Letters from the Czech Republic Inspiring Authors, Suggestive and Effective Works

Context N°14

by Radim Kopác

Modern Czech literature has been developing in a free, democratic zone for a little less than fourteen years now. The situation in the year 2003 is diametrically opposed to that of the 1970s and 1980s, when the ideological dictatorship of communism restrained authors and their work; from this standpoint, the major break came in the revolutionary year of 1989. Generalizing and simplifying, let us say that in this year Czech literature began to lose its singleness of purpose. Literature before 1989—and we are thinking exclusively of unofficial literature, written in the underground or by exiles, rather than official, pro-regime writing, whose aesthetic and philosophical value was zero in the crushing majority of cases—had a clear function aimed in a single direction: expressing opposition to the totalitarianism of power and ideas that had bound Czechoslovakia from the communist coup in 1948 until November 1989. This literature was permeated with politics; in fact, it substituted for serious political discussion because it took the place of an opposition to the regime and thereby acquired an almost mythical meaning. No less mythical was the importance enjoyed by official literary efforts, loyal to the regime and rewarded as ideological propaganda with money, state prizes, and above all publication runs in the hundreds of thousands—although in this case the mythologization was absurd and essentially pataphysical.

As the government changed from a totalitarian regime to a democracy with neither censorship nor forced self-censorship, where it is possible to write anything and even to publish anything at one’s own expense, the function of literature was fundamentally transformed: the common enemy vanished, and the authority of writing vanished along with it. Literature was thrown back on itself—on its aesthetic qualities and values rather than ideological ones—and it turned away from an exterior model to an interior one, forcing authors to search for new themes and styles. As part of this search, especially in the first half of the nineties, the effects of postmodernism finally began to be felt. Thus did linearity split up into associativeness. The unidirectional text began to change into a crossroads of genres and styles, a multi-level, intertextual “prolage,” an amalgam of different spaces and times. Writings of arbitrarily chosen authors were exploited arbitrarily, without restrictions. Two of the most well-known practitioners of these postmodern devices are the Brno writer Jirí Kratochvil (born 1940), author of essays, short stories, and novels, and the poet and novelist Jachym Topol (born 1962).

Kratochvil was experimenting with postmodern techniques even before 1989. In his first longer work, Bear Novel (finished in 1985 but not published until 1990), various parallel story lines, multilayered and partly autobiographical, are woven together; they are constantly interrupted, cast into doubt, and interchanged. The text seems to criticize the realities of the totalitarian regime, but in fact its sovereign theme is the author’s attempt to capture the very flow of narration; readers are given the impression that, alongside the writer, they are watching an ever-open, never-finished text in the process of coming into existence. Kratochvil later said that Bear Novel is “absolutely insensitive toward its readers, and yet it is my most valuable and important book, and all my books published in the 1990s sponge off it shamelessly.” Jachym Topol’s debut novel Sister, published in 1994 (and translated into English by Alex Zucker as City, Sister, Silver in 2000) represents a similar kind of initiation for the author. Like Kratochvil, Topol intentionally divides and breaks up dozens and dozens of stories. Through his frenzied collages, associating present and past events with dreamlike moments, at first he demonstrates the chaos of the postmodern world, yet ultimately he holds up the one value that can organize and verify all others. For Topol, this value is love: the sister of life.

Along with the rising wave of postmodern literature in the first half of the nineties, in which completely new texts originated, there was a release of the “publication pressure” that had been building up during forty years of ideological dictatorship. Tens and hundreds of underground and exile books that could not be published from the fifties through the eighties now appeared, and new works were eagerly awaited from authors who had been silenced for years—for example, Ludvik Vaculík, Ivan Klíma, Josef Skvorecky´, and Eva Kanturková. But in each case, both publishers and the community of literary critics focused above all on the text’s secondary, ideological aims, rather than on its primary, aesthetic qualities. For example, more than one Czech literary critic has supposed, with hindsight, that Czech underground poetry from the 1970s and 1980s—which is almost without exception derivative of the “total realist” diction, now a half century old, of that guru of the Czech underground literati, Egon Bondy—deserves at most one long anthology, not the dozens and dozens of individual publications that have appeared, often presenting readers with the bottom-most scrapings from the authors’ desk drawers.

As Czech literature has turned inward, however, it has registered several more fundamental shifts and changes from the beginning of the nineties and on throughout the decade. Above all, the institution of large-scale, long-standing, rock-solid publishing houses, sponsored by the state and publishing texts in runs of tens or even hundreds of thousands, collapsed. The pragmatic expectations of the newly enthroned capitalist market set the average publication run at 500 to 2,000 copies for prose titles, 300 to 1,000 copies for poetry—and those numbers drop as we get closer to the present day. On the other hand, the number of titles published is rising unusually quickly each year, and ever newer publishing houses and huts are growing like mushrooms after the rain. In 2002, over 14,000 titles were published, which is roughly forty books a day, and at present some 3,000 publishers are registered—from larger enterprises publishing about 100 titles a year, like Academia (specializing in reference works and academic publications on language and literature), Argo (English and American literature, especially of the twentieth century), BB Art (popular and scholarly literature), and Mladá fronta (modern foreign literature); to the smaller houses, more clearly defined in the theme and quality of their publications, among which are Petrov (exclusively publishing new Czech poetry and prose), Vetrné mlyny (Czech and foreign drama), and Torst (specializing in modern Czech poetry, prose, and literary theory), which publish thirty or forty books annually; all the way to publishing houses run by one or two people, which are satisfied with five, two, or even one title a year—for example, the Prague publishers Concordia and Fra (publishing modern foreign literature) and Cherm (contemporary Czech literature). Add to this the unlimited publishing possibilities of the Internet, ever expanding and reaching ever more people, which lets just about anyone rediscover the possibilities of samizdat, and we can conclude that the wealth and variety of current book production is comparable only to the days of Czechoslovakia’s First Republic from 1918 to 1938.

But an opposite trend has appeared, especially in the last three or four years, in the case of newspapers and magazines that reflect critically on current Czech book production. The purely commercial interests of foreign owners and investors, who see books, in economic terms, as a not-very-profitable article, have almost definitively pushed reviews and literary criticism from the pages of the daily papers; today they appear only in specialized, so-called “demanding” columns once a week, usually on Thursday or Saturday, and in the newspapers there remain only brief reports on cultural events. The weekly magazines also devote minimal space to literary activity. Literary magazines with nationwide distribution remain a cultural oasis, but at present there are only two: the biweekly, twenty-four-page, news-print Tvar, published in Prague since 1990 and containing demanding essays and literary criticism as well as more journalistic reviews and interviews, along with excerpts from current Czech and foreign literature; and the glossy Brno monthly Host, about ninety pages, which began as samizdat in 1985 and has been published ever since. In terms of genre and theme, Host is similar to Tvar, but it devotes more space to foreign literature (in its regular supplement World Literature) as well as film and photography. Regional periodicals, published less frequently, also have an irreplaceable significance. In Zlín, for example, the quarterly journal of contemporary poetry Psí víno contains excerpts from new Czech and foreign poetry and prose, as well as interviews and critical essays; the similarly organized monthly Plz focuses on literary activity in the region of Plzen. Just as important are literary almanacs, reviews, and anthologies: for example, Aluze in Olomouc, devoted to literature and philosophy and containing longer essayistic or literary articles; Prague’s cultural mega-review Labyrint, with reflections on literature, film, theater, art, and even fashion; or the occasional journal Weles, published in Brno, with excerpts of new Czech literature and critical essays on it. Literary programs also appear at least once a month on Czech state television (Literární Revue 333), and more often on Czech radio, especially on the culturally oriented station Czech Radio 3—Vltava. In recent years literary magazines have also begun appearing on the Internet, with standards of typography and content to match the printed periodicals—for example, the cultural-social monthly Dobrá adresa .

Toward the end of the 1990s, postmodern tendencies began to retreat from Czech writing, and to this day they are continuing to do so—but what is taking their place? The critic Vladimír Novotny has argued that the clearest trend in Czech literature today is indeed a postmodern dimension in the philosophy of creation, as well as in the distinctive structure of modern narrative and poetic form, but in addition a whole range of other tendencies are making their mark. It would probably be very difficult to find an appropriate and telling label for them; with some exaggeration, we might speak of “post-postmodern” phenomena—or, on the contrary, of particular manifestations or residues of “pre-postmodern” approaches and narrative modes. In other words, we are witnessing not only an artistic response to the postmodern, but also various creative polemics against its multifarious poetics and aesthetics. For some time now this fact has been a highly significant constant in Czech writing, and has been perceived as such.

That is, in contemporary Czech literature we can see a multistylistic, multithematic, and indeed multigenerational approach to the text, in which Czech aesthetic canons of the whole twentieth century are mixed up thoroughly together: modernism from the first two decades of the century, avant-garde from the 1930s and 1940s, concrete and visual poetry of the 1960s, and postmodernism of the 1990s. (We should not forget the time shifts caused in Czech literature by four decades of cultural anesthesia under communist dictatorship; the forms of concrete and visual poetry, for example, that began to make their mark in Western Europe and America in the 1950s didn’t arrive in Czechoslovakia until the end of the 1960s, and if the term “postmodernism” is associated mainly with the 1970s and 1980s, it appears in the Czech context primarily in the first half of the 1990s. This unnatural time-shift also meant that these aesthetic programs did not appear gradually and organically, but in shorter, more intense and disconnected bursts.)

From the constellation we have sketched out, there emerges an inspirational (although this a subjective preference) pleiad of authors, who in the last five years or so have produced a range of suggestive and effective literary works. They include artists tending toward a traditional understanding of the novel (Jan Balabán, Martin Fahrner, Jirí Hájícek) as well as those inclined to experimentation and literary games (Jirí Dynka, Jan Antonín Pitínsky´, Michal Sanda) or authors who draw programmatically from the Czech underground, with its Beatnik poetics of protest (Vít Kremlicka, Jirí H. Krchovsky´, Petr Placák, Pavel Zajícek). There are also representatives of poetic phenomenology (Lukás Marvan) or of a poetics of “authenticity” (Emil Hakl, Milan Charoust, Václav Kahuda, Jaroslav Rudis). Surrealists young and old are well–represented here (Blazej Ingr, Katerina Pinosová, Frantisek Dryje, Stanislav Dvorsky´, Milan Nápravník, Pavel Reznícek), as well as postsurrealists reaching toward metaphysical poetry (Petr Král) or authors drawing on a poetics of magic realism (Michal Ajvaz). Further, we have writers employing an original neodadaist, neopataphysical, or nonsensical diction (the prose writers and poets Eugen Brikcius and Eduard Vacek); others are of an existentialist orientation (Lubomír Martinek, who tends to the essay; the novelist Ivan Matousek; the poets Jirí Gold, Viola Fischerová, Katerina Rudcenková, and Pavla Suranská). There is a poetry of modern spiritualism (Milos Dolezal, Bohdan Chlíbec), and there are devotees of a novelistic postmodernism without limits (Jirí Kratochvil), but also of caustic postmodern satire (the prose writer Blumfeld 2001, the poets Lubor Kasal and Viki Shock), as well as of biting social grotesques (Milos Urban). Literature with a programmatically feminine, and often feminist, view of the world forms a category of its own and one that is growing (Hana Androniková, Alexandra Berková, Irena Dousková, Iva Pekárková).

Let us look more closely at some of these authors.


In their writings (first poetry and then prose), Milan Charoust (born 1941) and Emil Hakl (born 1958) have hewed closely to the paths that their own lives have taken. While Charoust is a world traveler who spent nearly twenty years in voluntary exile in Germany and hitchhiked across America in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Hakl is an author tied to a single city, a writer for whom Prague, with its genius loci, is the only possible place, as he says, for life.

Charoust’s hectic and unanchored writing activity has spontaneously arrived at the long novel The Island (2002), a stock-taking on the threshold of a lifetime’s maturity. The Island is urgently self-reflective, an emotionally exposed introspection that sketches in rough lines the archetype of a morally unshakeable person against a background of postmodern relativism. The novel begins between the gray walls of a psychiatric clinic, where the author has voluntarily taken refuge after his divorce; it ends, after every possible journey on the dusty and rocky roads of the sorrowful world, with the image of an aging Crusoe, sitting in front of a log cabin on an island in the middle of a lake somewhere in Michigan, watching the rain and stars and feeling that he is “infinitely free.” Inspired by the expressive spontaneity of the romantics and the Beats, Charoust understands literature as an unaestheticized, unstylized stream of narration “in a raw state,” whose goal is to transcribe a life-story into words. “The world around us is full of secrets, and we’ll never reach, or even see, its bottom,” Charoust says in an interview. “That is the indispensable motor of life. If curiosity and the constant expectation of something new didn’t spread out before me like an infinite sea, I would dry up. Each day has its charm for me, for me each day is a story.” In his life and writing, Charoust accents the individual’s revolt against conservative social mechanisms, the whole Euro-American civilization built around the adoration of the consumer lifestyle and subordinated to a system of restrictions and fetishes. Although he realizes and admits the quixotic dimension of his personal rebellion, and his literary confession is often interwoven with tragic, sad, and melancholic motifs (often taking the form of irascible litanies akin to those of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard), Charoust doesn’t give up; he is not an enemy of life. A spiritual affinity with outsiders (“I keep thinking that sympathy with the defeated and humiliated makes one beautiful”) and an enchantment with stories from the social periphery (“It seems to me that there is more life, and hence more stories, on the periphery than in the prettified world of the mainstream”) repeatedly land him on a path to an unattainable goal. They awaken in him a new curiosity and longing for adventure; at certain fleeting moments they let him experience a feeling of the meaning of life, an essential catharsis.

The autobiographically disposed, tragic-grotesque jokes and anecdotes, micro-stories and microdramas from which Prague native Emil Hakl weaves his books may all seem “to end up at two themes,” as the narrator’s father sighs in the novella On Parents and Children (2002): girls and alcohol. In the same way, each of Hakl’s books is accompanied on the one hand by the author’s alter ego, Jan Benes, both narrator and centerpiece of all narration, and on the other hand by a pronounced topocentrism—all the stories take place in Prague. But under that aforementioned skin of alcohol and eros, Hakl’s prose conceals a hypersensitive outsider for whom words provide a space where inner existential traumas can be sublimated, where the author can accentuate his own endless fascination by a “hot, electronic world charged with signals and messages,” his total captivation by the volatile reality that spontaneously becomes part of his literary world. But On Parents and Children, recounting a father-and-son stroll through the pubs of evening and nighttime Prague, brings something new to Hakl’s prose—a noticeable turn inward. His two previous books, the short-story collection The End of the World (2001) and the novel Sabrina Black’s Intimate Box (2002), were convincing maps of the social climate of the Czech lands in the 1980s and especially 1990s, offering readers a chance to safely identify themselves with a collectively valid experience—the grayness of thoughts and life in late communism, which vaulted in the early 1990s into the much-promising postrevolutionary euphoria of a new, free environment. But Hakl’s third book reconstructs the mythology, now exclusively individual, of his two central characters. The father and son’s wandering dialogue is also a journey from the position of an eyewitness, observing the movements and changes of the surrounding world, to a concentrated introspection in which all the other characters play, at best, superfluous bit parts. Hakl’s goal is to reconstruct a family’s memory, to reach the lower branches of the family tree and on this basis to uncover at least part of the cipher of his own existence in the time-space called the here and now. With his spontaneous poetic streams of spoken word, an unforced transcription of pub conversations in all their expressiveness, Hakl approaches not only the poetics of Bohumil Hrabal’s “palaverers,” but also—especially through his emphasis on the existential dimension of his work—the poetics of Václav Kahuda (born 1965).

In the last six years, Kahuda has established himself as an eloquent writer of the middle generation. His own life experience is projected into his vision of the world: during the gray and amorphous era of communist normalization in the 1970s and 1980s, he trained as a stucco modeler, began to write poetry, and helped publish a series of samizdat anthologies called the Branik Almanac; later he worked as a machinist, night watchman, and gravedigger—and it is precisely the nighttime, turned-away face of reality that is the most characteristic motivating force of his imagination. He clearly emerges from a surrealist’s fascination with dreaming and the depths of the unconscious, as well as from the tradition of romantic, decadent, and naturalist poetics. His books portray the animalistic, sensuous, physiological face of humankind, a bizarre, morbid face contorted by pain, fear, and a Sartrean nausea from existence in a world into which we have been thrown without our consent. Nevertheless, he emphasizes in all this the importance of our intimate experiences and our hidden obsessions with the search for the meaning of life. Kahuda tries to nuance, or alleviate, these accounts of his protagonists’ psyches, these scenes of a degenerating universe, with descriptions of natural scenery, sculptural in their suggestive timelessness and fascinating for their harmony with the changeless laws of the inanimate world. Unlike his expressive portrayals of human poverty, these passages are written with a “high,” lyricized diction, as in Cheerful Poverty (1997). Kahuda’s first novella, Story with a Basilisk (1992), was classical in form, but since then his writing has tended more and more toward clusters of images and stories, an irregular collage or Apollinairean “zone” in which immediate associations overpower his initial plan for the work. This is particularly clear in his book Streams (2001), an attempt at a recapitulation and reflection of one period of his life as he approaches middle age.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a radical parodist and impassioned critic of all the pleasant vices of contemporary popular culture and a world permeated with virtual reality—the pseudonymous storyteller, translator, and essayist Blumfeld 2001 (Lubomír Drozd, born 1955). In his story collection Peepshow (2001), he pillories the degeneracy of mass-media verbal culture: his language is an absurdly polished Orwellian new-speak, a speech of clear and effective gestures comparable to the strident language of comic books or film and television sequences. Inspired by Duchamp’s ready-mades, he creates sarcastic and distorted postmodern remixes, bringing together the icons of popular culture, from Barbie dolls and Superman through Donald Duck, the “bad actor” Ronnie Reagan, and McDonald’s, and inserting them into action stories full of naturalistically described violence. (In one story, for example, the perfect hero Fastfood dies, crushed by a barbell in a fitness center, with a tube of superglue stuck in his rectum.) The editor and literary critic Martin Machovec writes that Blumfeld “lays bare the artificial and illusory nature of ‘pop heroes’ and a whole popular quasi-culture,” for “there is in effect an endless number of popular objects and ‘beings’ that are endlessly interchangeable, because they are merely parasites on ancient, deep myths.” But beneath the surface of black humor, cynicism, and omnipre-sent play, we find a strong and individual gesture of resistance: Blumfeld 2001 is a caustic critic of the capitalist order, and in the alternative philosophy he presents, he confronts a one-dimensional Euro-American civilization with the purity of thought of “primitive” nations or of Buddhism.

The poetic world presented by Michal Sanda in the 1990s is just as variegated as the collection of manual jobs that this Prague native has passed through since the 1980s—working as, among other things, a stonemason, bookseller, hunter of fowl, organ-grinder, feather-binder on an ostrich farm, and painter of railroad cars. (For the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, such a variety of occupations was characteristic; the communist regime not only refused to publish writers it found ideologically unacceptable, but also made it impossible for them to get decent jobs.) Sanda admits that he has been inspired above all by English and American literature of the second half of the twentieth century, from Kurt Vonnegut (“Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions, especially their prefaces, are key works for me”) through Ernest Hemingway (“I borrowed the short, abrupt sentences from him”) to Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“he led me to write something a little bit serious”); nevertheless, his first collection of visual creations and letter collages, stoa (1994), is in the tradition of concrete poetry, experimentation on the borderline of literature and the visual arts. The dominant theme is not a schematic “programming of beauty,” poetry generated by machine, but rather a spontaneous lyricism drawing on, among other things, the poetics of Apollinaire’s Calligrams or Mallarme’s postsymbolist A Throw of the Dice that will never eliminate chance. In Ugly Stories From Beautiful Words (1996) and Two Hundred Grams of Pig’s Feet (1998), Sanda abandons the visual function of words and emphasizes the documentary, authentic nature of speech: he becomes an observer of characters and events, an epic subject who lends his voice to the human periphery, to outsiders. In Ugly Stories he maps out the comic and tragic pub stories of “my uncles,” who once “were magical” but “were intolerable after they drank their brains out.” In Two Hundred Grams, he buries himself in the psychological universe of male-female relations. From these raw poetic documents, Sanda then goes over to the opposition, the genre of literary mystification. The first sign of this was his pseudonymous, illustrated mosaic of rock music, the “postmodern” jukebox Metro (1998); the culmination was his first work in prose, Blues 1890-1940 (2000). Sanda’s blues invite the reader into a game, contained in “fifty-one encyclopedia portraits of blues men from the Mississippi delta,” beneath which, “like a pentimento,” we catch glimpses of the story of Robert Boyer, “a gambler by conviction, alcoholic, tramp, and loiterer, but also a day laborer forced to take on hard drudgery with gratitude.” Sanda grafts stories of a Borgesian imaginativeness onto a real backdrop; we see the outlines of his musicians’ dark fates, but also the author’s enchantment with the aesthetic function of language. His book The Town Alderman of Stoklasná Lhota, Having Auctioned Off for 37 Crowns a Stuffed Badger Meant for the Use of the School Museum (2001) pays tribute to the vanishing world of the Czech village and recalls his own family roots. Sanda creates a fictitious time and space populated with poetic figures and their stylized, old-fashioned conversations. His emphasis on the aesthetically perfect distribution of syntactic clauses often squeezes all sense out of the stories, such that the book is changed into a peculiar panopticon of language for its own sake. The Town Alderman develops a series of motifs and characters that make their appearance throughout all his works.

Patrik Ouredník—unobtrusive admirer of the pataphysical persiflage of Alfred Jarry and Boris Vian, cultivated popularizer of experimental literature, poet, prose writer, translator, and essayist—was born in 1957 to a Czech-French family in Prague and emigrated to France in 1985. He unites a learned (but decidedly un-academic and extrauniversity) interest in linguistic and literary questions with his own original works. In addition to numerous translations (both from French to Czech—Beckett, Jarry, Queneau, Vaché, and others—and from Czech to French—for example, Vancura, Hrabal, Holan, Skácel), he has written reference works such as the Schmierbuch of the Czech Language, attempting to capture Czech argot and slang, and There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, “a dictionary of biblicisms and para-biblicisms,” explaining common sayings in their original biblical context. He has also written poetry, a children’s fairy tale, and above all, a pair of originally conceived prose works. In Year Twenty-Four (1995), Ouredník captures the atmosphere of communist normalization in Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s through his own stylized memories of childhood and adolescence. Taking the role of a naive, absurdly literal, and unbiased narrator, he records the phrases and clichés that permeated the ideologically inflected language of those years—clichés that shamelessly blurred the boundary between reality and fiction, failed to distinguish between the banal and the important, and confused the social and the private. It makes for charming and nonsensical reading, but at the same time the book is a horrifying reflection on an era devoid of thought. Ouredník’s second achievement in prose, Europeana (2001), offers “a brief history of the twentieth century,” viewed “from below” rather than through an undistorted lens. The book does not respect chronology, does not rank historical events by their importance, does not look for chains of cause and effect, and does not dwell on historical personalities. On the contrary, it becomes a concordium of ordinary things, giving equal rights to banal realities and events that killed millions of people. The book examines how, in the twentieth century, humanity was degraded, swallowed up by the absurd mechanisms of the establishment in various ideological forms—how the world voluntarily surrendered its spiritual dimension to empty materialism. “What is truth? The historical truth of history? The literary truth of the text? The truth of utopias? The truth of memory?” asks Vlastimil Hárl, author of the book’s afterword—and Ouredník does not give unequivocal answers to these questions, for the accumulation of facts alone is eloquent enough on its own terms.

The Black Cap, a book of psychological and autobiographical short stories by Hana Pachtová (born in Prague in 1971), is a pleasant and inspiring exception in the context of contemporary Czech literature by women: the author avoids writing that, inflected by feminism, has been masculinized in a somewhat stylized way (as is the case with Hana Androniková, Alexandra Berková, Zuzana Brabcová, Daniela Hodrová, Sylvie Richterová, and others); she slips neither into tendentious variations on anachronistic ruralism (Kveta Legátová, Petra Hulová) nor into echoes of socialist realism (Anna Sabatová). The eternal relationship of masculine and feminine principles (father and daughter, husband and wife, lover and lover) becomes thematically varied in her essentially female, hypersensitive, and lyrical writing, reminiscent of the later texts of Bohumila Grögerová, such as The Gate Hangs From its Hinges. These variations are held together by two things: the red thread of the author’s subtle poetic imagination (inspired by Czech poetism and, on rare occasions, by the imagination of dreams) and a romantically intensified emotion and transgressive eroticism, which alternate with opposing moments of existential anxiety, gray melancholy, and nostalgia. Pachtová’s writing—sadly beautiful, muffled, unobtrusive but nevertheless insistent—develops linearly (with one exception, the story “Picture”), in simple, dynamic sentences, with an emphasis on dialogue. Her stories do not play themselves out on the surface, but rather behind the descriptions of characters and the plots that are stretched taut between them. In this collection of stories, her first work, Pachtová leaves things unsaid and is not literal; she has a sense of the unique mystery of the text.

In conclusion, let us note one unfortunate fact: only one or two of the writers we have discussed—all of them important, and some the most important figures in contemporary Czech literature—have been translated into English. Aside from two anthologies (Catbird Press’s Daylight in Nightclub Inferno and Serpent’s Tail’s This Side of Reality) and a few works such as Topol’s City, Sister, Silver, Michal Viewegh’s Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, Daniela Fischerová’s Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else, or the novels of Iva Pekárková, English and American readers have had relatively little chance to acquaint themselves with new Czech writing. Let this be a challenge to translators and publishers.


Translated from the Czech by Jonathan Bolton.

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