JIRI GRUSA's town of Chlumec is midway between
Chekhov's melancholy Cherry Orchard and Tolkien's
bucolic Shire, and it is a twin of Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez's surreal Macondo. The inhabitants of Chlumec, which the reader suspects must be Grusa's own town of birth and youth, thrive by acts of a matter-of-fact magic, and they are destroyed when they fight -- or join -- the bureaucracy impervious to spells. The scenes evoked are more of Chagall than Brueghel; Grusa blends masterfully the soaringly magical with the gritty commonplace. Chlumec is both real and invented -- accessible by plane and train and automobile, yet visible only to the author, its faithful son and loving portraitist.
In terms of political jurisdiction, Grusa comes from and writes about a small provincial town in Czechoslovakia, itself a provincial country off the main roads of European Kultur and Realpolitik. It is a country that imports its theology and technology. Franz Kafka, its most illustrious writer, wrote in German. Its rulers routinely ridicule local heroes -- dissenters and inventors -- and consign them to oblivion. Politics is to be endured; the distant capital, ignored. History is defined by long periods of occupation by neighbors: imperial Austria, Germany and Russia. Whatever the locals do, whether in the way of resistance or collaboration -- mostly collaboration -- is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
The Questionnaire is not an indictment of the Communist or the Nazi or the old imperial-colonial regime. At least not in the usual sense. In Grusa's perception, the governmental system -- bureaucracy for short -- is one of those brutal facts of life, a type of foul air, that must be dodged rather than fought.
The book is a series of playful but never hostile replies by Jan Chrysostom Kepka, son of a factory worker and woodcutter, to a typical job application form which probes political, social and personal affiliations past and present, and demands the same data on parents and grandparents and relatives. The questionnaire is a mercilessly thorough inquisition on a piece of paper, with the penciled-in exhortation DO NOT CROSS OUT! as the only personal touch by the serenely impersonal administrator of the inquisition. The objective of the questionnaire is to uncover whatever negative indications there might be to doubt a person's political reliability.
Answers to the questions yield an autobiography of a young man and an old town. It is a plotless narrative that proceeds through digressions. The narrator calls himself a chrononaut -- a time traveler whose itinerary stretches from the Middle Ages to the present. But his is not a sentimental search for lost time but a celebration of those moments which telescope past and present, ancestors and descendants, childhood fantasies and reality's hard knocks.
Daily life in Chlumec revolves around the brewery and the chocolate factory, between the rabbit hutch and St. Barbora's church. Horses and dogs and cats play crucial roles of enchantment and redemption; as do the gardens and the roads, the hills called Cepin that lie across the river, and genetic characteristics such as teeth that stick out and chrysoberyl-like eyes.
Grusa draws his characters in the impressionistic manner of Chekhovian vignettes, but they face predicaments out of Tolkien. For instance, the tavernkeeper with a bad digestion "brewed teas and infusions for his ailments. These ailments weren't killing him, they cohabited with him, enjoyed his infusions, induced him to leave the house early each morning to gather herbs." It was this tavernkeeper for whom the Cepin rock "opened up," but he was "too flustered" to go inside and talk to the giant white snake Vazoom, who lies coiled up there. Vazoom "is self-consuming, he keeps eating himself without diminishing. He is resting on a hoard of gold, but is not afraid of robbers. He is forcing all those caraway plants to shoot out buds until the whole mountain is full of reddish blossoms."
The same prosaic tavernkeeper, Mr. Klahn, insulted the brewmaster, Mr. Vostarek, who was the only one who knew "the secret of brewing real Cepin beer." The brewmaster was an inventor who suggested to Mrs. Klahn that her clavier "could easily be converted into a device for playing colors. Every tone would correspond to one pastel hue, projected on the wall behind you, Mrs. Klahn!"
The tavernkeeper dies of his ailments. The inventor kills himself trying out his self-propelling flying instrument. The tavernkeeper's widow, whose daughter is the narrator's childhood love, becomes the narrator's first mistress.
It goes without saying that Grusa's book was deemed subversive by the authorities in Czechoslovakia. The author, now 44 and one of the most promising talents in that part of the world, was jailed for circulating 19 samizdat copies of The Questionnaire and expressing the intention to have the novel published in Switzerland. After a few months he was released, and in 1981 the government asked him to emigrate -- the currently fashionable form of expulsion which is of course more humane than a labor camp or execution. He now lives in West Germany.
The Questionnaire can be read in one sitting -- or can be savored chapter by chapter over a long period of time. Each chapter stands up as a story -- with a beginning, a middle and an end -- which a villager sitting in a tavern might relate to a friend over endless mugs of beer. Grusa's book is a fabulous fabrication, a work of high literary craftsmanship, a flawless evocation of a rare mood of innocent bafflement and enchanted omniscience.