Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomáš Zmeškal tr. Alex Zucker (Yale Margellos, March 2016) Reviewed by Madeleine LaRue

Love Letter in Cuneiform
by Tomáš Zmeškal
tr. Alex Zucker
(Yale Margellos, March 2016)

Reviewed by Madeleine LaRue

The excavation of Hattusa, the capital of the ancient Hittite empire (near modern-day Boğazkale, Turkey), yielded among its treasures the royal archive of clay tablets, imprinted with the sharp wedges of cuneiform script. The alphabet was already known—originally a Sumerian invention, it had been employed throughout the Mesopotamian world—and yet, when in the early years of the twentieth century German archaeologists attempted to read it, they found, to their surprise, a wholly mysterious language.

It was not until the First World War that Hittite was finally deciphered. Bedřich Hrozný, a Czech scholar of Semitic and European languages, was studying copies of the Hittite tablets when he stumbled upon a translatable sentence: “NU NINDA-AN EZZATENI WATAR-MA EKUTENI.” Ninda, the Babylonian word for “bread”; ezzateni, like the German “essen” or the English “eat”; watar, “water”—“you will eat bread and drink water.”

On November 24, 1915, Hrozný announced his accomplishment in a lecture to the German Oriental Society. On this day, too, Josef Černý, protagonist of Tomáš Zmeškal’s novel Love Letter in Cuneiform, was born. His accidental connection to the great decoder exerts a decisive influence on Josef’s life, though he claims to be interested in neither antiquity nor languages. After hearing of Hrozný in one of his university classes, Josef devotes attention to his discovery largely because his wife, Květa, finds it so intriguing:

“Don’t you think it’s interesting?” she asked. “I do, but it’s just a coincidence,” I said. “All right, but what did he actually discover?” “He didn’t discover anything, he deciphered it,” I said. “What?” Květa asked. “A language, a language nobody knew.” “You can do that?” “I suppose so. If he did it, it means you can.”

 

Winner of the 2011 European Literature Prize, Love Letter in Cuneiform is Zmeškal’s first book to be published in English, in an expert translation by Alex Zucker. Zmeškal’s narrative enacts that process, suggested by Hrozný, of deciphering the past layer by layer, beginning with the Czech Republic in the postwar years and stretching across several real and imagined centuries. Insofar as it tells the story of Josef and his family as they endure the trials of both communism and capitalism, the book is a social chronicle, bearing witness to the human relationships confronted by, and often torn apart by, the forces of history. Zmeškal’s broader ambitions become apparent, however, when he interrupts this story with other voices, including an official report proposing a “jubilee/universal exhibition” in 2091 and the stunning fever dreams of a pastry chef. As if wishing to recreate the thrill of archaeological discovery, he offers us chapters like so many fragments of pottery—disorienting but evocative shards whose outer contours barely hint at the shape of the larger whole—and reveals the final pattern only gradually. Like the human archive whose structure it mimics, the novel is heteroglossic, ultimately much less about individuals than about the experience of time itself, about the continual burial and excavation of the records of the past.

Zmeškal signals Josef’s importance in this complex puzzle by giving him not only the same birthday as the decipherment of Hittite, but also the most meaningful relationship to language. Though no scholar, Josef is fundamentally a reader: As a structural engineer, a “stress analyst” who “knows the subsoil of all of Central Bohemia,” he renders legible that which is underground and unseen. Furthermore, despite his repeated insistence that he has no imagination, no talent for verbal expression, and no “suitable and properly calibrated instrument with which to measure [his] feelings,” Josef becomes the novel’s most significant writer. He authors two long letters in the course of his life, each of which constitutes a moment of psychological insight and vulnerability. The first is ostensibly his autobiography, submitted to the authorities in an attempt to seek justice for his ten years of unlawful imprisonment during the Communist regime. This letter contains few biographical facts, mainly recounting the affective history of his romance with Květa and lamenting the disintegration of their marriage after his release. Though he is writing to request an investigation against the man who betrayed him—his former friend Hynek Jánský, who not only falsely accused him but seduced Květa in his absence—Josef does not seem to blame Jánský for his years of torture. Rather, he likens Jánský to the Hittite god Ullikummi, whose father made him “deaf and blind […] so he wouldn’t be susceptible to beauty or compassion.” Such ancient allusions appear frequently in Josef’s writing, as if in recognition of his relation to that long-buried culture. Later, he will reference the Tower of Babel, speaking of it as an “edifice” within himself that he must dismantle in order to express his feelings. He has absorbed the ancient world into his very skin, and in doing so, he acknowledges himself as a being in deep time, a thin layer in the subsoil of the past. Once he ascribes meaning to the coincidence of his birth with the decipherment of a forgotten tongue (which he does chiefly out of love for Květa), Josef accepts the work of trying to read not only a mysterious alphabet, but a mysterious part of himself.

The second letter comes many years later. Estranged from the person closest to him by the compassionless god, Josef devotes the end of his life to “foolishly” trying “to express affection and love.” His efforts culminate in the novel’s eponymous love letter, painstakingly printed in the language of the Hittites. Proust claimed that all great literature is written in a kind of foreign language, and perhaps the same could be said of all love letters. That Josef takes this literally only emphasizes that every declaration of love represents an imperfect translation. Language is slippage; none know this better than writers and lovers, who so rarely manage to say what they mean. Josef, however, has chosen his foreign language well: in resurrecting a dead tongue, he resurrects a love that he himself had once thought to be extinguished. The unexpected vitality of cuneiform reflects the unexpected intensity of Josef’s feelings, so that, by excavating a language of the past, he proves that nothing is lost, but only temporarily concealed.

There is much loveliness in this, but unfortunately, by the time Josef pens his second letter, his storyline has lost most of its steam, and his gesture fails to strike us as the great romantic feat Zmeškal clearly intends. Partly to blame is the letter itself—though it costs Josef great emotional effort to write, its language and sentiments tend toward cliché: “I have tried to deny and erase my love for you,” Josef writes, “Yet I have found that I am not capable of it.” The symbolic importance of the letter—whose cuneiform characters signal Josef’s reconciliation to his happier memories of Květa—far outweighs its actual effect in the narrative. The romance comes to an end not with a bang, but with a (somewhat predictable) whimper.

It is perhaps not surprising that Zmeškal’s fragmentary approach results in a certain unevenness of quality. Fortunately, if the author falters as a social reporter, he succeeds brilliantly as a fabulist. Love Letter in Cuneiform is at its best when it appears to digress; the three chapters that at first look like excursions into entirely new genres in fact contain the book’s most powerful expressions of its central themes.

These “digressions” are all narrated by pastry chef and presumed madman Marek Svoboda, whose surname means “freedom.” When we first meet Svoboda, he has made an astonishing three-layered marzipan wedding cake for Josef and Květa’s daughter, Alice, symbolizing the realms of heaven, earth, and hell. (This last is made with dark chocolate and comes “especially recommend[ed].”) We later learn that the pastry chef is an inmate at the local mental hospital, where he has continued to develop his interest in microcosm and allegory. Introducing himself as Jesus Socrates Amenhotep Hitler—an eponymic equivalent to the wedding cake—he relates his “woeful” “visions of immortality” to his psychiatrist in a series of enchanting, stand-alone fables.

These visions, like the novel as a whole, revolve around the accretion and excavation of layers of time. But where the main plot suffers from an earnestness so fundamental it risks deteriorating into sentimentality, Svoboda’s visions shine with originality and intelligence. The first tale concerns a Truman Show-esque attempt to clone Adolf Hitler (this “notion of scientific progress put to monstrous ends” is dismissed by Svoboda’s psychiatrist as existing “solely in the patient’s imagination”). Alongside the dark irony of the thought experiment, however, Zmeškal offers us fantastical descriptions of the western American deserts which, in their perpetual motion and coherence, illustrate the flow of time. In describing the mechanism by which wind forms sand dunes, for example, the narrator explains:

The process is known as aeolian transport, and if you can understand it, you have at least a chance of also understanding the infinity of time. Every desert is like a gigantic hourglass with the sand trickling from dune to dune, back and forth, up and down. Do I need to tell you how much I love the desert?

The entire first vision of immortality is a performance of eternal return: Hitler comes back, the past comes back, the sand all comes back, eventually. The image recalls the work of archaeological excavation, in which buried grains of human culture are eventually shifted to the surface. Imagined as the endless alternation between legibility and illegibility, aeolian transport foreshadows the work Josef will undertake. (Incidentally, it is hard not to notice how much more passionate, how much more specific and convincing, is this narrator’s love for the desert than Josef’s is for Květa. The characters in the immortality chapters, too, though less individualized, are more interesting than those in Josef’s narrative.)

Immortality through eternal return—while potentially horrifying, in that it offers no reprieve from suffering—is at least presented as, in some way, natural. Svoboda’s second vision explores the consequences of an unnatural immortality, the result of grace, not science, put to monstrous ends. It centers upon a Persian (or possibly Arabian) merchant who falls into a stream that once flowed through the Garden of Eden. Its magical waters cleanse him of his mortality and, terrified at the thought of watching his beloved wife grow old and die before him, the merchant seeks to re-enter the river of time. To do so, he must atone for his former cruelty, attempting to regain his humanity in both senses of the word: mortality and compassion. His story becomes a parable of redemption, with death as the inevitable price for true human love. Svoboda’s psychiatrist looks for the tale among the Arabian Nights and is mildly troubled when he fails to find it.

The final vision—the strangest and most playful of the three—pursues the theme of unwanted immortality. It takes place in the far future, when all of humanity has achieved deathlessness and exists “as parasites on life.” At the beginning of the vision, several immortals (among them “Eleanor, our colleague from Aquitaine”) have been tasked with repairing a “device” of uncertain purpose. “The device in the tower was of irreplaceable value to our ancestors,” the narrator tells us:

and yet its meaning and purpose still eluded us. We were fumbling in the dark… Some accounts appeared to say the device offered the ability to display the human soul…. Some references suggested that at one point the device had been something like a living creature, actively involved in the running of the city.

A series of clues reveals the device to be Prague’s celebrated astronomical clock—an obvious symbol of the importance of time, which in fact possesses every talent the immortals ascribe to it. The literal powers of the clock—to display, eventually, a person’s soul, and to run the city with its demands—are explained poetically but not erroneously. Time’s ultimate consequence, too, appears at the end of the vision like a magic spell, restoring to the immortals that which has been taken from them.

Death in these chapters is no cause for grief, but rather a correcting of mistakes, a return to the natural order of things. As the lover of deserts intuited, time operates with the churning process of aeolian transport, burying, unearthing, and burying again. In this organic motion, this breathing, time is indeed “something like a living creature.”

Near the end of the novel, an Indian doctor (an acquaintance of Svoboda’s psychiatrist) offers another image of the cycle of time: “My grandfather in India used to end ceremonies by saying, ‘The wheel of being rolls through this world, without beginning and without end. It rolls through the world, causing creation and extinction. The wheel of being rolls and rolls on, without beginning and without end.’” The hub of this wheel, already hinted at by the lulling rhythm of the words, is Zmeškal’s own great passion: language itself. Language, in whatever era and alphabet, is the agent of the human experience of time and, as much as it is anything else, Love Letter in Cuneiform is a love letter to language. In constant rebellion against its own epigraph, Bertrand Russell’s proclamation that “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts,” the novel instead seeks to evoke the twin thrills offered by the wheel of time, the thrills that Bedřich Hrozný must have felt as he stared at those Hittite tablets: the thrill of the unknown, and of the understood.

 

Madeleine LaRue is associate editor and director of publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.