Jonathan Bolton: Reading Patrik Ourednik

Wednesday 22 February 2012
by  NLLG

Reading Patrik Ourednik

By Jonathan Bolton

Context, December 2004

(Serbian: Zarez, 149, 2005; Hungarian: Élet és Irodalom, 49, 2007; German: Residenz Verlag, 2007; Czech: Souvislosti, 1, 2012)

In one of the strangely absurd poems from Patrik Ouredník’s collection If I Don’t Say, we hear of a “friend who is growing in a field by the edge of the woods.” Immobile, “he gesticulates and talks and talks and talks and talks.” And a mushroom-picker and deliveryman occasionally pass by, stop, and say to themselves: “The human word is the most beautiful of gifts. What would the poor fellow do if he were mute?” This ambiguous image, embodying the absurdity and the strange tenacity of language, haunts much of Ouredník’s work. For him, language is something magical yet corruptible, the most relative of absolutes, the site of both consciousness and mindlessness, servant of meaning and handmaiden of nonsense.

Born in 1957, Ouredník spent much of his youth in an occupied country: his hometown of Prague, along with the rest of Czechoslovakia, was invaded by the Soviet Union in August 1968, putting a stop to the Prague Spring and the reform movement known as “socialism with a human face.” Of occupation as of war, language is one of the first casualties – or at least official language, creaking under the weight of political euphemisms (the Soviet invasion was officially referred to as “fraternal assistance”) and thoughtnumbing clichés that force the world into the procrustean bed of ideology. In his Year24, Ouredník remembers a long list of such political phrases: the victorious masses of workers, the indomitable will of the workers, the bright future, the shining future, a tomorrow that is within reach, déclassé elements, anti-socialist elements, embittered revanchists, rightwing opportunists... This list betrays not only the disgust of someone who hates to see language abused, but also the fascination of someone who loves to see how language is used. These are the virtues of a lexicographer, and it is perhaps no accident that Ouredník’s first book was a dictionary – The Smirbuch of the Czech Language: A Dictionary of Unconventional Czech. Smirbuch (pronounced “schmierbuch,” like the German word from which it derives) is old Czech bureaucratic slang for an accountant’s notebook, in which the day’s transactions are jotted down before being transcribed in neater and more orderly fashion. Hence, the smirbuch-as-dictionary, a look at language in its unprettified, informal, vulgar – in a word, “unconventional” – forms. With its boisterous lists, thematically arranged, of dozens of synonyms and vernacular phrases, often as imaginative as they are vulgar, the smirbuch is a tribute to the lower reaches of the Czech lexicon. Here, for example, advanced students may discover what they are drinking if a Czech hands them a glass of Romanian friendship, Stalin’s tears, black dandy, or alcohol with a human face – not to mention thirty-two words for “to be silent,” thirty-nine for “to talk,” and two hundred eighty-one for “to have sex.”

The Smirbuch indeed contains a significant number of dirty words, but it is much more than a slang dictionary. In a brief preface, Ouredník begs his readers’ forbearance, appealing to the unique appropriateness of many popular expressions, and pointing out that any word, once it comes into common usage, may seem familiar and ordinary. To seal the point, the preface is written in the stilted style of nineteenth-century Czech, as if to remind us what would happen if language were never renewed from below. And the Smirbuch maps out not only the under-world of Czech vernacular, but also the authors who lived and worked there, for Ouredník gives hundreds of examples from Czech writers and translators (including himself) to demonstrate the usage of various terms. Since many of these writers had emigrated or gone underground, had become dissidents or seen their publication possibilities limited by the regime, Ouredník’s book had a subsidiary function as well, as a guide to a whole range of suppressed, ignored, or programmatically neglected literature.

The dictionary of unconventional Czech began an unconventional writing career. Before the Smirbuch appeared in 1988 translation had been the focus of Ouredník’s literary activity. Born to a French mother and Czech father, he is bilingual, and in fact emigrated in 1985 to Paris where he still resides. He has translated extensively from French to Czech – a selection of Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – as well as in the other direction. But in the 1990s he began publishing his own work: two slim poetry collections entitled If I Don’t Say and Or, a fairy tale, a long essay on the search for ideal languages in Western society, and even another dictionary – this time of biblical phrases in Czech. (This apparent detour, from the nether reaches of the linguistic realm to its heavens, actually pursues the same basic impulse: to map out the forgotten corners of language, to refamiliarize us with words and phrases that may have fallen into disuse.) But perhaps the most interesting fruits of this varied activity are two small volumes that appeared in Czech in 1995 and 2001.

The first is Year24: Progymnasma 1965-1989. This twenty-four-year span stretches from Ouredník’s eighth year to his thirty-second, from the relatively liberal 1960s through the Soviet invasion and the subsequent twenty years of repressive “normalization,” all the way to the revolution that ended communism in 1989. But what is a progymnasma? The word refers to a set of exercises for students of rhetoric, in which they practice writing fourteen basic rhetorical forms (or gymnasmata): fable, proverb, encomium, vituperation and so on. The form practiced here, however, is not one of the traditional fourteen. It might be called “I remember,” and Ouredník borrows it from two predecessors, the American artist Joe Brainard and the French writer Georges Perec. Brainard inaugurated the form in his 1970 I Remember, a charming and disarming quasi-autobiography consisting of hundreds of short statements all beginning “I remember,” dealing with Brainard’s childhood, his early sexual experiences, his beginnings as an artist, and the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s: “I remember my collection of ceramic monkeys,” “I remember cinnamon toothpicks,” “I remember that the minister’s son was wild,” “I remember that life was just as serious then as it is now.” In 1978, Perec picked up the form for his Je me souviens, although his entries tend to be a little more bloodless and clinical than Brainard’s.

Ouredník’s version is funnier than Perec’s and more biting and detached than Brainard’s. It is also more structured; whereas the previous authors simply listed their memories one after the other, Ouredník gives us twenty-four sections, the first with twenty-four memories, the next with twenty-three, and so on to the top of the pyramid, the twenty-fourth section with its single entry. This structure reflects Ouredník’s love of arbitrary rules, of the type of creativity that a closed system with arbitrary but binding rules can generate. (It may be relevant here to mention that he is an afficionado of chess, that closed system par excellence, and was a junior correspondence-chess champion in 1974.) But the structure of Year24 also lets him group and gradate the memories, delicately influencing the tempo of reading and the “density” of the experiences. As we near the end of the book, the memories tend to become closer to the present, the sections grow shorter and more rushed, and the interplay of various entries, often grouped into larger thematic clusters, grows less complicated – readers may feel almost as if they are rushing willy-nilly into the post-1989 world of freedom and feel a vague nostalgia for the more richly textured world of youth, communism or no communism.

Ouredník filters the years of Czechoslovakia’s normalization through the mindset of an adolescent – basically rebellious, inventively mocking, fascinated by the trivial as well as the important. Above all, he remembers language, in its “unofficial” forms (graffiti following the Soviet invasion and, in 1989, popular jokes and inversions of official slogans) and “official” ones (“I remember that the counter-revolution was creeping,” “I remember that in the Young Guard elementary school I ‘caused damage in many places on the wall of the classroom by means of the throwing of chalk’”). Ouredník is brilliant in capturing the circulation of phrases from official to colloquial speech. In some cases the clichés of official language contaminate the vernacular (“I remember how my sister’s sister-inlaw said, in July of ’89, that there were mainly elements, hippies, and punks at the demonstrations in January”); in other cases it works the other way around. A funny and perceptive example of how official language is parodied as it filters down into popular consciousness: on the anniversary of the invasion, the official party newspaper showed pictures of people demonstrating against the Russian soldiers:

“I remember that in one of the photos there was a group of young people, some of whom were making a V-sign with their fingers. The photograph’s caption said it was an agreed-upon signal: The attack begins in two minutes.”

“I remember that my sisters and I repeated this phrase, the attack begins in two minutes, at every opportunity and laughed uncontrollably.”

Year24 was a progymnasma, an exercise in memory or rather in the rhetoric of remembering. In an interview, Ouredník also called his next book a “stylistic exercise,” making explicit the allusion to Queneau’s Exercises in Style. But Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century – a slim, one-hundred-page volume that was voted book of the year by Czech writers and critics in 2001 – is an exercise of an entirely different sort. It is a hilarious book, disturbingly so, and perhaps more disturbing than funny. Ouredník’s Europe is a strange and nasty place, as is evident from the book’s very first sentences:

“The Americans who fell at Normandy in 1944 were sturdy young men and they measured an average of 173 cm tall, and if they were laid one after another, with the soles of their feet to the crowns of their heads, together they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were also sturdy young men, and the sturdiest of all were the Senegalese riflemen in World War One. They measured 176 cm, and so they were sent into the front ranks to scare the Germans. It was said that in World War One people fell like seeds, and later the Russian Communists calculated how much fertilizer a kilometer of corpses would yield, and how much they could save on expensive foreign fertilizer if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals.”

Just who is speaking here? The voice is third-person, impersonal, businesslike, but this is not the disembodied objectivity of an omniscient narrator or, for that matter, a history textbook. The narrator is more deadpan than neutral, too quirky and unstable to be truly informative. His childlike naïveté begins to seem cunning as he leaps from topic to topic:

“In the twentieth century there was a turn away from traditional religion because when people realized that they descended from monkeys and could travel by train and make telephone calls and go down in a submarine, they began to turn away from religion and go less and less to church and they said that no lord god exists and that religion maintains the people in ignorance and darkness and that they were for positivism.”

It is as if a professor of history has mounted the podium to deliver not the usual lecture in his survey course on Western civ, but a half-mad harangue, pseudoscientific and yet somehow commanding, in a voice both droning and captivating, with undertones of scorn and helpless-ness. In a recent interview Ouredník suggested that the century itself might be speaking.

The book’s first sentences hand us, in a nutshell, the themes and technique of the work. First of all, the syntax: Ouredník’s favored conjunctions are and and but, joining without ordering. He will string together his statistics, anecdotes, and interpretations, one after the other, like the dead soldiers lined up head to toe; there is no underlying structure or hierarchy of interpretations; there are no whiles, whereases, unlesses, or thuses. Chronology is no help; thus the sudden shift, in those first sentences, from one World War to another, and then to the Stalinist purges. There are becauses, but rather than structuring and explaining, they merely throw into relief the narrator’s (feigned?) naïveté:

“Then people began to compare languages and contemplate who had the most advanced language and who was furthest along in the civilizing process. Generally they decided it was the French, because various interesting things were happening in France and the French knew how to converse and used subjunctives and pluperfect conditionals and smiled seductively at women and their women danced the can-can and their painters invented impressionism.”

It is almost as if the twentieth century were such a rhetorical exercise (“write a discourse using no subordinating conjunctions”), sucked up into its own breathless, thoughtless syntax, bordering on moral idiocy – an inability to distinguish high from low, important from trivial, and horrific from silly.

Nevertheless, if there is no hierarchy here, there is some organization, or at least some obsessions that run through the text like a red thread. One is the reduction of history to statistics. Numbers reflect the reign of science (the Big Bertha has a range of 128 kilometers, the V2 missile reaches speeds of 5,800 kilometers per hour) and pseudospirituality (the Age of Aquarius will last 2,160 years, 144,000 chosen Jehovah’s Witnesses will rule the earth from the heavens). The numbers of tortured, deported, and murdered embody not the calculability, but rather the incomprehensibility of genocide. And numbers accompany the division of people into the superior and the inferior:

“And the eugenicists said that an eighty-three-year-old alcoholic woman will have 894 descendants altogether, of which sixty-seven will be criminal recidivists, seven murderers, 181 prostitutes, 142 beggars and forty insane, altogether 437 asocial elements. And they calculated that those 437 asocial elements would cost society as much as the construction of 140 apartment buildings.”

“Asocial elements”: as much as numbers, Europeana takes aim at words, the jargon and self-justifying phrases that power uses to disguise its own barbarity:

“And in 1934 [in Russia] they thought up reservations for Jews and called all the Soviet Jews to move there. The reservations were on the border with China in the Chabarovka region and in winter the temperature fell to -40 degrees, and the Communists said that it was not a reservation but an autonomous region.”

It is these stereotypes of power, above all, that the glosses in the margins reflect and repeat, like a yammering chorus on the sidelines, echoing the phrases of the age: from “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “bourgeois decay” to “interpersonal relationships” and “Peace will rule the world.” Official language is a target familiar from Ouredník’s earlier works, but there is less faith here in the resilience and inventiveness of popular language – notice how the “wooden language” of the communists inexorably filters down into everyday speech: “Gradually people learned to use it to talk about everything, the weather, vacation, television shows, or the fact that their wives had started drinking.”

In fact, reading Europeana closely, we realize that it is less a book of history than a book of how people talk about history. There are fewer events than opinions, reports, hypotheses, interpretations: “The Germans said the French ate frogs and the Russians little children, and the French said the Germans ate little children and tripe,” “and British women on posters said WOMEN OF BRITAIN SAYGO!,” and fascists said, and communists said, and Scientologists said, and Catholics said, and Jews said, and anthropologists said, and psycho-analysts said, and historians said, and people said... These endless reports emphasize the rhetorical nature of all our constructions of history and memory – and above all remind us how many times we’ve gotten it wrong, how many errors we have earnestly propagated, how many insanities we have persuaded ourselves were reasonable and necessary.

Against this endless chorus of deluded voices there stand out a few anecdotes, brief stories that do not “say” but rather form an eloquent commentary, outside language, on the chaotic events surrounding them: the young Jewish girl playing an aria from The Merry Widow in Dachau; the prisoner who has just returned from a concentration camp, dancing with the woman who has been scorned for sleeping with Nazi officers, leaning their shaven heads on each other; the World War One soldier trapped in the mud, who resembles no one so much as the friend growing in the field, but with a difference:

“Near Courtai, a Belgian soldier got stuck in the mud up to his knees and four of his friends couldn’t pull him out and all the horses were already dead. And when they retreated along the same path two days later, the soldier was still alive, but only his head was sticking out and he wasn’t yelling anymore.”

The human word is the most beautiful of gifts, indeed. To my mind, these anecdotes are the most powerful moments in the book, standing apart from the current of deceptive speech, a bit like the shells on the seashore when the tide of memory has ebbed. They are some of the few times when the narrator’s pitiless irony falters, if only for a moment.

What is compelling about Europeana is the way in which it mixes the light irony of the stylistic exercise with the effort to get beneath rhetoric, to approach what may be spoken about but always remains unspoken. Ouredník, lexicographer and rhetorician, helps us see language’s possibilities (for good or ill) by exploring its outer reaches. When the Czech literary magazine Host recently asked a number of critics and authors whether the function of literature had changed since 1989, Ouredník portrayed literature as a self-contained system, a kind of language game for those who happen to be interested in it – perhaps like chess, or, to use his own analogies: “Literature, Masonry, and stampcollecting have at least one thing in common: they enable the initiated to communicate in a pre-arranged system of references and unspoken-nesses. Which is very pleasant and delightful, but doesn’t testify to anything further.” Which may be true, but it doesn’t testify to the skill with which Ouredník has enriched our field of references and our sense of what’s unspeakable.