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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Zuzana Brabcová

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To purchase Aviaries

Title: Aviaries
Author: Zuzana Brabcová
Genre: Novel
Written: (2016) (Eng. 2019)
Length: 126 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Aviaries - US
Aviaries - UK
Aviaries - Canada
  • Czech title: Voliéry
  • Translated by Tereza Novická

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Our Assessment:

B : creative dark little slice of contemporary Czech life

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Aviaries is Alžběta (Běta), presented here both in the first and sometimes third person. The work is presented in short pieces -- dated diary entries as well as others that instead have descriptive headings. There is a basic chronology here, the opening section dated 20 December 2011 and proceeding (though only occasionally, nowhere near daily) through March of 2012, then with a gap around mid-way through, the dating picking up again in January, 2015 and proceeding not quite sequentially in the few remaining dated entries after (including a giant leap into the past, to: 'On the 23rd of March, 1966'). The novel offers scenes from a life over this period -- Běta's, in its current, depressed state: "I have no money, no job, no family".
       In fact, Běta does have some family: flighty daughter Alice, specializing in dumpster-diving for now; sister Nadia; their octo- and then nonagenarian mother. Laid off in 2010, she can count the days she's been out of work (428 when she first mentions it), and she lives in a basement flat; she's clinically depressed and repeatedly seeks medical attention, her psychiatrist suggesting:

"How about we try Mirtazapine ? Or Valdoxan ? Or even ... trazodone ?"
     He closed his eyes at the last word, overcome with delight.
     Of course, I couldn't let that go: "Or meth ? Or maybe fudge or sludge or heroin ?"
       He also diagnoses:
     Your inner world is like that basement lair of yours. Kick down the doors, file through the bars ! Do you even notice the world around you ?
       In fact she does; at times, she can even seem hyper-aware -- but she despairs of this world around her, beginning with the politics: the novel opens right after the death of Václav Havel. The lost idealism of the post-Communist Czech Republic is a constant in the background, not least in the reactions to Havel's death -- notably also in the form of Alice's first-grade teacher, Marta Semelová, now leader of the Prague Communists, who: "congratulated the nation on ridding itself of a pest". (Semelová is a real-life figure, and she was indeed a teacher before becoming a politician; she crops up repeatedly in the novel, someone whose baneful influence on her daughter Běta had to nip in the bud.)
       Entries include scenes of interaction with family and others -- both realistic and tending to the absurd, such when she encounters her hockey-obsessed former boss, fully decked out in all his gear, including skates, in front of the Academy of Sciences while The Rite of Spring is being performed at the National Theater (and Alice explores a dumpster). Other entries offer titbits of news and information, not entirely random but connecting to her story and life often only in the broadest sense:
     More than half the Russian population has a favorable opinion of Joseph Stalin's role in Russian history.
     Thirteen boys shot dead by ISIS extremists in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul for violating the ban on watching soccer.
     The plastic bag ripped.
     The needle disappeared in the fabric.
     Near and far, the last leaf in Prague fell to the ground.
       Thoughts of mortality figure prominently, and a nostalgic sense bubbles to the surface at times too:
     I lift the pot lid and stare at the bottom of those days. Where have they gone, where are they now, at this moment, those angels of ours ? The spring sun bears down on the freshly painted iron bars of my window, as if it -- a country-fair strongman -- wants to bend them into a horseshoe.
       With its sharp sense of the absurd but also grounded in the all too-real contemporary world, Brabcová effectively presents a dark-hued picture of the present. Obviously also a very personal take, Brabcová doesn't wallow too deeply in self-pity -- often twisting what might lead to such feeling sorry for herself into the absurd. Beyond that, it's her eloquent expression that makes her tale particularly effective: it reads well throughout, in its expression through Běta and her various struggles (including with expression ...):
     I replied to another twenty-five job offers today, and as I was about to answer the twenty-sixth the screen went dark and I spotted the reflection of my face, which was, just like Melda's creation, thoroughly drained, baffling, angular, and utterly unemployable. In this dark battle of blots, in this deathly boring ten-card game, all I can do is describe it with words quite different to those inside me, words that are delicate, breezy, and translucent, just like the unknown voice requested.
       Shifting between the surreal and the real, Aviaries is a poetic summa, sometimes tighly narrow in its focus, sometimes reaching out broadly, of what life's come to for Brabcová's aging protagonist, and what hold she has left on a world that disappoints -- no doubt reflecting Brabcová's own feeling and experiences. The literary is one small hold -- a nice touch in the final scenes has books flying out of flames into Běta's father's arms, a hopeful scene and sense of the literary as withstanding, impossible to keep down -- and if not entirely sufficient for the character so at least, for its duration, a comfort to the reader in the form of this eloquent little testament.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2019

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Aviaries: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Zuzana Brabcová lived 1959 to 2015.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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