Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Questionnaire stands as an answer to the desiccated simplicities of a bureaucratic state. Life is so multifaceted and interconnected that it overflows all categorical boundaries—including those between humans and other life forms, and between the quick and the dead. The larger Czech rebellion against dehumanization is by no means complete. When the Nazis fall, there is an orgy of recrimination against the remaining Germans that is itself dehumanizing. To Jan’s childish mind, all the Germans are “Amdas” (so named after the one he knew, and whom he had no reason to like). Yet Grusa’s adult repugnance at the postwar excesses rings out in the exclamation: “‘Mr. Hajek,’ said one of the Brothers, his eyes averted from the screaming, upside-down Amdas, ‘you have hung him on the Tree of the Republic!’”

Grusa has a strong sense of the long, continuous history of Bohemia. A large part of Jan (and many of the other characters) is the history of Chlumec, going back to medieval times. Without that larger past, they simply do not exist. This is more than conventional homage to a national heritage.

Grusa lends a poetic and mystical focus to concrete reality. Examples abound in his portraiture, such as the depiction of Edvin’s smile through the affectionate, ironic eyes of his son Jan:At such times the face of Edvin the Handsome radiates a magic triangle, for in accordance with the law of Pythagoras (transmuted into the law of Edvin the Handsome), two beams of light emanating from the eye sockets engender a third bolt emanating from dental ivory, disarming and conquering all.

Life itself is magical, and to be approached with wonder. The novel is subtitled “Prayer for a Town and a Friend”: Its spirit of reverence (for life as well as for something at the furthest limits of life) accords with that genre,as well.