Friday, June 3, 2011

Jan Křesadlo: Gravelarks

Czech émigré writer Jan Křesadlo (Vaclav Pinkava), an unexpected interlude in my reading – and another fascinating example of an Eastern European author emerging to prominence after the fall of the literary Iron Curtain - came to my attention by mention of him on a forum concerning literature that contributors wished to see translated into English. In fact, one of Křesadlo’s novels – Mrchopěvci (English title: Gravelarks) – has been translated, in a bilingual Czech-English edition by Mata Press of Prague with black and white illustrations by Křesadlo’s son, Oscar-winning animator Jan Pinkava (two items in this edition that fit my book publishing wish list: attention to binding, with quality paper and a ribbon bookmark, and the courtesy - understandably extendable only to short works - of including the original language version to accompany the translation). Reproduced in the book is a 1987 letter from Josef Škvorecký heaping praise upon the novel - which Škvorecký’s own publishing-house-in-exile, Sixty-Eight Publishers, issued in Czech in Toronto in 1984 - and soliciting interest for an English translation. Alas, it took another 12 years for one to appear, this 1999 Mata edition, which then apparently vanished like a comet. My search of on-line booksellers turned up zero available copies, not even from Mata in Prague, so I was happy to find it in my local library.

Gravelarks, a wild, blackly funny work of biting protest and deceptively light-hearted sarcasm aimed at communist rule in Czechoslovakia - “after the year 1948, but still long before the period of the ‘thaw,’ as in so many other émigré novels” - takes its title from the occupation of its main character, an ordinary young nobody named Zderad who, having fallen out of favor with the dominant Stalinist political paradigm, must support his wife and infant son by singing dirges at funerals along with other “gravelarks.” It’s a gray existence, unleavened by the coffin-shaped apartment he inhabits with his family in a grimy part of the city and by the ostracism he experiences as an outcast from the state. But, as the narrator repeatedly observes with Candidean optimism, it still isn’t (quite) “the worst of all possible worlds.” One day after singing for a funeral, Zderad finds himself suddenly plunged into a greater, more nightmarish humiliation when confronted by a tall, pale stranger who produces a photocopy of an anti-Stalinist bit of doggeral Zderad wrote - in Greek - while still a grade school student. Under the oppressive paranoia of the time, however, even such an innocuous little poem would signify “practically a death certificate for its creator,” and the stranger is able to coerce Zderad into a crumbling tomb in the cemetery and subject him to sexual blackmail.

As the blackmailer demands new and increasingly florid encounters, Zderad’s situation is further complicated not only by his diverse attempts to uncover his exploiter’s identity but also by his awareness of a psychosexual power dynamic in which he obtains both profit (he’s paid for his “services”) and an embarrassing element of pleasure:

The cruel mental pleasure of unspeakably obscene power over the horrible blackmailer fused with the sepulchral lover’s revolting but effective caresses, spiced with his muffled sobs and grunts. The posterior of the stinking mandrill, which is incredibly obscene, offends the more sensitive visitor to the Zoo, yet it shines with a symphony of delicate and pronounced hues of greens, reds, blues and purples. Metallic shining flies for example of the genus Calliphora which revel in excrement and carrion, are of a similarly glorious coloration, as are many species of dung beetle. Thus the radiance and glory of Being permeate all its levels. Uninfluenced by the spectacle it was illuminating, the flame of the candle burned with a beautiful and glorious brightness, and, at the same time, Zderad’s lust also flared up in spite of himself. Pulsating, it glowed colourfully with ever greater strength until it finally exploded into a cosmic firework.

The novel follows Zderad’s various attempts to unyoke himself from this sordid exploitation, find inner courage and identity, and rediscover the moment of romantic tranquility and happiness he’d experienced years before when he first met his wife while swimming at a lake in the countryside. Křesadlo’s narrative takes the reader on a picaresque journey through the vicissitudes of Stalinist rule, recounted by a charming, lively, self-interrogating émigré narrator, acutely conscious of his role as storyteller and of his obligation to avoid falling into typical literary pitfalls such as those of the emerging genre of “Easterns,” which of necessity contain “secret policemen, blackmailers, whores and other typical characters” just as “Westerns” contain common elements of “guns, horseriding and the odd bit of cattle ranching.” What results is a freewheeling, anything goes narrative punctuated by bits of musical score and phrases in Greek, propelled with a rocketing narrative velocity that can nonetheless stop on a dime for the narrator to interject his own views or question his own narrative style, even shift gears entirely by suddenly inserting, as an “Intermezzo,” a brief parable in order to more thoroughly (and grotesquely) get across a point.

Křesadlo’s contempt for the communist regime infects the novel at every turn; it’s spiked with scathing references to dogma and institutionalized politics; to the “Youth Unions,” “Joyful Corrective Centers” and other statist institutions with Orwellian names; to the “consumers” who “got out” and turned their backs on those left behind; to acquiescent intellectuals in the West; and in general to the “radishes” (red on the outside, white on the inside) who constituted “most of the contemporary population of Czechoslovakia.” The narrator reserves special scorn for state-supporting intellectuals and for the dreadful state of Czech literature of the time (in a somewhat performative self-interview Křesadlo wrote in the 1990's, his distaste for Milan Kundera was apparent):

…a desert…almost total…the better writers of the future were at that time still in a state of embryonic latency. Some, but not all of them, were writing and publishing true and honest byzantine odes to Stalin, only in the Czech and Slovak languages, of course…

Commenting further on the severity of the literary drought, the narrator notes that the only other books still to be found were those in antiquarian bookshops, “remnants of eliminated ethnic groups” to “be had for next to nothing, because, comrades, who’d want to read them?”

If there’s one element I found slightly bothersome in Gravelarks, it’s Křesadlo’s use of “sexual deviance” as a metaphor for communist corruption (Křesadlo held a degree in psychology and worked for years as a clinical psychologist at the mental hospital affiliated with Charles University, specializing in sexual aberrations). As though there are not already in literature enough homosexual characters portrayed as monsters, Křesadlo appears to go even one better by referring quite simply to Zderad’s exploiter as “the Monster.” But at the same time, the character is so utterly over the top – what starts as a altogether ordinary sexual act blossoms into an astoundingly baroque variety of sexual obsessions and pathologies, both homo-and hetero-sexual, and increasingly monstrous, incorporating even kidnapping and murder – that it’s next to impossible to take him seriously as anything other than metaphor.  It’s abundantly clear that by rendering Stalinist communism as a grotesquerie of sordid sexual depravity, Křesadlo mocks the brightly polished, seamless moral certitude of the state’s self-congratulatory self-image. And to be fair, Křesadlo - who, during his lifetime, was instrumental in efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Czechoslovakia - provides another, far more sympathetic homosexual character as a foil. Still, while this may simply reflect a weariness of such depictions on my part, not to mention the American cultural lens through which I couldn't help but view the book, the device struck me as uncomfortably close to the manner in which, for example, religious fanatics expediently and routinely assign blame for all of a country’s woes to “sexual deviance " (of course, we've all seen what lies beneath that particular brand of polished, seamless moral certitude...). 
In the end, though, Křesadlo’s evident talents trumped whatever slight misgivings I had regarding his choice of metaphors. I found myself frequently laughing out loud while swept along by his glittering, barbed, ebullient, acrobatic prose and delighted by the sheer dexterity and breadth of his language, his frequent use of outlandish, comical imagery, and the occasional descriptive gem (i.e. “The sky was as mild as a cow’s eye”). One can only hope that Gravelarks will return to print in English, and that more of Křesadlo’s works will be made available to allow English readers to explore further this remarkable novelist / poet / scholar / composer / linguist / activist. I would be especially interested to see a translation of what is purported to be his magnum opus:  “Astronautilia,” an epic science fiction poem modeled after Homer’s “Odyssey,” running to more than 6,500 lines, and written entirely in classical Greek, with Czech translation on facing pages.

This revised review (July 12, 2011) corrects some errors and misperceptions that appeared in the original posting.


  1. An interesting read about an interesting read :)

  2. As for the Astronautilia translation, a sample English translation (via the Czech) is now posted on the Astronautilia facebook page: specifically

    1. V - Many thanks for the link! All best, Scott