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CHAPTER FIVE: Prague 1992 (excerpt from MENTAL SHRAPNEL, by Phillip O’Neil)

Equus Press is proud to announce the forthcoming publication of MENTAL SHRAPNEL, a novel by Phillip O’Neil.

From the pre-publication blurb:

“Chris Mahler was a top psychologist, but that was before the war in Bosnia. Something happened to him during that war – it left him too traumatised to remember. Jasmina was the love of his life. She was killed in the siege of Sarajevo and his ability to live and love again died with her. Or so he believes. Now a shell-shocked survivor, he is the patient, strapped to a bed under the care of the mysterious Dr Steinfelder. To Mahler, the war meant losing the love of his life and his sanity. To Dr Steinfelder, it meant developing a radical new psychotherapy – a treatment so extreme that even the UN has declared it ‘Above Top Secret’. Mahler’s trauma and amnesia can be cured. But what will he remember if it is? Is Mahler the perfect Guinea Pig the doctors have been hoping to find? Or is it a case of kill or cure? Mahler wants to uncover all that lies hidden in his brain. Powerful men want it to stay buried. The Orwellian tyrant known as ‘The Censor’ has his secrets too, but what does he want from Mahler? Once colleagues, Steinfelder and ‘The Censor’ are now arch-enemies. Mahler must go to war once more and this time the stakes are higher than ever before, discovering that in the twenty-first century, psychiatry is the newest and deadliest weapon of war.”

MENTAL SHRAPNEL is forthcoming in 2020.


Prague 1992

Winter nights with Jazz, her smelling of gun-metal, pointlessly trying to ring her uncle and aunt in Sarajevo on a black Bakelite phone. Without a satellite phone it was impossible to get through, as the main Post and Telecommunications Office in Sarajevo had been shelled to fuck. And she hardly slept. If I woke up in the middle of the night I got accustomed to seeing her silhouette smoking and staring out the window if not at the table writing. While she was at Ren’s house when I had nothing else to do, I took the time to re-read the article about her in Pozor.

Jasmina ‘Jazz’ Krstić, the singer-songwriter of Makropulos is also working on a novel, ‘Abulia’. As one of the most prominent of expats in Prague to which she moved a year ago she found time to explain some of her theories in all of her artistic endeavours.

Translated from Bosnian to English by Dragana Abramović.

Let’s start with the novel ‘Abulia’. You’ve been very quiet about that project. Any reason?

‘If no one asks me about it, then I know what it is; but if someone asks me about it and I try to explain it to him then I don’t know what it is.’ Wise words. From the age of four I had a dream where I opened my mouth and my tongue was put in a tiny guillotine and sliced off. I remember that dream vividly still, always have. And don’t laugh, but I read Lord Of The Rings in translation when I was seven. See, I didn’t want to speak: at all. It had something to do with being told off as a child for interrupting conversations. It’s always been like that. I have always had a dichotomous relationship around others, including those closest to me. Writing makes you crave company and I’m not the first to say that this turns into anxiety around people I don’t know very well and often around those people too. Confronting an audience is different. I believe sufferers of autism share the same problem. It’s a lot to do with meeting other people’s gaze. Besides that, I think it unwise to start blabbing about a book before you’ve finished it.

Does that mean it’s a roman a clef?

I go along with the idea that a reader can access the writer’s mind however cryptic the content but you must also concede that one reader’s impression will differ vastly from another’s unless they have some shared professional coroner’s art which is trained to dissect, deconstruct and criticise whether you call them psychoanalysts, critics or academics: the sort of people who have learned that there are a certain number of plots and a certain number of scripts or backgrounds to characters and their authors. All of that is tantamount to reducing everything you see to a tricolour because there are only three primary colours.

I must pin you down on this. Does the book lead on from the songs you’ve written for Makropulos? They are highly personal. You’ve said that yourself. And there’s always the suggestion of lyricism but lyricism that comes to a bad end. There is always a dark romantic edge to your characters.

It’s the journey from lyricism to structured objective observation. But in that transformation you have to learn to play again. Before ‘Abulia’ I don’t think I ever really knew how to play – even as a child. Makropulos’ last album really marked (I use the past tense because I don’t know whether we will still perform) an end to lyrical thinking and a really traumatic time. Events in my life took on a greater significance. Of course the war is taking a role. What I mean is that a lot of the ideas fitted into other people’s experiences. I guess that is what all art really does. Connect people. After years of pursuing the endless inner journey where neurosis and insight merge and where any kind of resolution always seems just out of reach, you have learned the lesson that any kind of fulfilling activity lies in constant pursuit. The lessons learned in self-knowledge have to be applied to a new pallet: others. I do believe that the death of so many young romantics and particularly in the world of rock music which focuses in on youthful pursuit leaves its young advocates high and dry. For some reason the age of 27 seems to have become a benchmark for rock ‘n’ roll stars. But 27 also crops up as crucial years in the lives of writers. Flaubert comes to mind when he underwent a dramatic crisis at 27 when he read his first version of The Temptation of St Anthony to friends who effectively told him to burn the manuscript.

You are 27 yourself.

I am very aware of that, thank you. And I kind of hope that ‘Abulia’ will ease me over into my next phase. However I can’t say that I’m not a little apprehensive. Though I do not even hope to be considered among the mini-pantheon of dead rock stars; their deaths were all shrouded in mystery. Not the usual mystification of the young and self-destructive. I don’t want to head into the mythic legacy left by them but in each case there was something not quite right about the way they died. Not the old consideration that these were young flames that burned themselves out. They died in the bath, in swimming pools and in bed. It seems they were actually retreating from the excesses of their previous years. Burn out is always attributed to self-indulgence and excessive lifestyles. I believe there is a measure of truth in that there comes a time when a huge amount of energy is needed to pass on to a next stage of personal development.

Can you at least tell us about the title ‘Abulia’?

It’s been called the enforced lethargy of a city whose vital impulses have been crushed. It’s an idea that has hung around Prague for a long time. Some date it back to the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 as a convenient juncture when Bohemian nationalism was crushed. It crops up again as Schlamperei under the Austro-Hungarians and apathy under the communists. One of the most prominent Czech heroes is testament to this. Jan Nepomuk (the 14th century confessor who had his tongue ripped out for refusing to divulge the contents of the Queen’s confession to King Wenceslas IV before being thrown into the Vltava). I believe he was one of the first to have his statue go up on Charles Bridge. He was sanctified on the basis his tongue was preserved in his skull when he was exhumed. What a perfect legend for this country. And it is peculiar to this country – protest as stubbornness, a kind of universal groan that this has always been the state of affairs. I don’t see any reason for that mentality to suddenly change any time soon. Why should it? It’s been around for that long it’s like a child who’s been brought up with a script for failure. Unless he addresses that formulation he is bound to repeat his self-defeating, self-destructive pattern in everything it touches. The magic hand of capitalism will merely offer yet another stage for this to be acted out on. Like a new love affair the thrill will disappear and become another gladiatorial arena.

Well. What do you suggest? It might be rather difficult to engage an entire country in analysis. Where would you find a couch big enough?

Where would you find an analyst big enough? No, on a more serious note there are means: a truth and reconciliation committee or a Nuremberg: not that such things are enough in themselves of course. Especially when imposed from without. Therapy or counselling does not end with the recognition of a problem. But there’s always the possibility of throwing out the baby with the bath water. You can’t have a Year Zero. That will always lead to trouble. You cannot seek to kill off a part of yourself. It’s all to do with healthy confrontation. But this country seemed muted like Nepomuk. Czechoslovakia, as Škvorecký has noted, often behaves as a coward. And the recent history of widespread WWII and communist collaboration does show up a deep-seated and unfortunate truth that Czechs, at heart, fundamentally don’t trust each other. But confrontation is rarely a part of it. Possibly because we have such bad memories of confrontation. Back to 1621 and, wait for it, 27 executions of Czech leaders. But look at the history of that event and it smacks a little of Custer’s Last Stand. Half of the Czechs were having lunch while their compatriots and allies were routed. If you don’t put your full effort into something, you can always keep that caveat, that because you never really tried you can always believe that you will never be entirely crushed. An individual does it by suppressing a memory or impulse, a city, state or country by rewriting its history.

That is old hat but whereas history is normally written by the victors Czechs manage to make a historical and positive landmark out of a crushing defeat. Paradoxically there is a parallel society with a belief in alchemy and hidden gold where truth and wisdom are goals. It’s only my contention that though this is not confined to Prague there seems to be far more of a tradition of seeing some infernal parallel city here. It wouldn’t surprise me if they found something affecting the water table as it gets into the hearts and pens of Breton and Apollinaire as much as it does Comenius or Hrabal. That is probably what the alchemists have been after all these years. Aurum Potabile seeping into the city’s water supply. There, now bottle that and you really will have gold on your hands. An endless supply of fairy tales and magical realism. Access to The Other Side for everyone. No wonder these groups like to keep it all under wraps. It’s unfortunate that the plethora of secret and hermetic groups here guard their knowledge like a kid’s gang with its secret code book. Not surprisingly you’ll find that all these groups are exclusively male as they always have been. As to Yugoslavia this would be a very sensible idea. What we are now seeing has happened many times before. Even so, I was massively surprised when war broke out. Sarajevo was just like any European capital. Muslims, Croats and Serbs got on fine together. My mother is a Muslim, my father a Croat.

The rest of the title of your book is indeed ‘Someone Somewhere Lost the Book?’ What Book?

This is an old myth that still holds currency. It’s the subject of numerous books east and west surrounding conspiracy theories and the concept of a global network of Illuminati or whatever. Czechoslovakia, recently freed from communist control, is ripe for these kinds of beliefs. Utopia, which never managed to get above dystopia, needs a replacement magic formula. And we have it here in spades. There are many people in Czechoslovakia’s hermetic circles and indeed worldwide who subscribe to the idea that there is in existence a book called Sefer Raziel HaMalach or The Book of Raziel The Angel. Briefly this book is supposed to have been filled with the words of God according to the stenographer archangel at his side. This book via a number of disputed channels to Noah thence to King Solomon and then disappeared. Its history is enmeshed with that of The Book of Enoch and The Emerald Tablet. All claim divine knowledge, a map of the universe and so on. Despite having disappeared you’ll find that people have somehow got transcriptions of this divine law. So the 13 verses of The Emerald Tablet purport to set out how man can get in touch with universal architecture, the Book of Enoch relays the angelic language of Enochian as discovered by mages like John Dee and Edward Kelley with his scrying stone. One of the verses of the Emerald Tablet supposedly pronounces that it contains the ‘hidden wisdom of the whole world’. Variants like the Kabbalah assume the same universal mirror. For Kabbalists this is relayed in three verses of Exodus from which they manipulate 72 names of God, 72 Angels of the Shem HaMephorash and 72 Demons of The Goetia. And 72 is 27 in reverse – see how it works! The beauty of there being a lost book as opposed to one extant in the bible which anyone can read – albeit that only initiates can interpret – is that you can have different claimants having access to books themselves claiming to have accessed the One book. The one I refer to in my book is The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage which proclaims that every human being is wedded to this or that angel. You can see why it has such a draw and a priesthood all of its own. Once again you have hermetic cults with the most intricate systems and procedures that only the select can access. The cachet of a secret society of initiates is raised in this country for good reasons. Firstly there is a rich tradition of alchemy here and secondly and allied to this is the fact that Bohemia has been under the thumb of empire for much of its history. Not least the four decades of communism where secrecy and covert activity was key to any belief system that rubbed up against the authorities. Millennial fears tap into this of course. My interest is again in myths that have become fairytales and who acquires them for what purpose. Sleeping Beauty or any myth of magic sleep like Brunhilde or in Czechoslovakia the sleeping Libuše and Wenceslas myths become a template for psychotherapists exploring childhood based neuroses. Or else hijacked by hermetics as indicative of a process of mystical union with a higher power.

Libuše is a good example for, myth treats her like a Delphic sybil – a virgin naturally, for virgins are always exalted in most religious beliefs but not enough to garner the respect of the people who demanded a king. So Libuše leads them to Přemysl. An eminent guy, whom I certainly respect and is a grounded philosopher believes he knows the exact spot where this happened, talks of soil there as the Holy Grail and also implies that the events of 1989 were sparked off by thousands of students meeting at Vyšehrad invoking her help. Why then? I asked. What happened in 1968 or any other year come to think of it. The reply I got was a shrug and a joke about cynical youth. Add a Holy Roman Emperor like Rudolf II into the bargain and you had fertile ground for all manner of confidence tricksters who thrived on Rudolf’s credulity. Alchemy like any religious belief often has a sound basis until it begins to acquire a hierarchical structure but since hermetic thought espouses just about all religious thought under its umbrella professing to be the mother of all knowledge you really can’t go wrong. Any challenge is met with a withering look that you just haven’t got the message, you just aren’t ready to take it on board. When you criticise the paraphernalia of magick ritual you are told again that the subject of your scrutiny is in fact the lynch-pin of all religious ceremony. The catholic mass is structured on alchemical discipline, airport runways on the Star of David. A deck of cards, a painter’s palette. It’s a very astute system which embraces everything else.

So, the book deals with these sects.

Only really in passing. You mentioned roman à clef and for obvious reasons a lot of the book is about Yugoslavia. But I’ve studied the history of Czechoslovakia and it fascinates me. It’s a novel too and that is important to stress. I am not concerned with any kind of exposé or revelation. That has been done by more informed and better equipped people than me. All that I’m offering is a story which embraces different strands of current belief in two countries – one in a process of transition, the other fragmentation.

Your characters, in your songs as well as your poetry, seem to be constantly in a loop, constantly facing the same dilemmas time after time. Is this something you identify with yourself?

There’s a fatalistic take on Groundhog Day. There’s also the concept of repeated ritual whether in the catholic mass, the black mass or what alchemists refer to Opus Magnum, the Great Work. Most of us repeat our mistakes over and over until we wake up or else repeat ourselves into oblivion. Has no-one pointed out that Yugoslavia was a ticking time bomb after the death of Tito? Yes, of course they have but, at the same time, they are surprised by the current situation. But most people are unwilling to wake for fear of some mystified confrontation and so end up involved in a recurrent schizophrenic pattern of temporary well-being and breakdown. Breakdown as in being broken down, not the incarceration in an asylum. And we know that the latter has been well-described as society’s treatment of an individual who walks down a street with his ring finger in the air, his third finger in the air or his index finger in the air. One is permitted, one is vulgar and the other is crazy. I think it was Foucault who said that. The Lunatics have taken over the asylum as they say.

In what way?

In the way of not having our internal censor constantly check our thoughts and actions. The problem with that of course is that we could behave in quite deplorable ways. We could also act like angels. That is the risk. Before entering that state you would have to accept the fact that you might be on the verge of creating a masterpiece, a murder or more probably act in a very banal fashion. It goes beyond the invitation of the random or chance into life. What happened to a split personality is very different from what occurs, say, to some serial killers who protest, not that they were led by the schizophrenic experience of directed command, but blank episodes. It is up to others to believe or not believe. That is always the problem. It is very hard still for anyone of what we call sound of mind to accept that a person can enter fugue states and commit abominable acts without conscious experience of those acts. However there are a number of violent crimes committed in those states. And, once again this applies to places as well as people. People still talk of Germany having, to all intents and purposes, a psychotic glitch. That somehow a monster took control and that was that. Now look at Yugoslavia and, what do you see?

© Phillip O’Neil, 2020

© Image Karolína Hůlová

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
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous" // A.N. Whitehead

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"Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis" // Karel Teige


“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
March 2020
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