Intentionally or otherwise – by the authors’ concerned - the credibility deficit exposed in the euro, that of Maastricht, shifting allegiances, geographic and metaphysical, and the rise of UKIP, have each lent relevance to this topic as a literary theme. To Howard’s credit, his Transylvania – while highlighted as the setting in the cover blurb – never comes close to the increasingly stale whiff of the Undead.
His theme is ‘nostalgia for the future.’ In each tale we see the architectural and political changes wrought upon the ‘unknown eighth’ Rumanian town, formerly Sternbergstadt,( latterly renamed Steaua de Munte), and its often darkly circuitous consequences to one figure who appeals, in various guises, to each protagonist-narrator; often in search of some form of atonement.
A lawyer, desperate to hold on to what his beloved town had once been, conscripts a drifting artist to his own personal cause.
From a bar in Prague, a former political agent re-encounters his former gaoler when a prisoner-of-war and the old colleague who’s reunited them. This is a cold war-style tale of intrigue where ‘boundaries…may be negotiated and crossed over.’
A small, fascistic coterie of Futurists try establishing the Sternbergstadt Spaceflight Society in a poorly-supported bid – by its ageing founder - to launch Romania’s first manned rocket, past credibility but not of heart. This is a clever depiction of another possible future; a cul-de-sac of cornered utopianism.
‘The Reluctant Visionary’ is the first of this collection’s three true gems. A newly-qualified architect with a penchant for the Art Deco, born of what he saw reflected in the buildings of Bucharest, steers him back to Steaua de Munte – his old home town. Here, he oversees the restoration of his boyhood cinema. Further research draws him to a newly-opened bookshop, the film of ‘Shape of Things to Come,’ an old photo album, and a local couple’s story, which harbours disturbed visions of an alternate future.
‘In Strange Earth’ follows a chance encounter between a loyal, Zelig-like Party member, rising up the ranks through a series of serendipitous triggers, and the local town mayor. When he witnesses the people turn against his leader, he soon realises that, for the first time in his life, his own hide is now vulnerable. Mine is a simplistic sketch, since, as with the best uncanny tales, the telling is slightly ambiguous, the sense of isolation, beautifully wrought.
In fact, Howard is so often less of an uncanny voice than that of Mark Valentine, his occasional writing partner. Yet, where he is, he excels, heightening rather than undermining a narrative’s authenticity.
‘The Silver Voice’ (effectively, the title tale) is a frame tale-within-a-tale. A short story, found printed in an old, fascist periodical, hides a central truth – a badge of family shame - relayed by the framing narrator’s grandfather-writer. An accompanying, anonymously sent, query compels the grandson to embark on a journey to uncover the source of this shame; to, in effect, re-enact the trajectory of the original short tale. An entry as emotionally authentic as it is structurally sound.
The seven-tale collection closes with ‘To Hope for a Caesar.’ The setting shifts to Berlin. A museum tour guide is held back by a strange older man who, having observed the younger, impresses to him the need for him to contact a third party whom he seeks. This third man is also a stranger to the tour guide, but he cautiously takes the older man’s card. What transpires leads to a show of manifest wealth bought by familial and political treachery; a selling-out that must somehow be reconciled to today’s more liberal mores.
I’m pleased both this collection (first published in 2010) and ‘Secret Europe’ (2012 – and now with Tartarus) have so soon found a home for an additional western audience to Bucharest’s more esoteric Ex-Occidente, who published both first editions.
Howard – a British writer - has carved out an almost unique niche for himself, detailing the geo-political ebb and flow of Eastern European history from the minutiae of its human costs and intrigue.
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Cyril Simsa takes both a more literal, and wittier, view of his ‘other Europe,’ spawned, as it is, from the Czech community of his North London roots. It is his Prague and the surrounding country that features most broadly. Broadly, Simsa’s deprecating wit reveals much future promise in unexpected punchlines;
“The air was warm under the slanted glass panes of the conservatory roof, even as the moon and stars swooped overhead through the long, elliptical thread of their courses. It was not for nothing my father had learned to copy the ancient Romans’ underfloor heating system.”
“I don’t think he quite knew of what to make of my reaction either, but to give him his due, he did not give away any more than I did. And I suppose that, after several centuries of being shunned, it must come as something of a surprise to have a dinner guest. You can’t do a lot of entertaining if your neighbours swoon with horror whenever they see you. It must be so terribly dull to be frightening.”
In this, his debut collection, the writer is, perhaps inevitably, still in the process of finding his literary voice. Some metaphors are not entirely comparable; not always perfectly evoking what is described. Take, “their loose white smocks flapped like owls in the warm riverside breeze.” This, after the wearers are described as ‘tall and sun-browned.’ (‘Imbibing History’). Or, “their bodies black and furry as smoke in the turbid sky.” (Ibid.) A reference to a cloud of bats, where the smoke being ‘furry’ seems a misnomer.
This first tale is a contemporaneous riposte to ‘Dracula,’ set in its published year. It covers overly familiar ground, yet with the sly wink of a convincing female academic archetype. (If an archetype can ever convince…). A cossetted, wide-eyed innocent whose textbook intelligence inadvertently equips her with the ability to fascinate her dark ‘suitor.’
There are two fantastical bursts that indelibly imprint upon the memory. Long after putting the book down you’ll easily summon the last descent into a water nymph’s netherworld in ‘Under the Waves,’ along with the earth-erupting ascent of a pagan figure of folklore in ‘On the Feast of Stephen.’
‘Under the Waves’ is this collection’s highlight. With its timely setting - the summer before the 1914-18 War - it has the sepia-tinged wonder of a Lake Lady fairy tale by that old outsider-prophet, George Macdonald. A reflective epilogue on a life’s changing pace and perception succeeds as a balanced portrayal of what appears to be Simsa’s twin interests; fantastical interventions to self-realisation.
In ‘Poorly Formulated Questions,’ a conservative, despotic President – beneficiary of a genetic programme of life extension – is finally tracked down. Or is he? His trailer soon discovers the secret of his elusive, extended life.
The collection’s timely sub-theme of treachery culminates in ‘Queen of Sumava.’ Two Red Army Colonels are independently posted for rival manoeuvres at the post-War Bavarian border; one with orders to close the border; the other to ‘test’ the present troops. Also here, amidst the unknown-knowns of what the surrounding mountains may harbour, is the source of local superstition, made manifest as its mists come down - the ‘Queen’ of the title.
Another pleasing contrast with Howard’s collection is the number of female protagonists that Simsa delineates with apparent, simple ease. (In four of the six tales, including one of the two Colonels’ in the last). To achieve this, I wonder if he empathised most with the women in his own family. Certainly, from his Introduction, he states how he grew-up seeing himself something of a stateless outsider who only realised how English he really was when he moved to Prague in the 90s’.
This is a debut of promise. Simsa dispenses building atmosphere through over-dominant back-story or character. Instead, he utilises a lighter touch, an informed wit enlivening both the history and the myth.
* * *
Finally, speaking of wit, I’d like to thank the anagrammatical Paulo Brito for the dedication of one of his infamous, oulipo poems to myself:
My "Beau Présent" of the day
(20th August) goes to
A seaman and sand!
A sandman and sea!
Are Mark’s dreams.
Same dreams. Same dramas!
A dark, dense edema?
Mark sees a reader,
and read… read.
Mark dreams a dream.
A masked Eden's remake?
a damask snake,
a naked drake,
Mark earned a ranked arena!
Mark’s a dear
Mark’s a masked dream maker.
© Paulo Brito (2014)