The Monster Cabaret of Fred Brunold

Posted: June 15, 2013 in criticism
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The Monster cabaret of Fred Brunold, suggests newspaper Dnes, is what would come about if Kafka were to direct film noir. This may not top of the list of those things which might revulse Kafka’s ghost were he to pace back and forth in Old Town square today, but neither would it be one of those creative works which could not have existed without him and of which he could justifiably be proud.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis has meant different things to different people. The same may be said of his The Burrow, with its mole-like creature with its anxiety-bound vigilence against all the various forces trying to defeat it. I don’t want to give weight to any of the various interpretations of these stories by giving some York Notes-style run down on any of them, but suffice it say that there is scope for interpretation and, more importantly, few readers with life experience of their own are likely to think that Gregor Samsa’s experiences upon his waking in that chilling first sentence, as a “ungeheures Ungeziefer”, however you may translate it, or Kafka’s underground creature have little or no meaning to us at all.
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Film noir, what’s more, is a genuine, if heavily stylised, attempt to depict reality. Dialogue is heightened. Sexual tension ramped up. Violence is given a prominant role. Conventional understandings of gender roles are certainly present in an exaggerated form. But for all this it is possible even today, to take many a classic of film noir and, by reading it with a knowledge of its own codifications and biases, learn much about the society it emerged from, and the society we live in today.

Kafka, what’s more knew the importance of a story and how to tell it. The same may certainly be said of the exemplars of film noir by which we understand this genre today. If a story featured what we may for the sake of argument call a mole, he knew, whether consciously or otherwise, what the mole stood for. Neither a mole, nor a beetle, or hideous vermin, stood for one thing one moment, and another the next.

Gogol was another who knew how to tell a story. I am not certain I have always been one hundred per cent clear what his nose is in the story The Nose. What I have been sure of is that it is something, that it had a reason to be there and that, besides, the story through which we are led by the nose, the people we meet and the situations we witness, more than compensates for any uncertainty there might be, to the degree that even those of us who demand tangible realities of the stories we read, will soon forget the downgrading of verisimilitude or rather, perhaps, its being passed over at times for other aspects of the storytelling craft.

The Monster cabaret of Fred Brunold is acknowledged to be one of the successes of Czech comics following the revolution of 1989. It’s theatre adaptation was endorsed by none other than the late president and absurdist playwrite, Vacláv Havel. It is an unsettling, claustrophobic series of stories with a distinctive style, and for all that, it means nothing to me at all.

Fred Brunold is the alcoholic compere of the Monster Cabaret of the title. Touring the dying spa towns of Central Europe, he introduces various acts and/or stories (it was unclear to me how these stories unfold on stage).

The first of these such stories is that of the tense relationship between aging publisher and writer Hermann Schlechtfreund and “journalist and bisexual” in his late thirties, Jožka Lipnik. The latter brings his writings to be scrutinised by the older man, who summarily dismisses them, giving cynical advice as to how to go about writing a novel – it must be a novel since short stories are good for nothing. It is here that the Kafka comparison is first made, Schlechtfreund advising the younger man to simply sit down and write, to start, for example, with the words “One day… or… one morning… What do I know… let’s say… whatdoyoucallit… some name… Gregor…”

“One morning Gregor Samsa woke up and discovered that he had changed into some kind of terrible insect?” Says Lipnik.

“There you go! It writes itself.”

“But that’s Kafka.”

Schlectfreund goes on to say that plenty of books start like that, that it will continue differently.

The advice goes on in the same vein, and that’s the end of that.

The style of the comic is much the same as

Fred returns, briefly, a couple of people in the audience mutter, and it goes on.

Next we have the story of Damian Chobot, or Damian Trunk or Proboscis. Maybe it’s morning. Maybe he’s in his office. He walks out into the gloomy streets. The city is as if after an apocalypse. And then he gets the sense of being followed. People surround him. People wearing biohazard-like suits. He is unable to defend himself.

Damian wakes in a cinema hall. He is being shown a film, clearly an attempt at brainwashing. Everybody now is undergoing treatment to have their nose surgically replaced with a proboscis.

He has been subjected to the operation and, examining himself in the mirror as he removes the bandages, he likes the result.

Fred, briefly, calls from the crowd, and then, back to Interviews at the residence of Schlechtfreund. Asked to write a forward for his book, Schlechtfreund has offered the same universal one he offers everybody else. There are a number of exchanges. God’s authorship of the bible is discussed. The same three pictures as used in the first episode repeat with different dialogue.

Fred is shown in flagrante and then assumes the podium. We go back to Damian.

It goes on. A story of Arthur Schnitzler of a man losing his identity and his mind, breaks up the pattern a little, but though it doesn’t fully convince, it throws those stories around it into sharp relief: it has more than atmosphere. Detail accumulates. The pressure of thoughts in the character’s head is tangible. We feel his disintegration. We understand his sudden failure to relate to his wife and children. We understand how his wife’s concern morphs into near hostility, how he his madness has led to his break with the world he lives in.

I know and feel none of this with any of the other characters in this book. It feels nihilistic to me. I get no sense of people. The existential heft of the thing feels forced. The style is wilfully bleak. It doesn’t hold together. There is both too much and not enough of Fred Brunold and as we flit from one story to the next, there is nothing that holds my interest.

It may be that the theatre performance is wonderful and would suit me better than the book, but I’m afraid that the approval of Vacláv Havel does nothing to shore up my confidence. Sometimes I find that the absurd is simply absurd, a smokescreen hiding the fact that the author doesn’t know what s/he wants to say. This first book of a trilogy says nothing to me. Picking it up a while ago to write this piece, I discovered that I had been mistaken in thinking I had read it to the end. There remained a few short pages with barely a hundred words between them. That, to me, is the definition of put-downable. I will not be reading the other two parts in the series.

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