Under the Poppy
by Kathe Koja
“Any folk may be divided so, into those who play, and those who only watch.”
It is the players at the heart of Kathe Koja’s sweeping period drama, Under the Poppy, a novel which takes you on an engrossing—at times, dizzying—trek through 19th century Brussels’ sensual underground. It’s the type of story that ends where it starts but leaves no character unmoved.
The titular ‘Poppy’ is Koja’s novel is a brothel masquerading as a theater—or perhaps a theater masquerading as a brothel, depending on who you ask—in 1870s Brussels, under its proprietress, cruel and lonely Decca, and the owner, mysterious and stoic Mr. Rupert Bok. The whore of the Poppy offer the usual services, but they also offer an opportunity of theatricality, playing to their clients’ fantasies by acting them out in elaborate and rousing plays. But to say the whores of the Poppy take center stage would be erroneous; this is first and foremost the story of Rupert and Istvan—the latter being Decca’s wandering rogue brother, puppeteer, player, enigma, and Rupert’s lover and first true companion, who shows up at the Poppy in the midst of an encroaching war they want no part of. It is Istvan’s return they sets in motion the series of events that would alter everyone under the Poppy.
Under the Poppy’s romantic, flowing dialogue invokes sharp imagery in the reader’s eye; it is, at times, almost like a stream of consciousness, stringing you along until you almost lose yourself in the flow. Koja’s narrative technique is curiously divided, split up into unnamed chapters that are occasionally centered on breaking down a single character in first-person, or are unassigned third-person narratives. Decca, Rupert and Istvan have no attributed chapters of their own, but this story no less revolves around them. In the end, this whole world is Rupert and Istvan’s stage; the others are simply allowed to play on it for a time.
It is no surprise, then, that Istvan’s puppets—or les mecs, as he calls them—play parts almost as important as the human characters do. Istvan is no saint, but he’s a powerful character, both in impact and actions. He is the prescient rogue, moving people about and manipulating them like the world is his personal stage. Prior to coming to the Poppy and reuniting with his childhood companion, Rupert, and treacherous sister, Decca, Istvan was a wanderer and a successful puppeteer. He goes by many names throughout the novel—Hanzel, Dusan, M. Dieudonne, Fox—to name just a few, and constantly wears masks, both literal and figurative. One gets the sense that he is the truest version of himself when he is with Rupert, his anchor and his weakness, just as Istvan is Rupert’s weakness. The two have an unspeakable bond, together since they were boys, roaming the streets and performing shows with the puppets they created together. As they got older, circumstances and Decca’s deception born of jealousy drives them apart, but time and again they are inevitably drawn to one another.
There is a strong artistic presence in Koja’s novel, as these characters constantly dance around the conflict between love and war. The characters are at war with one another while a literal war is creeping in around them and threatening their very existence. The only thing that can save them—indeed, the only thing that seems to bring anyone cheer in these dreary days—is the stage, Istvan’s plays and puppets, an escape from reality for others but to Istvan, the only life he knows. A peripheral character, a master of the stage, says it best in his narrative: “You see, that hunger inside us, that ambition, or whatever you may choose to call is, is a compass really, a compass of true desire. And if you will be happy, you must follow that desire, no matter which way the needle points.”
As the story progresses, most of the characters are discarded, unfortunately, but their replacements bring their own intrigue. Even the Poppy itself is forgotten, which is a shame but understandable, for the stage is ever shifting, just like the theme. Koja’s novel never does what you expect it to do, which makes it all that much more absorbing. The scenery may change but the focus stays the same, as Rupert and Istvan continue to enter in and out of each other’s orbit. Istvan is a presence that is constantly felt, because you know that he is never far. He would never let go of his mecs, his play-acting, or his itinerant ways, so long as he still lacks his true desire. It is a testament to any man’s inability to deny his baser desires, be they sexual or otherwise. “All that moves requires a hand,” Istvan says to a progeny of his, and it sets the tone for the entire novel, for no person is without that inner compass that guides them, but it is much better to be the master than the puppet.
Koja is currently adapting her novel to a stage format for the Detroit Opera House, set for a 2012 release, and there could not be a better method of presentation for this story. Under the Poppy was destined for the stage, from the very first rumblings of its love affair with the medium on the page. There are plenty of opportunities for song and dance, fun and excitement, and certainly a bit of titillation. It will be interesting to see how well the story plays out off the page.