One of the more persistent cliches concerning post-communist Prague calls it the “Left Bank of the ’90s,” as if its pubs and cafes were dry tinderboxes of aspiring writers just waiting for an inspirational spark. Accurate or no, this comparison with Paris of the ’20s and ’30s has added a glow of romance to the otherwise thankless pursuit of literary fame. It’s a myth that’s prevailed despite the lack of either a “Prague school” of writing or the emergence of a talent capable of producing an In Our Time or a Tropic of Cancer. But in fact, Prague’s community of foreign writers is only just beginning to be heard.
As the first serious work of fiction to focus on the American expatriate experience here, Richard Katrovas’ book, Prague, USA, may bear a burden of expectation it doesn’t deserve. The 12 stories collected here, written during the first years following 1989’s “Velvet Revolution,” all attempt, in the author’s words, “to represent the odd love affair between … the people of a tiny country with an ancient culture, and the lost and searching souls of a huge nation whose commercial culture of eternal newness floods the globe.”
The goal is an admirable one, rich with unexplored possibilities, but a first glance at the book’s uncompelling layout and insistent use of bold in place of italics keeps expectations low. The first piece, “The Mothers,” is no more encouraging than the design. An examination of one American couple’s marriage as it erodes beneath an unfamiliar European sense of morality, the story is ambitious but clumsily realized. Its prose is inconsistent, at times even amateurish: “Oscar found her laughter offensive, and suddenly found her perfect body offensive, and offensive, too, her lack of solidarity with the people, and told her so as inoffensively as he could.” Add to this some poorly integrated Czech, and the book gets off to a shaky start.
But Katrovas’ hand grows more sure in the second story, “King of the Invalids,” an amusing look at the battle of wills between an American academic and an old-guard Czech determined to keep vacant his official, albeit unused, parking space. Though the American’s musings on Czech society often reach heights of academic absurdity, a final twist transforms a sometimes dry polemic into a melancholy reflection on the hidden humanity beneath even the most inhuman-seeming behavior.
“I Love Your Country!” raises the humor quotient by taking the form of a letter to Vaclav Havel, written by a clueless but well-meaning young playwright intent on sitting down for a chat with the president himself. Exhibiting a cartoonlike naivete (“I notice Czech men drink a lot of beer. Do you have AA here?”), this is an entertaining, often wincingly accurate portrayal of the excessive idealism and ignorance of so many young Americans in Prague.
Katrovas’ strength is as a mimic; his enormous spirit of empathy seems to demand he come to terms with his milieu by inhabiting the skins of its participants. This allows for a mosaic of distinct voices which gives even the most devilish their due – men, women, former communists, even a bigoted, thick-skulled Marine. But sometimes the characterizations come off flat and self-serving. This is fine in the case of “I Love Your Country!” where parody is the goal, but a more serious and ambitious piece like “The Troll” suffers from making its Marine protagonist too black-and-white. Ned’s slowness and bigotry seem contrived to allow easy jabs at the military mentality, while providing a soapbox for the story’s title character, a Czech dwarf both enamored of and repelled by things American.
At other times the author wears his education on his sleeve, letting his characters speak his themes in direct, overly intellectual terms. This can make stories like “The Troll,” “Ms. Bentley” and “Why We Hate the Germans” seem more like thinly veiled treatises than artfully crafted fictions. The arguments are interesting and well-articulated, but narrative and character are sacrificed for the sake of making the story’s point.
The strongest pieces use irony, humor and unexpected poignance to convey their message. “Letter From Prague” examines a 40-year-old woman’s attempt to make sense of the passing years and add some meaning to her life. Prague, she hopes, will provide her with “a measure of reflective calm.” The story’s wry observations and sad sense of disillusionment are captured in some of Katrovas’ strongest prose. (“I’ve never known a place filled less with threats than sighs, but as I took my first obligatory jet-lagged jaunt from Frommer-charmed spot to spot, I felt a dreary, abiding humor apologizing in whispered tones for so much feminine majesty in manly European drag.”)
The book’s comic highlight is “Interviews in Prague,” which portrays the ironies of the American “occupation” with a sly, absurdist edge. Les is a recent college grad interviewing former Czech dissidents for an American literary journal. Pavel, his latest subject, quotes American rap lyrics and Dr. Seuss, refusing to respond in the somber, sincere tones expected of him. “Our fates,” he says, “have been and always will be determined by others. If Germany sneezes, we are wracked with fever. If America farts, we must change our diet … . We are a few million people, a patch of berries in a great forest. Indeed, our national identity is absurd.” Post-revolution giddiness is giving way here to weariness and disillusion. “Now that so much of America has come to me,” Pavel says later, “I frankly am filled … with a terror which only the most orthodox religious people must feel.” He instructs the baffled Les to go observe a fellow American performing on the Charles Bridge, and to “tell me what it is I fear.” Les goes and finds himself drawn into a hilarious confrontation with the “Mechanical Man,” an American mime as resistant to Les’ probing as Pavel is.
In reading this book, one wishes a stronger editorial hand had helped Katrovas shape his material to more elegant effect. This isn’t an In Our Time for the ’90s, but Prague, USA does present a promising writer of intelligence and wit who answers the question “What makes Us so different from Them?” with enough illuminating insights and historic color to make a read worthwhile.
Richard Katrovas is Education Director of the Prague Summer Writers’ Workshop. This book is published by Portals Press, New Orleans, and is available at the Globe.