Europeana by Patrik Ouředník | Gargling with Tar by Jáchym Topol

Book reviews for March 2011 Staff

Written by Staff Published on 28.03.2011 13:39:50 (updated on 28.03.2011) Reading time: 5 minutes

Written by: Patrik Ouředník
Published by: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 120 p.
This book is available at the Big Ben Bookshop

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

The monotony of Europeana eventually got to me. The rhythmic voice was at first amusing, and is definitely a creative, compelling part of the book, but by the end I was also reciting da da da di da di dum along in my head.

Europeana is subtitled A Brief History of the 20th Century, and it is a fact bucket. There is no narrator, no plot, and the “characters” are one-liners from history. Covering mostly European and US history from World War I to the “present,” the book is fascinating in the amount of knowledge crammed in. It is technically fiction; however the information contained is all non-fiction. The book is organized in roughly half-page to page-long paragraphs which deal, more or less, with one theme. In one paragraph Ouředník can go from smoking to suicide to exercise to political correctness to US President Clinton and an intern to the bombing of Iraq. And as you are reading it, it somehow flows together and fits. Here´s an example:

“With the development of the industrial society, alcoholism became widespread in Europe and America and many people believed that alcohol was the scourge of humanity and was an obstacle to the natural evolution of society. The Americans considered that alcoholism was a typical disease of European society and it was spread to America chiefly by the Irish and Italians. And some Americans demanded that measures be taken to deal with it, so that in the future the Irish and Italians would not be admitted to the United States without previous psychiatric and social examination. And in 1919 the American government banned the sale and consumption of alcohol and in 1921 an immigrant quota was decreed that reduced the number of Irish and Italian immigrants by 85%. And in 1914 American psychiatrics urged that alcoholics be promptly sterilized in the interest of preserving a healthy superior society. Americans were proud that in the United States it was possible to live a healthy, superior life, while in Europe people smoke and drank alcohol and breathed polluted air, and in 2000, the Americans repealed in Alabama a law that banned mixed marriages with Negroes.”

If you can handle 120 pages of that you should definitely read this book. If you found it annoying, don´t even bother.

The arrangement of ideas is the book´s best feature, and this is probably why it won´t appeal to every reader. Those looking for fiction (storyline, characters) will be disappointed as will those looking to read “history.” However, if you can get into it and stick with it (it was tough for me at the end) the juxtaposition of ideas and thoughts gives one pause and says a lot, without saying much of anything at all.


Gargling with Tar
Written by: Jáchym Topol
Published by: Portobello Books Ltd
Pages: 320 p.
This book is available at the Big Ben Bookshop

Gargling with Tar by Jáchym Topol

Jáchym Topol, born in 1962, probably has few, if any memories of the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. This is the theme though which he chooses for his book, Gargling with Tar. Or should I say two books? The first and second halves were so different that one wonders if the plot of the first half of the book began to bore him, or he didn´t know how to introduce his characters into the fight against and with Soviet soldiers. The story centers on Ilya, an orphan of unknown descent. We meet Ilya and others when they are living in a home for orphaned boys run by nuns. Eventually, the nuns are taken away and replaced by former Czechoslovak military commanders who whip the boys into shape and teach them how to scout, fight, draw and read maps and other useful army skills.

Soon, invading armies arrive, the townspeople revolt, and the boys from the home are scattered. Ilya ends up joining a Russian tank column and becomes useful to them as a translator. This is when the story becomes a bit fantastical. The tank column, known as the Happy Song, was sent to secure a travelling circus which is to be reorganized as a model Soviet circus to not only entertain Soviet troops but also to show off the sophisticated Soviet culture. The Soviets were also planning to create the Bohemian Sea in the center of Bohemia as a gift from the Soviet people to the Czechoslovaks. An East German performing dwarf, Mongolian camel herders, and more randomly weird events continue to occur.

I have found a disconnect in many of the Czech fiction books I have read between myself and the main character. I often have absolutely no opinion of them whatsoever which makes it difficult for me to connect with the plot. So to with Ilya. His resourcefulness is to be admired, and he flip-flopped loyalties so quickly he probably had a hard time remembering who he was fighting for from one day to the next. Topol´s descriptive skills and the way he tackled the actual invasion of 1968 (a topic not often covered in Czech literature) make this a worthwhile book.

The book´s title Gargling with Tar is, strangely enough, explained in the opening chapter. When the nuns ruled the orphanage, the punishment for lying was gargling with coal-tar soap. That inconsequential tidbit at the story´s start comes back at the end and the reader is left to wonder if Ilya either didn´t get caught lying much, actually enjoyed the taste of coal-tar soap or if there´s just enough disbelief in his tale to ring true.

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