World Literature in Review (Michaela Burilkov)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

The Opportune Moment, 1855

By Michaela Burilkov

World Literature in Review, February 2011

Patrik Ourˇedník (b. 1957, Prague) is a Czech author and translator who since 1984 has lived in France. Three of his novels have been translated into English: Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (translated into more than twenty languages), Case Closed, and now The Opportune Moment, excellently translated from Czech to English by Alex Zucker. The latter novel was declared Book of the Year in Italy by the newspaper La Stampa in 2007.

The novel has an intricate structure. It begins with the letter of an aging veterinarian, inspired by utopian and anarchistic ideas, to his love of fifty years ago. This part, which reads more like an essay, outlines a project to build a settlement hosting a free and fraternal community in Brazil in 1855, where people share everything and free love will reign. The letter admits that the project failed, apparently due to poor execution.

The second part contains the logbook of one of the colonists, beginning with the two-month passage from France to Brazil by ship. The day-by-day account confronts the ideal theory from the letter with the reality of Italian anarchists, French egalitarians and anarcho-communists, Germans, Austrians, Slovaks, and even the black sailors as they try to organize, share the limited resources, and work together. The diarist takes no sides, ironically recording the mounting tensions facing the colonists. This parts ends when they step onto Brazilian soil.

The diary resumes some six months later. This part reads like four mini-Gospels, where the same story is told, repeating the main difficulties confronting the settlement and ultimately leading to its demise, while adding new facts each time.

In the end, as we know well from nineteenth- and twentieth- century history, the clash between utopias – be they anarchist or communist – and human nature always ends with similar results. If the reader wonders, Why remind us of this today?, this timeless novel serves as a satiric warning against false heralds of a new Messianic Age.