THE HANGWOMAN by Pavel Kohout
Kirkus Star


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Lizinka Tachezy, young and blonde and unable to fit into any secondary school program or training institute in the imaginary East European land here, is finally enrolled in a program for executioner-trainees. Tachezy père, a philologist, is aghast; Lizinka's mother, on the other hand, sees this as a chance for real advancement. Lizinka herself? Well, she's blissfully immune from start to finish, in addition to being the innocent erotic focus for the hangmen's Institute's two co-directors, Simsa and Wolf: both of them have a go at her nubile body and blank countenance. . . and both sort of succeed. This is a marvelously edgy scenario--and Czech novelist-playwright Kohout's suavest textures are reserved for contrasting the satire (the State's inhumane notions of education) with the fizzy, doors-bursting-open vitalities of sex comedy. Furthermore, Simsa's and Wolf's backgrounds as secret-police cadre and Nazi collaborator respectively make them into especially delicious tables-turned victims of their ingenuous student. And there are set pieces aplenty, like the class play (in verse) at graduation for the fledgling executioners: ""Before the engine run by steam/ Appeared the first beheading machine. Yet decapitation, as we shall see,/ Remained an art: voilà, scene three!"" Admittedly, there's also a good deal of belaboring: Kohout trots out every fact and source from his research on the history of torture and capital punishment--under the guise of the Institute's academic program. Yet the novel rarely subsides into the milkiness which allegory is prone to; instead it seems to become ever more specific. Flighty perhaps, but also close and relentless, this is the comedy of truly fierce farce --less intellectually ironic and beguiling but ultimately more powerful than the work of Kohout's much-praised compatriot, Milan Kundera.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1981
Publisher: Putnam