Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer 2003

Signs and Symptoms by Róbert Gál






Signs and Symptoms
Róbert Gál
Illustrated by Lucia Nimcová
Twisted Spoon Press, Prague
82 pp. $12.50

Signs and Symptoms, Róbert Gál’s collection of philosophical aphorisms and fragmentary essays, can't help but call to mind the work of the late great La Rochefoucauld and more pointedly the Romanian aphorist/essayist E.M. Cioran. Gál’s work falls somewhere between the two in character—more existential than La Rochefoucauld’s but not quite as pessimistic as Cioran’s. Though not quite the literary equal of either, the author nevertheless makes apt and interesting use of the aphorism, occasionally lighting on that genuine nuance of meaning and language that is the ideal of the form. Some of our favorites included: “Anxiety is what remains repressed when inhaling and exhaling”; “Dialectic is the intellectual form of the unbalanced mind”; and “Whoever claims we can reach the truth assumes that the truth stands still.” “The matter of a nation is a matter of taste” also seems particularly resonant given the  current geo-political climate.

Gál’s fragmentary essays are generally sound though  they occasionally sink into a kind of repetitive or cyclical logic within themselves. He also tends to expose the philosophical substrate of his work a bit too obviously now and then by lapsing into the philosopher’s habit of excessive quotation, also setting too many of his own words in quotations marks, italics, etc.  The advanced reader (i.e. the only reader who will give a damn) already understands the semantic difficulties inherent in words like “truth” and “reality” and “God.” In fairness, he does refer to S&S in the end notes as “a philosophical text” though it is a bit too fragmented to constitute a sustained argument of any significance. Apart from the obvious paeans to Cioran, some of the essays have a nice lilt, carrying a vague hint of Baudrillard, Derrida, and Bataille—though by and large Gal comes across a hair lighter than these individuals, operating more from a standpoint of the slightly dismayed or discursive observer rather than one classically disabused or consistently disaffected. There really is no central argument here except perhaps argument itself, and themes crisscross the map but include questions of faith, truth, reality, faces and masks, the possible, authorial intent and culpability.

While a few of Gál’s arguments  are underdeveloped, slightly babbling, or repetitious, and some of the aphorisms read like established maxims with a thin coat of paint slapped on, Signs and Symptoms does carry enough intellectual weight and sustaining interest to be a worthwhile read. The translation by Madelaine Hron is generally fine, showing only a few thorns here and there, and the nude B&W photo illustrations by Lucia Nimcová are uniformly expressive, providing a body of stark fleshly contrast to Gál’s skewed yet hyper-rational mind. Signs and Symptoms is definitely worth the time, especially for the pseudo-depressed and philosophical among us. Recommended, especially as a bathroom read. (It is our assertion that one should always read philosophy in the bathroom.)