Brian Kimberling’s new novel, Goulash, is about an American, Elliott Black, living in Prague in 1998, some nine years after the Velvet Revolution. It is a tumultuous time as the city and country are still very much going through the sea change from Soviet communism to a capitalism more reminiscent of the Wild West than that of Western Europe right next door.
The book opens when Elliott discovers his shoes have been stolen from outside his apartment door and used in an art exhibit by the conceptual artist Cimarron.
HG: The novel begins when Elliott’s shoes become a part of an art installation where a rope winds from the ceiling to the floor and has shoes, books, and other artifacts hanging off of it. When Elliott asks someone he presumes works at the gallery what the point of the installation is, the staff member (who turns out to be the artist himself) says, “Why to make money, of course.” How does this novel discuss and critique art?
BK: Some of [the artist] Cimarron’s lines in particular are breathtakingly cynical. It makes my heart fail to read how he creates art “to make money.” But then that’s the theme of the book, that capitalism is charging into Prague, and it’s going to upend everything, destroy everything in the end. There’s a lot of cultural contamination going on, and the culture doing the contaminating is purely about money. The previous culture was about something else: Ideology. It may have been really ugly but it wasn’t necessarily worse than what came after.
I don’t really know where Cimarron came from, creatively speaking. I remember writing the opening scene where they’re discussing the art exhibit—I’d already tried starting the book several times, I had pages and pages of material, and then I suddenly wrote a new beginning with this new character that changed everything afterwards.
Somehow Cimarron came about as a good person for Elliott to talk to, a contrasting viewpoint. There are lots of those. Elliott goes and learns stories--some of them very sad--that have taken place around him. In a way, he’s a repository of stories for us to read.
You never really learn Cimarron’s backstory, you just know he’s mischievous, but also kind, in a strange way.
Shortly after losing his shoes to Cimarron’s art, Elliott meets another English-language teacher, Amanda, who he falls in love with at first sight. Even as they sit in a bar together for the first time, he imagines how their “garden would be rife with marigolds, with passionflower spindling the trellis on one side.”
HG: When Elliott and Amanda get together, they seem to idealize each other in various ways. Do you think relationships between twenty-somethings tend to have this kind of idealization?
BK: Elliott and Amanda have this dream of living outside the system, being very romantic together.
But he’s constantly under-employed. Elliott’s kind of a flaneur. Amanda, on the other hand, performs, and it really is a performance. She speaks like the BBC—azaleas in May and so on—and she’s climbing the ladder of corporate or government employment.
In an early draft, I thought, ‘Amanda is going to be me. No one will guess because I’ll be in drag.’ I thought I’d give her all the withering lines and funny jokes. And then I spoke to my editor in New York, and she said “Oh, what’s Elliott’s girlfriend’s name again?” I guess that didn’t work. And I spoke to another editor and she said, “Amanda’s quite selfish, isn’t she?” Ouch! So I had to change Amanda quite a bit to get her where she is now.
Throughout the novel, the denizens of Prague struggle with the oncoming ‘charge of Capitalism.’ The landscape is constantly changing—'modernizing'--and the Czech students Elliott is teaching grapple with the job of assimilating in their own country.
HG: Ivan, who is Elliott's star student, hypothesizes that “the capitalized first-person pronoun [in English] might have given rise to the sense of smug entitlement that inspires a lust for private property…” Do you see this as part of the experience of Czechs since the Velvet Revolution?
BK: The experience of Czechs I personally know has been horrific disillusionment. But then that has happened to us, too, in England and America, as we’ve watched developments in our own countries.
While I was in Prague, I wrote several opinion pieces for the Prague Post, a prominent English-language newspapers. One article just described, humorously, my difficulty with learning the Czech language, and I argued that Czech was inherently totalitarian or something quite ridiculous like that. And then some of my Czech colleagues said, “You know, I think you might be onto something.” But really, it’s just a fantastically difficult language to learn.
I wanted the Czech students to examine Western things that we take for granted, to think about all of this with new eyes. So I tried to get Ivan, especially, to question language and mannerisms.
I also read Michael Žantovský’s biography of Václav Havel, and there was an anecdote in which Havel was travelling while he was the president and his entourage accidentally stopped in a brothel. All the president’s men wanted him to get out of the brothel before the paparazzi arrived. But he just insisted on sitting and enjoying a pint of beer and smoking cigarette after cigarette, ignoring his advisors for probably 10 minutes. That story became an important episode in Goulash. And I think it does reflect some of the tensions where the Czechs were getting a free press after 41 years of censorship, but a lot of it was actually just tabloid journalism.
HG: Amanda and Elliott go to the Bone Church (Kostnice v Sedlci) and Elliott sees it as “a magnificent and macabre work of bricolage.” Do you feel the way the many different elements of this novel mix together is also a bit like bricolage?
BK: There’s a line about how goulash [the dish] consists of things that don’t belong together, and that’s the organizing principle of the whole book, that East and West, Communism and Capitalism don’t belong together.
And there are lots of juxtapositions of, for instance, human bones in a church, cigarettes in monasteries—all kinds of things throughout the book that just don’t seem to belong together. They’re all real. So there’s an underlying idea that the world is made up of things that don’t match.
Towards the end, when Elliott gets under where the giant statue of Stalin used to stand in Prague, he sees a lot of disparate things. And he becomes very sad.
I remember the last few months of Goulash’s life as a manuscript when it was still changing—I just felt enormously sad for Elliott. That’s when I thought, ‘My job is done, if I feel that, then that will communicate itself to other people.’ Elliott starts out naïve and learns as he goes, but by the end, he knows he has found the real Prague, and he is open to what is being lost and what is being gained.
Brian Kimberling’s Goulash came out in the U.S. on February 26th of this year, and will be out in May in the U.K. A Czech translation is forthcoming as well.