End of radio blackout. Equus Press is proud to announce the release of the 2nd “pocket” edition of Louis Armand’s The Combinations aka The Big Combo. Order here or enter the Goodreads giveaway here (starts Mar 8), or write directly to us for review copies. Why bother with firebricks when you can stuff 139 of these scale replica pocket editions of this opus hocus in the collective stocking?
As I wrote elsewhere:
Armand’s book is not easy to read. It might be said to be purposefully difficult to read. And however retro a sentiment in an age of “digital media” and “post-literacy”, it’s one that this text presents & explores seriously. Figuring out “how to read” The Combinations is definitely part of the rebus, of the tedium, and of the fun. Armand’s is a very thickly layered text, a text of quizzes & riddles, puns and puzzles. A veritable “crossmess parzel” (FW, 619.5) of the most finely-woven Joycean silk.
On the basis of a suspenseful story of one Nemec, in search for “the philosophers’ stone of manuscripts”, and other people in search for Nemec, Armand paints a panoramic picture of the fabulous city’s troubled pasts and even more troubled presents. Just as Prague seems something of a living museum of its own history, Armand’s style becomes a pastiche of the densest and richest of what Joyce (puns and wordplay), Eco (obsession with historical trivia), Foster Wallace (capitalism and its discontents) and Borges (book as a house of 1001 storeys/stories) have brought to bear on the art of narrative. This doesn’t in any way detract from Armand’s originality – experimental fiction is not different from its traditional counterpart by “lacking” tradition, but by continually “renewing” it.
Two more remarks on two aspects of this book dear to me:
First of all, Armand renews Prague as fictional cityspace. I never imagined that after all the Prague-related writing, novels, and stories (Meyrink, Kafka, Ripellino, Roth, McCarthy, Eco), there’re still stories that can and need to be written. Prague is not just any city, it is first of all the locus of some of the most lasting traumas in 20th-century history (executions, persecutions, occupations, eradications, bombings, raids, suicides…). If history is written, as the adage goes, by the winners, then how does one write the history of a town like Prague? A city which throughout the 20th century seems to have been a permanent loser: occupied more often and for longer than any other European metropolis, bombed by the Nazis and Allies alike, liberated by the Soviets in 1945 only to be “liberated” yet again (saved from itself?) in 1968, and again in 1989, only this time for a capitalism with a subhuman face…
What The Combinations brings into relief is that past injustices and injuries just simply don’t go away over time – they linger on with/in the place, like an unpleasant aftertaste or aftersmell. And once they get numerous or serious enough, they take over sinister agency of their own – hence the hybrid genre of The Combinations of an historical ghost epic. After all, what we call history and spectrality needn’t be too far from each other.
To give an example: the passages most impressive for me were those dealing with Prague’s WWII Nazi occupation. Armand’s narrative spins a number of fascinating yarns: how Hitler took a nice Spaziergang round Prague Castle, which Heydrich took over, who was Gabcik & Kubis and the Anthropoid (forget about Jamie Dorman and the band of Hollywood clowns), how the famed assassination was actually a colossal damp squib – and why Lidice had to happen the way it did. But Armand doesn’t stop there, nor is he one-sided: he also tells the harrowing tale of the postwar “transfer” of the Sudeten Germans, in all its shocking injustice and infamy, which made way for the communist coup a couple years later. And how, in the ghastly show trials of the 1950s (Horakova, Slansky & co.), it was the Nazi defeaters completing their ugly unfinished business by hanging – Jews, Jews, Jews (redubbed, in a wonderful Czenglish neologism, as Zhids…).
Yes, The Combinations’ 900+ page volume is outrageous, scandalous, grotesquely over-the-top. And yet it’s one of those books conveniently presented in short chapters with titles, which keeps the narrative fast-paced and enables the reader to pick up the book and start reading pretty much anywhere, depending on their thematic preferences. Its volume has something for everyone: An ill-fated romance? Check. A whodunnit plot? Check. Originally structured? Check. Intellectual stimulation? Check. Emotional complexity & rapprochement with the characters? Check. A poignant and yet unsentimental climax? Check, mate!
Which brings me to the other point: Like a decent chess opponent, the book keeps posing the reader problems and raising challenges. It’s as if Armand were indeed playing a chess game with his reader, only one in which all of your moves are calculated and numbered in advance. What could be more evidently (almost cheesily) chessy than a narrative in 8 octaves, 64 chapters, with sections such as “the poisoned pawn”, “the Queen’s gambit” and “en passant”? But more importantly, there’s a certain chess-like elegance & intellectual exertion to this huge novel, which very much proceeds in the alternating to/fro motion of a great chess game – for every step forward, a counter-step… That opening quote by Bobby Fischer about white being able “to play differently, in which case he merely loses differently” – is pure gold, and so relatable!
Again this is not entirely fortuitous: the fact this is set in mid-90s, i.e. pre-computer, pre-web, pre-online fora such as this one, has an effect on both this book’s style & genre and on its chess themes: Armand here revives the already-lost era of the encyclopaedic novel of Pynchon & Gaddis – as erudite & labyrinthine, but fortunately also as funny & hilarious as these two. It wasn’t only fiction, language & communication the ubiquity of the computer seems to have changed for good – it was of course also the game of chess, today played differently (although arguably according to the same rules) than 20 years ago… The funny thing being that one of the few references to real-world time is a newspaper headline informing of Gary Kasparov’s 1997 defeat by Deep Blue.
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-endings the history of Prague (esp. throughout the 20th century) had until recently been full of. A stalemate situation, which only needs to be adumbrated in order to be avoided. Just as the suggestion 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 by virtue of 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.
One realizes, as the quest after the Voynich Manuscript approaches its ill-fated conclusion, that The Combinations is itself a riddle, a manuscript that raises more questions than it answers, remaining, even after you’ve completed it (congrats!), radically open. If for nothing else, Armand has my sympathy and admiration for going against the grain of so much of what passes for “fiction” these days.