BOOK REVIEW : A Rambling Czech Parody Lacks Satiric Bite : THE FACADE M.N.O.P.Q. <i> by Libuse Monikova</i> ; <i> translated from German by John E. Woods</i> ; Alfred A. Knopf $23, 378 pages
Graffiti need a surface. Libuse Monikova’s loose ironic fantasy about Czechoslovakia before its Velvet Revolution suggests some early-morning protester sneaking up to the former demarcation line between East and West Berlin. She produces a paint can, immerses her brush and lashes up a harsh and scintillating satirical phrase. The paint falls through the air; the Wall has been dismantled.
It is not that satire necessarily requires its target to exist materially in the present. (In any case, the constricting buffoonery of Czechoslovakia’s late Communist regime is only a few years gone.) But it does require the target to be visibly re-created.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Nov. 22, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 22, 1991 Home Edition View Part E Page 15 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong death date--In Thursday’s View, the book review of “The Facade M.N.O.P.Q.” referred to Jaroslav Hasek, author of the classic Czech satire “The Good Soldier Schweik,” and gave the wrong date of his death. Hasek died in January, 1923.
The half-dozen anarchic artists and intellectuals in Monikova’s novel exercise their absurdist comedy in a vacuum. The occasional bureaucrat or police informer she produces is barely sketched; the system they represent is impalpable. It is like a “Catch-22”--which the book a little resembles--set in peacetime.
“The Facade” is divided into two parts; one, set more or less realistically in Czechoslovakia, the second, with a touch of the phantasmagoric, in Soviet Russia.
The link is weak; the five characters who travel from one country to the other have too little fictional substance to bring us along with them. Perhaps a more suggestive, though oddly placed, connection is a series of references to Jaroslav Hasek.
Caught up in the Russian Revolution, he was for a while a war commissar, retreating later to his own country to write Czechoslovakia’s satiric epic, “The Good Soldier Schweik.” He died Monday.
Monikova is no Hasek, although she suggests a kinship. Just as Hasek parodied the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire that ruled his country, Monikova parodies the decaying Soviet Union that exercised a later, perhaps vaguely comparable hegemony.
The first part of the novel presents four dolefully acerbic artists--two sculptors and two painters--entrusted with the endless task of restoring the baroque facade of the castle of Friedland in a small Czechoslovakian town.
They joke, grouse, do a little work and a lot of drinking and tangle with the surly caretaker, a police spy. One of the four makes love to the wife of the project director, who is invariably apologetic whenever he is a little late leaving for work, thus abridging his wife’s rendezvous.
The four are furiously active but only dimly sketched. There is Maltzahn, the seducer; Podol, a fiery brawler; Orten, nervous and introspective, and Patera, who is simply patient. They are joined by the project’s archivists: Qvietone, whose main interest is insects and an older woman, and Nordanc, a Luxembourger, who is gay.
Monikova doesn’t make much use of the gayness, nor does she make much use of the very faintly distinguished quiddities of the others. There is a fight with a collective farm delegation that includes a descendant of the castle’s original aristocratic inhabitants; there is Qvietone’s unhappy courtship of Maria, his love.
There is Maria’s disjointedly placed account of a relative who had her own picaresque adventures in revolutionary Russia and who knew Hasek. There are a kind of dream play in which the artists take the roles of figures in Czech cultural history and an elaborate exercise of horseplay around a ceremony to commemorate the composer Smetana.
Monikova engages her characters strenuously in their comic-satiric exploits and arguments. She is only rarely able to make the comedy funny or the satire bite.
The second part consists of the characters’ long and unsuccessful effort to cross Siberia en route to Japan. Orten has been offered an art project there; he takes Podol to assist him. Maltzahn, Qvietone and Nordanc--their names form the initials which, for no evident reason, are the book’s subtitle--attach themselves.
Making a plane change in Novosibirsk, they wander into a scientific research institution whose staff receives them euphorically and then refuses to let them go. Their stay is a forced and heavy-handed series of incidents that satirize the Soviet mind and dramatize the fierce feeling, simultaneously of resentment and superiority, of the visiting Czechs.
When they finally get away, they find themselves marooned in a cabin during a Siberian blizzard. They are rescued and sheltered by a tribe of hunters. Orten stays briefly with a community of female shamans who turn their less successful lovers into reindeer. Fortunately for him, Orten rates as a success.
All this is told at great length and with a lack of story-telling skill that bogs us down deeper as the action speeds up. Monikova’s satire, attempting to make a sweep of history and, through its more fantastic sections, to explore history’s subconscious, shows more ambition than the author can fulfill. She is able to make her artists assert that the emperor has no clothes; the trouble is that the clothes have no emperor.
Next: Christopher Goodrich reviews “Sarah’s Laughter and Other Stories” by Susan Engberg (Knopf).
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