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The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik

The Guinea Pigs (original 1971; edition 2011)

by Ludvik Vaculik, Kaca Polackova (Translator)

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Title:The Guinea Pigs
Authors:Ludvik Vaculik
Other authors:Kaca Polackova (Translator)
Info:Open Letter (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 167 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Czech, Open Letter Series

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The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik (1971)



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When I was a kid I had a guinea pig. It lived in an enormous cage in my bedroom. We kept alfalfa as a treat for it in the hall closet, and whenever someone opened the closet door the guinea pig would start squealing in anticipation. It is hard to describe this sound to those unfamiliar with it, but I will say that it often provoked a double-take among the uninitiated. This behavior on the part of the guinea pig was probably its most interesting attribute. Guinea pigs are not particularly known for their intelligence, or even for their entertaining antics.

As Ludvík Vaculík illustrates with excruciating detail in this novel, what guinea pigs do a lot of is sitting still as if waiting. Waiting to see what will happen next. One does not observe much proactivity in the guinea pig. In this novel, guinea pigs are said by some critics to represent the Czech people in the wake of the 1969 Soviet invasion, an act provoked by the Soviet belief that the existing Czech government was straying too far from conservative waters. While Vaculík, a Communist (twice expelled) in favor of increasing liberalization at the time, does sometimes exhibit in his prose a not-very-thinly disguised frustration with his fellow citizens, to treat the book only as a fable about the evils of Soviet Communism does it a disservice.

The storyline follows a bank clerk named Vašek and his family who live a mundane middle-class existence in Prague. The action alternates between Vašek's incongruous dealings with his wife and two sons, and some vaguely sinister goings-on at the State Bank where Vašek works. Bank employees routinely attempt to walk out at the end of the day with a few notes secreted somewhere on their person, occasionally with success but just as often without it. This activity is obscurely linked to an increasing loss of bank notes from general circulation, prompting a shadowy old bank employee to propose the existence of a mysterious parallel circulation. Vašek becomes obsessed with figuring out who is masterminding this operation and why.

When not gumshoeing around in an erratic manner at work, Vašek wanders around his house with a guinea pig in his pocket, doing his computations and berating his sons in an equally erratic manner. Vašek has bought the first of the guinea pigs as a Christmas gift for his younger son Pavel, an event which stirs up the family's previously humdrum life. Suddenly many of their concerns revolve around the guinea pig, which is soon joined by another, and yet another. Of anyone, Vašek becomes the most preoccupied by the presence of guinea pigs in the family home, eventually carrying out a nightly series of arcane experiments on them while the rest of his family sleeps. Vašek is on one hand a delightfully random narrator prone to charming absurdism, while on the other hand he is an unreasonable father and husband and a cold, calculating torturer of guinea pigs. His long-suffering wife Eva, a schoolteacher, is perhaps the most grounded member of the family, though her role rarely rises above that of dispenser of well-placed non sequiturs.

Knowledge of everyday life for the average Czech citizen during Communist control is not required to enjoy this dark and ridiculous novel, though it may enhance one's reading of it. Vašek is a man whose aims and motivations are impossible to pin down, though it's clear he feels a desire to understand what is going on around him. While very little in his life makes sense, he is also an instigator of the nonsensical in his family's life. He is a simultaneous victim and executioner of his own 'normality', a state that is in constant flux. Being that there is some of the erratic in all of us, the contradictions in Vašek's story may seem familiar to anyone, not just those who experienced life under Soviet Communism.

Perhaps the closest Vaculík comes to revealing the true meaning behind his story is when early in the book Vašek shares this thought, following the Ministry of Education's rejection of the article he wrote about his guinea pig:

Writing is always some sort of expression of helplessness or the product of a case of messed-up nerves, disclosing complexes or a bad conscience. The greater the literature, the greater the hysteria, really; think it over. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
The Guinea Pigs is a dark political allegory portraying the essence of life under Soviet rule during the Cold War in Czechoslovakia. The author, Ludvik Vaculik, speaks in riddles, metaphors and symbols to obscure the true meaning of his novel. Vaculik includes a bit of humor to reveal the absurdity inherent in such a regime. It is a daring piece that challenges one intellectually and philosophically. A profound literary work from a powerful Czech voice. ( )
  BALE | Oct 29, 2012 |
The nearest I can figure is that this novel is about the process of decay and loss of will caused by the tight controls placed on human beings under Communist regimes. The protagonist's experimentation seems to represent the playing with humanity by regimes and an uncaring God. The guinea pigs are the example of how paralyzed and unthinking, how devoid of wishes and dreams, people become when socially, economically, culturally, or otherwise confined. A powerful, thought provoking novel, by an author from the Czech Republic who himself was persecuted and ostracized for the expression of his independent thoughts. ( )
  hemlokgang | Sep 10, 2012 |
Vaculik creates a main character that appears innocent and naive. Common in Czech literature in this time period, there is much more that appears on the surface. Our innocent family man's darker tendencies are revealed throughout the story. The story's lulls are worth getting through to enjoy the overall complexity of the novel. ( )
  heatherhoarder | Aug 21, 2012 |
Translated from Czech, this dark comedy sneaks up on the reader. The narration of begins as if a story is being told to a small child, which was sweetly humorous, but which later started to take on a darker tone as the political symbolism became clearer to the reader. One could make a comparison between the way Vasek studied the family pet guinea pigs and the state's close watch over the citizens of the Czech Republic.

If you like conspiracy theories, behavioral experiments, even if they become vicious, and psychological study, I'd recommend this ( )
1 vote cameling | Apr 20, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ludvik Vaculikprimary authorall editionscalculated
Poláčková, KáčaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There are more than a million people living in the city of Prague whom I'd just as soon not name here.
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