In previous reviews I’ve been pretty hard on literary novels lacking action and only following in the vaguest and most unsatisfying way the meandering thoughts of the protagonist. So I’m especially happy to report that Pavel Vilikovský’s Fleeting Snow has singlehandedly redeemed the literary novel for me.
First up for praise is the language: this short novel is beautifully but also vividly and playfully written. Much credit should be given to the translators for their excellent work, not least of all in the sections where the characters discuss rare and evocative Slovak words—not the easiest thing to pull off in a second language! The story is told in the first person, granting us intimacy with the narrator’s thoughts as they range from matters philosophical to historical to painfully personal—and yet always expressed light-heartedly. It’s not an easy juxtaposition to pull off, but Vilikovský has done it.
A second point of praise is the structure of the book. Rather than forcing us to flounder along, uncertain of where exactly the narrator’s thoughts are going, Vilikovský has divided the book into five sections—not sequentially, though. Each of the five sections has lettered subsections that do proceed in sequence (§2 for example goes all the way to t), and they are interwoven throughout the book, signalling five principal themes or mini-plots to follow. As the map to the sections at the outset of the book remarks, the twining of the sections can be thought of as “suggesting a number of musical motives that flow together toward a finale.” And they do—powerfully, heartrendingly.
And as for the “plot” itself: it is not so much action as gradual revelation. Two main counterpoints stand in relationship to the narrator. One is Štefan Kováč (an extremely common name in Slovakia), the narrator’s “monozygotic step-twin,” which is by definition impossible. You’re never quite sure if Štefan is actually the narrator’s alter-ego, and Vilikovský admits in an interview appended at the end of the novel that he’s not quite sure, either. The only name we have for the narrator is Čimborazka, a delightful bit of Slovak nonsense he made up for himself because he felt alienated from his own legal name. But you always suspect that maybe his real name, and identity, is Štefan Kováč. Which is all the more intriguing because the two men have opposite personalities and are usually quarreling over their respective soullessly scientific and flagrantly speculative views on the world.
The other counterpoint to the narrator is his wife—who, in keeping with the book’s twining themes, also has multiple names. Officially Magdalena, she is sometimes also Magda or Lienka or Duška (another diminutive option) but then, as we and the narrator realize that dementia is setting in, Agrafia and Eugénia and possibly even an alter-ego that she has made up for herself too, an Alica. It is her memory loss that drives the underlying drama of the story.
Are you still the same person, accountable to the same name, if all your memories are gone? What if new memories have been invented by your brain to take their place? What relationship between the same body and the entirely altered consciousness and personality that results from memory loss? And what does that suggest even about those whose memories appear to be fully intact?
Exploring these kind of questions is the highest art of the literary novel, and Vilikovský pulls it off spectacularly.