Published in Finland in 2012; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on October 7, 2014
The Ice Cream Man won the European Prize for Literature. I assume it is a stunning novel that simply went over my head since I often found myself trying to understand it. Nearly every character seems to be living someone else's life. The novel is a brief generational saga of sorts, beginning shortly after World War II and continuing until shortly after Jan Palach, a Czech student, set fire to himself in 1969 as an act of political protest. That act motivates a character in the novel named Jan Vorszda to buy a jerry can ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The novel begins with a director filming a movie called The Ice Cream Man. He has no script. He tells the actors almost nothing except the names, ages, and nationalities (Czech) of the characters they will be playing. The movie is largely improvised as it is filmed. To an extent, the novel has the same feel, but I assume that is deliberate. Part of the novel's early intrigue is the difficulty of separating what happens in the movie from what "really" happens while sorting out the "true" lives of the actors from the fictional roles they play.
The lead actor and actress take a furtive journey together, pretending to be a married couple. A bridge is blown up, Germans are everywhere, and the travelers are forced to take a room in a boarding house. The man goes away and something eventful happens to him that requires him to be portrayed by another actor. Whether the characters are living their real lives or their shadow lives, whether there is a meaningful difference between the two, is a question they discuss but do not resolve.
The story that the director films is, he claims, so common that people identify with it, particularly women who see themselves as the woman in the film. One such woman is, according to the director, part of a "shadow theater." Whether the woman is a shadow of a character in the film or whether the film is a shadow of real life is never quite clear. Thus we have actors playing the roles of characters who are playing invented roles, and in one case an actor being replaced by a different actor, raising all sorts of identity questions that would probably be profound and meaningful if I understood the point.
Later (and abruptly) the story shifts to a young man named Jan whose mother once took him to see The Ice Cream Man, a movie that he barely recalls and that relates to his father in a way he does not understand (although the reader does, eventually). The student is self-absorbed, rude, and dull. He's apparently a political dissident although he's more of a nothing. He eventually makes his way to Sweden where he becomes the plaything of a group of young women who like the fact that he's from Prague. Jan Vorszda evidently identifies with Jan Palach in another of the novel's many confusions of identity. His daughter completes the circle by visiting Poland, where she pretends to be the woman whose former apartment she is occupying.
The accolades for this prize-winning story call it "playful and charming." I thought it was puzzling and obscure. It isn't dull and it has the virtue of brevity. The prose is commendable. The Ice Cream Man might appeal to a more intellectually gifted reader. I just didn't get it.