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BOOK REVIEW / Grand old stories from the Little Quarter: Prague Tales - Jan Neruda, Tr Michael Heim: Chatto & Windus, pounds 10.99

Jasper Rees
Tuesday 05 October 1993 23:02 BST

IN PRAGUE, in a district called Mala Strana ('the Little Quarter'), there is a street named after Jan Neruda. Following the route taken by Czech kings before their coronation, it runs up to the castle and St Vitus's Cathedral, thus linking the august seats of religion and government with the labyrinthine district below where the lanes are narrow and steep, and the humble burghers' residences are tightly hemmed in.

Here, unlike in Rome or Paris or London, stern authority springs from and mingles with the thronging chaos of ordinary life. And here the revered father of modern Czech letters set down the lives of the petty, the debauched and the insignificant: an extraordinary chronicler of the ordinary.

In one tale in this collection, Dr Krumlovsky, an aspiring lawyer, is behind with his studies, since the taverns and theatres of the Old Town district of Prague are too much of a distraction. He hits on the perfect solution: 'A splendid idea]' he confides to his diary. 'I could kiss myself for it] I'll move to Mala Strana] Serene, poetic Mala Strana. Nice, quiet neighbours off in their nooks and crannies . . . It will be lovely]'

Poor fool. By the time you have arrived at Dr Krumlovsky's story, 'Figures', you know how little the district and its inhabitants deserve the elevating epithets assigned to them. Against his own better judgement and to the complete detriment of his studies, Krumlovsky becomes entangled in the humdrum and yet utterly individual lives around him, the open-armed pubs, the exorbitant card games, the plots and counterplots. He even finds himself fighting a duel. 'My brain is full of figurines, my neighbours,' he confesses to his diary in a growing state of distraction, 'I can feel them milling about - first one, then another taking over, turning a somersault before my eyes, saying its piece, flashing its own special grin.'

This collection of stories was first published in 1878, when Neruda was in his forties, and it magnificently disproves that dismissive adage that good journalists make bad novelists. Bracketed by two novellas, Prague Tales pens sketches of parochial life to rival anything that Dickens, another tireless hack who turned out the odd half-decent work of fiction, produced about London and, more particularly, Londoners.

In Prague Tales something is always happening. The stolidity of self-satisfied petit bourgeois routine is counterpointed by a spirit of renewal. Two drinkers who once quarrelled over a woman but have still sat at the same table for years suddenly, grudgingly make friends. A good burgher's funeral is rudely interrupted when a certain Dr Spoiler, who is no doctor at all, correctly pronounces the corpse living. The best and most typical Neruda tales, whether funny or sad or both, work to flesh out the idea that illusions must be stripped away.

Neruda, you sense, is like young Bavor in 'A Week in a Quiet House', a long and loving portrait of one residence among many stacked along the contours of Mala Strana. Bavor, like his creator, comes of poor parents. He, too, wants to be a writer, but not one in German, the prescribed tongue of the ruling Habsburgs. 'My writing will be modern, that is, 'veracious'. I'll take my characters from life, describe life as it is, unadorned: I'll say exactly what I think, what I feel. How can I fail?'

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