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Kairos Andrzej Tichý, Kairos

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2013.

Reviewed by Dominic Hinde in SBR 2014:2

Review Section: Fiction

Tichý carries his prose like a great central European writer of the 20th century, clearly paying due attention to his family’s own nomadic history. Tichý was born in Prague, but the novel owes as much to his Swedish upbringing as to his Czech ancestry; it dips its toe into the world to sample moments of crisis. Tichý’s central idea is that linear ‘kronos’ is only one type of time, the other one being the ‘kairos’ of the title. Kairos emphasises critical moments rather than continuum, and the novel is a mountain of fragments from times future and past. The narrative jumps from political firebrands like the Baader-Meinhof group to prophets of global collapse like Karin Boye and J. G. Ballard; what continuity there is in Tichý’s mosaic stems from a persistent feeling that the world – or at least society – is doomed to collapse under the accumulated weight of its own mistakes. 

So the novel goes on a journey through time, hopping from place to place and back and forth in time as it takes in the Arab Spring and Brazilian rioting. The reader’s main companion on this journey is a version of Bertolt Brecht’s reimagined Joan of Arc, Joanna Dark. This narrator embodies the dominant theme of the novel: relocation and rewriting of people and of things that have happened before and will happen again as humanity lurches from crisis to crisis. Just as the fabric of society suffers violent attacks and violations, so the text itself becomes fragmented. Words vanish, sentences are left unfinished. Arguably, this is best typified in allusions to the London riots, a crisis to which nobody seemed able to find adequate answers. In the background are the victims and witnesses of untold conflicts and human disasters. Karin Boye’s ghost is never far away as it struggles to deal with humanity’s malice and desire to be good. 

Many of the individuals who crop up in the course of Kairos evoke a deep sense of loneliness in the face of power, but – deliberately – subscribe to Peter Weiss’ view that it is always worth resisting, even in the face of overwhelming oppression. The novel itself even attempts, in its more modern vignettes, to offer some kind of resistance through art. Some of these vignettes are nothing but sentences, hanging solemnly alone in the centre of an entire page. The use of space alone accounts for much of the considerable disparity between the size of the book and the amount of actual text. Many of these fragments are like poems in a collection, such is the weakness of page-to-page continuity.

This structure makes it difficult to read Kairos as a meaningful whole until all of the parts have settled, the splinters of history feeling like pictures mounted on a gallery wall for posterity. Although the events – or at least the passages of dialogue – are fictional, Tichý is as much a curator as an author.  He marshals history and channels it through the words of literary and political heavyweights – and Nina Simone. The result is a novel so ambitious in scope that it deserves attention, yet remains bound by its very ambition. The postscript informing the reader exactly which influences and literary references have been smuggled into the preceding 450 pages means it is possible to read the book backwards, ticking off German novelists and Shakespearean references as you go. Tichý is incredibly well-read and his novel invites its reader to embrace its broad scope. It can at times feel like a conversation between the author and the reader, nodding along as voices and allusions are introduced. Nowhere is this more evident than in the figure of Joanna Dark/Joan of Arc herself. A familiarity with the works of Brecht and the history of Christian martyrdom is a helpful tool, as the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist rambles through memories and experiences, reappearing in new places in new crises. Coherent thoughts quickly give way to more semi-poems, landscape descriptions and feelings of impotence. There are points when the narrator tries to understand, but neither narrator nor reader ever truly gets a grasp on what is going on within the pages.  There is no structure, but rather entropy affecting both order and language that disintegrate with an overwhelming sense of inevitability. For a writer attempting to span time, and in fact to rewrite its very definition, Tichý ultimately ends up writing a book very much about the present. 

Kairos is self-consciously high-end writing of a particular contemporary Swedish bent. It tries to situate itself in the midst of global upheaval, as Europe shows signs of cracking under the same reborn pressures of nationalism and economic change, strong government and weak resistance, and it tries to do it with beauty and style. Kairos is cultured and artfully composed but in places lacks enough originality to justify its lofty ambitions. From such an obviously competent writer and with such an interesting premise, the failure ever to quite marry the two is perhaps the greatest tragedy within its pages; it drowns in the context it creates for itself, searching for a medium beyond what the novel can provide. 

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