Even the Crows Say Kraków, by James Hopkin
Picador Shots is a clever little idea where Picador publish two short stories in a single back-pocket-sized edition. The book costs around £1.99, and gives you a chance to sample a writer and see if you like them. It’s also something you can easily put in a pocket or drop in a handbag, in case of an emergency need for something to read.
I recently read about James Hopkin, although I forget where. He came recommended for the beauty of his language, and for his evocation of Poland. He’s an English writer, but that’s not where his heart is. When I saw there was a Picador Shots issue of two of his stories I couldn’t resist picking it up to see what they were like.
Even the Crows Say Kraków is a short story that won Hopkin an Arts Council competition – the first Norwich Prize for Literature. It’s accompanied in the Picador Shots edition with another story set in Poland titled Apple Sauce. I liked Apple Sauce much more than I did Even the Crows, so no job on the Arts Council for me I suspect.
Anyway, James Hopkin. Here’s the thing, Hopkin is a poetic writer. I vary in my fondness for that. Dense language I’m comfortable with. I enjoyed for example Milcé’s marvellous Alphabet of the Night. Flowery language I fare less well with. That’s a peculiarity of my tastes, but one that meant I didn’t like the first of these two stories. Others may vary, a lot of people clearly love Hopkin’s prose, so I’m going to try to go into what I think worked and why I didn’t ultimately like it.
The conceit of Even the Crows is of a young woman, “Alina, Alinka (that’s little Alina)” who is flying unseen through the Kraków night sky in a large chair she relaxed into in a coffee shop. She swoops about, among buildings and trees, observing passers-by but not observed by them. Is she actually flying? Is it all her imagination? As Hopkin says, “Do you really need the details?” Not really, no, the point is her mood, her reflections, and more than any of it her city which she is about to leave for Paris.
Hopkin is excellent at describing Kraków, and by far the best part of the story is the evocation of the city itself. There’s a love that shines through the whole thing. We learn of Alina’s failed relationship with a man fond of blue drinks who drinks himself into hallucination, and of her concerns about leaving for a foreign country. We see squares, coffee shops, there are excellent descriptions of waitresses’ uniforms. It all feels surprisingly real given how fantastical it all is.
Stylistically, the language swirls around just as Alina’s chair does. There’s internal repetition, the chant of Alina, Alinka (that’s little Alina) repeating itself throughout and three crows (three times is the charm of course) who act as a corvine chorus to her flight (in both senses).
At times though that language got too much. It worked for me describing the magical atmosphere, and the city itself. Where I was less persuaded was when it was used to describe Alina herself. This quote is an example:
She thought at one point she might have to keep her heart in her purse for safe keeping because her purse had a good strong clasp, and she’d never lost a single grosz, while her heart was threatening to spill its contents, not all of which she was aware of or yet ready to reveal.
Has anyone ever thought such a thing? It’s a novelist’s conceit. A metaphor swamping the reality of a character. I’ve seen that sort of sentence many times in many books, and each time it reminds me that I’m reading a story. Hopkin might not mind that. He’s clear here that this is a story. The whole thing has a feeling of fairy-tale to it, but I found it jarring and I’m afraid overwritten.
There’s a risk of being unfair to Hopkin here. It’s difficult to quote where the story works, because it’s a result of cumulative mood. It’s easy to pick a duff sentence and highlight that. Here’s a quote I think does work even if it’s not quite to my tastes:
A few minutes later, and Alinka sweeps in low down ulica Szewska, and, unseen, drops a coin in the accordionist’s tin. Eyes closed, he nods in gratitude to the clamour of the coin. Down every street a flap of wing like a rug being shook of dust as birds scattered to accomodate Alina. But the accordionist played on. And the man scraping music with a big old saw, well, he played on, dragging his bow across the wobbling blade as if his supper depended on it, and some days it did, and really it wasn’t much like music, more of a windy whine, which Alinka thought might be how the old man sounded inside. He didn’t see her because he was almost blind with cataracts which sat like milk spots on the seats of his eyes, and no one else saw her because they’d never believe that such a feat is possible.
If that spoke to you, and you’re happy with melodies that rush up streets, “making nonsense of the cobbles”, then you’ll likely enjoy this more than I did.
The second tale is more prosaic. A young man, Szlak, has inherited a house from a “long-forgotten” relative. He takes the bus out to the countryside, getting off when he sees a roadside shrine described to him in a letter, finds the house near derelict and along the way reflects a little (he’s not a hugely reflective chap) on his life so far. It’s a compact little story, and again it’s rich with description. I enjoyed it. It had a good feel for place and character. Like Alina, Szlak is a person in transit, but he stays more rooted on the ground.
Here’s the opening of the story:
Drops of rain, as thick as the fat from a frying pan, leak through the slat in the roof. An old man swears and reaches up to close the hatch. As he does so, he loses his balance and bumps into a squat woman made of fruit sacks and yellow teeth and the smell of all things past. The woman screws up her face like a used tea bag, and lets out an almighty curse, the force of which, combined with the collision and the vehicle’s jerky progress, sends her stumbling backwards, her barely assembled bulk landing on the toes of a teenage girl who cracks her heavily applied foundation with a scowl and a burst of expletives. Soon enough, like a foul-mouthed version of Chinese Whispers, the twenty or so people packed in the aisle of the minibus are each cursing the day they were born.
There’s an almost cinematic quality there. It’s intensely visual. There’s still lyricism – an old woman who smells of “all things past”? But here it’s more contained and more focused. The story is in places absurd, but it’s an absurdity I’ve seen before in Eastern European fiction. It’s born of a recognition that life is absurd, and that we just have to make the best we can of it while we’re here.
In the end this wasn’t entirely my sort of book. I found the language at times evocative, but at other times merely distracting. It’s easy to see why some readers are so fond of Hopkin, there is a beauty there and a real sense of place, but it’s prose which makes its presence felt and for me at times a little too much so. All that said, if you enjoy the quotes more than I did then £1.99 is a very reasonable price to try out a new writer and I’m pleased Picador gave me the opportunity to do so.
For the curious, here‘s an article by Hopkin at the Guardian detailing his top ten list of Polish fiction.