With Eastern Europe becoming increasingly fractured it is more
and more difficult to comment upon, or know how to represent any
particular place or country there. Names have changed and are
still changing, people who were once seen as Soviet are in fact
Russian, or Ukrainian, or Georgian. We now know that there are
Slovaks who are different from the Czechs we used to think they
were. Letters sent into the old Eastern Bloc to friends of years
ago take even longer to get there, as young postal workers struggle
over old maps to discover where Oktobrova Street or Kottwaldo
Namestie actually are now.
Desmond Hogan has found a prose style which aptly conveys the
schizophrenia of a changing continent, as well as the more personal,
genetic madness of his narrator. A Farewell to Prague is
a travel book of sorts, which reads as if its author has torn
his richly detailed diary into small pieces, thrown all the pieces
into the air, and stuck them back together again to make a novel.
The result is beautiful, haunting elegy to lost love and friendship,
constructed in the form of a collage of events, people and observations.
As Hogan’s ‘I’ remembers, he takes his readers on a voyage through
the disparate countries, cities and decades, often managing to
portray recent or distant experiences in Leningrad, Prague, Dublin
and London, all on the same page.
Hogan’s work is intimate, but never cloying. When his narrator
writes that he made love to a rent boy, on a one night stand,
rather than saying that he screwed him, he demonstrates his commitment
to the potential for beauty in any transient moment. Life, like
that of his HIV positive friend Marek, can be colourful and diverse
even if it is not long. The intensity and vivaciousness of Hogan’s
imagery fix the reader in the remembered instance, and it is when
he suddenly draws an event out of the past and makes it uniquely
present that Hogan is at his best. A man wears his hat on one
side so that it looks like a lid that’s half open. A boy, confronting
his mother in high heels, tells her that she has lost a son and
gained a daughter. The narrator has only slept with one girl in
his life because he only knows how to sleep with one girl. This
is marvellous stuff.
What can begin to annoy about A Farewell to Prague is the
constant temporal shifting, which does not allow the author much
change of tone, or any drama. The lilting, beautifully removed
voice sounds a little flat at times, and while the reader trusts
that characters and events which are left suspended will be returned
to, it is hard to engage with any event for too long because the
author doesn’t do so. The prose has an ethereal, transfixing quality,
but sometimes it is a case of watching a memory in action, rather
than joining a mind in seeing the events and places recalled.
That said, A Farewell to Prague achieves a peculiar, almost
surreal tension as it nears its final, saving ideal. Following
Hogan’s narrator through his broken series of all too believably
inconclusive epiphanies, is a genuinely uplifting experience.
This is largely because Hogan’s world is so full of colour. Even
when close to what he politely terms ‘breakdown’ the narrator
cannot fail to be captivated by a borscht coloured Hillman Imp,
or the sunlight fringing a young girl’s hair. It is perhaps this
which makes this novel, so full of misunderstanding, intolerance
and shortened lives, so poignant and optimistic.
Reviewed by Adam Baron