cover image City, Sister, Silver

City, Sister, Silver

Jachym Topol. Catbird Press, $40 (512pp) ISBN 978-0-945774-43-3

First published in 1994, Topol's ambitious, challenging debut, hailed in the Czech Republic as the major novel of the post-communist period, chronicles city life after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In pointillist, elliptical prose, Topol aptly captures the period's social dislocation, and the hallucinatory quality of even everyday experiences. The first section, ""City,"" introduces the narrator, Potok, a former actor, who is firmly entrenched in that cultural zone extending from dissidence to petty criminality, with stops in all the trendy cafes along the way. He witnesses the fall of communism with his girlfriend, She-Dog. He also becomes a member of a gang dealing in real estate and smuggling, putting him in touch with foreigners passing through Prague. She-Dog's disappearance sets up Potok's quest for his lost love in ""Sister,"" the second section. His gang breaks up, but he finds She-Dog's look-alike, a singer named Cern . Their love affair ends brutally when Potok is accused of strangling She-Dog. The dark, last section, ""Silver,"" shows Potok descending to the lowest level of Prague society, ending up in the city dump with a group of bums who are stalked by a mad killer. Topol's vision, which shows influences of Dante's Inferno and Meyrink's The Golem, is authentically punk. His language compounds slang, Russian and Czech, which, as Potok explains, is ""raw post-Babylonian, the way I heard it on my wanderings through the past, present and future."" It achieves a level of horrific lyricism reminiscent of the ravings of a minor, denunciatory Old Testament prophet. While the diffuse, intricate text can be maddeningly difficult to navigate, the narrative acquires the power of truth transmitted through sharp-honed fantasy and resonant vision. (Apr.)