Of Kids & Parents
It’s a banal thing to say, but Twisted Spoon Press is one of the most under-appreciated small publishers. For years—sixteen according to its website—TSP has been producing beautiful editions of books by Central and Eastern European authors. Some of the names on their list are “names”—Bohumil Hrabal, Ladislav Klima, Peter Nadas, and Franz Kafka—but most are unknown to English readers. (See Hermann Ungar, whose The Maimed is a marvelous, dark novel that should be more widely read.)
Emil Hakl is a perfect example of what TSP does best. A relatively young Czech author (b. 1958), Hakl is the author of two short story collections, three novels, and a volume of poetry. He’s also the co-founder of the Moderni analfabet [Modern Illiterates] writer’s group, and Of Kids & Parents is his first work to be translated into English.
It’s not surprising that this particular title is the first of Hakl’s to be translated. It won the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year prize in 2003 and was made into a feature film. Which also isn’t surprising given the cinematic—and traditional independent film—qualities of the novel.
Written almost entirely in dialogue, the novel takes place over one night as a 42-year-old man and his 71-year-old father go from bar to bar drinking, talking about airplanes, about women, about everything. The book is narrated by the son, although expository sections are few and far between.
There’s a scene towards the end that pretty much embodies the core drifting nature of the book. Honza Benes (the son) accidentally text messages a wrong number, but gets a pleasant, flirtatious response from a woman on the other end. After a series of texts, they decide to meet until Honza makes an inappropriate joke:
And out of sheer joy it was moving on somewhere, wherever that might have been, I sent her a joke: AT BREAK OF DAWN LITTLE MARIENKA WALKS INTO KITCHEN AND SEES NAKED MAN STANDING BY FRIDGE. MORNING, R U OUR NEW BABYSITTER? NO, SAYS GUY, IM YOUR NEW MOTHERFUCKER!
Things cool down, but they eventually meet, she turns out to be a pleasant woman in a strained marriage, they drink some wine, go their separate ways. After telling the story, Honza’s dad chimes in:
“It’s a bit sad in terms of reality, but it would make a fine short story.”
“Except there’s no climax whatsoever.”
“As with everything that actually happens! You only get a climax in films and stupid books . . . Reality only ends in tears, for goodness’ sake!”
“You’re just a terrible pessimist, that’s all,” I said and went to take a leak.
This is a novel without a climax, or, going a step further, a conversation without a plot. Which isn’t meant to be disparaging—it is a very well conceived novel that’s very comfortable. It’s easy to slide into the repartee between the father and son, and to enjoy their interactions as the move from bar to bar.
Occasionally though, the dialogue and voice seem a bit off. I was surprised to find out, maybe a third of the way through the book, that the son was 42 years old. His speech patterns and choice of words made me think that he was probably in his late-twenties, and his father in his mid-fifties. And at a few crucial points (like when Honza admits to fathering a kid twenty years ago), some of the responses are a bit too distant and disinterested to fit with the rest of the book.
None of these quibbles are damning though. Of Kids & Parents is a good, quick read, and Hakl is obviously a talented writer. I’m looking forward to checking out more of his work.