Now Prague, the hemmed-in city, the Pearl, a dot on the map behind the wires, had its very own refugees. (Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver, p. 14)

I’m trying to write about Europe: about the places where different histories are crudely stitched together, about the borders we cross without even having to think about it anymore, about the moments when a British guy enters Prague and says, "This is my first trip to Eastern Europe!" and a Romanian stares at him and asks, "You think this is Eastern Europe?"

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Lucy Duggan’s novel Tendrils was published this year. She is working on a PhD in Czech and German literature at Oxford University, but when she has the chance, she likes to wander around Prague, Moravia or East Germany. In Oxford, she regularly performs her poetry and prose at the Catweazle Club. She also publishes her miniature stories at www.tinystori.es

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I’m trying to write about the cities that overlay each other in my mind: when I look at the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz I think, this probably looked a bit like Wrocław once, and then I walk through the rainy streets of London, thinking how easily you could take a romantic Parisian photograph here, and then I float down into the Prague metro, imagining Moscow. I’m trying to write about Europe, and I think of Jáchym Topol, whose books give me the same sense of alien familiarity, estranged recognition, that I get when I find myself in a part of Europe I’ve never seen before.

Jáchym Topol’s first novel, City Sister Silver, is a wandering, maddening journey through post-1989 Europe. For its narrator, a gangster who used to be a dancer, 1989 was "the moment time exploded": the moment he found himself on a hallucinatory trip through Prague, a trip which leads him into the crimes of cowboy capitalism, gang warfare and surveillance networks, but also into the violence of love and the contortions of European history. The best thing about this book is that it isn’t afraid to show you how fucked up Europe is. It doesn’t treat Europe like a fragile princess who has to be protected, it doesn’t take care to celebrate "unity in diversity", it doesn’t allow you to think that 1989 was the year we solved all our conflicts and opted for everlasting peace and the moral high ground. It treats Europe like the real, complicated, chaotic character it is. When I was writing Tendrils, my own novel set in the Czech Republic, it took me a while to find my way into Topol’s Europe: it was easy for me to romanticise the Prague I saw as a British outsider. Topol helped me to understand how my characters could look back on the 1980s with nostalgia, as a time of rebellion and forbidden art, and how they could feel utterly at sea in the new Europe of the 1990s, which was now reunited and yet strangely fragmented.

Then the caretaker took us on a walk into town at last. It was so gracious, I nearly bled to death with joy. The town hall for example was gigantic. [...] The supermarket doors opened all by themselves! You just went up... one more step... an they opened! (Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver, p. 177)

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Photo: Felix Palmer (All rights reserved)
Then the caretaker took us on a walk into town at last. It was so gracious, I nearly bled to death with joy. (Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver, p. 177)

In City Sister Silver, a whole series of stories intertwine; one of these is told by an acquaintance of the narrator, a writer who was invited to take part in a transnational residency in what he calls a "desirable land" in Western Europe, along with artists from across the East. His story parodies the process of European integration, as the artists squabble nationalistically amongst themselves and watch in bemusement as the Western Europeans offer them medals for their art and proudly display the achievements of Western culture – mainly automatic doors and shiny cars. I was reminded of this episode recently, when a Romanian girl told me about her experience of Erasmus in Belgium. The Eastern Europeans had often had to pass through a competitive selection process at their universities, in order to be awarded an Erasmus semester, and when they arrived in Belgium, they were surprised to find that the process had not been the same for the party-mad Western European students they met there. This made me think again about the oddities of European integration: us Western Europeans have an automatic seat at the table, and we take for granted our right to dole out medals to the Eastern Europeans and graciously invite them for a tour of our cultural metropolis.

I’ll write the book in raw post-Babylonian, the way I heard it on my wanderings through the past, present an future. (Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver, p. 243)

When City Sister Silver first appeared, Czech critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it: it’s a violent, crazy book which doesn’t give any reassuring answers when it comes to the brutal behaviour of its narrator, and which certainly doesn’t offer a clear explanation of its own weird symbolism. Lots of reviewers pointed out that it was an "important" book, and most of them focused on its innovative language – on the way it took hold of Czech, pulled it apart, shook it up and threw it together again, combining poetic phrases and literary allusions with slang and profanity, phonetically-spelt foreign borrowings, and neologisms.

Unless you know Czech, you’re only likely to read the book in translation – but in fact, even for non-Czech-speakers, Topol’s language is important. This is a novel which dives into the overlapping, entangled and intertwined cultures of Europe, its deafening babble of voices, and faces the threat of chaos: there’s always a possibility that we’ll fail to understand each other, as the past has shown. If you want to get a taste of this, take a look at chapter 8 of the novel, in which the narrator remembers visiting a dreamlike and nightmarish version of Berlin – or "Berlun", as he calls it. He is thrown together with a ragged crowd of immigrants who communicate with each other in a hybrid language created from the words they "steal" from each other. He imagines writing a book in this new language, "in raw post-Babylonian", and perhaps City Sister Silver is the closest we can get to that book.

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Photo: Ondřej Lipár (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Jáchym Topol, the author of City Sister Silver, photographed in 2010.

And just like you I walked the city, my turf, searching for objets d’art, objets d’esprit, those antigenocide tablets. (Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver, p. 168)

When I try to write about Europe, I feel as if I’m walking in spaces opened up by Jáchym Topol in City Sister Silver – scary, chaotic, exciting cities which are full of streets I haven’t explored, castles and tenements which tell stories about the past and the future. As a writer, Topol’s Europe invites me to pull it apart and rebuild it, create further layers of creative madness. And as a reader, I don’t think Topol’s exaggerating or just being provocative when he uses the phrase "antigenocide tablets" to talk about art. Reading this book at a time when Europe once again seems to be close to serious conflict, you’ll realise why Topol’s "post-Babylonian" language has to be "raw": it’s because our history remains raw, and only by retelling it and turning it into new stories can we avoid repeating it. In Tendrils, too, the past is central: several of the characters try to erase their earlier lives. To them, it seems as if 1989 brought the freedom to become entirely different people. But as one of them comes to realise: "It’s never best to forget the past. You understand that, don’t you?"

Jáchym Topol’s City Sister Silver, translated by Alex Zucker, is published by Catbird Press. http://www.catbirdpress.com/bookpages/sister.htm

Teaser photo: Ondřej Lipár (CC BY-SA 2.0)