Woven around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia, in the summer of 1942 ‘The Visible World’ is an unusual novel about exile, heroism and, most poignantly, a son’s attempt to understand his parents’ sadly dysfunctional marriage. Slouka’s narrator is the child of Czech émigrés growing up in Queens in the 1950’s but the novel is constructed with unconventional formal properties. It is firstly a memoir of exile and childhood then a journey of investigation as the narrator travels to Prague after the suicide of his mother and the death of his father and finally it turns out to be a novel within a novel as the narrator harnesses his own imaginative powers to create a fictional account of how his parents came to be married and why there was such a hollowness at the heart of the marriage.
Growing up in Queens the child’s life was full of stories from the old country, tales of the Czech forests inhabited by magical creatures, as well as curiously incomplete stories of his parents’ Czech friends and how they survived the war. In spite of his father’s great efforts to integrate into American life the narrator is left with with a strong sense of belonging elsewhere “it was not that what they had lost had been better or more beautiful than what they had found here, just that it had been theirs and it had been lost.” His mother it appears seemed to suffer from an even greater sense of loss, but a loss that is never fully explained to the ever questioning child. Eventually his mother, after years of emotional withdrawal, walks in front of a bus. “She left no phone message, no note; no taped cassette on the dining room table. Just a casserole dish half-filled with ashes and a few feathery bits of letter paper. I poked around in the ashes with the eraser end of a pencil. Along the edge of a blackened peace of blue Luftpost paper I made out the words ‘I still’ and that was all.”
The narrator knows that his mother was in some way connected to the assassination of Heydrich and possibly his father too. “I asked my father if he had ever been a hero. He said ‘no, not even close to one’, and because he was my father I believed him.” Nor had the mother been heroic but the narrator invents a narrative in which his mother, despite being loved by his father, has a passionate affair with one of the heroes of the assassination which ends with his death but casts a long shadow over her subsequent marriage to his father. It is the emotional complexity of this marriage as presented by the son which contains the real dramatic force of ‘The Visible World’ rather than the bucolic romanticism of the imagined love affair between Tomas Bem and his mother .
The father knew of Bem and knew of the mother’s passion “my father did not wish him ill, no; to kill the beast he needed it alive. Alive and well and living in boredom…just let him live and die on the field of days as other men do.” Unfortunately Bem kills himself when he is confronted with the horror of the Nazi reprisals and the betrayal of his fellow assassins. This meant that the mother could return to the father, which she did, but it was never a complete return. “He’d taken it well. As he took everything. She’d expected it and admired and slightly despised him for it. A good man she could think of nothing to dislike about him. And yet, if just once she had sensed some anger beneath his decency, his irony…none of this matters, because for all the things he was, there was one thing my father wasn’t; he wasn’t the other one.” In the narrator’s novel there is no happy ending. The parents escape Prague to a new life in America but something had been lost and the marriage was not as it seemed “my mother respected my father’s strength, his endurance, was grateful to him for taking the role he had for her with such tact but hated him for it too. And because she recognised the injustice of this –she loved or tried. And because she knew he recognised it too, she failed.”
The pleasure of ‘The Visible World’ is that it is about more than just a son’s attempt to understand his this parent’s tragic marriage. Slouka addresses the heroism of the young resistance fighters, their frailty and their fears as they hide in a crypt from the Nazis “unable to keep themselves from turning inward they began by slow degrees to grow human. To become afraid.” He also develops the fragmented memories of the exile from the old country, visits Prague under the grip of communism, tells the beautiful tale of his mother’s young, innocent love in the forests escaping from the horrors of the war but principally it is the poignant tale of a decent man, a good man, a quietly heroic man who loved a woman whose heart had been broken before it could ever ever have been given to him “ ‘It is not that I don’t understand’ said my father ‘I do. It’s just that it does no good’.”
Rating 3 out of 5