Sunday, May 8, 2011

Experimenting with Life in The Guinea Pigs

Do you ever finish reading a book, close it, open it back up, page through to refresh your memory, close the book again, and then think (or even say out loud) “Huh?” That’s what I did when I finished Ludvík Vaculík’s Morčata (The Guinea Pigs), in Káča Pláčková’s translation from the original Czech; Open Letter is reissuing the book this month.

The Guinea Pigs is a cryptic, not-so-long novel about Vašek, a bank worker, and his relationships with his wife, Eva; two sons, Vašek and Pavel; mysterious co-workers, and their guinea pigs. The mindless repetition of arranging banknotes in the same direction – and probably other stressful aspects of living away from nature in Warsaw Pact Prague – gets to Vašek. Not only does he cuff his sons fairly regularly (and even throw rocks at them once!) but he begins to conduct odd experiments on the guinea pigs, late at night while he toils over bank paperwork. There are also problems at the bank: “And for that matter, why not admit it, we do steal.”

I could write about the abundant black humor and absurdity in The Guinea Pigs but, for me, the most striking aspect of The Guinea Pigs is the storytelling itself. Vašek (Father) tells his story primarily in the first-person, often directly addressing his readers and making us part of his world: on the second page he refers to “the brighter ones among my readers.” Two pages later he calls us “my dear young readers,” and on the next page he writes, “A viper, children, is a poisonous snake.” The story, as you’ve probably deduced, blackens tremendously over 180 pages, beginning as a darkly humorous tale and ending with an unexpected eleven-word sentence that completes the book perfectly, peculiarly. Please, dear people, if you read this book, do not look at the last page until you finish the book.

I read The Guinea Pigs as a Soviet-era scary folk tale of a novel that, though hardly a bedtime story, uses common motifs from fairytales. Trust me, this is the nifty part: it’s fun and instructive to look at how Vaculík incorporates into The Guinea Pigs many of the 31 elements that Russian scholar Vladimir Propp found in fairy tales. For example, Number 2, “Interdiction: the Hero Is Warned,” comes early on, when one of Eva’s young pupils predicts that someone (human or guinea pig?) in Vašek’s strange household will die. The girl is a storybook-like character herself, a seer who even knows Vašek carries guinea pigs in his pocket. Many of Propp’s other “narratemes” appear in the book, such as the classic Number 11, “Departure: “The Hero leaves on a mission.” There are also Vašek’s attendant quest for truths and discoveries of nasty things. Fairy tale-like elements, like a cottage outside the city, also turn up.

Of course fairy tale motifs are inherently flexible, and Vaculík works creatively, making Vašek a dualistic character – both hero and villain – someone who seeks the truth about strange goings-on at the bank even as he does horrible things to animals and his own family. Though Vašek can narrate (most of) his own story, he’s not fully in control of his destiny –none of us are, but he’s in the Soviet bloc, too – plus he has some complexes, too:

“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you’re the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it’s usually somebody who knows much less than you do.”

Vašek offers another take on free will later in the book, tossing out this gem of a line, “The only thing anybody can kiss, when I select a book of delicate poetry from the bookcase, is my ass.” He continues his rant about doing as he pleases, then asks, “Was this enlightened thought [about free will and its limits] what my colleague Karásek had in mind when he brought up the significance of guinea pigs?” Yes, I think it is. Vašek lets his mind wander freely as he picks his nose, comparing (I think) the peculiar meaninglessness of human lives and guinea pig lives. It all reminds me of a college classmate who referred to the Habitrail of her life, though she did not invoke the taboo of nose picking. In the end, the root of our limited free will is, of course, the old inevitability of death, foretold by the pupil – and it is death, too, that grounds this mischievous existentialist laugh of a novel about the experiment of life.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Guinea Pigs from Open Letter; the book is a May 2011 release. A big thank you to Chad Post!

Up next: I’m not sure.

Photo credit: Portrait of Fori, from rosym, via


  1. Damn. My review is coming for this and it's not nearly as smart as yours! I knew nothing about the 31 motifs....but wow, how cool is that? Will look it up.

    I am almost done and I seriously love this character (the Dad). It's so smart assed and sassy. The whole tone of it is unlike anything I've read lately.

    Loved your review, as always. Mine will be "The Guinea Pigs-for Dummies". LOL

  2. Amy, thank you, though you are far too kind: with books like this, I use the "write what you know" principle!

    I think the book's last sentence -- clearly not "they lived happily ever after" -- triggered me to think about Propp and the motifs. We studied Propp in grad school and he's really stuck with me. Catherynne Valente used Propp when she wrote Deathless -- she incorporates all sorts of folk/fairy tale elements into the novel. I can't wait to read it.

    Back to The Guinea Pigs: I also loved the voice/tone in the book -- of course I can't read the original but the translation has quite a balance between humor and nastiness. The rock throwing and the "kiss my ass" passages particularly stuck with me.

    I'm looking forward to reading what you write about the book!

  3. Hi, I found your review through Kinna's blog. I personally had a really hard time writing about this book, it was just so damn bizarre. I like your discussion on the ideas of free will Vaculík represents - I found The Guinea Pigs to be very Kafkaesque in that its characters are being controlled by forces they do not understand. In that respect, Vašek is not unlike his own tortured guinea pigs. Very odd book.

  4. Thank you for coming by, E.L. Fay! Yes, Guinea Pigs is certainly bizarre, the kind of bizarre I enjoy. For me, it felt oddly familiar, probably because of my Russian reading, though that didn't make it much easier to write about. I was glad to find that angle on the folk tale motifs -- it's interesting to see how Vaculík works those in combination with free will. Those folk/fairy tale characters don't have much free will!