Czech Mate by Claire Wilcox

In Czech author Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed, language can be deadly. Claire Wilcox investigates.

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A man confesses an old affair to his son, catches a flu, then dies. A mother mistakes her child’s first word for an expression of pain, and smothers him in blankets until he is “sweating like a stuck pig.” In Czech author Patrik Ouředník’s latest book, language can be deadly. Speaking is misinterpretation, misspeaking. An officer interviewing a rape-victim asks: “So, you were on your way to an appointment with Professor Penal.” The girl: “Pelan.”

Case Closed, the author’s second book published in English translation is, in outline, a detective novel. There is a Chief Inspector, Vilém Lebeda, who is a humanist at heart and there is a suspect, Viktor Dyk, who has utter contempt for the world. There is also a robust string of sordid crimes. Ouředník’s novel is a satire of contemporary post-Communist Czech life as well, and carries-over two hallmarks of his previous book, Europeana (2005): a rich deposit of historical anecdote, and a deft ear for the way language functions within communities.

Traditionally, a crime novel deals with the underbelly of city. Case Closed departs from this convention in terms of setting: it takes place in a sleepy neighborhood, centered around a retirement home. And though there are unseemly acts and characters, the major “underbelly” of this work is in language. As the book progresses, the reader discovers criminality stretching beyond the confines of plot into the texture of the writing itself. In Case Closed the novel’s sense of grit comes from language itself: tongue-slips, incomprehensibility, missed jokes or simply bad jokes, a badly learned language, a stupid, failed mnemonic experiment to improve learning, a novel you’ll never understand.

As Ouředník catalogs the misarticulations of Praguers, as well as their misdeeds, he also commits numerous authorial infractions of his own. For example, the book opens with the following series: “1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4…14. d5 Neg7…29. Bf3 Qxg4.” It is chess in notation—a sequence of moves, and to the uninitiated, totally opaque. The second chapter leaves this code behind, and for the rest of the book Ouředník’s prose is lucid and witty.

Ouředník’s second transgression is to belabor his reader with a narrator who hurls himself around like a ton of bricks. He is metacommentary in overdrive. As a character awakes from a dream, the narrator speaks, “Yes, some toss of blankets, others toss off verse; some people are wet blankets, others rain on parades; one person’s knees knock with cold, another person knocks on doors. So it goes with words my friends.” The passage begins as a string of puns, and becomes steadily worse until collapsing into irritating nonsense. As the extended passages of dialogue throughout Case Closed can attest to, and thanks to Alex Zucker’s deft translation, Ouředník has no trouble being on point in humor and in tone. Here, he makes his narrator purposefully overbearing, though thanks to his quick-footedness Ouředník also does a good job of keeping the reader engaged. You will roll your eyes but it does not stop you from reading. In fact, his subtle handling of this extremely unsubtle voice is one of the most impressive aspects of Case Closed.

Still, Ouředník includes writing that purposefully falls flat, interrupts the plot’s unfolding, and what’s more, fails in the ultimate delivery of “the goods,” as far as the story is concerned. He leaves his reader hanging, though this is not simply a familiar case of indeterminacy. The detective solves the crime(s), but the reader is left out. By making it plain that resolution is at hand for the characters but not for the reader, Ouředník commits an act of aggression. The book becomes the crime.

The point is not that language can be dangerous. Case Closed has no “message” in this sense. When it comes to political and social change, to messages in general, the book is in fact unrelenting in its negativity. Ouředník writes, “Who would have guessed how quickly the slogans would grow old? 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.” The present is politically and socially immobile. There is no escape. Our actions are not remarkable, history repeats itself—same old story. What Ouředník does seem to find remarkable is how and what people articulate about the events and environments that make up their lives. Case Closed is a portrait of a time and place—post-Communist Prague—through language. Part of this project is showing how the author frames his reader, and in doing so Ouředník shows the same sensibility as narrator-author as the Praguers he portrays in satire. How is it that a man falling from a window, or a girl being interviewed as a rape-victim can be funny? The clue here is in the pithy, irreverent dialogue of the book’s final chapter: spoken, vernacular, ephemeral.

Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed, is available now from Dalkey Archive Press.

Claire Wilcox is a free-lance writer who currently lives in Paris.

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