By M. A. Orthofer
The Complete Review, April 3, 2010
“Ouredník offers tantalizing clues in brief chapters and alternating points of view that are endlessly, and humorously, non-intersecting; but the chain of perhaps unrelated events amounts to a gleeful skewering of the Czech national character and a character-rich, dialogue-sassy send-up colored by a lingering Communist legacy.” Publishers Weekly
Case Closed jumps back and forth between a number of characters and storylines (with some overlap), moving quickly across forty short chapters. The first chapter is entirely in what appears to be chess notation – and similarly there’s a lot of quick back-and-forth repartee in the dialogue-heavy book. The novel is also full of games (including some more chess), clues, mysteries, and ambiguity.
Case Closed is – arguably – ostensibly a mystery/thriller: some crimes are committed and investigated (arson, rape, a murder from forty years ago), and one of the central characters is a policeman, chief inspector Vilém Lebeda. But this very multilayered novel is also a humorous-critical look at the Czech character and nation over the past decades, into the post-Communist present – as well as an entirely literary game.
After the opening chapter, Case Closed seems (for a while, anyway) to proceed conventionally enough, introducing a variety of characters, dynamics, and events. There’s old man Dyk, for one, sitting on his bench, a widower who has never been very close to his son and who happens to be distantly related to Lebeda – and who, among other things, wrote a novel back in the midseventies which was published under a pen name and, while hardly successful, was not entirely forgotten.
Case Closed is very much concerned with words and language, and Ouředník constantly slips in references to the difficulty of mutual understanding, whether in the form of illustrative dialogue (a police interview of a rape victim is an Abbott-and-Costello-routine-worthy example) to incidental mentions such as of the unsettling “linguistic alterity” of the language of the local Gypsies. Here even babies are disillusioned early on – so Dyk’s son:
If until this point Dyk Jr. had believed in the adequacy of articulated expression and the real essence of objects, he quickly got over it.
There is a shift as the novel proceeds, and the literary game becomes more prominent; eventually, the author interrupts at greater length – for example:
Readers ! Does our story seem rambling ? Do you have the feeling that the plot is at a standstill ? That, generally speaking, not much is going on in the book you now hold in your hands ? Do not despair: Either the author’s a fool or you are; the odds are even. Others have died and so shall we, we’ll die, oy vey, alack, alas ! Who on earth knows how on earth it will turn out ! Sometimes a person gets tangled up in his own life without realizing it; and the same is true of characters in a novel.
And, yes, eventually there are pronouncements such as:
Yes ! We are born into a novel whose meaning escapes us, and depart from a novel we have never once understood.
Life in and as fiction, and philosophical quandaries (right down to the question: “Are we real ?”): Ouředník piles it on thick and fast. It works – indeed, it’s tremendously appealing – because he shows such a light, deft touch. Case Closed is terribly playful, but not quite fatally so.
It helps that translator Zucker has managed to keep all the sprightliness to the text, and manages some very good English wordplay, maintaining the spirit and tone of the work. So, for example:
There was a knock at the door. Dyk Jr. yawned, sat up, tossed off the blanket, shuddered with cold. Yes, some toss off blankets, others toss off verse; some people are wet blankets, others rain on parades; one person’s knees knock with cold, another person knocks on doors. So it goes with words, my friends.
Clever and enjoyable, and certainly worthwhile.