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THE QUESTIONNAIRE

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Early on in Jiri Grusa's novelistic reply to an employment questionnaire, while Jan, the narrator, is descending the steps from his prospective employer's office, he begins "to have a dream, or vision, or premonition, as is my wont."
  In this vision, a faceless woman takes him up in an elevator to a pharmacy full of bottles and glasses:
    "The bottles had labels in Latin and Greek, yet for all their high-flown names they were quite common drugs, at least according to the woman (still faceless), busily pouring and decanting, until at last she reached for a green fluorescent vial full of deep-green liquid labeled Pharmakon athanasias. But as she was about to pour me some of this elixir of immortality I shouted and begged her to stop, because inside the vial there was another me, in the shape of a homunculus. But the woman continued to drain me of fluid until I felt myself gasping like a fish, suffocating."
"And so I went to see Olin," Jan continues matter-of-factly as if leaving for the dentist, to get an explanation of the vision. Deflating him quickly, Olin tells Jan he's becoming a nut. But something about this vision and the way it is told rumbles through this book. Jan is describing himself for the record, and in doing so drains himself of life, as if autobiography could only kill its narrator in the telling. The strange sense of what's happening, however, turns this story into a fable, in part of growing up under Nazi and Communist regimes, in part, of finding a place in the ancient and unstable world. It feels like alchemy.

Jan's life revolves around the Czech town of Chlumec and wanders back through generations and among his relatives creating a myth about the black eyes which have been passed down the women of his family. His story shifts kaleidoscopically blurring eras and blending ancestors with living figures, and living figures with fabulous creatures. The only books I'd compare it to are also so idiosyncratic as to defy comparison: Tristram Shandy or The Book of the Khazars or The Tin Drum. In any case, the comparisons miss the alchemical oddness of this novel which, like Rabbi of Prague, brings dead forms to life with a word.

Although it originally came out in 1982, and first came to notice as part of the Eastern European samizdat literature, The Questionnaire hasn't lost any relevance with the collapse of Communism. It serves nobody's didactic purposes, and for that matter, it just plain won't serve.

Last Updated on Friday, 29 July 2005 20:57  


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