Aviaries – Zuzana Brabcová (tr. Tereza Novická)

aviaries

In his “Preface” to ‘L’Assommoir’ Émile Zola claimed the novel “is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people that does not lie and that smells of the common people. And readers should not conclude that the common people as a whole are bad, for my characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.”

The protagonist narrator of Zuzana Brabcová’s last novel, ‘Aviaries’, Alžběta is a common person, and is linked inextricably to Émile Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’;

Underneath the mattress

The trap snapped shut and firmly clamped around my memory. On February 18,1961, my mom had wedged a book underneath my mattress to make sure I’d be sleeping on a flat surface. She forgot about it. Hanging from a long string, a monkey-shaped rattle quivered above me, and I didn’t take my eyes off it for a single moment. They say the blind live in time, not space. If that’s true, I was a blind person back then. All of Grandpa’s clocks ticked away within my veins, and in my left hemisphere, my grandma diced apples from the garden for strudel.
Mom’s friend later took the crib for her own child. She discovered the forgotten book underneath the mattress. It was Zola’s
L’Assommoir. (p69)

Whilst Zola’s “project is indebted to the Positivist philosopher’s isolation of three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment”, Zuzana Brabcová’s novel adds in the influence of literature, literally sleeping on a book, which can determine behavior and in this case fate.

‘Aviaries’ is a collection of fragments, labelled from December 20, 2011 to February 19, 2015, however they are not simply diary entries, there are recollections, newspaper headlines, interior monologues, dreams, excerpts from prose, poetry and psalms (including a passage from C.G. Jung’s essay on the “The Psychological Aspects of the Kore” from 1951 and Oliver Sack’s “An Anthropologist on Mars, 1995). This is a work full of contradictions, that move the reader in contradictory directions, from anger to empathy within a paragraph. It is not unusual for a sentence to spin off in a tangent. All adding to the fragmentary nature of the book;

This frightens me: what if disintegration into prime elements, the fragmentation into particulars, is also true for other phenomena, and reality will churn before my eyes in an incomprehensible muddle? (p78)

Our narrator is from the fringes, being treated for mental illness, recently made redundant with no prospect of reemployment – although she tries – she spends her days emailing her dumpster diving daughter – who is going out with Bob Dylan – and sharing her time and space with a homeless alcoholic who has had “a tumor the size if a lemon removed from his brain”, a soul mate, Melda, who she met in the neurological ward of the local hospital.

“I have no money,” I said to keep the conversation going. “I have no money, no job, no family. Apart from Alice, that is, who’s found lifelong lover in the flap of a discarded wallet in a dumpster, and my sister, Nadia, whose sets all burned down.”
And suddenly, with no warning, Doctor Gnuj quite unexpectedly fixed on me his brown-pink gaze, matching the waiting room, the gaze of a polyp: “Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars! Do you even notice the world around you?”
I do. Don’t you worry. I know well enough what the world around me lives for: the season of wine tastings and exhibitions of corpses. (pgs 31-32)

A deeply moving work of social exclusion, it is akin to William Kennedy’s ‘Ironweed’ on magic mushrooms, a melancholic work where we wonder if there is to be any redemption for the narrator as she slips further and further into decline.

Most of the fragments are at the most two pages long and this broken collection of seemingly disparate parts is well suited to exploring a life on the edges, where the kaleidoscopic motes blur the lines between fantasy and reality. As the publisher’s notes say “to testify to what it is like to be alone and lost and indignant in a world that has stopped making sense.”

And suddenly I recall how my mom took me to see a psychologist once, I was twelve or thirteen and maybe ever weirder back then than I am now, I don’t really remember, even memory is just a play of colors and shapes behind eyelids shut in a desire for non-existence. He showed me some pictures, ink blots symmetrical along a vertical axis running through the center of the card. Did it remind me of anything? Was I supposed to let my imagination run wild? What swaddled dimensions, what unknowable universes existed back then, just like today, between my mental images and the words I was forced to use to express them?
Indeed: the infamous Rorschach test.
“A blot,” I told the psychologist when he showed me the first card, but I imagined horse shit on a forest path, which was very strange, given the path was so narrow, no horse could possibly squeeze its way down it.
“Okay, but what does the blot remind you of?”
“A blot.”
“And this picture?”
“A blot. A blot. A blot.”
It reminded me of the noble profile of Old Shatterhand’s face, it reminded me of a human brain and a singed map of Prague, it reminded me of…But why in the world should I tell him that? Just like today, I stubbornly insisted on words quite different to those bursting inside me like bubbles on the water’s surface.
Melda’s lying on a foam mattress and drinking no euro-rotgut but the good Chilean wine he’d given me for my birthday. He drinks it all in one go, being an alcoholic. And me? A blot. Behind the closed eyelids of God knows who. Blots. (p52)

Zuzana Brabcová has taken the three principal determinants on human behavior: heredity, environment, and the historical moment, from Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’, set the tale in modern day Prague and blended these into an experimental “morass of the bizarre and the grotesque”. At times the protagonist Alžběta is referred to in the third person, others the first, omniscient overlaid with monologue, this approach forcing to reader to recoil, but then to embrace.

‘Aviaries’ was the winner of the Josef Škvorecký Award, a Czech language award in 2016 for the best prose of the year, unfortunately Zuzana Brabcová had died soon after completing this work. A social commentary on the political state in Prague and the ill treatment of socially disadvantaged people, this is a powerful and lingering book.

As Émile Zola says (again) in his Preface to ‘L’Assommoir’; “ I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feeling and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.”

Whist Zola has a simple linear narrative arc, a moral story of decline into squalor, Zuzana Brabcová starts us deeply immersed in the mire, the opening fragment at sunset;

December 20, 2011

It arrives around four, five o’clock in the afternoon, hangs around until about seven, and then at night it reigns. It’s been that way for years, I don’t recall it ever having been any different. A day devoted to staying in is the music of a melody nobody has ever played. And when I do have to go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way I love them. All that exists: just disrupts and mars, as if somebody had graffiti-tagged The Night Watch.
V
áclav Havel died the day before yesterday. In his sleep, in the morning. So its reign extends beyond the night.

The book starting the in the days after the first President of the Czech Republic’s death. Even the reference to Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ pervades the opening with darkness, will there be an escape from the gloom?

Brabcová draws on a number of Zola references;

and she looked along the outer boulevards, to the left and to the right, her eyes pausing at either end, filled with a nameless dread, as if, from now on, her life would be lived out within this space, bounded by a slaughterhouse and a hospital. (‘L’Assommoir’ p33)

No, I really can’t complain about where I live. I have a complete range of public facilities nearby: two hospitals, numerous pharmacies, a cemetery, even a crematorium. (‘Aviaries’)

A highlight of my recent reading journey and yet again a great publication from Twisted Spoon Press in Prague. Now I have read Zuzana Brabcová’s final novel I am eagerly awaiting more of her work to appear in English, ‘Rok Perel’ apparently the first Czech novel to deal with lesbian love, set in a psychiatric hospital it deals with an adult woman’s love for a young girl. Her first novel ‘Daleko od stromu’ was published in 1984 in Cologne and Zuzana Brabcová was the first recipient of the Jiří Orten Award in 1987, a prize established to raise the profile of authors whose works had been rejected by the regime. Her work ‘Stropy’ (‘Ceilings’) won the Magnesia Litera in 2013, the title referring to the thing which people hospitalised in psychiatric clinics see most often – a ceiling. All of these blurbs (taken from the Czech Lit website), look most appealing indeed, let’s hope some translators are on the case.

I think it is going to take something special for this book not to remain at the top of my highlights for 2019 and if you enjoy works that push the boundaries, books that examine the fringes, mysterious, grotesque and hallucinatory works then I suggest you order a copy of this post haste.

Copy courtesy of the publisher Twisted Spoon Press.

 

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Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Four

70df6-tooloudDown to the last four favourite works of 2016. This one from a few years ago, Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. A few blogs featuring this work recently and a feature film about to be released. Here’s what I wrote back in June:

The amazing publication “Music and Literature” featured celebrated writer Dubravka Ugreśić in their 6th edition and she said, in an interview with Daniel Medin “We should remember here that at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument to the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Helm). It is the best book about books that I know of.” As regular visitors here would know, it doesn’t take much for me to source a referenced work, especially if it is by an author I have previously read, and with a recommendation that it is “the best book about books” I had no hesitation in reading “Too Loud A Solitude” as soon as a copy arrived in my mailbox.

Our protagonist is Haňt’a, a manual labourer, who has been compacting wastepaper for the last thirty-five years, as the opening of each chapter attests, “For thirty-five years now I have been compacting wastepaper” (actually it is slightly differently worded for each chapter, but the general idea is the same, even though the slight change of words actually alludes to something different each time). His boss sees Haňt’a as a beer swilling imbecile, but Haňt’a has a secret, he has been rescuing great books, reading classics, and he is learned in a vast array of literature.

Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in my like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

To read Hrabal is also to savour language, to sip on the words, the structure, the knowledge, the illusion. This is a short work, but very much like Haňt’a’s hydraulic press, Hrabal has compacted an awful lot into 98 pages. Working underground, in a police state, all day in a cellar, drinking vast amounts of alcohol and, when he has the time, going to his home, a construction completely filled with books (so much so even tons of books teeter over Haňt’a ‘s bed).  He is even shrinking under the weight of his books, is this a mental burden or a physical one? Horror tales of the manual labour are blended with the celebration of printed works themselves:

Today for the first time I noticed I’d stopped looking out for the mice, the nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn’t believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there is one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings.

Chapter four doesn’t open with the “For thirty-five years..” instead jumping straight to an opening scene of blood;

One afternoon the slaughterhouse people brought me a truckload of bloodstained paper and blood-drenched boxes, crate after crate of the stuff, which I couldn’t stand, because it had that sickly sweet smell to it and left me as gory as a butcher’s apron. By way of revenge I piously placed and open Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam into the first bale, a Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller into the second, and, that the word might be made bloody flesh, an Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche into the third. And as I worked, a host, a swarm of those dreadful flesh flies the butchers had brought with them from the slaughterhouse buzzed around my head, attacking my face like a hailstorm.

Later the writers visit Haňt’a in his dreams. “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus is an essay that is a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society as well as the Roman Catholic Church, “Don Carlos” by Friedrich Schiller an historical tragedy in five acts that is set in the Spanish Court at Aranjuez and explores the conflict between Don Carlos and this father, King Philip II, and “Ecce Homo” by Friedrich Nietzsche, subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is” a work where Nietzsche offered his own perspective on his work as a philosopher as well as a human being. As previous Hrabal books have explored, through long rambling sentences, he can pack al lot into a short space, here a single paragraph giving a wealth of works to explore, correlations, references, links.

But the inclusion of compacted reference or classic works into bales of wastepaper is not only Haňt’a’s forte, he decorates the bales with reproductions of artworks on the outside, the reality of his disgraceful surroundings and meaningless work, beautified by major works of art, Van Gough, Gauguin. This juxtaposition a feature throughout:

Depressed, burdened with guilt, I made my way down to the cellar and lay on my back in the hollow still warm from the Gypsy girl in the turquoise skirt, I lay there listening to the sounds of the street, the beautiful concrete music of the street, and the dripping and flushing of wastewater that was constantly running through the five-story building above us, to toilet chains being pulled, listening to what was going on below, clearly hearing the far-off flow of wastewater and feces through the sewers, and far beneath the surface – now that the flesh flies’ legions had beat a fast retreat – the keening and mournful squeaking of the two armies of rats battling throughout the sewers of the capital, battling for supremacy over the sewers of Prague. Neither the heavens are humane nor is life above or below – or within me. Bonjour, M. Gauguin!

Bonjour, M. Gauguinan artwork by Paul Gauguin, a work set in the bright outdoors, not in a cellar with the flies, mice, sewers.

As progress, and an efficient communist state, comes into being, the future of conveyor belts holding entire print runs, turning the anonymous books into pulp becomes a reality, the books unceremoniously being “tossed, their naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to, nobody ever looked into them…” With parallels to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, there is a connection between Haňt’a and the camps but you’ll need to read this yourself to discover it, the section is set to the delivery of Immanuel Kant’s “The Metaphysics of Morals”….

Haňt’a’s favourite book? Seneca’s “On Tranquillity of Mind” – another to explore?

Another masterful work from Hrabal, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book that, like our protagonist, compacts an awful lot into a short space. Thanks to Dubravka Ugreśić for her recommendation.

 

 

Too Loud A Solitude – Bohumil Hrabal (translated by Michael Henry Heim)

The amazing publication “Music and Literature” featured celebrated writer Dubravka Ugreśić in their 6th edition and she said, in an interview with Daniel Medin “We should remember here that at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument to the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Helm). It is the best book about books that I know of.” As regular visitors here would know, it doesn’t take much for me to source a referenced work, especially if it is by an author I have previously read, and with a recommendation that it is “the best book about books” I had no hesitation in reading “Too Loud A Solitude” as soon as a copy arrived in my mailbox.
Our protagonist is Haňt’a, a manual labourer, who has been compacting wastepaper for the last thirty-five years, as the opening of each chapter attests, “For thirty-five years now I have been compacting wastepaper” (actually it is slightly differently worded for each chapter, but the general idea is the same, even though the slight change of words actually alludes to something different each time). His boss sees Haňt’a as a beer swilling imbecile, but Haňt’a has a secret, he has been rescuing great books, reading classics, and he is learned in a vast array of literature.
Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in my like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
To read Hrabal is also to savour language, to sip on the words, the structure, the knowledge, the illusion. This is a short work, but very much like Haňt’a’s hydraulic press, Hrabal has compacted an awful lot into 98 pages. Working underground, in a police state, all day in a cellar, drinking vast amounts of alcohol and, when he has the time, going to his home, a construction completely filled with books (so much so even tons of books teeter over Haňt’a ‘s bed).  He is even shrinking under the weight of his books, is this a mental burden or a physical one? Horror tales of the manual labour are blended with the celebration of printed works themselves:
Today for the first time I noticed I’d stopped looking out for the mice, the nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn’t believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there is one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings.
Chapter four doesn’t open with the “For thirty-five years..” instead jumping straight to an opening scene of blood;
One afternoon the slaughterhouse people brought me a truckload of bloodstained paper and blood-drenched boxes, crate after crate of the stuff, which I couldn’t stand, because it had that sickly sweet smell to it and left me as gory as a butcher’s apron. By way of revenge I piously placed and open Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam into the first bale, a Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller into the second, and, that the word might be made bloody flesh, an Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche into the third. And as I worked, a host, a swarm of those dreadful flesh flies the butchers had brought with them from the slaughterhouse buzzed around my head, attacking my face like a hailstorm.
Later the writers visit Haňt’a in his dreams. “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus is an essay that is a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society as well as the Roman Catholic Church, “Don Carlos” by Friedrich Schiller an historical tragedy in five acts that is set in the Spanish Court at Aranjuez and explores the conflict between Don Carlos and this father, King Philip II, and “Ecce Homo” by Friedrich Nietzsche, subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is” a work where Nietzsche offered his own perspective on his work as a philosopher as well as a human being. As previous Hrabal books have explored, through long rambling sentences, he can pack al lot into a short space, here a single paragraph giving a wealth of works to explore, correlations, references, links.
But the inclusion of compacted reference or classic works into bales of wastepaper is not only Haňt’a’s forte, he decorates the bales with reproductions of artworks on the outside, the reality of his disgraceful surroundings and meaningless work, beautified by major works of art, Van Gough, Gauguin. This juxtaposition a feature throughout:
Depressed, burdened with guilt, I made my way down to the cellar and lay on my back in the hollow still warm from the Gypsy girl in the turquoise skirt, I lay there listening to the sounds of the street, the beautiful concrete music of the street, and the dripping and flushing of wastewater that was constantly running through the five-story building above us, to toilet chains being pulled, listening to what was going on below, clearly hearing the far-off flow of wastewater and feces through the sewers, and far beneath the surface – now that the flesh flies’ legions had beat a fast retreat – the keening and mournful squeaking of the two armies of rats battling throughout the sewers of the capital, battling for supremacy over the sewers of Prague. Neither the heavens are humane nor is life above or below – or within me. Bonjour, M. Gauguin!
Bonjour, M. Gauguinan artwork by Paul Gauguin, a work set in the bright outdoors, not in a cellar with the flies, mice, sewers.
As progress, and an efficient communist state, comes into being, the future of conveyor belts holding entire print runs, turning the anonymous books into pulp becomes a reality, the books unceremoniously being “tossed, their naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to, nobody ever looked into them…” With parallels to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, there is a connection between Haňt’a and the camps but you’ll need to read this yourself to discover it, the section is set to the delivery of Immanuel Kant’s “The Metaphysics of Morals”….
Haňt’a’s favourite book? Seneca’s “On Tranquillity of Mind” – another to explore?
Another masterful work from Hrabal, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book that, like our protagonist, compacts an awful lot into a short space. Thanks to Dubravka Ugreśić for her recommendation.

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