Patrik Ourednik, Case Closed
Goodreads Book Review
August 28, 2020
Case Closed, 140-page novel as multilayered literary cake by turns provocative, caustic, hilarious, curious and frequently baffling.
I can imagine many readers pausing at Chapter 20 (the novel is 40 short chapters long) and asking: What the hell am I reading? Is this a mystery or metafiction or social satire or a meditation on language? Did Patrik Ouředník set out to construct a unique Czech chess game with the city of Prague as chessboard and characters as pieces? Would I have a clearer comprehension of what’s going on if I were Czech and more familiar with the peoples and history of that nation?
Legitimate questions since Case Closed is anything but your traditional narrative. So, what type of novel are we talking about here, a novel featuring a first chapter composed entirely of chess notation, one written by an author from the land of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera? Far beyond my capacity to even attempt a partial answer. However, what I can do is share a batch of Case Closed snips (I hesitate to call them themes or even highlights) I found particularly memorable:
Prague Park Pundit – Retiree Viktor Dyk sits on a bench in front of a park entrance, an old timer whose acerbic wit provides the venom, the stinging juice, to kickstart much of the tale’s drama. How? For one, Dyk misdirects an attractive young lady tourist who asks him for directions, sending her off to a seedy section of the city where she promptly gets raped.
Secondly, Mr Crotchety, the cantankerous curmudgeon, continually drops Bible references - Proverbs 8; 125; Ruth 6.4 – real or fake, little difference, since years ago „he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country“. Ouch! Someone enjoys sticking a long, sharp satiric needle into his fellow Czech’s soft spots - and that someone just might also be author Patrik Ouředník.
A Mrs. Prochazka can also wield a needle dipped in back humor, as when she approaches Viktor Dyk on his bench and asks, „Have you heard? Mrs. Horak was hit by a car.“
„No! Is it serious?“
„Serious or not, she’d dead from it, dead as a doornail.“
Oh, Youth and Beauty - „Teenagers! Adolescents! Yuck! That calf-eyed look! Those squeezed-out faces! That herdlike confidence in their own uniqueness! That stupidity dating back to the depths of larval prehistory! That dinosaur-size ego, tamed by the merest whisper of Sieg Heil, Long live communism or Think different!“ Rant on, rant on, Viktor Dyk! Or, should I say Patrik Ouředník? Probably both as one has the keen sense our Czech author closely identifies with said main character.
Urban Planning Poopsticks – V. Dyk rails at all the dummkopfs who have infested and continue to infest his city of Prague. „Abutting the church on the park side was a small graveyard, which, remarkably, had withstood both communism’s enthusiasm for dismantling and early capitalism’s zest for construction.“ Again, another page into his tirade, „The neighborhood also had the park to thank for its peaceful reputation: too public for prostitution, too far away from downtown for drug dealing.“
I’m including oodles of direct quotes – and for good reason: so much of Patrik Ouředník’s short novel is bound up with comic timing and the exactitude of language (appreciative nod to translator Alex Zucker).
Sagacious Sleuth – Police Inspector Vilém Lebeda combines his literary and intellectual interests with sniffing out criminals in his ordinarily peaceful district. „When a real crime did occur, it was usually an unfortunate accident, a husband banging his wife’s skull off the kitchen floor, failing to realize how fragile a vessel a woman’s brainbox is, or some pimpled retardate accidentally shooting a friend while showing off his new gun.“ Let these words serve as a warning: much of Case Closed turns its back on political correctness.
Family Values, Czech style – Years ago V. Dyk’s wife Anna died, leaving him with a four-year old son he would have gladly handed over to an orphanage. He slowly grew old and bald but there was some upside as women usually took pity on his premature widowhood: „Every now and again he would bang a female colleague.“
Literature, Czech Style – In his younger years V. Dyk actually wrote a novel, a novel he knew amounted to nothing more than a pile of crap but it did confer a measure of social status. Well, at least he finished the book without a lot of help from others. „To which we must add the traditional handicap facing every Czech writer: they take their books seriously.“
Sainthood, Czech Style - Before Vilém Lebeda became a criminologist, back in his teenage years he moved through life with the heart of a saint. As the narrator reports, if Vilém were born in medieval times, he might have been another Francis of Assisi but „in early-seventies Communist Czechoslovakia, he was inevitably taken for an ass“. Also unfortunate, randy Vilém had little luck with the lasses – „he couldn’t have gotten laid if he’d been an egg“.
Honest Author - Midway through Case Closed, the narrator (Patrik Ouředník himself?) comes right out to address us directly: „Readers! Does our story seem rambling? Do you have the feeling that the plot is at a standstill? [...] Sometimes a person gets tangled up in his own life without realizing it: and the same is true of characters in novels. [...] How it will turn out, we do not know; whether it will turn out, we haven’t a clue.“
Patrik Ouředník told an interviewer, „Most of the time I introduce myself as a translator rather than a writer; it has nothing to do with using an alias, or being modest: I just believe that translating gives me more satisfaction than writing. Let’s say that I have much more fun with Rabelais or Queneau than I do with Ouředník.“ On reflection, that’s why I stick with book reviewing – I have much more fun with writers like Ouředník than I do with Glenn Russell.