Twisted Spoon Press located in Prague, in the Czech Republic, have been a favourite go to publisher, purveyors of quality books, always beautifully produced and presented. It is through them that I discovered Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, when they released her ‘Primeval and Other Times’ (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) back in 2010. I’ve read, and reviewed, ‘Avaries’ by Zuzana Brabcová (translated by Tereza Novická), ‘A Gothic Soul’ by Jiří Karásek (tr. Kirsten Lodge), ‘Dreamverse’ by Jindřich Štyrský (tr. Karel Teige), all of these titles translated from the Czech and ‘I Burn Paris’ by Bruno Jasieński (translated from the Polish by Soren A. Gauger & Marcin Piekoszewski). Their catalogue containing works by Franz Kafka, Péter Nádas and Bohumil Hrabal (more on his books later), and I’ve only scratched the surface of their books.
Late last year Twisted Spoon released ‘A User’s Manual’ by Jiří Kolář (translated by Ryan Scott) and, again, it is a stunning book to hold and admire. In 1969 the “action poems” of Jiří Kolář were published in their complete from and paired with fifty-two collages taken from Weekly 1967. These collages were visual commentary for a major event for each week of the year.
The collages…are composed of layered documents, image cutouts, newspaper clippings, announcements, scarps of letters, reports, and decontextualized words, oftentimes forming concrete patterns or the outlines of figures, to create a sort of “evidential” report on the year.
These collages have been reproduced in this new publication, on facing pages to fifty-two absurd poems which “mock the officialese rampant in communist society while offering readers an opportunity to create their own poetics by performing the given instructions.”
As soon as I entered Jiří Kolář’s dizzying world I was reminded of Eduardo Levé’s ‘Works’ a book containing a list of 533 artistic projects “conceived but not realized by its author” or Mario Bellatin’s ‘The Hundred Thousand Books of Bellatin” a list of “100 Notes – 100 Thoughts” presented as part of dOCUMENTA(13). Absurdist ideas but ones when you dwell long enough see some crystal of sanity.
Into an abandoned shed
or emptied garage
place a laid table
a log with embedded axe
and a coop for geese
On one wall hang a wreath
on another a gutted picture
on a third an overcoat
on a fourth newspapers in their holders
Attach a sign about the entrance
In this current climate of social isolation, a number of these bizarre instructions could actually form a list of activities to keep you occupied for a whole year ahead!!!
Get on a tram
and focus intently on
the vibrations beneath your feet
the sounds inside and out
the life all around
the presence of others
recall how many times you’ve travelled
where to and from and with whom
guess what someone is thinking
what he’s experienced
what he reads what dream he’s harboured
retain somewhere in memory
what you would like to happen to you
what annoys you
what you’ve forgotten
and meanwhile keep listening
to your thoughts asking
what you would do
if you knew
you’d never go home again
I’ve presented only two examples of the poems, to give you a taste of the instructions, the “user’s manual”, each one something you could perform or at least contemplate the performance. The collection twists and turns through the banality of living under a communist regime, the repetitiveness of daily existence and then it shakes you out of the dullness, celebrating simple items, like an axe in a block of wood, or a newspaper.
Each of the accompanying artworks are also to be contemplated slowly, their composition miniscule but perfect, order coming from the chaos, articulation of world events. They alone could make up a book, but it is through the alignment of small acts of insurrection and art of social commentary that the repetitiveness seeps through.
Jiří Kolář was born at the start of WWI (1914) and in 1953 was imprisoned for nine months, after one of his manuscripts, Prométheova Játra, was found in a fellow poet’s house. His work covered Surrealism and Avant-Garde movements and a more detailed explanation of his life, work and cultural significance can be found at this article on ‘Culture Trip’
Artworks presented are the facing pages to Week 28 and Week 41.
The book also contains the text of the original Czech poems as an appendix.
3 thoughts on “A User’s Manual – Jiří Kolář (tr. Ryan Scott)”
Thanks for bringing this to my attention Tony. I am enticed by your review.
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Beautiful book Michael, I can actually see you acting out some of the instructions, “Go to the station / wait for a train to arrive / and walk out with the travellers / as though you’ve come from somewhere”
Funny you should say, when the kids were small we would go down the end of the road and join in with the around-the-bay-in-a-day bike riders, the kids keeping up on their bmxs until they ran out of puff.
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