Parasol against the Axe 
by Helen Oyeyemi.
Faber, 256 pp., £16.99, February, 978 0 571 36662 0
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Helen Oyeyemi’s​ latest novel, Parasol against the Axe, opens with a playful monologue from its narrator, the city of Prague. Prague has recently found its way – ‘who knows how’ – into a WhatsApp group ‘set up as a safe space for sharing complaints about the capital city of Czechia’. ‘Some of the incidents referred to had taken place many years ago,’ it explains. ‘Apparently quite a few of them had happened to the narrator’s grandparents.’ The voice is droll, its formality offset by the occasional vernacular quirk. Prague claims to be ‘sorry for every bad thing that happened’, but it isn’t, not really, and in the apologia that follows, it emerges as a sly, impish figure: ‘COME ON, KIDS … Don’t go to the city and then get all scandalised by city life. I’m not even one of the grander metropolises!’ Prague thinks it’s ‘all right for a city to pull a leg or two when the mood is upon it’ and it has a story to tell.

The story in question begins with the arrival of Hero Tojosoa, a forty-something translator and former journalist who lives in Dublin with her teenage son. Hero has come to Prague for the hen weekend of an old friend called Sofie, but we soon learn that she has other reasons for making the trip. A letter has been ‘hounding’ her around Dublin. ‘I couldn’t prevent the writing of that fucking letter,’ she confides to a man at a bar. ‘But that doesn’t mean I have to read it.’ For now the contents of the letter and the identity of its author remain mysterious, but other parts of Hero’s backstory begin to be filled in. She and Sofie had once been part of an inseparable trio with a third woman, Dorothea Gilmartin (who often goes by Thea), but the friends have grown apart over time. Thea is also invited to the party, but sends her regrets. When she then shows up in Prague unannounced, it catches everybody off guard.

Thea was born in Prague but emigrated to the US with her father at the age of three, leaving behind her mother, Dagmar. In the years that followed, Dagmar wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books about a young girl who bore Thea’s likeness and birth name. Thea was ridiculed by classmates who sang catchphrases from the animated TV adaptation – ‘Don’t thank me – thank Progress! It’s UNSTOPPABLE.’ She later changed her name to Dorothea to distance herself from the character in her mother’s books. (Her birth name is never disclosed in the novel.) Dagmar killed herself when Thea was twelve, a few months before the Velvet Revolution. One might assume that Thea has returned to Prague to visit her childhood home and her mother’s grave, but the narrator tells us she ‘was here for work, not for a trip down false-memory lane’. The nature of this work initially goes unexplained, but references to a ‘client’ and a ‘conflict of interest’ suggest there’s something nefarious going on.

The hen weekend – cocktails, brunch and something called ‘Beauty Day’ – is what brings the characters to Prague, but it’s not the focus of the novel. Most of the action concerns Hero and Thea. The novel’s realism, already stretched thin, begins to come apart when Hero skips the cocktails and heads out on an evening walk. She gets lost and pays an abrasive woman who has been following her to transport her back to her hotel in a wheelbarrow. That same night Hero hears her own disembodied voice speaking Czech (a language she doesn’t know), meets an ‘autumnal man’ who worries he’s the Golem, and discovers, while standing before the same man, that for a brief moment she isn’t wearing any clothes. Meanwhile, Thea comes across a ‘furry black colossus’, eight or nine feet tall, with a ‘round red nose and a three-tuft antenna atop the head’, lumbering towards her with its paw outstretched. It’s Krtek (or someone dressed as Krtek), the mole from a popular Czech cartoon.

Oyeyemi’s surrealism is breezy; there’s no sense of malign agency here. Hero explains the strange events by telling herself that ‘being joggled around in a wheelbarrow’ sent her into a trance. Thea, who had ventured out that evening looking for a one-night stand, tries unsuccessfully to seduce Krtek. The tone remains lively and arch, the scenes punctuated with bizarre details. After some very odd exchanges with Thea, the mole slips from the body of its fur costume, revealing a woman in ‘perfect nakedness’ who embarks on a ‘plant-watering parade’, urinating in a series of vegetable patches. ‘There’s a drought on,’ she says, still wearing the mole head.

The enigmatic image of the novel’s title takes on significance as its main characters are revealed to have contrasting personalities. Hero is aloof, with a ‘tendency towards non-reaction’. (‘It’s possible to liken her most frequent facial expression to the “read” receipt that kills a conversational thread, or to a thumbs-up emoji sent in response to a confession of love.’) Thea, on the other hand, is ‘treacherously receptive’. (‘The general first impression of Thea would be that of a Bearer of Glad Tidings.’) Hero is on the run, avoiding some sort of conflict, whereas Thea is careering towards a confrontation. But when it’s Hero that the narrator likens to the axe (an object that confronts) and Thea to the parasol (one that deflects), the comparison seems the wrong way around, and the image becomes puzzling once more. ‘Really both were both,’ the narrator observes.

The novel’s central crisis unfolds when Thea, ‘crashing the party she’d been invited to’, turns up at a spa and comes face to face with Hero and Sofie. By this point we’ve worked out that the three women were once vigilantes for hire, an ensemble operating under the name Florizel. After it disbanded, only Thea carried on living by ‘the rules of the life they wanted’. It transpires that a woman called Emma Barber has hired Thea to travel to Prague and exact revenge on Sofie and Hero for some online sex work they did years before. (Barber’s ex-husband was one of their clients.) There’s an eventual confrontation involving an injury inflicted with a broken beer bottle. But the showdown feels inert and lacks complexity, partly because Sofie and Hero’s culpability hinges on a retrograde idea of sex work as morally injurious.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Prague isn’t merely the narrator. It’s also a host of characters within the story, a shapeshifting spirit inhabiting different forms: the woman with the wheelbarrow, the ‘autumnal man’ and the cartoon mole, among others. These characters have been granted an unusual degree of agency. The morning after her ‘trance’, Hero is confused to find, tacked to her door, a certificate announcing her marriage that day to a man she’s never heard of, at a church she’s never been to. But when, later that night, Hero does in fact get married – to the same man, at the same church – in a ceremony whose guests include animate statues and a Latin-speaking woman with two goats, we understand that this was in some sense ordained. (The marriage dissolves the next morning.)

Prague also seems to be responsible for a book called Paradoxical Undressing, which Hero, Thea and others read during their visit. The text changes on each reading, so that no two encounters with the book are the same. Oyeyemi interleaves excerpts from several versions of the text, eccentric tales set in different eras of Prague’s history. The first time Hero picks it up, she reads about a second-hand bookshop whose stone walls expel scraps of 16th-century parchment, bits of letters exchanged within a love triangle at the court of Rudolf II. On Thea’s second read, the book tells the story of a woman known as ‘the Uglifier’ who surreptitiously cuts the hair of passengers on city buses and trams to feed the silkworms in her care. Reading, in Parasol against the Axe, isn’t a private affair, and in numerous comic scenes, characters – Hero’s ex, a local librarian, a handful of people at the wedding ceremony – try to discuss the book but are stymied by the discrepancies in their recollections. The author of Paradoxical Undressing is supposedly a man called Merlin Mwenda; his name appears to be an allusion to Merlin the magician, who, via Apollinaire’s poems, became a prototype for many sorcerers in modern Czech literature.

Parasol against the Axe is Oyeyemi’s eighth novel. Her first, The Icarus Girl (2005), was published when she was twenty and told the story of a precocious, troubled eight-year-old girl and a vindictive magic friend she conjures into being. In subsequent books she sustained her fascination with myth, folklore and fairy tales: Santería deities in The Opposite House (2007); haunted houses in White Is for Witching (2009); Bluebeard in Mr Fox (2011). Oyeyemi’s fiction is an amalgam of the quotidian and the fantastic, and her narratives often centre on Black or mixed-race girls and women. (Oyeyemi is British Nigerian.) Critics have tried to map the themes of her fiction onto broader social and political issues. Boy, Snow, Bird (2014), a reimagining of ‘Snow White’, was called ‘an allegory of race in America’; Gingerbread (2019), which borrows elements from ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a critique of ‘Brexit … and the idea of a singular national identity’. In interviews Oyeyemi has rejected such readings, instead emphasising her preoccupation with voice and character: ‘When I feel I have a story to tell, I just do my best to tell it in a way that it should be told.’ Peaces (2021), about two lovers, Otto and Xavier, their pet mongoose, and the journey they take on a chimerical train called the Lucky Day, reads like a book whose author has grown tired of explaining that her stories aren’t emblematic of anything: they’re just stories.

The introduction of the weird or phantasmagoric into contemporary realist fiction often serves to externalise serious or sinister phenomena (capitalism, surveillance culture, authoritarian governments) or a character’s unconscious mind. But Oyeyemi’s forays into the strange are mostly literal, as if she’s contending that the distinctions we make between the real and the unreal are often illusory; that all cities, as the narrator of Parasol against the Axe insists, ‘incorporate some degree of optical illusion’. The setting of the novel isn’t arbitrary: there’s a rich tradition of literature in which Prague figures as home to the surreal and the esoteric. Much of this has been written by authors born elsewhere, part of a body of work that Oyeyemi has called Pragensia: ‘basically people who have come to Prague and have just been stunned and dazzled and have just tried to figure out what this place is’. She herself has lived in Prague since 2013 and Parasol against the Axe both belongs to this tradition and gestures towards the many books that provide its source material: Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, Angelo Maria Ripellino’s Magic Prague, Vítězslav Nezval’s Prague with Fingers of Rain. There are also references in the novel to other Prague-related works: the name of the vigilante group Florizel comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, whose three stories feature Prince Florizel of Bohemia, a character borrowed, in turn, from The Winter’s Tale.

Prague is a place where reality becomes fiction, and fiction reality. But Oyeyemi’s allusions do little to deepen our understanding of Parasol against the Axe. At one point we learn that Thea has visited the Klementinum library sixteen times to read Borges’s ‘The Secret Miracle’. It’s not surprising that Oyeyemi would be invested in Borges’s story; it’s set in Prague during the Nazi occupation; it’s partly about authorship (the protagonist is a Jewish writer who, on the brink of execution, longs to complete an unfinished work); and it contains the observation that ‘irreality’ is ‘one of art’s requisites’ (an idea that Oyeyemi has cited as important to her own fiction). What’s less clear is why Thea is so consumed by this particular work – or how she’s managed to visit the library sixteen times when she’s been in the city less than 24 hours.

Oyeyemi frequently returns to questions about where meaning originates, about our differing accounts of the same event, the same text. The delirious scenes she describes are generated not from within the novel but from outside it, a reminder of her own role as a kind of Merlin figure. Over brunch a man called Dominik describes a play he wrote after visiting Prague in the early 2000s (more Pragensia). It was based on a conversation he’d taken part in at a picnic, where other guests had shared their accounts of the city’s flooding in 2002. As Dominik began to shape his recollections of these exchanges, he stopped himself – the stories weren’t his. Did he have the right to tell them? Seeking permission from his interlocutors,

he phoned them, one by one, asking for their blessing while expecting to receive an injunction on making a play out of things that had happened to them. He still could not understand – none of them could – how it was that none of the things he’d written down bore any resemblance to what the picnickers remembered telling him. Over and over again he was told, Those aren’t my memories.

So memory distorts. We’ve already heard something similar from Thea, who ‘mistrusts … memory itself’. She doesn’t accept the story her father tells about her mother’s suicide – that Dagmar was a satirist with the ingenuity to work in plain sight; that she killed herself before the state got to her. It’s not that Thea thinks her father is a liar. Rather, she recognises that there are ‘parts of the past we latch on to and stretch further to cover up other parts we ignored or were otherwise unable to take in’.

What are the implications of this? That stories are dangerous? Oyeyemi seems to think they can be. Thea becomes a villain because her identity – her story – was robbed from her by her mother. After the publication of Hero’s only book, Faiblesse, two of its subjects killed themselves. One of them, a man called Gaspar, turns out to be the author of the letter to Hero, which he wrote shortly before he died. Moral ambiguity, Oyeyemi suggests, haunts the creation of narratives about other people, even when the creator sets out with good intentions. Other weighty themes hover in the background: one character makes a disclosure about child sex abuse; another appears to be the product of brother-sister incest. One of the excerpts from Paradoxical Undressing is about Leah, a young Jewish woman working as a dancer for hire during the Nazi occupation. Yet in a novel as crowded as this, serious subjects get fleeting treatment; they chafe against the book’s absurdist aspects and predominantly whimsical mood. A scene in which Leah finds her house being looted by ‘a small gaggle of people’ takes a glib turn toward pedantry: ‘“So, five, six people?” Leah’s mother … would have asked. Family-wide consensus decreed that there were nine to a gaggle.’

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