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MARTIN VOPENKA’S previous novel The Fifth Dimension is a troubling, comfortless and problematic book — and that description largely applies to the Czech writer’s latest, in an astringent translation by Anna Bryson Gustova.
Written from the viewpoint of protagonist Marek, My Brother the Messiah weaves back and forth across the decades of a dystopian 22nd century.
During that time, a botched technological attempt to arrest global warming has resulted instead in a new ice age. As polar conditions spread southwards, massive European migrations begin as Scandinavians head to the centre of the continent and then, as conditions worsen, whole Czech and Austrian populations escape in turn to Greece.
Vopenka creates a dynamic and vivid account of societies in complete freefall, with only those rich enough or close enough to the resurgent dictators able to stem the devastating consequences afflicting others.
Within this bleak and hopeless narrative tide, albeit one that is chillingly beautiful in its descriptive violence, the author does something he singularly ignored in his earlier work: he offers a small but persistent countercurrent of hope.
The death and possible martyrdom in Dubrovnik of Marek’s brother Eli — an outstandingly charismatic yet enigmatic character — is the central pivot of the book. Around this point, Marek both recalls their relationship as children in Holesovice and shows his own growing doubts and frailties as an old man leading a colony of Eli’s followers in Greece some 60 years later.
Eli was a fearless but also frustratingly quietist if not fully passive leader. Yet he attracts a growing number of companions who project their neediness onto his slight figure and calm demeanour. He is a blank sheet of reassurance at a time of vivid despair.
Christian and Jewish religious authorities question his authority, with the latter, in a rare moment of comedy, flying in from Israel to investigate whether the by-now deceased Eli might in fact have been the promised messiah.
In essence, Vopenka is dragging the reader’s gaze downwards to take a good hard look into the primordial fluid of an emerging faith system riven with competing personal remembrances and factional ambitions.
This is an Acts of the Apostles for a post-Christian Europe, not least in the names used — a Petr and a Tomas have significant roles — which echo the early followers of Jesus.
Yet the author is not a Czech Nikos Kazantzakis, imposing wholesale an aged scriptural drama onto a current or future society.
The book’s ending, satisfyingly uncertain and unexpected, proves that conclusively. It is troubling and problematic, certainly, but also with a candle’s flicker of warm comfort.
Published by Barbican Press, £9.99.
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