BOOK REVIEW: The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

The Prague OrgyThe Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is sold independently, but is also included with “Zuckerman Bound,” a collected trilogy of books written by Philip Roth that includes: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” and “The Anatomy Lesson.” These books center on a fictional character, Nathan Zuckerman, who is a novelist bearing some resemblance to Roth, himself. The trilogy is from the early / mid 1980’s and “The Prague Orgy” functions as an epilogue to the series, although there’s no problem reading it as a standalone story.

In this short and simple tale, Zuckerman meets with an exiled Czech novelist, Sisovsky, in New York. While they are conversing, Sisovsky mentions that his father wrote a series of stories in Yiddish. Zuckerman becomes intrigued by these stories, especially as Sisovsky suggests they are better than anything Sisovsky, himself, has written. When Zuckerman asks about the whereabouts of the stories and why Sisovsky hasn’t had them published, the latter tells him that they are with his ex-wife in Prague. Sisovsky suggests that Zuckerman could probably talk this ex-wife, Olga, into giving up the manuscripts.

Zuckerman goes to Prague to speak with Olga. As Sisovsky suggested, Olga is a bit of a nymphomaniac, and immediately proceeds to try to get busy with Zuckerman. She is also interested in a more official relationship so that she can cross the Iron Curtain. The bulk of the story revolves around Zuckerman trying to fend off advances and get his hands on the manuscripts so that he can bring them back to be published before they – like so many stories of Central European Jews – are lost forever.

Being set in Cold War Central Europe, communist paranoia and spying play a major role, and – apropos of its Prague setting – this takes a form reminiscent of that seen in the works of Kafka (there is a sense of looming danger, but one isn’t quite sure how seriously one should take it.) In its most direct interpretation, the title reflects the idea that one has a bohemian artistic crowd who have nothing to do but engage in sexual hedonism in Prague because they can’t express themselves openly under a Communist regime – i.e. sexual promiscuity is the only outlet to be shocking that’s allowed.

This is was an amusing and compelling read, and I’d recommend it for fiction readers — particularly if one has an interest in Cold War fiction.

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