Microviews Vol. 37: Kiddy Kafka And The Commie Carcass

on Friday, August 9, 2013
Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks
Ten years ago I stumbled across this absurd delight of a novel in a small Czech bookstore and instantly fell in love. Set in wartime Prague, it tells the story of an elderly man of questionable sanity, who sets up a mock concentration camp in his apartment to acclimatise to his ultimate fate. Sound strange? That's just the beginning. Accompanied only by his shadow (both greek chorus and devil's advocate) and some weird bird-like creature, he lays out a wooden board, practises stockpiling scraps of food and simulates assaults by over-zealous camp guards. He also acts as self-appointed bringer-of-hope to those around him, promising his neighbours that they need not fear deportation as the war will end before 'the Spring". It is as sad as it is calculated. Is he just mad or do these baseless promises help the others survive? Mr. Theodore Mundstock is one of the best, albeit, strangest novels I have read. With generous scoops of both comedy and tragedy, it confronts very difficult issues of morality and honesty in times of crisis, all the while questioning what amounts to rational action when the entire framework of rationality has collapsed.
5 Out Of 5 Attic Prisons

My First Kafka by Matthue Roth
Franz Kafka's short stories are, to my mind, the greatest fairytales ever written for adults. Kudos to the rather warped imagination of Matthue Roth then for rendering them so brilliantly into a form that can be enjoyed by children too. Roth has taken three of Kafka's tales - Josephine the Singer, The Metamorphosis and Excursion Into The Mountains - and rewritten them in short verse. And while he might have trimmed away the verbiage, he has most certainly retained all that makes ol' Franz so damn great. Accompanied by exquisite woodcut illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason that call to mind the traditional Day of The Dead stylings of Grim Fandango (one of my favourite computer games of all time), albeit in relief, this slim volume will no doubt serve as the perfect introduction to the 20th century's most iconic writer. I only hope this is the first in a series - I'm already putting in my request for In The Penal Settlement, The Hunger Artist and Before The Law.
4.5 Out Of 5 Bogeyman Beetles

The Reprisal by Laudomina Bonanni
A ragtag bunch of fascist Italian militia capture a pregnant woman in the last days of World War 2. Convinced that she is a resistance fighter, they put her to trial in a barn, convict her and pass sentence: Death. However, before they can carry it out they are joined by a young priest who convinces them to wait until the baby arrives. Much of the tension of Bonanni's supposed lost classic arises from the ensuing wait. Will the war end before the baby comes? Will the woman be executed? Is she even a resistance fighter? There is so much about this book that I ought to have loved and yet I just couldn't get into it. Bonanni turns a great story into a dry chore of a book. I guess there's a reason some classics are lost.
2.5 Out Of 5 Partisan Patsies

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac
This grinding tale of a woman who attempts to murder her husband to escape the confines of genteel life must have been a sensation when it was published back in the late 1920s. Mauriac doesn't have many nice things to say about the French upper crust - the family rallies behind Therese but only to protect their own reputation and, when she is released, they practically keep her under house arrest so that she doesn't spoil an upcoming family celebration. Unfortunately this book, which played a large part in Mauriac receiving the Nobel Prize in 1952, hasn't aged well. The tone is dour and the prose stuffy. Sure, it's an enlightening glimpse into a particular period, but beyond that it's little more than a mere historical curio.
2.5 Out Of 5 Liaisons Dangereuses

The Banner of The Passing Clouds by Anthea Nicholson
Granta kicks yet another goal with this complex story of Communist and post-communist Georgia. The initial conceit is fascinating in itself - a boy born on the day Stalin dies, given his exact name (Iosif Dzhugashvili) in tribute, grows up with the ghost of the former leader residing in his chest. Strangely, the Stalin schtick quietens as the novel gives way to an intriguing story of Communist-era pop culture and the desire to escape. Iosif's brother hooks up with his crush, the two become the biggest pop band in the country then get done for trying to hijack a plane to cross the border into freedom. Whether or not they are guilty (they are, but the guns were fake and all fatalities were caused by the 'rescuers') is of little relevance. They are tried, convicted and punished, though Iosif is not told of their fate. They simply disappear, pending appeal. Nicholson's depiction of the crushing machinery of injustice and the personal toll it takes on Iosif is harrowing. Interstingly, The Banner of The Passing Clouds is not just an indictment on the Communist regime. Life after the disintegration of the USSR isn't exactly the promised land for which Iosif had hoped. A beautiful, tragic debut.
4 Out Of 5 Siberian Gulags

A Guided Tour Through The Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulic
There must be countless ways to write history but Slavenka Drakulic's is undoubtedly one of the strangest. A bestiary of creatures narrates this compendium of short lessons about life behind the Iron Curtain. Some are the leaders' pets, some outcasts in ruined cities, some possibly even murderers. The 'stories' really work when the animal is not merely recounting historical facts and figures but, rather, finding themselves immersed in the absurdities of life under Communist rule. Two in particular stand out. The mole's take on Berlin self-consciously invokes Kafka with its combination of despair and wonder (not to mention that it is presented as an address to a symposium of moles). Also the final story of a mysterious raven in Albania is creepy and allegorical - the only time when a human is actually telling the story and, perhaps, the animal is merely a code for a sinister player in the suicide (or perhaps murder) of Mehmet Shehu. Drakulic isn't on a complete rampage here either; like Anthea Nicholson she is quite openly critical about life after Communism in many of the countries. You'd be hard pressed to find a better introduction to the topic.
3.5 Out Of 5 Animal Farms


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