One cannot help but loving this thin thin book collecting a bunch of short stories written by Ota Pavel in the very last years of his short and troubled life.
Perhaps, one of the reasons to fall in love with How I Came to Know Fish is its brevity, a shortness that appears to be deeply related with the unfortunate but nonetheless joyful life of its author.
Born Otto Popper, Ota Pavel was the son of Jewish father and a Christian mother. A condition that saved him from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia while his dad and elder brothers couldn't skip them but were among those who managed to come back home.
In communist Czechoslovakia the young Popper/Pavel became a good hockey player and an outdoor activities enthusiast choosing a career of sport reporter which allowed him to follow his two greatest passions: writing and hockey.
Everything looked smooth and fine for Ota Pavel, but on a bad day in 1964 a sudden crack in the thin Austrian ice claimed him and his brains. As he himself recounts in the Epilogue of this book:
"I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman-- the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old.
With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off the fog. As I was leading the cows and horses from the barn, the Austrian police arrived. They handcuffed me and took me down into the valley.
I cursed them, pulled off my shoes, and walked barefoot through the snow. I was thinking of Christ as he was led to the cross".
And from that moment on, the avalanche which eventually took the life of Ota Pavel nine years later due to a heart attack - he was only 43 - started to roll down the Austrian mountains heading to Prague. Pavel was delivered to doctors and spent the rest of his days from a mental hospital to another one. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder or so it seems.
Those were the days when Ota Pavel understood that the greatest time of his life was already behind him and he decided to recount the very best of it.
Those were the days when he wrote the short stories you can find in this book.
How I Came to Know Fish is a somehow chaotic but very poignant and ironic collection of Ota Pavel's childhood memories written with a surreal magical touch which makes them unique.
I'm not a great connoisseur of Czech literature and certainly Pavel was a very peculiar sort of writer having left only memoirs, short stories and sport articles (there is a second English translated book by him about fishing eels). And yet, the few childhood stories reunited here have the power to create an atmosphere of their own.
It's true there are a few elements (the provincial Czech town, the Nazi occupation, the young age of the protagonist, Ota/Otto's relation with is dad) which could remind a novel like The Cowards but I think that in his best moments, Pavel is even better than Škvorecký.
A short story like At the Service of Sweden is a delicious Czech cupcake with a bittersweet taste and an international irresistible touch. And the rest of Ota's short stories are equally brilliant in their obstinate looking at the bright side of life, poking fun at the Nazi occupiers rather than crying on an ill fate.
Sure, the thread here is the time spent fishing outdoors, feeding carps and looking for the perfect pond to catch them. But the power of this book is in its message: as long as you have a rod (wits) and know how to use it, no one will ever be able to pull you down.
PS: It seems like the original Czech version of this book titled Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer) includes at least a couple of short stories set in the 1950s. Only those at Penguin know why there was no room for this stuff in the English edition of the book. Perhaps a second short stories collection by Ota Pavel will come later on?