Alta 39 (Ken Bruce)

Sunday 22 May 2016
by  NLLG

Case Closed

(What to Read from Central and Eastern Europe)

Ken Bruce

May 12, 2016

Alta 39
39th Annual Conference
American Literary Translators Association

In Case Closed, Ourednik presents his readers with a wonderfully surreal murder mystery, or, well, a mystery of some sort or another. Narrative ambiguity is to be expected here given that the author himself has translated the triumvirate of ‘pataphysical mischief-makers, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau, and Boris Vian, from French into Czech. And so as entirely regular Czech citizens indulge in all kinds of undoubtedly noir-ish behavior slip in and out of the narrative, you find yourself asking, are they relevant to the story? One just has to keep reading to find out, but if you’re feeling at all unsure of your abilities to connect the dots, the author steps in about halfway through the book with this helpful disclaimer:

You ask, How will it all end? But that, dear readers, we cannot reveal. We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea. How it will turn out, we do not know; whether it will turn out, we haven’t a clue. We’re in the same boat as you, or almost, since at this moment, as you read our book, our work is done; the book is out, you bought it, invested part of your earnings in the hope that it would pay off in the form of spiritual dividends. We don’t mean to be impolite, we have no intention of committing cheap provocations, and yet, and yet, and yet: what do we care: We’ve assumed the majority of responsibility; now it’s up to you to patiently bear your share.

Aside from such formal hijinks, I can only imagine the difficulties that must have faced translator Alex Zucker as he made his way through a text so heavily saturated with wordplay and pun-making as this one. Luckily, the reader can at least feel confident of being guided by someone up to the task, as Zucker appears to make sport out of “difficult” Czech literature. And in the end, the admittedly formal trickery of Ourednik’s novella belies a scathing commentary against post-Communist Czech Republic society. When our protagonist Vilém Lebeda is purchasing vegetables and observes, “The rotten tomatoes were carefully tucked away underneath the good ones, an effect of the last revolution; under the old regime they didn’t bother with such formalities,” you get the feeling Ourednik’s real target is likely something other than produce.