Sunday, January 8, 2012

More Czech Absurdity: Ouředník’s Case Closed

It would be an overstatement to say that I didn’t understand Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed (translated from the original Ad Acta by Alex Zucker)… but it would also be an overstatement to say that I know, for sure, for definite, what Ouředník wanted to say in this book about, ostensibly, some criminal acts and investigations. The book feels a little mixed up to me, with, perhaps, one too many subplots and thematic threads for its 143 short pages, but Case Closed is so funny—thanks to that Eastern European absurdity I love so much—that I was more than happy to just read along and laugh, writing ha ha in my margins. Which may, I think, be the point…
The most central character in Case Closed is one Viktor Dyk, a grumpy retiree who collects beetles, has written a forgotten novel, and generally dislikes people. He also loves inserting invented information into conversation:
“Dyk had a habit of pulling pronouncements out of his noggin and dressing them up with fraudulent, usually biblical, sources. Long ago he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country.”
Viktor, who’s been something of a ladies’ man, also loves analyzing the personals. A piece:
“None of them were attractive, but plenty of them had been told they were attractive, or were of athletic build (great, a discus thrower…). COME INTO MY VOICE MAIL, as one ad was headed, struck Dyk as near pornographic.”
I also got some good laughs about Viktor’s love of taking public transportation at rush hour so he can knock people on the shins with his cane. And belch, releasing odors.
Ouředník doesn’t limit himself to describing Dyk’s misanthropy: he also discusses language. Throughout the novel, Ouředník slips in lines like “For Dyk, Jr., though, it was further proof that language was useless, being utterly unfit for interpersonal communication.” Ouředník obligingly offers up, as proof, conversations with miscommunication. From another angle, we learn that writing’s not all Papa Dyk might have wanted since, “Writing novels turned out to be much less fun than collecting beetles.” And we read that novels and life are similar. The narrator says, “We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea,” and the thought thread about novels culminates, later, with this:
“By now our readers have definitively understood that they definitively understood nothing: what could be a more sensible conclusion to our novel that than? Acceptance of fate, acceptance of one’s lot, acceptance of one’s imperfection. How simple, how biblical!”

That is, of course, my favorite kind of inconclusive conclusion about books and life. I just want to add two things… First, there once lived a man named Viktor Dyk who was a poet and conservative politician. (See photo.) Second, I loved reading Alex Zucker’s energetic translation, which contains lots of word play. The translation has a nice balance of risk and the feeling that Zucker is in control of his material.
Also, a quick note on The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, which Harper released last week. The World We Found tells the story of friends, four women and two men, who went to college together in Bombay during the 1970s. They discuss a reunion of the four women when one of them, now living in the U.S., is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Though the novel contains some touching passages about relationships and the end of life, over all it felt predictable, even clichéd, particularly in the main plot line, in which one woman’s Muslim husband doesn’t want her to travel to visit her friend. I thought the interactions between the two man were the most interesting aspect of the book. Despite those misgivings, I should add that The World We Found was ideal reading when I was sick with a holiday cold.
Up Next: The Metamorphosis and The Meowmorphosis. Side note: I have to wonder if Dyk’s beetle collecting has anything to do with Kafka...
Disclosures: Thank you very much to Harper for sending me a review copy of The World We Found.
Image credit: Dezidor, via Wikipedia.


  1. Thank you, Lisa, for this lovely review. Most people who write about translated literature fail to engage with the translation at all. You offer an example of how it can be done, and for that you have my gratitude. Cheers! Alex Z.

  2. Thank you, Alex Z., for both your comment and your translation!

  3. This sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for the wonderful review. I will look out for it. For one can never have enough of Czech absurdity!

  4. I understand what you mean, Kinna, about Czech absurdity! I've always thought that if I were to learn another language, it would have to be Czech, so I could read this wonderfully crazy stuff in the original.