Iva Pekarkova has spent her life writing books. In an interview with Prague Radio, she gives voice to an inner struggle between working for a living and rubbing two pennies together to keep writing.
Her first novel, Truck Stop Rainbows is not just a “road novel” as the English version’s cover portends. It’s much more like a philosophical memoir written in the point of view of a world-traveler who has never left her homeland of Czechoslovakia, as it was called then.
It reads like a memoir, complete with minute details only someone fully immersed in, yet voluntarily separate from, Western European culture would notice.
Like all great novels, the main character undergoes a transformation. In the beginning, Fialka is completely detached from her fellow Praguers. She forgoes the average college-aged woman’s routine and frequently finds herself sinking into acidic mud piles, allowing her body to become ravaged by venomous mosquitoes, all in the name of feeling connected to real life on earth. She takes photos of deformed flowers and hitchhikes to feel like she’s going somewhere in life, while she’s stuck living at home with her grandmother.
I stretched out my leg and lightly kicked a tuft of wormwood. As each fragrant stalk fluttered, it gave off another yellowish cloud of pollen, which settled on my sneakers. I sucked in the air. And each grain of pollen, each small messenger of life and growth glittered as it flew through the slanting sunlight, then continued on its mission. A long mission, and most likely unsuccessful: how many grains of pollen are there in the world and how many of them succeed in fertilizing a blossom… transmitting their essences, their I’s? Each of those grains had its own I, thought they swarmed as chaotically and soullessly as humans… In the slanting sunlight outside Brno, each grain of pollen became my private star–and I couldn’t resist: I was once again looking for parables in everything. Patrik always claimed that I was addicted as addicted to parables as I was to hitchhiking, hopelessly addicted. He said I should write the Hitchhiker’s Bible, who else but me…? Chapter One, Verse 1: In the beginning there was darkness upon the face of the earth and no one stopped for anyone. And God said: Let there be truck drivers! And they were begotten of the mud of sins, and they grew fruitful and multiplied, thanks to the earnest efforts of the hips and crotches of the women of the highway… Hitchhikers by the side of the highway… Hitchhikers by the side of the highway are the most religious of people. They pray for mercy–the driver’s; the ritual of prayer consists in the raising of the right thumb (the left thumb in barbarous lands) and the lowering and lifting of the outstretched hand… Are these not divine offices? In that slanting morning sun, as you travel from the east, your shadow will take the form of an elongate, distorted cross…
And she spends a lot of time listening to Kryl with her friend Patrick.
While other novels may rush toward an inevitable conclusion, try to shove actionable moments into a plot that doesn’t seem altogether feasible in the real work, Pekarkova’s first novel could be the long-form diary of an iconoclast Czech girl. At times, it reminded me of Black Earth City, a memoir set in Russia, in that both authors reveal tangents plausible in everyday conversation, complete with differing views on each side of the argument. Pekarkova’s novel, however is labeled as fiction, but I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in there.
Nothing’s sugarcoated. Her grandmother had to wait in line for three hours to buy milk and eggs, and Fialka didn’t feel too bad about it. During the second phase of the book, as she become Fialka 2, she said shouted at her grandmother, decrying her “duty”. Even while she’s building up a silent rage to let loose on her, inside she’s already regretting the woman’s she’s become.
But now… now, with those piles of bank notes Grandmother never saw and would never comprehend growing in my room, now, because of them and in spite of them, there was growing in me a repugnant form of frugality, a thrift born of fear, you might say obviously I couldn’t take my multiplying deposits of mammon and chattels off to any bank, and the idea was gradually sneaking into my mind that any petty burglar could relieve me of it all at any time. You’ve become a miser, Fialinka.
Then after a shouting match, a lot of crying, and a little forgiveness, the young woman goes to the market herself to learn there are six clerks working on two registers, with a line of people bickering at each other about who gets the next basket, while the four other clerks sneak around stacks of snacks to try to suss out potential thieves.
“It was interesting to see people’s faces become combative when they so much as walked past a store, to see their elbows sharpen, hear their voices become harsher–to see how the law of the jungle ran wild and flourished in Prague, the law that the winner would be the one who fought the hardest and offered the best bribes… it was interesting to observe these instincts in humans enclosed in a barbed-wire cage, it really was. Too bad I had to live there!
This sounds like real life to me, there’s no way she’s making this up. She paints a picture of a darkest and most grey environment that no one in their right mind would want to live in, yet when she gets a free ride out of there, she quickly snuffs out the fire on that one-way-ticket to love train, and becomes comfortable with her communist outlook. She gives up on love quicker than she ever gave into, the thought of marrying a man from Sweden was just too difficult for her to imagine, and after a passionate affair, she settles back into her old routines.
She chastises herself for living in this place, yet simultaneously feels privileged to have the freedom to practically penance herself as a way of coming closer to nature. Then her best friend, Patrik, becomes diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and she everything changes.
Survival of the fittest, as you can imagine.
She thinks his seems grim, but he takes pleasure in the little things, even in his fragile state. He would slam his crutches down the stairs to frighten the neighbors, but he relished in the fact that they couldn’t bat an eye against the fact of his crippled state. They were too embarrassed. And he was having fun at their expense. At their expense! What a way to make your head spin.
The best symbolism could be seen in the way she transformed mentally, dumbing herself down to blend in and even surpass other road whores so that she could afford to buy her best friend a wheelchair, until she slowly lost sight of the reason why she starting taking the unfamiliar, yet economically more viable Northern Road as opposed to the cozy and comforting Southern Road.
She played with her skills in language–German, Russian, and English–to make small talk with truckers, all the while pushing Fialka 1 down into the crevices of her mind, eventually altogether quelling her need to seek out rainbows, the little glimmers of hope and adventure she had once sought as a means to escape her everyday meaningless life, in favor of the spontaneity of the road.
During this time of change, the counterweight for her increasingly addled brain became her mental compass. Patrik was delving deeper into Eastern philosophy and trying to help her see the error of her ways.
Patrick spoke about the ability to drop out of the inane rat’s marathon of life, about freedom of thought unlimited even by incapacitation of the body. He held forth on dualism and monism, and got the two hopelessly mixed up; finally he concluded from all this that moderm society had completely forgotten about the soul, and hence the soul had atrophied. Anything you didn’t use, according to him, withered aweay–it was even possible to neglect the body, to leave it behind, and it would atrophy, it would die, as some might say–but the soul, the soul would still soar freely through space. Only through great knowledge was it possible to redeem oneself from afflictions of the soul and body.
He was the one who goaded her on, the one who told her she couldn’t act, she couldn’t pull it off, couldn’t fake a smile to get what she wanted from the cops who were ever present on the roadways, always trying to stop her in her tracks, to reel her wild nature back into the worldview of the productive citizen.
Patrik held his temples with both hands, as if he thought his head might fly off at any moment. “Has it ever occurred to you, Fial, why it really is that people go insane? Or have all those psychological theories of yours already made you crazy? Have they gotten to you yet? People go insane from too much thinking, not from too little… But as soon as they come upon even the slightest sliver of truth, you psychologists immediately sic the body-snatchers on them with the straitjackets, declare them certifiable, and stick them behind bars. Then they fill them up with Valium. To pacify them. To reorient them. So they become stupid and normal again… behind bars and on drugs!”
Truck Stop Rainbows is about reincarnation, about morals, about the struggle to understand the Self, and it is much more than a “road novel”, as the English version declares. I wish I could read the original manuscript in Czech, but alas the poetry that the translator, David Powelstock, has imbued into this book has given the text a life of its own, and I’m grateful for having read it.
Featured image via the International Business Times