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Ludvík Vaculík: Morcata (The Guinea Pigs)

Vaculík’s strange novel essentially has two separate but sort of related plots, neither of which could have pleased the Communist authorities much. The narrator is Vašek. He is married to Eva. They have two sons, Pavel and another Vašek. Vašek Senior works as a bank clerk in the State Bank, where his main job seems to be sorting out bank notes. He works with Mr. Karásek and it is Mr. Karásek who tells him what good pets guinea pigs make. They have tried other pets but they have not worked so, as a surprise for Pavel, he buys him a guinea pig for a Christmas present. The guinea pig is christened Albínek and soon the entire family takes to him. Pavel plays with him, Eva feeds him and Vašek Senior observes him, particularly at night. Pavel is determined that Albínek is female and puts it to the test by acquiring, without his parents’ permission, another guinea pig. But this guinea pig soon gets sick and dies. To further test it, Vašek Senior specifically buys a male guinea pig from the pet shop. When Albínek first meets him, she is afraid and rejects him but they soon get together and, sure enough, Albínek starts putting on weight and is renamed Albínka. Vašek Senior, meanwhile, becomes more obsessed with the guinea pigs and starts various experiments, including putting Ruprecht, the male, in the bath, first without water and then with water, proving that, contrary to what has been said, guinea pigs can swim.

Meanwhile, at the bank, the employees are not happy. They feel underpaid. Many of them try to steal money but they are routinely vigorously searched by the guards when they leave the building, though Vašek Senior does manage to get away with it. This is a key topic of conversation among the employees. It gets worse when the guards change their policy and, when they find stolen money, not only take back the stolen money but also take any other money the employee may have. The problem gets more complicated when Mr. Chlebeček gets involved. Mr. Chlebeček is also known as Mr. Sloboček, as he slobbers when he speaks and then as Mr. Maelstrom, as he maintains the financial situation is like a maelstrom. He is by far the oldest employee and has been kept on only because he is the only one who knows about Lombard banking, which is not really needed but may be. His theory is that there are three types of monetary circulation. The first is controlled circulation, when the employees earn their money but this money returns to the bank as the employees spend the money. The second is recorded circulation which is the same as controlled circulation but with the money the employees steal rather than the money they earn. The final and problematic category is mysterious circulation. This is the money that is stolen but caught by the guards and confiscated but then seems to disappear, as it is neither returned to the bank nor put into circulation. This mysterious circulation was threatening to lead to a depression, according to Mr. Chlebeček.

Though guilty of stealing, Vašek Senior becomes mildly obsessed with this issue and, more particularly, with Mr. Chlebeček. He tracks him down to his house and spies on him. When Mr. Karásek brings Mr. Chlebeček a few guinea pigs as a present, he lets his son steal one of them. When Pavel gets sick and goes to hospital and then seems to be replaced by a stray black cat, Vašek Senior really seems to become unhinged.

Vaculík certainly tells a strange tale. It is a mixture of Kafka and the black, satirical humour we find in so many Czech novels and films but it is certainly a reaction to the oppression that the country as a whole and Vaculík himself were undergoing at the time. It certainly works, not least because it is unpredictable and unconventional and because Vaculík’s Kafkaesque humour makes it very enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published by Ceskoslovenský Spisovatel in 1970
First published in English by Penguin Books in 1975