After much struggle to conclusively compose a study of Kafka, Borges revealed his failure in a short essay titled “Kafka and His Precursors.” Curiously, the essay begins with an apparent defense: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka's precursors” (Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, 2000 ), and goes on to deliver a brilliantly original means of considering Kafka by considering aspects of those who preceded him, not by searching through Kafka's diaries and papers to discover “influences,” but instead by finding moments, phenotypical, of what can be found in Kafka. The reviewer of Tomáš Zmeškal's debut novel Milostný dopis klínovým písmem (2008), translated into English by the prolific and gifted Alex Zucker as Love Letter in Cuneifom (2016), finds herself in a position to consider the sui generis quality of Zmeškal as Borges did Kafka, but without, sadly, the same mental instrument as Borges possessed. Be that as it may, approaching this magically demanding rhizome of a novel, I find myself moved to imitate Borges' “review” of Kafka.
Despite the many studies that have argued for an intimate national complexion to Czech culture, I prefer to see the artistic “miracles” and nové volny of Czech modernity to have in common, paradoxically, their sui generis nature. That particularity attends all the great novels of Czech modernism: Kundera is Kundera, Hrabal Hrabal, Hašek Hašek, Kafka Kafka and, yes, Zmeškal Zmeškal. This should not mean that Zmeškal has no precursors, pace Borges. He does indeed.
From Hašek there is a gut busting and gutsy humor, from Hrabal a beautifully bittersweet impossibility that can only be given orality, from Kundera trouble and love swathed in a required irony. And whosoever might desire to possess Kafka nationally, from Kafka the pulsating wound of being alive. If there is something that does bind all these precursors one to the other and all to Zmeškal in some form or figure, there is the healthy care not to cover or suture the wound by writing it away: “If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy … we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to” (Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, 2016 ). I invoke these predecessors to Zmeškal and his laud-worthy Love Letter in Cuneiform even as I could have added aspects from David Foster Wallace, Viktor Pelevin, Gabriel García Márquez, Jáchym Topol, Pliny the Elder, Laurence Sterne, and the Macrobius and Betrand Russell invoked in Zmeškal's epigraphs.
Zmeškal's novel is intersectional in every way, a Borromean knot of parallel narratives, chronologies, couples, mutual recognitions and misrecognitions, like the labyrinthine streets of enfolded and layered Prague, spoliated over time, over Events. The reader loses herself in a happy state of precarity with the warm voice of the author beyond the narrator(s), an author who bivouacs us, abode to abode, even as it tosses us quick-wittedly, heterochronously and heterotopically.
Zmeškal asks us to read carefully, intently, with a particular inquisitiveness akin to that which Vladimir Nabokov demands of his readers. As with the true manner in which time unfurls in memory rather than in History, the more passive reader, along with one of the narrators, George/Jiří, an Englishman of Czech origin, who puzzles over what has exactly happened in the story, is lost to the fulsome subtexts of what could more facilely be read monolithically, jumps to conclusions, and is affected by misunderstood moments. The reader then is not to be stalled by George's narrative, and can hardly be as voices layer one upon the other yet, if the reader is active, she can hear distinctly. Zucker renders all that formal paradox into an English that is thorny and desirous all at once (I think especially of how well delivered in English are the antinomies of Květa and Hynek's sexual relationship played out also in their repartee).
Couples, the inter-acts of his story (Alice-Maximilian, Alice-Josef, Josef-Kveta, Josef-Hynek, and onward), abound in Love Letter in Cuneiform. And the possibility of forgetting—the reader's forgetting, the characters' forgetting—is ever a present danger. How to keep hold of a character who is not in the narrative spotlight, and how strong is the need, the ethical need, to remember especially the traumas, moments of pain, or entire lives of loneliness and degradation. Such a magnificent curlicue of life with its loves lost, deferred, and foreclosed would pose a challenge to the best, most major, readers. And the Anglophone reader has been given a novel in Zucker's translation that matches the original with special verve. English cannot match the potential for pyrotechnic paronomasia in Czech nor its flavorful palaver, but Zucker makes decisions that please the English ear (and eye) in a manner that allows the English to yield respectfully to the Czech, even to Zmeškal's sui generis Czech. Zucker, in the translator's note reserved for the end of the novel in English, reads itself, aptly, like a love letter, “It was a genuine pleasure to find my way through the maze of Zmeškal's Love Letter …” (315). This reader hopes, along with Zucker, that he “will be able to translate another one of [Zmeškal's] books before long” (315), and eagerly awaits the ability to share the contemporary, and perhaps more important, precursive importance of Zmeškal's work.