Wedging (in), Infiltration, Dislodgement

(PÁLFALVI P/C 3; 171–175FRIED P/C 2;


Krisztián Benyovszky

It is important to emphasize that “popular literature” does not indicate a given aesthetic category that exists beyond time and space i.e. from a historic point of view it is of self-identical meaning but it is about a conceptual construction that changes according to eras and cultures and is created ”from above”, namely by the creators and critics of the so-called high literature. It is about a concept of relations that constitutes the important means of self-legitimization since ”high literature (and its natural ally, the community of literatury scholarship) need popular literature. However, this feeling of need is far from being mutual”.[1] Naturally there can be differences in respect of specific national lierature and eras in the history of literature. As a result of the diverse poetic and aesthetic traditions and historic, societal and cultural conditions every literature draws this emphatically imaginary borderline between high and popular culture. It transparency shows a changing picture era by era. Maybe I am not too mistaken if I state that the literature that we examined and spreads from the mid-20th century to today is generally characterized by the aesthetic communication between the high and popular registers becoming intensive which, even if it was not always accompanied by questioning the rigid division of the two types, definitely made this in-between text zone more open, permeable and placid. I think the assessment of popular literature changed enough in the last few decades that discussing it can occur in a more permissive and accepting tone instead of demonizing or stigmatizing the topic.

Therefore let me begin the line with the brief review of some contemporary Czechian and Slovakian works in cases of which it seems unavoidable to reflect on popular literature. According to the practise so far and well, to the inwardness of our project, I am not giving a summary claiming to be a full review but more like a reading diary involving a personal touch and subjectivity.

In the science of literature postmodern writers or subsequent authors following their footsteps taking responsibility for their works, being dependent on popular patterns, contributed a great deal to the fact that the interest for popular literature has been revived. This is how it has been in case of not only in western and central European literature but also in terms of the Czech and Slovakian literature. The first indication for this was a conference organized in Opava in 1997, titled ”Popular Literature in the Czech and Slovakian Culture after 1945”, the documentation of which was published in a book with the same title in 1998.[2] Studies passing round this question from a theoretical and historical aspect and also the interpretations of specific texts and text groups appeared in this publication.

We cannot know what made Květa Legatová, the Bohemian authoress debuting with ballad-like short stories with great success [Želary, 2001] to ’try herself’ in a murder mystery as well. Anyhow, her book titled Nothing Is So Simple [Nic neni tak prosté, 2006] bears evidence about her interest in this area as well. The title refers to the common experience of the stories that certain events or persons are not what they seem to be at first sight, further more, not even upon longer lasting examination; namely nothing is as unambiguous and clear as it appears to be. What seems to be a lie or mispresentation turns out to be true, or being basically true, and vica versa: falseness sometimes takes the mask of truth. Consequently it looks like Legatová who had not produced popular genre literature before, can be rated as a writer who got to murder mysteries along the questions of epistemology and for whom this genre allegorizes the dilemmas of the world and within that the cognizability and interpretability of humans.

Similarly to Legatová, Jaroslav Pížl also arrived at popular genre literature from other areas of literature and arts, namely after having written five books of poetry and numerous TV and radio plays he came forward with a novel that touches several fringe genres while also introducing typical readers’ attitudes and interpretational methods in connection with them in a text of such a style that can be compared to Legatová’s above mentioned short stories in several points (brief sentences, omissive editing, expressive layout).

The main character of the novel titled Book Collectors [Sběratelé knih, 2004] is a book agent, Jiří Ryska (almost Ryška!) who deals with obtaining pulp fiction, not always completely legally, at the turn of the century and in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century.

He browses advertisements, tirelessly goes to second hand bookshops, flea markets and at night he intrudes into such uninhabited, untended houses, in the attics or on the shaky bookshelves of which he suspects to find piles of treasure, like wild western stories, egzotic adventure novels, science fiction, urban American murder mysteries or ’”instructional” and ”grand” readings that might as well had been written with the purpose of educating the youth. His customers are passionate collectors and obsessed readers who are willing to pay an exorbitant price for each rare copy. Naturally he himself does not differ from them either, he is driven by the same desire as his clients, he is unwilling to give away certain books not even for any high-priced offer. And this is where trouble originates from. Due to possessing a sci-fi novel translated from German, his life becomes endangered i.e. his place is broken into, he is chased and threatened. It turns out that the ominent publication is not only of literary but also of scientific value…

The hunt for a substance that prolongs life stands also in the centre of the novel Murder Is Nice [Vražda je krásna, 2004] by Jan Jandourek which bears a similarity with Pizl’s novel in the respect too that it brings several genre traditions into play. Although it is true that he does not apply embedding but multiple code shifts i.e. it starts as a novel of crime fiction, then it bends to utopia in order to end with episodes resembling spy novels after a short robinsonade-like internezzo. Out of the three Czech writers Jandourek is the one who takes the genre the most seriously in spite of every ironic rebuff. More precisely, he seemingly does not want to entrust the story with more or different of anything than what its function would be, originating from its gender. In accordance with this, the beat and rhytm of the short story is determined by an excitng, eventful plot creation which basically operates with mysteries along the logics of raising the question – delay – misleading – and a turning point that leads to a surprising solution.

Aesthetizing murder constitutes the basic concept of the book titled Murder As a Social Event. The Basics of Social Attitude in Case of Murders [Vražda ako spoločenská udalost, 2005] by Dušan Taragel published pseudonymously (as Paul Guterman – Joe Colohnatt) as well, but this conception appears in a different and let us add to it, rather unusual genre frame. The contemporary Slovakian author gives advice and verbalizes principles and norms-to-be kept in the style of an illustrated book of etiquette for such future murderers who would like to commit their bloody crime at the theatre, at a concert, restaurant or on a train or ship.

The main attraction of the book is the black humour that originates from the tension between the imitated scientific manner of speech (pretended seriousness, logical, formulized structure, scientifically sounding preface and epilogue, pseudo-references, bibliography, biographies) and the bizarrerie of the topic. The basis of this is that the tragic, brutal event which is to be judged from a moral point of view loses its real weight and is degraded to a playful perfomance.[3] To a perfomance, the perfect implementation of which presumes a well-considered script and etiquette code. Each occasion, each environment requires a different attitude and outfit. The book suggests that murderers have to be aware of the written and unwritten rules of social life which have to be respected as much as possible.

The book titled Murder in Slopna [Vražda v Slopnej, 2006][4] by Daniela Kapitáňová can also be approached from the aspect of parody, playfulness and literary mistification and it is a typical example of a cross-over-novel which is built on the principle of permeability between fictional worlds. The Slovakian authoress brings the great detectives of murder mystery literature and thriller series together in a small Slovakian village to solve a criminal case that overpasses the skills of the local police. The victim is a writer with a meaningful name, Pavol Pravda (pravda meaning truth) who was found in his holiday home with a knife in his heart, the knife bearing the inscription ”Truth wins”. Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Marlowe, Derrick (!), major Zeman who is probably unknown to the Hungarian readers and others present their own interpretaions of the case following each other, according to such a dramaturgy (which becomes predictable and boring by the middle of the book) that the last speaker always opposes the preceding colleague’s opinion, declaring it to be false or modifying it to a lesser or larger degree.

I consider Kapitánová’s novel titled Stays in the Family [Nech to zostane v rodine, 2005] more successful both from a stylistic point of view and the aspect of the narrative unfolding of the mystery. The plot of this whodunit thickens according to the rules of classical detective stories, it reminds mostly of the dramaturgy of Agatha Christie’s stories which are conjured up even explicitly (Ten Little Indian, Murder on the Orient Express) in several cases. The story takes place on a tiny Greek island.

The closed circle of suspects, isolated plot scenery, narrative woven with subtle irony, the strain and clash of intentions, desires, intense emotions and interests, gradually increasing tension, two murders, the eccentric amateur detective solving the mystery and the theatrical unveiling bringing the surprising conclusion are all present, that are envisaged by the great books of the genre, the written and unwritten codices.

More like from the playful-ironic or parodic aspects than the ”serious” conjuration of the traditions of murder mysteries there are the short stories of two further contemporary Slovakian writers, who have already been mentioned in the first round, that are worth paying attention to. Pavel Vilikovsky’s short story titled Kúcansky-Smith’s Blue Era [Modré obdobie Kúcanského-Smitha, 2005] is built on the irregular dialogue between a freshly debuting whodunit author and his main character who is just about to evolve. The enjoyable and witty argument between the author and the hero walks round the opposites of ’serious’ literature and entertaining light readings, real art and kitsch, a writer’s striving for high standards and mass-production following patterns.

The Make-up [Telovka, 2005] deserves attention due to the unusualness of its standpoint. The narrative (voice) tells us the story from the viewpoint of a wardrobe, while broadcasting its ”consciousness”, where a serial killer crammed the dead bodies of his three victims. We can see the third sex murder from the point of view of this piece of furniture that was used for this horrible purpose and at the same time we can also get acquainted with its least flattering opinion about humans.

In his lengthier short story titled The Mystery of Time Structures [Záhada casovych struktúr‚ 2004] Tomás Horváth continues what has been characteristic of his writings so far, namely the intertextual way of writing bearing the features of imitation, parody and irony. The genre of murder mysteries has always been close to him, which is proven by numerous of his earlier stories, that I also analyzed, and by his theoratical and analyzing essays. In the short story mentioned above it looks as if he wanted to surpass his earlier works of a similar nature in terms of courageous shifts of style and phrases and shocking turning points, although they had not lacked these elements previously either. Relying on their associative power he unfolds the plot with the help of mottoes, quotations, pseudo-quotations, real and apocryphal references.

Horváth visibly enjoys continually derailing the expectations of murder mystery readers by more and more surprising, sometimes downright absurd turnsing points.

[1] Bényei Tamás: Kategóriaváltások: a krimi elolvashatatlansága. Alföld 2009/5, 47.

[2] Svoboda, R. (szerk.): Populární literatura v české a slovenské kultuře po roce 1945. Ústav pro českou literaturu AV ČR – Slezská univerzita v Opavě, 1998.

[3] This is stressed by the references to the artworks of literature and films and also by Jozef Danglár Gertli’s caricature type drawings, which evoke the atmosphere of the ”noir” like comic books.

[4] slopať (slang) = tope