Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe by Cyril Simsa (Invocations Press, 2014)
Cyril Simsa is an Englishman of Czech descent who lives and works in Prague, and who for many years has been a follower of science fiction, occasionally publishing short fiction in small-press magazines and webzines. (In the interest of full and frank disclosure I have received his fanzines, published his critical commentary, and received this book as a gift at the 2014 London Worldcon). Lost Commentaries is a collection of six stories set in Central Europe which, as he points out in his introduction, was and is a fertile region of Otherness. “We have always superimposed the Other on geography, and Europe has always been a locus of otherness,” he writes (adding, perhaps slyly, “At least in Britain”). I am reminded in reading the introduction of two non-fiction books I’ve read over the past year: Norman David’s Vanished Kingdoms and Simon Winder’s Danubia which, in different ways, emphasised how little we (I) know about Central/Eastern Europe, but the first story, “Inbibing History” sets the tone by clearly echoing Bram Stoker’s remark that by crossing the Danube at Budapest “we were leaving the West and entering the East”. Just as Jonathan Harker, on his way to Castle Dracula, finds the people and geography “picturesque”, “Interesting” and a little frightening, so his contemporary Rosamund Harper, a young geologist stranded by the breakdown of her coach in the Carpathians, finds much to unsettle her. Told alternately through the journals of Harper and Hieronymus Zibrt, the strangely ageless landowner she encounters, “Imbibing History” is about change – the slow, evolutionary change of Darwinian and geological time, and the anxiety of historical time.”[I]t is true, as we hurtle towards the Twentieth Century, a new era is undoubtedly on the horizon,” writes Harper. On her return home, she notes that a novel has just been published in London which manages to get virtually everything she has discovered from her encounter distressingly wrong. The omens for this new era are not good.
Other encounters range from the Seventeenth Century to the dystopian future. In “Journey’s End”, a Flemish trader, waiting for a merchant from East Anglia in order to unload some dubious liqueurs (“The English will drink anything, I find, since they got rid of the Commonwealth”) meets a mysterious woman who is waiting for an unpaid debt. As they converse, it becomes clear what the profession of Ragana (or Anat, Astarte, Ashtharoth) is (something stranger and more uncanny than what Mareliese had first suspected), but the fact that both women are networking over time and space offers a wry contrast between them. “The Feast of Stephen” has a group of alienated young Czechs conjuring up Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, finding that the myth of the “sleeping hero” who will redeem his country has a darker and more ancient origin. “Wenceslas” and his twelve companions will certainly save the world from global warming and other threats, but only by the logical consequences of allowing the deep past entry into the present. “Under the Waves” stands upon the cusp of two devastating historical events. Ambrose, the young librarian who narrates the story, along with his aristocratic friend Kaspar, encounters a water-sprite living in a pond on the family estate. On the eve of Ambrose’s conscription into the army in 1914, Kaspar opts to join Leocadia in her realm. Somewhat to his surprise, Ambrose survives the war and, a couple of decades later, finds himself, now working for the Prague Water Board in the new nation of Czechoslovakia, before the place where Leocadia’s pond was. “We were all creatures of the past,” he meditates. The immediate future trembles before him.
A further future is explored in “Poorly Formulated Questions,” in which a dictator is tracked down by an agent of the “International Environmental Court” which seeks to hold him accountable for his crimes against humanity – “crimes” which are perhaps crimes in ideological hindsight, or which may be being seductively excused. Finally, in “Queen of Sumava” we are in post-War communist Czechoslovakia. The officer in charge of a unit of border guards, brought up to respect the chthonic spirits of the land as deeply as he is pragmatically committed to the new ideology, has to balance the demands of a political appointee to his unit against his unease with purges and loyalty tests. When they come across a notorious people-smuggler helping a dissident former Minister across the border, a local hill-deity comes to play her own part in events.
Everywhere, the uncanny undercurrents of psychogeography and myth swirl around shifting political and personal borders. In his introduction, Simsa hints that his fictions are, in part, his own explorations of an identity which must reflect that of many modern Europeans (“it was not until I moved to Prague in the 1990s that I realised that I was English after all . . . although my Englishness is very much that of the London suburbs.” History and geography come to unsettling and thought-provoking life in these haunting and well-crafted tales.