Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043
Life Is Elsewhere narrates the fictional biography of Jaromil, showing the stages of his development and along the way parodying many of the cliches surrounding the romantic figure of the poet (documented by intermittent references to numerous actual poets). For example, Jaromil could have been conceived on a park bench, on a soiled bed, or in a romantic forest near Prague. His mother, Maman, who plays an overwhelming role in molding the young poet, decides that it was in the romantic forest. Other circumstances of Jaromil’s premarital conception, however, are not so auspicious. His father, a poor young engineer, wants Maman to abort the fetus, but Maman’s well-to-do parents intervene and arrange the couple’s marriage; afterward they move to the top floor of her parents’ home, where Jaromil is born.
Relations between the couple never return to their original warm temperature, although they have sex and make a home together. Resentful of her husband, Maman directs all of her affection to little Jaromil, watching carefully over his eating and bowel movements and recording all of his first sayings (editing them for better effect). When he uses a rhyme, she is convinced that her child is a budding poet, and her subsequent efforts go into developing his artistic talents. Little Jaromil thus becomes convinced from an early age that he is a special person with special gifts.
When he begins school, his schoolmates are not as easily convinced; in fact, they heartily detest him. The perfect student, Jaromil has only one school friend, the janitor’s son, another pariah. Otherwise Jaromil is something of a loner, staying at home and daydreaming about his alter ego,Xavier (to whose heroic and romantic exploits an entire section of the novel is devoted). These experiences merely reinforce his artistic inclinations, which are further developed when Maman signs him up for lessons with an artist. Maman receives her own lessons free when she has an affair with the artist, but she soon breaks it off, fearful of her deepening emotional commitment. Her husband’s arrest by the Nazis (World War II is raging, and Czechoslovakia is under German occupation) reconfirms her loyalty to him, and when he dies in a concentration camp she virtually enshrines his memory. Later, after Maman learns that the Nazis arrested him because of his long-standing affair with a young Jewish woman, the shrine comes down.
In high school Jaromil finally comes into his own. He learns that some girls—unfortunately, generally the frumpier ones—are attracted to sensitive, poetic young men. He is so sensitive, however, that, even though obsessed by thoughts of sex, he cannot take the final plunge when he gets an amorous university student naked in bed with him. Obviously he has a major problem, but the problem is quickly solved by a redheaded store cashier, who takes him to her apartment and starts making love to him before he has time to think about it. The redheaded girl is skinny, freckled, and plain, if not ugly, but Jaromil is proud to call her his girl because she loves sex and gives such a tremendous boost to his ego.
Jaromil’s ego also hitches a ride on the successful Communist revolution of 1948, which overturns the old order and gives him and other social misfits their chance to shine (one of the others is the janitor’s son, who joins the security police). Jaromil’s fluency enables him to hold forth at political meetings, and his poetic talents are in demand for ideological poems. As these appear in party newspapers and magazines, Jaromil begins to build a reputation. One of his admirers is the janitor’s son, who invites him to read his poems at the police academy with other prominent poets. At the poetry reading, Jaromil is the hit of the evening, winning enthusiastic applause and the attention of a beautiful young filmmaker (whose work is also subsidized by the police academy). Unhappily, Jaromil has to pass up the opportunity to spend the night with her because he is embarrassed to be wearing old-fashioned, dirty shorts. The beautiful filmmaker reappears later—this time, with Maman’s excited cooperation, wanting to make a film about Jaromil. The film is duly made, though Maman dominates the show and Jaromil’s voice has to be dubbed.
Meanwhile Jaromil has become less and less proud of his redheaded girlfriend and has begun treating her cruelly. He slaps her and becomes jealous at the mere thought of her with another man, even an examining physician or her brother. Actually, unknown to Jaromil, she has been seeing another man, a middle-aged man who is both her confidant and her lover. Returning from him one day, she is late for a rendezvous with Jaromil, who flies into a jealous rage. To assuage him, the redheaded girl concocts a story about being late because she was trying to persuade her brother not to flee the country illegally. Immediately Jaromil sees his citizen’s duty and a way to test her love: They must go to the police together and inform on her brother. The redheaded girl is shocked and confused by this proposal, so Jaromil does not wait for her agreement. The next day he visits his friend in the security police, the janitor’s son, and informs on the redheaded girl’s brother. That same day, the redheaded girl and her brother are arrested and interrogated (which Jaromil takes morbid pleasure in imagining). Both are sent away to prison, the redheaded girl not reemerging until three years later.
Shortly after the redheaded girl’s arrest, Jaromil attends a party at the beautiful filmmaker’s apartment, where he hopes to consummate his relationship with her. Instead he gets into an argument with another man at the party, who characterizes Jaromil’s poetry with a scatological remark. When Jaromil tries to fight, the man picks him up by the collar and the seat of his pants and deposits him outside on a highrise balcony in the cold. Too proud to return to the party after his humiliation, Jaromil stays outside on the balcony and contracts a deadly chill. Finally arriving at home, he catches pneumonia and, just before his twentieth birthday, dies in Maman’s arms.
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