Ghosts of Ghosts: Reading The Combinations by Louis Armand — Cal Revely-Calder

‘Perhaps,’ suggests the hero of Louis Armand’s The Combinations, ‘when you stare long enough a crack in the wall is just a mirror.’ Is this some kind of bizarre riddle, or a quip about psychosis? Whatever the joke is, it’s cock-eyed, knowing, deliberately obnoxious but still looking for a laugh. Such an opaque manoeuvre, like a snub to convention by someone who’s mastered it long before, is the stuff on which The Combinations thrives. The latest novel by Armand, a writer and theorist based in Prague, it sits fat and square at eight hundred and eighty-eight pages, divided into eight sections of eight chapters each. The mathematical precision might sound alarms for those wary of avant-garde gimmicks, but it shouldn’t take many of Armand’s readers by surprise, since neither he nor Equus Press have ever been shrinking violets about what his novels aspire to do. ‘Equus’ is an abbreviated form of ‘Écriture en quête d’usage’, and the Press (they themselves declare) stands ‘outside the literary establishment defined by the Anglo-American publishing industry, & outside the confines of nationalism, pursuing a broadly cosmopolitan “agenda”’. And that’s a statement that sounds retiring next to The Combinations’ press notes:

Louis Armand’s The Combinations is an unprecedented ‘work of attempted fiction’ that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. ‘Golem City’), across the 20th-century and before/after. Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and-one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. The Combinations is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.

There’s true ambition in trying to ride the big loop (all of Prague, all of history) and the small one (a single lost soul) at one and the same time. Even before opening a page of the novel, you have a warning pressed into your hand, a challenge to take its dreams seriously – whether or not you’re disarmed by its humour as well.

With all this formal symmetry flaunting its curves, when matters get under way there’s little attention left for any intricacies of plot. The Combinations is not a novel which cares to keep much of an end in view. Němec is our protagonist, a grubby youngish man of dubious health – physical and mental – and he’s averse to plot as well, probably because plot would give him a line by which to live. He avoids most things that might give his life direction. Instead, he scratches around the booze and grime of central Prague; he wallows in reveries, dreams and drunkenness; in more sober moments, he becomes absorbed in the perennial shadow-present of the unsolved ‘Voynich manuscript’. Unearthed in 1912 by the art-dealer Wilfrid Voynich, this fifteenth-century codex is illustrated with drawings of plants and weird nymphs, and written in a peculiar script which remains undeciphered today. (Last year’s facsimile edition from Yale University Press can testify to its hold over scholars as well as novelists.) The impenetrability of the manuscript has accrued a mass of rumours, suppositions, deranged beliefs, over which The Combinations ranges with glee and at considerable length. Is it encrypted in code, and is that code unbreakable? Was it written by Roger Bacon, or Athanasius Kircher? (Would its contents even be interesting? Is it just a fraud by Voynich?) The thrill of the chase might be the heart of another, simpler novel – even Dan Brown can squeeze plots from cryptography – but The Combinations hasn’t got a heart, not a human one, rather something paranoid and mechanical. The mystery is never likely to be solved, not in Armand’s world – it’s more likely to crack its pursuer. Like the manuscript, a mystery both hypnotic and faintly silly,

Němec’s world is one where sense comes and goes, fragmentarily. His quest has something of the screwball about it, leading him from library to nightmare to mad old professor, but in the end it takes so long, and becomes so tedious, that he ends up hoping it might be ‘a scam gone wrong’. Possibly it is. You can define a scam by how much time it wastes.

Armand’s talent in his best works so far – Cairo (2014), Canicule (2013), Breakfast at Midnight (2012) – lay in his ear for snappy phrases, for the dash of vivid image framed neatly in rhythm. There are instances of this in The Combinations too – ‘agents of mindfuck paranoias, agents of entropy’; ‘the circle closed, so to speak, & in closing, opened’ – but the novel prefers to exult in its sprawl. It’s the longer, baggier, sickeningly rich sentences that capture the spool of Němec’s mind:

Němec did his best to envision echoes of machined angelspeak blown by cosmic winds, of agonies & bewailings, fall of Babel, toppling stone & shattered etceteras, Nimrod’s gibberish. But to no effect: the words on the page looked simply like the shrieks of an inmate in a nuthouse. Convulsive xenoglossings of the pentecostally brainbaked.

At times we know it’s him talking; at others it’s someone else, one (or more) narrative voice(s); they all become entangled with the flow. The distinctions between Němec and Prague are never clear, as if he were only a blemish on its skin. Armand’s writing loosens and contracts according to circumstance, weather, smell of drink, time of day. A whole page is consumed by one footnote. The text of a novel becomes the type of a script, the script of a hand, the pictures of a comic-strip. Němec appears in the same places twice, toppling repeatedly into dive-bars or cabarets. Unfolding slowly and disdaining its notional plot, The Combinations comes to read like a distended roundelay. This is the novel as both dance and farce. Sixty-four chapters, plus an overture, and an intermission, and a coda – each ‘an image from a film, but you can’t remember which one’.

Kingsley Amis once distinguished two phases of the morning after: the ‘physical hangover’ and the ‘metaphysical’ one. They’re to be tackled in that order: you can flush a headache out, but regrets and memories may prove more elusive. Armand’s narrators are usually lushes, too, and they keep drinking themselves out of clock-time, making narrative from their delirium. The acme was Hess in Canicule, a ‘down-on-his-luck screenwriter’ marooned on the beach at Collioure. He drinks with psychotic dedication, trying to escape idleness while his more talented wife Louise writes a monograph on a Fauvist painter. In the daily heatwave of the title, the couple convene from time to time, so that Louise can eat salad and Hess can fumble for his second bottle of the day.

Then it was Hess’s turn to talk and straightaway he began to ramble. In his mind their conversation took on a completely surreal quality. He was no longer sure of who was speaking. Someone beside or behind him seemed to put the words in his mouth. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy. But the things they conveyed were entirely in his head. When he looked around, nothing out there seemed quite as real.

It’s characteristic of Armand’s novels not to treat a character as a diminished human being – a person acting shamefully like an animal – but as a material creature who’s suddenly gained a frightening insight into the world. Armand’s figments are little better than puppets, and the reader is seated up in the gods; we watch them impersonate humanity with a failure that’s partly touching and partly grotesque. In The Combinations, too, when Němec puts down his glass long enough to walk, it’s a shambling, Keatonesque spectacle. He moves through the streets like a bundle of limbs, flailing towards the end of a quest he barely understands.

Just past the riverclock the bent lanky figure in dusty bowler hat & suit boarded a Braník-bound tram. It shuddered & swerved along the quays, past the steel rail-bridge… The lone rider disembarking. Then down to the river on his own legs, a dirt path half sluiced away, a wooden bench to watch the ducks drifting by, empty the mind of its arcane dross – the air less suffocating here but still not exactly what you’d call breathable.

At moments like this, he’s described with detachment, as if he were being moved through a videogame cut-scene. There’s often a special kind of clumsiness to Němec; we’re shown an autonomous being, but in a portrait which makes the body’s design, its need to be controlled, visible in the lurch of its movements.

Armand has long been enthralled by that picture, where the autarchy of a soul is jettisoned for wires connecting it to systems, networks of thought, distributed intelligence, agents as fronts for something invisible and dark.

In 2005, he referred to the Internet as ‘a multi-user system with a radically decentred structure’. Intelligence appears like a symptom, read out of a mechanised process. Forget the individual subject of analogue reality – Němec might not be a man at all, but just an output of The Combinations, a complex program, a thinking machine testing itself against itself.

Cairo was the novel in which Armand took these wires and made them the fabric of a world. It scripted all systems, social and technological, as if they were aborted objectives. ‘Welcome to CAIRO,’ says the blurb, ‘where the future’s just a game and you’re already dead.’ (Echoes of Nick Land’s seminal ‘Meltdown’, from 1994: ‘Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to Level 2?’) Throughout the frantic story, every cliché of gamer aesthetics – dystopia, cyberwar, shootouts, assassins – is played at amphetamine speed, woven through a plot that multiplies in tangles like a conspiracy. The ensemble cast of freaks and agents intersect like ‘ghosts raving at one another through the ether’, their stories connected more by ‘cybernetic voodoo’ than any linear arc. And in The Combinations, Němec seems like the same kind of digital spectre. The reader follows him as if watching a failed film noir – and cinema has long been Armand’s favoured metaphor – but the mode of the narrative, its intangible texture, changes genre whenever Němec stops to rest, or waits, or crumples up in pain. In these little moments of stasis, the novel feels distinctly haunted by a third invisible presence; it’s as if someone, or something, were operating him at the end of a wire. Suddenly he seems emptier, a well-made avatar or fetch, engaging our fears with uncanny intimacy. (The phrase ‘spooky action at a distance’ appears three times in close succession: a failed metaphor for physics, a telling one for games.) At one point he lingers on the steps a moment:

Němec stood there with the rain thudding onto his bowler hat. The thudding grew heavier, then after a while it virtually stopped. … Ever since the night the Prof’s ghost first appeared, the night of “the Fall”, Němec had felt he was passing through the word without really touching it – a world that’d narrowed, a world standing still.

From the moment of that ‘Fall’, the ghostly appearance which opens the novel, he’s been sliding through the map of Prague as if the city were only ‘virtually’ real itself.

Who might be in hidden control, however, is as difficult for him to tell as it is for us, and it becomes an unspoken obsession of The Combinations. From time to time, we listen hard enough, and hear audible voices upon the air. These emanate from a standard Armandian prop, the radio, and they sound like the ‘numbers stations’ whose broadcasts instructed Cold War spies. For instance, take the scene where Němec drops in on old Mrs Severínová, and finds her rapt in the radio’s music:

Němec coughed to get Mrs Severínová’s attention. She looked up at him in a kind of wonderment, as if his presence made no sense to her. He opened his mouth to speak but the old lady raised a finger to her lips & cocked her head. Just then a child’s voice interrupted the music & spoke above a rasping low-frequency buzz:

‘Achtung! Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Achtung!’

Coursing through the air of Prague, these numbers come to haunt Němec’s movements. They ebb in and out of comprehension, fuzzing into the background as soon as heard. Ambient interference rises from nothing and vanishes again: the evanescent coming back. Whenever he turns a corner and stumbles upon a radio-set, voices begin to speak from what’s repeatedly called ‘the ether’. He shrugs off this particular encounter, letting Severínová tap her fingers ‘morselike’, ‘as if hypnotised’; but as he hurries through the shadows a few days later, those phrases will echo in his head unwanted.

Feet wet, shoe soles worn through. It’s cold, it’ll grow colder. He could feel the steel pins in his knee – a creaking of the joints like a rusty gate – bits of metal in his head tuning into the frequencies, numbers on the ether. Achtung! Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Achtung!

The activities of the radio come, in Armand’s novels, as intrusions from another world. Its sounds break into Němec’s internal monologue, distracting him the way human voices rarely can; they take hold of his attention and imprint upon it, refusing to die away. The presence of these clips is a mystery we’re not sure we’d want to solve. Most of the known numbers stations were discovered by amateurs during the Cold War; they were tuning through the airwaves when, by a quirk of timing and bandwidth, they stumbled on something they shouldn’t have been hearing. The broadcasts carry an aura of the purgatorial, of a limbo that was meant to stay closed. Often the voices sound like children, though they only exist as machines.

The radio-sets of The Combinations are cursed objects. They’re capable of playing their amiable trash while occupying space like a Kubrick monolith. They hide in plain sight, in bar corners and on kitchen shelves. Each one verges upon becoming the instrument it is for Cocteau’s Orphée, relaying numbers from somewhere unknown and fatal.

(Armand hints obliquely at this in a long footnoted digression: Orpheus is said to lose Eurydice when he feels ‘the impulse to peep over his shoulder… as if someone’s sending out radio signals controlling his mind’.) Like Cairo and its predecessors, The Combinations operates by multiplication; its incidents and details build up across each other with an obsessive collective drive, producing moments you half-remember and have only ever half-seen:

The night was wearing on without getting anywhere. Some part of the mechanism was missing, some obvious piece of the puzzle. Like a conversation with whole sentences left out, excised, undreamt, forgotten, that no amount of reason could restore into a meaningful dialogue. You joined the fragments & what you ended up with was interference all down the line, a picture with no sides, mists of whitenoise scored across with ravines of static, unmappable, a coagulation of dissolved forms in place of any thing.

The novel is tuned into what Cairo heard as ‘the faint crackle of a radio set to no frequency’, what Canicule transcribed as ‘words spiralling in their own noise’. Armand’s ‘ravines of static’ could be broadcast from Silent Hill: out of the static come voices, calling and warning and mocking, and you keep sensing, with fear, that they know more than the protagonists they obscurely seem to condemn. Approaching a radio-set, whether one ‘antique’ or one ‘portable’, all the hissing that Němec hears has the print of sinister times and places. He interprets it both as ‘Godspeak’ and as ‘randomness’; his thoughts grow more and more ‘spekulative, konspiratorial, downright fantastik’.

In these moments of absorption, the same could be said of Němec as was previously said of Hess: ‘Already a wreck, he became a ghost.’ In the middle of The Combinations is an ‘Intermission’, during which someone called Jan Němec is interviewed by a writer from Unsightly Cinema. This Němec has made a film called The Combine, ‘an extended essay on the status of the individual in modern society’. It revolves around a protagonist who oddly lacks a name. According to Němec, the crew didn’t like calling this figure ‘Mr. Nobody’, so they named him ‘Němec’ too, as ‘a kind of joke’. Since this ‘Němec’ shares his name with the man we follow through the novel, The Combinations may be a textual incarnation of The Combine, or vice-versa; the ‘Němec’ on screen is certainly as opaque as the Němec in print, not quite a character but more a half-formed thing who only deserves the limbo of the director’s quote-marks:

To begin with, it’s possibly misleading to speak about a central “character” in this film. … If this “character” had existed, been a real person, in flesh & blood, he might’ve visited a spiritualist, held a séance, communed with the spirit – only he doesn’t, he’s just a “character”, borrowed, by the way, from a nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright. A kind of ghost, therefore, or a ghost of a ghost.

The ‘Norwegian’ hint may check out, but either way it’s covering the obvious link to Jan Němec, the Czech New Wave director, whose Oratorio for Prague captured the Warsaw Pact invasion, and who was made unwelcome in Prague soon thereafter. What’s happening in this ‘Intermission’, then, could be his fictionalisation in the character ‘Jan Němec’, or the cinematic ‘Němec’, or Němec the novel’s protagonist – it’s unclear how you’d pin any one of these relations down, how you’d tell which way round the influence flows. Names have become replaceable labels; the virtual and the real trade their signifiers back and forth.

And signification, in The Combinations, is a storehouse that functions less like a well than a bottomless pit. Němec itself means ‘German’, but also encases ‘němě’ (‘speechlessly’), and thus sits mere inches from ‘němé filmy’, the ‘silent films’ that Armand’s novels aspire to be. Print always gives us a world without sound, so that we dream up scenes in our heads, set them to noises we’re told to imagine; preoccupied with images, frames, and reels, The Combinations dwells upon its nature as Cairo and Canicule did before it. Němec himself – meaning the central character of the novel – is the most insubstantial of Armand’s protagonists to date, flickering on the page and slipping out of range again. He appears under contradictory signs: a Czech ‘German’, a ghost with no soul, whose unheimlichkeit is at home only when moving, through Prague, prák, ‘threshold’. He’s ‘somehow unreal’, a “character” who both ‘somehow’ fails at reality and ‘somehow’ inheres in its negation. Jan Němec describes ‘Němec’ in The Combine as a virtual being, too. Like his creator, he’s ‘obsessed with films’, not specific movies but ‘film as such’:

The problem confronting “Němec” is that he can’t picture himself outside a film – so the question he asks himself in each situation is, What type of film am I in? Is it this type of film or that type of film?

The ‘Intermission’ ends, The Combinations goes on. But later in the story surrounding this interview, a one-line paragraph pauses to wonder – like no-one had thought it before – ‘What film was Němec stuck inside this time?’

Armand has designed a world where finitude is just another process, able to be paused, ended and started again. Němec may seem an unusual character, not quite up to being a person, but then The Combinations enjoys bringing material things to life and letting them sputter out. In a section from the thirty-ninth chapter titled ‘Celluloid Dolls’, we follow him underground into the Kabaret Grünegast, and wait for the enigmatic actress Alice Steinerová to appear on stage. In the meantime, Miss ‘Ruby Ray’ is up there, a singer with a voice that ‘well[s] up slowly from some dark place’. The performance becomes eerie; Němec becomes absorbed.

While Ruby Ray sang, a pair of celluloid dolls on a chintzdraped Turkish sofa were wheeled on stage by figures in blackface. The dolls were arranged sidebyside, crossdressed: a man’s pointed face above a black satin gown, a woman’s blonde curls fringing an SS uniform.

As frequently happens to names and labels throughout the novel, the letters ‘SS’ are replaced on the page by an icon, the esoteric runes that form the SS logo. The surfaces of things are torn off and pasted into Armand’s text, making it a scrapbook of curiosities; it parades artificiality and stylisation over the drabness of plain old print. Němec is fascinated by this fascism too, stock-still as the narrative drives ahead:

The band blew harder. As the tempo increased, the dolls suddenly came alive under the hands of the sinister blackfaces, jerking in unison in a spastic, repetitive, masochistic labour – their silhouettes like caged animals in a zoo. While this was in progress, Ruby Ray dissolved into the shadows like an apparition.

The dolls come alive; the human dissolves. The Combinations is a novel that plays its games on the threshold between beings and things: ‘discontinuities’ accumulate ‘like celluloid’, dead actors are immortalised ‘in celluloid’, Klement Gottwald falsifies history by manipulating ‘unspooled celluloid’ and cutting rivals out of the picture. Celluloid was used in the early twentieth century not only for making film-stock, but as a substitute material for inexpensive trinkets. In the shape of cheap and glossy dolls, it promised to immortalise life in plastic – but it was superseded within decades, being prone (notoriously) to fire, and then (either way) to slow decomposition. And whenever the word ‘celluloid’ appears, The Combinations, too, shows itself to be made of corruptible stuff. The motif is cut-and-pasted from a previous novel by Armand: anticipating the retrospection to Gottwald, Canicule had talked of ‘history’s revenants’ being ‘like blackened celluloid dolls’. It’s a material haunted by its future. Soon the Kabaret dolls, jerking about in front of Němec, are dropped and whisked off-stage like traitors excised from a photograph:

If there was any point to the performance, Němec was at a loss to guess what it was. Then the music went down & the stage went dark again. The band sat back for the next take while the dolls got wheeled around to the wings.

The hero himself, often described as a puppet, marionette, or pseudo-human, is yet to understand that all created things can die with the living.

It’s when that transience has room to glint, in all the novel’s peculiar obsessions, that the relentless experiments of The Combinations briefly become absorbing.

When something about Němec’s twin lives, as a person and as a thing, are brought vividly into their irreconcilable doubleness, Armand’s novel touches on something rich and philosophical.

Prague briefly seems a world unto itself, glimpsed like a revelation, as if we’re given a window into the vast new horizon of a simulation or a game. The vistas of this novel could never be a fantasy, because the rain is incessant, and Němec’s vices are too, so that his repetitions and reboots happen not as purifications but as hangovers, sicknesses, regretted days and blackout nights. But even as his world glitches and repeats, like the ‘multi-user system’ that describes The Combinations as neatly as it does the Internet, there are flashes of beauty in among the grimness of the city. Riding on a tram one afternoon, Němec looks up at the heavens, and sees the clouds beginning to build:

As the day progressed, the weather closed in: discontinuities accumulating like celluloid, voiceovers, ghosts in the machine, faces on sidewalks, on shop windows, cars, framed in grey light, in rain, in silhouette. A thousand doppelgängers, rubber masks, identikit mugshots with eyes blacked-out, crossed-out, scraped-out, billboard faces selling untold visions of future paradise, prostitutes in suits, in fancy dress costume, in uniform always with a product to see.

As the narrative marvels, this is ‘like some future war zone in a movie about a past no-one could remember, & that no-one would ever make’. It’s a virtuoso cascade of images, cut rapidly from shot to shot, with a lively mess of the documentary (‘framed in grey light’) and the human touch (‘untold visions of future paradise’). Then the sequence is over; the paragraph ends. The next begins as ‘a continuous tracking shot’. The cinematography has changed, its experiment done, and the tram carries Němec away.

Louis Armand is a writer and visual artist who has lived in Prague since 1994. He has worked as an editor and publisher, and as a subtitles technician at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and is an editor of VLAK magazine. He is the author of eight novels, including Breakfast at Midnight in 2012, “a perfect modern noir, presenting Kafka’s Prague as a bleak, monochrome singularity of darkness, despair and edgy, dry existentialist hardboil” (Richard Marshall, 3:AM) and Cairo (2014; short listed for the Guardian newspaper’s Not-the-Booker Prize)). Described as “Robert Pinget does Canetti (in drag in Yugoslavia),” Armand’s third novel Clair Obscur was published by Equus in 2011. His previous novel, Menudo (Antigen), was hailed as “unrelenting, a flying wedge, an encyclopaedia of the wasteland, an uzi assault pumping desolation lead… inspiring!” (Thor Garcia, author of The News Clown).

Cal Revely-Calder lives outside London. He is a contributing editor at the Cambridge Humanities Review, and his writing (critical and creative) has also appeared in The Guardian, Literary Review, 3:AM, Prac Crit, and Blackbox Manifold.

The Combinations is published by Equus Press. Author bio courtesy of the same.