Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: A Guide to Broken Roads, by Jaroslav Kalac (Eleusinian Press, 2014)

December 14, 2014

Jaroslav Kalac’s excellent novel is, as the author admits in the preface, half memoir and half fiction, and though ostensibly an autobiography of childhood intercut with fantastical short stories, it’s harder than you might expect to see where the joins lie.

Young Jaro is the son of a Czech gas fitter whose most common interaction with his infant son is to ask him to smell his fist and to say what odours he detects. When young Jaro confesses his bewilderment at the mixture of gas, grease, working class food and beer he perceives, his father solemnly tells him, “that is the smell of the graveyard.” This is almost as intimate as father and son ever get, and certainly as Jaro gets older they become more estranged; furthermore, the mixture of the gothic and the real, the subtly symbolic and the strangely ominous in the exchange are typical of the whole book’s feel.

Jaro’s closest friend is his “aunt” Sabrina, originally maid, cook and servant to his grandfather before the latter lost his wealth and status to communism after the war. Sabrina was also a nanny of sorts to Jaro’s mother, and remains a family friend. By the time of Jaro’s childhood she is a widow who empties her chamber pot every morning on her violent, drunken husband’s grave, and lives with a family of fearsome and quixotic roosters that quite literally rule the roost.

If Sabrina’s life seems like some Eastern European fairy tale then she is also a font of such tales to young Jaro, and her symbolic stories capture his imagination and distract him from the dour and increasingly disturbing nature of his real life. Jaro’s troubles stem from his relations with his family and schoolfriends on the one side, and from the intrusion of the wider world of politics, ideology and racial tension on the other. These stories- of kings, goatherds and princesses, magic and dramatically changing circumstances- are interwoven with “true” family legends just as odd, resonant, tragic and poetic.

Jaro is six during the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Soviet invasion and Stalinist crackdown on Czech life, western influences and freedoms that crushes it. His Americanophile father decides that they must flee the country, but not, curiously to the States- “full of gangsters, and no place for a child,” the father declares- nor England (“full of homosexuals”), but Africa.

Consequently the second half of the book finds Jaro growing up in an unnamed African country in the 1970s, a white European dominated colony in which the native people do the hard labour then return to their unofficially segregated ghettos at night. When Jaro’s father (now working as a plumber) finds a black man loitering in the white suburbs after dark he beats and apprehends him and is hailed as a hero, for it’s obvious to all that the fellow was up to no good. Jaro of course attends an all-white school, and sees native Africans only from a distance; when he innocently attempts to interact with them by a wave or a smile he is warned that they will think he is mocking them. So the unmentioned apartheid is maintained.

An awkward adolescent and a Czech refugee, Jaro is temperamentally alienated from his peers, his teachers and increasingly his family, and feels an outsider in many ways. But any budding sympathy or identification with the Africans is muted by an awareness of the hatred and resentment he assumes they feel towards him as just another white oppressor. Black and white simply do not meet, and so while it’s regrettable that there are no black voices in a book half set in Africa, it’s also sadly realistic. The racial and political tensions mostly simmer in the background, occasionally flaring up dramatically as when the school bus is caught in the aftermath of a riot, or in mentions of an undeclared war raging somewhere in the north, which gives the book an almost Orwellian feel. The war (they don’t even know who is the enemy) presses closer as Jaro approaches conscription age. Through it all he continues his correspondence with the eccentric Sabrina, an unlikely voice of sanity in a world seemingly gone mad, although another ally appears when Jaro falls in love with a fragile English girl.

The accounts of Jaro’s life, often harsh and painful, often funny and awkward, are recounted in the same measured, carefully weighted tones as Sabrina’s folk tales and romantic parables. If Jaro’s letters to Sabrina seem to display a level of insight, self-knowledge and maturity unlikely in one so young, then it’s an acceptable concession to the poetic realism that unites the book. We allow that events recounted in letter form by the young Jaro are informed by the perspective of the middle-aged author recreating them, just as those events written as remembered by the Jaroslav Kalac of 2014 are tinged with a guileless niavete that denies hindsight and conjures instead the character and limited understanding of the boy experiencing them at the time. That limited understanding is not just a product of youth either; the unworldly Sabrina, living on another continent under a totalitarian regime, knows more of the wars and riots in Jaro’s adopted African homeland than are reported in that nation’s own newspapers.

Ultimately autobiography and fable, memory and missive intertwine as Jaro tries to find his way along the broken roads that must lead him out of childhood towards maturity, and hopefully freedom and self-realisation. A confident, masterly creation, Kalac’s book unites several shameful strands of twentieth century history behind the personal, universal story of a young boy’s growing up. The fairy tales and parables never explicitly mirror the real events, but merely prove that human jealousy, stupidity, greed and aggression are eternal, and not confined to any one time, place, people or worldview. They also suggest that sometimes, with both luck and wisdom on one’s side, good and innocence can, if not triumph, then at least sometimes rise above their always oppressive circumstances.