1. Archive

Rainbows in a gray land


By Iva Pekarkova

Translated by David Powelstock

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22

Reviewed by Gail Pool

With Republicans linking women's essential nature to mothering and recent films linking it to murdering, it's refreshing to read this first novel whose intelligent, sensuous hitchhiking narrator leaves female stereotypes in the dust.

The author, a young Czech emigre who now drives a cab in New York City, sets her story in a Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia of the '80s. Pekarkova has said that when she escaped from her homeland in 1985, she carried this book "in her head," writing it down only when she reached this country. This is hardly surprising: Her novel would not have pleased Communist officials. Saturated with grayness, mined with policemen, the landscape she describes here is politically, environmentally, and spiritually polluted.

Fialka's story documents both the pollution and the ways in which people survive it.

A university student who earns her living as a nature photographer, Fialka, 25, has lived with her grandmother in Prague since her family died in a suspicious car accident seven years before. She is devoted to her independence and to her friend Patrik, the unconventional soul-mate with whom she seeks "to raise some kind of rainbow over the grayness of the life imposed" on them.

And she is addicted to hitchhiking, with its freedom, adventure and drivers. In a wonderful scene, sensual and tender, Fialka conveys the joy she finds in her one-night stands.

The novel follows the changes that occur in Fialka's life when Patrik discovers he has multiple sclerosis. Both have to deal with the fact that he is dying, but on a more practical level, they have to deal with his temporary survival. Fialka determines to get her friend a nearly unobtainable wheelchair.

To acquire the money, Fialka abandons the Czech drivers of the Northern Road for the wealthier drivers of the international Southern Road, and begins taking pay for making love.

Immediately, hitchhiking and lovemaking are transformed. Fialka describes how she gradually learns distrust, takes to wearing makeup, and becomes what her grandmother calls her in an emotional encounter: a prostitute.

Fialka's incisive perceptions as she describes her country, as she analyzes losing and regaining her sense of self, create a thoughtful, thought-provoking book. Fialka is both interesting and credible, a character neither easily summed up nor readily predictable.

Like many first novelists, Pekarkova undervalues narrative, and her story lacks momentum. Unlike most, though, she draws a fine portrait of a woman who is not only intelligent but applies her intellect broadly and steps outside the limited repertoire of roles fictional women tend to play.

Gail Pool specializes in reviewing first fiction.