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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: MARTIN M. SIMECKA 'THE YEAR OF THE FROG' : A Slovak Prince in Check

November 13, 1994|BRIAN STONEHILL | Brian Stonehill was senior fiction judge for this year's Book Awards

"The Year of the Frog" endears itself to one's soul, for that is what Martin Simecka's remarkable first novel is about. As an immediately engaging trio of novellas, Simecka's work was first circulated clandestinely during the 1980s in the Slovak literary underground or samizdat. We owe its arrival in the West to the championing efforts of Czech President Vaclav Havel, who first helped the book to win the Pegasus Prize for Literature, and who wrote a brief foreword to the excellent English translation by Peter Petro.

In the first section, "Notice," 21-year-old Milan quits his job in a factory and gets himself hired as an orderly in the neurology ward of a Bratislava hospital. Nothing ordinary seems to happen; patients die in his arms; he witnesses brain surgery without knowing what to expect; he achieves a strange and brief but deeply nourishing kind of intimacy with the strangers whose draped bodies he wheels through the dim corridors. An intellectual with little use for either his culture or for his deep habit of wonder, Milan is however passionately caught up in a highly carnal romance with Tania, his very dream of a woman. Seriously athletic, Milan is also liable to be overwhelmed by the joy of a new pair of running shoes; he runs for hours through the streets of his native Bratislava just to take his mind off his country's political hell. For as the affliction of Communism tightens its grip, the host organism called Czechoslovakia itself seems scheduled for some radical surgery.

Simecka adds to these somewhat exotic, yet somehow familiar, ingredients a particular autobiographical savor. His father having been imprisoned by the Communist authorities for "political" activities, the young Milan can never hope to be admitted to the university. Like the author for part of his life, Milan is thus forced to choose between menial jobs and slabs of time "stolen" from the State in which he doesn't work at all. Neither mode can make him happy. Yet what enlivens this novel on every page are the brief flashes of wise humor, the ironic twists sculpted by the lively mind from the most unpromising of circumstances. Milan probes his own purposes even as he watches a surgeon's knife expose the human brain so as to heal it; while Simecka himself charms the reader by a similar pattern of daring leaps and plunges of doubt:

"How should I know what goes on inside a woman? Nature forms her in her image, and I just watch in astonishment. We look at women, build homes for them, play and sing for them, create household inventions for them, force them to work, divide them into states, and keep them in fear that one day we'll get tired of it and wreck it all. Because we mourn our own purposelessness. And what does it matter if I'm wrong?"

The middle section of the novel takes us back three years to the beginning of Milan and Tania's relationship, when her mere proximity would inflame him almost unbearably. Yet the sudden injustices of his father's arrest and the crib death of a friend's infant child drive Milan's thoughts deeper into the linkage of life's blessings and curses.

Milan finds himself, during one of his exuberant runs through Bratislava's Mountain Park, on a stretch of road covered with thousands of tiny frogs, jumping even as he can't stop running over them. "They were popping under my shoes like tiny balloons," he notes with fascinated horror, and the mixture of his own feelings at that moment captures his conjoined awe and cynicism before life, thus giving both this section and Simecka's novel its title.

"Gin," the third and final panel, takes us back still further in time to Milan and Tania's first meeting, and also forward, to a period of difficulty in their marriage. The recollection of the recent past under Communism, when Slovakia was less than half a country and the efforts of individual souls to remember who they were cost so much, gives this remarkable first novel its own historical significance. Indeed, this new author has already read by invitation from "The Year of the Frog" at the Library of Congress. With precisely that balance of humor, insight and suspicion most valued by the namesake of the Art Seidenbaum Award, Martin Simecka makes a welcome and auspicious entrance onto literature's world stage.

LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES / ART SEIDENBAUM AWARD given for a first work of fiction: Nominees

THE YEAR OF THE FROG, by Martin M. Simecka, translated by Peter Petro, foreword by Vaclav Havel (Louisiana State University Press)

THE INDIAN CHRONICLES, by Jose Barreiro (Arte Publico Press / University of Houston)

A PLACE WHERE THE SEA REMEMBERS, by Sandra Benitez (Coffee House Press)

ON LOVE, by Alain de Botton (Atlantic Monthly Press)

IN SEARCH OF BERNABE, by Graciela Limon (Arte Publico Press / University of Houston)

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