Friday, 30 April 2010

Czech-mating in the New Republic

“Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia” is a novel by Michal Viewegh:- one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers - and apparently also the best-selling one...

This is a slim but dense novel, which mainly concerns the story of a middle-aged teacher who is employed by a local Mafioso (of whom there seem many in this region…) to teach his 20 year old daughter, Beata, creative writing. From the narrator's first visit to the gloomy bedroom of this uncommunicative individual, it is apparent that this is no ordinary task – he is actually expected to bring her out of her depression after the break-up with a former boyfriend, based upon the vague notion that she has previously expressed a wish to write.

All of this sets the book up to be a relatively light read: an impression reinforced by the book’s cover – which, with its bright-pink cover and cartoon image of a pair of lady’s legs - seems to be consciously positioning itself as a lightweight book. Similarly; the blurb on the back, with phrases such as “picaresque romp” lead to expectations of a description of the amiable adventures of a teacher approaching mid-life crisis who is thrown together with the young daughter of the local gangster who, though 20, exhibits the actions of a stroppy teenager. Indeed, given the age difference, certain echoes of Nabokov are distinctly evident here.

However, despite the basic plot, this book is intended by the author as nothing of the sort. His alternative intention is also flagged up on the back cover description which – as well as ascribing the novel with the dual role of being “a serious exploration of the writer in post-communist Europe", also signposts, almost in passing, Beata’s ultimate suicide.

This dichotomy pretty well sums up the book as a whole:– it uses the surface narrative of the aforementioned plot as a platform for the author to explore his thoughts on the nature of writing through a series of post-modern asides. These asides include the author interrupting the narrative – Vonnegut-like – to discuss his writing of this work, as well as the casual frequent references to Beata’s impending suicide which jar with the ongoing narrative of the development of her relationship with the narrator. More annoyingly, the author frequently breaks up the flow of the narrative by italicising certain words or phrases mid-sentence to no particular effect.

As such, in my opinion, this novel falls between two stools:

On one hand: the basic narrative of a middle aged teacher bringing a young pupil out of depression and into a relationship is simply not engaging. The main issue here is characterisation: Beata, on the one hand, is not a sympathetic character – she comes across as spoilt, self-absorbed and shallow – flitting from one new-age fad to another, just as she flits from one lover to another. An obvious metaphor for the transition of the Czech Republic from East to Western influence, but one which does not really work on the literal level. Also, whilst the narrator has an engaging enough voice, it is hard to find sympathy for him in his hypocrisy in starting a sexual relationship with the young Beata whilst eulogising over his wonderful wife and young daughter back home (his wife, incidentally, is obviously upset over her suspicions of the relationship, and he lies to her when confronted with the issue). As such – the ultimate suicide of Beata, who is never portrayed in more than two-dimensions by the author - and the impact upon the narrator, leave sadly little impact upon the reader.

One the other hand, Viewegh’s attempt at presenting this as metafiction – through his matter-of-fact signposting of the key plot point (Beata’s suicide) right from the outset, his interruptions of the novel by the novel’s author, his seemingly random use of italics and his rather heavy-handed use of post-modernist quotes – all fall rather flat. As does his lengthy insertion of a novel-within-a-novel towards the end of the book, which simply serves to break up the narrative even further with no real purpose that I, as the humble reader, could define.

I am aware that I have given this novel a bit of a mauling so far, and must accede that perhaps this is down to my previous academic background as a student of literary theory: I have seen all of these literary devices used before to much better effect; and felt rather frustrated that they seem to be being employed here rather for the sake of it, at the author’s indulgence, rather than for any valid literary purpose. Although, of course I accept that this is my personal opinion and – as with previous works – there may be important cultural points I am missing, or which have been lost in the translation into English (which, I should point out, is occasionally stilted).

But, of course, my ‘Round the World’ trip is not purely an exercise in literary criticism – it is about what I can find out about each country and its culture through literature. As such, this book certainly offers some nuggets into the lower-middle class lives of Prague residents - teachers in this instance - as well as its richer inhabitants, who earn their money in rather more dubious ways (i.e. Kral – Beata’s gangster father who, among other enterprises, owns the local brothel). Some of the most entertaining – and enlightening - passages in this work involve the often-hilarious exchanges that take place in the teachers' office at school, with wonderfully depicted characters such as:

a) Stribrny – an 18 year old student teacher terrorised by his students who are a mere four years younger than him;
b) Svetlana Trakarova, whose extreme reaction to liberation from the sexual Puritanism of communism leads to wildly inappropriate discourse of a gynaecological nature and actions such as furnishing her young pre-pubescent students with condoms, and
c) Chvatalova-Sukova – an exponent of classical concerts for students which her fellow teachers despair of – as is shown in a genuinely humorous account of a trip to a classical recital attended by a hoard of disinterested students (complete with Walkmen) and even more disinterested teachers…

Sadly these passages, which are a joy to read, and give a flavour of the everyday life of a teacher in contemporary Prague, are too frequently interspersed with the narrative devices as described above. As such this is a curate’s egg of a novel – good in parts, but ultimately disappointing. That said, Michal Viewegh (a born native of Prague) is one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers and the best-selling one. As such, I have no qualms about having included this novel as the representative work for my trip to the Czech Republic – a trip which has now come to an end.

From the Czech Republic, I move on to the neighbouring country of Austria. For this leg of my journey I have selected “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” by the Austrian novelist Wolf Haas.

The trip from the Czech Republic to Austria is slightly complicated by the fact that this Austrian novel is set in a fairly remote village in the Austrian Alps (Farmach). It is further complicated by the fact that deciphering bus and train timetables in the Czech Republic can seem baffling, and buying tickets can also be a hassle.

However, here we go: my starting point is “Station Praha-Smíchov” in Prague, an historic and functional-looking building from whence I get a train at the inhumane time of 5.11 in the morning! I stay on the train until Schwandorf at 8:53am from where I blearily make my way to the 9:08 München Hbf train:- leaving there at 11:27am and arriving at Salzburg Hbf station at 12:58.

At 13:10 I finally take a local train (“REx 1508”) and arrive in Saalfelden at 14:57. Saalfelden is mainly a summer resort, but winter-sports areas in the mountains are easy to reach, which means it has long been a holiday destination. From there, I get a mercifully uncommunicative taxi ride to the Alpine resort of Farmach, and on to Austria….

No comments:

Post a Comment