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Krakow Melt (Arsenal Pulp Press), by Daniel Allen Cox, follows the life of Radek, a Polish artist whose struggle against homophobia throughout the novel descends like a vector into destruction and pyromania. The book opens in Nowa Huta, a suburb outside Krakow, Poland.
It’s 2005, a year after the country has been brought under the fold of the European Union. Poland finds itself grappling with a fledgling queer rights movement on the one hand, and the death of Pope John Paul II—which ignites a homophobic backlash—on the other. The strain threatens to tear society apart.
Radek is a bisexual man whose sculptures betray an obsession with fire. He spends his days creating scale models of cities that, in the past, have succumbed to the ravages of urban blaze: Chicago in 1871, San Francisco in 1906, and London in 1666. “Fire belongs to everyone,” the narrator asserts. He believes that society can be cleansed of its hatred. “It’s an act of violence, sure, but also of creation… the only way to grow is to lose what’s precious.”
At a gallery, Radek meets Dorota, a wet-behind-the-ears arsonist who develops a hard crush on him. Together, they haunt the city’s cemeteries at night, crafting messages of solidarity out of candles in the hopes that someone will read them, and evading the police. As an act of liberation and freedom, they scheme to burn historic buildings to the ground. Dorota eventually coaxes out of Radek the unconscious motives behind his fixation with fire. In one of the most moving passages of the novel, he describes how as a child he watched his own house go up in flames. Not fully conscious of what was happening, he imagined a dragon inside, wreaking havoc:
“Now the house glowed cherry from all the windows, and I could hear the crackle of the dragon munching everything I loved. Pulverizing the family flashlight in his back molars, I was sure. He shattered glass in his teeth, and bashed holes in the roof with his thorny head. The whole house soon puffed smoke, puffed madness, funneling into a monstrous pillar that twisted ugly into the night, its blackness sucking up shards of flame.”
Later, after it is revealed that his mother died in the fire, he admits that “focussing [sic] on a disaster like San Francisco helps me forget my own piles of rubble.” It is during moments like these when Daniel Allen Cox brings the weight of the drama to bear on his characters’ emotions. For the most part, Radek and Dorota seem like consistently well-crafted figures. However, some passages lurch between such opposing sentiments as to make them seem bipolar.
For instance, in the opening scene, we witness Radek brazenly tackling a man to the floor who has accused him of sleeping with his wife. Radek corrects him: “‘I am a homosexual… a cocksucker,'” he whispers into his ear, “caressing it with [his] lips.” The sexual confidence with which he behaves is undeniable. But a few pages later, as he is in the throes of passionate sex with another man, he declines to take off his clothes. “I recoiled from his touch… in a way, clothing had protected me from sin through many sound fuckings: if my body was only a remote participant, then it wasn’t exactly sex.” Radek’s sexual vulnerability is never taken up again in the course of the novel, calling into question the purpose of this scene and his true feelings.
Owing to discrepancies like these, Krakow Melt takes a while to warm up to, despite the blurb’s description of it as an “incendiary novel.” One learns to disregard the overwrought phrases that can be found throughout the text in spades, much to this reviewer’s amusement (one incriminating example, a reflection on the nature of reading: “A book lures you into a state of bodily comfort and then, once your limbs are placed just right, finger-fucks your insides”). In the end, though, you might find yourself thinking about this book even after having finished it, its embers smoldering in your thoughts.
by Daniel Allen Cox
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551523729, 176pp.