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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jan Křesadlo

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To purchase GraveLarks

Title: GraveLarks
Author: Jan Křesadlo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: GraveLarks - US
GraveLarks - UK
GraveLarks - Canada
  • Czech title: Mrchopěvci
  • Translated by Václav Z.J. Pinkava
  • Published in a previous translation, in a bilingual edition, in 1999
  • Illustrations by Jan J. Pinkava
  • Introduction by Michael Tate
  • Foreword by Josef Škvorecký
  • Afterword by Peter Pišťanek

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Our Assessment:

A- : sharp, dark, and grimly amusing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 18/5/2016 Andrei Rogatchevski

  From the Reviews:
  • "GraveLarks successfully employs Menippean satire, characterized by a fragmented narrative, frequent shifts of stylistic register and point of view, and the wish to lampoon not so much an individual but a general state of mind (.....) In the bleak world of GraveLarks, criminality and creativity are intimately intertwined" - Andrei Rogatchevski, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       GraveLarks is set in a just-postwar -- and just-turned-Communist -- Czechoslovakia. The main character is Zderad. Born to a reasonably well-off family, his world -- and future -- fell apart with the Communist takeover: his father was picked up for interrogation and died in custody (a supposed suicide), his mother died of grief, his older sister disappeared. A promising student, Zderad couldn't continue his studies. He has a wife, Sylva, and they have a young child, and they live in a very humble abode -- "a single room, shaped most appropriately like a coffin". Sylva is a teacher, but Zderad is reduced to earning (very little) money as a 'gravelark' -- a member of a quartet (usually) that sings at funerals, "the bums of the music trade".
       A schoolboy lark comes back to haunt Zderad: he had once penned a satirical 'Ode to Stalin' -- which now, in these new and anti-enlightened days: "was practically a death sentence for its creator". That Zderad was an intellectual who showed a great deal of promise is demonstrated by the fact that the poem is in classical Greek. But someone got their hands on it, and that person approaches Zderad and uses it to blackmail him. The person is first referred to as 'the Man' and then 'the Monster', and what he wants from Zderad is of a very personal, even intimate nature, as:

     He had almost every possible and impossible perversion going, so as the experts say, He was a 'polymorphic' pervert.
       Zderad sees no alternative but to give in to the man's very peculiar and humiliating demands -- sexual abuse of a very bizarre sort. Zderad essentially prostitutes himself -- though what is required of him isn't exactly straightforward sex -- and even gets paid for his troubles, compounding his sense of guilt and self-loathing.
       Yes, what happens to Zderad is , of course, a big fat metaphor for Communism, a violation of the self that is absolute and yet not the simple brutality of the rapist (and where the victim gets something out of it -- money, and a small access to power (in a time where the proper connections mean everything) -- as well).
       What the Monster wants isn't simply sexual gratification, it's a complex game of exerting power and control, in which he takes on different guises and roles, and plays out different scenarios (right down to a mock-marriage between him and Zderad). Worse is that Zderad doesn't know just how deep in the grip of the Monster he is -- he has no idea how well connected he is, for example, and what he could do to Zderad if Zderad refuses to toe the line. The narrator repeatedly suggest that taking action -- just standing up to the Monster, or knocking him down -- might free Zderad, but there's no way to be sure (which, of course, also gnaws at Zderad).
       Still, Křesadlo holds Zderad's unwillingness to stand up for himself against him -- a condemnation of the nation as a whole, too:
     What would have happened if Zderad had ignored the Monster and carried on ?
     Despite all that is now to follow, the answer is, probably, nothing. But there again, had he taken the risk --
     To have done so, however, he would have needed a name like Zderaducz, and to have been born a bit further to the northeast.
     Czechs used to be manlier men !
       Křesadlo's story isn't simply black and white: yes, the Monster, and the Communist system, are entirely abhorrent and evil, but Křesadlo doesn't ignore that small (or larger) part in all of us that bears the seeds of similar evil. Even Zderad, when he takes action and does a good deed -- rescuing a young neighbor-girl from her abusive father, Hamouz -- sees a bit of himself in that lowlife:
     "You swine !" a voice within him yelled. Her realised that when he was beating Hamouz he had been roughing up a part of his own self.
       (Matters aren't later helped when the young girl continues to dote on her savior, and he finds the prepubescent child's attentions becoming too aggressive; it is temptation he can avoid, but just another sign of just how screwed up this particular world is.)
       Personal compromises, of terrible sorts, are entirely everyday in this world and atmosphere; Zderad is long blind to it -- in part because he's covering up his own problems (and trying to keep from having to explain why he suddenly has a decent amount of money) -- but it's no surprise that Sylva has had to give in in a similar way to an authority-figure to remain in good standing at her school.
       Zderad tries to extricate himself from the Monster -- and his increasingly monstrous demands -- including by trying to steal the incriminating poem (not that the Monster doesn't have more up his sleeve, such as a very poorly manipulated photograph). The 1953 deaths, in short order, of Stalin and then (Czech president) Klement Gottwald might hold the promise of slightly better times -- "But that didn't help much, or soon, or Zderad in particular". But finally, when they are pushed to their limits, Zderad -- and his wife -- take the necessary steps, removing themselves from the system and those who abuse it.
       While it's a dark tale -- pitch-black, in many ways --, GraveLarks isn't all that grim. Křesadlo has a sly, humorous touch, and his descriptions of the darker and cruder doings are carefully circumscribed; there's no wallowing here. Indeed, the novel also shows a very light touch, the prose -- most of the paragraphs just a single, often short, sentence -- and the story practically dancing along, and the wit (and witty commentary -- the narrator doesn't hold back in sharing his opinion) liven things up even more. And as blunt and obvious as the Monster-metaphor might appear to be, it really doesn't come across like that.
       GraveLarks is a quite remarkable novel -- a lot of fun even, despite the sour accompanying taste. This is a wonderfully lively text, and while Křesadlo bashes the system of those times he treats it as an aberration that should be examined and understood and not simply ignored or glossed over.
       A fascinating work, in many respects, and a very good novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 October 2016

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GraveLarks: Reviews: Jan Křesadlo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech emigré author Jan Křesadlo (actually: Václav Pinkava) worked in England as a psychologist. He lived 1926 to 1995.

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