WAS the fabled "Golden Prague" of the early '90s a den of iniquity? Was the Velvet Revolution a failure and a sham?
Such questions are at the heart of M. Henderson Elliss's debut novel, which explores the Czech capital's legacy of Communist rule and its uneasy transition into a new era of Starbucks and McDonald's.
Ellis, an American who taught English and tended bar in Prague in the early years after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime, seems to have drawn upon his own experiences to create a witty, darkly humorous portrait of the city on the Vltava. Like Bruce Chatwin before him -- who, in his novel Utz, described Communist-era Prague -- Ellis became captivated by the city.
Perceived through the eyes of John Shirting, a young American expatriate from the Midwest, the historic centre of European culture becomes the true focus and the main character of the novel. Its richly complex nature pulsates with kaleidoscopic feelings through the unfolding seasons.
Raised in the North Shore neighbourhood of Chicago, Shirting has a personal connection with his new home; his grandfather came to America from a small village in Bohemia.
Let go from his barista position at an upscale coffee chain in the Illinois metropolis, Shirting is a pill-popping, socially awkward urbanite who intends to rebuild his life by staging a Starbucks-like invasion of his newfound Fatherland and possibly all of Eastern Europe.
His quest is hindered by the fact that the Czechs he encounters on the way seem relentlessly cunning and morally ambiguous, whereas he and his fellow American expats battle to contain their neuroses, struggling to survive in an environment so far removed from their expectations.
Ellis populates Prague with wildly eccentric yet remarkably believable characters -- goth-like golem hunters, biblically versed skinheads, and predatory babushkas, to name a few.
The people come into focus in a mosaic effect as they drift in and out of each others' lives. This, however, helps bring out the intent of Ellis' writing -- to give the reader a palpable and true sensation of living in Prague.
Vulnerable, impractical and overly intellectual, young Shirting is a surprisingly unbiased observer of the surreal landscape that springs up around him at every step.
Replete with peculiar plot twists and dream-like sequences, the novel presents a version of reality that feels only a step away from The Twilight Zone. Nothing in Ellis's Prague is precisely what it seems.
Shirting himself soon realizes that he is unable to connect with the people he meets, only with the city itself. He learns the secrets of Prague as he travels through its neighbourhoods on foot and by desolate tram. He finds himself mysteriously pulled back to the city each time he tries to escape.
The novel has the same sort of appeal, at once both shocking and strangely inspirational. Shirting is a remarkably eloquent protagonist, which raises the story above the clichés of a straightforward travelogue to a more singular and compelling level of testimony, the work describing a curiously melancholic Wonderland.
Ellis' account is not for the faint-hearted; he deals unflinchingly with such topics as depression, pornography, sex trade, and the darker aspects of globalization. His explorations are nevertheless infused with a brilliantly offbeat sense of absurdity -- Shirting hilariously misinterprets the occasional propositions he receives from heavily-accented streetwalkers as requests for haberdashery.
Difficult to put down, unsettling yet addictive, the novel is a must-read for anyone who dares to peek behind the postcard image of a famously beautiful centre of European civilization.
Paul R. McCulloch is an arts and culture blogger at paulswinnipeg.blogspot.ca.