(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In ironic answer to an employment application, the unemployable Jan Chrysostom Kepka attempts a full explanation of his life for the benefit of the faceless bureaucrat, Comrade Pavlenda. Jan’s life began before he was born, is played out on multiple levels of reality, and continues after his death. His keenly recollected conception occurred in 1938, during a tryst between an army deserter and an unmarried schoolgirl. Just before Jan’s birth, his parents marry, in the ancient Church of St. Barbora. The medieval martyr Barbora, and Jan’s entire Chlumec ancestry, form part of the consciousness of both Jan and the other inhabitants of Chlumec. Jan’s paradisaic childhood unfolds among playful, affectionate people. Their warm, sane atmosphere surrounds him like a protective transparent bubble, through which, though untouched himself, he sees the insanity and ugliness of outside events with a crystal, preternatural clarity.

From early childhood through late adolescence, Jan is erotically obsessed with little Erna. While still young enough to be pulled in a cart by his dog Astor, Jan married Erna several times. “I clicked my tongue at Astor, waved my rosemary sprig, and I was off to see my bride.” A real union with Erna eludes him. To be near her, Jan takes music lessons from her mother, Mirena, but it is Mirena, widowed by the “comrades,” who becomes his first lover.

The liaison ends when Jan is called up for military service. The...

(The entire section is 588 words.)