What do you think is the biggest-selling Czech book of all time? Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being? The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek? Something by Havel, Hrabal, Klima, or Skvorecky?
Let’s start with a question: What do you think is the biggest-selling Czech book of all time? Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being? The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek? Something by Havel, Hrabal, Klima, or Skvorecky? Well, the answer is Patrik Ourednik’s slim and odd anti-novel, Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, an accumulation of errata, statistics, and technical digressions that somehow manages to become both a gripping read and a frightening commentary on our modern world. Published in the U.S. in 2005, it may have made barely a ripple here, but it went on to be translated into at least twenty-eight languages around the world.
So who, then, is this mysterious Czech author scrambling genres, subverting expectations, and rambling on about everything from the invention of the bra and Barbie dolls to the history of warfare, famine, and genocide in the West? Like Kundera, Ourednik is actually based in France, where he emigrated in 1984. He is also steeped in the larger Western literary canon, having translated into Czech the works of Francois Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, Samuel Beckett, and Boris Vian, among others.
It’s the playful, wordy sensibility of Beckett, perhaps, that can be felt most in Ourednik’s latest brainteaser of a novel, Case Closed—a sort-of Waiting for Godot along the Vltava. The novel opens like a stage play: Viktor Dyk, a cantankerous retiree, sits on a park bench, squashing beetles with his cane, intentionally giving wrong directions to out-of-towners, and engaging in light banter with neighboring old-timers. We soon learn there’s been a death among their crowd—but was it a case of hit-and-run, arson, or perhaps suicide?
Enter Vilem Lebeda, chief inspector of the usually peaceful Linden Street precinct, who has some other items on his blotter, too—including the recent rape of a student on her way to the Academy of Fine Arts (near the new Andy Warhol Museum, formerly the Museum of Workers’ Resistance) and a rash of political graffiti that’s stained the neighborhood. But even before any of these storylines can be fully pursued, Ourednik himself intervenes and puts on the brakes: “Readers! Does our story seem rambling? Do you have the feeling that the plot is at a standstill? That, generally speaking, nothing much is going on in the book you now hold in your hands? Do not despair: Either the author’s a fool or you are; the odds are even.”
And that’s the point: the author is having his fun with us, shifting gears, tossing out narrative red herrings, inventing witty dialogue and snappy character sketches, gleefully bursting the bubbles of Czech identity. But if Europeana provided an ultimately powerful look at the past century, Case Closed is also more than just avant-doodling and hi-jinks. In the end, the real question is what has happened to Prague—and the Czech Republic—in the twenty-first century, “a time when Brussels technocrats were busy thinking up ways to trample the Czech nation under the bureaucratic wafflestomper of Europeanism”? It’s with a sense of loss—and fun wordplay—that Ourednik laments, “After the Czechoslovak people overthrew the oppressive regime to the forceful ringing of keys, it became clear that the future, as embodied in the present, belonged chiefly to the past: it was merely a matter of time.” That time has come for Prague. But you don’t need to be a detective to figure that out.