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City, Sister, Silver

A book by Jachym Topol

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More inferno than paradiso--inside the post-mod dreamworld

  • Jun 19, 2003
This novel shows you surprisingly little about the postcard Prague; rather, it delves into the mental dregs and physical flinches of a narrator who takes us into his and his friends' hallucinations, nightmares, visions, and haunted tales. Comic book knights, Bohemians in the ancient sense of the word, a curious order of Catholic (?) sisters, Native American legend, trash-heap denizens, a forest journey in the Ruthenian mountains in which our hero and his love stumble into the Warhol(a) Museum, Laotian refugees, tender lovemaking, lots of violence, and most notably an extended visit from Mr. Novak and the field of bones at Auschwitz are among a few of this book's highlights.

It feels like, as reviewers remarked, Clockwork Orange (in its vocative mood, its frequent addresses to its audience, and in its linguistic/philosophical-theological, and urban melanges) meets Trainspotting (drugs galore, incoherence, muddly plotline, and dialects beyond counting). You'll lost track of who's who and what's what, but this may be intentional on Topol's part as he recreates the world of illusions, or my difficulty with a rather alien Central European host of allusions. Sheer love of storytelling doggedly pushes you on. Topol creates his own original novel, and the strange beauty mixed in with endless goings-on that stretch over 500 closely printed pages lull you into an hypnotic state of altered consciousness when you plow on through this daunting text.

Keep going, give in to the flow, and the book will take you in if you're patient. Alex Zucker's introductory notes help non-Czechs gain a rough background for what we can expect, and the fact that the prose moves so well, so densely, and so vividly attests to his and Topol's considerable skills. I predict even better work from their future collaborations. Although it's a difficult book to handle in its Pynchonesque, Joycean ambition, it rewards you with hundreds of vignettes, miniature scenes pulled out of reveries and terrors for our delight and instruction. A more serious book at its core than the punkish surface may let on, the respect for mercy, faith, and humanity beneath the mayhem and alienation reminds us that the search for enduring values persists in the most unlikely fictional and factual terrains. And, like Dante at his quest's end, somehow he sees and does not see his Beatrice again. At least that's my guess. See for yourself. This book marvelously conjures up images from its descriptions, and you too drift through space.

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #48
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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About this book


First published in 1994, Topol's ambitious, challenging debut, hailed in the Czech Republic as the major novel of the post-communist period, chronicles city life after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In pointillist, elliptical prose, Topol aptly captures the period's social dislocation, and the hallucinatory quality of even everyday experiences. The first section, "City," introduces the narrator, Potok, a former actor, who is firmly entrenched in that cultural zone extending from dissidence to petty criminality, with stops in all the trendy cafes along the way. He witnesses the fall of communism with his girlfriend, She-Dog. He also becomes a member of a gang dealing in real estate and smuggling, putting him in touch with foreigners passing through Prague. She-Dog's disappearance sets up Potok's quest for his lost love in "Sister," the second section. His gang breaks up, but he finds She-Dog's look-alike, a singer named Cern . Their love affair ends brutally when Potok is accused of strangling She-Dog. The dark, last section, "Silver," shows Potok descending to the lowest level of Prague society, ending up in the city dump with a group of bums who are stalked by a mad killer. Topol's vision, which shows influences of Dante's Inferno and Meyrink's The Golem, is authentically punk. His language compounds slang, Russian and Czech, which, as Potok explains, is "raw post-Babylonian, the way I heard it on my wanderings through the past, present and future." It achieves a level of ...
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ISBN-10: 0945774435
ISBN-13: 978-0945774433
Author: Jachym Topol
Publisher: Catbird Press

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