Miloš Urban, one of the most self-confident talents of current Czech prose, has for the past five years published his new novels at a truly “Vieweghian” rate of one book annually. His Stín katedrály of two years ago completed the trilogy that has come to be known as the “Gothic” series; a circumstance prompting the question as to whether Urban has in fact largely exhausted the themes of the Gothic and should turn to a different material capable of providing a sense of surprise similar to his first novel, Poslední tečka za rukopisy, from 1998. The latest work of Urban’s, Santiniho jazyk, would, however, seem to confirm the suspicions that the critics’ assumption of another major shift in emphasis has yet to come. Urban takes up precisely where he left off: the new book can easily be seen as a free continuation of Stín katedrály, developing the plot line still further and even making use of several of its characters. It is a novel about silence, yet it reveals its author to be one who does not keep silent long enough. Santiniho jazyk is a perfect literary product, a “typical Urban” – yet without Urban’s true individuality, passion or outrage. Santiniho jazyk gives its readers, on the surface, what they enjoyed in the past, but gives them little more: it gives them the language, but not the spirit. Not to create the wrong impression: whoever is not particularly familiar with the wider literary oeuvre of Miloš Urban could well be highly enthusiastic upon encountering Santiniho jazyk. Urban has polished his style still further, and made the work’s structure, at least at the outset, less opaque; his expressive methods as usual are fluid and suave, his dialogues (in various social-linguistic registers) very realistic and well-captured. Those readers yearning for intellectual titillation and the revelation of deep secrets will receive a full measure of what they wish – as will the lovers of detective stories, since this book truly does come more than a bit close to the methods of this genre. Yet in spite of all this, the book does resemble Urban imitating Urban: a condensed version of Sedmikostelí mixed together with Stín katedrály, both of which are actually listed at the novel’s end as part of the bibliography. Following, once again, the hero’s pilgrimage from church to church (even though not works of the Gothic but in this case the astonishing Baroque structures of the architect J. B. Santini), in which the captivating descriptions of ecclesiastical architecture are interwoven with the solution of secret formulae encoded in the buildings, tumultuous love affairs with a variety of femmes fatales, and even another series of brutal murders, the reader cannot but feel a sense of déja vu. Is this really Urban’s new novel, or only our own memories of his previous books? Equally absent from the novel is Urban’s trenchant eye for the quotidian world around us, which so pleasantly spiced (if at times a trace excessively) the preceding volumes. And it lacks the moral outrage of before, unless we include the ironic asides at the advertising industry and the blasé, all-encompassing cynicism of its representatives. These gibes, however, soon start to repeat themselves, as if the author were unable to come up with a sufficient quantity of additional ideas. The hero’s search for a universal advertising slogan points the way towards the traditional realms of Latin American magic realism and its fondness for linguistic labyrinths, yet never ventures inside. As soon as the hero’s rivals fall victim to gruesome deaths, the attempt to maintain the semblance of realism unfortunately comes to an end. The novel abruptly descends to the level of a turn-of-the-century penny dreadful, and all deeper layers of significance vanish. The absolutely illogical behaviour of all persons involved, the crowds of new characters and grotesque motifs, and above all the increasingly unbelievable plot twists start to appear as a warning sign to the reader: beware, this is not a fictional reality that we can accept even for the time it takes to read the novel. Santiniho jazyk is a novel about doubles, doppelganger, and equally about light – all cited in its subtitle. It would also like to be a novel about love, yet cannot find its way to this universal language. Even though its narrator, Martin Urmann, comes to the final realisation that he has found love, indeed can find love in that, unable to decide between many women he decides in favour of them all, what he actually seeks and finds is only what he truly lacks: “sex and the companionship of another person “. Is this love? Urmann should, by all rights, have undergone a thorough transformation during all of these events, but if he hadn’t said so himself, the reader would hardly think so, leaving aside his loss of interest in his subordinate post at an ad agency. Santiniho jazyk is the fourth novel in the “Gothic” series, reminding one of the symbolic dimensions of traditional numerology. The number four is the number of the visible world and the earth; alas, this book remains far to close to both.
Published in: Hospodářské noviny, October 25, 2005
Selected published translations (1)
La lengua de Santini Spanish