Peter Krištúfek, The House of the Deaf Man, trans. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Cardigan: Parthian, 2014), 629 pp.
This should have been a great work.
It certainly is grand in its ambition: a retelling of Slovakia’s history from the rise of fascism in the 1930s up to the present, almost a century in all, from the perspective of one family. Big, epic historical fiction renders the distant past rivetingly present and aims to overturn the convenient and cheap moral judgments we place on our ancestors by illustrating the agonies of their decisions without the benefit of our hindsight.
Krištúfek was clearly going for this kind of effect. The “deaf man” in the story is the narrator Adam’s father Alfonz (and also a series of paintings by Goya, though I had a hard time seeing how they related to the various chapters that were named after them). Alfonz is a small-town doctor who is overtaken by events and makes his own quiet compromises with them, gradually growing deaf, a symbol of his refusal to confront and protest the political, social, and personal carnage around him.
There’s no doubt that Slovakia’s twentieth-century history offers a fantastic backdrop for a novel. First the rise of the clerico-fascist state in the 30s, followed by the Nazi puppet state during World War II, which concludes with the Slovak National Uprising. (It failed, but rather ironically that was due more to the deliberate Soviet failure to follow through on its promises of assistance—so it alone could be Slovakia’s liberator—than due to Nazi pushback.) Three brief years of something like democracy follow before the Communist putsch in 1948. A decade of Stalinism and show trials, followed by a decade of relaxation leading up to the Prague Spring (which had a Bratislava Spring counterpart), only to be crushed by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact nations, flattening Slovakia into twenty years of “normalization” in which nobody believed but everybody pretended the socialist state was working. Then comes the round of revolutions through the Soviet bloc starting in 1989, a very bumpy transition to democracy, and a market that is not free in all the wrong ways. Exciting stuff!
A challenge to an English-language reader is that, unless you already knew all this, you’d have a hard time making heads or tails of what’s going on. This is not a defect per se; after all, Krištúfek was writing in Slovak, for Slovaks, who presumably already know their own story. Most of the references are pretty allusive, though. If you didn’t already know the significance of, say, Rudolf Slánský, the passing mention of his rise and fall wouldn’t mean anything to you, and nothing more is said of him. (NB: he was the secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and arbitrarily sentenced to death on Stalin’s orders, along with ten other high-ranking Party members, all but one of whom were Jews. Stalin hated Jews every bit as much as Hitler did.)
This problem could be passed over if not for a more fundamental problem: the novel just plain lacks any emotional movement. I never at one point in its 629 pages cared in the slightest what happened to anybody.
Partly this is because of the sheer number of characters, most of whom remain undeveloped. But even the principal characters are unengaging, and I had no real feeling for the narrator’s personality. Women are virtual non-entities: either a vague and complainy mother, or bodies that are sexually conquered. The narrator exclaims his love for his first wife but doesn’t tell us a single thing about her, and his second wife is mentioned in passing, as if a total zero. I have learned to live with the underwhelming attention paid to female characters in books of earlier eras, but it seems borderline unconscionable to so thoroughly ignore half the human population in a book written in the twenty-first century. We are also supposed to care about the fate of the narrator’s best friend Vojto and the friend’s father, who as a fighter pilot shot down Russians before switching allegiance and shooting down Germans, but again—meh. Even the apparent suspense of the narrator finding human bones in his father’s backyard should have titillated one’s excitement, but it was so poorly and infrequently mentioned that I don’t even remember who it turned out to be, or if the fact was revealed at all.
In the end, this historical novel turned out to be guilty of the charge laid against history itself: it’s just one damn thing after another.