Monday, March 5, 2012

Patrik Ourednik, Case Closed

It all began with a late night hyperlink clicking session, and it ended with reviews of all of Patrik Ourednik's books that have been translated into English: The Opportune Moment (here), Europeana (here), and now Case Closed (Dalkey Archive, 2010).

In a letter to his friend Philip Pendleton Cooke, dated August 9th, 1846, Edgar Allan Poe commented on the popularity of his Dupin stories, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue":
These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious — but people think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.
Passages such as these serve as important reminders of the rules of the detective story genre. For a detective novel to work qua genre, the author must be able to deploy a series of devices to maintain not only suspense, but she must also be able to give good reasons as to why the mystery unravels. As much fun as the reader might have in the process, the author must have all the loose ends tied up. That is, if we're talking about the genre.

In Case Closed, Patrik Ourednik seemingly takes up Poe's gauntlet, and writes a detective story in which the author/narrator (if we can equate them--or am I falling into Poe's trap?) doesn't know how the web unravels, leaving several intrigues to begin only to be left in suspense by the end of the novel. The story--at least most of it--follows the convergence of two characters, Viktor Dyk, a retiree and failed novelist, and Vilém Lebeda, a police inspector in Prague, who not only is charged with following up on a suicide with a few suspicious circumstances, but also pursues with extra-curricular interest a forty-year old murder case that, while out of Lebeda's jurisdiction, seems to have ties to the members of Dyk's retiree's club.

Ourednik drops a few hints about how the suspicious death and the forty-year old murder case tie together, but he's mostly interested in undermining the expectations of the reader who might just get lured into the intrigues--there's also an abundance of red herrings, if it's even possible to separate between lures and leads. And, given that a group of retirees are at the center of the non-action, there's lots of curmudgeonly behavior, as if Ourednik were attempting to master the aches, pains, and casual bigotry of a cynical post-communist generation. At one point, Viktor Dyk reflects on adolescence:
Adolescents were the worst. Formerly known as youth, the vanguard of our society, striding forth in the footsteps of their fathers, who themselves had only managed to make it as far as the rearguard (13).
Though amidst some pointless retiree-banter (and some of that aforementioned casual bigotry), Dyk leaves us a clue:
"Don't you have something to say, Mr. Dyk?"
"Silence is a form of speech," replied Mr. Dyk.
Mrs. Prochazka looked puzzled.
"And the reverse." He couldn't resist.
"The reverse?"
"Speaking is just another form of silence."
It's the first indication that for all the talk and narration, the mysteries and intrigues may never be unraveled.* By the time we get to Chapter 37:
We are born into a novel whose meaning escapes us, and depart from a novel we have never once understood. Now or never! The author has established with his customary skill that he is equally at home in any genre; he has piled plot twist upon plot twist without so much as a second thought; stacked varying styles side by side; stung readers with bitingly sarcastic asides and trenchant social critique; and generously tossed in a thumbnail psychological sketch. Now or never! No one's understood a thing, and even if they had...
When I read passages like these, I want to point out Simone de Beauvoir's distinction between absurdity and ambiguity. I'll let it pass for now, because this passage--especially the part surrounding what I've quoted--seems to be the master key for interpreting the story. Detective novels have long relied on the ingenuity of the author to unravel the case. And while this is hardly going to sound like praise, in subverting expectations in the genre, Case Closed requires the ingenuity of the reader** to follow the clues.


** This might sound like I'm complimenting myself, but I'm not. It's just that you've got to build your own case, which is why I placed the first footnote--given that it's a spoiler--below.
* We'll call this the SPOILER asterisk: I think the statement is also revealing of the failed author Dyk and his role in the intrigues.

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