More fun than manslaughter
By Stephan Delbos
The Prague Post, August 18, 2010
The film Ten to Midnight, starring the legendary, late Charles Bronson, concludes with a young murderer standing naked in the street confessing his crimes to Bronson, while claiming he’s untouchable, saying, “Go ahead, arrest me! Take me in! You can’t punish me because I’m sick! That’s the law!” Bronson, undeterred, stoically shoots the young hood in the forehead.
The narrator of Case Closed, Patrik Ouředník’s latest book to be translated into English, makes similar declarations of inculpability over the course of the novella, stymieing any hope for complete insight into the actions and motivations of his characters.
“Readers! Does our story seem rambling? ? 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 ? 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 ? what do we care?”
Readers may feel as frustrated as Bronson when Ouředník refuses to live up to his duties as author-cum-narrator at certain key moments in the novella, instead shrouding elements of his plot in obscurity, but ultimately the book – ostensibly a detective story, but actually more of a literary experiment in social commentary – is more complexly enjoyable than a pure murder mystery, and Ouředník has more to offer than senseless carnage.
Case Closed narrates a few days in the lives of a small cast of characters, mainly Czech retirees. During the first few chapters, we are led to believe that Viktor Dyk, a elderly man with a penchant for making up “wise” quotes, is the protagonist. But when a rape and an old woman’s suicide – both of which are only glancingly referred to, rather than described – take place in the neighborhood, detective Vilem Lebeda and his investigation become the focal point of the story.
Labeling Lebeda the novella’s main character is perhaps misleading, as Case Closed is more a series of illustrative patches than a traditionally framed narrative. Actually, it is a book turned inside out, where the most important information is kept among the characters and is not disclosed to the reader. Perhaps readers should know what they’re getting into from the start, as the first chapter in this fast-paced book is a series of chess moves, beginning “1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4 d6” and continuing for nearly half a page. Chess does indeed figure into the narrative eventually, but not nearly as decisively as we are at first led to believe.
Ouředník’s true subject is twofold, with the novella’s mystery elements really more of a frame for the author, an opportunity or even motivation for Ouředník to write, rather than the real focus. Language is tested, explored and taunted throughout the novella, both in the characters’ lackadaisical and often pointless conversations, and in direct commentary from the narrator. At the same time, Ouředník takes potshots at the Czech national character, the country’s (lack of) progress since the fall of communism and its current place in the European Union.
“The Czechs believe that anyone who remembers dates can’t be totally stupid. The subtle insertion of historical dates into conversation testifies not only to a penetrating intelligence but a vigorous patriotism – twice as desirable at a time when Brussels technocrats were busy thinking up ways to trample the Czech nation under the bureaucratic wafflestomper of Europeanism. In short, the Czechs devote such passion to the memorization of dates that, apart from them, they don’t remember anything at all,” Ouředník writes.
Born in Prague, Ouředník has lived in Paris since 1984, where he has worked as a writer and French translator, publishing 12 books of fiction, essays and poems. His position gives him a unique perspective on Czech culture, and his education in avant-garde French theory and literature has laid much of the groundwork for his writing.
Case Closed is a book steeped in theory, in which the basic consents an author traditionally makes to his readers are ridiculed. Ouředník has nevertheless crafted a readable and entertaining experimental novella that blurs the borders of genre and toys with the meaning of meaning.