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Czech fiction often involves either bureaucratic comedy or astrological/theosophical metaphysics--and both of those tendencies are fully indulged here. While filling in the items on a governmental questionnaire, narrator Jan Chrystostomos Kepka--a native of the town of Chlumec, an artist and self-professed ""chrononaut""--executes a series of dizzying sweeps through his personal history. Everything is put on the plane of intimate quasi-philosophical significance, with farce always as the undercurrent. We hear about: Jan's birth (""I kept sliding and twisting and I kept saying to myself: My God, why is my head so big, and I closed my eyes even tighter, tighter, I felt even more keenly how Mother's innermost flesh was sliding past me, I felt how I was freeing myself, how my cheeks pushed upward against my very eyeballs. . .""); his education; the overrun of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis; the Kepka family's post-war beer business; Jan's love with girlfriend Erna Klahn; his loss of innocence--lightly and exhilaratingly told--with Erna's widowed piano-teacher mother; the arrest (by the Russians) of eccentric Uncle Olin; finally, inevitably, the 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring. And, throughout, more starkly metaphysical beads--including digressions about infinite perspective and the metempsychosis of cats--are all very deftly and delicately strung into Grusa's narrative. Still, despite its lighthearted intricacy, this novel too often seems like a large parenthesis, terribly oblique--without the extravagant historical billows that made Salman Rushdie's similar, more easygoing Midnight's Children such a success. Subtle and acrobatic work, then, but also too vagrant, too unraveled for sustained pleasure.

Pub Date: June 28th, 1982
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux