A COUPLE of weeks ago, the literary editor of London’s Independent newspaper, Boyd Tonkin, wrote a column discussing Simon Mawer’s novel The Glass Room, which charts the history of the former Czechoslovakia through the occupants of a house in Brno. Tonkin was optimistic that the critically acclaimed book might shine a light on the art and literature of the surrounding countries, all but ignored by the English-speaking world.
“Notwithstanding cheap flights and boozy weekends, we don’t know that much … about the Czech and Slovak republics,” Tonkin wrote, even though: “In the 20 years since the ‘Velvet Revolution’… many Czechs and Slovaks have reclaimed a local legacy of progress and experiment that The Glass Room explores.”
After giving encouragement to Slovakia’s literati with one hand, however, Tonkin snatches it back with the other. The nine writers he goes on to list as worthy of widespread attention – from the establishment figures Kundera and Hrabal, to the up-and-coming Jáchym Topol and Hana Androniková – are all Czech. Slovakia, it seems, cannot even find a place in a column specifically decrying its underrepresentation. There’s probably enough irony here for a novel.
A similar mixed blessing for neglected literary Slovaks comes in the form of the criminal lawyer turned crime writer Michael Genelin, who has chosen this country as the setting for his first two novels, Siren of the Waters (2008) and the recently-released Dark Dreams.
An American writing in English, and presenting no evidence that he even speaks Slovak, Genelin has nonetheless opted to channel his fictional vision through Commander Jana Matinova of the Bratislava police, who leads a feisty one-woman crusade against smuggling, people-trafficking and assorted other cross-continental villainy, pausing only to unearth corruption inside the police, the government and even the EU.
Genelin’s Slovakia is grimly infected – it is a magnetic hub for Europe’s most conniving and brutal mobsters – and Matinova’s path through it is splattered with blood. In the course of the two books, the body count comfortably reaches double figures, and includes members of Matinova’s own family, high-ranking politicians, and law enforcement officers as well as several double-crossed hoods who die in horrific and often arbitrary fashion.
Matinova herself remains Tefal-coated and frequently emotionless despite numerous attacks on her life. Her principal whinges concern the incompetence of her colleagues and the inefficiency of the Slovak service industry rather than the procession of brutes waving heavy armaments in her face.
Although some may relish Matinova’s slice of everyday realism, I found her fussy superiority difficult to warm to and she is also regrettably vice-free, which is a bummer for the purposes of slick crime fiction and its tradition of flawed purity in its pacers of the mean streets. Furthermore Genelin can be a plodding writer and saddles his heroine with some dreadfully laboured dialogue, even in the heat of battle.
“When they blow the door, they won’t wait for you to shoot at them. They’ll toss in grenades. These aren’t generally lethal grenades, although you could be killed by some of the small shrapnel particles. Our special operations group may choose to come in at that time. Needless to say, if you shoot at them they’ll fire back at you with their assault weapons, probably killing both you and Veza immediately. If you’re only wounded they may take you into custody and you might survive if you get the correct medical treatment.”
Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would have been coshed cold by the second breath.
The plot in both books is densely tangled – something about a sinister but sentimental gang boss in the first; diamond-smuggling and governmental intrigue in the second. But it’s also swift and ticks many of the boxes required of escapist crime fiction, making it easy to become immersed in Genelin’s world despite its scant regard to anything recognisable or appealing.
Proud Bratislavans may not necessarily welcome Genelin’s portrayal of their city though – he favours a tour of the Soviet-style police buildings, brothels and strip clubs to a jolly traipse around the old town. So while it’s good news to see Slovakia in English-language print, Genelin might want to steer clear of the Tourism Board for the time being. He won’t have won many friends.