- - Thursday, February 14, 2019



By Brian Kimberling

Pantheon Books, $24.95, 224 pages

Soon after Elliott Black arrives in Prague from small-town Indiana in the 1990s, his shoes are stolen. That’s understandably distressing — and the more so when he finds them a few days later exhibited in an art gallery.

They now have holes in their soles and are “strung like beads with other shoes and a number of books onto a vertical rope fastened to a repurposed manhole cover on the gallery’s hardwood floor.”

The asking price for this installation — $6,000. Its title is “Rosary.” Elliott thinks it looks like “an exotic and erudite tree.” The art gallery attendant suggests that it might be furniture, though noting that “The way it droops as it rises does suggest some performance anxiety, don’t you think?”

This is only the beginning of an absurd conversation, and indeed a series of absurd encounters with the attendant, who identifies himself as Mr. Cimarron. That, too, is absurd because Elliott learns that Jara Cimrmon [sic] is: a “fictional Czech entity who showed Thomas Edison how to change a light bulb, personally fertilized Chekhov’s cherry orchard and accomplished many other laudable things. He once missed the North Pole by twenty-three feet.”

Mr. Cimarron becomes one of Elliot’s sources of information, most notably when he nails the organizing metaphor of this novel in his response to Elliott’s inquiry about the difference between Czech and Hungarian goulash. “Both consist of things that don’t belong together.”

Elliott, who works as an English teacher and translator, constantly runs into ill-sorted juxtapositions: Prisons set amidst beautiful baroque buildings; skips full of stone legs and breasts from demolished statues; metal hammers and sickles twisted into objects presented as nesting boxes and bird feeders then installed in the idyllic grounds of a country hotel.

Then there’s Kutna Hora, which Elliott visits with girlfriend Amanda. It has a church whose entire furnishings and interior are made of human bones. Nearby, a medieval monastery has become a cigarette factory. Prague itself frequently shape-shifts into 19th-century Paris or Vienna because it is a popular film location.

And it’s haunted by those who have died there in wars and the musicians who have lived there: Mozart, Dvorak, Smetana. Also by the ghost of Karel Capek, who wrote “The Good Soldier Schweik” — a master of the absurd if ever there was one.

Much of the absurdity bubbles up from the dislocation caused by the Czech’s new-found freedom from Soviet domination. This has turned Elliott’s pupils into world-weary skeptics. Having grown up in an era of repression, they are masters of irony. Absurdities are mother’s milk to them.

Elliott, however, obsesses about the city’s history, thinking that the “past of Prague had a habit of getting in your face,” eventually seeing the city as “artfully stacked rubble full of mindless creatures who sleep and eat in the sheltered bits.” To him the past matters because it makes us who we are. “No, actually,” said Amanda, “We do that.”

This radical difference in outlook brings problems to their budding relationship that worsen as their careers take different trajectories. Though these developments are tracked in strings of episodes, a novel whose organizing metaphor is a goulash of “things that don’t belong together” is not well-equipped to dissect the romantic issues of twenty-somethings.

Plus, first-person narrators — in this case Elliott — privilege one person’s feelings and ideas, and this militates against the analysis of multiple characters. So, with the possible exception of Amanda, most characters in this novel are carefully carved cameos rather than colorful portraits

The foregoing describes the novel, rather than criticizes it. By leaving the inner lives of most characters unexplored, it throws attention onto its brightly lit episodes. These range from Elliott’s classes held mostly in pubs; meetings with other expats, also mostly in pubs; the walks he and Amanda take through Prague’s streets; expeditions into absurdities beyond the city with Cimarron; parties or junkets organized by clients; and friendship with the Radovans, two elderly professional musicians.

Each of these is like one of the tiny bright tesserae that make up mosaics. If you look closely, each looks separate, but from a distance they create a picture — in this case of people dealing with bizarre events beyond their control.

Likewise, in this novel author Brian Kimberling has created a vivid picture of a city creaking and shuddering as it settles into a new dispensation. It’s a picture that will ring true to anyone who visited the former Soviet bloc countries in the 1990s. Often the vignettes are funny, and the middle-aged skeptics who Elliott teaches and the crew of chancers he encounters often startle with their wit — and sometimes their cynicism.

This novel is quick to read, but its compelling pictures and insights will linger in the mind.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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