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"A Review of Helen Oyeyemi's Parasol Against the Axe: A Thrilling Journey in Prague"
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“A Review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Parasol Against the Axe: A Thrilling Journey in Prague”

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Elen Oyeyemi’s latest book tells a story about stories, unraveling the connections that tie them together. It takes place in Prague, where the city acts as a backdrop, symbol, and sometimes even a narrator. The characters transform and reappear in different roles, similar to actors in a traveling theater. Time in this city bends and twists, adding to the feeling of the novel as a rollercoaster ride and Prague as a never-ending elevator that takes its passengers in circles instead of straight lines. The themes explored include love, history, identity, and the subjective nature of reading. Each reader will have a unique experience when opening the book, making reviewing it an interesting and high-stakes task.

Oyeyemi, the author of this text, is known for his love of formal experimentation and unpredictable storytelling. The story, entitled “Parasol Against the Axe,” follows two women, Hero Tojosoa and Dorothea Gilmartin, as they come together in Prague for a bachelorette weekend. Despite their past closeness, they are now estranged and have very different reasons for attending the celebration of their mutual friend, Sofie. The weekend begins with a typical tour of the city’s lesser-known attractions, before Hero is dropped off at a quaint bed and breakfast in the historic part of town. Left alone in her room, she picks up a book about Prague that her teenage son gave her for the trip. However, it turns out to be a fictional novel-within-a-novel called “Paradoxical Undressing.”

The concept of “facts” becomes problematic at this stage. The first time Hero reads Paradoxical Undressing, the initial chapter presents a whimsical story: a young woman finds scraps of paper hidden in the walls of a secondhand bookshop. These scraps, when put together, tell another tale set in Prague: the adventures of a nobleman at the court of Rudolf II. Hero is captivated until the book suddenly addresses her with an abrupt question of “Where are you?”. This leaves her feeling unsettled and the next time she picks up the book, the first chapter tells a completely different story. This time, we are immersed in the secretive world of Matouš Brzobohatý, a High Court judge who is despised but continues to carry out justice in communist-era Prague without any remorse until he realizes that his son has become “a walking advertisement for the Party”. This new story is just as intriguing, but once again Paradoxical Undressing interrupts itself to ask Hero (and possibly the readers) “Where are you? (Do you know?)”.

The novel by Oyeyemi takes on a unique form, defying conventions and subverting the expectations of its characters and readers. As Hero converses with other members of the hen party, she discovers that she is not the only one who has read Paradoxical Undressing. Both of the brides’ mothers are also familiar with the book, but their recollections differ. One remembers a story about a cold war spy, while the other recalls a tale of a rivalry between two popular singers in the 1960s, which she found thrilling. Meanwhile, Thea, who is exploring Prague on her own, receives a copy of the book from a woman dressed as a cartoon mole. When she reads it, she is transported to 1943 Prague where she follows the story of a Jewish woman who entertains German officers disguised as a “taxi dancer”.

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These sub-stories (which are all intriguing and could be their own novels) serve various purposes and prompt numerous inquiries. On one hand, when combined, they do create a “Prague book”, similar to Ivo Andrić’s remarkable novel about 400 years of Yugoslav history from the perspective of a bridge in Višegrad, The Bridge on the Drina. Together, they form a layered depiction of the city, bearing witness to the tumultuous events throughout its history. On the other hand, they also challenge the reliability not only of storytellers but also of stories themselves: the idea that novels are constantly shifting territories where definitive answers, meanings, and even events are difficult to grasp. Not only does Paradoxical Undressing present a different face to each reader, but it also begins to break out of its own boundaries over time: plotlines and characters escape from its pages and seep into the present action, echoing and influencing it. And while the author’s name – Merlin Mwenda – remains the same, his biography seems to change just as much as the stories themselves. Eventually, he even appears in person as an ice cream vendor, offering both melting cones and wisdom.

Merlin suggests selecting ten individuals and relaying the same information to each of them. Then, upon reflection, inquire about what was communicated. According to him, it is certain that you will hear ten things that were never actually spoken. He also points out that people tend to focus on their own thoughts rather than what is being said to them. This, to me, is the main takeaway from Oyeyemi’s exceptional and perplexing novel. The contents of its pages are unpredictable, but one thing is for sure – the journey of exploration will be tumultuous.

Source: theguardian.com