Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform (translated by Alex Zucker), I’m sorry to report, was a frustrating read for me. The publisher’s description—which is what attracted my interest in the first place—only covers a small part of this weirdly constructed novel about betrayal, love, family, forgiveness…and immortality, of all things. While this book does contain a plot thread about a family caught up in the Communist legal bureaucratic nightmare, it takes a lot of tangents. I didn’t get the book that I was expecting. This isn’t the book’s fault; I just wish I had been better prepared.
The novel opens with a family about to celebrate a marriage in 1968. Alice and Maximilian are going to get married. Only Alice’s parents and their few friends are in attendance. After a ceremony in a church and then a civil service, they have an elaborate wedding feast, with a Baroque cake created by a baker that we learn is completely off his trolley. There are long chapters later that reveal the story of Alice’s parents, Josef and Kvêta, Alice’s horrible marriage, and the delusions of the baker. The opening chapters are the easiest chapters to get through. The rest of the book felt like I was trying to assemble a puzzle after the pieces have been soaked and don’t really fit together anymore. To be honest, this book made me feel like an idiot.
There are a few things I think I worked out about Love Letter in Cuneiform. First, immortality is a frequent motif. The baker’s delusions include a man who is supposedly cloned from a famous person, to solve the problem of nature v. nurture at last. Another contains a man who is cursed with immortality. This overt examples of immortality are echoed by the way the characters keep telling each other stories about people who are gone or dead. As long as they tell stories, those people are not completely gone. Second, time plays a strange role in several sections. When Josef is in prison, for example, it’s as though he and Kvêta are living in lacunae. They’re just trying to survive until they can get back together again, when normal time will resume. So many characters seem to be waiting for a later them: when they get pregnant again, when Communism ends, etc. Things will be alright later. The problem with living like this is that it means so many characters suffer while they wait, instead of trying to make positive changes.
I’m sure I’m missing things about Love Letter in Cuneiform. In the translator’s note at the end, Zucker puts Zmeškal into the context of post-Communist Czech literature. The problem with this is that I had no clue who Zucker was talking about. I didn’t recognize any of the names. This isn’t Zmeškal or Zucker’s fault, of course. It’s not even really my fault; I could read every hour of the day, week in, week out, and still not be able to read everything I need to understand the titles in translation that come across my reading horizons.
At any rate, there are interesting ideas in Love Letter in Cuneiform. I would recommend it to readers who don’t get frustrated easily and like challenges (structural, thematic, contextual, etc.). For readers who are looking for a glimpse into life in another place and another time, there are easier reads out there.