Book Review: Petr Král’s In Search of the Essence of Place

In this new translation, the latest work from the Franco-Czech man of letters is an intimate and existential journey of self

Petr Král writes in French and Czech, and is now finally in English translation | Photo: pwf.cz

Petr Král

Petr Král writes in French and Czech, and is now finally in English translation | Photo: pwf.cz

Secret Places, Eternal Meaning

In 1968, as the Prague Spring unravelled under Soviet guns, Petr Král fled Czechoslovakia for Paris. There, he joined the Surrealist movement founded by André Breton and began to master the language of his adopted city. French became his new literary vehicle, and is the language of his most intensely personal work In Search of the Essence of Place.

Initially published as Enquête sur des lieux in 2007, the beautifully rendered English translation by Christopher Moncrieff was released this year by Pushkin Press.

In it we find elegant prose and poetic ruminations on the relationships between identity, meaning, and the places we inhabit. From the attic rooms of his childhood in Czechoslovakia to the labyrinthine backstreets and grisaille façades of Paris, Král embarks on a mémoire existentielle, exploring the seemingly mundane places and objects that shaped his past and inhabit his interpretation of the present, all the while traversing landscapes, both literal and metaphysical, to find transformative and associative meaning in our dwellings and destinations, the secret places we stumble upon.

 

An end that is nonetheless a beginning

“It should be remembered that the greatest mystery that places possess is that by going inside we remain on the outside,” Král writes, “that the explorers, too, are inevitably and forever external, never containing anything.” These are pressing concerns for the poet, essayist and screenwriter, who completed the book within a year of returning to his hometown of Prague in 2006.

In many regards In Search of the Essence of Place is both a sequel and a synthesis of Král’s two previous works, Working Knowledge and Loving Venice – drawing and expanding on his recurring themes of attention to the everyday, and the metaphysical implications of place. As Moncrieff acknowledges, Král’s approach invokes Gustav Flaubert’s adage: “In order for something to become interesting, we simply have to look at it for a long time.”

Though Král has now departed from Surrealism as a lens to investigate eternal longing (his literary raison d’être), In Search of the Essence of Place is nonetheless peppered with passages evocative of the “automatic writing” pioneered by Breton. Still, in spite of his obsession with the interior, the specific, Král (writing in the third person) achieves a sort of stasis – “so now he has reached his end, an end that is nonetheless a beginning.” At the culmination of his journey – his odyssey into the everyday – he finds that everything is incomplete, that, like the explorer in the earlier passage, the end simply opens a new door. Ultimately, while never quite disengaging himself completely from places and things, Král opts for a longer view: “Everywhere he is besieged by the past, taking over the present so much that it engulfs his future.”

 

The rootless cosmopolitan

Although his chosen path was prompted by cataclysmic events behind the Iron Curtain, like many Czech intellectuals of the time, Král has little time for politics in this book. With a stoicism and humour, he refers detachedly to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies as “the latest imbroglio to engulf his homeland” (in this, Král retains that particularly Czech brand of wry, ironic absurdity which saturates the works of intellectuals from Jaroslav Hašek to Milan Kundera).

But the ambivalence goes deeper. It is clear that Král is firmly instilled with the Weltanschauung of his generation of Central European intellectuals – that of the rootless cosmopolitan. Pervasive in this human condition is a perpetual search, a peripatetic quest for a place to belong.

America, another theme of the book, is instructive here. Like many of the itinerant Ostblock intelligentsia, Král remains dubious of the New World. The ubiquity of America in Pilsen, where Král was garrisoned during his military service, influences his view of the U.S. as vapidly flexible in its character, a country of “scale models.”

While many view the offer of individualism, renewal, escape, as a welcome liberation from the tears and totalitarianism of Old Europe, Král finds the American lack of fatalism and its frontier sense of whitewashed restitution as chicanery, troubling in its essence. “The most important thing is not to mistake America for Europe – or even for America,” he asserts sardonically.

He possesses a distinctively European sense of “we” as a collective, the inescapable reality of being a product of an ancient continent, and of shouldering the weight of history – and guilt.  This, the immovable, is the platform off which Král’s explorer launches. “Balanced on the high wire between the voice of an absent past and the next step into the void, he wears his sense of helplessness with quiet determination – after all, that’s what makes him so resolutely modern.

To Král – and to many expatriates and wanderers – the whole endeavor is a balancing act: between East and West, the specific and the general, the future and the past. This is the essential truth that Král stumbles upon: That we must remain on the wire, the present, while neither forgetting the past nor compromising the future.

With In Search of the Essence of Place, Petr Král produces a beautiful and virtuosic guide on how to maintain one’s balance.

In Search of the Essence of Place
by Petr Král
Pushkin Press (2012)
pp. 200

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