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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Love Letter in Cuneiform

Tomáš Zmeškal

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To purchase Love Letter in Cuneiform

Title: Love Letter in Cuneiform
Author: Tomáš Zmeškal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 315 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Love Letter in Cuneiform - US
Love Letter in Cuneiform - UK
Love Letter in Cuneiform - Canada
Lettera d'amore in scrittura cuneiforme - Italia
  • Czech title: Milostný dopis klínovým písmem
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Alex Zucker

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nicely done; interesting slices of Czech life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 3/3/2017 Kathryn Murphy

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book is -- perhaps inevitably -- uneven. The echo chamber of image and idea is most resonant in the central chapters; the final third, focused on the 1990s, suffers from diminishing intensity. Some of the conversations are clunky. Nonetheless, the scope of invention is exciting to encounter." - Kathryn Murphy, 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:

       The first chapter of Love Letter in Cuneiform is set in 1968, a pivotal year for Czechoslovakia, as well as for many of the characters in the novel. The main event here -- still pre-Soviet invasion -- is the wedding of young Alice and of Maximilian, but the occasion brings together many of the characters that feature in the story -- including the pastry chef who makes the remarkable wedding cake (which turns out to be far from the most ... creative of his pastry-(re)creations ...). From home to church to the government offices (for the civil ceremony), it also quickly touches on many of the main stations in Czech life of the time; here and throughout the novel remains largely domestic and intimate, with some state interference (but remarkably little of the workplace).
       Alice is the daughter of the engineer Josef and of Květa; Maximilian is an aristocratic scion (which apparently still impresses, even in Communist Czechoslovakia). The beginning of one marriage also marks more or less the end of the other, as Josef separates his life from Květa's (though Alice and Maximilian's union also isn't a lastingly happy one). The reason for Josef settling apart from his wife aren't immediately made clear, as the novel takes its time in looking back (and forward), filling in the pieces bit by bit.
       The couple's life had previously been cruelly disrupted, not long after they were married and when Alice was still an infant, when Josef was taken away in 1950, and locked up for ten years, a devastating blow to the family from which none entirely recovered. Looking back in the 1990s, Josef notes only that "The reason is irrelevant now", about why he was arrested; elsewhere in the book there are a few mentions of what made him suspect, but the supposed crime -- nowhere near a crime at all -- didn't matter in those harsh and suspicious times: as someone in the know explained to Květa:

Everyone investigated is convicted, that's how it works.
       It is Josef's old friend Hynek who explains this, Hynek who in 1950 is a henchman of the regime -- albeit of the most polished sort. A lawyer with connections, he is also a master manipulator. If Josef is nearly broken by the system (and the penal system) -- helped in part by Hynek's manipulations -- so Květa is personally broken by the patient, devious, and horribly cruel Hynek. And she is far from his only victim. In a novel with a great deal of humor -- often with a poignant touch to it, but nevertheless -- how Hynek takes advantage of Květa, and how she succumbs stands in shockingly raw contrast.
       If this era and the events represent a dark, dark period -- personally and nationally -- 1968 seems to bring with it hope: the Prague Spring, Alice's wedding, even a commission to look into what Hynek did. Josef even lets himself be nudged to addressing what happened to him -- Josef, who never saw himself as a victim:
The idea of being a victim didn't fit with him or his profession. He had always viewed himself as having had an accident, an unpleasant political accident with lasting consequences, but the thought that he might be a victim had never crossed his mind.
       But the turn of events later in 1968 also make for a turn of the authorities' interest in Hynek and his misdeeds -- or, as they are then again seen as, talents. Patient Hynek finds his particular sort of expertise called for once again; the idea of justice for his past victims is forgotten and dismissed. Worse yet, Hynek reveals to Josef just what happened during the time of Josef's incarceration -- a final devastating blow.
       Yet Love Letter in Cuneiform is a love story. Not of the happiest sort -- times and circumstances (and the unwillingness of the characters to talk things out -- Maximilian and Alice, for one, but more obviously Josef (hard of hearing Josef, who can tune out the world by lowering the sound on his hearing aids) and Květa) don't seem to allow for a happy, lasting union -- but Josef and Květa's story is one of a (very battered) lifelong love. There is even that love letter of the title -- but it really is in cuneiform: undecipherable for almost all, practically a secret language.
       While the heart of the story is that around Josef and Květa, there's considerably more to the novel too. Quite a few of the chapters are near-stand-alone, many scenes-from-a-life from other characters' lives (as well as two fanciful 'visions of immortality') -- including two very funny episodes involving a thief who is anything but a break-in artist (well, he does the breaking in well and unnoticed, but afterwards ...) -- complete with (obligatory in a Czech novel ?) a defenestration scene.
       Love Letter in Cuneiform is a layered novel -- chronologically, with 1968 as the base, but moving both far back (to the 1940s) and ahead (into the post-Communist Czech Republic of the 1990s), and in presenting so many different characters and their stories. It is a rich, deep family-saga -- complete with incidental characters brought to the fore for a turn in the spotlight -- but doesn't go on at saga-length, Zmeškal remarkably able -- despite his digressions and tangential stories -- to maintain a tight control on the essence; even as some chapters seem to come out of (or go) nowhere, and even as the story moves back and forth in time, it turns out to be very carefully and artfully structured.
       This is a very fine novel of (a few slices of) Czech life in the second half of the twentieth century, with a nice balance of the wildly imagined and the all-too-real.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2016

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Love Letter in Cuneiform: Reviews: Tomáš Zmeškal: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Tomáš Zmeškal was born in 1966.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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