The Engineer as Novelist

by Dennis Drabelle
CATAPULT: A Timetable of Rail, Sea, and Air Ways to Paradise by Vladimír Páraltranslated by William Harbins.
Catbird Press/Garrigue, $10.95 (paper).
THE FOUR SONYAS by Vladimir Paral, translated by William Harkins.
Catbird Press/Garrigue, $22.95.
AMONG OTHER disasters, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of CzechoSlovakia cost that country the presence of two leading novelists, Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky. By way of explaining Skvorecky’s flight into exile, Danny Smiricky, the Skvorecky character who has served as his creator’s alter ego through several books, acknowledged being “too old to write for the desk drawer.”
Kundera’s and Skvorecky’s moves did no lasting damage to their careers: from France and Canada, respectively, the two men have become figures in world literature. Yet at least one Czech novelist, the former chemical engineer Vladimír Páral, stayed home and managed to write for the bookstalls without truckling noticeably to the regime. Now, with the publication in English of two novels by Paral, American readers can begin to take his considerable measure.
From among a dozen possibilities Catbird Press has selected Catapult, Paral’s third novel (1967), and The Four Sonyas, his fifth (1971), both translated by William Harkins, an emeritus professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University. Although the Velvet Revolution and the Czech-Slovak divorce may have blunted the force of Paral’s political satire, these specimens of his work retain much comic appeal. Together they suggest the profile of a storyteller with protractor—a writer whose training as an engineer keeps his febrile imagination from running away with him.
Catapult is a witty, headlong merger of stream of consciousness and the novel of midlife male angst. Its protagonist—a picaresque hero on a short leash—is thirty-three-year-old Jacek Jost, a chemical engineer at a textile plant in Usti nad Labem (Usti on the Elbe), Paral’s own North Bohemian home town. Jacek has become bored with his preposterously easy job, gratingly perfect wife, and adorably baby-talking daughter— dismayed to find that his curriculum vitae is all curriculum and no vita. Understandably for someone living in a small, landlocked country, he daydreams of escaping into vast horizons—to a Mediterranean resort he once visited, which is especially appealing because it faces the bedazzling North African coast; or along the Elbe River, which he maps out in his mind, rehearsing the litany of ports and borders en route to the North Sea.
Tucking his daughter in one night, he berates himself: “Flee, go away without a word, or get divorced before something horrible happens . . . you’ll never make up your mind to say that first word.” Instead, he tries to stir up his life on the sly, behaving erratically at work and placing a personal ad (a phenomenon that must have caught on earlier in Czechoslovakia than it did here), winnowing out the replies, and setting himself up with seven mistresses in as many nearby towns.
All this thrashing around has a single purpose: to position Jacek so that fate will yank him out of his rut and catapult him somewhere else. Páral’s central and, I think, original insight has to do with the joy we take occasionally— and some of us habitually—in placing ourselves in the path of inexorable forces rather than deciding what we want and setting out to obtain it.
Páral sketches Jacek in a cantering style that veers from incident to incident and voice to voice, often in the same sentence: “My wife has the sincerest blue eyes in the world, and Jacek quickly drew her to him.” Páral’s many narrative antics include varying the typeface to accommodate such material as the banal replies to Jacek’s ad (“My hobbies are culture and nature,” one candidate writes) and self-referral, as when one of Jacek’s mistresses tosses aside a novel by Páral to welcome her lover. The translator has nicely captured the narrative’s propulsive movement: “The overturned chairs laughed with their legs in the air while the lovers lay on mattresses as if on waves.”
To readers who wonder how Páral will ever stop telling his breakneck story; his ending comes as a chiding smack. The last page rounds out everything that went before it with a neatness that is almost pat—yet the novel probably wouldn’t have worked if the farseeing engineer inside the improvising novelist hadn’t been on duty, aiming all those disparate voices and incidents toward a blueprinted culmination. By raising expectations of aesthetic chaos only to overturn them at the last, Páral has made Catapult something of a tease, as well as a book to look back on admiringly.
As A STORY. The Four Sonyas is an equally shaggy dog. The title reL fers to four aspects of Sonya Cechova, a nineteen-year-old redhead whose surname, the female form of “Czech,” makes her an ethnic Everywoman. There are the everyday Sonya; Sonya-Marie, “quiet, gentle, defenseless, and happily subservient”; SonyaMarikka, “provocative, bold, risk-taking, wild”; and Antisonya, who “always tells the unpleasant part of the truth.” The winsome incarnation of these personae brings out autocratic tendencies in men, who are wont to exploit, kidnap, and otherwise take command of her.
As the novel begins, the orphaned Sonya’s willingness to sell kisses has made her the drawing card for her guardian’s pub. Her sexual allure has made her the obsession of Jakub Jagr, another engineer at the Usti textile factory and a man so enamored of figures that he ranks Sonya vis-à-vis other women by assigning numbers to their various traits and uses mathematical models to gauge his chances of winning her hand.
For her part, Sonya is enraptured, first by Ruda Mach, the Tarzan-like sensualist who deflowers and deserts her, and then by the elusive Manek Mansfeld, who seduces her emotionally (but not physically), vanishes, and directs her conduct from afar through short, horoscopic messages sent in reply to her multi-page confessionals. Like the catapult-seeking Jacek, Sonya thrives under external guidance (among her four faces, “happily subservient" Sonya-Marie is usually at the fore). The urge to forfeit what limited freedom one still has may be endemic to a socialist country—or so Páral leads the reader to believe. At any rate, Manek is just the manipulator to keep Sonya in thrall.
Owing to a string of kidnappings, job switches, and changes of residence, Sonya is every bit as mobile as Jacek; and, like Catapult, The Four Sonyas benefits from Páral’s structural know-how. Yet something is lacking in the later work: in truth, there is hardly a Sonya at all. Profound characterization does not appear to be one of Páral’s strengths or interests (though he can imbue grotesque supporting players—like the anal-retentive Jakub and his guffawing, militaristic father—with Dickensian vividness). His inside knowledge of Jacek keeps Catapult tethered to a solid core character, but Sonya is a bonbon without a center, and the novel suffers from her vagueness.
Even so, The Four Sonyas provides capital entertainment. Páral’s sensibility is a pleasure to follow as it darts from item to item: Sonya prepping herself for a kiss raffle (under orders front her guardian, she dabs machine oil on her lips “to prolong . . . kissability”); running commentary on the official travesty of full employment (anyone without work can be cited as a “parasitic element,” while many a jobholder molders at his desk all day); the culinary sleight of hand by which Sonya’s guardian bamboozles his customers, nursing a quantity of meat through eleven days of cooking, garnishing, disguising, and retrofitting while the underlying substance rots.
Despite Páral’s cynicism about particular jobs, he exhibits a lyrical tenderness for manual labor and the industrial underpinnings of the Czech economy. Lying in bed one night, Sonya muses that “the scent of metal, motors, and men is everywhere in this city [Usti] that never goes to sleep, and it is the scent of excitement, of being thrilled, this city’s special scent.” In another of Páral’s self-referential passages she longs to read a novel that eschews the standard fictional settings of “castles, ocean liners, film studios, and worldly Parisian hotels” to show “how sweet life can be in nothing more than industrial old Usti n. L.” The Four Sonyas, of course, is that novel.
In the 1980s the author turned to science fiction; one of the untranslated novels is titled The War With Many Animals, a play on his countryman Karel Capek’s War With the Newts. Perhaps the threat of government censorship catapulted Vladimír Paral into fantasyland, but I’d like to think he chose the genre freely: how could an engineer-novelist better respond to the dystopia that was Czechoslovak communism than by building alternate worlds of his own?