Petr Král, with Jana Bokova
It was something I’d been meaning to pick up for months, yet Petr Král’s Working Knowledge (Pushkin Press, $16.95) ultimately found me precisely when I most needed it, which was about ten days ago, just as I was settling into this large, half-empty, half-lived-in house in rural Saskatchewan, the semi-abandoned home of a friend, where some arguably misguided notion had prompted me to pass some weeks in solitude. The book was the last thing I bought before leaving Saskatoon, my last chance to soak up city life, and heading farther east. It’s been among the wettest Junes in provincial history, the house cold and damp, the surrounding fields too marshy for strolling, so I’ve spent many of these hours seated at this big wooden table, trying not to let my brain go completely soggy. I needed to try and remain alert to the world, to not retreat completely and morbidly inward, and Král’s eloquent, charming little book, his “strange and beautiful existential encyclopedia of the everyday,” as Milan Kundera describes it in his brief introduction, served to help me keep my focus.
Ranging in length from a few pages to a single sentence, Working Knowledge catalogues dozens of meditations on things known and most commonly taken for granted. Though I can hardly verify this, the translation sometimes strikes me as poor. Thankfully, Král’s is the sort of poetic yet mostly spare writing that can weather an awkward rendering or two. The book opens with ‘Coffee,’ immediately awakening our senses with its “residue of night,” before slipping into ‘The Shirt,’ considering ‘Dawn,’ that “washed-out, ashen period in which all things are reborn into doubt,” assessing the distinct values inherent in two kinds of breakfast, exploring the miniature offerings of self-recognition that lay waiting in every act of shaving, and reminding us to cherish the glaze of sleepy morning stasis: “…we are never closer to a state of grace than on those mornings when we lie in bed, half-awake, allowing ribbons of thought and itinerant dreams to drift idly through our minds. We are as yet no more than pure potential… sending out feelers and drawing them back again, between the shadows and the flares of light which occasionally reach us from between the closed curtains…”
Not all of these writings are so serene. One piece considers the unease raised by retrieving your luggage from the airport’s conveyor belt and wondering where it’s been or who’s been inside of it. Another is a strident defense of the word “cunt.” There are a number of rousing declarations threading through Working Knowledge, which sometimes read as so out of left field as to constitute enigmatic one-liners. “Only visiting mothers truly makes it possible to get to know a foreign city,” he writes at the top of ‘Mothers and Daughters.’ Yet as the book continues Král engages with his topics less as platforms for such pronouncements than as opportunities to ask the reader questions, as in his pages on laughter, where he wonders when did we first truly laugh, or whether true laughter is instinctive or learned. The prose seems cleanest when considering concrete items with a minimal number of words, yet I think the most wonderful passages are the longer ones which, while en route to some other assertion, pause to offer some tantalizing fragment of some other, larger story. These micro-narratives include references to ex-cons from Guyana who build their houses facing the prison as a reminder not to go back, to a mountaineering conductor who takes a catastrophic fall, to Lenin asking Trotsky for a cigarette even though he didn’t smoke, or to Luis Buñuel, who was hard of hearing, spending his final days rising at dawn to listen to the wind in the trees off his Mexico City terrace.
Like Kundera, Král, a poet, essayist and one-time surrealist, is a Czech living in France since fleeing his homeland back in 1968. It’s tempting to attribute his sensitivity to small things to the exile’s condition and its implied nostalgia—after all, there is in Working Knowledge a tribute to Czech Christmas fish soup that’s as brimming with affection as anything else in this book—but I’m fairly confident that Král would have written about such things anywhere and under any circumstance. Though often writing as though of universally shared experience, his perspective is unapologetically specific—male, white, heterosexual, European, art loving, and at times a little old-fashioned in his adoration of women and notions of gender roles—yet it’s this specificity that elevates Working Knowledge to something inspired, bold and funny, and necessarily particular, rather than aphoristic. I’m certain that this book is best read slowly, or even randomly, at one’s whim, but my present conditions compelled me to gobble it up over only a couple of sittings. It’s the sort of thing I read first for pleasure, secondly for work, and, perhaps thirdly, out of a lingering suspicion—or desire—that to live with a little more alertness to quotidian experience might make us better human beings, or at the very least slightly more pierced by the rush of living as it passes us by.