Best European Fiction 2012 – Part II – novels in miniature

The two stories in BEF 2012 that stood out the most for me were Czech writer Jiří Kratochvil’s “I Loshad’” and “The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus” by Polish writer Janusz Rudnicki.

The excellence of these two stories shouldn’t be all that surprising. For while these and other Dalkey anthologies try to give exposure to young and emerging international writers, the infamous three percent translation barrier in English-speaking countries has kept some major writers from gaining the kind of exposure their work warrants. Kratochvil at 72 years old and Rudnicki at 56 look to be two prime examples, and it is an extreme understatement to say that they should be more widely translated into English – more widely, being essentially anything beyond these two stories.

The starry heavens above and the moral code within

One reason that short story writers typically limit the scope of individual pieces is that it’s extremely difficult to deal with big subjects like the savagery of war, or how Europe’s rich cultural heritage can coexist with the unprecedented cruelty of the 20th century. Of course a writer can choose to focus on a fragment and allow it to stand for larger issues. But to treat these themes in any depth is well beyond what the average short story can accommodate.

Not for Jiří Kratochvil. “I Loshad’” deals very intensively with Europe’s Jekyll and Hyde character, one that has led to the heights of great art and intellectual achievements, as well as extremes of brutality. Many reviews of BEF 2012 have pointed out that Kratochvil’s story is narrated by a horse, but I think it’s far more consequential that the horse is Russian and arrives in Kratochvil’s hometown of Brno with the advancing Red Army. Furthermore, the horse speaks German and so is able to communicate with the local German teacher who is being gang-raped by the Russian soldiers that have chained her to a floor in the villa while they wait for orders to advance on Berlin.

Almost all of the story takes place in the house where the soldiers are billeted, which happens to be the Tugenhadt Villa, designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and itself the focal point of Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel The Glass Room. In Kratochvil’s story the architectural marvel isn’t only packed with drunk Russian soldiers but with highly evocative symbolism. While the Russians only chose the site because of its good visibility and space for stables, there is one person who knows about modern architecture and appreciates what the building represents, though it isn’t a person at all, but a horse.

The horse (Loshad means horse in Russian, while it’s given name, Orlando, is only revealed in a brief epilogue) is a touchstone to a broad and horrifying stretch of Russian and European history. It owes its education to its former owner, Dmitri Ivanovich Khlomakov, translator and intellectual, who regularly spoke with it man to horse, educating him on the intellectual foundation of humankind (though it doesn’t share its teacher’s enthusiasm for modern poetry). When Khlomakov makes the fatal error of publicly expressing admiration for poet Osip Mandelstam he is sent to the Gulag.

From the start the story evokes the schizophrenic, dual nature of Russian and European culture. When the horse’s groom is blown up by a mine it describes the carnage of the boy being “torn to hundreds of small pieces that the great jewel box of the heavens sent back to earth as rubies with the first rays of morning.” The horse’s poetic viewpoint continually tries to elevate the barbaric reality it sees around it, always to end up weighed down into the muck. What’s more, the horse understands the futile intellectual conjuring act it is attempting to carry out.

“ … but make no mistake, what I am telling you right now is just a screen intended to block your view of what the dear soldiers were engaged in with the German teacher on the cork linoleum.”

The stallion even acknowledges the curiosity and arousal it feels, together with loathing and disgust, towards the gang rape taking place. When two of the grooms bring the horse to the room where the German woman has been chained in the hope that it will join in their rape, it is not primarily out of malice but, in this world turned upside down, as a gift to the horse that they lovingly care for.

Kratochvil’s use of a horse as narrator is far from a novelty, but corresponds perfectly with the overriding theme of the story. Embedded in language itself is the fact that only humans can show humanity or can be humanitarians, yet in this story the humane exception is an animal who understands all too well what is happening around it:

“Did I really have to take the same journey as every Russian intellectual, struggling through the most sophisticated philosophies only to fall face-first into the most squalid shit?”

The scene of the horse revealing his power of speech to the German woman (in spite of an initial difficulty with its German pronunciation) is also the symbolic climax of the heights and depth humanity has achieved. Horse and woman discuss the philosophy of Kant, practically finishing each other’s ecstatic sentences they are so finely attuned to the same conclusions.

Yet is this joyful meeting of the minds saying that knowledge can rise above the filth, or is placing this conversation between a victim of torture and a horse that expects to be turned into food for hungry soldiers the blackest of black comedy? Most likely it’s both, with the elevated words they use to express profound ideas ending up not unlike the groom’s body annihilated by a mine, “bloody rubies that later spangled the heavens.”

There is one passage in particular in Andrew Oakland’s excellent translation in which natural and architectural beauty is woven together with shit and blood in a way that embodies the essence of the story:

“Even though the dear soldiers made fires on which they roasted pieces of meat, and the smoke then trailed about the room before withdrawing through the broken glass wall, and even though the creamwhite floor was beset with bundles of stinking horse dung, every evening at dusk the onyx wall (which had seen out the plunder with a Moroccan calm) conjured with the setting sun a light that took one’s breath away, and for a moment we horses appeared to be cast in stone or bronze; and if this moment caught us rearing up, we would afterward hold this position, our hooves in the air, and the ocher puddles of light would turn brown and perhaps even red and be reflected in our flanks and backs like deep, bloody gashes, or blows from a broadax, or burning stigmata, and the soldatiks would stare captivated at the onyx wall as if it were an iconostasis, and one of them would whisper Gospodi pomilui! and make the sign of a large Orthodox cross.”

On Jiří Kratochvil: Jiří Kratochvil began publishing around the time of the Prague Spring, but after the Soviet invasion could only publish in samizdat. His novel A Bear’s Novel (Medvědí román) caused an uproar when it appeared in samizdat in the mid ‘80s, according to the information on his literary agent’s site (Dana Blatná literary agency). It was published above ground finally in 1990. His agent’s site also has a glittering endorsement from Milan Kundera: “Kratochvil’s works of prose are the greatest events in Czech literature since 1989.” The site has a long list of his works, most of which have been translated into languages other than English. There are also numerous excerpts (one being in Czech Airline’s onboard magazine, pg. 62-65, together with an article about Dana Blatná, pg.60-1)

To read more on Jiří Kratochvil look at his page on the Czech Literature Portal, which also some excerpts from his work: “Actor” (translated by Andrew Oakland),  “Coming Closer” and “Alien IV” (translated by Jan Čulík and Lesley Keen). There are also two excellent short stories in Issue 12 of The Café Irreal:  “A Sad Play” and “From the Pulps” (translated by G.S. Evans), the very same issue incidentally that published yours truly (“Persephone and Science“) and which remains to this day the only piece of fiction I have ever been paid for.

Photos – 1) Red Army tanks on Křenová Street in Brno, 2) Le cheval de Mustapha Pascha (c. 1810) by Antoine-Jean Gros, 3) Villa Tugendhat in somewhat better condition than in the story, 4) Red Army soldiers in Znojmo, 5) Immanuel Kant

Coming next: Best European Fiction 2012 – Part III – “The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus”

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Categories: Book Reviews


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5 Comments on “Best European Fiction 2012 – Part II – novels in miniature”

  1. Tony
    15/06/2012 at 4:22 am #

    Thanks for your views on a book I’m tempted to buy – and for the blog in general 🙂

  2. 15/06/2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Thanks, glad you like it


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