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THE COMBINATIONS SHORTLISTED FOR 2016 GUARDIAN NOT-THE-BOOKER PRIZE

Equus are very pleased to announce that Louis Armand’s The Combinations has been shortlisted for this year’s Not the Booker Prize. With 123 votes, it became by far the most popular title of the 147-item long list.

We thank all those who have cast their vote for this book. Below is a baker’s dozen of the best of the reviews that brought The Combinations its exciting victory:

Armand does for Golem City what Moorcock and Sinclair have done for London’s cultural and political palimpsest, offering a kaleidoscopic account of the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is Prague’s contemporary history, a vision replete with ghosts and temporal variations which require the reader’s collaboration in the production of meaning and the coupling and co-action between the book’s segments (it is a tribute to the author’s outstanding storytelling skills that the writing remains smooth and clear and legible throughout). Appropriately, the dominant mode in Armand’s exploration of Golem city is the grotesque, and the shadow of Gustav Meyrink is never far from the glittering surfaces of postmodern, post-warholian, post-everything landscapes and situations encountered in the book, where one is as likely to philosophize about the evolutionary nemesis of dogs astronauts as to encounter an « empty 300ml PragoCola bottle » standing next to a petite sixth-former blonde « with a name redolent of some ancient-of-old from a Norse saga ». The Combinations is a maximalist masterpiece of unfettered fictional and critical paranoia, one which sets out to reclaim « the wits of former days » while being aware that somewhere, in a parallel world, history may just be « a catalogue of yesterdays & not this apalling compulsion to repeat ». This monumental tragico-epic farce will sit comfortably on a bookshelf alongside Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet , Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Yann Moix’s Naissance, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (Michel Delville)

Louis Armand’s sliced loaf of a novel is a polylingual work of occult channelling, centred upon the esoteric hub of the universe that is Prague, aka ‘Golem City’ – while concurrently presenting an insane survey of the history and psycho-geopolitics of Mitteleuropa. The Big Combo is episodically structured – books stacked within the book, from an A to an H – plus intermission and coda. The sweep is scholarly, an encyclopaedic construct of nerve-rending erudition, leavened by comedic bravado and a current of seductive mateyness. The novel’s visionary textual layout marshals numerous writerly approaches: prose fiction; drama; poetry; boxed inserts; chapter preambles; viral footnotes; illustrations; font-shifting (notable lurches to bold courier); quotations; handwritten inserts; an encoded record of chess moves; lists (lots of lists); maps; and a startling double-page spread of a cartoon-strip facing down a crossword. Navigating this boundless relish of language is our protagonist, Němec: whisper it, a 21st century Slavic Bloom. (Richard Makin)

The Combinations is Louis Armand’s eighth novel to date, and undoubtedly his masterpiece. Clocking in at more than 900 pages (including coda), the book is hardly an “easy read” – not something you’d pick up in the airport bookshop to while away the hours. This is literature with a big “L”, replete with arcane references, historical riffing, myth and legend that would require a doctorate in the humanities to fully access. And yet for all this, it is eminently readable, a page-turner, no less. At its heart, The Combinations is a good old-fashioned detective novel – albeit one that has more in common with Eco’s The Name of the Rose than anything by James Ellroy. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses might also be useful markers, but only inasmuch as Armand’s narrative ambition and breadth of vision – not to mention his erudition – are of a similar stature to those of Pynchon and Joyce. The central character Němec is reminiscent of a post-communist Malone or Molloy, but he also shares a fractured sense of time and space with the anti-hero Blake, from Armand’s 2012 novel Breakfast at Midnight. As we follow Němec’s day-to-day peregrinations around “Golem City” (a vision of Prague as a psychogeographical chess board), we encounter a cornucopia of historical and mythological characters, from Faust and Edward Kelly, to Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus, with Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Slánský in walk-on roles. The ostensible grail at the end of Němec’s quest – if indeed there is an end – is the mysterious Voynich Manuscript: a work of Renaissance philology “Composed by an Unknown Author, in an Unknown Language, (which) had, over the course of its moderately long history, attracted the various attentions of occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists & crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe…” Two central mysteries remain: how Armand has managed to structure so much learning into something so readable; and why he remains “under the radar” to mainstream literary critics and the reading public in general. (Phil Shoenfelt)

Like his previous novel Cairo, Louis Armand’s The Combinations uses the topography of a city, Prague in this work, as a lens to explore ideological malaise in a radically unhinged but oddly and unpredictably fertile present. Prague becomes a catalog of encyclopedic time frames and reference points in the novelist’s hands and one after another of Prague’s urban legends from over centuries –Golems to Alchemists, Svejk to Barrandov Film Studios, is invoked and superimposed in a multichronological mosaic as a backdrop to the searches of a postmodern everyman. I vote for a book that is a kind of pilgrimage rather than a read, a new Canterbury Tales that comprises overlapping stories where careful journeying reveals the common experience of the post-revolutionary generation. (Bonita Rhoads)

Reading The Combinations by Louis Armand is like entering a crucible of perspectives that together fuse into a picture of the ecstatic fatigue and dire hope of Prague’s 1990s. I vote for this mammoth chronicle of the Velvet Revolution’s afterlife through the figure of the postmodern detective. One of the ironies is that this protagonist is named Nemec, in other words, ‘German’ in Czech, a dislocation that, while very Czech, is also the non-Czech within Czech identity. The constant invention of new linguistic textures, typographies and games harkens back to Lawrence Sterne’s great tour de force, Tristam Shandy. Enjoyable, both where it confounds and where it illuminates. Packed full of strange and true revolutionary histories (see the photo of Lenin playing chess with Bogdanov while Gorky is watching — 1908) right alongside chances to practice solving Nabokovianesque, whirligigy chess problems. (Vadim Erent)

Armand’s The Combinations must be recognized for its ambition, existence, intention, articulation, heft and transcendence, for its inclusion of the city of Prague into the history of mega-layered literary homage; a work by a Joycean scholar injecting countless overlapping reiterations into a profuse paean to Praha that finally endeavours to tackle the multi-tentacled backwards-looping spirit of the city, that orders disorder but tramples contextuality through multiple analogues like chess and music (eight octaves of chapters, an intermission, a coda all in 888 pages suggesting perhaps eleven 88-key pianos?) and of course puzzles and mazes–mazes that all end up as traps for the main character, Nemec, trapping him and the reader into paradoxical progress to the next labyrinth of hyper-referentiality. (Vincent Farnsworth)

This is a towering achievement, a 900-page Prague monster overflowing with dreamscapes, nightmares and heartbreaking hilarity. Armand’s erudition, wit and dismay for humanity electrify every page — is there anyone who can match him? I doubt it. Armand writes in a clear, blackly funny and prophetic voice — he’s also, of course, a master ventriloquist whose death-defying gambits and cunning sleights-of-hand are apt to leave you breathless. The Combinations unites style with substance, innocence with bloody experience, to create something quite a bit heavier and more dangerous than satire. Will surely sate the Prague fetishist in us all. Also has fantastic pictures. Dig in and prepare to have your brain sliced and diced by a maestro. (Thor Garcia)

This book is a hallucinatory account of a character wandering through the city of Prague, as if simultaneously in the past, present, future, as well as in a dream reality, commenting on the atmosphere in Europe pre- and post-1989. As a book, it’s quite cohesive, but at the same time seems like it was written down, whilst riding public transport, sitting on benches or in pubs, on scraps of paper and discovered in different parts of someone’s abandoned flat. Surrealism employed in a gritty and real description of life experience. A potent and explosive read. (Anthony Johns)

Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon collide in a bibliophilic thriller reminiscent of Kane Faucher’s The Infinite Library, though Armand’s unlikely detective is more an anti-bibliomaniac. The novel takes place after the fall of Soviet Union in Prague. Commissioned to solve an indeterminate, possibly ill-posed mystery by the ghost of a former chess partner, an ancient survivor of WWII who dies of a heart attack, Němec follows leads into a subterranean world which might be nothing more than paranoid delusion. Given his institutional background, there is plenty of reason to doubt the reliability of his vision of reality, though the central theme of his quest, the Voynich manuscript, is real enough. The chase winds through a raffish cast of characters living and dead, including John Dee and his scryer Edward Kelley and their sometime patron Rudolph II, WWII villains and Communist villains, with an expanse of history tied to the present in unlikely knots reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon at his best. But this book is in no way derivative. It often made me laugh aloud with the characteristic imagist flourishes of which Armand is a master. (James Chaffee)

The complexity of the writing and the layers of plot may turn some readers away, but I found it so refreshing to have a writer that demanded more from his readers and more importantly had faith in his readership. This is a book that needs to be read many times and each time the reader will develop a better understanding of the writer’s intentions. Armand makes abundant use of his Prague expertise & academic training to animate the 20th-century history of Mitteleuropa, while applying delightful postmodern trickery to blur fact and fiction: What if—behind all of the 20th-century conspiracies (Nazi, fascist, commie, cappie), both real and imagined—lay one mysterious manuscript? Believed by many to be a portal of discovery, if somewhat worryingly resembling a list of random telephone numbers – it is in this interplay between sense and nonsense, meaning and irrelevance, that this book (although set 20 years ago) most urgently speaks to our age, bombarded by weapons of mass deception. (David Vichnar)

From the first opening sequences (rather fragmentary textual objects than full-fledged chapters), the Reader of The Combinations is transplanted into a world of frightening realism and comic absurdity, all fueled through drug induced hallucinations, paranoid ramblings, and psychological investigations that is not all that unlike our own reality once you remove yourself to view it from afar as if it were some painting in a gallery. I won’t bore everyone’s socks off by summarising the plot – and instead zoom in on the telling detail this is set in mid-90s, i.e. pre-computer, pre-web, pre-online fora such as this one. In so doing Armand revives the already-lost era of the encyclopedic novel à la Pynchon & Gaddis – every bit as erudite & labyrinthine, but fortunately also every bit as funny & hilarious as these two. (Anonymous)

Because I’d love to see what kind of take the Guardian would have on The Combinations and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and they’re both big enough to test the mettle of any book blog. But also because they both stand out a mile. These are both hugely ambitious novels, and they are both very good. My bias is to like ambitious books more than I probably should, out of admiration for the writer aiming high, even if unsuccessfully (see: Norman Mailer). But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Both Armand and Moore aim high and pull it off. They write about the contemporary world, as well as writing about the past and even future, and they manages to do it in a way that isn’t boring or hackneyed. Anyone who cares about contemporary literature, all however many (few) of us, should have bought these damn books already. (Anonymous)

This electrifying novel zooms readers off to the crazy, ominous place that was Prague of the 20th century – a miserable and dangerous place ruled in turn by conmen, lunatics, warmongers & war mongrels. In this city of a thousand contradictions now–in the novel’s present of the mid-90s–lives & manages to survive for just long enough a lost soul, a certain Nemec (the German/the dummy), to bear the brunt of it all… The Combinations is a monster of a novel, not just by its sheer bulk and historical/philosophical scope (think the setting of the late Eco’s Prague Cemetery coupled with the mad encyclopaedism and diachrony of his Name of the Rose), but more importantly by the intensity of Armand’s language, his deranged metaphors, his penchant for the grotesque, his balanced blend of the painful and the ridiculous. No wonder the story of Nemec’s brief sojourn on this planet ends up in an impasse – it’s this novel’s way of resisting neat denouements, eschewing all the false sugar-coated happy-ends the history of Prague (esp. throughout the 20th century) has until recently been full of. Armand’s prose in The Combinations is a nightmare from which you don’t want to awake. (Anonymous)

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About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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