Old Phenomena: An Experimental Review of Aviaries
Matthew Jakubowkski is a fiction writer and literary critic based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Bookforum, Kirkus Reviews, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris Review Daily, and Music and Literature, among other venues. This experimental review about a fictional literary critic is part of an ongoing, multi-year project dedicated to novels in translation. These story-reviews, or critifictions, have been published internationally in 3:AM Magazine, gorse, Full Stop, Interfictions Online, and The Critical Flame. Links to the previous reviews and more about Matt’s work can be found online at mattjakubowski.com.
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Brabcová, Zuzana. Aviaries. Translated by Tereza Novická, Twisted Spoon Press, 2019.
The critic was at the park with her four-year-old niece. They had snacks, sang songs, played on the swings and the slide before the girl found a large stick, went over to a maple, and began hitting its trunk. Concentrated, determined, she whapped the bark methodically. The critic wasn’t sure what to do.
As she watched, an image came to mind from the novel she was reviewing next, Aviaries, by the Czech writer Zuzana Brabcová, who died in 2015. It was the last book she’d written, but the first of her works to be translated into English. On the title page was a black-and-white drawing of a woman with the body of a tree; in her womb a snake with bared fangs encircled a globe with a human face.
Her niece’s stick broke. She laughed, found another, and went on smacking the tree. It seemed disrespectful—a word the critic associated with her father, gone six years now. If he’d been there he would’ve put a gentle but quick stop to this tree-bashing. Disrespectful. Not constructive.
She wasn’t sure how she’d review the novel in just four-hundred words, the limit her editor had given her without a hint of apology. The unspoken facts were: novel in translation, small publisher, unknown dead female Czech author. It was the kind of disappointment she’d begun to accept, telling herself any press for books like this was worthwhile. Maybe a long blog post about it, in addition to the short, paid review, would make her feel better.
Because it deserved more. With singular, controlled balance Brabcová had delivered one of the most unrelenting character portraits the critic had ever read. The narrator, Alzběta, who goes by Běta, is a destitute writer in modern-day Prague. In very short chapters she looks at her life and the world, confronting memory, poverty, imagination, entropy, exhaustion, substance abuse, loneliness, and artistry, the entire range of physical, emotional, quasi-spiritual experiences. It’s as if she’s found a way to leave her body, at age 54, and see her existence from all sides, with fearsome insight. Several times, she uses a tree as the key symbol of herself, sometimes walking, sometimes bloody and damaged.
At a little more than a hundred pages, the novel seemed to contain more than entire shelves of books. Its detailed structure of themes and motifs formed a conceptual framework with great connotative power, like a field of emotional constellations. It was mesmerizing, adopting the conventions of a romantic, humanistic novel; no overwrought dramatic irony or sarcasm, an almost impossibly successful narrative order of personal and political events depicting a gloomy quest to see reality for what it is as a loner, writer, friend, mother and daughter, made compelling through Běta’s palpably real character, who’s vulnerable, contradictory, funny, erudite, curious, and frustrating, focused on the essence of life and death, from the underground of Prague.
For Běta, it’s as if the rotten state of the world and her health leaves her no choice but to take stock at this point in her life. After being laid off, she’s terminally unemployed, without work for 428 tedious, desperate days. She lives in a basement apartment she calls a cell and considers herself homeless. She writes, but on “a computer too old to sell” arranged atop “a baking sheet propped up on two bricks.” She’s been hospitalized 21 times in three years, mostly for mental illness. “I simply became addicted to the white coat,” she says, making light of it, but later admits she sometimes visits four doctors a day because her heat’s been turned off at home.
Some of the small sections bear dates like diary entries, ranging from December 2011 to February 2015. The story begins two days after Václav Havel’s death, prompting statewide grief that Běta says “reigns” over life, part of the larger “process of disintegration” she can’t help but scrutinize with fearsome intensity.
As the critic read, it was as if each day for Běta without work, living alone, had been snapped off from the world and examined as a small piece of text pasted to each page like a specimen of time. Her first thought was to call them fragments, but the term carried interpretative weight, and clumsily so. There was no prefabricated structure Brabcová had cracked up and re-used. This was a sophisticated, nuanced shifting set of tones, voices, and relative meanings within a layered, philosophical whole.
As for key characters, Běta’s sole friend, a man named Melda, whom she met in the neurological ward five years ago, isn’t much comfort. “You’re a sieve, Běta, just a sieve merely sifting through other people’s identities,” he says, sounding much like an inner voice at times. She’s so lonely, though, that she invites him to live with her, calling him a “pot” she can pour her life into. It’s one of several believable blind spots the author gives her—rather than pour her life into her writing, or finding another person to confide in, she favors a toxic relationship with Melda. He provides a reflection she craves, for better or for worse: “(I) truly saw him, powerless and paralyzed, in all the glorious shabbiness of his lost existence: the graying façade of a face cracked with wrinkles, thin, greasy hair, colorless fish eyes. I felt ashamed for the sympathy that gripped my heart, for his plastered wretchedness was indistinguishable from my own.”
In the margin near this quote, the critic would later notice she’d written, “Friendship, bodies, sickened by time.”
At the park, her niece had started to hit the tree like a drummer, with a stick in each hand. The critic let her, even as bits of bark began to fly. She doubted the girl knew what she was doing. Just acting on bored impulse. Maybe this was bad babysitting. She’d step in, somehow, soon enough. Maybe offer her some juice.
Out in the world, Brabcová shows Prague as Běta sees and feels and breathes it. “(When) I do go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way love them. All that exists: just disrupts and mars.” There’s a masterful balance of the real and surreal in Běta’s mind, letting neither the objective nor the creative view dominate as she looks through a sort of dark kaleidoscope with X-ray vision. To her, a parked SUV isn’t merely a symbol of excess, it’s “a Land Rover smothering the entire street like a gigantic tombstone,” a specific marker of a dead world. A neighbor’s pet snake is at first a pest she fears upon first seeing it loose in the hallway outside her apartment. Later, it’s a way to connect with the neighbor, when she also buys a snake, so they can breed them. Then she sees the serpent as an archetype of chaos and dangerous memories, a natural force loose in her thoughts with the power to crawl through holes in reality. Last of all, her grown daughter, Alice, becomes a cobra towering over a train station.
When Brabcová writes more playfully — “I reached for a cloud and shoved it under my sweater,” or “the wind deftly scooped me up with its spatula like a pancake and we flew over the rooftops” — a contrast occurs, one of empowering statements that subvert the limits of the physical world momentarily in an otherwise dark stretch of time.
Within this balance, Brabcová adds scientific rationale to the dynamic between fact and fiction in Běta’s worldview. She quotes theories of space and time, makes reference to tunnels within tunnels, and the speed of neutrino particles. Some sections act as sidebars to the plot, little groups of war headlines, vacation ads, strange-but-true facts that show how widely her eye on the world ranges. She craves a full view of reality, all the violence, fascism, rifts and nonsense of capitalism, seeing them as equal forces weighing on her personal myths, be it her mother’s habit of marking an X beside the dead in the dictionary, or perceived dangers about the particle accelerator at CERN.
Her mother’s influence is ever-present. During a visit, her mother, who’s in her late eighties, quotes Jiří Wolker, her favorite Czech poet, who wrote, “Death is a mere hard part of life.” A dark joke, it seems, from a gloomy parent; yet later Běta mentions the family lost a young son and brother, Igor, to suicide. Wolker’s line has become a touchstone and despite its grim overtone, the critic saw how in Novická’s translation, “mere” was paired with “hard,” and the line ended with “life,” as if Wolker’s goal, perhaps, was actually to put death in its rightful place, among the hard parts, but not necessarily among the most important.
Běta’s daughter, Alice, who’s twenty-three, visits and calls rarely. Běta imagines conversations with her; in one Alice recalls a dream in which Běta is a tree that needs to be chopped free — something Alice helps her achieve by leaving Prague. The episode reads like inventive self-defense on Běta’s part for some unsaid failure. She shows her true level of anxiety at times, saying directly that she feels “as if nothing were genuine anymore, as if every second extended hundreds of possibilities, countless parallel options, but none that held true.” She imagines that to survive, some people must stay connected to a purity that doesn’t exist on earth by way of an enormous snorkel; she imagines they walk the city streets with “an endless hollow tube penetrating into the cosmos and curving alongside it, only from there inhaling that which makes life imaginable, indeed even possible.”
The way the past and present exist in Beta’s mind, her pain and connection to others, the life of Prague around her, whether described in affecting simple detail or fantastic metaphor, is all delivered without unnecessary heat or flourish, in steadied diction and word choice—all the product of Novická’s expertly capable translation. The critic had read it worrying the tightrope act would fail, that the intricately woven minor mysteries of each moment would raise too many questions of sincerity and believability. But the translation held together brilliantly. In part because Brabcová wasn’t playing at surrealism for effect, or to correct or pander to any readers’ possible preconceived notions about her mental condition. Normal life is astounding, and the astounding aspects of life are normal. Běta is mentally ill and poor, no fool, wary of any kind of pity in any form, never connecting the way she sees the world with her illness.
Eventually, she gets full disability from the government due to the severity of it. Her mother has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital with the family praying around her bed.
The critic could see Běta’s desire to be alone to face the meaning of life, death, and suffering, as a mother while watching her own mother die, had come at a great cost in terms of optimism. “Awareness, and yet a remarkable emptiness,” Běta thinks, “for all these props — and even my speech is a prop — are just an accretion of completely empty squares.” She yearns to be closer to Alice, and feels it’s out of reach: “(If) only you knew how much I miss you. I wish I could be the cove you submerge into…or that I could manage, at least for a short while, to bear the mire of life like a rose.” And when she dwells on the hardest moments of her life when she had raised Alice alone, she can still feel the fear as it “wraps and tightens around my neck like a bathrobe belt.”
If the critic looked as directly at her life as this, would she find more joy or despair? Had grief over her father’s death blurred her vision of herself over the past few years, or sharpened her view of a life’s trajectory? Marriage and children still didn’t interest her. Her writing career was fine; she was still freelancing, earning plenty for herself at her marketing day job. No other fantasy career lay ahead at a magazine or cultural foundation. Where were her mother and sister headed? What was going to happen to her niece? Exploring the mysteries of life as quotidian puzzles, Brabcová’s novel insisted that how we apprehend these things does still matter.
When the critic finally stood and walked over to her niece, the girl wouldn’t stop hitting the tree, not even for some juice. The critic had to wrench the stick away.
“You’re not my Mom, stupid!” the girl shouted.
“I know,” the critic said, stepping backwards. “I’m your aunt.”
“No, you’re not!” the girl said. “You’re nothing.”
Ten minutes later, the girl was humming to herself in the car seat. The critic looked back at her from time to time in the rear-view mirror. The girl sang and clapped. The world went flashing by.