Aberrant by Marek Šindelka
Translated by Nathan Fields
Twisted Spoon Press, 2017
A word of warning: Aberrant is not for the faint of heart. If the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors brings back unsettling memories, know that Marek Šindelka’s debut novel has something much darker in store.
Rich and atmospheric, it comes as no surprise that Šindelka, already an award-winning poet in the Czech Republic, studied screenwriting in Prague. The third person narrator essentially acts as the novel’s cinematographer:
They were taking the train somewhere. He and his mom. Evening. End of summer. Speed. Countryside near the Polish border. The compartment smelled of iron, imitation leather, linoleum flooring. He was standing on the armrest of the seat, choking down the draft of wind rushing alongside the train. … The sun went down behind the forests of spruce on the hills, and a chill spread over the countryside. The fragrance of the river. A long expanse of fields. The train slowed, gradually decelerated, eventually settling into a footpace.
Layered onto this fragmentary opening scene are a series of traumatic events in the lives of two men whose stories intertwine and embrace along a deceptively simple romantic storyline.
Kryštof Warjak is a rare plant smuggler on his final and most dangerous job. Andrei is his brooding childhood best friend, a haughty renegade still suffering from the brutality of life in a rural orphanage. In their adolescent summers, the two friends fell in love with the same girl, Nina, who eventually married Andrei. Kryštof stops spending his holidays in the Czech countryside and, lacking any expected bitterness, even starts to forget them.
After many years of separation, Andrei listens to Kryštof talk about his work, and the old friends expose themselves beautifully without any authorial heavy-handedness:
Andrei did not try to interrupt Kryštof anymore. He listened and contemplated Kryštof’s character.
“Parastites are voyeurs. They eavesdrop on the chemical conversations of others! Like myco-heterotrophs…based on chemical signals they first sniff out potential hosts, a kind of green mycorrhizal plant, basically flowers whose root system is connected to a fungal symbiont…The myco-heterotroph sponges off the cooperation and mutual exchange between a green plant and a mushroom. It tricks the mushroom fiber by making roots that feign symbiosis. Then the confused mushroom feeds it, assuming it’s the green plant it’s connected to. Genius…!”
And he continues in the same vein for some half a dozen pages (“Non-chlorophyllic subterranean parasites also have quite an interesting sex life…”), while Andrei tunes out and refills his drink. Kryštof’s childlike devotion, not only to the minutiae of plant life, but also to Nina, becomes increasingly evident. Andrei, however, playing a perfect Cain to Kryštof’s Abel, descends into a poignant melancholy.
Andrei’s “delusional expectation of punishment,” as Freud defined melancholia, is fulfilled in the colossal breakdown he suffers after the death of his daughter, which serves to showcase Šindelka’s penchant for dream sequences and symbolism. The grieving father is eaten alive, pulverized and boiled, then meticulously constructed again in a sprawling fever dream punctuated by sections of myth and poetry. While this ambidextrous approach works most of the time, the unexpected switch from prose to poetry risks pulling the reader out of an otherwise spellbinding narrative.
After Andrei’s breakdown, it is Kryštof, the peculiar plant enthusiast, who can offer Nina another life and the intimate companionship she desires. It is often said that the past catches up with a person, but in this case it is Kryštof who reaches backward to drag it into the present. Driven by a desire to walk away from his high-risk career and settle down with Nina, he takes on a parlous job that spooks even his most trusted colleague.
His task is to deliver a single flower from a decaying villa in Japan to a wealthy collector in Russia, a man who is “no gardener” and owns no “stuffy greenhouse full of tropical stink,” but instead keeps only the rarest specimens in glass vessels that carefully mimick their natural habitats.
There is something inescapably cinematic about how the decrepit Japanese estate enters into view:
A wooden building, a broad roof with pieces of thatch missing like teeth, torn paper walls, rugs. The empty square shape of the floor. Outside crickets, otherwise silence. In the middle of the room sat a wide clay bowl covered by a lid with a massive handle.
What Kryštof finds beneath the lid is the novel’s pinnacle of abject horror, a pitiful and nauseating scene. It is Šindelka’s haptic suggestiveness that works to subvert the human relationship with the natural world – from the moment Kryštof acquires the prized plant, it is clear that more than human agency is at work. However, if there is a moral message, it is subdued by the visceral horror of the parasitic flower, which Kryštof smuggles embedded in his side—a rather Christ-like location—out of the country and on a nail-biting race through Central Europe.
The final section of the book is an ode to the Japanese genre of kaidan, a vaguely moralizing story that is at once rare, bewitching, and rather gruesome. Traditionally, kaidan included some element of ghostly vengeance, often by those who become more powerful in death than they were in life, such as children or servants. In Aberrant, it appears to be nature itself that enacts its revenge for human greed.
From its opening panorama to its dire final chapters, Aberrant reads like an art-house thriller. Ripe and vivid, this first novel is a testament to Šindelka’s skill and meticulous research, as well as his honest esteem for an often ignored but ever-present natural world. One closes the book feeling fatigued and uneasy, just as intended. We can look forward to English translations of the author’s later works, including an award-winning novel on the refugee crisis, to combine Aberrant’s audacity with the assuredness and restraint of a writer reaching maturity.
Finally, Twisted Spoon Press must be given compliments for the novel’s stunning presentation—its polished white design and the delicate pencil drawings of Czech artist Petr Nikl make the book a pleasure to hold.