Monday, April 6, 2009

City Sister Silver (A Review)

Lost in Translation Challenge Book #5

Coincidentally the tongue I use is one of the Czechs, of Slavs, of slaves, of onetime slaves to Germans and Russians, and it's a dog's tongue. A clever dog knows how to survive and what price to pay for survival. He knows when to crouch and when to dodge and when to bite, it's in his tongue. It's a tongue that was to have been destroyed, and its time has yet to come; now it never will. Invented by versifiers, spoken by coachmen and maids, and that's in it too, it evolved its own loops and holes and the wildness of a serpent's young. It's a tongue that often had to be spoken only in whispers. It's tender and cruel, and has some good old words of love, I think, it's a swift and agile tongue, and it's always happening.

The Bookslut Blog described it as "one part Burgess, a little bit of Joyce, mix in some Kerouac." To Amazon reviwer Pete Hausler, it is "everyone from fellow Czechs Bohumil Hrabal, Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek, to others such as Celine, Pynchon, Kerouac, Irvine Welsh, Blaise Cendrars, and Anthony Burgess." To me, Jáchym Topol's 1994 novel City Sister Silver is William Burroughs's Naked Lunch meets Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, with a tenderness and wide-eyed abandon reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It's the real avant-garde thing: a post-modern punk version of T.S. Eliot's "waste land" that literally ends up among the vast detritus of a newly capitalist Prague. Along the way, it is Dante at the end of the twentieth century: a gradual descent to the lowest level of a country on the edge. How Alex Zucker was able to translate this is beyond me, but then again, I heard Naked Lunch has been translated to French, so I guess nothing's impossible.

The blending of formal and conversational language in English has become commonplace in our literature as the boundaries between the "high" and "low" have also blurred and what was pop culture yesterday is legitimate artistic or intellectual expression today (jazz and film noir, for instance). Those creators who whine about their work being dismissed as trash miss the point. Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor is good taste determined solely by the standards of sages in ivory towers. Although English literature (that is, literature in English) has been reflecting this creative populism for some time now (I find myself thinking of John Dos Passos's 1930 novel The 42nd Parallel, first in his U.S.A Trilogy), this was until very recently a radical concept in Czech. According to Zucker's introduction, the original Czech publisher of City Sister Silver felt compelled to include a disclaimer stating that Topol's "intent [is] to capture language in its unsystematicness and out-of-jointness." The gulf between literary and spoken Czech is a sizeable one, Zucker explains, and they are bridged by a spectrum of "intermediate levels" for which English has no equivalent (I believe Japanese is similar). City Sister Silver, however, is about the era in which "time exploded," and Topol's deliberate confusion of grammar, spelling, syntax, and style is actually a linguistic portrayal of the sudden end of one society and the simultaneous beginning of another.

The story is narrated by a young man named Potok as he drifts through a soon-to-be Czech Republic that has just thrown off communism and has yet to re-orient itself. The basic outline of the multilayered, barely-linear plot is this: Potok lives in Prague and is a member of a "byznys" tribe involved in various smuggling and racketeering activities. It consists of his four "pseudodroogs" Bohler (a wannabe priest and holy warrior), Micka (borderline sociopath), David (redneck in the city), and Sharky (jaded, deeply cynical Jew). They also shelter an extended family of Laotian refugees in one of their buildings, which inspires the racial hatred of the working class tenants and an attack by skinheads. After the tribe's breakup, several of the Laotians, who turn out to have been rebel leaders and possible war criminals back home, hire Potok to help them continue their vague "mission" of terror and intimidation. All this time, Potok has also been reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend She-Dog, the stolen moments they had together under the Communist regime, and the prophecy she delivered before she left that Potok would one day have a new "sister." He soon meets Černá, a despondent singer at a local dive bar. A series of complicated events - guns, betrayal, organized crime, Laotians - leaves Potok stranded in a backwater town full Deliverance-style hillbillies. There he finds his old friend David, who had driven catatonic by events in Prague and been returned to his impoverished family. Unable to take it, Potok smothers David with a pillow, takes off, and locates Černá in the nearby woods. They wander together through ruined towns, wild countryside, and acres of illegal flea markets. After losing Černá, Potok drifts along aimlessly until he winds up living among bums in a Prague trash heap, where a monster lurks and tears its victims to shreds. The novel ends in a Prague transformed: skyscrapers gleam and busy people brag of having "no time." Potok seems to have settled down.

City Sister Silver is wildly meandering, but in a good way. Stream-of-consciousness and mythological storytelling predominate. The prose often reads like poetry. Potok tells his pseudodroogs of a drug-induced dream he had in which they were all taken on a tour of an otherworldly Auschwitz. He recalls his time in Berlin as a "Kanak," a member of an international underclass that moved in a parallel universe of drugs, dingy apartments, snuff films, police, and a garbled lingua franca made up of myriad tongues from all over the world. Language and society build upon each other, and Topol's frenzied, chaotic narrative is inseperable from the social anarchy that reigned during and shortly after Czechoslavakia's Velvet Revolution. City Sister Silver is also a highly personal, individualized book whose protagonist adds an intensely human element to a tumultuous setting where other characters seem interchangeable, nothing in byznys or politics is certain, and language is up in the air. Potok may not be the most reliable narrator, but he is sympathetic, a romantic, a drinker, and easy to identify with in his ongoing quest for love and a soulmate. In my favorite passage, he imagines himself and Černá as a pair of wolves fleeing abuse:
…my loved one was a bee and a butterfly and knew how to cut with her claws and her tongue, and I tried too … we learned from each other what was good for the other, and that made both of us stronger … running, and the earth turned beneath us, running by graves and leaping across them, avoiding the bones and glassy stares and empty eyesockets … of wolf skulls … and steering clear of traps and snares, we had experience … with falling stakes and poisoned meat … we made it without harm through the red pack's territory … and met the last of the white wolves, they were wracked with disease … and the big black wolves chased us, but we escaped … we, the gray wolves of the Carpathians, had an age-old war with them, they were surprised we fled, their jaws snapping shut on empty air, they had a hunch it was their turn next, the helicopters were on the way … we ran side by side, our bodies touching … running over the earth as it turned, with the wind whistling in our ears like a lament for every dead pack … and the clicking of our claws made the earth's motion accelerate … we ran over the earth, a mass grave, running away …
Although City Sister Silver is full of beautiful moments such as this, it also drags at times and the jumbled plot can be more annoying than artistic at times. But Jáchym Topol's groundbreaking novel is highly recommended as both a creative achievement and a window into a culture and a time in history. Reading City Sister Silver is also a strongly subjective experience and I am eager to know how others will interpret it and what components of the narrative will stand out to them.

Lost in Translation Challenge Update

Again, I just found out about the this challenge so here is a list of what I've read so far that qualifies:

Christian Jungersen,
The Exception (Danish)
Jakov Lind, Landscape in Concrete (German)
Ilja Pfeijffer, Rupert: A Confession (Dutch)
Mercè Rodoreda, Death in Spring (Catalan)
Jáchym Topol,
City Sister Silver (Czech)

I do have The Angel's Game on my Chunkster list, but the sixth book may well be something else. Depends if I've asked for another ARC from Open Letter Press (don't remember if I did).


Joanne said...

What a fantastic review! You have such a way with words.
I've got this book on my list to read, I've heard that there are many dream stories told within the main story and that they specifically are amazing. If they are anything like the wolf passage, I will be so pleased, it was gorgeous.

E. L. Fay said...

Actually, the wolf passage is longer than that but I didn't want to end up with a huge block quote longer than the post itself. There are times when the story gets bogged down with mundane details (such as Potok's activities with the Laotians) but I don't think you'll be disappointed. City Sister Silver is one of those books that you really wish you could have read in the original language. Sometimes, even the best translations just don't cut it.

I can't wait to hear what you have to say about it!

boyandgirl said...

I was just wondering if I could borrow your copy of City Sister Silver. I wanted to use it in my senior thesis paper but can not get a hold of the copy. If no, do you know where you got the copy from?
I am reachable at
or 8053406583

Thank you!!!

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