That an anthology centring on an iconic city should have a strong sense of place is axiomatic. When that city has moved rapidly from communism to capitalism – even via a ‘velvet’ revolution – we might expect the time in which each piece is set to be equally pivotal. Is this true of The Book of Prague?
Certainly, Jan Zábrana’s sketch of his stint as an abattoir driver’s mate exudes the oppressive drabness of early 1950s communism. Thrown out of university for having dissident parents, he found himself surviving on fatty pork cheek and lungs, while for his co-worker (a former RAF pilot), communism was on a par with venereal disease. In contrast, Bohumil Hrabal’s depiction of the rather down-at-heel Libeň district – as it was before the 1970s – is deeply affectionate. He delights in the poetry of the train tracks and the factories, in the mouldy smell of a tiny cinema. For Hrabal, beauty is revealed everywhere, even in the process of destruction.
The brutishness of the nineties’ ultra-capitalism emerges vividly in Marek Šindelka’s “Realities”, leading into a digitalised present in which buildings tout their wares on your smartphone as you pass by and advertising has recourse to modern freak shows. Patrik Banga’s piece on growing up in a Roma community in the 1990s also exposes social evils: discrimination at school, police repression, and the racist violence which escalated after the fall of communism.
In a gentler vein, Veronika Bendová pokes fun at the way tourism took over the city centre in the 1990s. This theme also makes a brief appearance in Michal Ajvaz’s surreal tale of an outsize clam – and an undomesticated one at that – running amok in the Castle district. As a Japanese visitor films the rampant mollusc, his enthusiastic cries made me wonder if he considered giant clams to be a Praga magica attraction for foreign tourists, much like the Golem.
Regardless of the period, a wry humour, often with an underlying melancholy, runs through many of these pieces. Simona Bohatá’s story about the old pickpocket Kostya, out of jail on compassionate parole, is a fine example. Irena Dousková’s hapless protagonist Zeb faces an unusual challenge: finding a last resting place for the ashes of his mother, a belated convert to Judaism, in the old Jewish cemetery. But there are a few problems to contend with: the cemetery has been reduced in size, cremated remains are not accepted, and his mother insisted on being buried at Pesach, when there are plenty of potential observers out and about.
In sum, period detail is key in many of these short stories, but they by no means fall neatly into groups according to the historical background. Michal Ajvaz’s apparently whimsical “Summer Night”, complete with persecution motif and, perhaps, a hint of sexual anxiety, would not seem out of place among Kafka’s short stories. Kafka might also have appreciated Irena Dousková’s exquisite irony and sense of the absurd.
This anthology deserves to be read, re-read and savoured. It is an excellent introduction to the work of those authors who are less well-known in the English-speaking world, and a good travelling companion for anyone setting out to discover Prague.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham
THE BOOK OF PRAGUE: A CITY IN SHORT FICTION
By Michal Ajvaz, Patrik Banga, Veronika Bendová, Simona Bohatá, Petr Borkovec, Irena Dousková , Bohumil Hrabal, Marek Šindelka, Marie Stryjová and Jan Zábrana
Edited by Ivana Myšková and Jan Zikmund
Translated from the Czech by Alžběta Belánová, Geoffrey Chew, Melvyn Clarke, Graeme Dibble, Paul Kaye, Andrew Oakland, Justin Quinn, Julia and Peter Sherwood, Paul Wilson and Alex Zucker
Published by Comma Press (2023)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Fiona Graham is a literary translator and reviewer. Her latest translation (from Swedish) is The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow: The Forced Displacement of the Northern Sámi by Elin Anna Labba (due out in 2024).
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