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A Farewell to Prague
Desmond Hogan

A Farewell to Prague
Desmond Hogan
Faber & Faber
London 1995

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


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