Summer-houses of the imagination

Supposed to Fly: by Miroslav Holub, trans Ewald Osers, Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95; A Czech town asked its most famous son to celebrate its 700th birthday.
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The Independent Culture
Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet, immunologist and unofficial urban anthropologist, has produced a book of prose, poems and photographs celebrating his native town of Pilsen, famed for its beer and for being liberated in 1945 by the American Army rather than the Russians. These are the bald facts but convey as much about the true nature of the book as saying that Hamlet is a play about the insecurity of a Danish Prince.

The truth is that Holub is one of those writers who have created a world which, once learnt, can be explored at will by the grateful reader, pottering about among the bric-a-brac of a sardonic collector of well-considered trifles. He has an amazingly retentive mind - stocked with most of the 'ologies, classical and modern - and a brilliant eye for spotting Holubian grotesqueries and jocund humour wherever he goes.

You don't have to care about Pilsen to enjoy this book because Pilsen is really the place we all come from. Holub has the knack of giving commonplace wisdom a twist with a touch of surrealism and exuberantly paced paragraphs: "Not to have come from Pilsen would have been like Hector not being from Troy or Ulysses from Ithaca, so that Telemachus wouldn't be his son and therefore in all probability wouldn't have set out for the Peloponnesus to seek news of his dad..."

The stories Holub recounts are often what you would expect from any memoir of a writer's birthplace, but he has a great universalising tendency, so that all his situations are both actual and seen through a long lens. ''The Summer-house'' is about both his family's summer-house and the Summerhouse Tendency, a Platonic yen for creating doomed summer-houses of the fancy: "A summer house is man's great dream, which (in his mind) he draws like a Chinese poet in Indian ink, though in reality he's calculating how many sausages he can buy for Saturday".

If you want to place Holub when he's in this mode you might say that he was a Flann O'Brien who sometimes mutates into Bruno Schulz. Flann O'Holub calibrates the narrow local footbridge according to the gonadotrophic status of its users: "For a young lad within the norm this is a footbridge of choice, for here he will realise that his dimensions are in fact ideal, whereas the sexually mature adults, who incidentally engage in immoral acts beneath the vaulting of the railway bridge, do not have such sensible parameters either coming or going"; whilst Miroslav Schulz blows an animating breath around the steam locomotives of the town: "The secret life of steam locomotives is not only intensive but relatively easy to understand, because these engines breathe in and out, with sharp eyes watch the free run of the landscape and reflect on it with white puffs of locomotive awareness".

The communist era which dominated Holub's life receives admirably droll treatment. In ''The city under the ground'' it features as a cause of much burying of suspect objects: relics of the American liberation, jewellery, the leather case of a Rolleiflex. The book was commissioned by the town of Pilsen to celebrate its 700th anniversary and it must be the first work of genuine literature to be conceived in such a way.

About this anniversary Holub observes that if Wenceslas the Second, founder of the city, had been a bit quicker off the mark - say seven years - the 700th anniversary celebrations would have been very different, including "the historical discovery that the foundation had really been the idea of the Rurik dynasty in Russia, passed on to Wenceslas II by the merchant Yakov before he was put in the stocks for the sale of fake furs".

According to the conventions of book reviewing, Supposed to Fly is the work under scrutiny because it was published very recently, whereas Holub's last book, The Jingle Bell Principle, exists in that limbo of books that were once emitted from the presses, to very little notice. But the two should be bought and savoured together. The Jingle Bell Principle is a collection of columns, 43 lines long in the original Czech, which Holub contributed to the magazine Vim, ranging from the curious elongation of Micky Mouse's face over the decades, to the mythology of books.

These days Prague is on everyone's map. The Czech football team may have been overshadowed in the Euro96 shenanigans by England's renaissance but they still made it to the Final. And if you only take in only one more bit of Czechiana this year, it should be Mr Holub's wayward poetry.