Prague at the end of the nineteenth century. Bohemia is part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and there is social and political unrest in town between patriotic Czechs, who are more and more getting active and striving for independence, and the German speaking population, who holds the power and in between them both are the Jews. There are fierce disputes about the language that has to be used in the civil service: next to German also Czech is acknowledged as an official language in the civil service. There are riots in the street, martial law is proclaimed and the Austrian secret police is infiltrating the Czech reform movement. Besides that the centre of Prague has to undergo a radical redevelopment, which will lead to the complete destruction of the so-called Jewish quarter. Complete new buildings will arise along Paris like large boulevards.
In this setting, when machines are starting to demolish houses and there is turmoil in the streets, we meet Adi, count Arco, who lives in the centre of Prague. A young man in his thirties, not interested in politics or whatsoever, comfortably living from an apanage, a financial allowance. He left the estate of his parents in the countryside, not willing to live there or to be subject to an arranged marriage, and went to Prague. Adi is a kind of an idler, lacking a real goal in life, he has several concubines, visit brothels, drinks absinth in pubs, and likes to fence with real swords with his Jewish friend Soli (Solomon). And he is very good in fencing. He has just one problem and that is his health, he suffers from a lung disease, can’t stand the dirt and dust in the streets which gives him attacks of terrible coughs. The wisest would be for him to cure in a sanatorium, but of course that is out the question: he wants to enjoy life with his friends, with his concubines, in the brothels and pubs in the Jewish quarter.
The book sets of when Adi is attending the funeral of one of his girlfriends, who died from the misery in the Jewish quarter. He ponders upon the redevelopment and has his strong doubts about it, because it would affect his way of life considerably. Also he realizes that not the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter will profit from it, but the rich, the banks, the developers, the hot shots of the town council. The redevelopment is advocated by doctor Preininger, who emphasizes the deplorable hygienic state of the Jewish quarter, where diseases roam and people live in unhealthy circumstances, where rats enjoy their paradise and none moral principles are upheld.
Shortly after that Adi hears rumours about a beautiful, young Jewish girl, Berenika, a Jewish princess is said, who has come into town with a so-called uncle. This uncle apparently plans to sell her, most likely to a brothel, but he is also on the run from loan sharks. Adi is intrigued by these rumours and makes an effort to find her and then he buys her, preventing her being sold to a brothel. He buys her new clothes, sends her to school and makes love to her a couple of times. In the meantime Adi receives a telegram from his cousin Mani, who lives in Austria and announces his arrival in Prague, where he would like to stay for a while. Mani offers Adi a new kind of medicine, a heroic medicine as he calls it, a pill with heroin, which gives him very much relief and his coughing attacks disappear. When Adi hears about a doctor who is temporarily in Prague and who can provide these pills, he decides to look him up and buys his complete stock. He has enough pills now to last for over ten years and gets addicted to them.
Adi decides to buy a new house in Prague, a house that is at the outskirt of the Jewish quarter and should be spared from the redevelopment. In order to raise money he starts to sell the heroic pills, thus becoming a drugs dealer. In a short span of time he has enough money to buy the house, where he will live with Berenika and with one of his concubines, Gita. He even has money left to send to his father, who begged him to support him financially for the good cause of the Czech patriots. All during that time several prostitutes are cruelly murdered in het Jewish quarter, apparently some kind of monstrous person is raging around. It is a monster out of Jewish fairytales, a kind of bogey man, known under the name Kleinfleisch (Small Flesh), who was used by parents to scare children. Now however it seems that the monster Kleinfleisch really exists, Adi has even seen him in the dark and saw a hideous face full of raw flesh and blood. Adi gets involved with the investigation of the police, because he often is at the scene when a murder takes place, and because they have taken place in his Jewish quarter.
After a while the town council announces that Adi’s freshly bought house will be demolished after all and he gets offered compensation. Adi however refuses, also because he has got official papers, stating that his house would be spared. He sees that as a great injustice and thus gradually gets sucked into the various political games. He makes a stand against the redevelopment and the demolition of the Jewish quarter, against the corrupt politicians, and during a public meeting in the town hall, where the local politicians once again defend their plans for redevelopment, he insults several of them by slapping them in the face with a glove. Soli, who was with him, gets arrested and is put in jail and Adi himself is challenged to a classic duel by the vice-mayor. In the night before the duel, the monster Kleinfleisch breaks into the house of Adi, Adi succeeds to wound the monster with this sword, after which Kleinfleisch flees. The duel takes place early in the morning, but it progresses very differently from what is expected. Instead of a classic duel with pistols the second of the vice-mayor shoots Soli, the second of Adi. Adi shoots the second, the vice-mayor is shot by an aide from his father, who hided in the bushes. Though Soli is wounded, he manages to shoot a bodyguard from the second, and Adi himself stabs doctor Preininger, who is also present, with his sword. It is a complete massacre and Adi takes Soli to the hospital with a carriage. In the carriage lies already a wounded man, it is his cousin Mani, who has a large wound of a sword in his belly. Soli gets treated in the hospital, but Mani refuses any treatment and tells Adi the full story.
Mani has been blackmailed by the Austrian secret police and on their instigation was send to Prague. His task was to scare the people living in the Jewish quarter by reviving the legend of the monster Kleinfleisch and kill people. As a result the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter would get so afraid that they would leave their homes voluntarily and thus solve the problems of the redevelopment. Besides that he also had to spy on Adi’s father, who became active with the underground movement of the Czech patriots.
In the end Adi’s father is arrested and put in jail. Adi returns to the estate of his parents and takes Berenika and Gita with him. When he visits Prague he sees that the whole Jewish quarter has been vanished and new buildings have been erected. Also his house has vanished.
The story is told with a great eye for detail, such as the historical facts, the politics of that time, details about Prague, but also for instance about the art of fencing. Very well described is the atmosphere of Prague at the end of the nineteenth century, the melting pot of Germans, Czechs and Jews, the gloomy streets, the dark alleys etcetera. Indeed it reminds in more than one aspect Jack the Ripper in London. The somewhat, at times archaic language used in the book only contributes to the very well evoked atmosphere.
The main story is of course about Adi, the noble man, who against his will gets involved in the politics of that time. He is a man of principles, though that doesn’t prevent him of becoming a drug dealer and to sleep around with several women. But besides that many important things are touched by Urban in the story, such as the position of Jews, the corruption in politics, the manipulation of people in power and the role of the secret police, the doubts at progress at all costs. This last point took already a prominent place in his novel “The Seven Churches”. The novel contains mystery, political awareness, eroticism and so on, all the features we can found in Urban’s other books as well.
Lidové noviny, 4/12/2008
Like Alexander Dumas the author proves with his novel Lord Mord he can revive the tradition of an attractive book for a wide public of readers, and like Dumas or Paul Féval he knows how to grip the attention from the very start till the very end. With the underlying deeper meaning Urbans novel does not fall into the trap of kitsch and consumer production, he has the art in his book. (Rated with the maximum of five stars)
Mladá fronta dnes, 16/02/2009
The author has reached perfection with his precise use of language, this time full of archaisms, but he also proved to have written a historic novel of great quality that hasn’t been seen in the Czech bookshops for a long time. The pages of the novel breathes the decadent atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, of the gloomy Jewish quarter Josefov in Prague, where at that time the reconstruction of the city reached its peak, but also deals with the relations between Czech, Germans and Jews.
Czech radio, 14/12/2008
When you succumb to Urban’s play, you will read his novel in one and the same breath. You are invited to a trip into late nineteenth century Prague and you certainly will not be bored.
Pražský deník, 9/2/2009
Lord Mord is one these books that is worth reading. And which makes you think. Also about things that are between the lines.
The mysterious situations and effectively executed murders are again in this dark and bloody story interweaved with erotic motives and scenes, which are attractive for those who like to move on the borders of sadomasochism. A bonus is that Urban after a longer period presents himself to us again as an angry man, who by means of literature and history comments the contemporary, actual state of society, or to be more precise, the poor moral standards of politicians and how they exploit others.
Information about the original Czech edition
Other selected published translations (3)
Lord Mord Spanish
Lord Mord English
Lord Mord Polish