Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Stories from The Wooden Knife by Jiří Hájíček

Rustic Baroque by Jiří Hájíček, translation from the Czech by Gale A. Kirking (Brno: Real World Press, 2012)

As I mentioned in the post on Rustic Baroque there were also four stories from Hájíček’s collection The Wooden Knife included in the book.
  • Memories of a Village Dance in 1986
  • The Wooden Knife
  • Horses are Supposed to be Buried
  • Melancholy Leaves from Democracy’s Autumn Trees

Many of the same themes and topics from Rustic Baroque wind their way through these stories set in Bohemia. If I had to pick a unifying theme for these four stories it would be tension—external and internal. Regarding the internal tensions, some characters don’t feel like they belong to a desired group or confident in their own skin. For some it is simply because of their youth as they are still trying to find a way to define who they are. For other characters, though, it has to do with compromises they have made in the past. External tensions cover many types of differences, sometimes generated by a feeling of not belonging but also from past acts, especially those taken by individuals under German or Soviet control. Sometimes the question of Soviet influence still makes itself felt years after the Velvet Revolution. I’m not going into great detail on these stories but I would like to provide some short descriptions.

In “Memories of a Village Dance in 1986,” the narrator Pavel's tension starts because he has trouble speaking to the barmaid. They had been friends since childhood, but since he moved to Prague for school he feels even less of a part of the village when he visits. Some family friends tease him for failing to measure up to what they find important while others defend him. Older men in the pub reminisce about how bad things use to be during World War II and the subsequent problems under Communism. There are hints of a generational conflict, adding more tension. There are also problems brought about by kids dressed as punks attending the dance, highlighting again the question of what it takes to belong in the village.

“Horses are Supposed to be Buried” focuses on fifteen-year-old Slávka and her father as they attend the settling of the estate of her uncle. It’s full of uncomfortable moments, some that are humiliating while others turn into farce. Slávinka is excited to see her older cousin Robert but that encounter turns into a nightmare for her. The lingering tensions between her father and his dead brother run through the story. The dead brother had a powerful role in the Communist Party and was able to help Pepík (Slávka’s father) at times. Pepík goes to the inheritance settlement mainly as a way to demonstrate he will take nothing from the estate since he views it as tainted. At the end, though, Pepík reveals to Slávka that he compromised his beliefs in order to help his brother, which explains some of the hostility in Pepík —part of it is aimed at himself.

The two shortest stories are powerful at times, too. “The Wooden Spoon” focuses on 15 year old Michal, who doesn’t fit in with the other boys in the village around his age (mostly because of his innocence and sensitivity) and the hatred of his older brother for still holding on to childish things. There’s a nice touch when the boys talk about Harry, nicknamed “the dissident” for his reputed defiance of the Communists, in reverential tones. “Melancholy Leaves from Democracy’s Autumn Trees” covers the first Czech Senate election in a small village where tradition collides with modernity, raising a question about responsibility.

While there is a definite similarity in style and themes with Rustic Baroque it’s a feeling of acquaintance instead of repetition. I highly recommend the book for the novel but be sure to read the short stories, too.

B O D Y literature provides "Melancholy Leaves from Democracy's Autumn Trees" online.

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