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from the May 2011 issue

Ludvik Vaculik’s “The Guinea Pigs”

Reviewed by Shaun Randol

Ludvík Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs is charming and unsettling at the same time.

Ludvík Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs is charming and unsettling at the same time. From the outset, Vaculík disarms the reader by treating the tale as if it were being read to us by a parent at bedtime. “Our family,” the protagonist tells us, “is originally from the country. Our family, that means me, my wife, and two tolerable little boys.” His wife is a teacher, “but there’s no harm in that.” The reader is often referred to as a collective “children” or “girls and boys,” as in, “The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will.” Quirky simplifications abound: “Bulldozing,” the narrator explains, “means working with a bulldozer.”

This approach suggests both Kurt Vonnegut and Roald Dahl, two authors known to employ these infantilizing, soothing voices in order to smuggle deeper, more troubling allegories into the story. In this tradition, Vaculík succeeds—perhaps all too well. Much can be said about The Guinea Pigs’ many symbols and metaphors.

The Guinea Pigs is told (mostly) in the first person from the perspective of Vašek, a lowly clerk at a state bank, where his fellow employees regularly steal money. The bank’s security guards, however, often thwart this larceny. As the bank employees become ever more adept at thieving, the security guards, in turn, get tougher in their shakedowns. Yet nobody is ever fired. Frustratingly for the clerks, the bank’s policies and procedures change on a whim. Vašek yearns to be in control of something. And so, at the suggestion of his coworker, Mr. Karásek, he purchases guinea pigs for his family to keep as pets. While the family is away or asleep, Vašek conducts cruel experiments with the rodents in a twisted attempt to earn their friendship. With bouts of humor, absurdity, and surrealism, The Guinea Pigs explores existentialist angst under the rule of an uncaring bureaucracy.

In 1968, Vaculík penned a polemical manifesto against the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, leading to decades of persecution and resulting in the censorship of his work for twenty-one years. Vaculík became a key dissident and leader on the samizdat scene, solidifying his place as the voice of the Czech people. Vaculík’s work has always been underpinned by political and social commentary. The Guinea Pigs, first published in 1970, is no exception. 

The translation of this novel could have used a helpful introduction to the life and times of Ludvík Vaculík, especially the years 1967-1989 when he was most influential. For those not well-versed in the history of Czechoslovakia, the political and social critiques in The Guinea Pigs can be so veiled they can be tremendously difficult to parse. Apparently, though, this was a problem for his Czech readers too. “I realize that by talking in riddles this way I am making it even harder for you to understand . . .” the narrator apologizes three-fourths of the way through the novel.

The Guinea Pigs is a well-scripted—if elusive—über-metaphor, a production with which the reader must grapple for meaning. The pet guinea pigs, which Vašek takes pleasure in torturing, are obvious stand-ins for the Czech people. When discussion turns to the pets, we can’t help but see them as anything but Vaculík’s countrymen under Communist rule. “With its sunken eyes and ruffled fur and the way it was quivering, [the guinea pig] looked like somebody who had just gotten a terrible beating, but had remained spiritually unbowed.”

Yet it is precisely because The Guinea Pigs is so unabashedly symbolic that we cannot help but question every allusion. Reading The Guinea Pigs is often like putting together a puzzle, with extra pieces tossed in to throw you off the solution. At one point, a guinea pig-eating weasel is introduced and then quickly forgotten. Does the weasel represent an unseen, cruel, Czech police force? Or was it simply a weasel with no deeper meaning? Here again, that introduction to Vaculík and Czech society would come in handy in helping the reader to make sense of some of the more cryptic pieces.

Despite its opacity, The Guinea Pigs does showcase certain virtuosity. At times the voice changes from the first person to the omniscient third so that Vašek’s mental degradations are made more explicit. In one clever example, the story flips from first to third and back again, like a turtle doing a somersault:

Now, having re-read it—and it’s almost morning—I observe wanly that the silly banker forgot to write in the third person again. He’ll do better tomorrow. I’ll see to that.

Kača Poláčková’s translation also deftly sustains the comic-absurd narration, on display in this passage describing what Vašek would do with obnoxious children: “I’d walk the streets looking for wailing brats who are stupid by origin, and turn them over my knee and whale the tar out of them, to stop the poor wittle darlings fwom cwying.” Delightfully, Poláčková also appears to take the liberty of maintaining a rhyme scheme to bring levity to Vašek’s fantasy about killing one of the guinea pigs: “When the cloud gathers over our heads, your throat will tighten, your eyes will pop, your nose will cruddle, your heart will huddle.”

Vaculík’s purposeful obfuscation is why, despite the temptation, one should be wary of equating the penetrating irony of The Guinea Pigs with other similarly themed works like fellow Czech Milan Kundera’s The Joke or Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kundera and Kafka were much more overt in their criticisms. 

At one point in the novel, Vašek’s co-worker Karásek queries, “Well, friend, have you discovered the significance of guinea pigs yet?” A little later, Karásek answers his own question, capturing the spirit of the novel completely: “Friend, you have yet to discover the true purpose of guinea pigs.”

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