Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)

On a Psychological Tightrope: Olga Walló's Tightrope!

by Michael O'Sullivan

Olga Walló, trans. Johanna Pokorny, Veronika Revicka and Justin Quinn, Tightrope!: A Bohemian Tale, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010. 257 pgs.

Tightrope is a finely balanced story of Czech childhood. The voice of the female protagonist is poised—on a psychological tightrope one might say—between childhood and adolescence. The novel, which was originally written in Czech, is set in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, and the narrator is, the book's editor Gillian Bickley explains, "the child that the writer believes she was." Historical events haunt the narrative. We have references to Tonči, the narrator's uncle, running off to work for the Third Reich and ending up a stoker in a German ship, imprisoned in the boiler room—"they slept in the coal, they washed themselves with soot"—and passages about how the narrator's writer-father "interpreted for the Russians" when the war was ending and how the "officers of all the allied forces" congregated at his house.

The novel is structurally experimental. Numerous references to the ideas of famous philosophers—Derrida, Husserl, Berkeley, Kant—dot the more traditional autobiographical sections. These philosophical asides also introduce an older narrative voice to the text that upsets the uniformity of the autobiographical narrative authority and comment on the narrator's childhood experiences, experiences that are often not fully understood at the time of occurrence. Derrida is scolded for not going "straight to the point" because he "talk[s] around so much." Rousseau's Émile, or On Education is given to the young narrator by her father but it lies on the "bedside table," and one is never sure if its lessons in "self-education" are taken up then or only much later. In one particularly beautiful section, the young girl tries to make sense of the information on the Identity Cards her parents have to carry. Walló describes a complex merging of Husserl's notes on intention and a child's attempt to come to terms with his or her pre-history that develops into an insightful commentary on how stories bring about self-awareness:

The German philosopher Husserl would also have been at sixes and sevens over it but – unlike me – he was able to develop a system of intentions that made the problem nice and clear. I was offered time in the form of space. I was obsessed with the idea of a kind of storehouse of time where stores, carelessly bound, rest in boxes on some dark dusty racks. I had dreams – no, I had a single dream that varied only a little over time. In our large flat, there is a door I have never noticed before. If you walk through, you enter the past where the same rooms wait for stories to take place, stories that I already know from my place in future time.

The merging of the child's questioning voice with that of the mature authorial voice about these experiences lived out through the furniture of interiors reminds one of Bowen.

There are also numerous episodes of school life and reading in general that subtly describe a coming of age. The novel might even be regarded as spanning the kind of timeframe that is most regularly tackled in a short story, a limited timespan which emphasises the importance of the period between childhood and adolescence. The alienation a young girl can experience when encountering the male-authored classics of Western literature is described beautifully in a passage that compares reading and eating. It begins by asserting that "our understanding can obviously conceive only roughly an imperfectly" and continues:

I look for my apodictic author; the Gospels are not what I search for; even less Julius Fucík. Marx and Engels perhaps, the bearded founding fathers? In the times when I used to sit under the bookshelves, my father would read Engels, underlining in yellow, which made the veins in his forehead bulge. And then he let it be, and he had a reason to do so. My mother eats only seldom, and far from everything; when we eat out, my father always finishes her dish. I finish my father's books. The food in the restaurants isn't unusual, but this is horrible: the lines make no sense, they are rubbish; if I can see this, does everyone know? And why does no-one ever speak of it?

Towards the end of the novel, Walló begins to give us intimations of a burgeoning adult consciousness in the narrator. The subtlety with which it is suggested might rival Proust's own rendition of egocentrism being exploded in the early pages of À la recherché du temps perdu. The girl is picking cherries with her father. She is up the ladder and so taken by the "orgies of plenty" that she bites fruit right from the branches:

The cherries are beautiful, and there are loads of them: I absorb the orgies of plenty, somewhere there above the ladder, picking them right from the branches with my mouth, spitting the stones all around, taking aim and randomly; the juice splashing and flowing down: I am wonderfully sticky and dirty.

Just a little below me, on a rung of the ladder, lurks a singing and reproachful futility. Because I should be doing something proper; something should be created by now.

My father has made his living by writing ever since he was thirteen, and I will be thirteen in a few days. My father knows this very well. When he looks at me, his eyes are silent, hopeless. I too am unhappy about myself; it is such a beautiful summer and I…

The sensual evocation of the girl's movement from childhood into adolescence and beyond continues when her mother Maminka reminds her that she should no longer be riding horses, bareback and barefoot with the "men" because it is "unbecoming." The final childhood scene on the horse is described with almost a sense of loss:

Our tenant is strong, and I take care to take off in time. The horse treads slowly across the field, I hold on to the mane. I should tighten my grip on the horse but I don't know how. With my knees? My calves? My heels? Barefooted cracked heels sliding over the horse belly, the tenant clicks his tongue, and the mare starts running clumsily. Neither of us says a word, the horse being the absolute master, and I mustn't fall off.

The novel ends with a brilliant account of the arrival of Kafka on the literary scene in Czechoslovakia once he had been "discovered" by the literary establishment after "Letter to Father" came out in World Literature. The girl's father is credited with having met Max Brod, Kafka's friend who published the author's works after his death, once in Café Arco. The novel describes how the narrator and her father set about reading everything by the author in the local libraries in order to prepare for a series of films to be based on Kafka. Yet the girl is not taken with Kafka and rails against his work, possibly to her father who lets her rail: I don't like him, do you understand […] He is torturing himself, do you understand? For him life is terrible, unbearably hard! He leads a heroic battle in order to survive the unbearable song of birds during his holiday, why should I admire him for that?" It is a wonderful insight into Kafka and, coming at the end of the novel, it shines a light back on the subtle, life-affirming coming of age Walló has been describing. Even though the novelist decries Kafka's humour because "Art is already from its own foundations a lamentation, a codified and articulated weeping grief," if there is any lamentation in Walló's playful, yet complex description of the tightrope we walk between childhood and adolescence, it is quickly submerged by the exuberance of the life described that always stays with us in memory.

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