Thursday 2 July 2020

Running Away With Petr Král

In Search of the Essence of Place, by Petr Král.

"In Search of the Essence of Place", Petr Král, Pushkin Press, 2012
The Afterword by the 2012 translator from the French, Christopher Moncrieff, says this book is "like walking a tightrope: we have to keep our eyes fixed firmly ahead, on the future, while remaining conscious that the past is breathing down our neck, that the slightest slip will send us tumbling into the abyss of the East or the West which lie on either side."

Books don't tend to come in for a traditional review about these pages, in spite of the promise to furnish the virtual handbag with Something to Read, and indeed their infrequency would suggest I've forgotten my creed. Not true, Dear Reader! It's just a matter of time before some words and pictures will come your way to indicate I've been been busy in that department and today's the day for picking over the tailings of a book I read some goodly while ago.

Lungfish at the Sydney Aquarium
"Isn't the viaduct just a bridge that should have been a Hôtel Continental,
while the essence of the bowling alley lies,
not within itself, but in the first gas tank he saw?"

In spite of my rather catholic taste in reading, any work by the Czech Surrealist poet Petr Král is not what I would traditionally reach for, but I've been mulling over this book for ages, and as I've discovered that he died only a couple of weeks ago, and there is an utter dearth of material about him on the interwebs, I have to set down some basic detail. (Nota bene: This assemblage of words and pictures are mostly random and incongruous, in small tribute to him. Proceed with caution.)

Photo of Pupils at Rachel Reynolds Kindergarten, South Dunedin, about 1919

For that is what I can only provide. This book is classified by me as a Hard Read. Every dozen pages or so, there is a glimmer of understanding to be had from his writing. The language is simple, yet the meaning is elusive and opaque, and mostly reads like gibberish. Unlike the similar density of, say, Patrick Leigh Fermor, where each page requires a dictionary consultation, this book should be an easy read, but when it's the work of a poet, and a Surrealist at that, it becomes rather a labour.

Photo of Pupils at Rachel Reynolds Kindergarten, South Dunedin, about 1919

And yet I persist, as not only did I buy this for an apparently forgotten reason, from an independent publisher I admire, but from time to time some shape emerges in the corner of my mind and I nearly feel like I know what's going on and what he's trying to say. But mostly I'm thinking, what in the heck is going on here? Conclusion: you'll be getting none from me.

Photograph of 1930s powerpoint and yellow Art Deco kitchen tiles

What do I know? Our protagonist, "the explorer", walks the streets of Prague and Pilsen and Paris, and brushes up with America, although I never quite figure out if he is supposed to have gone there. He's a flâneur, looking to find the potential in places, the untapped energy. He walks mostly alone but later with an accomplice who is searching for coincidences. 

Photograph of a street sign in Prague with a door and a decorative Medusa
"So he decides that the only thing to do is to keep this gesture for himself; instead of reproaching the world for its lack of substance, he should just return this lack of substance to it by stuttering politely with it, helping it dig itself deeper into the morass of its shortcomings so he can rub its nose in them. "Once she had fallen asleep I called it Cézanne," he boldly exclaims. Rarely had he known his words be so conclusive."

Coca-Cola neon sign in Sydney's Kings Cross
"It is the impenetrability of things, the fact we can never quite understand them, which forces us to discuss them. Faced with their suffocating self-importance we too are left speechless; the barriers that things erect to stop us talking about them, from illustrating our descriptions with an example or an image - even an amusing one - reduce what we say to a stream of impressions and emotions, pointless gestures or peals of wild laughter. Lacking the space to make itself heard, language only sends signals, and any long-term prospects it might have had collapse like a house of cards."

Dreams and a "kingdom of thistles"; characterless buildings and cheerless rooms; dusty shopfronts and a tailor's dummy feature quite large. It's far from glamorous, despite the locations. If the book was a film, I read, it would've been directed by Wim Wenders. This is all I know. The rest just confounded me.

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues still life painting, "A Thistle and a Caterpillar", circa mid C16th
"In impenetrable wasteland lies a kingdom of thistles
caves of old feelings now left speechless
like the sparkle of your snakeskin
Light years languishing in the lava of the sun
endlessly decanted hardening day by day
like old dry tables withering
or ink-stained slops f
rom washtubs tossed among
the nettles"

But a memory of a sort of recurring dream I had as a child magics into my conscience half-way through the book. A waking dream, to set off to sleep to, where Teddy, (whom you've met before around these pages) and I would set out at night from our reed-hidden and rustic little cabin on an island in the middle of the Lake in Our Nation's Capital in a little rowboat, à la Ratty & Mole on the River, and with a magic brick in our possession which conferred both the necessary invisibility and the ability to, ahem, procure supplies from the shoppes. (Without going into the detail of this dream of wanton vandalism, which doesn't sit comfortably with me at this long remove, I do need to reassure the Reader that I was not a delinquent!) It is evident, though, that not wanting to leave the shelter of my beloved family but subconsciously understanding that Adventures only ever happen in children's books when the protagonists are orphaned, this little dream of escape could be the chicken's way of running away from home with trusty Teddy but being safely back in my own bed, come morning. Petr Král may yet still have approved..

Image from "The Wind in the Willows", Kenneth Grahame
"And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!"
Mole dreams long waking dreams.

Petr Král, Prague, 1941-2020

Image credits: 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9: Flying With Hands; 3, 4: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum; 7: Sotheby's
Quotations: 1-5: "In Search of the Essence of Place'; 6: "The Wind in the Willows"


  1. Thank you for this Pip. It took me three reads but I got there in the end. I followed it up and found an of interest the translator Moncrieff too. Many translations to his name. Kral was quite a prolific writer but not that much translated into English. I've got a funny feeling that Kral will fall into my hands when I am not expecting him.

  2. Rachel: You're a trooper, Rachel! Congratulations on getting through this post as it's certainly not to everyone's taste. But it's good not to be taken unawares by him when you inevitably trip over him soon! I do suspect Král is much better known than his internet presence suggests - the Anglo-centric literary world we usually inhabit is a handicap at times - else the publishers wouldn't go to such effort. Moncrieff's accompanying essay was lavish but really left me none the wiser, as I usually paddle in the cheap & shallow end of the cultural pool.

  3. I like it here and hope for lots more slightly inaccessible and interesting pointers.
    I also like the commonplaces, I do that sort of thing myself but only for myself.

    I also like your name, we have just had a bat survey and lots of pipistrelles are hiding in roosting spaces in a nearby barn. They come swooping out at dusk and pick off insects from the ancient and gigantic beech tree in my garden.

    (I have decided to follow you, if I didn’t I’d probably not find you again which would be a shame)

  4. This sounds like a book I will probably never read. I rarely venture too far from books I feel comfortable reading which probably sounds boring but books I can't understand toy with my sanity :)

  5. Friko: Hello and welcome! The blogging byways do throw up surprising corners so I'm gladdened to read you found something to like in this cul-de-sac I tend to ... Pipistrelle don't live around this condominium but we play host to a small colony of flying foxes who arrive at dusk to feast upon the native figs and leave again around dawn, having left the cars and driveway in a right old state. Not as endearing as your insectivores but quite a sight, nonetheless ... I'm off now to have a trundle around your own blog.

    Loree: I suspect you are in the majority there! I did persist with it because I'd bought it at some point for an unremembered reason, which is fairly unusual for me because I'm as tight as a jam-jar lid these days and only buy things I'm really keen to read, so felt I had to. It was leavened with some much lighter reading afterwards!

    I HOPE YOU AND THE ITALIAN ARE WELL...............we just celebrated 34 years!

  7. Contessa: Yes, I did see on you'd had an Anniversary, as did we! 34 is a great number. Brava! We're sitting at a respectable 23, haha!

  8. I am afraid I probably wouldn’t finish it ! Not because I wouldn’t like it but, I’ve got about three books on the go at the moment .... I am a good reader and quite fast but, I am finding it hard to finish books lately. I’m usually doing stuff during the day and, being a good sleeper, if I read in bed, I’m asleep after a few pages ! It was our anniversary on the 3rd July ..... 44 years !!! XXXX

  9. Jackie: I hear you on the bedtime reading! Sometimes I limp along with just one eye for an extra page or so but it's Hard! Yes, those (northern) summer weddings are popular. Congratulations on 44!! xx

  10. Whenever I see the name Patrick Leigh Fermor, I always think of his recipe for Moussaka; which was reckoned to be the world's best.

  11. Cro: There's a bit of word association I'd never have guessed!


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