What Ownership's All About

Overview

What Ownership's All About is a darkly humorous novel about what power, even a tiny amount of it, does to a person, and to the people under his thumb. Jan Faktor, a policeman, has just built a three-family house on the outskirts of pre-Communist Prague. Three tenants move in with the greatest of expectations, based on the wonderful picture the policeman has painted of life in his building. When the policeman ends up landlording it over his tenants, they respond by fearfully conceding to his increasingly absurd ...
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What Ownership's All About

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Overview

What Ownership's All About is a darkly humorous novel about what power, even a tiny amount of it, does to a person, and to the people under his thumb. Jan Faktor, a policeman, has just built a three-family house on the outskirts of pre-Communist Prague. Three tenants move in with the greatest of expectations, based on the wonderful picture the policeman has painted of life in his building. When the policeman ends up landlording it over his tenants, they respond by fearfully conceding to his increasingly absurd demands, and by huffing and puffing for all they're worth. The result is a small-scale study of the attitudes that formed the basis for fascism and appeasement.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Exploring the thin line between legitimate authority and barbarism, this carefully translated 1928 novel hauntingly foreshadows the rise of fascism, which claimed the life of its Czech-Jewish author in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. In a new lower-middle-class suburb of Prague, police sergeant Jan Faktor scrapes together enough money to build a rental apartment building. At first generous towards his tenants--a timid government clerk, a desperately poor, one-legged newspaper dealer, a schoolteacher and their respective families--Faktor soon begins to terrorize them, forbidding such ordinary activities as using the courtyard or entertaining friends and persuading the newspaper dealer's wife to spy on the others in exchange for keeping her apartment. With a sharp ear for dialogue and some sympathy for the social pretensions of the Czech petit bourgeoisie, Polacek handles this nightmarish persecution humorously, resolving it with an upbeat ending that has all the earmarks of a fairy tale. Part of Catbird's Garrigue series, which introduces little-known Czech authors to the American public, this work provides a link for readers between Polacek's generation of Czech humorists and those writing today, such as Bohumil Hrabal. ( Sept. )
Library Journal
Jan Faktor is a policeman with a dream: to build a three-family house and rent out the rooms. When Jan realizes his dream, he gains a sense of self-importance that slowly turns him into a petty tyrant who bullies his tenants with idiotic demands. Czech novelist and humorist Polacek studies the effect of power on the values and dreams of ordinary people, revealing their weaknesses and skewering their pomposity with a deftness and dark wit reminiscent of Chekhov. His command of everyday language and dialog brings his characters to vivid life with all their flaws. This is the first English translation of the 1928 novel. Recommended for all international fiction collections.-- Ruth M. Ross, Olympic Coll. Lib., Bremerton, Wash.
Aaron Cohen
In the U.S., Polacek (1892-1944) has been overshadowed by his Czech contemporaries Hasek and Kafka, but his impact at home has been important. He had the same affinity for comic surrealism and distaste of authoritarianism as Kafka, but unlike him, Polacek wrote in Czech and used his Jewishness throughout his books. In this novel, an attack on capitalism and totalitarianism run amok that was first published in 1928, the Syrovys--a government clerk and his wife--rent an apartment from Jan Faktor, a policeman as well as landlord. When Faktor realizes he could gain more income by replacing the Syrovys with fresh tenants, he tries repeatedly to evict them. Much of the book's humor arises from the extremes, which are unfortunately "not" unbelievable, that Faktor goes to in ousting the Syrovys. Although Polacek made great satiric use of the cliches and everyday occurrences of his time, the situations he described are universal enough to be enjoyed today. And although the novel is almost completely comic, one line eerily seems to prophesy Polacek's concentration-camp death: "An enormous moon, bloody and tragic-looking, floated up over the Jewish cemetery."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780945774198
  • Publisher: Catbird Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1993
  • Edition description: 1st English-language ed
  • Pages: 238
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.89 (d)

First Chapter

There is a suburb of Prague that lies between two hills. At the top of one hill stands a modern hospital, while at its foot is a cluster of rundown tenements that resemble swallows' nests clinging to the rafters of a farmhouse. And then there is a lone tree, a twisted, bushy pear tree. It is bent with age; nevertheless, in the spring it bursts richly into bloom as a signal that it isn't quite ready to part with life.

The other hill is bare. A short time ago it was covered by patches of wheat waving in the wind. But now the earth is resting, producing only yellowish clumps of wild radish and tall foxtail bleached by the glow of the sun. An abandoned Jewish cemetery spre ads out over the summit. It is guarded by an old woman, a half-blind dog, and several hens. The tombstones are sinking into the ground; time has washed away the Hebrew inscriptions, and ivy blankets the departed.

A white road runs through the valley. Noisy trucks are trailed by clouds of dust. By the side of the road there is a small chapel with a holy icon, indicating that this area had once been countryside, which the city government divided into what are known as subdivisions. Not long ago, someone had decorated the Virgin Mary with a wreath of red and blue roses made of crepe paper.

Dappled goats climb the hillocks, nibbling the spiky tips of hawthorn bushes. Ropes carrying brightly colored laundry are strung from pole to pole. A gust of wind puffs up blue undies and ruffles blouses.

Here, the countryside shakes hands with the city. At the borderline stands a wayside cross and the fence of a soccer field. Harantova Street is still part of the city. Its name—Urchin Street—tells us that it is full of dust and soot. A factory making metal instruments blows off smoke in rhythmic intervals: ech—pff—rah!

On that street there lived a policeman, and his name was Jan Faktor. He lived in a house that was as unattractive and yellowed as the entire neighborhood, which had been built a few decades earlier by various manufacturing plants to house their workers. Th e houses are full of cubbyholes, porches, and floppy-shirted children. The air smells of sour gravy and trash.

The policeman was a tall man with broad shoulders, topped by a head as round as a globe. In that head he kept one huge secret which he shared with no one except his wife. She was the sort who tends to be referred to as "that woman." She had thin, tightly c lenched lips. And when she did open her mouth, she revealed a set of pale, swollen gums, typical of housekeepers who subsist on bread and coffee. She was thin and agile as a terrified insect scurrying for safety into a crevice. The couple had two children, a retarded boy who sat in front of the door and stared at the street with watery eyes, and a twelve-year-old girl, meager as a wasp and just as agile as her mother.

At night, the policeman patrolled the quarter, his helmet gleaming in the light of the lone streetlamp. He'd grab drunkards by their collar and shake them until all rebelliousness was jolted out of them. Thieves he'd handcuff and drag to the station house, where he'd send them flying into a cell with a hefty shove.

The rest of the time he'd pace the dark street with his long stride and ponder his secret thoughts: To play lord and master when you have the wherewithal, that's easy. . . I could do it with my hands tied behind my back . . . But what have I gotten out of life, up to now? Nothing, to be honest . . . But this is idle talk. . . This matter's got to be approached cleverly, otherwise I'll get nowhere. I'll show them all what I'm made of.

During the day he'd sit in the kitchen and help his wife sew neckties and suspenders, which he peddled in offices and apartments. At the end of each week his wife would take their savings to the bank. Some people enjoy throwing money around. But the policeman and his wife reveled in thrift. Their little pile of capital stimulated them and spurred them to ever more intense accumulation. The small, musty kitchen filled with dreams.

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