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October 15, 2007

Christie Davies remembers the work of distinguished Hiberno-Czech Social Affairs Unit author the late Petr Skrabanek and salutes his contributions to the elucidation of Finnegan's Wake: Night Joyce of a Thousand Tiers - Petr Skrabanek

Posted by Christie Davies

Night Joyce of a Thousand Tiers: Studies in Finnegans Wake
by Petr Skrabanek
(ed. Louis Armand and Ondrej Pilny)
Prague, Litteraria Proagensia, 2007
Paperback, Ł9.95

Petr Skrabanek was the gifted author of The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism. A graduate of Charles University, Prague, he was a Czech doctor and academic with a passionate love of Ireland.

Skrabanek was working in Eire in 1968 and chose to settle in Dublin when Spring gave way to socialism. There he became a Joyce enthusiast and wrote these commentaries on and an exegesis of parts of Finnegan's Wake, that labyrinth in which most of us get thoroughly lost. Skrabenek should help you to begin again, get in again, grin again, sin again, take it on the chin again and once more from the top beginnagain Finnagain's Wake. Skrabanek, like Joyce, was a man of many languages which enabled him to explore further than most.

It is singularly appropriate that a Czech should write about Joyce. When I first went to Prague in search of Švejk, Radko Pytlįk the distinguished Czech expert on Hašek, told me with delight that in the course of his research in the archives of the intelligence services of the HaBsburg Empire, now in Klagenfurt, he had discovered that the file on the "suspicious", Jaroslav Hašek sat next to that on James Joyce. Hašek the "bad Bohemian" was a trickster who checked into a hotel in Prague with a Russian looking name giving his occupation as spy for the Tsar. The police came to arrest him only to discover that the name was "Kiss My Arse" in Czech but written backwards. Joyce would have enjoyed that tale and even more so the title of a recent Dublin evening class, "Brush up your Erse". Sed Myles, sed pro patria.

Joyce himself was a teacher of languages in Trieste the main port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but largely inhabited by Italians of whose language Joyce had a mastery. He was suspected by the authorities partly because he shared the irredentist sympathies of the locals and partly because he was a British citizen and had taught English to Austro-Hungarian naval officers from the base in Pula during a spy-scare there. In 1915 after Britain had gone to war with Austro-Hungary, Joyce moved to Zurich, the town where Lenin lived and their accidental proximity is the subject of a play by another sparkling Czech writer, Sir Tomáš Straussler.

Both Hašek and Joyce had strained relationships with the Roman Catholic church but for rather different reasons. For Hašek the Catholic church had been linked to the Austrian oppression of the Czechs which began when the Czech Protestants ruled by James I and VI's son-in-law were defeated by the Catholic Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain. Hašek's masterpiece, The Good Soldier Švejk, begins and was supposed to end in a pub called The Chalice, U Kalicha, a symbol of the Hussite belief that the laity should take communion in both kinds. Hašek goes on to ridicule the Roman Catholic Church with the utmost malice, ridicule and blasphemy.

Joyce was educated by the Jesuits in an Ireland, where in the twenty-six counties at least church and nation were as one, though not perhaps over Parnell, in opposition to Protestant Britain. Yet Joyce rejected the stifling intellectual and sexual restrictions imposed by an institution all the more powerful because it embodied national sentiment.

Rather, Joyce was both drawn to and created those he felt were exiles and outsiders like himself, notably Leopold Bloom, who is the victim in a crime of incitement to religious hatred by a Cyclopean citizen of Dublin who declared

By Jesus, I'll brain that Bloody Jewman for using the Holy Name. By Jesu I'll crucify him, so I will.
Joyce knew that stately, plump Buck Mulligan of AC Sparta Bohemia had in 1906 written anti-semitic articles for the journal Shinners against the Sheenies, published by the bigot Arthur Griffith and slyly called Bloom a friend of Griffith's. For Virag it must have seemed a very short distance from Tisza-Eszlar to Limerick.

Sadly I never found out Skrabanek's take on all this - he would have been twelve at the time of the Slánský trial and anti-Semitic purges and murders in Czechoslavakia. We had invited him to my university to speak to the Sociology Department on his forthcoming Social Affairs Unit publication - The Death of Humane Medicine - but he phoned me not long before he was due to come saying that he had been diagnosed with a rapid cancer from which he knew he would die very soon. I can still remember the shock. The death of so creative a man at a young age was a great loss to us all.

Joyce was Irish by affection but an exile by choice and it is good that Skrabanek has rescued Joyce from entombment in the heroic literary pantheon of the nation that banned and burned his books. In Finnegan's Wake Joyce formed the bounded Liffey, where Irish tea-shocked water passes and Mulligan swam beneath the bullets, into the measureless Lethe, a river flowing in a sacred alpha course and not just sauf riverains. Perhaps one day Salman Rushdie will be honoured in Mumbai and Mecca, Islamabad and Isfahan. Dublin welcomed and celebrated Skrabanek's many contributions to the solving of Ireland's greatest crossword puzzle but it is in Prague that they have been assembled and published together.

Joyce toiled at Finnegan's Wake for seventeen years of workardpleiades and it would take as long to read it. There are many guidebooks but Skrabanek's is a worthy addition with its erudite notes on its Slavonic, Hebrew, Anglo-Irish and even Armenian sources. There is for example in Skrakanek an elucidation of Joyce's cryptic references to the Armenian genocide by the Turks, a frightful Holocaustic crime, which they still will not acknowledge. Now in 2007 the Turks' guilt is being decisively insisted on across the world even though they continue to deny it. Joyce's wordplay will help to hit denial on the head. Here is Joyce on the Armenians' murder by the Turks from Finnegan's Wake, with Skrabanek's comments:

8.28. "arminus-varminus" - in 1915 the Young Turks planned the mass deportation and extermination of what they called the Armenian "vermin". It is similar to the Nazi hygienists' talk of the Jews as lice or maggots.
Skrabanek also discusses the double wordplay on the names of Arminius the Göring and Varus who met in the Teutoburgerwald.
181.22. "not even the Turk, ungreekable in purscent of the armenable". A reference to foxhunting: "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable" (Oscar Wilde) and to the hunting of the Armenians by the Turks.

190.25. "as popular as an armenial with the faithful". A reference to the enmity between the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Turks.

Back to the days of ne'er rued, Batteredberg, the Hun oik in the navy. As the Franciscan goat advances, the hens lay haddocks in the trees for whales to eat. Please God, may the noisy bitch with the whining mouth guard our fish, come roe, come caviar.

For a further taste of Skrabanek's work try this. Skrabenek, was a shamus and a shammes to Sėamus, detecting his secrets and keeping his light burning. Only a Czech checker could have unravelled "sleuts of hogpew and cheekas", "upgo, bobbycop" and "gestapose …to parry off cheekars" or been able to go from "Chaka a Seagull" to sieg heil. This book is one more proof of Skrabanek's extraordinary range of talents.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, a book of tales with puzzling tricks. He has recently lectured in Cork and Prague.

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