Magdalena Mullek reviews Daniela Kapitáňová's Samko Tále's Cemetery Book

Translated from the Slovak by Julia Sherwood (Garnett Press, 2011)

Daniela Kapitáňová's debut Samko Tále's Cemetery Book, which was published in Slovakia in 2000 and came out last year in English translation by Julia Sherwood, defies an easy label. One could call it the memoirs of an idiot, but that would not begin to describe everything going on in this unusual work.

As it is presented, Samko Tále's Cemetery Book is the unedited two-volume journal written by the almost-44-year-old Samko Tále, a physically and mentally disabled individual living in the small town of Komárno in southern Slovakia. He spends his days collecting cardboard and wheeling it to the local Recycling Center on his handcart. One day a local drunk and fortune teller, Gusto Rúhe, writes on the sidewalk that Samko "will write the Cemetery Book." What exactly the Cemetery Book is, no one knows, least of all our protagonist. But what is written must be the law, and Samko is not one to question or disobey it.

The opening chapter of Kapitáňová's novel is the product of Samko's first attempt as a writer. Entitled The First Cemetery Book, it is a scant page of childlike notes about the local cemetery. After all, what else should a Cemetery Book be, but a book about a cemetery? Curiously, the rest of the novel is the product of Samko's second attempt as a writer, sometime during the transition period after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, and is not in fact about a cemetery at all, at least not in the ordinary sense. The impetus for Samko's renewed interest in writing is simple: his rearview mirror has broken off and he has to take his handcart to a shop for repairs. Left without his usual daily occupation, and on a rainy day to boot, Samko begins writing The Second Cemetery Book.

What Samko writes are his observations, recollections and musings, a stream of consciousness skipping from one thought to the next, branching off to tell seemingly unrelated stories and returning obsessively to a few key people and events in his life, a narrative style that recalls William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. But what begins as Samko's simplistic commentary on everyday life, interwoven with humorous anecdotes from the past, quickly opens into a world full of stereotypes, prejudices, abuse, vulgarity and death - a world of complete moral and physical deterioration. The reader may start out with feelings of sympathy for Samko, but any such sentiments rapidly turn into ambivalence, and at some point into dislike or even disgust.

Samko's world is populated by colorful characters, most of whom live or have lived in Komárno. Among them is the aforementioned Gusto Rúhe, the local drunk who foretells that Samko will write the Cemetery Book, but whose distinguishing feature is that he regularly urinates on the Floral Display outside the Cultural Center and writes people's fortunes on the sidewalk with chalk in exchange for free drinks. Then there is Samko's long disappeared relative, Uncle Otto, who had been struck by lightning when he was a radio operator in the Soviet Union and consequently had an out-of-body experience - from which he awoke in a mushroom circle, and since then has been on a mission of "bringing peace to people through the use of mushrooms." There is also the eccentric old Auntie Husličková, who hoards mustard in the conviction that smearing it all over one's body serves as a shield against radiation. She keeps a nuclear attack naughty-and-nice list, so as to know who will get any of her mustard, should the need arise.

The stories of these and many other characters in the book usually start out as humorous vignettes, but as they unwind they suddenly take some unexpected turn, and their humor dissolves into tragedy. Since Samko can speak in the same tone about suicide as he does about the health benefits of yogurt, it is difficult to know where any given story may end up. One such innocuous narration starts out as a practical joke at the expense of the Communist Party:

Once there was this man in Komárno whose name was Ženge and he stole 22 TV sets in one go. Not because he needed 22 TV sets in one go, but because he made a plan. The plan Ženge made went like this:He rang up the Communist Party High Ups in Komárno and said that it had been discovered that some TV sets made in the German Democratic Republic were faulty regarding people's health and that they would have to be taken away. But it had to be done all in secrecy, without alarming the Working Classes, and it was the law for the High Ups to get everything ready in complete secrecy. So they did as they were told and when Ženge came along with his driver and lorry they had everything ready and packed and had even prepared refreshments, because they thought Ženge was one of the High Ups, too.After the refreshments Ženge made them all sign a piece of paper that said it was all a big Communist Party secret and they wouldn't tell anyone, otherwise they would all be in big trouble and they would end up in jail.So they helped Ženge load the TV sets onto the lorry and he left all refreshed.And after that Ženge had a good laugh because he thought it was very funny. But the thing was, his driver was that nasty raving queer Borka and he went around bragging about it so everyone knew all about it.I knew all about it, too.So I went to see Karol Gunár (PhD Social Sciences) and I told him everything because I always notice everything and that's why I knew about this, too. Because if I hadn't told him it would have been a total disaster for the Communist Party, and then people would have made fun of them.So they went and caught Ženge along with Borka and put them straight in jail and it serves them right. They got eight years each, even though they didn't manage to sell anything, because they stole TV sets and made fun of the High Ups. And they gave German Democratic TV sets a bad name, too.
As is often the case in Samko's stories, everything was going well, until he intervened. But stories with unhappy endings are Samko's specialty, even when he is not the one responsible for their outcome. As more details emerge about the various characters in the book, we learn that the alcoholic Gusto Rúhe is a homeless veteran who had been tortured during the war by having his nails hit with hammers of various sizes, which he himself was forced to select. We also learn that whenever Uncle Otto's parents had visitors, they locked him in the back room where they also kept a marble table they had bought at an auction of property left behind by deported Jews.

Certainly the presentation of these vignettes defies conventional forms, but the stories about people from Komárno are only one side of Samko's peculiar narrative. Another is his relationship to family and friends. The two people who figure most prominently in Samko's life, and serve as his moral compasses, are his "Grandaddy" and the high-level Communist Party functionary Karol Gunár. Samko has three notebooks in which he keeps track of people he knows by putting them into categories according to first name, last name, and whether or not they are deceased. Not surprisingly, Grandaddy also had a similar "special notebook" in the days when he belonged to the Local Party Cell.  It is Grandaddy with his little notebook who paid a visit to Karol Gunár and made arrangements for Samko to attend "normal school." Karol Gunár, in turn, took Samko under his wing and for years encouraged Samko to bring him reports on anything and anyone who was doing something that was "not allowed." In this way Gunár created the perfect informer, a person whom no one would think to suspect, who firmly believes in the justice and infallibility of the regime and is content to spend his life reporting on everyone around him - including all the members of his family and his friends. Samko reports on his father for listening to Radio Free Europe and for not liking the first Communist president Klement Gottwald, on his brother-in-law, who gets out of his mandatory military service by ingesting mushrooms that color his urine black, on people who call him names or shout at him, and of course on all of his classmates as well. No one is safe from Samko's gaze, just as in his Cemetery Book no one is safe from his criticism. Even many years after the fall of Communism, Samko is unable to resist "reporting" on everyone. Describing his father, Samko says:

My Dad didn't like Czechs or Hungarians or Russians or Jews or Communists or Gypsies or Spartakiads, or Young Pioneers, or the Socialist Youth Union of Army Supporters, or the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, or the Czechoslovak Hungarian Cultural Association, or the Slovak National Uprising, or the Prague Uprising, or the Women's Union, or Victorious February, or The Great October Socialist Revolution, or the Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship, or International Women's Day, or Liberation Day, and he also didn't like people calling the wartime so-called Slovak State so-called. Meaning it wasn't really independent, only so-called. My Dad always used to say that it was the Communists that were so-called. And besides he also used to listen to Radio Free Europe, and back then that was really strictly forbidden.
Reading the Cemetery Book, one cannot help thinking of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. Like the Underground man, Samko Tále is both the product of his age and its anti-hero, an angry, repressed individual, ready to lash out at the world, even if only verbally. Dostoevsky's "I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man" could easily be the opening lines of Samko Tále's book, except that he would never have enough self-awareness to utter them. He believes himself to be completely normal, hard-working and well-respected, and he reminds the reader of this in his frequent digressions:

The thing is, even though I haven't grown like everyone else in the world, it was me they picked to recite the Young Pioneer's Oath for the whole class, because I was normal just like everyone else and I still am, because I'm no retard and I went to a normal school, not a Special School for retards, because I'm no retard. That's why I was chosen to recite the Young Pioneer's Oath.The Young Pioneer's Oath is beautiful.I recited the Young Pioneer's Oath on stage at the Cultural Centre in Komárno, and it was just me on my own reciting it for the whole class, and I can still remember every word of the Young Pioneer's Oath. Nobody else remembers it any more, even though they went on to lots of different schools but I do, because I remember everything, because I've got I.Q.
Despite his constant claims to normalcy, Samko's thoughts (and consequently his writing), which lack a sense of propriety or moral boundaries, paint quite a different picture. Samko's unfiltered narrative gives the same weight to simple descriptions of events as to Communist slogans, technocratic jargon, vulgar jokes, racial slurs, or any other stereotypes. Samko becomes a prism for society's fears and prejudices. Nationalism, homophobia and racism mingle freely with nostalgia for the Communist past and a reticence toward the newly established Democracy. Just like the half-truths of the Underground Man, which often strike painfully close to reality, Samko's utterances reflect on something real and, therefore, make us very uncomfortable.

This effect is amplified because Samko lives only on the literal level. There are no shades of meaning for him, there is no reading between the lines, no irony and hardly any real humor – just words. His favorite phrases include gems such as, "He'll be in big trouble for that" and "It's the law." Kapitáňová uses Samko to show the extremes to which language can take us and how dangerous it can become in the wrong hands. Yet as literal as Samko's understanding often is, underneath his simplistic writing Kapitáňová weaves some interesting literary patterns. Samko is obsessed with a number of people and events in his life, which he brings up over and over again. But like a theme and variations, each iteration introduces some new piece of information, and slowly the details begin to piece themselves together into a coherent picture. His obsessive repetitions become the accretive refrains, reminiscent of the technique Boris Pilnyak uses in Naked Year. One such refrain always begins with, "Yesterday I saw Darinka Gunárová outside the Cultural Center." At each subsequent mention of this meeting Samko adds a small detail – what Darinka was wearing, how shocked he was at her outfit, who her first husband was, then her second. Many of these repetitions prompt a digression into memories involving Darinka, until finally we learn that Samko saved her life back in their school days, when he reported her plans for suicide to her father, none other than Karol Gunár.

One of the most important elements of this novel is language, and Samko's distinctive voice brings this into focus. Julia Sherwood's translation captures beautifully the idiosyncrasies of Samko's speech, creating an equally amusing and idiosyncratic voice for him in English. Brilliant phrases such as "[she] died of a stroke of bad luck", or being "out of bedlock", which meld two common expressions into a new and unexpected formulation, subvert our expectations mid-sentence. Just as Samko's unexpected turns of phrase jolt us out of everyday language, Kapitáňová's novel jolts us out of our everyday literary expectations. Samko's deceptively simple narration, in the hands of Daniela Kapitáňová, becomes much more than just the ramblings of an idiot.