Bubáci pro všední den
hardcover, 200 pp., 1. edition
published: october 2008
recommended price: 295 czk
With famous Everyday Spooks (orig. publ. 1961), Prague-born Karel Michal presents an unforgettable assortment of fantastic creatures that inhabit his strange vision of everyday reality in '50s and '60s communist Czechoslovakia. Translated from the Czech by David Short and complemented with suitably eerie illustrations by Dagmar Hamsíková, this collection of seven short stories describes bizarre encounters where the past melts into the present, ordinary people meet comic and anxious figures and interact with ghosts, and mundane speech drifts repeatedly into absurdity.
In Everyday Spooks, Karel Michal shares a forgotten world populated by murderous dwarves, cockabogies, ghosts, and the grotesque Doodledor. Written in the communist Czechoslovakia of the '50s and '60s, Michal's stories reflect a strange in-between-ness, a realm caught between medieval folklore and the oppressive modern state. Here, otherwise simple language that wouldn't be out of place in a children's book - indeed, translator David Short calls these 'grotesque fairy tales' - intermingles with discussion of quotas, class, and government agencies. This childish form allows Michal the freedom to address what he considers the injustices of the state, and subversively note the absurdities he finds in Czech culture. In each story, Michal seems to toy with his reader as he toys with his characters - and as a dead cat might toy with his prey. In "The Dead Cat," Michal plays with logic in the honorable tradition of Lewis Carroll: "'Now look here . . . iťs either or. Nobody can be two things at once. Either you're a dead cat, in which case you've no business speaking, or you're a live cat and then you've even less . . .'" Michal's dead cat engages in all kinds of sedition and blasphemy - to the horror of all who converse with him - but the story itself is genius, its cat utterly logical, jenseits von Gut und Böse: a thought-computer. In the body of this cat, in the guise of a children's tale, Michal speaks truth to the powers that be - and the unspeakable is spoken in each of these stories. Though the translation of Everyday Spooks has yielded some interesting phrases - colloquial Czech and rural accents abound, and Short interprets these with such locutions as 'soddin' superslut' and 'bog-trottin' bitch,' as well as other equally hilarious and bizarre expressions - despite these idiosyncrasies, or perhaps because of them, Michal's little book of tales is charming, an unlikely but enjoyable marriage of the odd old world and the absurd emerging new.
Jeff Waxman, CONTEXT, Review of Contemporary Fiction, University of Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, pp.244-45
Everyday Spooks: Timeless Fables
Written by the relatively unknown Karel Michal, the fables that comprise Everyday Spooks (Bubáci pro všední den) feature human relationships to animals or creatures with human or even superhuman powers. Because people are not able to accept these powers as something miraculous or as not belonging to this world, they unsuccessfully attempt to rationalize and categorize the animals' or creatures' behavior. Such beings or occurrences do not fit in the human world of order. Other themes crop up, too: For example, one story parodies the inefficiency of bureaucracy. While this book demonstrates a timeless quality, it can also be viewed in relation to the historical period in which it was written. By describing fairy tale-like events which certainly are not true (such as a dead cat talking), Michal depicts a greater truth.
Just who was Karel Michal, anyway? While this superb translation by David Short hit the bookstores in July of 2008, the Czech version first appeared as Michal's literary debut in 1961. Born in 1932 as Pavel Buksa, the Prague native dropped out of the Medicine Faculty of Charles University and then took up various jobs, such as an assistant director and tile setter. In addition to other writing-related professions, he worked as a film dramaturg and served as an editor of Literární noviny. The author of only a handful of prose works, Michal also composed radio plays and television and film scripts as well as two plays. He emigrated to Switzerland in 1968 and died at the age of 52 in 1984.
First, let us take a look at the book in historical context. Although the year 1960 triggered positive political change with a new constitution that gave Czechoslovakia the status of a Socialist Republic rather than as a People's Democracy, the late 1950s marked a period of re-Stalinization in Michal's home country. Czechoslovak President Zápotocký's January 1957 visit to Moscow established a closer friendship between the two nations. In the agricultural sphere collectivization was enforced. Workers often did not show up for their jobs. There was a lack of food in shops. Perhaps it is obvious that the Czechoslovak government saw the purges of the early 1950s in a positive light.
The time period was not propitious for Czechoslovak literature, either. During the Third Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union the regime demanded that poet František Hrubín recant for the speech he had made the previous year. In 1959 the regime inflicted harsher measures on the Czechoslovak press as they, for example, shut down magazines Květen and Nový život and expelled the poet Jaroslav Seifert from the Writers' Union. Even when Antonín Novotný succeeded Zápotecký as President in 1957, the country's politics barely changed.
For precisely what kind of public was the collection written? For a Czech society that was very literate and that which did not agree with the regime (a large part of the population). The fables could have easily eluded the censors thanks to their subtle and often hidden commentary on the day's political and social situations. Presently, the book is geared toward those who want to read humorous, witty tales and those who wish to delve into the deeper layers of the pieces, perhaps associating the political commentary with the aggressive stance Russia is taking against Georgia as well as its relationship with the Czech Republic and Poland, who, in spite of Russia's complaints, have signed treaties to install anti-missile radar defense bases.
Now let us move on to an analysis of some of the themes that resound in the text. Man's attempt to dissect and classify the unknown highlights the story The Dead Cat, in which two characters try to ascertain how a dead cat can speak and not decompose. In the end they decide to get rid of the cat because they cannot scientifically figure out why it has these powers. Thus, what they cannot understand, they do away with.
In another example, Pimpl, the caretaker and tour guide of Šaratice Castle, reports to the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Culture that he has seen the White Lady ghost, although he does not want to believe in ghosts because science denies their existence. Finally, because he refuses to retract his claim that he has seen the ghost, the commission forces him to move to Chuchvalec Castle. The new tour guide at Šaratice mentions the legend of the White Lady to tourists: "... legend has it that the White Lady of Šaratice used to appear here. However, the corridor is closed for security reasons so that no one trips and hurts themselves on the worn flagstones. So we can hardly put it to the test, ho, ho, ho!" In this case, what humans cannot understand, they pretend is not there.
A similar theme appears in the story An Extraordinary Occurrence in which Major Mikys and Captain Šamaj see a ghost. Finally, they decide to pretend it doesn't exist and conclude that anyone who says they have seen it will be punished. This fable parodies life in Communist Czechoslovakia as citizens had to pretend to believe in the totalitarian regime and were punished if they openly argued with Communist ideology.
In another piece humans try in vain to fit the black fowl Cockabogey (or Plivník in the original) into their world of order. The payroll officer tries to validate giving Cockabogey wages for setting mosaic stones, a job which he feels is his duty to his owner Houska. The payroll officer's attempt parodies the bureacratic nightmare.
The payroll officer went back to headquarters with his deputies and requested personnel to add Cockabogey to the payroll, which would mean he could issue a job-sheet for it. However, personnel refused to register Cockabogey for national insurance until it provided them with evidence that it had left its previous job. This raised another question: whether Cockabogey, as Houska's property, wasn't actually a private sector employee.
The theme of the bureaucratic maze is reminiscent of the symbolism by which the conflict between the individual and the bureaucracy in Franz Kafka's The Castle, The Trial, and In the Penal Colony is conveyed. Once again, humans must try to classify what they cannot understand. The story also has historical resonance. In Communist Czechoslovakia there was no place in the totalitarian system of "order" for the individual, for those who were unique (as symbolized by Cockabogey). Only those who conformed to society's rules were allotted a place in Communist "order."
The Ballad of Doodledor boasts a noteworthy literary technique: the author switches back and forth between the points of view of the hideous creature named Doodledor and a police sergeant. Furthermore, the fable also illustrates the theme of amorality. Doodledor believes he has a responsibility to help an officer catch burglars on rooftops. He has faith in the sergeant who promises to let him meet his family one day and to continue meeting with him even after their professional cooperation ends.
The creature follows the officer home one night and listens in on his conversation with his wife. He overhears the policeman say that he will get rid of Doodledor as soon as he has no further need for him. What is more, he has taken all the credit for catching the burglars, with the likely consequence of climbing faster up the ladder of success in his career. As a result, the hideous being refuses to help the sergeant anymore and even resorts to burglary himself, so that the officer will no longer be successful. Thus, the creature imitates the amorality of humans rather than taking a moral stance. Doodledor is betrayed, so he betrays as well. This theme is relevant to society as a whole and in particular to the Communist era because neighbors and even relatives informed on each other, causing great distrust among people. It is no coincidence that it is a police officer who betrays Doodledor; this symbolism illuminates the corruption of the police during - but not only during - Communist times.
Similarly, in the fairy tale Cookie the theme of amorality runs rampant. A rat-catcher sells the rats he finds in sewers and is not honest with the journalist Kotlach, who has been assigned to write a story about the sewers. Mr. Hammernick, Kotlach's neighbor, stole and sold animal pelts. Mrs. Hammernick beats children. The gnome named Cookie murders people to order with a cudgel. (Thus, once again the creature is no more moral than his human counterparts.) The main character Kotlach becomes amoral himself when he orders Cookie to kill a drunk. At the end the protagonist breaks down in tears. "He wasn't crying because Cookie had let him down, and he wasn't even crying because he had had such an awful day." Kotlach was sobbing because he felt trapped in a world reeking with amorality and because he felt that his life was futile.
The stories also masterfully demonstrate the grotesque black humor perfected by Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Hašek. One scene in particular stands out. In Cockabogey the foreman Kalivoda throws a stone at Houska's feathered friend. In return, Cockabogey deficates on Kalivoda's head. Michal then writes:
Because of the dreadful smell they wouldn't let Kalivoda onto the tram home and he had to walk all the way. Next day, for the same reason, he arrived late for work because he lived miles away, in Kobylisy. Not knowing what to do, he called in sick and roamed the waste dumps of the outer suburbs because his wife didn't want him indoors and he couldn't enter a pub.
This anecdote brings to mind Hrabal's description in Too Loud A Solitude about how Shithead Manča got her name:
What happened was that Manča was so excited by her Women's Choice, so thrilled by my I love you, that she had to pop out to the tavern latrine, where, unbeknownst to her, her ribbons had dipped into the pyramid of feces rising up to meet the board she sat on, and when she ran out into the brightly lit room and started dancing, she splashed and splattered the dancers, every dancer within range, with the centrifugal force of her ribbons, and from that day on they called her Shithead Manča.
Let us take a moment to analyze the humor of Michal, Hrabal, Hašek, and Kafka. Certainly, Kafka's humor employed the most subtle irony. Like the three other authors, he utilized black humor which evoked the absurdity of the given situation. There are many parallels between the humor of Hašek, Hrabal, and Michal as well. In all three that which is funny is also essentially tragic. For example, the humor of all three authors reflects the tragedy of the historical time period in which they lived. Hašek utilizes humor to evoke the meaninglessness of World War I, "the war to end all wars." Thus, he discovers humor despite such an atrocious era. Hrabal's humor is triggered by various historical periods, such as the normalization of the 1970s in Too Loud A Solitude. Michal also incorporates humor to show the darkness of communist times.
It is worth noting why these three authors as well as Kafka chose humor to portray such tragic times. There are several similarities. First, they were all faced with a political impossibility to do otherwise than to express their beliefs with humor. The second reason involves technique: For these writers grotesque humor cuts deeper than would a tragic view. Finally, living in such turbulent political times would have possibly given them the feeling that political darkness needs to be lightened by humor, to make the tragic events bearable for readers of their respective eras.
There are differences between the four writers as well. Hrabal and Hašek lean more strongly toward dialogue and language, such as Prague dialect. They also often use the pub as the environment for their humor, and their language is more vulgar. Hašek's humor is the most pessimistic of the three as it is marked with bitterness and cynicism. In Hašek's works the protagonists do not take action, while in Hrabal's and Michal's writings the characters are often doing just that. As in Kafka's works there is a sense of hopelessness in the protagonists' actions. Yet in Kafka's prose the characters invent their own problems; in Michal's writings they do not (unless one considers all the tales to be figments of the main characters' imaginations). Like Michal, Hrabal wrote about Stalinization during the freer 1960s, giving him a sense of perspective.
Thus, the fables bring to light such negative aspects of society as the individual's hopeless plight versus bureaucracy, amorality, and betrayal. Michal also portrays how man tries to get rid of that which he cannot understand or attempts to pretend that which he cannot comprehend does not exist. While such themes hold true for mankind in general and therefore can be considered timeless, they also serve as commentary on Communist society. Employing grotesque humor and personified creatures or animals makes the pieces unbelievable yet, at the same time, more believable. Thus, Everyday Spooks and the author Karel Michal have carved a significant place for themselves in Czech literature.
Tracy Burns, Kosmas, Vol. 22, 2, Spring 2009, pp.98-102