by David Auerbach
Under communist rule, Czech literature was a crippled entity: not only did authors have difficulty publishing their work outside of brief thaw periods, but precommunist Czech writers disappeared from view, as their works were often banned. When Czech literature did become more well-known in the last few decades, much of it was in direct response to communist rule, such as the works of Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky. But many Czech writers both past and present remain unknown to English readers. Based in Prague, Twisted Spoon Press has a dual purpose: not only to bring lost Czech literature to light, but also to translate it into English, giving it a wider audience both outside and within their native country.
If there is a common thread among Twisted Spoon's books, it is a decided antirationalism; the press aims to bring the surrealist side of Czech writing to an English readership. As publisher Howard Sidenberg says, "What Twisted Spoon is trying to do is to present these works from the prewar period in order to provide a hitherto unknown element of the European avant-garde during those fertile interwar years." Among these prewar reissues are new translations of Kafka's work in editions that restore the books as they were originally printed in this Prague native's lifetime. The press also has a strong list of contemporary authors whose work places them in this cutting-edge tradition.
Twisted Spoon's very first publication remains one of their most extreme: Lukás Tomin's The Doll. Tomin leaves his characters half-drawn for much of the book, forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effect for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue. A dream of a monk's life is described: "Through cold gothic corridors. Cloistered prayers. Move in silence. Angel walk. Shaved head. Faith the problem. Doubts. Dark night of the soul." The novel seeks to jolt with its odd narrative rhythms, making it a rare contemporary update of the surrealist novels of Breton and Pinget. Tomin grew up in a dissident family under one of the harshest periods of communist rule, and wrote The Doll in his second language, English, as an émigré in Paris. He steadfastly refuses to ground his prose in a comfortable fictional environment, just as he refused to ground it in the comfort of his native language.
While Tomin is more aggressively experimental than most precommunist Czech authors, he inherits their themes. Two "lost" books of Czechoslovakia, Paul Leppin's Severin's Journey Into the Dark and Otokar Brezina's Hidden History, outline a decadent romanticism. Dating from 1914, Leppin's novel plainly describes a libertine's aimless affairs and wanderings, focusing on the repetition of Severin's life and melding his decadent outlook with Kafkaesque detachment. Borrowing from Kleist as much as from Sacher-Masoch, Leppin passes over the more voyeuristic aspects of eroticism to examine the mechanistic drive of Severin. The book is surprisingly restrained, and the tight prose prevents Severin's miseries from becoming too histrionic.
Approaching the irrational passions of life with a manic rush, Brezina brings a happier outlook to the primevality that Leppin describes. In the essays contained in Hidden History, written in the first decades of the century, his words erupt almost without sense. Brezina forsakes rational structures of thought, instead creating towers of language that often exhibit powerfully abstract imagery. In death, for example, Brezina finds "a love of man for man which would seem lethal in our time—where the hearts of the brethren, distant, beat in solitude—will bring about a singing union of the spirit." Like Leppin and Tomin, he has little patience for convention, either in writing or in life, but his vision lacks all cynicism and nihilism; he realizes in words some of the purest possibilities of the subconscious.
Bohumil Hrabal's Total Fears is a nexus of Twisted Spoon's concerns: written late in life by a man who lived through both wars, it gives a firsthand impression of the impact Czech history has had on a single author. Hrabal, best known for Closely Watched Trains, here alludes to the nullifying effect of the political situation, which seems to have driven him out of the world and into his mind. Taking the form of unsent letters to a female acquaintance, the chapters are free-flowing streams describing Hrabal's travels in his old age, in which he encounters the spirits of dead writers who seem more real than the modern world around him. Particularly forthright and chilling is the first section, "The Magic Flute," a compulsively written travelogue ridden with pain, exhaustion, and unsettling calm: "Bohumil Hrabal, you've victoried yourself away, you've reached the peak of emptiness, as my Lao Tzu taught me, I've reached the peak of emptiness and everything hurts." As an invitation to Hrabal's memory, the book is tantalizingly frank and approachable. Hrabal's casual language discloses his obsession with communication, the desire to speak to his reader as his beloved authors have spoken to him.
If the press's surrealist impulse is buried in Hrabal, it is still detectable, as in the harrowing "Meshuge Stunde," which describes a frenzy among cats as Soviet planes fly overhead. This antirationalist strain seems to have fully permeated Czech literature; as Sidenberg says, "Czech surrealism draws on many themes that are endemic to Czech art in general: a deep sense of irony, absurdity, fantasy." Hrabal, Leppin, Brezina, and Tomin all represent different stages in the development of this aesthetic. As Twisted Spoon excavates parallel developments to more commonly known movements, they preserve what the title of Brezina's book describes: a hidden history.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999