Due to the trauma of reading Flowers for Algernon at too early an age, I am not a great fan of books narrated by mentally challenged protagonists. As a result, despite my quest to read all Slovak novels translated into English, this one was a bit of a struggle for me (but at least blessedly shorter than The House of the Deaf Man, which was a struggle for different reasons). What got me through it was taking it, as Kapitáňová evidently intended, as a prism for refracting the social and political difficulties facing Slovakia in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of communism (1989) and Czechoslovakia (1993); the Slovak edition of the book was published in 2000.
Samko Tále, the “autistic hairless dwarf” (thus the book jacket) who tells the story, was an ideal citizen of the former communist state but now is a floundering fish out of water. Lacking the intellectual resources to question or analyze the society around him, he reflects it back perfectly, devoutly. Conformity, order, homogeneity, obedience, and all of these things without question are his ideals. Nearly every episode he narrates—most of them many times over, with slight variations or embellishments each time—ends with something to the effect of “everybody said X, and I said X too.” Never was unity of mind and purpose so repellent as in Samko’s telling.
Of course, for the adept reader, it quickly becomes clear that nothing is as Samko thinks it is, and that’s the point. You grasp the sickness of the society precisely by the jarring contrast between what you can implicitly detect in Samko’s naïve telling and his own utter unawareness of the real deal. He speaks with profound admiration of “Karol Gunár (PhD Social Sciences),” who kept Samko out of a special school because Samko “had I.Q.” despite what everyone else said; but before long you realize Gunár actually did it because Samko made the perfect informer, quietly watching everyone around him and immediately tattling on anyone who departed in the slightest way from state-mandated conformity.
Samko also tells us again and again how hard-working and respected he is, and in an odd way, he really is a survivor who manages to keep going despite the radical transition in the regime. He and Gunár commiserate about this on occasion. But all around him other acquaintances vanish or die or wither away like the state was supposed to in the proletariat paradise. A writer named Alf Névéry who lives in Samko’s building dies for no apparent reason. Samko’s Uncle Otto simply disappears, even after having survived a stint as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, being locked up by his parents when visitors came by, and staging a campaign to save the world through mushrooms. Samko keeps promising to tell us how Gusto Rúhe put a curse on Erik Rak but never does, apparently because his fate was too terrible even for emotionally stunted Samko to deal with. At the very end we finally figure out that Karol Gunár’s daughter Darinka, who Samko is a little obsessed with, tried to commit double suicide with her teenage boyfriend Tonko—only to be ratted out by Samko and only to be saved, her alone, by her father’s intervention. He let Tonko plummet to his death anyway.
The death of people, the death of communism, the death of intellect, the death of many strands of the old ways including religion and political union with the Czechs: all of these are gathered up and buried in Samko’s “Cemetery Book.” Not that he realizes what he’s writing. The aforementioned Gusto Rúhe, a repulsive drunk who tells inscrutable fortunes in exchange for a drink or a grope, prophesied that Samko would write a “cemetery book.” The first page of the novel is Samko’s second-grader style essay on the literal local cemetery in short declarative sentences. The rest of the novel is his stream of consciousness trying to figure out what his task is, highly repetitive, almost like the stuttering of his own brain. He spits out every kind of slur imaginable, even more possible than elsewhere in Slovakia in the novel’s setting in Komárno, a border city that has seen its fair share of clashes between Slovaks, Hungarians, and Gypsies, and between Christians and Jews. By the time he’s told all he knows, Samko has done nothing to earn the reader’s affection and barely even pity.
But Samko is not really himself. He is only the cloudy crystal that refracts the dim light all around him. He is only a blank that other forces are coloring in. Kapitáňová has not written a novel so much as a political parable for a place in danger of forgetting all the hard lessons of the past century.