Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"I walked over to the radio and pressed the button that said Phonograph."

The Guinea Pigs
By Ludvík Vaculík
Translated from Czech by Kača Poláčková
179 pages

Open Letter Press
May 17, 2011

. . . I turned off the speaker and locked the pickup arm. Then I went back to the table where Ruprecht was waiting. I carried him over to the phonograph and wondered what speed I should choose for him. First I tried thirty-three rpm. He huddled down on the turntable and made jerky movements with his head, but otherwise he didn't show any distinct attitude towards what was going on. In his voluntary helplessness, he was incapable of moving closer to the center of the revolving turntable, so that he might keep his nose from bumping against the rim of the phonograph. I was beginning to get made at him. I stopped the motor and changed the speed to seventy-six. But that was senseless; at that speed Ruprecht was swept off the turntable and he fell behind the pickup.

Ludvík Vaculík (1926-) is a Czech writer know internationally for his novels The Axe and The Guinea Pigs, as well as a volume of essays called A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator. A progressive member of Czechoslovakia's Communist party, he was ousted for his manifesto Two Thousand Words that had galvanized the Czech people during the Prague Spring of 1968 and alarmed the Soviet Union. For decades Vaculík faced constant persecution and his writings were censored. From 1971 to 1989 he ran a samizdat publishing house called Padlock Editions that printed and distributed over 400 banned books.

1973's Morcata (The Guinea Pigs, translated by Kača Poláčková) concerns the misadventures of one Vašek. Vašek lives in Prague and has a wife named Eva and two sons. Every day Vašek goes to work at the State Bank where he and most of the other employees routinely try to steal money, only to have it confiscated by the guards when they leave. But the confiscated money never returns to the bank's reserves. This is very odd. His elderly colleague "Mr. Maelstrom" believes the bank intends to suddenly flood the monetary supply and drive Czechoslavakia into a depression. Meanwhile, Vašek's family has acquired several guinea pigs, starting with an albino female named Albínka, followed by a male named Ruprecht, the short-lived Red, and Red the Second. Vašek is very fond of his new pets. The narrative is framed as his hidden manuscript, addressed to an imaginary audience of children, chronicling the weirdness and mystery that daily envelopes him.

Many of the books I've read from Eastern Europe during the Cold War era have a clear Kafka influence, as articulated by Milan Kundera in The Wall in My Head anthology. The expanded role of the state under communism meant greater intrusion into citizens' lives in the form of an opaque and incomprehensible maze of bureaucracy. In the face of such an omnipresent system, the individual is caught up, pulled in various directions, and sometimes ground up in the gears. Not surprisingly, Vašek has gone a bit nuts. He cares for the guinea pigs, he really does. He never explains why exactly he tries to drown Ruprecht in the bathtub or traps him in the window until he nearly freezes or tempts a cat with Red the Second. He does say he wants to hold them in his hands but that only adds yet more incongruity. From the guinea pigs' perspective (and not to mention the reader's), Vašek and his motives are as enigmatic as those of the bank are to Vašek.

The Guinea Pigs is not ostensibly a political novel. It is one man's account of his daily life, dissonantly cheerful and peppered with dark humor. It is a novel of irony: Vašek lacks any self-awareness whatsoever and doesn't consciously recognize how he, his family, and the guinea pigs are linked as the playthings of unknown forces. The power of the story is in the juxtaposition of menace and absurdity that captures the mood of an oppressive society without resorting to documentary-style portrayals of arrests, censorship, and suchlike. It is reminiscent of Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring in that respect, as an indirect protest. Ludvík Vaculík brings us a unique and creative take on life behind the Wall that is either amusing or disturbing or both.

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