Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik (translated fiction)

Translated from the Czech by Kaca Polackova

I began reading The Guinea Pigs amused and entertained by the main character, Vasek, a family man who wishes to get his city-bound family back to nature. Since buying a rural cottage is unrealistic, he instead acquires a guinea pig for his family who live in Prague. Vasek appears to be a firm but doting father, and the first-person narration seemed almost sweet at first, as he narrates the story as if telling a child's bedtime story or guide for the care of small animals. Yet as I read, I found an underlying bit of darkness that is revealed more as the book proceeds. In the case of the guinea pig, a gift for his son Pavel, an allusion is made that I missed at first:

“It had all the attributes of a good gift…To think of a present like that, a person would first have to be to be really clever and observant; then, he would have to be quick; furthermore, he would have to have a feeling for the rarity of the moment: to know the desire of the recipient, to have a certain feeling towards him and know how to estimate the response. He would have to possess good taste combined with a sense of humor, be profound…He would also have to be a considerate person, not to have bought the weasel.”

It seems at first like good-natured humor, praising his own success with the beloved gift, but the line about the weasel--Who would buy a guinea pig AND a weasel? Knowing that the sweet piglet would be destroyed? Only a sadist would buy both, yet clearly the narrator considered it. A clue.

Vasek works for the state-run banking system in Prague, yet he clearly has no head for numbers: he’s convinced that Edgar Allan Poe was an economist. Worse yet, the bank he works for makes stealing money even more difficult by the day. With the boring job comes an astonishing amount of time left over for theorizing and contemplating all sorts of conspiracies. At work, it appears that a financial meltdown is imminent, yet no one seems to care. One supervisor, an older man who is ignored by most, becomes a focus of Vasek’s daytime speculation.

The nighttime is when Vasek studies the guinea pigs instead, his fascination only increasing daily. Yet while he gets to know his gentle little pets, they somehow end up with mysterious injuries. He is obsessed, and the family branches out to get even more of them. While his children and wife revolve around the periphery of his life, the guinea pigs are his main focus. And strangely enough, the threat of the financial meltdown begins to parallel what is happening with the family pets.

Written by Ludvik Vaculik shortly after the Prague Spring in 1968 (only recently translated to English by Open Letter), the novel is full of symbolism. This is significant because Vaculik was ostracized by the Communist Party for his opinions. It was necessary to speak in riddles or symbols to avoid further persecution. Thus, The Guinea Pigs can be read in more than one way, depending on how you interpret the symbols. For example, even the concept of ‘guinea pig’ goes beyond a small animal, having an additional meaning as a ‘subject for experiment’. Vaculik often suggested that the Czech people were being experimented upon in terms of political power and financial schemes. Even the names given to the guinea pigs owned by Vasek could be considered symbolic (yes, one of them is named “Red”).

Monica Carter explains in her excellent blog, Salonica World Lit, why Vaculik may have chosen guinea pigs to demonstrate the political situation: “if you distill oppression down to its purest form between the oppressor and the oppressed, [it’s] not difficult to imagine an oppressor doling out praise and punishment like some tough but benevolent patriarchal scientist whose only goals are to control and manipulate in order to get the result he wants. Of course he wants them to feel small and vulnerable, dependent and gullible because that's how power works” (the link to her review is below).

At times the symbolism becomes overwhelming, giving the reader moments of both clarity and confusion. At times I thought, “What on earth does this mean? I am clueless!” and other times, “I so know what he means here, I’m so clever.” I found it helpful to refer to the book Prague Panoramas by Cynthia Paces (review coming soon!) to anchor myself in the appropriate time period to understand what was happening in Prague and to see the heavy influence of Russia against the new freedoms that Czech writers were enjoying. 

Another way to look at the novel is explored in Lisa Hayden's review (link below), as she ties in the archetypes of Russian fairy tale motifs with parts of The Guinea Pigs.  Her review citing Vladimir Propp's work is fascinating.

However, the many allusions to history and politics are lightened by the dark humor that pervades the story. I found myself laughing in surprise at some places and squirming with suspicion in others. It’s not necessary to do history homework to understand the book, it stands alone. But I was curious to understand the story behind the symbolism, and really could see how Vaculik could have been in great danger had he not used the subterfuge. I also enjoyed how it pointed me to other books, including one Poe collection, just to connect the references found in the book to the overall story ("A Descent Into the Maelstrom" to be exact).  One of my favorite books so far this year!

Monica Carter’s review:

Lisa Hayden's review (with references to Russian folktales):

Prague Panoramas by Cynthia Paces is published by U of Pittsburgh Press.

Special thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter for the Advance Review Copy.


  1. Wow, what an interesting review, Amy. The book sounds so unusual -- perhaps one for the Eastern European Challenge!

  2. Wonderful, wonderful book, something really special. It looked like just another Communist allegory, but it's vastly more affecting than the usual. I reviewed it a while back (found an old used copy) on my own site: