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Vol 2, No 42
4 December 2000
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Fingers Pointing Somewhere ElseReaching Beyond and Clutching
the Now

Daniela Fischerová's Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else
Catbird Press, 2000
ISBN 0945774443

Madelaine Hron

Finally, an English translation of one of the foremost Czech women writers of the post-1989 generation: Daniela Fischerová's Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else (Prst, který se nikdy nedotkne, 1995), deftly translated by Neil Bermel. An accomplished playwright, screenwriter and children's author, Fischerová here presents us with a collection of short stories replete with humor, delightful characters, ironic twists of the plot and magical fairytale elements.

Yet, let the reader not be deceived by this seemingly unassuming charm. In her stories, Fischerová probingly traces the contours of that tenuous dimension which elusively slips through our fingers: being-in-the-world. However, she also adroitly lays a finger on that which makes our existence bearable: the understanding and conviction of things-not-grasped. Such understanding, of course, derives from fictions we create for ourselves: the "world is a story, a finger pointing somewhere else: a direction."

Summoning up childhood

In each of her stories, Fischerová explores the ambivalence between appearance and reality, or belief and illusion, that defines all our lives. In her first two coming-of-age stories, "My Conversations with Aunt Marie" and "A Letter for President Eisenhower," the narrator summons up intricate relationships of her childhood—an affinity with a loving but crazy aunt and a confusing, homoerotic initiation into sexuality by a summertime friend.

In the hands of a high-spirited child, these interactions are fashioned into noble, heroic tales: her contact with her visionary aunt presages her own future fate, and her first fumbling fondlings are transformed into the epic love saga between Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro. Such imaginative fictions, though intuited by the child within, are what continue to sustain us in the adult world.

Magic amidst the ordinary

Such is the scope of the next three stories, in which we are presented with the drab, predictable ordinariness of life punctured by the unexpected. In "Far and Near," the bland life of an abstract academic proves passionate and ends in a surprising denouement, which the narrator foresees in a ominous dream. Even the average family is not bereft of heroism and intrigue, as the narrator discovers in "Two Revolts in One Family." In all, life is not as "synthetic" as it appears, just as the aloof adolescent learns in "Boarskin Dances on the Table"—it is always clothed in surprise fairytale motifs.

Fischerová lures us further into a magical world in the collection's last two stories, in which we travel to a mystical retreat in India and then are immersed directly into an Asian fairytale. Here though, we are disillusioned and made to question the possibility of transcendence and storytelling in a skeptical and pragmatic world.

In "Dhum," we journey with a disenchanted psychiatrist who is forced to re-evaluate his uneasy spirituality and ethics in an unforgettable life-and-death decision. In "The Thirty-Sixth-Chicken of Master Wu," we are plunged into a time and space where poetry is menaced by "the featureless tone of eternal repetition." Throughout her stories, Fischerová is always reaching beyond, into that elsewhere in which storytelling holds possibility and promise.

The substance of the present

However, Fischerová's fiction is by no means ethereal or otherworldly, but tangibly seizes the substance of present day reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in her convincing character portrayals, so realistic and vivid. We admire the self-assuredness of her younger characters, just as we empathize with the world-weariness of her older characters.

Relationships, in particular, are so subtly nuanced that we as readers cannot maintain our usual stance as observers, but instead become one with the characters and join in the action—we, too, are repulsed by a comatose woman or are attracted to a diffident professor. Suddenly, we incorporate a woman's perspective, a writer's perspective or a Czech person's perspective—for Fischerová's work is deeply rooted in material reality.

In a letter painstakingly drafted by a schoolgirl, she proffers sharp commentary on censorship in Communist Czechoslovakia. In an offhand remark by a cool teenager, she criticizes the materialistic "taste" defining the 1960s. In a surreal fairytale landscape, we come to realize the paralysis of post-modern discourse.

In sum, Fischerová's world is painstakingly real. As she explains herself in her story "Far and Near": "This will be a story of the far and the near. It is not science fiction and will offer no new resolutions."

Visceral language

Above all, it is with her sensuous style and palpable language that Fischerová recreates reality for us. Precise, pithy, laconic, her words incarnate her ideas perfectly. Her incisive insight directs us to novel ideas, and her ever-present irony makes us snicker.

Fischerová's particular style is extremely difficult to reproduce in English. It compacts colloquial Czech, its fresh new expressions and earthy proverbs (such as "pissing against the wind") into an ever-mobile dynamic. The translator Neil Bermel does an admirable job of translating Fischerová's unique voice into American English, carefully reproducing her animated vitality, yet not deviating from the original in his transposition.

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Needless to say, some of Fischerová's juiciest passages, those that are most corporeal, dissipate in translation. In his preface, Bermel explains the difficulty of translating Fischerová's work; for example, in one of her choice passages, she describes the process of making up stories as literally "sucking [them] up from her fingertips" (vycucaný z prstu). Bermel chooses the substitute of "making them up from thin air"; the English language is simply less visceral. However, both Fischerová in her stories and Bermel in his translation offer us a fabulous spread of the potential of language.

As Fischerová writes:

There are two basic ways to translate what has not come to be and what no longer is. One is the eternal present's abbreviated arc, in the belief that the sense of words and things endures and, like Zeno's arrow, hangs in flight. The other keeps to Babel's model, clinging anxiously to the literal meaning confined to the solitary cell of their time and place.

The English translation of Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else leaves us quivering, because, like a bow drawn by nimble fingers, we are pointed to another time, another place. But we also quiver because, upon reading these stories, we vicariously live through the vibrations of the present.

Madelaine Hron, 4 December 2000

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