The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik

Ludvik Vaculik~Czechoslovakia

The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will.  Even if you are absolutely convinced that you’re the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it’s usually someone who knows much less than you do.

Political allegory meet Czech writer Ludvik Vacilik.  Ludvik Vaculik meet political allegory.  When you’re under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s and 1970s and you know there are harsh punishments for writing anything that even hints at criticizing the government, the only thing you can do as a writer is write a supposedly harmless novel about the Czech people a.k.a. guinea pigs.  And let’s face it, guinea pigs are vulnerable, small, dependent, and above all, gullible.  Not exactly the same adjectives I would use when describing Czechoslovakians, but if you distill oppression down to it’s purest form between the oppressor and the oppressed, not difficult to imagine an oppressor doling out praise and punishment like some tough but benevolent patriarchal scientist whose only goals are to control and manipulate in order to get the result he wants.  Of course he wants them to feel small and vulnerable, dependent and gullible because that’s how power works.

Vaculik, with echos of Kafka, uses the animal metaphor to play out the relationship of a people under Communist rule and he does so with an absurd, serio-comic and surreal novel that is so symbolic, it can be whatever the reader makes it out to be.  There is perhaps nothing more valiant and clever than an incisive yet veiled political novel.  Above all, this is novel that leaves you looking up and outward to examine what your place in the world is once the lens is pulled back to give a wider view – whose vision are you buying into?

Told in first-person by Vasek, a bank worker with a wife and two small boys, is our seemingly everyday josef turned antihero.  In the morning, the guards record the amount of money each employee has when they come to work.  At the end of the day, they frisk everybody for stolen money.  Everybody steals.  The guards confiscate the money but it never returns to the bank.  This becomes a pressing concern for Vasek and his colleagues as rumor has that because the money not only never returns to the bank, it never returns to the economy, and in turn will lead to a depression which will lead to bank layoffs. This rumor is apparently substantiated by the analysis the of the bank’s commercial engineer, Mr. Chlebecek. This exacerbates Vasek’s feeling of utter hopelessness.  Unable to control anything in his life, his co-worker, Karasek who is ‘eccentrically introverted’, tells him that he keeps himself occupied at home with guinea pigs.  Thus, the madness begins for Vasek. 

He discusses it with his wife and they decide that it would be a great addition to the household as well as good for the boys.  Vasek brings home Albinek who increasingly becomes the object of Vasek’s attention.  Then comes Ruprecht, a guinea pig friend for Albinek.  During the night, Vasek begins experiments with the guinea pigs to test their limits of trust.  When he manipulates them into trusting him more, he subjects them to crueler tests merely to see how they will react:

Take a paper bag, place it open on a table and let the guinea pig crawl inside.  Then twist the bag shit, just so the air can get in, and go to the movies.  When you get back, you’ll find everything just the way it was when you left.  Take a glass, fill it with water, then change your mind and pour the water out, and take the glass and turn it upside down over the guinea pig.  You can observe the guinea pig through the glass walls, watch it sit there in astonishment, its nostrils quivering in excitement, its tummy undulating nervously, and yet it doesn’t even try to determine the penetrability of the wall around it, at least not during the first hour.

You can almost taste the metaphor.  There is so much to quote in this book that can be construed as one of many surreal and cryptic symbols its impossible to choose a quote that best represents the novel and Vaculik as a writer.  The voice is plainspoken and flippant which immediately pulls the reader in, especially with his ‘dear boys and girls’ and ‘dear reader’ blandishments, and the parallel between Vasek’s emotional unraveling at home and work and his treatment of the guinea pigs becomes starker and starker. 

This is a quick read, but with unsettling intellectual and philosophical ripples for the reader.  We even begin to see the contradictions of the bureaucracy manifested in Vasek’s relationship with his son.  Vasek claims he saw him dawdling before school in a blue windbreaker and his son replies that it was not him because he doesn’t have a blue windbreaker.  No matter what the reality is, Vasek as parent makes his own reality despite the truth.  There is also the use of Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom as an analogy to the economic situation at the bank.  Filled with allegory, references and symbolism, it would take several readings to uncover all of its meanings. 

Vaculik spent many years as a samizdat writer after his works were banned when he wrote an essay that was a call to action for the Czech people as a response to the Communist’s party’s misuse of power.  Still living in Czechoslovakia, the ban on his writing was lifted in 1989.  Open Letter and translator Kaca Polackova has done great justice to the Central European prospective by reissuing this classic of postwar literature.

(If you want a quick overview of his work, check out czech radio’s piece, The Guinea Pigs
By Ludvik Vaculik
Translated Kaca Polackova
Open Letter
Paperback, 180 pp.

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