Lukáš Tomin, The Doll, Twisted Spoon Press, 2010. [1992.]
The cult novel of early 1990s Prague.
Set somewhere in Europe, The Doll interweaves the stories of three couples in search of transcendence. At the center are two children, Cathy and Thomas, who travel to Spain to erect the largest doll in the world — a symbol of aspiration that diminishes as the work progresses. Grotesque descriptions of sex and drunkenness illustrate the futility of any form of striving toward a goal. A nod to the greats of Modernism, The Doll is a swirl of languages, hallucinations, and visions that create a dreamlike atmosphere of mystical import. It became an immediate cult classic in Prague upon its publication in 1992.
A visionary work, by an extraordinary and important young writer. As cultures and languages mix and merge, Tomin meets the subsequent literary challenge head on, and actually makes this reader hopeful about the future of the Novel. -- Fay Weldon
The Doll is a sensuous and melodious flow of words that Tomin has mercilessly dragged out of his subconscious . . . The result is somewhere between prose and poetry. -- Prognosis, April, 1993
Twisted Spoon's very first publication remains one of their most extreme: Lukas Tomin's The Doll. Tomin leaves his characters half-drawn for much of the book, forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effect for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue. . . . The novel seeks to jolt with its odd narrative rhythms, making it a rare contemporary update of the surrealist novels of Breton and Pinget. Tomin grew up in a disident family under one of the harshest periods of communist rule, and wrote The Doll in his second language, English, as an migr in Paris. He steadfastly refuses to ground his prose in a comfortable fictional environment, just as he refused to ground it in the comfort of his native language. -- David Auerbach
Lukáš Tomin, Kye, Twisted Spoon Press, 1997.
In many ways a companion to Ashtrays, Tomin's previous novel, Kye shifts the setting from Paris, where exuberance was found in excess, to London, where the organism senses itself to be out of balance and is acutely aware of its decay. The euphoria has long passed as Kye is unable to break the inertia of his drinking, smoking, and unfulfilled sexual fantasies. As such, Tomin explores the trap exile has become for him, making clear his identity as Czech. Gradually overcome by his impotence to act decisively, Kye reflects on all that was left and lost "back there."
A Lovely Tale of Photography is an hallucinatory novella about a female photographer who is suffering from an undetermined illness. Confined to a sanatorium, where she is surrounded by a cast of stock characters speaking various languages, she is made to confront a reality other than that framed by her camera.
The setting is contemporary London. The narrator, Kye, is a Czech expatriate who lives a life of alcoholism, dissolution, and general purposelessness . . . remembering more directed times: his revels in Paris; his youth in Czechoslovakia as a student demonstrator. Kyes mind leaps and spills like a piata. Where text becomes consciousness, the protagonists personality, conversely, becomes a semiotic field of imaginings and symbolic markers. Avidly experimental in approach, the lines between observation and fantasy are dissolved, points of view are conflated, and the nervous drift of the narrative sweeps the reader into dislocation. While Tomins literary influences are modernist, his voice and sense of humor are uniquely contemporary. -- The Prague Post, November 16, 1997
unique experimental prose . . . depicting a surreally disjointed and thorny world. -- Time Out Guide
Tomin's writing moves seamlessly between poetry and prose, employing rhyme and wordplay to create extra-linear meanings which deepen and extend rather than detract from the central narration. Less an experiment than an excursion into the depths of language, Tomin's work deserves to be read more widely. - — Stephan Delbos
Lukáš Tomin, Ashtrays, Twisted Spoon Press, 1995.
Set in Paris, Tomin's second book is the narrative of a tempestuous Czech artist living off the generosity of his girlfriend, struggling with the desire for fame and the alienation of his exile. Repetitive passage through the streets of Paris and recounting of events and disruptions of daily life are periodically broken by lyrical sequences where fantasy and recollection are combined. Writing in an adopted tongue marked by both his native Czech and the French of his setting, Tomin forges an English that is rhythmic, mobile, energetic, and often sharply humorous. In this language, the extremes of the material and spiritual worlds collide and intersect, creating a space of extreme reality which directly confronts the mundane.
There is no question that Tomin has talent for creating a gritty, urban, yet highly poetic atmosphere. -- Prognosis, January, 1994
Whatever else the novel Ashtrays may be, it is certainly a linguistic tour de force all the more remarkable given that the author, Lukas Tomin, is a Czech who has chosen to write in English. The imagery is stiking and highly original, the speech rhythm whether British or American English remarkably fluent and accurate, and the style as a whole has a mellifluous, poetic quality. It also has that essential and often forgotten ingredient for a novel: It makes the reader want to turn its pages. Unlike Tomin's first novel The Doll, there is little trace of mysticism, . . . Instead, what we get is a gritty, sordid portrait of Parisian low-life couched in language of great originality that gives even the most squalid passages a compelling intensity. -- Michael Halstead
... the most innovative and refreshing piece that I have read in a while ... - Cups
On the 7th of May, 1979, Tomin’s mother was brutally attacked in the doorway of the family’s apartment building at 4 Keramická street, by a suspected agent of state security (StB, Státní bezpečnost). Barbara Day, in her history of the underground university, recounts:
Passers-by rescued her, but not before she had been severely beaten. An ambulance was called and she was hospitalised with concussion. The following day Zdena issued a statement connecting the attack with her constant surveillance by the secret police.
Several months later, Tomin’s father was briefly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital at Dolní Beřkovice. The threat of further incarceration remained. Meanwhile Tomin himself was placed under surveillance by the estébáci (StB) and assigned the codename Strojník-2 (Machinist-2).
On the 22nd of October a series of show trials began in Prague – the largest since the 1950s – of members of VONS (the Committee for the Protection of the Unjustly Persecuted – organised to investigate unfounded accusations by the state, against ordinary citizens, of “criminal subversion of the republic in collusion with foreign agents”) including Václav Benda, a close friend of the Tomins. After a string of “preventative detentions” and police raids on their apartment, the Tomins finally chose – with strong encouragement from the Czechoslovak government – to emigrate on a five-year visa. On the 1st of August, 1980 – in the midst of the worst period of normalizace – the family, accompanied by British philosopher Kathy Wilkes, drove by car to the German border and from there, via Switzerland, to Paris and London. Nine months later they received notice that their citizenship had been revoked.
While his father taught Plato at Balliol College, Oxford (ultimately becoming a controversial figure within the university), Tomin studied at St Edward’s School, then at Oxford and the University of London, before decamping to Paris in 1985 where he completed work on The Doll in 1987. For the next several years he divided his time between Paris, Montreal and London, writing prose fiction and (increasingly) stage drama. In 1986, Tomin’s mother achieved notice with the publication of her novel Stalin’s Shoes, followed a year later with The Coasts of Bohemia. Tomin himself published a series of poems in the London Literary Review and an article on the souring of the Velvet Revolution in the New Statesman (“American businessmen offer magic dollars for a bit of eastern promise”). After his return to Prague in 1991, he became a regular contributor to Literární Noviny, Host and The Prague Post.
But Tomin soon found himself in a situation familiar to many former émigrés, accentuated in his case by the decision to write primarily in English. Overlooked by the Czech literary establishment and ignored by publishers in the UK and the US, Tomin naturally gravitated to the circle around Iniciály – a newly-established journal devoted to publishing writers under thirty (founded by Ewald Murrer and Jakub Rosen) – and to the international scene then taking form in Prague.
In 1991, Howard Sidenberg – along with artist Kip Bauersfeld and translator Kevin Blahut – established Twisted Spoon Press, with the specific intention of publishing Tomin’s first novel, The Doll, composed from 1985 to 1987 during the author’s peregrinations between Rome, London and Paris. The Doll duly appeared in 1992, to some notable acclaim. Fay Weldon described the novel as
a visionary work, by an extraordinary and important young writer. As cultures and languages mix and merge, Tomin meets the consequent literary challenge head on, and actually makes this reader hopeful about the future of the novel.
The reviewer for Prognosis (a Prague English-language paper that ran from 1990 to 1995) wrote:
The Doll is a sensuous and melodious flow of words that Tomin has mercilessly dragged out of his subconscious, offering the reader a bizarre, uncensored current of his thoughts, pure and true. The result is somewhere between prose and poetry.
Sidenberg went on to publish Tomin’s remaining two novels: Ashtrays in 1993 (with a re-edition in 1995) – held by some to be Tomin’s masterpiece – and Kye, posthumously in 1997 (like The Doll, both had been completed before Tomin’s return to Czechoslovakia). Ashtrays, illustrated by Alf van der Plank, was described by The Prague Post as “a linguistic tour de force” (an excerpt from the book also appeared in the inaugural issue of the Prague literary journal Trafika that Autumn). Reviewing Kye in the Post four years later, Anthony Tognazzini wrote of Tomin as “a fine formalist whose narrative experiments are bold and intriguing.” An unfinished fragment, “Kye Too,” was belatedly published in the literary broadsheet Semtext in 2000 and again in the Prague Literary Review in May 2004.
Without ever having received the recognition his work warranted, and which his early reviewers suggested was immanent, Tomin committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 32. His body was discovered at the foot of a cliff in the Šárka valley; a private memorial service was held at the church of saint antonin on Strossmayerovo náměstí. Acknowledgement of Tomin’s importance for Prague’s post-’89 renaissance (the reinstatement of the city as one of the chief European centres of modernism and the avant-garde) has had to wait more than a decade. In an interview for Host magazine in November 2009, Czech poet Vladimira Čerepková described Tomin – in one of the very few recent public pronouncements about his work – as one of the crucial figures to have emerged after the Velvet Revolution. At the time of writing, however, none of Tomin’s novels has yet appeared in Czech (although translations of both The Doll and Ashtrays have existed in typescript since the early- and mid- ’90s), while his dramatic and poetical works, retained by his estate, mostly remain unpublished in either language. - Louis Armand read more here