on the other side of the curtain, the sneering, the rat, the wicked uncle's grin." The "explosion of time" that shatted the concrete block of communism has unsettled the very foundations of reality and strewn the landscape with strange hybrid forms, belonging neither to the new time nor the old time. This is freedom, certainly; but freedom lacking a principle of cohesion.

Everything in Topol's imagined world appears deformed beyond recognition. Prague, one of the most beautiful Eastern European cities, is shown as a post-apocalyptic, spectral metropolis existing in some kind of sinister, timeless zone peopled by an assortment of gangs, cults, secret organizations in which people huddle together in the atmosphere of general lawlessness and anarchy. A strange metaphysical terror grips the city. What started as a caricature of the first post-Communist days soon turns into a macabre fantasy about the End of Days. There are mysterious disappearances and supernatural events, haunted wells that swallow the innocent, otherwordly apparitions. The church bells in Prague are silent owing to a papal interdiction. It seems that the Prince of Darkness himself has taken up residence in the city of St. Wenceslas, sending around packs of his minions, deranged punks known as "hitlers" and "stalilngos." Something awful appears to have transpired in the very fabric of the universe. The rubble left by the totalitarian system is merely a symptom of a more cosmic breakdown.

Idealists and dissidents are also strangely transformed: they are now a bunch of small-time hoodlums and hustlers. Potok hooks up with a group called the Organization, one of the "tribes" that fight for survival in the anarchic environment. It includes the crooked lawyer Micka, the defrocked priest Bohler, the American re-patrit Sharky Stein, and the shy peasant genius David. Together with Potok, a master of diguises and impersonations (his old acting skills stand him in good stead in the new reality), they are running slum tenements, dealing in stolen cars, selling all kinds of Asian junk, defrauding public funds, and occasionally blackmailing former Communist informers. They commit all these crimes less out of greed than out of a sense of community: this is the way of engaging in the "changed world around."

There is also something poetic, almost metaphysical, about the sudden explosion of materialism:

What I liked most were the coins, the eyes of wide-ranging organism,
their gaze as cool as the distant stars, the cold wind blows over them
too...we soon realized money wasn't the metal we used to buy our beer or
red wine and the Northerners their rum, but that money was debts, stamped
and unstamped papers, money grows from money, multiplying through division
like cells...money is words, friendship, low blows, promises, money reacts
magically when the right doorknobs are polished, stacking up with each
smile in the right place at the right time...

Like every mafia worth its name, the Organization exists also to provide its members with a sense of moral order in the otherwise unprincipled, unlegislated world. The members call it the Contract, and they draw clear and unambiguous limits to their depravity: "porno okay, but never with fleas...and fleas means kids...we don't transport, distribute, or offer drugs to anyone that isn't already hooked." They do not deal in guns, or in Semtex, despite the increasing demand for such lethal products, and they have a protective attitude towards all "small creatures...the unfinished ones that can't defend themselves...and also children and small dogs..." Bohler the priest roams the streets at night, in the most futile hope of saving some of Prague's urchins, and he leads secret expeditions to destroy stores selling what he calls "teufils," ugly Western toys that he believes the devil places in the hands of children to inculcate them with violence. And the Organization also has a mystical secret: its members are waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

The grotesque deformation of the world in which Topol's characters move is mirrored in the similarly distorted language of the novel. "Coincidentally the tongue I use is one of Czechs, of Slavs, of slaves, of onetime slaves to Germans and Russians, and it's a dog's tongue," explains the author. "A clever dog knows how to survive and what price to pay for survival. He knows when to crouch and when to dodge and when to bite, it's in his tongue." This language clearly bears the scars of old and recent battles, though those of us who do not read Czech can only imagine how it really sounds.

In his helpful preface, the translator Alex Zucker reports that Topol's language can shift, within a single paragraph, or even a single sentence, from literary to streetwise, with an entirely different syntax and vocabulary. Apparently it is also full of flagrant foreign contaminations, as well as an assortment of jargons and private neologisms. Zucker obviously faced a formidable task of translation, and he successfully reproduces this peculiar mix in something that resembles the language of A Clockwork Orange—a combination of real and invented street slang, criminal argot, and Slavic-sounding words and expressions. Occasionally the translator (or is it the author, or both?) pulls a little joke on the reader. During his battles with the stalingos, Bohler uses the mysterious weapon called "olovrant." In fact, "Olovrant" is a Slovak word meaning "afternoon snack."

At times the story of the Organization, with its endless intrigues, mysteries, unexplained events, and demonic encounters, becomes a little reminiscent of Elmore Leonard's weird thrillers or the more "literary" productions of Stephen King. The book morphs through an endless array of styles and genres, all masterfully recreated and parodied. With each of its sudden turns it leaves the reader groping for balance, and wondering whether he is being set up by the writer. Just as we think that we have figured out the writer's ironic distance towards the reality that he describes, the distance suddenly shifts. The scene of the final battle between the Organization and the stalingos, for example, opens in what looks like a mock-heroic tone ("and Bohler, now Bohler the Great, stood by the wall of the building as it blistered in the heat"), but just as we are ready to relax and enjoy the epic, Topol shows us horribly mutilated bodies and face of an gang-raped girl. ("Helena's face was cruelly aged with two bloody slashes and sprinkled all over with some kind of powder. I hope it's powder, I though.") This sense of tonal vertigo is one of the book's oddest devices, yet it also prevents the book from sliding into pomposity or into camp.

What complicates things the most, though, is Potok, the novel's enigmatic narrator. He seems to belong to a different order of reality from the other elements of the story. Part existential drifter, part Dostoevskian reprobate, he seems to be burdened with some horrible secret that he will not reveal even to his trusted friends. He is visited by nightmares and by apparitions of death, and pursued by invisible demons whom he calls the Shadows. Very little is known about his past. His flashbacks reveal a childhood in a conventional family of the intelligentsia (the parents made him study English and Latin), but now he seems to have no family at all. He spent some time in prison, probably for political activity, but also in a mental asylum. He is something of a latter-day Villon (a knife in his pocket, a silver medallion with an image of Madonna on his neck) in love with darkness and fear. As he confesses at the beginning of the novel, "without fear I could do anything except create...because the only way I can make up human characters and play around with them is if I know the wicked old horror of life and the horror of its ending..."

Against the grotesque, and fantastic, and often comic background of the book, Potok's pain, and his longing for some kind of redemption, seem peculiarly trenchant and real. Clues about the source of his pain are scattered throughout the novel. On the day that the Germans were leaving Prague, when communism was teetering and time was about to "explode," Potok experienced yet another cataclysm. It concerned his girlfriend Bará, known also as Little White She-Dog, with whom he sneaked out of the commotion to make love in the coal cellar of a house with a lion's head on the door. (This door and this sign are significant, as are many seemingly fortuitous details in Topol's novel.)

Potok and Bará are childhood friends, and also, as the narrator casually informs us, sexual partners since childhood. "Our petting, culminating in organism for me and then, much later, for her as well, was more than just giving and receiving bliss, it was the ritual of an encircled tribe." There is something innocent, and magical, about the intensity of their relationship; but also something ominous. When they make love, Potak sees "red darkness" and hears the echo of She-Dog's mind in his own. "It would've meant death," he says, "if either of us had pushed the other away, or let go." Shortly after their tryst the girl disappears, and she is never seen again. What really happened in the coal cellar? What was Potok's role in the girl's disappearance? This is the central mystery of the novel. There is certainly enough circumstantial evidence strewn throughout the novel, as well as some half-coerced confessions, to enable the reader to form his own opinion, but there is hardly any material evidence.

"Potok" means "stream" in Czech, and he seems to be a man in constant transition, rushing frantically from one bizarre adventure to another. What propels him forward is a quest for a woman whom he calls his "Sister," whose identity he does not know, but whom he believes he was promised by She-Dog before she disappeared and turned into a "she-demon with inscrutable intentions." After the Organization is destroyed, Potok decides that "Sister" is really the barrom singer with raven-black hair (hence her nickname Černá, or "black") whom he has been eyeing on for some time. An abused child, a drunk, and a tramp, she is almost as crazy as Potok. She has her own secrets, demons, and nightmares. She lives in an attic apartment with a name on the door that may or may not be her name, and bookshelves lined with classics she claims never to have read. Another existential outcast, she seems to be Potok's spiritual double, his true "sister" in desolation.

Their love affair is a tangle of tenderness, sadism, and an endless chain of misfortunes. Caught in yet another fantastic conspiracy, they are forced to leave Prague and to set out on a nightmarish escape through Eastern European countryside with haunted woods, ghost towns, and abandoned villages. They try to return to the city, but after horrifying mishaps and bizarre adventures (including a trip on an phantom train, and a visit to the Andy Warhol museum in his ancestor's Slovak village) they always end up near a little town called Ušnica. Only when Potok loses Černá is the spell broken, and he returns to Prague.

Yet his journey through hell is far from over. He lives for awhile among the homeless in the underground railway station, and later in a city dump, the home of a whole community of Dump People who survive on the copious refuse of the consumerist society. Sometimes his dejection appears to reach almost the level of ecstasy: "This is happening? This exists? And I'm here to witness it? On the inside I was all curled up, but my body was taunt. I didn't take anything for granted. It's here. It is what it is. And I'm part of it. It's...sometimes it's even beautiful and I enjoy it. That's enough." At the city dump the hero also has an encounter with the Creature, most like the devil himself, whom he has to kill with a silver bullet made of his Madonna medallion. Afterward he decides to return to the coal cellar in the house with the lion sign; but before he reaches his destination he is miraculously transported to a convent where, under the care of a beautiful and chaste sister Maria, his healing begins.

It is hard to tell how much of this actually happens, or even if any of this actually happens. Topol's novel has many levels of unreality: hidden trapdoors open unexpectedly within already surreal narratives leading into still more phantasmagoric landscapes. Some of those passages are identified as dreams or visions; and there are also dreams within dreams, visions within visions. The whole sequence of Potok's escape with Černá seems to be taking place outside the ordinary time. Perhaps even Černá herself is not entirely human, but a mere product of Potok's erotic fantasy, like certain characters in Genet's novels. If she is a symbol, as we are sometimes led to believe, she is an oddly contradictory one: sometimes Potok's Beatrice leading him to light, sometimes she is the very personification of the "darkness" with which he seems to be in love. There is even a fleeting suggestion that she may be the wrong "sister," that Potok was destined to meet somebody else.

These mysteries add to the novel's appeal, but they also frustrate any attempt to extricate meaning from Topol's fables. The question of meaning is not entirely spurious: Topol himself begs it by filling his novel with archetypes, myths, legends, and references to sacred texts and momentous historical events. During one of his "dreams," for example, Potok is transported to Auschwitz, which appears to him as a cosmic black hole warping both humanity's past and future, "the place where all the time from every world in human heaven collides." Later the death camp assumes the form of the Valley of Dry Bones, but the prophecy that Potok receives there is the antithesis of Ezekiel's prophecy: not only will the murdered tribe not be restored to life, but we should give up all hope of the coming of the Messiah. He, too, died in the ovens and "all that awaits us till the day we die is the hopeless, meaningless life of a worm." It is all interconnected, Topol seems to suggest: humanity's murderous history culminating in the Holocaust, Potok's dark seacret, even the post-Communist malaise. Yet it is almost impossible to determine where the connection lies, beyond the rather obvious and tired fact that all these things are a part of "the wicked old horror of life."

The novel ends on a surprising—and rather unconvincing—note of hope. Potok lives in an almost conjugal bliss with one of his former girlfriends, and teachers her son "some of the old words, the ones I haven't forgotten yet." He expects a child of his own, and he has even started working as an actor again (though this time in commercials rather than in an experimental theater). The bells in the city are ringing again, and there is a strong possibility that the Messiah has actually been born. Potok still vacillates between Černá (whom he keeps seeing in the streets and on television and in glossy magazines) and reality, but there is at least a suggestion of new serenity in his life.

If the voice we hear at the beginning of the novel is the voice of the "new" Potok telling the story of his journey through the Dark Night of the Soul, then his "rebirth" at the journey's end is problematic. In fact, it looks only like a trick to make us believe that the journey was a "progress" after all, that it really had a meaning. Perhaps nothing really happened on that day when the Germans were leaving Prague, and nothing ended when Potok returned to the city from his mad escapade with Černá. As the endlessly complicated plots unfold, the reader starts to suspect that the hero's terrible secret, and his mystical visions, and the landscapes of post-Communist desolation, are merely new and exotic trappings of the familiar saga of the angst that weaves it way through much of modern literature.

Some places on the eternal wheel of the world there were death,
solitude, and insanity together with love and compassion and
the solidarity of the human tribe. Here it was dark and there it
was light, and we lived mostly in between. I trained my eyes to
see the dividing line. I stabbed myself in the heart and it
healed itself up, ripped off my fingers and the next morning
they were back. Cut the nerve, and they wiggled. Wanted to die,
but just made money.

Yes, we know. We have been there, too. There is something almost reassuring about the fact that post-Communist angst is not much different from the angst of the mature market democracies. What good news! If they are writing about "death, solitude, and insanity," they must finally be living in a normal world.

If this is what Topol's book is about, then it delivers less than it has been promising. Topol certainly has a seemingly unstoppable imagination, and he can do interesting, often beautiful things with language. These great gifts help him to avoid the perennial dangers of the literature of angst: boredom and inertia. By piling up puzzles, plots, fantasies, conspiracies, horrors, and satires, by switching literary conventions and withholding crucial information, he creates a perfect illusion of movement. He really does seem to be unveiling some important existential mystery. Until the novel is over, that is; and then it becomes flatteningly clear the there is no real mystery to reveal. At the book's end we know as much, or as little, about the hero as we knew when we were introduced to his pained monologue. Topol's riotous imagination and the mad poetic energy of his language are not adequately matched by intellectual discipline and narrative restraint; and so the novel slips into exactly the kind of ponderous, dystopian rant that it works so hard to rise above.

City Sister Silver is a perilously ambitious literary enterprise, striving for the kind of "totality" of form and vision that has been the undoing of many first novels. Where can this talented writer go from here? And the same may be asked about all of the literature of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of communism and in the aftermath of dissent. Eastern Europe is still a place where powerful memories and anxieties lurk below the surface of the "normal" and "new" societies. Younger writers such as Topol seem convinced that there is something unique about their experience and their historical moment—something that requires a wholly new literary idiom. But the idiom upon which they have come to rely merely repeats familiar modern clichés; and this casts a certain doubt on the novelty of their "new" experience. Perhaps something strange and unsettling did happen to Topol's generation while the rest of the world was celebrating the fall of communism. Whatever it was, whatever the "explosion of time" really means, the new writers of Eastern Europe keep searching for the proper literary form; but so far their search seems inconclusive. The singularity of their encounter with history is still awaiting its voice. [Jaroslaw Anders, The New Republic]

Copyright (c)2000 by Jaroslaw Anders

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