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The Year of the Frog


Set in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, during the waning years of Communist rule, Martin M. Simecka's startlingly original first novel, The Year of the Frog, shows a young man struggling to understand the circumstances of his life. Simecka, born in Bratislava in 1957, is the son of a prominent Czechoslovak intellectual who was imprisoned for his dissident beliefs. Though not overtly political, Simecka's novel is unabashedly autobiographical. First published in installments in the underground Czechoslovak ...
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Set in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s, during the waning years of Communist rule, Martin M. Simecka's startlingly original first novel, The Year of the Frog, shows a young man struggling to understand the circumstances of his life. Simecka, born in Bratislava in 1957, is the son of a prominent Czechoslovak intellectual who was imprisoned for his dissident beliefs. Though not overtly political, Simecka's novel is unabashedly autobiographical. First published in installments in the underground Czechoslovak press, it was reissued in one volume after the lifting of restrictions. Written in engagingly simple, unadorned prose, The Year of the Frog follows the fortunes of Milan, a young intellectual forbidden to attend college because of his father's political activities. Unable to pursue his studies and under surveillance by the authorities, who frequently trail him in their yellow-and-white Zhiguli cars, Milan takes a succession of menial jobs, first as a surgical orderly in a hospital, where he witnesses death on a regular basis, and then as a clerk in a perpetually understocked hardware store, and then again in a hospital, this time as an assistant in a maternity ward. After Milan's father is arrested, his mother, a diabetic, spends her days pining for her husband and listening to the Voice of America over Viennese radio. Once, following a trip to Poland, Milan himself is briefly detained by the police. But the grimness of Milan's day-to-day existence cannot blunt his ever-agile, ever-questioning intellect, nor can it diminish the joy he derives from his two great passions: long-distance running, which he pursues with almost Zen-like dedication through the streets of Bratislava and the surrounding countryside, and Tania, a university student with whom he falls in love and with whom he discovers that the world, even one as circumscribed as his own Communist-controlled one, is full of possibilities. Milan's story is told with the exuberance and innocence of youth
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Simecka, the son of a prominent Czechoslovakian dissident, draws on his own past for an extraordinarily rich and compelling first novel about life during the last years of communism before the Velvet Revolution. What makes this winner of the 1992 Pegasus Prize for Literature unique is the dizzying array of experiences the author has captured, from the aimless existence of young intellectuals capriciously excluded from participation in cultural life to the daily drudgery of workers. The narrator, a young intellectual in Bratislava named Milan, is in limbo. Because his father is serving a prison sentence for dissident activities, he may not enroll in the university and therefore is ineligible for any job that requires a degree. Since by law he must be employed, Milan takes a succession of posts: as a hospital orderly assisting in brain operations, then later with abortions; and as a clerk in a hardware store. Through the years, he dreams of becoming a writer and indulges his two passions, long-distance running and his love for the beautiful Tania, whom he eventually marries and betrays. The novel's exploration of a sensitive, ethical young man's coming of age is enriched by haunting descriptions of everyday life that reveal medical incompetence and corruption, bureaucratic favoritism and the dashed hopes of Milan's friends and colleagues. These simple, effective passages are a chilling indictment of the communist experiment. Author tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Born in 1957, Simecka is one of the generation of Czechoslovakian writers who were penalized by the Communist regime for the ``sins'' of their parents. His autobiographical novel, winner of the 1992 Pegasus Prize for Literature, was originally published as three novellas, but the stories flow together in this single volume to reveal the mind-numbing existence of Czech youth in the 1980s. Unable to attend a university because of his father's political activities but required by the state to have gainful employment or face arrest, the protagonist works at low-level jobs in a large hospital where most of the patients face gruesome surgery and low survival rates. Away from work, he pursues the love of his life and accepts the advances of a would-be mistress. Deliberately unemotional, this subdued novel lacks the resonance and rueful insights of more mature writers such as Ivan Klima, but it nonetheless makes an interesting addition for academic and large public library collections.-- Olivia Opello, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
John Shreffler
In this coming of age novel set in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in the waning days of the Communist dictatorship, Milan, son of a former party official now in disgrace for dissident activities, is not allowed into university even though he was once a track star. Originally published in the Slovak "samizdat" as three separate novellas, "Year" was selected for the Pegasus Prize, an award designed to introduce American readers to literature less often translated into English. It is easy to understand the choice. Unabashedly autobiographical, the novel recounts its hero's progress as he falls deep into the maw of the state and its organs. Under steady surveillance by the police, Milan must function in a fairly grim daily existence in which failure to work means prison and holding a menial job can mean watching people die in a hospital where doctors are inept and essential medicines are lacking. Milan manages to offset this bleakness with his love for Tania, a university student whom he finally marries, and by means of his inner life. Deliberately a bit naive, the novel delivers in the end a greater punch by contrasting essentially decent Milan with his surroundings.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807118696
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1993
  • Series: Pegasus Prize for Literature Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. What significance does the title The Year of the Frog gather in the course of the novel? Why might Simecka have chosen frogs as a symbol? What do they mean to Milan? What do frogs mean in this book? How might they relate to Milan's life? Are they a metaphor for anything else? If so, what?

2. Discuss Simecka's literary voice. Is it mature or naive? Intimate or detached? Tragic or comic? What are its strengths? Is it reminiscent of other literary voices? Whose?

3. David McLean of The Boston Book Review writes, "Simecka has not written an overtly political novel, and herein lies the strength of The Year of the Frog. An anticommunist diatribe would have been obvious and easy. Instead he writes of questions larger than dying ideologies.Young Milan learns of love and death and disappointment and infidelity against a backdrop of a totalitarian state. These are far riskier subjects for a writer than mere political cant, because they are subjects that are affected by, but ultimately transcend, ideology." Do Mr. McLean's observations seem accurate to you? What parts of the novel do they correspond to most directly? What are some of the issues Simecka writes of that are larger than dying ideologies?

4. Even though Simecka does not write a great deal about the political circumstances of Czechoslovakia, there is always a sense of government as a hovering presence. Describe the way in which Simecka accomplishes this. How does the state color and/or affect the lives of the characters -- Milan, Milan's mother, Tania, Tania's mother? How does it motivate their actions?

5. What troubles Milan throughout the novel? Do any of Simecka's other characters suffer from the sametroubles?

. Milan is deeply in love with Tania. What does Tania represent to Milan? With what qualities does he endow her? What does he seek in her arms? How does their relationship change and grow during the course of the novel?

7. When Tania and Robert consider having an affair, Milan is greatly shaken. He is terrified of losing Tania. When he finally has affair with Nora and confesses, Tania's response is understated."Do you want me to understand you? I do understand you, but frankly, I feel it does not concern me at all. I don't even know why you told me. The whole thing, from the beginning to the end, is your problem, not mine." Were you surprised by her answer? How would you have answered? How do you feel about Milan's infidelity? Was it necessary? Does it serve to propel him into his future? If so, how? What sort of role might infidelity play in life, in marriage?

8. Simecka writes,"How should I know what goes on inside a woman? Nature forms her in her image, and I just watch in astonishment. We look at women, build homes for them, play and sing for them, create household inventions for them, force them to work, divide them into states, and keep them in fear that one day we'll get tired and wreck it all. Because we mourn our own purposelessness!" What does Simecka mean by this? What other observations and insights about women does Simecka's character Milan express? How do you feel about Milan's understanding and treatment of women?

9. One of Milan's main jobs as an orderly in the hospital is to carry women from their beds to surgical tables. When he carries them to and from the operating theater, they place their arms around his neck and lay their heads against his shoulder. They confide their lives, admitting him to "the empire of women, the empire of suffering." Milan says,"The carrying of women was, apart from the poor salary, my only reward. Evanescent moments of intimacy took place like minor miracles." What might Milan mean by this? How does Milan see his role? How do the women perceive Milan? What is the significance of Milan carrying women?

10. There are many passages in The Year of the Frog where Simecka describes Milan's running. What does running mean to Milan? What significance does running have in this book? Is Milan's running a metaphor? If so, what might it be? Is Milan running from anything? Why might Milan feel the need to push his body past its limits?

11. Throughout the entire story, Milan's father is in prison. How does this fact color Milan's life? How does he come to terms with it? How does this fact affect you? What might Milan's relationship with his father be? Milan's mother is in emotional pain over her husband's imprisonment. What effect do her circumstances have on Milan? On the story? How do you relate to Milan's mother? Do you sympathize, empathize, and/or grow impatient with her pining?

12. From the beginning of this book, with the death of Mrs. Bohush, to the end of the book with the death of Tania and Milan's baby, death is a constant presence in The Year of the Frog. How does Milan deal with death? How does his relationship to death differ from the beginning of the novel to the end? What is Tania's relationship to death?

13. At the end of the novel, Milan and Tania's baby girl is born prematurely and dies. How does Milan react to this death? How does Tania? When Milan reaches the hospital's basement, he knows that his daughter has been put into the furnace fire. What might this mean and/or symbolize to him? What does it mean to burn dead babies in a hospital furnace?

14. "The first experience of the world is murderously gloomy," Milan says after a baby boy is born,"and though he will try to forget it all his life, one day he will find that it alone was the true one." Does this sentiment pervade the book? How do you feel about this statement? Is Milan essentially a pessimist or an optimist? What other opinions about life does Milan possess?

15. Milan asks many profound questions in this book, especially while he works in a hospital. When a young woman dies after an operation, he asks Mother Nature: "But tell me, why did you make her a woman? Why did you let her bleed once a month from the age of twelve? Why did you let her eat, dream, understand? And why the hell did you make her in the first place?" What is it about Milan that draws him to ask such questions? Why are we so often drawn to questions such as these? Are there any answers? How do you answer such questions? How does Milan finally answer them? How does he come to live with the answers? How do you?

16. "Goodness," says Milan,"is the antidote to nothingness, and while I strive for it, I'm safe." How does this idea of goodness direct Milan's life? How does it pervade the novel? What does this say about life?

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