By Emil Hakl (Translated by Marek Tomin; Twisted Spoon Press, 2008)
On page two of Emil Hakl’s Of Kids & Parents, when you find out that for the rest of this novel, a father and son will walk around Prague and talk about life, an ill-advised Ulysses-meets-Tuesdays with Morrie situation might roll camera in your head, as it did mine. Be not afraid. Hakl is a lot of things — poet, dramatist, Czech, Ginsu-sharp dialogue writer — but he is not a sentimentalist. Father, seventy-one, and son, forty-two, drink too much and talk about fried chicken, ugly airplanes, dead friends, communism, and the women who give them “belly-slapping erections.” Yes, it’s awkward. At one point, the father says, “I know father and son shouldn’t be talking to each other like this.” Bingo, and that’s where the novel’s tension comes from — enough to keep us happily flipping pages for several straight hours without ever finding a plot.
Refreshingly, Hakl doesn’t ask us to like these two. They bicker. They pontificate. They talk about women as though women were pulled muscles, to be cared for and then ignored. They’re pathetic, but they love each other just enough to keep us from setting them down.
Something I’m torn about: Father and son are almost identical. On the one hand, this gives the novel a weighty “See? Nothing ever gets any better”-ness that jibes with the tour of a city that seems to get pummeled by the neighbors every fifty years. On the other hand, because the novel is nearly all dialogue with very few I saids or he saids, if the reader loses focus for a split second, it’s virtually impossible to tell who’s talking, which makes both of their voices seem like Hakl’s (though it’s possible that some of the subtleties of their speech patterns got ironed out in the Czech-to-English translation).
That aside, Hakl has given us a fine, dark novel whose simple premise allows us to explore Prague and the elusive relationship between two unsatisfied and inseparable men.
Greg Pierce is a playwright and fiction writer who lives in New York City. This spring he is workshopping his multimedia stage adaptation of the Haruki Murakami novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in New York and Tokyo.