ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


A letter from Louis Armand, followed by Ricardo Nirenberg's review of "The Combinations"

Louis Armand wrote:

Dear friends, this is just a short note to let you know about a project that has been very close to my heart and a major focus of my work over the years I've been living in Prague. When I arrived here 22 years ago, like many others I harboured a desire to "live in an historical place at an historical time" (as Alan Levy once said), to be a witness to a moment of major political and cultural change in Europe and the world at large from the vantage point of a city that, as Derek Sayer gamely described it, wasn't merely some sort of "Left Bank" of the nineties but the "capital of the twentieth century" (by which he means, in effect, the crossroads — Praha, after all, means threshold). There was also a sense that in Prague it would be possible to *write* without apology or justification. There had, after all, been a revolution whose figurehead — the future president — was both a dissident and a playwright. It was a city in which foreigness, too, was a dominant paradigm -- a city of manifold estrangements, displacements, alienations and a general irreality. This May, after many years of drafting and re-drafting, I have finally published the book that — in a previous and utterly jejune incarnation — I had foolishly set out to write on my arrival. But as Blake says, "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise." And insofar as I can make any claim upon the latter, its ragbag of questionable proofs is: THE COMBINATIONS. To you I profer this ill-starred creation. For the curious, the way to perdition lies here: Fare thee well, as they say. Louis 



When an ambitious novelist or playwright decides to compose a modern realistic work—i.e. one imitating das Chaos der Zeit, as Hölderlin called the confusion of his own time, having no idea of what things were to become within a couple more centuries, that is, now, before our eyes—, the dusty so-called classical units become unexpectedly useful again.  They provide a center to the chaos.  Joyce’s Ulysses happens all in Dublin, in a single day.  Beckett’s plays are models that even Boileau would have approved of.  Now Louis Armand, the Australian writer who has lived in Prague for over twenty years at last count, has produced a major modern epic “novel,” having Prague instead of Dublin for locale.  At about 900 pages, it is a good deal longer than Joyce’s Ulysses: if you enjoy the latter, you will find The Combinations to be almost 200 pages more fun and you will not want to miss it.

I haven’t been to either city, but Prague, at the center of Europe, seems to me to hold more mystery, more density of historical allusion and suggestion.  Right at the “Overture” Armand tells us to “Begin with a room & a man inside the room.”  The room appears to be an alchemical laboratory and study, the man an old alchemist.  Enough to send your mind scurrying—you can’t help it if you are in Prague, can you—toward the melancholy Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, called “The Mad Alchemist.”  It turns out, however, that the whole thing is a recreation, a mise en scène, a Communist plot.  A bunch of children, Little Pioneers, come in with their teacher, and an old woman, hitherto invisible, turns on a Russian-made reel-to-reel taper recorder, likewise.  A ten-minute Marxist theory harangue follows.  And the old alchemist puppet moves his lips as if the recorded words were his, though imperfectly, for this is actually Prague under Soviet tutelage, and nothing, not even lip synch, runs as it is supposed to run.  That gives you some idea of how Armand crunches or distils four centuries into a few pages, but it doesn’t start to describe the mastery at work.

Much of what’s still to come is delightfully Joycean.  Němec was sure he was awake.  How?  He “picked his nose & inspected the end of his finger.  A length of nose-hair lay kinked under a glistening film like a fly’s leg in aspic.”  Gourmet nose picker Jan Němec looks like the (main) fictional version of the author.  For one thing, their ages are not far apart, and we are told that Němec breaks out of the House or hospital where he was interned and erupts into the streets of Prague just after the collapse of the Wall; for another thing, Němec is a writer, or an aspiring writer who makes notes for a tentatively titled Masterpiece of a Doomed Time.  We are told that his name on his House file was Nikdo, meaning nobody – just like Odysseus, no less, telling the cyclops that his name was oudeís: voilà the Homeric connection – but that he preferred Němec, which in Check means mute, hence dumb.  I looked it up, and found that it (originally?) meant a German person, someone who doesn’t speak Slavic, and that it is a common Check and Slovakian surname.  A German speaker in Prague: who can avoid thinking of Rilke, or Kafka?  Think instead (someone in a more somber mood might interject) of SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich, who famously said: “Wir werden die tschechischen Ungeziefer germanisieren”.  But “the Check vermin” had him first, and did not suffer the fate of being Germanized.  Anyway, we cannot think of anything or anybody in connection with Prague about which or whom Armand has not thought first, and fictionalized here in gripping, dramatic form.  Heydrich and his goons, who had already appeared in a detached story, “The Case of Eldrich von N—”, published in offcourse #60, here reappear toward the end of the book, in chapter 63.

At the beginning of Chapter 1 (They Say) we find further confirmation of the alliance Němec-Armand (or you may dismiss it as insignificant):

“ ‘They say,’ the ghost mused, holding his left hand palm out like a juror taking an oath, ‘that the fingernails continue to grow even after death.’

As for Němec, “he stood there like an undertaker after a funeral,” while the ghost identifies himself as “the wits of former days.”  This ghost, said to be the ghost of a Professor, can’t fail to remind the reader of Leopold Bloom, who muses about fingernails growing after death while sitting inside an undertaker’s carriage (Ulysses, page 85).

Some episodes seem but tenuously related to Prague, and I’m sure that’s because I haven’t the erudition necessary for tying firmer knots.  A case in point is the youngest daughter of George Boole.  Boole was the young genius who tied algebra to set theory and logic, and her daughter’s name was Ethel Lilian Voynich née Boole (11 May 1864 in Cork – 27 July 1960 in New York).  Her first novel, The Gadfly, was a revolutionary best seller first in the Soviet Union, then in China.  There’s a story about her husband, Wilfrid Michał Habdank-Wojnicz, a Polish revolutionary and antiquarian book dealer, having to do with the still undeciphered “Voynich manuscript” now at Yale (the character of the antiquarian-book-dealer, or fabricator, is a recurrent theme in The Combinations).  The connection to Prague, I guess, is this: the Voynich manuscript, which was written most likely early in the 1400s, seems to have belonged for some time to Rudolph II and is believed by a few to be the work of one Jacobus Sinapius, whom Rudolph had ennobled and appointed his Imperial Distiller.  No, nothing to do with whiskey or vodka.  God knows, the Voynich manuscript might contain the deepest secrets of alchemical lore.  In any case, the intriguing story of Ethel the revolutionary writer and daughter of Boole the mathematician brings to mind the no less intriguing, reversed story of mathematician Ada Lovelace, daughter of the revolutionary poet Lord Byron.

I wrote the preceding paragraph on August 21.  This morning, August 22, I woke up and as usual glanced over some newspapers on the computer.  I will not try to abuse the dear old Principle of Sufficient Reason to explain my landing almost at once on this article:

We are informed that a publishing house in Spain, Siloe, is about to release a facsimile or clone of the Voynich manuscript, and we are warned to be wary because many scholars have already gone mad over it, trying to decipher it.  Which brings to mind—no, reader, I’m not about to warn you that you run the risk of going mad over The Combinations.  But I would like to advise you to read it slowly, just a few pages, or one chapter at a sitting, then sleep over it, and try to remember your dreams.  Then read again.  After a month or two, you may well find you’ve gone through a life-changing experience.

We cannot think of Prague without thinking of the Golem, an artificial hominoid reportedly created by Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the illustrious late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal.  Just as God did with Adam, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay – in this case from the banks of the Vltava river, which flows through Prague.  The rabbi gave life to the clay clump by means of secret incantations and by placing a shem (a tablet inscribed with one of the names of God) on his brow or on his head, or perhaps on his chest; then he named the Golem Josef, Yiddish nickname Yossele.  Reminds me of my grandmother Rebeca, who called me Rikushkele while she stroked my cheek with crooked fingers.  On Friday evenings the shem was removed so Yossele would rest on the Shabbat, a nice touch.  Of this same rabbi Maharal it is told that he was called to the palace to consult with His Imperial Majesty Rudolph II on matters cabbalistic.  Amazing, the attraction the Kabbalah exercised on those who sought high power, to the point where a Habsburg, a prince brought up at the court of Phillip II of Spain, took counsel with a Jew.  Power and the Golem, needless to say, go hand in hand.  Man vying with God.  And Prague is often referred to by Armand as Golem City, notably in the dating at the end of the book.  Whether it is a common moniker, as Gotham City is for New York, I don’t know.

Today we in the U.S. place our hopes for peace in the power of the Golem.  Numerous inventors, developers, and contractors are earning billions of dollars creating Golem warriors.  They call them robots, another word coming from Prague, coined by the Czech playwright and novelist Karel Čapek, who launched it to the world in 1920.  And now, almost a hundred years later, Louis Armand launches this masterpiece, which is itself a labyrinth jointly built by Armand and two Dedaluses: Daedalus the Athenian (who, like the Maharal, could give life to a statue) and Stephen Dedalus of Joyce.  Through this labyrinth goes the sailor or flâneur Nikdo-Němec, who is at once No-One-the-Dumb and each of us.


Louis Armand is Director, Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory, UALK, Philosophy Faculty, Charles University, Náměstí Jana Palacha 2, 116 38 Praha 1, CZECH REPUBLIC. A chapter from Combinations appeared in Offcourse #60, "The Case of Eldritch von N__".
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Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.

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