cover image The Facade: M.N.O.P.Q.

The Facade: M.N.O.P.Q.

Libuse Monikova. Knopf Publishing Group, $23 (374pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57250-5

The Soviet occupation of 1968 is never far from the thougths of Orten, Maltzahn, Patera and Podol, cynical Prague artists who in the late '70s are restoring the damaged facade of a famous Bohemian castle--a hopeless project, as the restoration, attacked by industrial pollution, immediately begins to deteriorate. As they irreverently reinterpret the fading frescoes, the trio engages in a wide-ranging discussion about the fate of Czechoslovakia and their own domestic affairs, punctuating all with a scathing gallows humor. Unfortunately, the uniformity of Monikova's portrayal of the artists detracts from their witty repartee. Only with the introduction of two quirky castle archivists, Qvietone, an earnest entomologist, and Nordanc, a gay historian, does the novel take off. When Orten is asked to create a bas-relief wall in Japan, Maltzahn, Podol, Qvietone and Nordanc invite themselves along. On the cross-continental journey, the group finds itself stranded in Siberia, an opportunity the author exploits to the fullest, contrasting the caustic, civilized Czech spirit with the wilder ``great Russian soul.'' In a series of broadly drawn, irresistibly funny incidents, the gang is hijacked by a lonely scientist to Akademgorodok, adopted by a band of Evenk herdsmen and flees across the barren taiga on a snowmobile. One of the most likable characters is a witch who is busily turning Soviet officials into reindeer. Monikova's off-beat sense of humor makes the reader glad to be along for the ride. A first novel, this has been translated from the German. (Nov.)