The New York Times
The Visible World: A Novelby Mark Slouka
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An immensely moving, powerfully romantic novel about the vagaries of love and the legacy of war, The Visible World is narrated by the American-born son of Czech immigrants. His New York childhood, lived in a boisterous community of the displaced, is suffused with stories: fragments of European history, Czech fairy tales, and family secrets gleaned from overheard conversations. Central in his young imagination is the heroic account of the seven Czech parachutists who, in 1942, assassinated a high-ranking Nazi. Yet one essential story has always evaded him: his mother's. He suspects she had a great wartime love, the loss of which bred a sadness that slowly engulfed her. As an adult, the narrator travels to Prague, hoping to piece together her hidden past.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Slouka's urgent second novel (following God's Fool) comes in three parts. The first relates the nameless narrator's growing up in postwar New York and Pennsylvania as the child of college journalism instructor Antonín and Ivana Sedlák, Czech émigrés whose marriage is slowly disintegrating. The reason, of which the young narrator is aware from an early age, is that Ivana loves another man, killed in Czechoslovakia during WWII. The despondent Ivana watches soap operas and chain-smokes until, at age 64 in 1984, she walks in front of the Allentown bus. The slimmer middle section chronicles the narrator quitting his job two years later, moving to Prague and poking into his parents' wartime past there. The final, longest section crackles with the novel's main tale. Having pieced together enough of his parents' history, the narrator "imagines" the rest. Crucially, it involves the actual assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's ruthless local military governor, on May 27, 1942. As part of a daring plan, Czech patriot assassins are parachuted in by the RAF; the injured Heydrich later dies of blood poisoning. The Nazi bloodbath that follows includes the infamous liquidation of the village of Lidice. The suspense is well paced, and the action scenes are vividly recounted. Slouka's novel has a poignant verve. (Apr.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The first part of Slouka's second novel (following God's Fool) chronicles the unnamed narrator's childhood growing up as the son of Antonín and Ivana Sedlák, Czech émigrés whose marriage is haunted by Ivana's enduring love for a man named Tomáš, who was killed during World War II. The narrator relates transient memories of his mother's secrecy and detachment during this time in fragments that are precise slices and beautiful snapshots: one winter afternoon, when the narrator and his mother are jovially washing the dishes, something suddenly changes in his mother and it is "as if there was someone else in the room." The book's third section is a "novel" in which the narrator imagines his parents' past, as wisps of memories and mere intimations in the first part are fully borne out. The rich and suspenseful linear narrative imagines Ivana and Tomáš passionate relationship, inserts Tomáš in the plot to assassinate a high-ranking Nazi official, and shows the peripheral part Antonín played while he waited for Ivana to come back to him. The format bears the fruit of Slouka's cogent thesis: the value of storytelling is in its ability to fill the holes created by memory's inadequacy and the evasiveness of loved ones. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/06.]
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Read an Excerpt
One night when I was young my mother walked out of the country bungalow we were staying in in the Poconos. I woke to hear my father pulling on his pants in the dark. It was very late, and the windows were open. The night was everywhere. Where was he going? I asked. Go back to sleep,” he said. Mommy had gone for a walk. He would be right back, he said.
But I started to cry because Mommy had never gone for a walk in the forest at night before and I had never woken to find my father pulling on his pants in the dark. I did not know this place, and the big windows of moonlight on the floor frightened me. In the end he told me to be brave and that he would be back before I knew it and pulled on his shoes and went searching for his wife. And found her, eventually, sitting against a tree or by the side of a pond in her tight-around-the-calf slacks and frayed tennis shoes, fifteen years too late.
My mother knew a man during the war. Theirs was a love story, and like any good love story, it left blood on the floor and wreckage in its wake.
It was all done by the fall of 1942. Earlier that year, in May, Czech partisans had assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, and the country had suffered through the predictable reprisals: interrogations, purges, mass executions. The partisans involved in the hit were killed on June 18. In December of that year my parents escaped occupied Czechoslovakia, crossing from Bohemia into Germany, from Germany to France, then south to Marseille, where my mother nearly died of scarlet fever before they could sail for England, and where my father and a small-time criminal named Vladek (who had befriended my father because they were both from Brno) sold silk and cigarette lighters to the whores whose establishments tended to be in the same neighborhoods and who always seemed to have a bit of money to spend.
They were very young then. I have the documents from the years that followed: the foreign-worker cards and the soft, well-worn passports with their photos and their purple stamps, the information (hair: brown; face: oval) filled in with a fountain pen . . . I have pictures of themin Innsbruck, in Sydney, in Lyon. In one, my father, shirtless and glazed with sweat, a handkerchief around his head, is standing on a chair, painting a small room white. The year is 1947. The sun is coming through a curtain-less window to the left. My mother is holding the can of paint for him. Behind him, the unpainted wall above the brush strokes looks like the sky above a mountain range.
I was born, three years later, into a world that felt just slightly haunted, like the faint echo of an earlier one. We were living in New York then. At night, high in our apartment in Queens, my mother would curl herself against my back and I would smell her perfume, her hair, the deep, cave-like warmth of her, and she would hum some Czech song or other until I pretended to be asleep. We always lay on our right sides, my head tucked under her chin and her left arm around me, and oftenit’s the thing I remember most clearly about her nowher fingers would twitch against my stomach or my chest as if she were playing the piano in her dreams, though she wasn’t dreaming, or even asleep, and had never played the piano in her life.
Half a lifetime after the night my father left our cabin to look for my mother, long after they were both gone, I met a man in Prague who told me that the city I thought I’d come to know actually lay four meters under the earth; that the somewhat dank, low-ceilinged café we were sitting in at the time was not the first story, as I had assumed, but the second. To resist the flooding of the Vltava, he said, the streets of the Old Town had been built up with wagonloads of soilgradually, over decadesand an entire world submerged.
He was a tall, well-dressed man with a crown of gray-white hair and a rumbling baritone voice, and he sat at the tiny glass table sipping his tea with such a straight-backed, sovereign air, such a natural attitude of authority and grace, that he might have been an exiled king instead of the retired director of the Department of Water Supply, which he was. In some of the buildings of the Old Town, he said, pausing to acknowledge the slightly desperate-looking waitress who had brought him a small cup of honey, one could descend into the cellars and find, still visible in the pattern of the brick, the outlines of windows and doors: a stone lintel, a chest-high arch, a bit of mouldered wood trapped between a layer of plaster and brick.
In the course of his work, he said, he had often been called to this building or that where some construction had accidentally unearthed something, and foound himself wondering at the utter strangeness of time, at the gradual sinking away of all that was once familiar. He smiled. It could makkkkke one quite morbid, really. But then, if one considered the question rightly, one could see the same thing almost everywhere one looked. After all, twenty minutes from where we sat, travelers from a dozen countries stood bargaining for ugly gewgaws on the very stones that only a few centuries ago had been heaped with the dead. Certain things time simply buried more visibly than others. Was it not so?
The waitress came over with a black wallet open in her hand like a miniature bellows, or something with gills. She had scratched herself badly on her calf, I noticed, and the blood had welled through the torn stocking and dried into a long, dark icicle. She seemed unaware of it. My companion handed her a fifty-crown note. And then, before I could say anything, he wished me a good day, slipped on his greatcoat, and left.
I walked for hours that night, among the crowds and up into the deserted orchards and past the king’s gardens, still closed for the winter, where I stood for a while looking through the bars at the empty paths and the low stone benches. Along the far side, between the stands of birches whose mazework of spidery branches reminded me of the thinning hair of old ladies, I could see a long row of waterless fountains, like giant cups or stone flowers.
I was strangely untired. A fine mist began to fall, making the cobbles slippery, as if coated with sweat. I looked at the stone giant by the castle gates, his dagger forever descending but never striking home, then walked down the tilting stairs to a place where a crew of men, working in the white glare of halogen lamps, had opened up the ground. As I passed the pit, I glimpsed a foundation of some sort and what looked like a sewer of fist- sized stones, and struck by the connection to the man I had met in the café, for whom these men might once have worked, after all, I started for home. Everywhere I looked, along the walled streets and narrow alleys, above the cornerstones of buildings and under the vaulted Gothic arches, I saw plaster flayed to brick or stone, and hurrying now through the narrow little park along the river, I startled a couple embracing in the dark whom I had taken for a statue. I mumbled an apology, my heartbeat racing, and rushed on. Behind me I heard the man mutter something angrily, then a woman’s low laugh, and then all was still.
That night I dreamed I saw him again in a house at the end of the world, and he looked up from the glass table to where I stood peering in through a small window and mouthed the words Is it not so?” I woke to the sound of someone crying in the courtyard, then heard pigeons scuttling on the shingles and a quick flurry of wings and the crying stopped.
And lying there in the dark, I thought, yes, that’s what it had been like: beneath the world I had knownso very familiar to me, so very Americanjust under the overgrown summer lawn, or the great stone slab of the doorstepanother one lay buried. It was as though one morning, running through the soaking grass to the dock, I had tripped on an iron spike like a finger pointing from the earth and discovered it was the topmost spire of Hradcany Castle, or realized that the paleness under the water twenty yards out from the fallen birch was actually the white stone hair of Eliška Krásnohorská, whose statue stood in Karlovo námestí, and that the square itselfits watery trolleys, its green-lit buildings, its men forever lifting their hats in greeting and its women reining in their shining hairwas right there below me, that an entire universe and its times, its stained-glass windows and its vaulted ceilings and its vast cathedral halls, were just below my oars.
But I could never go there. All I could do was peer from above as the people went about their day, unaware that with every step, every kiss, every tram ticket tossed to the curb, they were constructing the world that would shape my own.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Slouka. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Mark Slouka is the child of Czech immigrants himself, and draws on his personal experience and the inevitable intrusions of the past on the present. He is the author of the novel God’s Fool, named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the short story collection Lost Lake, a New York Times Notable Book in 1998, and the nonfiction work War of the Worlds. Three of his essays have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays, and his short story “The Woodcarvers Tale” won the National Magazine Award for fiction. He is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, and is currently the director for the writing program at the University of Chicago.
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The opening is as fragmentary as memory itself, but an orderly image begins to develop. As an adult, the narrator finally uncovers the truth and describes his parents' story. There are many wartime stories Mr. Slouka's, however, is special.
Having read hundreds of books, this one stands in my top ten. It's a story of courage, romance & dedication to one's convictions. Having been to Prague-there is a statue outsied of the city dedicated to these brave men & one can view the church in Prague where the story has its final ending.
I always appreciate well written historical fiction and I have to say, this is one of my favorites. The narrator, the son of Czech survivors of World War II and the occupation of Prague, tries to piece together the story of his parents during the war, and especially his mother's relationship with a resistance fighter. It is written with beautiful detail and incredible character portrayal. Even minor characters are compelling and well written. A very touching and emotional story, highly recommended.
Still reading this after 2 weeks. I found the premis for the story interesting, but it is very long and drawn out. Really kinda boring. But still reading and still trying to get engaged.