Bookslut (Jacob Mikanowski)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

Case Closed by Patrik Ouředník

By Jacob Mikanowski

Bookslut, June 2010

In 2002, a Prague newspaper asked its readers why Czechs can’t stand heroes. After all, six hundred years ago they were known as a band of armed radicals; now they mostly identify with Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk – that cheerful, shirking, beer-swilling, malingering genius of self-preservation.

Patrik Ouředník’s experimental detective novel, Case Closed, has its share of recognizably Czech antiheroes. Viktor Dyk Sr., the protagonist, is a misanthropic, bug-collecting widower who speaks in bogus Biblical quotations. His womanizing days are mostly over, but he’s still plagued by lewd thoughts. That doesn’t prevent him from heaping opprobrium on youth, “that herdlike confidence in their own uniqueness! That stupidity dating back to the depths of larval prehistory!”

Dyk’s son, Dyk Jr., is a do-nothing who was forbidden from graduating high school for getting drunk and shouting “Russkies, go home!” on a field trip. Now he is tormented by strange dreams set in a cottage in the Ore Mountains, which may or may not have something to do with his father’s past.

Dyk’s chief intellectual adversary is his nephew, police inspector Vilém Lebeda. Raised by progressive parents in post-war Prague to believe in the essential goodness of humankind, Vilém grew up to become so polite and idealistic that “he was utterly incapable of normal communication”. Women “fled in droves the instant he appeared on the horizon” and his own father thought he was an ass. All the same, he made an exemplary detective, even if the sleepy district of Prague he works in doesn’t give him much to do beyond chasing graffiti artists. Until recently, that is, when old Mrs. Horak committed suicide under suspicious circumstances, and young Miss Reis was raped on the way to the Academy of Fine Arts, to say nothing of the two arson attempts at the retiree’s club. In the middle of it all, Vilém has been working on a cold case, a forty-year old unsolved murder from somewhere in the Ore Mountains.

Case Closed has all the elements of a detective novel – crimes, suspects, clues – but not the form. Instead of following the examination of a crime step-by-step, Ouředník cuts his narrative into forty brief chapters, each told from a different perspective. The first chapter is a transcript of a chess match, and others consist of eavesdropped conversations, interior monologues, dreams, and direct harangues from the author. One chapter is devoted to enumerating the contents of a box. Another concerns the breaking-in of a new pair of shoes. It’s often unclear who is speaking, or just what they are talking about. This technique could be maddening, but in his hands it is strangely satisfying. Keeping most of the details of the mystery opaque creates its own kind of narrative tension, and Ouředník doles out bits of information with the skill of a casino blackjack dealer. Ultimately, the solution to the puzzle feels less important than the arrangement of its pieces.

Like other writers working on the experimental fringes of the detective genre, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Leonardo Sciascia, Ouředník uses it to ask questions beyond the narrow confines of crime and punishment. Over the course of Case Closed, it becomes clear that it’s not just retirees and apartments who are at risk in Prague: language itself is in peril. The literary critic Franco Moretti has described the tension inherent in detective stories between the poetic work of the criminal, who questions “the usual forms of human communication and human interaction” and the analytical work of the detective, whose job it is to “reinstate the univocal links between signifiers and signifieds”. In Ouředník’s novel, those links are in constant danger of falling apart.

The text is studded with nonsense, mangled speech, miscommunication and indecipherable codes. A rape victim finds it impossible to make herself understood in a police interview, which devolves into a farcical argument about civic geography. The less-than-bright policeman Sverak convinces himself that the anti-advertising graffiti popping up all over Prague are a “series of coded messages from Muslim terrorists planning an assassination in retaliation for the heroic assistance the Czech Republic had so selflessly provided to its allies in Iraq”. Viktor Dyk Sr. writes a novel which no one reads and in which he misunderstands himself. His son stopped believing in the efficacy of language at the age of five: “If until this point Dyk Jr. had believed in the adequacy of articulated expression and the real essence of objects, he quickly got over it.” All of this is served with layers of wordplay and meta-narrative trickery, which offer a hefty challenge for any translator. Fortunately, Alex Zucker proves up to it, managing to convey the book’s multiple shifts in tone and finds an English equivalent for his playfully demotic prose.

At times, the attention to the futility of communication threatens to sink Case Closed under the weight of its conceit. Fortunately, the novel is saved by its brevity (152 pages) and satirical bite. Ouředník finds plenty to mock in twenty-first century Prague: imbecilic German tourists, moronic political slogans, barbaric poetry. The Czech Republic of Case Closed is a country in which the euphoria of freedom has long past, and faith in the future has yielded to a fatalistic acceptance of human stupidity. But even stupidity has its rewards. As one character says: “Human idiocy is the one thing on earth that offers us some idea of infinity.”