The Quarterly Conversation (Jordan Anderson)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

Case Closed by Patrik Ouředník

By Jordan Anderson

The Quarterly Conversation, 22, 2011

The main character of Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed is like a creation out of the mind of Samuel Beckett, a writer whose work Ouředník has translated and whom he occasionally resembles. (In addition to being a translator, like Beckett, Ouředník also emigrated to France.) The book revolves around an aging man living in Prague named Viktor Dyk who is defined by a crude sense of humor, an obsession with bodily functions, and physical decrepitude. His chief intellectual pursuits are chess, amateur detective work, literature (he writes books under the name “Viktor Jary”), and, at an earlier stage in his life, the collection of beetles.

While such diversions initially seem like examples of dilettantism, they also reveal something much more serious; within the novel several seemingly disparate and humorous descriptions of games and pastimes become powerful ontological symbols of the political relationship between the individual and wider society, additionally serving as evocative allusions to a person’s pursuit of meaning in their own lives. A conversation between Dyk and a police officer, for example, draws out parallels between the isolated chess player and the political context of the civilization in which he or she lives, while also eliciting the worldviews of the two characters:

“Chess is war. Two armies squaring off”
“I wouldn’t say war.”
“More like slaughter.”
“You’ll have to explain.”
“A chess match isn’t about defeating an army, crushing an enemy. The goal is to murder the king. It’s the only way you can win, there’s no other path to victory. It’s Check mate: ‘The king is dead’. It comes from Persian. Theoretically, it can be done in two moves.”

This point of contrast between game and reality makes a fine analogy for Ouředník’s novel itself. As in chess, intellectual discourse beyond a certain point of exploration begins to reveal a sense of the inescapable violence that exists within society: one cannot create a work of art, so to speak, in an artistic vacuum; the outside world cannot fully be erased at any point, and is not diminished by the artistic process. This sense of an isolated part being inextricably linked to the whole is evoked at another point in the novel, when a man’s confession to a crime is given to the police and the necessity of a signature on the confession paper is likened by the criminal to the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which a portion of Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hitler; suddenly a relatively solitary, heinous relationship between criminal and victim takes on the wider implication of the invader versus the captured.

It follows that beneath descriptions of Viktor Dyk’s and others’ churlish behavior will also lie a remarkable commentary on themes such as social structure, the nature of literary production, politics, the history of the Czechoslovakia, and of human existence. Dyk’s pseudonym, “Viktor Jary,” for example, is a remarkably similar name to that of Victor Jara, the left-wing Chilean poet and songwriter who was brutally murdered after the military coup of the democratically elected Salvador Allende’s Marxist government. Jara was killed nearly forty years ago, in 1973, and Viktor Dyk is, in the novel, concerned with a murder that also occurred during this time; he looks for a copy of a book of his that was published under his pseudonym in 1974 or 1975, just after Jara’s death. Descriptions of communist Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan also bear striking similarities to the American occupation of that country (as well as to Russia’s occupation of Czechoslovakia), and to the involvement (however limited) of the Czech Republic in providing chemical weapons analysis in the escalation of the Iraq War. (Notes at the end of the translation also point out that Ouředník makes subtle reference to a 1620 “defeat of Czech nobles in an uprising against imperial Austria’s forces in the battle of White Mountain,” as well as of Jan Hus, a “Czech theological reformer, burned at the stake for heresy” in 1415.) These are mentioned in passing via a number game and mnemonic device by which one character connects dates with what seem to be absurd phrases, but that in reality take on much darker meaning when connected to events in Czechoslovakian history. Thus in the phrase mnemonic system the date 1620 becomes “Fear the night,” the date 1670 becomes “It was a teacher,” the year 1415 becomes “Burning log,” calling up the darkness of an existence in which knowledge is violently suppressed. Moreover, both chess and detective work themselves become remarkable metaphors for the process of literary creation (the novel begins with a chapter that is simply the literal transcription of chess moves, and nothing more). A very beautiful line within the narrative states that, “We are born into a novel whose meaning escapes us, and depart from a novel we have never once understood.”

These associations between an individual and his or her political context are heightened in Case Closed because of Ouředník’s concern – a concern much like Beckett’s – in demonstrating the fallacy of conflating failure in society with personal weakness. If we can say of Beckett’s character Molloy, for example, that he is a failure and an outcast, we can also say that society does not judge him as exemplifying these roles out of any sense of sincere morality but rather out of desire to further its own ends – that is, a non-ruling class must exist in order to reaffirm the necessity of a ruling class, and that the “lack” of values of the underclass must underscore the “responsibility” of the higher classes. In other words, if there are losers, so much the better for the winners who justify their existence by having “won” something from another person, however arcane, unfair, and lacking risk.

The narrator notes at another point that “There’s been nothing so far [in human life] to suggest that this is the end [of existence], just the same old sewer of wars, famines, idiotic murders and idiotic murderees.” He believes that the wider world is in an inescapable dark age that has never truly ceased, and ultimately Ouředník’s novel seems to depict a troubled world in which death is the only certainty. Yet beyond the novel’s disruptive political events, the narrator still reminds us that the natural world and death hold the ultimate “truths,” noting that “Abutting the church on the park side [where Viktor Dyk sits and thinks] was a small graveyard, which, remarkably, had withstood both communism’s enthusiasm for dismantling and early capitalism’s zest for construction”: even a new planned structure by Canadian industrialists will keep the graveyard intact. It is as though, through this memento mori, Ouředník is reminding us that, “This too shall pass.”