Pavel Brycz - I, City
In 1964, the city of Most, in the Czech Republic (though then Czechoslovakia), began its slow and sad uprooting. The city was, quite literally, shifted out of the way to make room for the expanding lignite mines. Many of its historical buildings, which had existed for centuries, were destroyed. Most, perhaps more than any other city, has suffered at the hand of rampant commercialism. The greed of mining corporations almost caused its death, and certainly crippled it's soul. Virtually none of its buildings nowadays are even fifty years old, and this is a city that has existed for over a thousand years.
Pavel Brycz's I, City is the city's record of itself. He puts forth as narrator the city, Most, and makes it his primary character. The city is a chronicler of itself, cataloguing the many and varied events of its 'life'. It is both a new city and an old, finding itself caught between the two, and suffering from a crisis of identity. Can Most-now truly claim to be Most-then? What makes a city, its location, its monuments, its cemeteries, its people, its factories, its history, its battlegrounds, its rose gardens, its baths, its conservatories, its houses, its streets, its lakes, its statues? All of them, and none of them. Most has lost something, but it doesn't quite know what. This is its story.
I am not a poet, I am a city, ill equipped to write about the affairs of people. I am a city, a new city. I cannot bear witness to the past, I can describe only what I see.
And here, among the full-grown, needle-leaved shrubs, I see a stone.
Brycz constructs his novel as a series of vignettes, each a page or two, perhaps three, one from the 1970s, one from the 90s, one concerning suicidal poets, one a house painter. The city can, of course, observe everything, because everything in it is part of the city. And Most seems, for reasons which should be obvious, a melancholic city, fond of romance, cemeteries, the mistakes of men and women, the sigh of love lost, or missed, or never quite found. I, City's chapters are titled, an appearance, poetic, an appearance, silent, an appearance, theological, and so on. People, places and situations appear for our city, emerging briefly from the terrifying weight of its thousand years history and brutal upheaval, and when they appear, they are noted, catalogued and filed away, to become part of the lovingly recollect debris of a city in terminal decline. What's left of the soul of a place once it's mortal wound has healed? Most knows.
When remembering the Russian occupation of August 1968, I think of painting. And that of painting the apartment of an ordinary family in an ordinary apartment block on my main street. Mr Novák stands atop a stepladder, dips the brush and above the paper cap on his head lays on broad swaths of white paint. Mrs. Nováková stirs the paint for him and every now and then hands him a beer, with a point warning: “Karel, don't you fall down!”
The city takes us through its different aspects, though it lingers on the sweet, the sad, the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Most isn't all that interested in exploring the mines and factories – a significant and telling omission – but it certainly has time for lost love, for dreamers and insomniacs, and for those who dare to wonder. We are introduced to a gymnasium, a cafe, a number of youthful poet-suicides (one of whom becomes a businessman; the others don't commit suicide), a crematoria, gypsies, and more. History is and remains a significant focus, and along the way we are introduced to real historical figures who say and do things that never occurred, and we are introduced to fictional characters who act as mouthpieces for actions and events that did occur. When a city has been lifted, destroyed, and its remnants settled elsewhere, a certain abstractedness, a certain bitterness, is completely reasonable.
I knew one old lady. She lived on Skupova Street. Her hair was silver and complexion pale.
And eyes black, mysterious as her walks.
Where would she emerge from a walk, you never knew.
In which place, in which century.
Her name was Eva Ezechielová.
Where did she have relatives? In Auschwitz. And in Israel.
Her relatives were there, but she lived here alone. Old and forgotten. From century to century, she took long walks.
The novella includes an exceptionally useful closing commentary from the translators, titled We, translators. One can assume that a medium-sized city in the Czech Republic is perhaps not well known to English-speaking readers; the notes of Cohen and Hofmeisterova go a long way to properly placing Most in its historical and geographic context. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the translators' parting words should be read first, to provide a secure and stable footing for an area not well known in America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In a novella made up of stories, a novella devoted to capturing the soul and spirit of a city, there is nothing to spoil as such – every single plot point could be given away without affecting the effect of the whole. In addition to this, a handy couple of pages of notes identifying the greater and less obscure references in the novella add even more weight to the history and culture of the place.
In one of the chapters, a young man contemplates proposing to his lover, prompting the city to remember this conversation:
He forgot to say he loved her, that he had been afraid to marry her and to have a child with her, but that now he wasn't afraid anymore, that he wanted it, that here and now he wants it, and that if she agrees, he would go with her to her parents and ask them for her hand and then they would go to city hall, and to the church; they would go there, straight from this sad place, and they would say yes twice.
He didn't say that. He only bowed to Eva's cheek and blew away the soot.
And that, to me, captures the essence of Most. It is a city where melancholy, romance, art, creativity, and the gentle and sometimes infuriating regularity of life, pervades. Everything is a missed opportunity when looked back upon, and a city that has been violently shifted to one side in search of money can only be considered a thing of the past. Brycz's choice to make the city the narrator, to allow this great, all-seeing, wholly sympathetic eye to rove where it will and tell the stories it wishes to tell, is a masterstroke, and allows him to capture the essence of the town in a way that a mere connected series of story could achieve. Most, the city, is a character as much as the rest of the people living and loving and dying within these pages and, by writing I, City, Brycz has, in effect, ensured that, no matter how many times the city needs to be shifted in the reprehensible pursuit of money over culture and history, the essence, spirit and personality of the city itself lives on.
(Original Title: Jsem Mêsto)
||Joshua Cohen & Marketa Hofmeisterova
||Twisted Spoon Press