Through my people you shall know me: I, City by Pavel Brycz

It could be argued that the celebrated cities of the world – Rome, Paris, Vienna and others – owe their mystique to words of the poets who have walked their streets. But what of the humble, disregarded metropolises, where are their voices to be found? For Czech writer Pavel Brycz, his own love/hate relationship with the city in which he grew up inspired him to wonder how he might access the beating heart of a place more associated with crime and unemployment than romance. He decided to give the voice to the city itself, allow the city to express its affection for the souls residing within its boundaries, and the result, I City, is a work of melancholy tenderness.

CityMost is a city with medieval roots in the northwest region of the Czech Republic. Situated in the middle of the lignite mining region of Northern Bohemia, this fated urban centre has, since the mid 20th century, been associated with industrial development, pollution, environmental degradation, and the social problems that often percolate in similar communities. During the 1960’s, under the Communist government of the day, the historical old town was demolished to allow greater access to the lignite deposits lying beneath its foundations. Remarkably to preserve the late Gothic Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, dating from the 1500’s, the entire building was physically relocated 841 metres, a painstaking process involving 53 transport trucks set on special rails. Meanwhile, rows of uninspired housing constructed of prefabricated concrete panels were erected to house the relocated residents and the new workers who began to flood into the area. The personified city frames this event as indicative of its own nomadic spirit:

“Mine is a migratory soul. And one day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be somewhere totally different than you are today:
You’ve already experienced it once. Don’t you remember?
You looked on in astonishment as the church rode away.
Where does our faith ride? In which direction is our lack of faith headed?
To heaven or to hell, which is the destination of our future? Shhh…
Once before you watched the church slowly going, and the birds were off to the south.
You didn’t know what was behind it. Now, I’ll reveal it to you: I, city, unhappily, happy, hitched up invisible horses and dreamt of a promised land. And I dream about it still, incessantly.”

Through a series of “appearances” – short stories, fragments, prose poems – the city of Most tells its own history, through the stories of its children, young and old alike. And because it was leveled and rebuilt, these are timely, modern stories told with the magic of folktales. There are touching stories of love – kindled, sundered, missed by coincidence. There are the vagaries of youth – from the poetic angst of teenagers to the dreams of hockey glory in far off Canada. There are heartbreaking stories of the lost who return home, like that of the young woman who arrives on her parents’ doorstep after years of living rough in Prague and is welcomed without question; and of the lost who are lost for good, like the solemn lament for the young man whose mean life was cut short:

“He needed wings. He needed to wave at the world from high altitude. Now he’s gone. He sniffed Čikuli stain remover and flew off far away from me, though he lies dead on one of my streets. I, city, don’t know how to shed tears. Because of one boy, the rain won’t fall from the sky.”

The city, as narrator, loves its people, and, as such brings to life a place that is more than its industrial setting might reveal. Kafka, Pope John Paul II and other historical personages make fictional appearances, but it is the common person, the unadorned life, that gives the inanimate entity its pulse. Bohumil Hrabal, one of Brycz’s literary heroes comes to mind here, as his work likewise celebrated the lives of ordinary people.

For all the mixed emotions we often hold for the very places that shape us, Brycz has, in this unique novel, a created a city worth loving because it cares about its own, even if it is helpless to protect or change the fate of any one its citizens. It can only watch, listen and, at times, sit along side them:

“I am a city. I’m full of people. Nothing human is strange to me. I love people. But not because they are great.
I love them because they are small.
There are a lot of them, and they’re all lonesome.
Fettered, they yearn for freedom. They pray for immortality, and yet they don’t survive the touch of death, the Medusa jellyfish. They thought up money and they eternally lack it.
They explained their dreams and then they took sleeping pills.”

I, City, translated by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová, is published by Twisted Spoon Press.

14 thoughts on “Through my people you shall know me: I, City by Pavel Brycz

  1. The samples give a poetic sensibility that you allude to at the beginning e.g. ‘He needed to wave at the world from high altitude.’ It’s a pity that the narrator also patronises the citizens with sentimentality e.g. ‘I love them because they are small. There are a lot of them, and they’re all lonesome. Fettered, they yearn for freedom.’ Perhaps this is partly down to telling rather than showing. Your commentary reads better – plain, structured and limpid. Did you choose the excerpts to be representative of the book or to illustrate your points?

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    • I chose excerpts that I liked, to give a feel of the tone, most sections are only 2-3 pages long but there are a few longer pieces. Some include more formal verse. The city is always the narrator and continually aware of its emotional limitations. The section you read as patronizing I do not see that way, it not only reflects the kind of inspiration Hrabal drew from the people he traded stories with at the pub or worked alongside in factories, it is drawn of great compassion and comes out of one of the last sections. The overall mood of this book is one of melancholy, Most is a city that, at least in the 1990’s when this was written, was looked down upon by citizens of Prague (which is only 77 kms away) because it was seen as a “black hole” of crime and poverty, I would imagine the heightened sentimentality is intentional to contrast this.

      There is an interview with the author linked to the publisher’s site and when talking about his desire to give his hometown a poetic soul, he mentions that when thinks of Berlin it is through the lens of Wim Wenders’ and Peter Handke’s Wings of Desire. The soul or character of the city seems to me much like the angels charged to watch over the people of the city but unable to fully understand them without becoming human.

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      • > the kind of inspiration Hrabal drew from the people he traded stories with
        The idea that a city takes on a voice is an interesting-sounding device. It’s also a way for an author to stamp their impressions without taking ownership of them. Are those individual stories included? They would allow readers to empathise with them rather than the author’s views. For sure, not everyone in a city is criminal, but then again, not everyone is a particularly sympathetic character either. If Hrabal hasn’t included this balance then how is a reader to distinguish the book from a tourism brochure for the reluctant? I suspect that it can be in some way. How many authors take the trouble to speak up for a city?

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      • I think I confused the issue by referencing Hrabal – he was a well-loved Czech writer of the second half of the 20th c, the author of this book is Pavel Brycz and he is compared to Hrabal and writers like the Serbian Danilo Kiš.

        I would say the city has sympathy for all of the people it talks about, good or bad. The chapters are little vignettes and many would probably mean more if I knew more of the historical/social references (like the moving of the church which I discovered after reading and noting the first quote above). I would argue that in much central European lit like this the prevailing mood is one of sadness and quiet resilience, born no doubt of the history. This book doesn’t read like a tourism brochure, rather it reads like a lament.

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      • This would seem more in keeping with the cover. Giving the city a starring role sounds more unusual than it probably is. The main character in Lynch’s drama Twin Peaks is the town itself. It has that sense of Piranesi about it. Similarly, there’s a cut-offness to Oran in The Plague. But I sense that Brycz offers a witness more than defined edges that shape events.

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  2. Great review Joe. I love Twisted Spoon books (I have a couple) and I love things that get you looking at life etc in a different way. Sounds really, really unusual and clever – thanks for bringing it to my notice!

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  3. Beautiful review as ever, Joe. Your commentary reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago, Sidewalks, a series of short essays by the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli – locations, places and spaces feature heavily in her work, especially Mexico city.Have you read it by any chance? If not, I think you might enjoy it. There’s a review over at mine if it’s of any potential interest.

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  4. Another fascinating review. Couldn’t help but think of Dasa Drndic whose two novels in English both focus very much on place, while telling a number of stories using a variety of narratives. Have you read Trieste? I think you would like it.

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    • Thanks Grant. I did pick up Trieste after Christmas but have not read it yet (for someone who has had trouble reading lately I have been gathering up books like a squirrel hoarding nuts). Have you reviewed Trieste? I remember first reading it on someone else’s blog (don’t think it was yours).

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    • Czech and central European. The cover notes make comparison to both Bohumil Hrabal and Serbian writer Danilo Kiš. I think this may be the only one of Brycz’ works that has been translated but it sounds like he has written a novel that really sounds good. If you go to the Twisted Spoon website and look the book up you will find a link to an interview with the author. I found it very interesting. He is also a screen writer.

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