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Eva Švankmajerová: Jeskyně Baradla (Baradla Cave)

This book was first published as a samizdat in 1981 and was only published in book form in 1995, after the fall of communism. It is easy to see why the Czech government of the day might not have been too keen. Firstly it is a surrealist novel and certainly not social realism. Secondly it criticises the contemporary consumer society. Thirdly, I doubt if they understood what was going on in this book as there is no straightforward plot and story. Following on from that, this book may be described as a novel but is clearly not, what the Czechoslovak government of the day would have considered as a novel, not least because it has surrealist artwork painted by her husband Jan Švankmajer.

The eponymous Baradla Cave is a large cave system in Hungary and Slovakia and is a key character in this book. (The word Baradla comes from the Slovak for rock wall.) Baradla, in this book may refer, however, both to the cave and to a woman called by that name. Moreover, Švankmajerová clearly gynomorphises (yes, there is such a word) the cave, so while you may think there is a clear distinction between Baradla the cave and Baradla the woman, there is not. Many times, Jóstaf, the key male character and/or the anonymous narrator seem to be talking about a woman but are, in fact, talking about the cave. We get this right from the beginning with She always assumed people were freely available for her needs – an honour even and lifelong solace for them to live this way. This is referring to the cave not the woman (though it could, perhaps, be referring to the woman as well). We get many similar examples.

In. the first section, we learn about Jóstaf. Jóstaf was not happy to be in the world. He was born, as I’ve already mentioned, some forty years ago, at a time when the previous callous century had truly, irrevocably passed and a new era had begun to consume us. Jóstaf struggles with life. He goes abroad (no details). He always came back, four times, hardened, embittered, and full of suspicions that the whole thing was some conspiracy.

The other characters are no happier. Marie was usually tired and unhappy in the evening…. Her entire extended family was usually a source of utter dismay. The café manager, Ludmila, is assaulted more than once but seems to take it in her stride. She is a widow (we later learn she killed her husband) and would be happy to find another one. But, as this is a surrealist novel , nothing must be taken at face value. People hear crying from No 29. Ludmila goes in. Among nine corpses she found a crying three-year-old boy and decided he would make an excellent epidemiologist. This laconic humour is also found throughout the book.

As for Baradla the woman, Jóstaf comments Life with her was like being in a madhouse, or the hangman’s house. He also seems to have a difficult relationship with the cave. He goes into it frequently and we learn a lot about its geology and structure but also how he feels about it.

And then there is the Operating Room Nurse. She does not have a name but she does have a lot of children, though it seems that she is not the mother of most of them. They all have the same name (though we do not know what it is). She is one of the several women after Jóstaf as a partner, with Ludmila and the interestingly named the Spectre also on the list. The Operating Room Nurse wants a father for her children.

The second section is called Milada. According to the account, she is either Ludmila’s or Jóstaf’s daughter. Ludmila acquires a partner, who will be Milada’a stepfather. It is not clear if this takes place before or after the events of the previous section and probably does not matter. Time and place are fluid in this book. We learn a few things. He offers to repair the railway to Nymburk, which is 400 miles from Baradla and elicits the help of Robert Stephenson. He spends much of his life lying under the bed.

Baradla herself had mental health issues – Baradla claimed she was wasting away, that she was tired, losing weight, that she’s a cave and was admitted to a hospital where she spends some time, a mental hospital being an interesting place for a surrealistic novel.
And then we have the Ball of the Century, another massive exaggeration, one of the greatest hoaxes ever…It was determined that the ballgoers swindled the state treasury out of a gigantic sum for tickets – roughly two million dollars. and the events that followed. It was something akin to the most powerful earthquake of the past sixty-five years. Today we have the exact figures: 2,614 deaths; more than 200,000 lost the roofs over their heads; 179 towns and villages either partially or entirely destroyed.

Exaggeration and hyperbole are just one of the techniques Švankmajerová uses. Others include a host of improbabilities, characters being interchanged not just with other characters but with other objects such as, which I have already mentioned, the cave.We get straightforward geological, hydrological and speleological descriptions of the cave and fairly conventional critiques of the consumer society (a convoy of Trabants driven by skinless seals had invaded their country in order to overturn all of the chairs and the tourists arrived, irritable as wasps, in monstrous clothing, prideful women in a variety of colours confident in their tailors). The role of women is also key. Yes, some of them are abused but others make their way, fighting through. We get fairly conventional but also some quite unconventional psychological analysis of individual characters. We get the tourist description of the cave, again sometimes fairly conventional and sometimes less so. As mentioned the cave is seen as a living woman with her own personality. And yes there is love and sex and parenting, though not necessarily as we know it.

The translator, Gwendolyn Albert, comments that it’s worth just letting it babble on and I can only agree. All too often it is not clear what is happening or it is clear but seems improbable or it veers off on to a tangent that takes you somewhere completely unexpected. She also comments there are long passages that just don’t make any sense to which I would agree with a certain qualification. They might not make sense in the more conventional meaning but there is a surrealistic logic to them. It is like looking at a surrealistic painting. You might say What is going on? but when you look closer there is a certain sense of something even if it is not entirely clear what that something is. Humour and the unreal are part but only part of it, while much of it is letting us see the world in a completely different way from the way we normally do and that is what Švankmajerová brilliantly does in this novel. The only surprise is that it is not better known.

Publishing history

First published in samizdat in 1981, by Sdružení Analogonu in 1995
First published in English by in 2000 by Twisted Spoon Press
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert