Pepperstein’s Prague Night.

During the last few days I’ve gobbled up Pavel Pepperstein’s 2011 novel Пражская ночь, translated by Andrew Bromfield as A Prague Night. It’s short and very readable, like the two previous novels I’ve zipped through — Yuri Buida’s Третье сердце [Third heart], about a Russian obsessed with his role in past killings who meets a psychopathic one-legged girl in 1926 Paris, and Vladimir Sorokin’s Метель [The Blizzard], in which Dr. Garin is so determined to bring zombie-plague vaccine to an affected town that he forces the cheerful Perkhusha and his fifty mini-horses to drive through an increasingly dangerous blizzard — and I’m posting about it because it’s particularly language-oriented as well as very well written. But before I get to that stuff, I have to confess that I fell in love with it because it’s set in, and saturated with, the city of Prague.

I spent a couple of weeks in Prague in the course of two visits, a quarter of a century ago now, and I found it magical, full of both antique ghosts (defenestrations! Kafka!) and modern energy, not to mention good food and superb beer (my favorite hangout was U Pinkasů near the northern end of Václavské náměstí). I walked as many streets as I could in both Old and New Towns, I visited the Castle and Vyšehrad and the Old Jewish Cemetery (where I placed a stone on Rabbi Löw’s grave), I tossed a coin off the Charles Bridge, I did all the tourist things, so I was the perfect audience for Pepperstein’s travelogue (at one point his narrator apologizes for describing yet another colorful part of town, and I mentally said “Don’t apologize, keep it up!”). So discount my enthusiasm a tad unless you are similarly besotted with the city.

The novel is told from the viewpoint of a professional killer who goes to the city to carry out a job; you can read the first few pages of Bromfield’s translation here to see how he came to that career. He stays for a conference on the fortieth anniversary of the Prague Spring, in the course of which he meets a young American woman named Elly and her filthy-rich father, and winds up having a wild night involving a Parade of Slavic Gods; there is a fair amount of English text (“My name is Jaromir”) and even some Czech, though without the requisite accent marks (“Ne zapomente: dneska v noci bude Hlidka Bohu”), as well as some invented foreign names (Атанае, Пехо, Увидуве, Лайа-Хорте, Аманаута). There is even a whole section about Kafka’s Odradek, which I posted about in 2014. And here’s a passage on the Slavic languages (my translation):

Jaromir suddenly started speaking in a language I had never heard before. Strangely, I understood every word of this unfamiliar and beautiful language. It was a Slavic language, obviously very ancient — perhaps the secret language of the Slavs, born in the depths of mysteries — and in it all Slavic speech seemed to intertwine and merge: the mystical clarity of Russian, the pride of Polish, the melodiousness of Ukrainian, the childlike tenderness and merriment of Czech, the forest-like evasiveness of Belarusian, the directness of Slovak, the daring of Serbian, the mysterious restraint of Bulgarian, the ardor of Montenegrin, the Byzantine luxury of Church Slavonic, the sensual femininity of Slovenian, the peasant persistence of the language of the Pomors and Ruthenians… In this language there sounded the cold winds of the north, the moan of Arctic ice, the heat of the south, an echo of the crags of the Black and Mediterranean seas, the creaks of the Ussuri taiga — all the windings of the earth, all the Great Russian rivers, all the lands where Slavic speech sounds, have woven their voices into this language — and Prague, the Slavic heart of Europe, sang its song in this language.

Яромир вдруг заговорил на языке, которого я прежде не слышал. Странно, но я понимал каждое слово этого незнакомого и прекрасного языка. Это был славянский язык, явно очень древний, — возможно, тайный язык славян, родившийся в глубине мистерий, — и в нем словно бы сплелись и соединились все славянские речи: мистическая ясность русского, гордость польского, певучесть украинского, детская нежность и смешливость чешского, лесная уклончивость белорусского, прямодушие словацкого, смелость сербского, загадочная сдержанность болгарского, пылкость черногорского, византийская роскошь церковно-славянского, чувственная женственность словенского, крестьянское упорство языка поморов и русинов… Звучали в этом языке и холодные ветры севера, и стон арктического льда, и южный жар, и эхо скал Черного и Средиземного морей, и скрипы Уссурийской тайги — все изгибы земли, все великорусские реки, все края, где звучит славянская речь, вплели в этот язык свои голоса, — и Прага, славянское сердце Европы, пела в этом языке свою песню.

Fun stuff (if you don’t object too much to stereotypes and mysticism). And the prose is gorgeous; here’s a brief example:

Сигарета «Ява» дымится, сгорает — струйка терпкого дыма, дымок в морозном воздухе — это сгорает и исчезает явь, а вместе с ней превращаются в дым и исчезают и праявь, и новь, и навь, и быль, и боль… Исчезают и пыль, и быль, и боль…

There’s not much point translating it, since it depends so much on assonance and wordplay, but here’s a more or less literal version:

The Java cigarette is smoking, burning — a trickle of tart smoke, a puff of smoke in the frosty air — it’s reality that’s burning and disappearing, and along with it pre-reality [??] and virgin soil and ghosts and plain facts and pain turn into smoke and disappear… Dust, and facts, and pain disappear…

I have no idea what “праявь” is supposed to mean (I broke it down into the prefix пра and the word явь ‘reality’); I wonder how Bromfield dealt with it? Anyway, if any of that sounds attractive to you, give the book a try. I look forward to reading more Pepperstein.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    For prajav’ are you sure the “a” should not be o (akanie)? Ozhegov has for ПРОЯВИТЬ:
    Совершая, делаячто-н., обнаружить наличие каких-н. качеств, свойств. П. героизм. П. заботу.П. безразличие по отношению к товарищу
    Not sure if this fits your text…

  2. I have no idea, but it’s a good suggestion!

  3. @PlasticPaddy: No, пра- is a different (and a more archaic) prefix, more or less analogous to fore- (прадед = great-grandfather, прародитель = forefather, etc.) So, праявь should mean something like “forereality” or “pre-reality”.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. I was having a hard time digesting fore-reality. Is it the figment in the creative mind before the act of creation?

  5. @PlasticPaddy:
    @moskva? — no, that’s not me.

    Thanks. I was having a hard time digesting fore-reality. Is it the figment in the creative mind before the act of creation?
    Now this is a question for Pepperstein. I think the word is his coinage.

  6. Pretty neat. According to family lore that I heard from my grandmother’s first cousin, my family descends from Rabbi Loew.

  7. That’s a nice family line to have!

  8. Dmitry Pruss says

    No, that wasn’t me. But I also see the pre-reality, as vivid perception of the past, as seeing it just like the present reality

  9. Yes, that’s pretty much how I took it.

  10. праявь is etymologically pre-reality or pre-openness, явь being something that is open to observation, uncovered as opposed to something hidden. Maybe праявь is something about to be uncovered. Or maybe there is a typo and what should have been written is правь, referencing явь, правь и навь. It’s right up the valley of modern mystical pan-Slavic paganism.

  11. Dmitry Pruss says

    Wish I didn’t follow this depressing or distressing link. In the quest of Russia’s authorities for a militant ideology, worse stuff becomes sought after. Even the DNA of Russia has 5 mystical bases now instead of the usual 4 chemical ones.

  12. Czech pra- also connotes “ur-, proto- echt-” i.e. “original”, in addition to “fore-” “precursor”. The famous Pilsner Urquell is “prazdroj” in Czech, and pra- also appears liberally in the names of reconstructed languages. So I’d be inclined to think prajav’ could also be construed as “proto-reality” or “echt reality” in addition to “pre-reality”, but I might be overthinking it and also don’t have a good sense of whether this prefix has the same valences in Russian.

  13. @earthtopus: yes, it has; праязык is “proto-language”, прародина is “ancestral / original homeland”.
    Re праявь: none of the dictionaries at has it, so it must be quite rare or indeed Pepperstein’s own coinage.

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