In all honesty, this should really be called a booklet review, or, to be fancier, a chapbook review, because this is a slight little thing that a person could easily read all the way through while waiting in line at the DMV, still having time to start on another short story collection or anthology before her number was called. Which is to say that A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs could actually fit into a passport, as its amusingly apt cover might suggest.
But though it be little, it is fierce, is this collection of Kafka-meets-Ionesco-as-Introduced-by-Borges bits. With just four wee stories, Kozma manages to sneak a few emotional wallops among what seems like whimsy, and, to readers like me who have been trained on Gene Wolfe for so long, he’s managed to suggest a degree of intertwined meaning that he might not have intended but feels like it’s there.
This is especially so in the middle two stories, “The Man in the Dark Chocolate Suit” and “We of the Future are Ghosts of the Past” which almost, but not quite, seem like they might be telling the same story from different points of view, as in the first the narrator and his or her friend Joe are stalked for unknown reasons by a title character that constantly announces himself and can transcend all physical and social barriers, which the second could maybe, just maybe, be the Man’s side of the story, but probably isn’t, but what if it is?
The other two, the lead-off “Stammlager 76” and the title story, have different things to offer, with “Stammlager 76” giving the collection its Kafka-esque edge, and “A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs” evoking the absurdist art of Eugene Ionesco. “Stammlager 76” concerns a prison camp in which the conditions don’t seem especially horrible, or not more so than has occurred in actual history, until the reader notices how its characters’ identities are not so much eroded as abraded.
As for the title story… This wants to be truly, madly, eye-poppingly strange, as our narrator shares his travelogue of a visit to the newly-discovered South American nation of Slugland, populated by, yes, giant slugs who have developed sentience and speech and who have allowed a sort of Potemkin vacation resort to be constructed in their territory. I think it wants to be funny, too, but for some reason I kept thinking of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” and wasn’t too surprised by what this story had to offer. Maybe if the slapstick was dialed up a bit more? Basil Fawlty does seem to be lurking somewhere just out of sight, but with eyestalks and leaving a trail of slime. If only…
The effect, though, of wrapping up the collection with that last tale is to cast the other three into a stranger light. Are they meant to all take place in the same universe? Do the romantic longings of the protagonist of “A Passport…” echo the disappointments experienced in the other stories? Are any of the characters in the other stories, perhaps, slugs in disguise? We’re left to wonder, and that makes this book well worth its price, which amounts to less than a buck a story, after all.
I’m going to have to check out Mr. Kozma’s other work sometime soon.