Czech Mate

Parasol Against the Axe By Helen Oyeyemi. New York: Riverhead. 272 pages. $28.

The cover of Parasol Against the Axe

HELEN OYEYEMI’S NEW NOVEL Parasol Against the Axe, set amid a bachelorette party weekend in Prague, abounds in side quests breezily undertaken and abandoned. You don’t need to think about the bachelorette party all that much. Actually, you can’t. The rate at which Oyeyemi invents thickets of problems without answers, obstacles to bounce over, mysteries to shrug at, is frantic, like in those dreams where you have to run very fast in order to move slowly. 

Take, for instance, a scene that comes toward the end of the book (Oyeyemi’s ninth), in which a tourist visiting Prague named Dorothea (Thea) Gilmartin arrives at a library seeking a novel. The situation seems straightforward enough, but the novel, the library, and the circuitous route Thea has taken to get there are anything but. The novel that Thea is tracking down changes each time it’s read. It is always set in Prague, but in a different historical era (Nazi-occupied, Late Middle Ages, Cold War). At times it seems to be aware of its reader, but it’s not clear to what extent it is reading her in return. Only its title and author are consistent: Paradoxical Undressing by Merlin Mwenda. Many of its first chapters appear throughout Parasol as they are read by Thea and the book’s other protagonist, Hero Tojosoa, a fortysomething former journalist who has decided at the last minute to go to her friend Sofie Cibulkova’s bachelorette party. Thea is also friends with Hero and Sofie—or used to be. She’s come to Prague bearing grudges, and so begins her circuitous path, which leads her not only to mar the festivities, but also to chance upon a copy of the magical book. Which she loses. So she’s at the library, the same one Jorge Luis Borges wrote about in his short story “The Secret Miracle.” Borges’s writer-protagonist Jaromir Hladík, condemned to death by the Gestapo, dreams about this library, the Klementinum, from prison. In the dream he has come to the library looking for God, and the librarian tells him, rather unhelpfully, “God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine.”

Thea and the librarian at the present-day Klementinum have a little exchange of their own: they get into an argument about the plot of Paradoxical Undressing. Given that they have read entirely different books, any pretense of literary interpretation is clearly a joke that neither of them are in on, and the scene’s resemblance to Borges’s story is similarly riff-like. Then the librarian informs Thea that she is being sought by a ragtag bunch of Prague officials who want her to leave town ASAP. One of these so-called officials is a version of a character Thea encountered earlier in the novel, a woman dressed in full-body Krtek costume who stole her money through trickery. (Krtek is an educational cartoon mole created in 1956 at the behest of Communist Party leaders who were looking for a way to teach the children of Czechoslovakia how to construct a sturdy pair of pants.) Thea is dismayed. This new information has thrown her and she, evidently the sort of person who finds herself arguing with a working librarian in an unfamiliar city, doesn’t have much patience for authority. “Oh, this is your first time getting summarily rebuffed by some unfathomable Bureau?” asks the librarian, doing his best to say he’s read Kafka without saying he’s read Kafka. “I would suggest that you don’t get accustomed to that. Outsphinx ’em!”

One becomes accustomed to precisely nothing in Oyeyemi’s difficult marvel of a novel. Its plot is both fascinating and beside the point, branching and digressing in a fashion the author’s fans will anticipate but can never fully prepare for. Readers must pay careful attention to chains of events if they hope to find their way through Oyeyemi’s maze. But just following these breadcrumbs won’t suffice. When the possibility or usefulness of knowing what’s going on reaches its limits, the novel’s ever-churning style can save the day—or be resisted at the reader’s peril. Its hallmarks include: side-eye, brazen interruptions, cool dismissals, trickery, idling, cheek, non-apology apologies, and doublings-back. Whereas persuasion, order, manipulation (emotional or otherwise), moralizing, and prescriptions of any kind have no place in the novel’s sentences or construction and are often looked down upon by the characters themselves. 

Oyeyemi’s previous novels have featured settings that think for themselves—a talking house, a scheming train. This one is narrated by the city of Prague itself, where Oyeyemi, born in Nigeria thirty-nine years ago and raised in London, has lived for the past decade. We open on Prague making itself miserable by scrolling through a WhatsApp group chat dedicated to visitors’ complaints. “I’m not even one of the grander metropolises!” Prague huffs. “If I was I could have just eaten you and yours alive! I didn’t, but no need to thank me! My self-esteem is in good health and doesn’t require your gratitude!” Our narrator may only be a medium-grand metropolis, but it’s still too sprawling to exercise much control over the story. It can change its point of focus, say what it thinks really happened, or dither, or fib, but it cannot find resonance, coax beauty or coherence. The story, composed of people who find themselves in Czechia’s capital, walks all over its teller in a million directions.

Photo: Flickr/Rob Oo.
Photo: Flickr/Rob Oo.

Following Prague’s preamble, most of the novel centers on Hero as she develops a curious affinity for the city she thought she’d hate. Perhaps the city takes such an interest in Hero from the start because it recognizes her nascent sympathies. Or maybe Prague is watching Hero as nonchalantly as Paradoxical Undressing is, reading her slant and casting a spell that will eventually prevent her departure. “It’s possible to liken her most frequent facial expression to the ‘read’ receipt that kills a conversation thread,” an ambivalent Prague tells us of Hero, “or to a thumbs-up emoji sent in response to a confession of love.” 

Eventually Hero will find that she is also getting married, possibly to a golem, which Prague definitely approves of, but initially she’s there to celebrate Sofie. The two once delighted in shared entrepreneurial pursuits—like writing dirty messages for pay and operating a hedgehog café—but their relationship has since become less close. And Hero has dual motives, at the least, for being in Prague. She is also strenuously avoiding the anticipated delivery of an unpleasant letter to her at her home in Dublin. The letter is from the furious subject of Hero’s nonfiction book, Faiblesse, which she wrote under a pseudonym and would like to disassociate herself from entirely. That’s a whole other story. 

Hero arrives already in possession of Paradoxical Undressing and reads the new stories it generates throughout her trip. She reacts sometimes with consternation (“This wasn’t a standard settling-down-for-the-night scenario for Hero, or even a typical just-going-to-bed-with-a-book scenario”), sometimes with pluck (diving back in for more). Generally, she accepts the abundantly fictional thinking that goes on in the book, which quickly overflows its pages as the plot of Parasol continues its fantastic multiplication. Further contributing to this frenzy is Oyeyemi’s fondness for tampering with stock phrases: “a trip down false-memory lane”; “she could just grit her teeth and cuddle”; “the official name of the game”; “Every bone in that story’s body is a mean one”; “Do you even read, bro?” Characters introduced before their time shuffle back into their rooms and close the door behind them. Information is divulged too late for it to matter. Prague itself is an unfathomable bureaucrat, corrupting its files and fudging its English clichés.

I read Oyeyemi’s fiction for the first time late last year—her previous novel, called Peaces, an off-the-rails mystery set on a train about (well, how even to begin?) the haunting powers of relationships foolishly thought to have been ended—and felt at turns intrigued and repelled by it. At the time I was peculiarly obsessed with trying to understand the ways that writers of fiction manage to convince us to be taken in by their made-up stories. I wanted to read writers whose voices never tremble as they pile lie atop lie (I’d been getting back into detective stories). Books you can occasionally skim without getting lost and this is in fact part of their charm—their familiarity carries you along. It is often said that books like this are up to all kinds of narrative “tricks,” but they’re hidden so that the reader can enjoy a pleasant stay. Readers of Parasol, however, are constantly being hoodwinked in obvious and uncomfortable ways. The experience is akin to walking around a foreign city all morning and day in bad shoes over clunky streets; at an hour known to everyone but you all the shops and cultural institutions close their doors. The sightseeing map quickly becomes obsolete and you are forced to encounter the city on its own terms, whatever they may be. 

And yet—for all the inconvenience—walking around the story in this way, I gradually fell in love with it, and the besotted need no convincing. When a writer has surrendered her will to control in pursuit of a more anarchic approach, the reader must do the same, or else set the book aside, go home. Parasol is captivating precisely because it is not believable. Instead, it is aware of itself thinking. But not in an annoying, intellectually domineering way; Oyeyemi is more interested in the imagination’s unjustifiable demands than demonstrations of her own brilliance.

What is the story, with all its tendriled tangents and dizzying distractions, thinking of? What does it want? In the novel’s final scene, Hero has a run-in with Merlin Mwenda, the author of Paradoxical Undressing, who’s moonlighting as an ice-cream truck driver. She has some questions for him, and he in turn offers plenty of delectable notions about the book he wrote so long ago he hardly remembers it. One in particular captured my fancy: Merlin tells Hero he’d originally intended Paradoxical Undressing to be a Casanova story, specifically “an account of Casanova’s humiliation on the night of Don Giovanni’s premiere” in Prague. At the after-party, Casanova went around telling ladies that the opera they had enjoyed so much was based on his life. But he didn’t have any success with the local women, so Merlin’s book could never have just been called “undressing.” Still, it’s interesting that the book driving so much action in Parasol derives its inspiration from such a hedonistic figure. After all, Oyeyemi’s independent-minded novel has also been pursuing its own pleasures, staging its own seduction, one that Casanova may have found unduly perverse. In this story the chase is everything, and satisfaction is an illusion the reader can do without. 

Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer.