A dazzling combination of Everything is Illuminated and Don Quixote, with a jigger of Confederacy of Dunces, and Lord of the Barnyard, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café is the first novel to so exquisitely capture the ambiance of expat Prague. Poised to be an underground classic, it asks: what does it mean to be sane in a fast-changing world?
Over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook page we regularly get into discussions about what is magic realism. One of the strands in these discussions is that magic in some places, cultures and lives is a reality. Some people argue that this is not the case in Western/European culture, but I have always begged to differ. In Easter 1990 I found myself wandering the streets of Prague, a city that was waking after the nightmare of communism. I was very much aware of the strange magic energy of the place. I now spend half my year living in the Czech Republic and regularly visit Prague. I find that the magic is diminished but it's still there. It is therefore not surprising that having read the blurb (above) I leapt at the chance to read and review this book.
Keeping Bedlam at Bay is set in the early 1990s when the former Eastern bloc countries were attracting oddballs, rampant capitalists, mobsters, psychics and hippies. At this time the Czech capital was very much like a wild west frontier town where anything was possible. We see this weird world through the eyes of naive man/boy, John Shirting, who bumbles along in his self-aggrandized, chemical-fuelled mission. The world that Shirting encounters is a darker one than I experienced. I suspect many readers would think much of what is described as comic fiction, and while there is a degree of elaboration much is nevertheless recognizable, for example: the babushkas: what is the collective of Babushkas? - Shirting, in his travel journal would humbly submit a scold of Babushkas; the alchemical references (black bile); and Czechs talking in all seriousness about hunting the Golem: conditions are right for the beast's return. Intergalactic alignment, extraterrestrial accord, crap like that. Historical shiftings, dangerous levels of antimatter. All of which makes me consider again that question of what is magic realism. What is real? What is magic? What is fiction? In a place like Prague the real can sometimes be more magical than fiction.
But did I like this book? Did it live up to the blurb? The answer to the second question is no, but that is not surprising, given the hype. As for the first, not particularly. It was amusing at times, but not as original as it might perhaps appear to readers without my inside knowledge. But good comedy to my mind needs to have a humanity about it. The book does not attempt to understand the people of Prague, at one point a character says: You people are crazy... you Americans. You come to here and all you can say is how beautiful the city is but nobody ever stops to look at the people. This is partly because of the nature of the central character, who fails to understand himself and how others see him, let alone to understand or sympathize with the Czechs he encounters and whose language he never learns. In return I found myself becoming less sympathetic towards him. As the book doesn't have much in the way of a plot (it is just a series of episodes in Shirting's life) and the character does not have the ability to learn from what happens, I increasingly found it a rather depressing story for all the comic incidents.
I was given this book by the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.