Monday, June 17, 2013

New Gothic noir from Prague: Milos Urban's Seven Churches

I picked up a copy of Milos Urban's Seven Churches before traveling to Prague, since a crime novel is often a good guide to the streets of a strange city. Urban's book pays off in spades in that regard, though it isn't exactly a crime novel. The cover claims that the author is the Czech Republic's answer to Umberto Eco, which isn't an exact comparison: but Urban's novel is a philosophical potboiler, somewhat in the fashion of Eco's novels.

The lead character and narrator of Seven Churches is (or was) a policeman, but a failed one. When the novel begins, he has been disgraced, but happens upon a grisly crime: a man has been hung in a bell tower by his heel, swinging back and forth with the motion of the bell. The hanged man survives, and through the investigation of that crime, the narrator's career is somewhat redeemed, as the case becomes linked to the death of a woman he was supposed to be protecting, before being kicked out of the force. Other gruesome deaths follow, in an extravagant, neo-Gothic fashion, but the bulk of the novel isn't about the police case.

There is an early digression into the narrator's youth (I'm not giving his name because the name itself is a comic and dramatic point in the plot), and at critical points, the narrator falls into a trance and has visions of the city of Prague in Medieval times. The book, in fact, is more than anything else about the layers of architecture and history in the city, as waves of styles (Renaissance, Baroque, modern) literally overlay the Gothic origins of the city and its churches, as well as Gothic revivals that attempt to restore the original while in fact simply adding another layer. These styles are, of course, intimately intertwined with the religious and political as well as architectural history of Prague.

So the book is indeed a very stylized tour guide to the city, especially the "new town," where a good deal of the action takes place (not so much the famous Wenceslas, or Vaclav, Square as other squares and churches of Novy Mesto (and the book points out that, unusually for a major square in a European city, there are no churches on Wenceslas Square).

Added to the Gothic architecture and the narrator's Gothic deliriums are several phantasmagoric episodes and an overarching conspiracy: altogether a Gothic atmosphere in both the architectural and the fictional senses.The narrator is as much involved with a mysterious pair of men, one large and aristocratic, the other gnome-like, who are investigating the city for their own ends. The detective story serves mainly to anchor the plot in a rationality that is at odds with the narrative's strangeness. The arc of the story is increasingly tied up in conspiracy, rather than the police investigation, as the narrator drops in and out of the investigation and in and out of contact with the conspiracy. And at the end, the story veers off into something else entirely, a kind of Gothic enclave within the modern city.

Prague is a fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious city, and Seven Churches evokes all those aspects, though the book can be a bit frustrating in its repetitions, digressions, and extneded discussions of history and architecture. I recommend it for anyone interested in Prague or in neo-Gothic storytelling; For anyone whose interest is in traditional detective stories, the book will be very frustrating, but if you persist, there are considerable (if sometimes odd) rewards.

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