“We are living in the Left Bank of the Nineties.” When legendary International Herald Tribune correspondent and founding Prague Post editor Alan Levy wrote these words, about “living in an historical place at an historical time,” he forecast a literary renaissance in Prague that many doubted and few recognised when indeed it did occur. For after the spotlight of media attention turned away from Prague in the late nineties, a group of writers emerging from the Prague scene had already begun to make their mark
Tom McCarthy, Joshua Cohen, Travis Jeppesen, Louis Armand, Phil Shoenfelt, Myla Goldberg, Christopher Cook, Toby Litt, Robert Eversz have all received international recognition as novelists during the last twenty years, meeting the challenge laid down by Bruce Sterling in Wired magazine to write “new and powerful” work. Notably, all of these writers rejected the Hemingway model of the “expat” novel, producing instead work of universal significance, of which Cohen’s Witz and McCarthy’s Remainder are outstanding examples.
But if the much vaunted “Prague novel” is something to be claimed for an English-language Prague author, there can be no doubt that Louis Armand’s monumental 900-page The Combinations, published this year by London press Equus and composed over a period of eight years, is definitive.
In the vein of Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk and deeply rooted in the city’s literary and politico-satirical culture, Armand’s novel fulfils Alan Levy’s predictions and makes a powerful claim upon what Sterling sceptically referred to as “a Prague literary philosophy,” representing a major document of the post-Communist Prague literary renaissance, which includes writers like Jáchym Topol, Iva Pekarková and Michal Ajvaz, the late Lukáš Tomin and Hana Androniková.
Paris critic Jean Bessière has described The Combinations as “a ‘great novel’ – long and complex. It exemplifies remarkably the possibilities of the genre and contradicts the contemporary obsession with its decline and commodification.”
The novel follows the short life journey of Němec, a young runaway orphaned by the state, adrift in Prague in the years immediately following the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution.’ Němec’s encounters with the city’s various ‘underworlds’ are both unsettling and hilarious, weaving a mesh of universal history from the incidental, the coincidental and the conspiratorial on the scale of an Alan Moore novel – “a circumnavigational maze whose dominant theme is unanswered questions, with swathes of brilliance, scenes that truly unnerve, outrage, illuminate” – “whose characters – lost souls, conmen, Fuhrers, femmes fatales, concentration camp survivors, political prisoners & men-without-qualities” populate a landscape that appears less and less a work of a fiction and more and more a portrait of our contemporary irreal condition.