Positively Bizzare

Laco Kerata: Na okraji mojej hory / On the Edge of My Mountain

Levice: KK Bagala, 2020

The title of Laco Kerata's new book of short stories cumulates various pieces of information that might let the readers think they can guess what Na okraji mojej hory (On the Edge of My Mountain) is about. The most specific hint is "mountain." It could lead us to hills, mountains, valleys, trees, forests, places where individuals feel their biological foundation, their belonging to nature. These expectations come to completion in a single sentence: "Sometimes I even take a walk in the woods." (pg. 139)

The word "even" pretty much sums up the rareness of such walks. If anything, Kerata's mountain is predominantly imaginary. The best example is the short story Spánok (Sleep), in which a vodyanoy and his offspring make an appearance, as well as some fairies and a dragon. Magical elements, however, work together with logic that accentuates the fictionality and utter fabulation within the story. 

The main character and narrator Dodo - a child protagonist - is to blame for all of this. Sometimes he is substituted, e.g. by a snow snowdrift, as in the story Závej (Snowdrift). Still, it is Dodo imagining he is a snowdrift. And so the word "my" from the title of the book seems to gain importance. Dodo concentrates all attention into one character, subjectifying the narration in its entirety, even though the genre and the style of the texts do not necessarily need it. 

A child's point of view is a proven literary strategy, sometimes becoming a plausible, even conformist solution, often used in contemporary literature. Laco Kerata does not subject himself to this perspective to dumb his reader down. On the contrary, he takes the child-narrator game to the next level. He is consciously working with the fact that when he narrates from the point of view of a child, he is not showing how a child thinks, but, rather, how an adult believes a child thinks. It is a subliminal pact, decided by the writer and unconsciously accepted by the reader. In the prose Na okraji mojej hory (On the Edge of My Mountain), however, Kerata admits it openly so that he can also form his opinion on it. 

The adjective "my" also hints at an autobiographical level of the writing which is indicated numerous times within the texts. Kerata's childhood - the nineteen sixties and seventies - can be detected in the everyday nature of the city, in his perpetual prosecution of Communism, in the isolated flat units, but also in the iron frames used for carpet dusting, in merry-go-rounds and in the Indian camps suspected behind city lines. Since the discontented of today are more likely to grumble about democracy, with Voldemort lurking in the mountains and the youth hanging out in shopping malls and skateparks, it is clear that there is also a dose of nostalgia and resentment present in Kerata's book. These are just as inconspicuous as other references to the writer: the industrial statuts of the small town central to the book resembles Nováky, where Laco Kerata was born; little Dodo is an avid reader and he also flirts with the idea of becoming a great writer when he grows up, and so on. Surely we could find more analogies, should anyone want to go through the author's notes or memories. Kerata does not, however, want to tell us anything about little Laco; he wants to talk about adult Laco, who ponders not only his own childhood, but also the way other authors write about their infant selves. 

This is the reason why the "my" from the title of the book remains somewhat unclear as well. After all, even though Dodo is crucial, his world revolves around community (house, street, town, crew). In the short story Trieskam do klavíra (I'm Pounding on the Piano), the neighbors cannot sleep because of Dodo's late-night piano playing and yet they do not want to call the police, because what would the street and the town think if they found out that they co-existed with someone who was in prison?

Perhaps the most important piece of information is "on the edge." Because whether we talk about the imaginatory nature of the mountain or about the autobiographical subject, the community and its rules -- all of that is present in Na okraji mojej hory, albeit never fully. This is also the case with Dodo whom we have so far considered only as a child protagonist, but even this is true only partially. The subliminal nature of the narration is key. The poetics of sublimination is able to get out of the way of an idea, to let it exist only as an outline. The illustrations of Martin Malina co-create this direction, with abstract white lines used against a black backdrop hinting at the town's space and its streets. 

Bus stop, merry-go-round, school bag, train car, baby stroller - a certain prop is given meaning in each story, further developing a bizzare situation. The meaning, however, is just temporary and only there to be lost again. The author approaches this technique skillfully but not mechanically. By choice, a momentary meaning does not dissolve into a wider point in which it would exist with its uncertainty, thus creating a more general meaning of the intangible mystical world. On the contrary, the author-narrator, despite sounding flegmatic at times, is very diligent in cutting each "miracle" short in the right moment. Milena keeps on riding the merry-go-round, underneath of which people magically disappear, and yet when the merry-go-round gets stuck, Milena simply walks away.

All bizzare situations take place "on the edge" - which is clearly distinguished - because they originate on the rim of the radically opposite, everyday world of "mumbling, repeating, murmuring." This is a unique and compelling quality of Kerata's new prose -- we are looking at a narration about the bizzare from the point of view of a narrator who does not like the bizzare. We talk about fantasy, miracles - the cover of the book mentions nonsense and surreality - and all this represents the kind of writing that nurtures the ability to see "something else" in things. 

At the same time, Na okraji mojej hory presents a fiction that is tired of this kind of fiction, and so it ridicules it, shies away from it, is even terrified by it. One of the forms of fantasizing can be an image of oneself as a leader who demolishes the world around him and makes people vanish. The recursive leader theme of the short stories is connected to the selfishness of the child's perspective, but, at the same it, reflects a political context. 

Different versions of the bizzare become entangled and inter-connected. We can view it as a good literary game, but also as a serious answer to the nature of the miracles in our lives - it is in their nature that they only exist when our own imagination is present, amidst the mumbling and murmuring, and only for a moment. That is why it is important not to overestimate the bizzare, not to build on it, and never use it to explain how the world functions. Which, of course, does not diminish neither its charm, nor its value. Everything positively bizzare one encounters is proof of this. Just like Laco Kerata's most recent book.