The best of modern Czech fiction, comic though it may be, is done in the grays of sarcasm, irony, philosophy; it can make you forget the great baroque tradition of Czech art, the overmuchness and the gilt and the gaiety. First-novelist Mon°kov†, now living in Berlin, makes you remember, though—in this spectacularly classic comedy that manages at once to be: a slapstick epic; one of the very few novels that credibly portray artists; and an astounding sweep in the highest spirits through Czech and Russian history. The ``M.N.O.P.Q.'' of the subtitle are three Czech art- academicians—Maltzahn, Orten, Podol—at work on restoring murals on the facade of a historic Bohemian castle; and two young resident scholars at the castle—Nordanc and Qvietone. The five, deciding on a group vacation to Japan, where Orten is invited to work on a mural, set out on a journey that lands them (thanks to impossible Russian travel arrangements and language-difficulties) in Siberia instead. With only their national hatred for the depredations of '68 to orient them, the group finds itself stuck in a Siberian think tank—Akademogorodok—that they've been brought to by accident; it'll finally take an amateur theatrical of Gogol's The Inspector General, and then a Czech-Russian hockey game, to win their release (this whole section being a brilliant revision of Kafka). Science, folklore, history, they rush over the book like successive waterfalls—punctuated by hilarious chases, brawls, and vaudevillian adventures. A book that makes most ``magic realism'' or ``pendanto- fiction'' (Eco, Pavic) read like five-finger exercises. You have to go back to Bellow's Henderson the Rain King to find a novel so exuberantly imaginative, high and low, bursting with such steam and intelligence.
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