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I, City

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Czech writing

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  i, city

by Pavel Brycz

translated from the Czech by
Joshua Cohen & Markéta Hofmeisterová


I, City is a novel about the city of Most in north Bohemia, an ancient city founded on a primeval wetland that was literally "relocated" to get to the brown coal beneath it. The city is the narrator, telling its own story through its inhabitants, who make their "appearances" in fleeting, ghost-like vignettes, Joycean epiphanies straight out of a Bohemian Dubliners. The "I" that purports to be Most seems to be an entire consciousness, at enough of a remove from the town itself that he, she or it can see and can know seemingly everything, past and present. As Most's inhabitants emerge from the pollution, or from the swamp of the town's founding, we find not individuals but representatives. Theirs are historical lives that mistrust history, or that live it at least with typical Czech irony. This abstraction, Brycz's making of archetypes, isn't accomplished in a spirit of abuse. Brycz obviously loves his "small" people, and has more than sympathy—he is one of them. As Brycz makes fictional people say factual things and factual people (Kafka, the Pope, the last president of Communist Czechoslovakia, Gustáv Husák) say fictional things, post-modernity via Marquez and other so-called Magical Realists makes its almost requisite—though noiseless—appearance.

Awarded the prestigious Jiří Orten Prize in 1999, I, City is many things: a novel-in-stories, a series of lyrical prose sketches in the best easterly European tradition of Danilo Kiš, or Isaac Babel.

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What others say:

Brycz pays tribute to his native Bohemian city of Most in this dreamy, disjointed series of vignettes, first published in 1998. The narrator is actually the city itself (located in the northwestern Czech Republic) and documents the follies of its youth, the vagaries of government and church, and the ravages of Soviet occupation. "I am not a hero," the city declares. "But when people on my streets and in my houses are truly human, I feel heroic." Most is portrayed here as a working-class city made up of migratory Germans, Czechs, Gypsies, Jews and poets speaking an "industrial conglomerate." Sometimes the city narrator waxes nostalgic, as when remembering lost sons of the city such as the Moravian singer and violinist Hanicka Hana, who settled in Most after World War II. Variously, the city marvels at the visiting Berolina Circus's polar bear act, witnesses sad partings between lovers and records good deeds (a taxi driver returns a teenage runaway to her parents' home). The voice of Brycz's battered city rings epic and authentic, while the translators' note offers an extensive history of Most.

Publishers Weekly

Through a series of “appearances” – short stories, fragments, prose poems – the city of Most tells its own history, through the stories of its children, young and old alike. And because it was leveled and rebuilt, these are timely, modern stories told with the magic of folktales.

roughghosts

Brycz's choice to make the city the narrator, to allow this great, all-seeing, wholly sympathetic eye to rove where it will and tell the stories it wishes to tell, is a masterstroke, and allows him to capture the essence of the town in a way that a mere connected series of story could achieve.

Damian Kelleher

I, City is an unconventional novel in that the only constant, and the only thing that might be called a character, is the setting — the Czech city of Most. ... Though Brycz has dispensed with character and plot, here, he nevertheless avoids sliding into a detached-sounding narrative. I, City is warm and engaging throughout. Brycz's writing could be described as poetic and, in fact, he often breaks out of prose altogether. There are frequent line breaks, and he keeps his line starts fully left-justified (no paragraphs). He thus leans heavily towards the medium of poetry for a significant portion of the book. As a result, I, City feels like a fusion between a novel and a collection of poems, which suits the arrangement of short pieces very well.

— Alasdair Gillon, The Edinburgh Review

I, City is less a novel than a story cycle told by a single narrator, the city of Most. The city's eye wanders in time (mostly between 1968 and the mid 1990s) and space (within its territory) producing a series of disjointed episodes, linked only through the narrator's sensibility. This sensibility abounds with paradox: concerned with hte human, it is not fully so; ubiquitous, its attention is partial; a storyteller, it can only wait in silence for things to happen. Meanwhile, it is a city personified. ... Together Hofmeisterova, a native Czech-speaker and translator, and Cohen, an American writer, deliver Brycz's prose (and the poetry that appears in some stories) faithfully and elegantly. ... With I, City, Twisted Spoon Press and the translators have rescued a book whose Czech edition is virtually unobtainable. As I discovered by consulting Brycz's literary agent during my search for the book, even the author, and his first typesetter, failed to retain the proofs (Brycz wrote the book on a typewriter). The resurrection, in translation, of I, City seems particularly appropriate. Translation (and preservation in translation) is a major theme of the book, related to the notion that histories and identities leave powerful traces, even in uprooted individuals and cities.

— Emily Van Buskirk, Slavic and East European Journal

Brycz gives us brief stories of Most's inhabitants as if he floats above the city holding a pair of binoculars and focuses on whatever catches his eye from below. Most is a narrator that is beautiful, contemporary, intelligent, almost omniscient. The device of using a city as narrator feels to the reader as if reading third person, but it's written in first person. Most becomes a wistful elder, giving us tiny sketches of times and people we never knew, will never know. And like many older people, Most relies on the the ebb and flow of storytelling and how the use of humor and drama reinforce each other.

Salonica

The city's voice is dreamy, even slight, in what amounts to a clever and calculated critique of the city's depressed socioeconomic condition (the photos included in the book depict a seeming ghost town of crumbling buildings, Soviet-era apartment blocks, and strip mines). The whimsical tone is weighed down nicely here and there by more substantial chapters within which resonates a theme of confused identity ...

— A.D. Jameson, The Review of Contemporary Fiction

[A]n impressionistic history, and a postmodern memoir ... [Brycz's] sinuous, almost bewitching prose captures the blend of anonymity, heterogeneity, vitality, and witness of Most and by extension nearly all cities ...

Henry Berry, Midwest Book Review

[T]he loose episodic structure of I, City and its democratic inclusion of diverse voice and perspectives owes a great deal to Bohumil Hrabal's collage technique of incorporating low-life characters into his stories and novels. In this way the otherwise irrelevant lives of small-town individuals are invested with a dignity denied to them by the grand narratives of twentieth-century history and ideology ... The central metaphor of the book—the anthropomorphic conceit of the city as a living person—is very much in the spirit of magical realism.

— Alfred Thomas, The Sarmatian Review

Brycz has a sharp talent for exploring life-changing historical events through the scope of mundane, every day occurrences.

Think Again

   

ISBN: 9788086264271
156 pp.
14.5 x 20.5 cm
softcover with flaps
2 b/w illustrations
fiction : novel

release dates:
UK: February 2007
US: November 2006

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