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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Saturnin

by
Zdeněk Jirotka


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Saturnin



Title: Saturnin
Author: Zdeněk Jirotka
Genre: Novel
Written: 1942 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Saturnin - US
Saturnin - UK
Saturnin - Canada
Saturnin - Deutschland
  • Czech title: Saturnin
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Mark Corner

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Our Assessment:

B : genial, light comedy

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 15/4/2005 Adam Preston


  From the Reviews:
  • "Saturnin, a comic tale of a young man whose life is transformed by a mischievous gentlemanís gentleman, has a delicious dry humour and an imaginative flair that makes it much more than just the "Czech Jeeves". Owing more to Jerome K. Jerome than P. G. Wodehouse, the writing is rich in homespun wisdom and casual asides that take on a life of their own, leading the reader up charming byways of irrelevance." - Adam Preston, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Saturnin is a light, comic novel in the P.G.Wodehouse/Jerome K. Jerome mode. The retrospective account begins with when the thirty-year-old narrator engaged a manservant -- a premise and starting point even he admits: "'seems eccentric and too like a character in a novel". The narrator lives comfortably in: "a small, peaceful flat" in Prague -- a life of fairly unambitious leisure, though not any excessive luxury. He seems to have little need for a manservant, but decides to hire one, employing the Saturnin of the title -- who certainly shakes his life up.
       Efficient, discreet, but also very determined, Saturnin imposes his will -- and what he thinks is right for his master -- with a devil-may-care attitude. He truly serves his master -- though often deciding for himself what he thinks is best, rather than simply doing his master's bidding. So also, for example, Saturnin soon decides new quarters are called for, and moves them -- onto a houseboat. While at times flummoxed by Saturnin's actions and escapades, the narrator is happy enough to go with the flow; he isn't particularly ambitious or determined, and benefits from Saturnin's behind-the-scenes guidance -- and he appreciates Saturnin's ingenuity.
       The narrator does have a bit of family, notably widowed Aunt Catherine and the son she dotes on, good-for-nothing Bertie, as well as Grandpa (Catherine's father-in-law, not father). From outside the family, there is family friend Dr.Witherspoon and, above all else, there is the charming Miss Barbara Basnett, whom the narrator -- and Bertie -- have an eye on. A crack tennis player who drives around in a fancy car -- her Rapide -- she is an independent, modern woman -- and very attractive.
       Aunt Catherine has her problems with Bertie -- though for her he can do no wrong -- and even tries to move them in on the narrator's houseboat, but Saturnin handles that (like everything). Everyone -- including Miss Barbara and Dr.Witherspoon -- does however come together at Grandpa's place, where they vacation together in the summer. They also get stranded together, cut off from the rest of the world by torrential rains that wash away the only connecting bridge, and leave them to their own devices, with limited supplies.
       The narrator and Miss Barbara do manage to get closer -- helped by Saturnin's sabotage of any efforts by Bertie to make an impression. Meanwhile, however, Aunt Catherine also spies an opportunity to better position herself (and Bertie) as Grandpa's heir -- though it turns out the old man was just playing with her, and that his demise isn't nearly as close as she seems to have hoped.
       Saturnin and Grandpa certainly understand one another and get along well, and Saturning happily plays along with the old man's plans; indeed, they get up to a great deal of fun together. As Grandpa eventually reports:

His power of imagination and his remarkable mental dexterity could turn a timetable into a crime thriller. He makes a person realise that he needn't have grown old so quickly if he hadn't forgotten t play games. I am having fun as never before in my life. A few days age we launched a jihad against writers. We raided the library and now are rendering novels into the language of sober reality.
       Indeed, Grandpa eventually asks that he be allowed to keep Saturnin -- which the narrator, whose relationship with Miss Barbara blossoms, seems fine with, as it appears he no longer is in the same urgent need of Saturnin's support and assistance.
       Saturnin is a playful, low-stakes novel, very much in the English between-the-wars-novel mode. The humor is of the understatedly absurd variety -- Saturnin reporting on a previous employer, for example, who:
asked me to fetch him a cognac and a ghost at once. He told me that I could bring them in reverse order if I so desired, the apparition first and then the cognac to dull the fear. He would leave the order of appearance to me.
       The (light) comic scenes and situations are similarly precisely set out, as when the narrator reports on trying to run down a damp: "steep, scree-ridden slope in hobnailed boots":
I flew down the slope in a manner that strongly suggested a natural disaster. As I slid, the stones I trod on reacted angrily and took evasive action from under my feet. Curiously enough, my desperate efforts to come to a stop had precisely the opposite effect. I tumbled down among the trees bordering the brook, gathering speed at a lunatic pace as I went.
       It's all good if relatively low-stakes fun. Jirotka does have some inspired bits -- not least the brief closing chapter, where he notes that: "a wedding is the only appropriate ending for every tale" -- and so provides one, too (if not exactly as expected -- but beautifully succinctly bringing the story to a close). Near the end, he also has Grandpa and Saturnin have their say, in letters to the narrator, allowing Jirotka to confirm his outlook on life and literature, and embrace of the playful that also comes with Saturnin's realization:
that it was necessary to take the contents of novels, novellas and short stories with a large pinch of salt, whether in terms of grand overall themes or the most insignificant details.
       Saturnin also elaborates on the amusing project he and Grandpa are working on, having established an 'Agency for Introducing a Sense of Proportion into Novel Writing'.
       Saturnin itself is, of course, escapist fiction: part of the point is that it doesn't measure up to reality; if not entirely fantastical, its intentional silliness is certainly meant to to offer escape into an untroubled and simple low-stakes world. This is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Saturnin: though there's no explicit mention of anything of the sort, it's hard to forget that this novel was written and published in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, at the height (or rather in the depths of ...) World War II. There are a few suggestions of dark clouds -- literaly, even, as the narrator describes some of his pre-Saturnin days: "when the heavens open up and pour streams of rain onto the earth below, a whirlwind tears the leaves off the trees, and the shrieks of a howling gale encircle the towers of old castles and mingle with the cries of frightened crows" and he would lose himself in old-fashioned books -- and:
Then in the morning I was filled with wonder at the fact that the trams were still running along the streets of Prague. Indeed I was surprised that the coffee which Mrs.Sweeting brought to me had not been laced with poison.
       Jirotka does isolate his characters -- there is some general social mingling (including at the tennis club, where the narrator first meets Miss Barbara), but the locales tend to the cut off: the narrator moves onto a houseboat, for example, while most of the story takes place at Grandpa's in the country, left unreachable (and more or less unleaveable) by yet another storm. Saturnin is a book apart -- and certainly apart from the goings-on of the times.
       An appealing, oddball tale, with some funny ideas and scenes that in its English-influenced understated telling largely feels rather tame (though there's a bit of hidden bite lurking beneath ....).

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 November 2017

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Links:

Saturnin: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Zdeněk Jirotka lived 1911 to 2003.

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© 2017 the complete review

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