Jan Køesadlo - Mrchopìvci/GraveLarks (Maa, Prague,1999)

reviewed by Milan Kocourek

Milan Kocourek is a freelance journalist and author living with his wife and daughter in Walton on Thames, England. Born in 1946 in Liberec, The Czech Republic, he studied economics in Prague and in 1969 settled in Britain where he continued his studies at the University of Dundee (M.A.) and later got his M.Soc.Sc. from the University of Birmingham. Worked as a Research Assistant at the universities of Essex and Birmingham, in 1974 became a radio journalist with the Czech Section of the BBC World Service where he worked until 1998. His published work includes a history of London Sokols, a study of Soviet Rocketry and a short novel about the Hussites (Zrádce, Traitor). Contributes a weekly column to Lidové noviny (Prague newspaper) as their London correspondent.

Not many authors of fiction caution their readers in the narrative: ´...this book is somewhat disgusting in certain parts and this is about to happen now. If you wish you might easily skip this section with minimal damage to your understanding of the plot.....´. Jan Køesadlo does it twice in his masterpiece. In both cases what follows is a display of somewhat embarrassing behaviour of the main protagonists. Køesadlo´s honest and direct contact with his reader is one of the characteristic features of his writing. He wrote Mrchopìvci in Czech during his exile in England in the early 1980s and a doyen of the Czech literature Josef Škvorecký immediately snapped the manuscript up for his exile Czech and Slovak 68 Publishers in Toronto. It was a happy choice because Køesadlo received for Mrchopìvci the highly respected Egon Hostovský Prize in 1984, the same year in which the book came out.

Jan Køesadlo (the pen name for Václav Pinkava) was born in Prague in 1926 and died in Colchester a few months before his sixty-ninth birthday. In fiction he was a late starter, after a vexed as well as varied career in clinical psychology both in Prague and England. I knew him well as an enthusiastic leader of the London Sokol choir and I can say without hesitation that he was a man on the verge of genius in several fields. He had composed music and written essays in the field of logic as well as psychology long before he took up his pen or rather computer to try his luck in fiction. He was also an outstanding poet writing in Czech and classical Greek. Mrchopìvci is a partly biographical story set in Prague of the early 1950´s when Pinkava met his future wife in a church choir. Yet he would deny as he indeed did that he became a victim of politically motivated homosexual blackmail which is described in the book in some detail. The main protagonist, Zderad, is a gifted singer in a small male choir who sing at funerals - hence the title of the book. The behaviour of the individual members of the choir is selfish, materialistic and kafkaesque that when one of them (Tùma) dies, they could not care less where he was buried: ´.....what is certain that he couldn´t have afforded a funeral with singing and his life-long colleagues didn´t consider him worth losing the little money they could earn elsewhere at the time of this funeral....´.

The homosexual blackmail of which Zderad becomes a victim is the leitmotiv of the novel on which Køesadlo illustrates the essentially corrupting influence of Stalinism. It is often the case with the first work of a ´budding´ author that some themes become recurrent even in later works. Such theme in Mrchopìvci is sexual deviation which in fact was Václav Pinkava's specialisation in his field of clinical psychology. This theme reappears in several of Køesadlo´s dozen or so novels and books of short stories.

As a journalist but not a literary critic I can only declare my feelings about Køesadlo´s work and let others pass their professional judgement on it. I admire Mrchopìvci and his work in general immensely for its courage, honesty and mysticism, although I am well aware that Køesadlo has his detractors in print as well. When it comes to putting Køesadlo to some convenient artistic "box", or giving him some useful "label", then I can say that Køesadlo has been described as a "post-modernist" for instance by Karel Janovický, the Plzeò born musician and journalist living in London. Among other convenient labels is "neo-decadence" in the style of Ladislav Klíma. One thing is certain - whatever the "boxes" or "labels", Køesadlo is his own man which I believe could be shown as stemming from his virtual isolation in English exile at a time when he started writing fiction.

Mrchopìvci is the first of Køesadlo´s novels translated by his gifted family into English. The translation is superb, although I find the explanatory notes at the bottom of some pages often intrusive. It would probably be much better if they were placed at the end of the English version. The illustrations by Køesadlo´s Oscar-winning son Dr Jan Pinkava are superb. My favourite is a contour of Stalin´s face in the sky over the Žižkov mausoleum in Prague where the first Communist president Gottwald and one of the most dogmatic Stalinist leaders of all times was resting at the time of the story.

Køesadlo is a phenomenon which will survive many of us. And there can hardly be a better entry of his works into the new millennium than the English version of Mrchopìvci.

I sincerely hope that this is merely a start.

Milan Kocourek