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I, City

Alfred Thomas

By Pavel Brycz. Translated from Czech by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press (, 2006. 156 pages. ISBN 80-86264-27-0. Paper. $14.50 from the publisher.

The novel I, City, by the Czech writer Pavel Brycz (b. 1968) consists of a series of loosely assembled vignettes (“appearances”) that chronicle the past and present life of the industrial town of Most in the northwestern Czech Republic. Most is a very old town that has undergone numerous transformations in its long history. Known in German as “Brüx”—an archaic variant of the German word for bridge (Brücke)—it was overwhelmingly German-speaking until the turn of the twentieth century when an influx of Czech workers needed to serve the local factories and mines shifted the demographic imbalance. At the end of the Second World War the Germans were deported en masse, creating, here as elsewhere in the border region of Czechoslovakia, entire areas of desolation and abandonment. As if this fate were not tragic enough, in the 1960s the historical core of Most was demolished to make way for the mining of lignite discovered below the Old Town. The result was an urban space blighted by the political and ecological catastrophes of the twentieth century. What is remarkable—even miraculous—is that the author of this book can find so many life-affirming and humorous tales to tell about a town that has witnessed and endured so many calamities.

Most’s ancient history of displaced populations and physical transformations is paralleled by the book’s literary layering of citations and allusions. A good example is the vignette “an appearance, empty,” where a girl and her boyfriend visit the villa abandoned by her grandparents at the end of the war with the intention of making love there. This episode is characteristic of the entire novel in its homage to writers as different as the magical realist Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is referenced early on in the episode, and the German novelist W. G. Sebald, whose preoccupation with photographs as documents of memory and loss is reflected in Brycz’s heartrending account of vanished lives: “Germans had lived there earlier. Roland from a photograph in a Wehrmacht uniform—a Christmas postcard home, he smiles in the photograph, ah, yes, he’s still smiling; he doesn’t know he’s been dead such a long time” (71).

The lyrical poignancy of this story contrasts with the levity of other pieces such as the charming “an appearance, fast” which recounts the playground fantasies of children assuming the glamorous roles of famous racing drivers like Gilles Villeneuve, Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni, and James Hunt. A grammar-school teacher of Czech language and literature and the host of a program for children on Czech Radio, the author betrays a special gift for capturing the subversive imagination of children without lapsing into saccharine sentimentality. Indeed, some of the tales read like viva voce performances for children. For instance, the opening sentence of the satirical “an appearance, windy” introduces the story of a young pioneer named Till whose discarded neck scarf is used as a handkerchief by the visiting head of state in the Communist era: “I’ve already told you about Till and his walks. Didn’t I? So listen to what happened when Till was nine and met Gustav Husák, the president of Czechoslovakia” (108).

But this is far from a children’s book. To the contrary, it is a highly self-conscious palimpsest of literary influences and styles. For example, the loose, episodic structure of I, City and its democratic inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives owes a great deal to Bohumil Hrabal’s collage technique of incorporating low-life characters into his stories and novels. In this way the otherwise irrelevant lives of small-town individuals are invested with a dignity denied to them by the grand narratives of twentieth-century history and ideology. Further evidence of Hrabal’s influence is the theme of national pettiness and appeasement in the face of foreign tyranny as evidenced in the satirical “an appearance, occupied” about the invasion of the town by the Soviet-led forces of the Warsaw Pact in 1968 and the characteristically Czech reaction of its “Everyman” protagonist. Mr. Novák (a commonplace name akin to Mr. Smith in the English-speaking world) has just begun to apply a coat of fresh white paint to an apartment block when the foreign tanks arrive and tear up the asphalt of the main street with their treads, prompting the disconsolate workman to observe that “now, it’ll never dry!” (24). Brycz concludes this vignette with a scathing indictment of “those great pals of Mozart, those pitch-perfect Czechs, the pennyweight heroes for whom Blaník had been exchanged for Bílá hora” (24). Blaník refers to a mountain southeast of Prague where, legend has it, an army of Czech knights sleeps until the day they will be called upon to save the nation from doom. By contrast, Bílá hora (White Mountain) is an ambivalent site on the periphery of Prague where in November 1620 the Czech Estates were defeated by the armies of the Habsburg Emperor, thus ushering in three centuries of foreign domination in Bohemia. This story successfully synthesizes Hrabalian absurdity and Kunderian polemic while avoiding the timorous prevarications of the former and the heavy-handed tendentiousness of the latter.

The central metaphor of the book—the anthropomorphic conceit of the city as a living person—is very much in the spirit of magical realism. A good example, and even a possible source of influence on Brycz, is Sylvie Germain’s novel La pleurante des rues de Prague (The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague, 1992) which consists of the mysterious “appearances” (“apparitions”) of a female phantom reminiscent of the ancient Golem of Prague. In distinction to Germain’s third-person perspective, Brycz’s first-person voice equates the city less with a ghostly presence than with the identity of the writer himself. A story that Brycz may also have known and that mediates in a striking way between these first- and third-person perspectives is Eda Kriseová’s short story “Nenarozeny” (The Unborn) from the collection Arboretum (1985) in which the spirit of an abandoned house and its tragic history is embodied by a mysterious “unborn” baby that observes and comments on the lovemaking of a couple bivouacking between its walls.

Like the name of the town that the first-person voice purports to embody, the “I” of the narrative serves as a bridge linking a far-flung archipelago of other voices. Yet in spite of—or perhaps because of—the history of demographic displacement and physical disruption that Most, like Bohemia, has endured through the centuries, the impression one takes from reading Brycz’s novel is the author’s passionate commitment to bearing witness to the sufferings of the living and the dead in this ancient and ever-mutating town. The book’s postmodernist structure of multiple perspectives linked by an all-seeing authorial gaze leaves the reader with the reassuring sense that the identity of the writer (“I”) and the fate of the collective (“City”) remain intimately implicated in each other.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 12/6/08