The Guinea Pigs, by Ludvík Vaculík

I might do a little series on a few of the less well-known writers of

the Prague Spring, which, in literature at least, took the form of a little Czech boom in the late 60s / early 70s, propelling writers such as Milan

Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Ivan Klima and Bohumil Hrabal into the English-speaking consciousness, and – for a time at least – introducing a few others,

who’ve since perhaps been more or less left behind (Ladislav Fuks, Ivan Vyskocil, Vladimír Páral, Vera Linhartová, Ludvík Vaculík). Like Hrabal,

Vaculík chose to stay in Czechoslovakia, and he seems to have suffered for it (nothing of his was published there for 21 years after 1968).

The plot: a clerk works in a bank, has a wife, two children,

buys a succession of guinea pigs, and comes to believe that there is a strange conspiracy going on where he works (though precisely what the intent of

this conspiracy is, or what he believes it to be, is never made clear). The books comes alive in the absurd, sarcastic conversations our hero has with

his children, but even more in his fascination for the behaviour of his pet guinea pigs: he becomes obsessed with these small creatures, and when

everyone else has gone to sleep, starts conducting increasingly sadistic experiments on them. – Yet, even though I greatly enjoyed the passages of

animal behaviourism, this book of only 168 pages has taken me more than a year to read – and often, in that time, I’ve felt that perhaps I would

never finish it. (Even today, just ten pages from the end, it took a lot of willpower to settle myself down to the task of completion).

What

the meaning is of the events in this book does not seem clear: – no doubt it is not meant to be. I was reminded of the same sense I felt reading

Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: – that, just as you are feeling an analogy to life under an oppressive regime is becoming clear, the

book slips away again and the meaning is lost. – Of course, the obvious parallel (as I later read in the introduction) is Kafka: – set in Prague,

works as a clerk, strange dark forces in operation – I guess I should have picked that up (or perhaps over the course of the year it did occur to me

and now I’ve forgotten it); – but what strikes me as even more similar to my readings of Kafka though is how uninteresting I found it: – the ideas

are interesting, the central conceit, certain passages; but as a whole I’d rather read something else: – that is to say, I feel better to have read

it (or even a summary of it) than actually to be reading it. I’m left wondering now if this is to do with the irreducibility of meaning in these

works; – but then the Russian strand of this tradition – your Gogols and Dostoevskys and Bulgakovs – I greatly enjoy. There is something, though,

which alienates me – something which I find great difficulty in placing.

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