Monday, 18 February 2013

'Rustic Baroque' by Jiří Hájíček (Review)

When it comes to Czech literature, my experience is limited to Kafka, Kundera... and that is about it.  Having seen a couple of reviews for a more contemporary Czech novel then, I was curious enough to ask the publishers, Real World Press, for a copy.  What is it about?  A story of life in the country - central-European style...

Jiří Hájíček's Rustic Baroque (translated by Gale A. Kirking) is set a few years back in the Czech countryside, but it is also concerned with the events of the farm collectivisations of the 1950s.  The main character is Pavel Straňanský, a genealogist who reluctantly takes on the task of uncovering an old document - one which will compromise a local politician as it reveals his family's informer past.

In the company of Daniela, an attractive tourist from Prague who is researching her own family tree, Pavel visits the villages of the south Bohemian countryside, interviewing the locals and digging up information.  The more Pavel learns about the events that occurred fifty years earlier, the stronger his pangs of conscience become - should he reveal what he has found or leave the past buried in the sleepy countryside?

Rustic Baroque is a great insight into recent Czech history, the two contrasting stories of past and present making for an interesting novel.  The writer sets the scene nicely, with Pavel escaping his archives during a sweltering summer to search for the information he needs.  The reader is treated to a guided tour of restful, rustic villages.  Be warned though - there is a lot going on beneath the surface...

As much as it is about Czech history though, the novel is largely concerned with Pavel himself.  An intellectual fish-out-of-water, seemingly marooned in the provinces, he faces immense pressure from his brother and the locals in his home village, none of whom can understand his lifestyle (or his obsession with the past).   Although he enjoys his job, he does start to sense the futility of his work:
"The dim monitor displayed the names of people who no one knows anymore, who no one living today ever saw.  They have no faces, most of them even have no story.  Only dates of birth and death, cradles and graves, all over again, and I bring them out into the light from the moldy books of archives and people pay me for that..."
p.54 (Real World Press, 2013)
Is it all worth it, or is he just a loser, stuck in the sticks, after all?

In a slightly clichéd move, the divorced Pavel is provided with the gorgeous Daniela as both a genealogy side-kick and a potential lover (although she also plays the important role of asking Pavel the questions the reader wants to ask).  In many ways, her arrival is the catalyst for Pavel's doubts about what he is doing as her presence brings unrest:
"As always when I waited for Daniela, I felt an uneasiness, not just inside me but somehow all around me as well.  She always wreaked havoc on everything that had previously been in order - such as the files lined up in their shelves, their record numbers in successive order.  The entire archive in ruins." p.113
And what does Daniela want from Pavel anyway - a summer fling, or something more?

Rustic Baroque is a fascinating story of how the future is built upon the past - and a dilemma of whether past wrongs need to be righted.  Pavel uncovers stories that many people would rather he hadn't, and in the wrong hands, this information could ruin lives and careers.  Surely, at some point, it is time to forgive and forget...

I enjoyed this novel, and the four bonus short stories from Hájíček's collection, The Wooden Knife, but it would be unfair (possibly unethical) of me to finish the review without revealing a major issue I had with the book - the translation.  I enjoyed Rustic Baroque despite the translation, not because of it.  I found it stiff, overly formal, unnatural - and (in some places) grammatically incorrect.

Translators have to walk a fine line between conveying the essence of the original text and creating a piece of writing that works in English - Kirking's translation certainly erred on the side of following the original to the letter, even to the extent of using unnatural sentence structure (presumably to stay closer to the Czech version).  This was particularly true for the dialogue, which rarely sounded like natural spoken English.  It is a shame because this is a story that many people would enjoy.

Still, language and linguistics are a large part of what I do every day, and I can sometimes be very sensitive about these matters.  It may well be that others are less bothered than I was about the translation (and I haven't really seen it mentioned in other reviews).  Hopefully, whether they like the translation or not, most readers will still be able to enjoy the essence of Hájíček's novel :)