Andrea Vítová: Hostages to their own
How can you more aptly describe the mental distortions of the pre-1989 era than with the words „Onegin was a Rusky“? That is the title of the first book from Martin Pluháček-Reiner's refurbished publishers Druhé město. The inventive humour of the seventeen-year-old narrator highlights the absurdity, bleakness and apathy of the era.
This new novel by Irena Dousková loosely carries on from the much acclaimed B. Proudew, which was also later staged as a theatre production, again offering the apparently light-relief humorous narrative of the joys and sorrows of life in a communist society. The author has managed to avoid the „second novel syndrome“ and not tried to build on the subject of B. Proudew, but instead has come up with a new subject that is sufficiently sturdy and offers a different perspective.
This time 1980s Prague provides the space-time coordinates for the novel, while the narrative frame is limited to a single school year. The „frog's eye view“ of the naive child narrator is superseded by the (self-)ironic view of seventeen-year-old Helena Součková, who reports and comments on the events going on around her and on her own mental world. The reality of the times both forms the backdrop to the questioning and fumbling involved in growing up and seeking your own place in the world, which are to a considerable degree independent of the ruling political regime, and at the same time it has a quite fundamental effect on human relationships and is the driving force behind all the events.
The I-form that is used again allows for the impression of authentic communication to be conveyed, particularly since the author does not foist adult experience onto the character of a grammar school pupil, but consistently remains within the teenager's mental horizons. The child's view homes in on events that are in some way exceptional, arresting her attention, so that the individual chapters are more or less enclosed narratives, whereas in this novel the broader horizon of the chief protagonist is reflected in the obviously more expressive density of the text.
In contrast to B. Proudew this latest novel is much more crowded, but despite their authenticity and individuality the characters primarily form a collection of the classic types and fates of people living under a totalitarian regime. In individual incidents the author focuses her attention on everyday situations and patterns of behaviour which became the norm in Czech society and remain rooted in people to this day. Individual characters are only able to recognize the abnormality of these conditions by comparing the behaviour of free people with that of those living under a totalitarian regime, unable to assert themselves and corrupted by their circumstances.
The author thus proceeds to piece together a mosaic of the era, with its atmosphere of absurdity, bleakness and apathy highlighted by clever, inventive humour, the only way to confront stupidity, pillorying it with its own trash. A leitmotiv reflecting the patterns of human behaviour runs through the novel, involving a pair of hamsters that repeatedly kill their young after birth, as their survival instinct does not allow them to let their offspring live in such critical conditions, whereas man with all his reason is willing to make concessions and even become a hostage to them „for the sake of the children“.
Man's freedom, his personal responsibility for his own conduct and his quest for moral boundaries, whether in relation to his family or the political regime, are the great theme of this novel. Helena Součková gets to know her own boundaries, which she is not willing to exceed, while performing at the headmaster's birthday party, when she loses dignity and feels herself to be a sell-out, which is made worse when she sees victims among the ranks of the communist elite. At that moment she still finds herself in the relatively safe world of the grammar school and her schoolmates, but at the end of the novel their paths diverge after the leaving examination, and the real test of maturity for them consists in deciding how to carry on their lives given the options offered by the political situation.
Helena's circle of closest friends, previously bound close together by their
joint revolt against the mass culture, incompetent teachers and inevitably their
parents' generation, falls apart.
Hence the 1980s atmosphere is recreated from fragments of everyday situations, such as the visit to the doctor's, dealings with bureaucracy, the behaviour of waiters at restaurants, lesson time, queueing for anything, which are transformed in Irena Dousková's hands into quite extraordinary situations by means of the hyperbole and large degree of stylization which are the source of her comic effect. Scenes which the reader will enjoy, while remaining intensely aware of a sense of embarrassment, include those portraying the visits paid by emigrants to their Czechoslovak relatives. Within the minimal setting of a scene in which „exclusive“ gifts are bestowed, Dousková manages to depict the mutual misunderstanding, estrangement and arrogance of people who might well have managed to build a new life for themselves abroad, but who still have no right to expect gratitude for their worn-out domestic surplus. Then again, Helena does hanker after red corduroy trousers, jeans and interesting t-shirts, so threadbare gear from West Germany is received with gratitude, albeit with a certain sense of humiliation. Here Dousková rigorously endeavours to achieve authenticity in her characters, whose age and nature is typified by their need in the face of their grey, unimaginative surroundings to define themselves not only through their personal attributes, but also, of course, through their appearance.
Danger of disillusion
The cherry on the cake, precisely conveying the atmosphere of the time, is the title of the book itself, for how can the mental distortions be depicted more tellingly than with the absurd declaration that „Onegin was a Rusky“? The politicization of a literary character created by a Russian author (and by extension all Russian authors) may well be humorous here, but in any case it is a warning sign pointing to the warped thinking that comes together with political propaganda. A person who adopts the intellectual clichés of the ruling power in the interests of maintaining his own world view becomes similarly intellectually limited.
Irena Dousková's greatest strength is her ability to represent everyday life in socialist Czechoslovakia with ironic humour and detachment, which of course does not exclude the possibility of a subsequent tragicomic aspect to the narrative, which finishes in disillusionment for seventeen-year-old Helena that is just as grave as the discovery by seven-year-old Helena that B. Proudew did not exist. It should be pointed out that if the narrator makes value judgements on the goings-on around her, she only tends to do so incidentally and with a certain detachment. At no point do we get to hear any hurt recriminations, even though there are numerous serious grounds for them.
With its focus on the individual and human relations, this latest novel ranks alongside previous works by Irena Dousková, whether tragicomic like B. Proudew or the collection of short stories in Doctr Kott Wonders, or the diary novel Someone with a Knife or the collection of ballad-like tales in What Makes this Night Different.
Irena Dousková: Onegin was a Rusky. Druhé město, Brno 2006, 260 pp.
Andrea Vítová is a doctorand in Czech Studies at the Masaryk University Faculty of Arts.
Published in Literární noviny 2006–20, page 10.
Published online 16.5.2006