February 2004

K T Smith


City Sister Silver by Jachym Topol

Think one part Burgess, a little bit of Joyce, mix in some Kerouac, spiced with American Indian myth and… wahlah… City Sister Silver. Jachym Topol’s novel rocked the Czech literary scene. Marked by rapid changes in syntax, style, spelling, grammar and dialogue Topol’s style is both wild and brilliant. From one sentence to the next Topol shifts tone and meaning, mixing the vernacular with traditional literary form. Though not so radical to the English speaking world, Topol’s style marks a turning point in Czech literature. City Sister Silver is the only book from the 1990s to be included in the list of the 100 Greatest Czech Prose Works of the Century.

The book kicks off soon after “time exploded.” With the Velvet Revolution kicking, City Sister Silver is an account of one man’s response to the new era. It is nearly impossible to summarize the many plot lines as the novel skips and jumps from dreams to drunken delusions to stark reality. In a very small nutshell: Potok is an actor, a black market entrepreneur, a drinker and a romantic. Potok and his droogs rule the underbelly of Prague and have their hands in nearly every public project and business venture. Yet, he has little interest in business; Potok’s main agenda is to find his soul mate, his sister.

Topol, through Potok, uses language with total control. As translator Alex Zucker notes in the novel’s introduction, language is changed in response to the political landscape in post-Communist Czech Republic. With reality changing faster than language, Potok is forced to use atypical terminology to define the new dynamics in the world around him. Potok refers to his gang as his "tribe." In "City," the book’s first section, the tribe sits in a circle and one by one they relay their dreams, which they regard as prophecies. In one such dream Potok and the tribe are whisked to Auschwitz in a magic carpet and are led by a slap-stick skeleton through a sea of bones. Another dream tells of the origins of the tribe, told in the style of American Indian oral-tradition.

The novel is laden with other American Indian references (Topol has since written a novella and numerous translations on American Indian myths). Implicitly Topol likens the European invasion on the American Indians to the barrage of freedom into Eastern Europe. In one flash back of his adventures in Berlin Potok reminisces:

And as I stood around, picking up all sorts of words and expressions as the tribe mixed together in byznys to survive…stealn cash and words from each other… experiences an words…it struck me maybe something was happenin here, maybe the mixing was givin rise to a new toung…a Kanak one…and maybe it was a tounge of peace, a pre-Babylonian one…only most folks at the markets look pretty bad, shabby, emaciated or bloated… for safety and things…they would’ve had to mix with the handsome natives too… to put an end to the tribes…but they’re not wanted that’s obvious. Maybe unfortunately what it’ll take, I thought…truly unfortunate, is another couple Auschwitzes, a Wall or two, a Gulag… or an even longer path…until it dawns on everyone.

Though overwhelming at times, once you get accustomed to the style City Sister Silver is surprisingly easy to follow. The use of Czech slang, and invented terminology just sneaks into your lexicon much like the language of A Clockwork Orange. There is a helpful appendix where the more obscure cultural, historical and literary terms are explained. Soon you’ll find yourself seamlessly riding from dream sequence to the next. Once you stop trying to sift between reality and fantasy, the language tells and becomes the story.

City, Sister, Silver by Jachym Topol
Catbird Press
ISBN: 0945774451
508 pages