by Andrea Goldbergerova

First, there was the cover.

I remember seeing it maybe four years ago. A pale yellow background with purple, crystallic structures. And then, the title: Mapa Anny, or The Map of Anna as I will refer to it. I had read another collection of short stories by its author Marek Šindelka, long before that, but I’d struggle to recall much from it, let alone describe it to you. It's not for a lack of appreciation for his writing, mind you! Rather, it has to do with my poor memory, which might also be one of the motivations behind starting this column.

One thing I do recall is typing up a lengthy passage from the book, a paragraph-long attack on the human need to understand and dissect everything in order to avoid the discomfort of not-knowing. I cannot find it anymore, as I had probably deleted it at some point, but it was one of those quotes that I wanted to rewrite in a commonplace book or reading diary of some sort. I tried to keep one at multiple points in the previous years, always to no avail. For someone who, like many similarly-afflicted souls, has a tendency to spend inordinate sums of money on notebooks, I sure like to keep said notebooks empty. Perhaps it is for fear of ruining them with haphazard thoughts. (I suppose my aesthetic values are clear from the get-go, given that I started this column by judging a book by its cover.)

I digress. I finally read The Map of Anna this fall, after a friend lent it to me. I knew I was in for a good read and possibly a few more passages to write down in another version of the reading diary I had attempted to start before. That being said, I was instantly warned about the book being slightly tough to swallow. I remember pondering this over a cup of green tea made by my friend: is there such a thing as a bad time when reading a book? At that time, I was trying to make sense of certain very personal events that had transpired not so long ago, and I was not too keen on the idea of these thoughts metamorphosing into more universal despair. On the other hand, I also considered my mission (this column) and figured it was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make. I freely admit to taking a breather between stories repeatedly, some breaks having taken as much as several days.

The beauty of Šindelka's writing is that while his style gravitates towards visceral and dark undertones, it is also tinged with poetry throughout the book. Still, I found myself questioning how someone so young (he was born in 1984) can be so pessimistic. He does not present what would necessarily be the happiest of images, like in the following passage from a short story titled "Realities”:

“In the depth below us, there are roofs of houses, children in bedrooms, mothers dreaming uneasy dreams full of equations. They are calculating the weight of suicidal people plummeting from the bridge railing like some fanged beasts with ties, straight through the roof tiles and trusses into children’s beds and cribs.”

Similarly hopeless landscapes appear throughout the book, which is mostly concerned with relationships and people's various failures at maintaining them. (A theme I have my share of experience with, which also explains the need for reading breaks.) The narratives are interwoven, and the characters re-appear from time to time in other stories, sometimes as protagonists of their own or as footnotes to someone else's story arch. There is the titular Anna whose story is essentially a cartography of her body, in relation to her family history, self-discovery and acceptance through a number of love affairs. We also meet, among others, a couple on a vacation who are strangely connected through their disconnection, or Anna's grandfather whose story is a reminiscence of the horrors of coal mining. There are people at various stages of breaking up and apart, writers who loathe storytelling, entertainers with severe anxiety, other unhappy couples and so forth.

In a way, the collection reads like a prosaic TV show, what with Šindelka's propensity for filmic language with sharp scene-setting, as if giving directions to actors and crew alike: this is how it is to be done. You might find yourself excited to see the characters re-appear and, after a while, even wonder who's going to make a cameo next and how. There is also a sense of continuity, as if meeting an acquaintance after a long time, when their features become slightly more obscured by time passing. Sometimes, several days between stories can be enough to distort characters, as well.

What I was constantly reminded of, which is perhaps related to my age as well, is the Czech film Samotáři (The Loners). This turn-of-the-century classic essentially presents a similar theme although perhaps in a slightly more absurdist, rather than nihilistic fashion: a bunch of people around thirty with pathetic excuses of relationships. In Šindelka’s stories, you get the added bonus of narration which divulges secrets and twists the way only written word does.

The only issue here: The Map of Anna has yet to be translated into English. After all, when I set out to write this column, my intention was to present both books that have been translated from Czech and those which should be. Fortunately for you, there is an actual opportunity to read something written by Marek Šindelka in English. Ta-da!

This year, Twisted Spoon Press published his novel Aberrant (Chyba in Czech), as translated by Nathan Fields. Naturally, I couldn't miss the opportunity to read it for myself, just so I can report the experience back to you, dear reader.

Aberrant was originally published in 2008 and later on as a graphic novel, scripted by Šindelka himself. The translation itself has the disadvantage of reading slightly less poetically than any of the writer’s writing I have read in Czech. This might be a matter of personal preference: even though I mostly read in English, I find my native language possesses richness of expression that is hard to get across in translation. Regardless, the English version is very nicely done, even if at times idiomatically incorrect—although I cannot think of any instance where these mistakes make much of a difference in the overall experience or understanding of the story.

The novel is inspired by and even directly references the Japanese genre kaidan which is essentially an Edo-era horror story. One of the main protagonists is Kryštof, a rare flower trafficker who gets into quite a pickle over a particularly strange specimen. The narrative then retraces his steps, starting with his death and explaining how he got into that mess to begin with. Much like The Map of Anna, the novel details the complexity of relationships and the range of emotions and of reactions they awake, from trust to disconnection, or betrayal and vengeance. And just like the short stories, Šindelka’s writing is bodily and ever so cynical, although funny as well. (Bonus points for the beautiful and somewhat phallic illustrations of orchids inside the book.)

One thing I struggled with while reading this book—and even The Map of Anna—was trying to sneak in a note on what it means to be Czech. The truth is: these are not books about national identity. If that is what you expect, then you might have to wait for another installment of this column. Seeing how many books are written about WWII or the Communist regime, in particular, I find the universality of these two books refreshing. As you’ll see, our history has chapters that have yet to scab over and, like fresh wounds, need to bleed and breathe. All that is to come. Even so, Šindelka’s books are bittersweet, beautiful but also jarring. They are to be read on a rainy day and then followed by a cup of hot cocoa and an episode or two of some lighthearted show. It’s best to pace oneself, to go slow. At times, the narrative slows down, prose turns into poetry, the lines break, and one might want to read them carefully, as they should be. There might be a detail one would otherwise glance over, never to notice it again. Wouldn’t that be a pity?

Caitlyn Garcia