In his enchanting novel Grand Hotel (2006, German translation 2008) Jaroslav Rudiš describes the Czechs as a nation “that is afraid of movement”. The main character Fleischman suffers from this anxiety; according to his psychotherapist, his anxiety conceals a deeper fear of freedom. Fleischman has never ventured beyond his home town of Liberec. He prefers to gaze into the sky and only dreams of trying his luck with a hot-air balloon flight. Abandoned by his parents, who escaped to the West without him, together with his older cousin Jégr he manages a futuristic grand hotel on Ještěd Mountain above Liberec. It attracts all kinds of curious characters and Jaroslav Rudiš describes them with unbiased empathy and melancholy light-heartedness.
In Rudiš’ most recent novel entitled Nationalstrasse (2013, German translation 2016) the character Vandam seems entirely to contradict this tranquillity. If someone comes into the bar and makes silly observations, it causes a brawl, “Concentration… and action” – Vandam, the notorious barfly, finds his own motivation. He copied his name from his role model, Jean-Claude Van Damme. But such ‘action’ is merely the helpless sign of life of a gossip who revels in stories about old heroes that basically only list defeats. He likes to call himself the “last Roman”, the last emissary of the Varus Battle of in Teutoburg Forest. Now and then, therefore, he allows himself the fascist Roman greeting, or “Heil Hitler”, – basically, it’s just “Czech humour”. He also claims to have shown ‘action’ on the ‘Nationalstrasse’ when he supposedly caused the Velvet Revolution with a punch. Is that true?
If Vandam’s constant flow of words oscillating between freedom and violence is unclear, then Rudiš is equally insistent in managing to draw attention to the urgency behind them. The call for freedom is more a cry for help from an outsider who has no chance in respectable society. He stays cooped up in his bar.
Being motionless is also a unique quality in Leif Randt’s brilliant novel Shimmering Mist over Coby County (2011). Coby County is a utopian place by the sea beyond Europe and America. The authorities are attentive and the residents are hedonists, including 26-year-old literary agent Wim Endersson. The oasis of prosperity conceals a profound sense of malaise. While the sixty-something parents are active and full of energy, the young people are struck by peculiar fatigue as well as being completely unemotional. Wim claims, in all seriousness, that for him this has reached a level where he no longer asks any more questions of himself. Leif Randt lets the reader sense the abyss behind the melancholy masquerade. Moreover, he positively lulls readers with his wonderfully stoic language. Yet, a time bomb ticks somewhere beneath the smooth surface. “Shimmering Mist over Coby County” mainly opposes modern reactionary excitement and therefore offers an excellent diagnosis about the zeitgeist.
An unspecified fear of freedom also seems to dominate the world in the novel Planet Magnon (2015). Magnon is the name for a drug, which frees one’s vision, yet without causing stress for the body or emotions. People are totally relaxed on the planet, yet they are also trapped in a rigidly fixed order that is managed and permanently optimized by a computer system called “ActualSanity”. Tension emerges in this super-cool narrated and laid back thriller due to a group of people who refuse to conform with the order; and they search for their freedom, of all places, on the rubbish planet (known as Toadstool).
The vision of an ideal world is overshadowed by deep melancholy which links the quite different novels by Leif Randt and Jaroslav Rudiš. Be it in the Prague bar or on the planet of a futuristic solar system, in the gated community or in the grand hotel, a world without illusion prevails and culminates in the fear of freedom. However, from the cracks of this well-organized society – the astonishing dreams of Fleischman, or the spirit of opposition on the rubbish planet – freedom still seductively shines through. “I sometimes wonder”, says one of the protagonists in Coby County. All is not yet lost, as Rudiš and Randt impressively announce.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Jaroslav Rudiš: Grand Hotel. Roman. Translated into German by Eva Profousová. Sammlung Luchterhand, Munich 2008.
Jaroslav Rudiš: Nationalstrasse. Roman. Translation from Czech by Eva Profousová. Luchterhand, Munich 2016.
Leif Randt: Schimmernder Dunst über CobyCounty. Roman. Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2011.
Leif Randt: Planet Magnon. Roman. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2015