‘The Defectors’: The Witty Absurdist Debut Novel by Czech-American Essayist René Georg Vasicek

‘The Defectors’, the debut novel by Czech-American essayist René Georg Vasicek, tells the story of various characters in multiple worlds that have “defected” from reality. Cover image courtesy of J. New Books.

Brno, Apr 12 (BD) – Czech-American essayist René Georg Vasicek has made his fiction debut with the novel ‘The Defectors’. The book captures the stories of different but equally peculiar characters who have not just escaped but “defected” from reality.

Through thirteen chapters, ‘The Defectors’ narrates the lives of: Zigmund Hrbaty, a secret policeman in 1980s Prague who is obsessed with a prohibited writer; Ziggy Hrbaty, a Buddhist “psychotherapist” who travels around the United States in a Volkswagen Beetle offering his “talking cure”; and Zig, a former adjunct professor in Brooklyn who quit his job to build a Golem from stainless steel.

The book has clearly drawn inspiration from Vasicek’s own life, not least that he is himself the child of Czech defectors. But there is also another connection, a thin red thread that runs throughout his fictional works. One of the most obvious threads is the name Zigmund Hrbaty, which recurs in many of his fictional works, and is again featured in ‘The Defectors’. Another project he was working on while writing ‘The Defectors’, a graphic novel entitled ‘The City of Machines’, also appears under the same name as a chapter in this book. “My work is very interrelated and intertwined, perhaps like the string theory of quantum physics,” said Vasicek.

Though written in English, ‘The Defectors’ still features plenty of Czech, but it’s mostly limited to the names and surnames of the characters. While subtle and witty if you understand the translations, it would likely make for an absurd translation if it was published in the Czech Republic. The protagonist’s surname Hrbaty, for example, translates to “Hunchbacked”. There is a joker whose surname would translate as “Funny”, and so on. Vasicek admits that he wouldn’t be quite sure what to do about the names, but that it would nonetheless “be amazing if The Defectors was translated and published in the Czech Republic.”

Aside from being a recognizable inspiration for “The Defectors”, being born to defectors and leaving Europe for America had already determined a large part of Vasicek’s life path and continues to influence his work. His bicultural upbringing makes it ‘unimaginable’ for Vasicek to start a project without the “the acoustics of Czech and American English (and New York City!) kicking around inside my head.”

“I would not be a writer if my parents had not defected from Czechoslovakia,” explained Vasicek. “They came from small villages on the outskirts of Brno. I am pretty sure I would have become a machinist. My father was a machinist. I almost became a machinist in Amerika [sic]. What happened instead? Solitude. Isolation. So far removed from family, we felt like outsiders. I felt like a double-outsider. Not only did I not feel like I belonged in Amerika, I felt like I did not quite belong to my family, either. Going away to college at Albany in Upstate New York was also a big boost. There I became who I am. A writer. I remember feeling the change in the summer of 1989.”

As for imparting anything from his Czech roots onto his children, Vasicek says “we speak English at home. My wife is a Croatian-American raised alongside the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I adore their “Americaness” [sic]. My eldest son Radek likes baseball and Batman comic books. He wants to be a filmmaker. My younger son Rafa is an actor. He loves playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild on his Nintendo Switch. I guess I want to impart the “Bohemian” aspect of Czech artists.”

And if there is anything readers should take away from ‘The Defectors’, all Vasicek wants is for readers to “laugh their asses off. Life is absurd. Disturbing. And funny too!” A message that seems oddly fitting for the current times.

The Defectors. Courtesy of J. New Books.

The Defectors is available from J. New Books at www.jnewbooks.com

About the Author

René Georg Vasicek was born in Austria in 1969, the son of Czech defectors. The family moved to Long Island in the United States, where he grew up. Vasicek is currently living in New York City with his wife and two sons, and teaches composition and creative writing.

Vasicek’s work has appeared in Antique Children, Camera Obscura, the Delinquent, Gargoyle, Mid-American Review, Post Road, the Prague Revue, Uncanny Valley, and elsewhere. His essay ‘Get a Grip’ was featured in the 2010 volume of The Best American Essays as a ‘Notable Essay.’

René Georg Vasicek. Photo credit: Maki Hirose.

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