In 2004 I was living in a room in a house in Prague 4. Radím, a hyperactive unemployed anglophile banker, not long back from a stint working in a factory in Nelson in deepest darkest Yorkshire, had been one of my first students, and helped me find the place. Looking back, it was one of the better places I had in Prague. Probably one of the better places I’ve lived full stop.

I had lived at Radím’s and at his parents’ place. By then I had been in the Czech Republic perhaps three months, had taught a few classes, done a month’s TEFL course, and a further month’s intensive Czech. Aside from a couple of months flicking over a textbook or two at home before flying out, and having watched a couple of films, that was my only contact with the language. I can gauge my level in that time by the snatches of conversation I remember with the mother who reminded me of a character in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye Berlin. That, and walking out one day and being asked by the usually grumpy man of the house if I had time – I recall feeling something like a sense of achievement or surprise or some such in recognising those two words in a phrase I had not specifically learned, a relative first since I had had little experience of learning languages before this, and what exposure I had had to French had been with the written language. He soon had me standing ten feet off the ground on an old wooden ladder that might have been made of rubber, fearing for my life and reaching out with a similarly decrepit wooden rake to pull a climbing vine off the wall, nearly pulling myself off with it.

When I now look over the first Czech graphic novel I got my hands on, Bílý Potok, the first of a trilogy of Alois Nebel comics, I am taken aback by its linguistic complexity. I could not have been in that house more than a couple of months and, since I recall taking the book over to an early individual lesson across the road and, desperate for ideas, asking my student to translate a couple of speech bubbles or the like (I was informed that she barely understood the Czech), I know it was in that house at that early stage that I was looking over this stark monochrome noir-ish classic, which, I understand, has recently been translated into English.

Did I understand it? Yes and no. I remember something of my early progression in Czech. I remember where I sat reading what chapter of which textbook, where I walked listening to which language tape, which of the two huge bookshops then present at either side of Wenceslas Square I bought first a czech copy of a Garfield collection, and then, rather more ambitiously, Bílý Potok itself. I had become proficient at deciphering some of the grammar of the Czech language, and determined at hunting through dictionaries and grammar tables. With these methods I must have got the gist and little more. What I did grasp was the atmosphere of the piece, which in the books and the recent film both, is getting on for nine tenths of it. I don’t know to what degree the reader is assumed able to make sense of the German, Polish, Russian, regional dialect and so on, but something about the severity of the dark, brutal linocut style, often compared to Frank Miller (though artist Jaromír 99 considers himself to be more directly influenced by Argentinian comics artist José Antonio Muñoz) and the proponderance of mist in the narrative, suggests to me that the degree of murkiness leant to my reading by the opacity the Czech language held for me at the time, is far from being inappropriate. Indeed, if I were to take a stance on the writer’s intentions in terms of the obfuscation of the use of language, I would reflect that though the relative similarity of slavic languages and the preponderance of language teaching in schools would render much of the foreign dialogue comprehensible to a significant minority of the Czech audience – this dialogue being restricted to basic phrases, small talk and chatter – the fact that a key development is revealed, and the only word Němý utters in the first book is in Polish, seems to demand more of a reader than most writers would dare.

As far as foreign audiences are concerned, a similar degree of murkiness can be a natural consequence of these works being so mired in the history and psychic geography of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and, in particular, these borderlands in which the trilogy is set. Translation itself can in some cases only cover one of a number of gulfs in understanding when, as here, the influences, experiences and cultural references of the two peoples between whose languages and cultures a translation is to span differ so greatly.

This is one of the factors I will here in this series of pieces on Czech comics discuss in terms of what may in some cases limit their appeal abroad. Perhaps one of the enduring tragedies of the fates of the Czech lands is this difficulty of having any kind of deeper conversation without the need for exponentially increasing footnotes. Whatever Neville Chamberlain might have claimed to the contrary, Czechoslovakia was, if not very well known, then at least relatively well understood in the West prior to the second world war. There was a certain cultural cross pollination, which, if it was predominately in one direction, and if it allowed for that craven statement, I paraphrase, of “a far away country, about which we know nothing”, still had room for the better known of Czechoslovak writers and artists. One has only to read Karel Čapek or Zdeněk Jirotka’s Saturnin to see the similarities between the British and Czechoslovakian outlook before the second world war. Since 1989, and with the partial exception for an educated minority, of Vacláv Havel, communist era dissident writers and Russian tanks, any talk of the Czech Republic that goes beyond beer, strip clubs, tennis players and bridges, is likely to bring on a “there be dragons” run-that-by-me-again air of puzzlement. Since this often enough stretches to the Czech Republic’s very existence as a discrete entity since 1993, there’s a lot of ground to cover. That the Czech Republic remains in some ways better known by reference to its powerful neighbours is evidenced by the souvenirs tourists take away: Matroshkas and soviet hats.

There are readers who wish to understand everything when they approach a text, let alone a comic, and who such readers would likely be thrown into display-prodding fits of Wikipedia-searching consternation by Alois Nebel. While Maus explains all, Joe Sacco doesn’t scruple to have pages of exposition and even From Hell, contains a bibliography and copious notes, an English translation of Alois Nebel would struggle to squeeze in all the information these readers would demand without it becoming a little textbook-like and intrusive. I haven’t yet seen the English translation, which I have heard about through a brief twitter exchange with the writer Jaroslav Rudiš, and a last ditch Amazon search turns up a copy going for $80, describing it as rare, but my own approach to such a book would likely be to allow a few of the facts to slip into the mist, to not break up the atmosphere with copious footnotes and the like but to focus on dialogue and the three dimensional characters, allowing some of the precise nature of the experiences which formed them to remain beneath the surface.

The story is layered, prone to chronological spillages back and forth, and a typical reader from the English-speaking world will certainly pull up every few pages with that “right, where and when are we now?” feeling I for one know from post-colonial literature (a clumsy invidious phrase for which I apologise), novels set in civil wars in African countries we hear too little about, writing from the former Yugoslavia, or even the political sections of more cannonical texts such as Dubliners.

For the most part, though, the story centres around two characters, Němý, a mysterious, sinister, figure who speaks not at all and who turns up in Bílý Potok railway station one day and gets taken away to the local mental hospital, and Alois Nebel himself, a somewhat obsessive, solitary train dispatcher who has the railways in his blood and is prone to hallucinations, of strange mists that descend on him and take him away to unspoken of events in the past.

Alois Nebel - Bílý Potok

It is the mid nineteen eighties and Alois Nebel comes to know Němý at the psychiatric hospital. They sit together and Nebel tells his story, but also the stories of the people around him in the borderlands of the English subtitle. Němý is subjected to repeated bouts of electroconvulsive therapy, administered with glee by two peculiar types, seemingly, to employ E M Forster’s analysis of Dickens, two dimensional characters by authorial choice, who follow the orders of a similarly caricatured sadistic superior, employing threats and treatment as a form of torture, trying to get Němý’s story out of him. Unsurprisingly, the garulous Nebel coughed up his story in a trice under the same treatment and now spends his days hiding his tablets under his tongue to barter them for beer with some of druggy acquaintences. Němý, if he is a selective mute at all, rather than somebody more deeply damaged by his own story, whatever it may be, holds out.

The railways got hold of Nebel’s grandfather after he damned near froze to death watching over the railways for two years in Siberia. Railways get into your blood and don’t let go. Nebel knows this more than anybody, a fully paid up member of the “blue army” as railway men are known, he keeps one hundred timetables in a bookshelf in the smallest room, where he locks himself away to find a little peace with their soothing regularity. The railways go on always the same. It’s people who come and go.

And the people change, shunted around in particular in times of war – and the railways after all are, as Nebel’s grandfather observed, the greatest weapons of war. He himself was shunted around in the war and after it, swapping roles from pointsman to dispatcher and back again with Muller, a German, as times and preferences changed.

Nebel himself sees people killed and he sees people taken away. He oversees a few choice incidents at a Russian barracks and he sees the cattle trucks full of people during the war. And then those mists, which descend on him, prompting hallucinations of those times trains proved most useful in the service of war, seeing ghostly trains. He prompts suspicion, picking up the phone to report steam trains, though they haven’t run on the line for years.

Everybody has their own story. Everybody has been touched by the changing fates of the borderlands. Cumulatively of course, such stories, even if not fully understood, perhaps especially if not fully understood, lead a reader to make certain conclusions about fate, the helplessness of individuals in the shadow of world events.

And, though he might be by turns an obsessive, delusional solitary train dispatcher, a psychiatric patient, a homeless lover, and once again a semi-retired dispatcher, Alois Nebel once in a while seems to deliver lines of interpretation, observations of almost classical philosophical detachment, sometimes with his trousers around his ankles in the smallest room. His delusions too, appear at times to be different in nature from those other characters haunted by episodes in their past, things they have witnessed, seeming too precise, near omniscient, as if he were tapping into some collective consciousness.

But these moments of near lucid elucidation, if that’s what it is, are few, and Bílý Potok remains a dense, bewildering, and unavoidably murky piece of work, deserving of a wider audience than it is ever likely to get. It is destined, perhaps, to slow burning success in Central Europe, among people with similar fates, and who understand as much those less translatable elements – that Central European mentality which is bound to be discussed whenever an artist takes on this kind of terrain.

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Hlavní Nádraží, Main Railway Station, the second installment, is more approachable, essentially following Nebel on a pilgrimage to Prague’s main railway station where he becomes one of a band of homeless people, each with their own stories, of course, though here relatively comprehensible, and where he finds himself falling in love with a toilet attendant. The third, it seemed to me, allows the mist to descend once again. Nebel is found a place in a small station a little further along from Bílý Potok. Němý returns from his the fate revealed at the end of the first book. Nebel’s girlfriend, who had moved away in Hlavní Nádraží, comes to visit. Are all the loose ends tied up? I wouldn’t say so. The authors have a walk on part before the conclusion, deciding how they might go about it. Finally, there is a song as the credits roll; the text of a song at any rate of course. A song dedicated to Nebel, with one or two words of German for good measure. The authors are both in bands, which explains perhaps some of the rocker types hanging around the main railway station. I felt a little cheated reading the authors’ bios at the end of the last book and discovering that some of the references I had tried to make sense of were perhaps no more than in-crowd jokes, plugs for bands or I don’t know what. At the culmination of the story, I felt like that murk as a device, all of that Teach Yourself German and Polish and Russian might have been reigned in and the story told much more simply; I felt something like the kind of consternation I sometimes feel with a Tom Waits album or some hipster strut “some people won’t get it” film of the Jim Jarmusch school.

For all that, if it has been serviced by a good English translation – this remains the exception rather than the rule for films and any books which don’t fall into the obvious categories listed above, and they then tend to have been neutralised somewhat, shorn of their original variations of register and the like – Alois Nebel deserves to have some success as a minor cult. As a book it ought to adorn a few hipster bookshelves and get passed around in university halls, tobacco and cannabis dust between its pages as evidence of one perhaps legitimate attempt to divine its meaning. The film, though its compression leads to its own problems with comprehensibility despite the excellent subtitles, ought to be shown more regularly as an object lesson in how to make a well crafted animated film – it uses the rotoscoping technique much more convincingly than, for example, the clunky colour and blocky outlines of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Nonetheless, Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter sums it up for the film and comic both when he writes of the film “Ultimately, [Alois Nebel] may delve into too much specific Czech history and central European psychology to travel beyond those territories…” but that it’s glory lies “not in its story but rather in its atmosphere and imagery.”

It was the first serious Czech graphic novel I tackled, and perhaps arguably the first serious graphic novel published after the revolution. An artifact of a particular time, it is doubtful that the authors paid any thought to translation when they wrote it, and it would be unfair to charge them with willful obscurity when those first years following the revolution were by all accounts bewildering and murky in themselves, and when many of the problems of comprehensibility involve the difficulties of translation. Suffice it to say that the recent launch of a graphic adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle is likely to be a more accessible vehicle for Jaromír99’s graphic style and ought to be worth a look.

I will, however, soon be taking a look at some other graphic novels which are less problematic. Next up: Lucie Lomová.

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Comments
  1. […] the comics exhibition at DOX, I asked for some Czech graphic novels, perhaps something like Alois Nebel. The guy behind the counter was helpful and picked out a few examples for me to look over. There […]

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