On the basic level, "The Visible World" is a novel about how the past constructs us and how impossible it is to grasp with any degree of accuracy. It's about personal past, societal/historical past and the cruel mingling of the two that happens in the pivotal moments of history and which can leave a visible, gaping wound in the lives of nations and in the lives of individuals. It's about grief, nostalgia and the inability (or unwillingness) to let go. But it's also about the specifically American ambivalence towards the past: a desire to lose it, to cut it off cleanly and a desperate yearning to trace and understand it.
The narrator of "The Visible World" is a first-generation American, born of Czech parents who came to the US in the aftermath of WW2. At the heart of the plot lies a love story that involved his mother (but not, at least directly, his father), that took place in Moravia and Prague around the time of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
This is told in halves, first as a disjointed account captioned 'A Memoir', as the narrator tries to work out his parents' past piece-meal, from shattered fragments of memory, from relations of other people, from folk tales, from impressions of Czech immigrant lives in the US. Eventually, a coherent picture is presented, entitled 'A Novel'.
These titles themselves are a clue to the underlying subject of "The Visible World" which is the relationship between truth and fiction, memory and reality; of how we construct the world from imperfect perceptions, how a human being is essentially a story-telling, narrative-spinning creature, led to supply the shape even when it doesn't exist, perhaps in order to patch the universe, give it the meaning and sense that we crave and that only a coherent narrative can supply.
So we have fiction and fact, and all of it built from memory - memory of the past, the past which, despite all the efforts that we made and despite the intensity with which it influences the present, is inherently intractable and elusive. Ultimately, of course, Slouka's narrator is working out his own past and his own identity; and there is no indication how much of the novel he presents us with is fiction-within-fiction, and how much is fictional truth, and where the line between the two is - and is it possible to even tell.
"The Visible World" is what is commonly called a beautifully written novel, and there is indeed, a captivating beauty in the writing , the whole account slightly misty and nostalgic; luminously elegiac, graceful and occasionally mesmerising, and the description of a "stylist" will undoubtedly be applied to Mark Slouka (the comparisons with "English Patient" are probably unavoidable).
The war-time moral dilemmas and choices were portrayed sensitively, and the vignettes of life in the occupied Czechoslovakia rang true, though the relative normality of conditions before the repressions following the Heydrich assassination seemed almost too mild, in comparison to what I know of life in Poland at that time, but I don't doubt Slouka did his research.
I am glad I read this book, though I was initially dubious as the first part seemed to draw out too much in its self-absorbed vagueness. I often had impatient thoughts of "and what is the purpose of this paragraph?" variety and at the beginning of the second part I wasn't particularly taken with the - fairly unoriginal - angle of a passionate, doomed war-time love affair. The fact that I didn't like either of the two main protagonists didn't really help. But it did all, somehow, come together for me as well, and the ending (both the twist in the tale and the denouement) was excellent.
Cautiously recommended, unless you really like your stories to start at the beginning and end at the end and to be clear as to what, actually, happened.
Portobello Books paperback, 256 pages
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.