Dozens of excellent Czech books were published in 2016, which undoubtedly deserve to be translated and read in many languages. This feature presents the most important literary fiction of the year — eight books which have been widely read in the Czech Republic, received critical acclaim and have the potential to appeal to international readers.
(Host, 192 pages)
This novel deservedly received widespread attention from readers and almost universal critical acclaim, which led to nominations for the EU Prize for Literature and the Magnesia Litera Award. Bellová has written a dystopian page-turner combining literary fiction with genre elements. Set near a lake that is drying up and ominously pushing out its banks, this novel is an archetypal story of the coming of age of a young boy who fights his way out of a tough environment as he searches for his roots in the contaminated soil of his devastated lakeland home. For its hero, who embarks on his journey with nothing but a bundle of nerves and a coat that was once his grandad’s, it is a pilgrimage. To get to the greatest mystery, he must sail across and walk around the lake and finally sink to its bottom. Polish, Arabic, Bulgarian and Macedonian translations are in preparation and an excerpt from the text has been selected for the 2017 Susanna Roth Award for beginner translators of Czech.
“You will read Bianca Bellová’s raw, ruthless, apocalyptic prose with astonishment. It’s a stubborn and prickly book, which resists the reader until the last sentence, yet you won’t be able to put it down. Such a confidently and authentically written work with a clear intention, precise and seamless, deserves awards.”
— Kateřina Kadlecová, Reflex
“Bianca Bellová has enriched Czech literature with a harsh dystopia, one of the most remarkable books of recent years.”
— Alena Slezáková, MF Dnes
Nami, bathed in sweat, holds his grandma’s blubbery hand. The waves from the lake slap against the concrete jetty. He hears the sound of screams, shrieks, coming from the town beach. It must be a Sunday if he’s here on the blanket with his grandma and grandpa. There’s one other person here too. He recalls the three dark spots of a swimsuit, three triangles of a bikini, with a long dark tail of hair hanging down, brushed out like the tail of a horse, and two dark tufts of hair visible in the underarms. The three triangles move slowly in the sun, turning over again and again, until there is only one. A little ways offshore, a catfish lazily flicks its tail.
“The surface seems lower than it used to be,” Nami’s grandma says, smacking a fly as it lands on her belly. She chews roasted sunflower seeds, bought from the stand on the beach, spitting the shells onto the concrete in front of her.
“What’re you talking about?” Nami’s grandpa says with a laugh. “Women’s wisdom—second worst thing in the world, next to a hangover!”
Nami’s grandpa rocks back as he laughs, hands on his thighs. Wedged between the fingers of one of his dirty, chewed-up hands is an unfiltered cigarette.
The three triangles pick up a thermos, turn to Nami, and pour him a cup of mint tea.
“Have a drink, love.” Well, what do you know? The three triangles have a voice. It’s pleasantly deep, like the old well behind their house. Nami takes a drink. The tea, sweetened with honey, is delicious. It slides down his throat with no resistance.
“Let’s go then, love,” his grandpa says in a placating voice. “Wouldn’t want anyone calling you a sissy. Every boy of three in these parts needs to know how to swim.”
He runs a hand over his rounded belly. Flicks the cigarette butt into the water, where it lands with a hiss. Nami doesn’t want to go in the water. He wants to lie on the blanket, resting his head on his grandma’s soft belly and watching the three red triangles. He attempts to lift a hand, but it just drops lazily back in his lap.
“Go on, Nami,” his grandma says. “I’ll buy you a lollipop.”
The lollipops always have cellophane stuck to them. You can never get it off. The only time Nami ever gets one is World Peace Day or when the three triangles come to visit. They taste of burnt sugar and violets. He doesn’t really like the taste, but to get one is so rare that he looks forward to it every time and does whatever he’s asked to do.
Nami slowly gets to his feet, but before he can fully stand he finds himself flying through the air.
“Now swim, sturgeon!” his grandpa shouts, bursting into laughter. The three triangles scream. So does Nami’s grandma. Landing painfully on his side, Nami breaks through the surface and sinks down through the dark water. Looking up, he can see the faint shine of the sun in the swarm of bubbles trailing behind him. His lungs ache, he’s had the wind knocked out of him. The deeper he sinks, the colder the water gets. Nami sinks numbly, arms outstretched, flapping at his side. Any second now, he thinks, he’s going to see the Spirit of the Lake, which lives at the bottom. The pressure on his lungs grows, his ears feel like they’re about to explode. Instinctively he gasps for breath and swallows a mouthful of water. He can’t see anymore. He waves his arms and legs wildly, struggling toward the surface. Everything is black and shiny.
“Stupid old fool,” his grandma says as Nami finally catches his breath and starts furiously coughing up dirty water. “You old ass, I wouldn’t trust you with a can of worms!”
“What’s wrong? He’s fine, isn’t he? You saw the boy swim, right?” Nami’s grandpa says in a defensive tone. His voice is trembling slightly. “A true warrior!”
“Come here, love,” the three triangles say from the depths of the earth, wrapping Nami into their arms. One pounding chest on another. Nami settles down and stops coughing. The skin beneath the triangles is warm and bronze and smells wonderful. The three triangles hold him close, kissing his hair and speaking in whispers. The woman’s hair tickles his face, and she begins to sing.
“Don’t sing to him!” the old lady shouts. Nami shudders, but then lies still again. He doesn’t move a muscle, pretending he’s dead, that he doesn’t even exist. The singing falls away to nothing but a thick sound with each exhale, like the vibrations of a bell dying down after the clapper has stopped. Nami wishes he could stay that way forever. He steals a glance at the woman’s face, but all he can see is the tip of her nose and her prominent cheekbones.When they walk home, Nami faints and his grandpa has to carry him.
Instead of going across the square with the statue of the Statesman and the ditch the Russians bulldozed for trash, they take the back way, around the apartment complex.
“You’re quite a load, boy,” grumbles Nami’s grandpa. His foot slips and he freezes, barely catching his balance in time to avoid a fall. They reach home and Nami gets his lollipop. He licks it more out of obligation than enjoyment. Out the corner of his eye he watches the three triangles, which meanwhile have changed into a blue-and-green flowerprint dress. He touches it when he has the chance, and is rewarded with a wonderful smell.
That evening Nami has a violent vomiting fit. His stomach contracts uncontrollably, ejecting torrents of dirty water, mint tea, and lumps of sheep cheese blini. The blue-and-green flowerprint dress strokes his forehead, holding his head while he vomits, wiping his mouth and whispering in a soothing voice. “Shh, love, everything’s going to be all right.”
The next morning, when Nami wakes up, the blue-and-green dress is gone. He takes a sip of black Russian tea and vomits it right back up.
Nami grew up surrounded by the smell of fish, so he never really noticed it. The small town of Boros has a sturgeon hatchery and, right next door, a fish processing plant. Alea, their neighbor, works in the fish factory. Sometimes she comes over to sit on their doorstep, and brings a bucket of caviar to trade for a sack of potatoes. Then Nami has to eat caviar every day for breakfast and dinner, sitting over the bucket, scooping it up by the spoonful, until he’s sick to his stomach.
“You ate it all?” his grandma asks. Nami lowers his eyes and stares at the floor.
“That’s all right,” his grandma says. “Caviar is the healthiest thing in the world. Next to ginseng!”
“And next to a good fuck,” the old man says with a grin from the corner of the room. He rubs the corner of his eye with his thumb, gripping an unfiltered cigarette between his index finger and his misshapen middle finger.
“Grandpa, you should be ashamed!” Nami’s grandma chides him, but she too is grinning. She fries a batch of blini and slathers them with butter. “You eat like a VIP,” she says, smiling at Nami as she fills his plate. Nami likes caviar, but he feels like that can’t be all there is. He hopes that something more meaningful lies in store, but at four years old he doesn’t have the words yet to express it. He crushes the little black beads between his teeth, absently picking at the scab on his knee.
His grandma has a big lump on her tailbone, broad bony hips, and a soft tummy that Nami likes to fall asleep on. She strokes his hair with a hard, dry hand as she tells him stories about the Spirit of the Lake and the warriors of the Golden Horde, who sleep in the Kolos cliff, waiting until the great warrior comes to wake them up.
“Will that be me?” Nami asks.
“Yes, it will, my boy,” his grandma smiles.
“But how will I find them?”
“Providence will show you the way, love.”
Nami hears his grandma’s words and peacefully drifts off to sleep.
It’s Fishery Day, the biggest holiday of the year. The whole town is gathered on the square around the statue of the Statesman. The children are dressed in snow-white shirts, the boys with colorful neckties, the girls with ribbons in their hair. Akel the vendor, who normally sells herring and sunflower seeds from his stall, also has cotton candy and luscious doughnuts, soaked in burned fat. Today is the day when none of the fishermen go out on the lake, because they’re all celebrating. By eleven a.m., almost nobody’s left standing on their feet; they have sacrificed too mightily to the Spirit of the Lake.
The chairman of the fish processing plant delivers a long speech, singing the praises of progress and collectivization as he shifts his gaze from the lake to the sky and back again. A man with a shaman’s headdress on—though nobody mentions him, as if he weren’t really there—dances around the statue of the Statesman. The Russian engineers and their wives, standing in the first line of listeners, are dressed in big-city fashion; the women in high heels, leather purses over their arms, hair brushed high. The local women speak of them with contempt; sometimes they even spit. One of the small Russian boys, despite the dumb look on his face, is an object of admiration, riding back and forth across the square in a squeaky pedal car. Nami can’t take his eyes off of him. He grips his grandma’s sweaty hand, crossing his legs; he badly needs to go pee. In one hand he holds a parade waver shaped like a fish. His grandpa stands next to him on the other side, swaying unsteadily, head drooping; every now and then he loudly smacks his lips. They hear the sound of thunder, or maybe gunfire from the Russian barracks. The Russian engineers and their wives look at one another in disgust and shake their heads. Nobody has been listening to the speech for a while now. The women converse in a lowered voice, but nobody leaves, out of courtesy. They all have their minds on the banquet that awaits them in the fish processing plant: blini with caviar, herring in mayonnaise, onion tarts, blackberry wine for the women, and plenty of hard liquor for their men. Nami can’t stop watching the green pedal car, cruising over the bumps and potholes like a tank. He tries to look away but can’t. Even when he shuts his eyes he still sees the car. His insides ache, squirming with envy.
“Can we go now, Grandma?”
“Soon, just hold on.”
“How much longer?”
“Just a little while.”
For a five-year-old boy, a little while is practically an eternity.
“What is it now?”
Nami says nothing.
“You peed yourself.”
Nami’s grandpa wakes from his snooze and looks around uncertainly.
“The boy peed himself,” Nami’s grandma whispers, elbowing the old man.
“Idiot,” he rasps.
A stain slowly spreads across the front of Nami’s shorts as a stream of urine runs down his thighs. The thunder rumbles again, and this time there’s lightning too. Wind whips the last few pages of the speech the factory chairman still has left in front of him, and without further warning the sky rips open, water gushing like when Nami’s grandma empties out the washtub. As the women’s hair collapses, blue makeup streams down their faces in hydrologic maps, and their high heels slip in the mud that has suddenly formed on the square, but the chairman of the fish factory won’t stop speaking. The statue of the Statesman silently raises its arms to the sky. In an instant, Nami is soaked to the skin. All that’s left of his parade wand is a wooden rod and streaks of red paint on his arm. The square has turned into a ploughed field, people sunk in mud up to their ankles and losing their shoes. The boy in the pedal car gets stuck in the mud and starts crying. Nami’s grandpa tips his head back and lets the rain fall on his face. The square lies on a slight slope, so it doesn’t take the boys long to realize the mud is great for sliding in. Akel desperately tries to keep his stand from slipping away downhill. Doughnuts tumble off the counter, dropping in the mud.
“It’s the Apocalypse,” Nami’s grandpa mumbles, beginning to sober up.
Water continues to pour from the sky, gradually filling the boy’s pedal car. The microphone gives out entirely, but the chairman goes on speaking. It’s like a silent comedy, except for the roar of the rain and the thunder, which every now and then strikes so nearby that Nami’s grandma twitches and looks toward the lake with terror on her face. The shaman slowly walks away, gripping his headdress. Then, following his lead, the masses of people hypnotically stir into motion. The factory chairman lowers his arm holding the microphone. Water runs down the collar of his jacket, down his shirt. He gazes accusingly at the sky. Nami can’t help himself, overcome by uncontrollable laughter, giggling like a madman. His grandma rolls her eyes at him, but Nami just laughs even more, still laughing hysterically as his grandma drags him home by the hand.
Nami doesn’t stop laughing until they cross the threshold of his house. His grandma slaps him across his sopping-wet thighs and his laughter finally stops, but he still hiccups long into the night.
They caught a lot of fish that year.
Sometimes Nami wakes up in the morning in bed and the sun is shining into his eyes. It must be vacation, since otherwise his grandma would have woken him up. It’s probably warmer outside than indoors. From the kitchen Nami can hear his grandpa’s smoker’s cough and the horn of a tugboat in the distance. He throws his arms and legs wide on the bed and stares up at the ceiling, where bunches of thyme and lady’s-mantle are drying. He feels like he could spend the rest of his life like this. If he sits up in bed, he can see all the way to the lake. He stretches out and puts on his clothes. On the kitchen table he finds a plateful of doughnuts waiting, fried for breakfast by his grandma. They’re only lukewarm now. He runs outside, determined to build a hideout in the branches that will hold up—not like last time, when it all fell apart and he got a scrape on his back.
The only tree for miles around is a cherry tree with a reddish-brown trunk that got struck by lightning, now half its branches are withered. Nami drags over a few large boards of various length and thickness. They slip and start to fall, he has to tie them together with rope. He tries to nail them in place with his grandpa’s carpenter’s hammer, which weighs at least ten pounds. The tree groans, the branches shake, and the boards resist, sliding away. The nail runs right through the board into empty space.
“For fuck’s sake!” Nami screams, throwing the hammer to the ground.
“What are you doing up there, boy?” Nami’s grandpa bellows, stepping out of the outhouse. “Lucky for you you don’t have a father, you miserable brat, or he’d tan your hide!”
Nami stops and thinks a minute, wondering what it would be like to have his hide tanned by a father. He actually likes the idea.
“Our only tree and he goes and wrecks it. As if he hasn’t done enough damage already,” Nami’s grandpa hollers in the direction of his grandma. She stands with one hand propped on her hip, the other one shading her eyes as she searches for Nami.
Nami sits on the ground now, behind the toolshed, breaking rocks. He lifts the heavy hammer high over his head, then brings it down, closing his eyes. He repeats the motion again and again, till streams of sweat run off of him and the stone turns to dust. He finds it satisfying. He stares in amazement at the palms of his hands, which have broken out in huge blisters. He tosses the hammer into the grass and runs down to the lake to wash off the dust.
“C’mere, you little runt! I’ll hammer you like a nail!” his grandpa shouts after him. Nami keeps running. He knows his grandpa will never catch him.
“I don’t know, but it seems weird to me, having the fish processing plant right next to the hatchery,” Nami’s neighbor Alea muses. “I know fish’ve got little brains, but still. It’s like putting a graveyard next to the hospital where babies are born, don’t you think?”
“Pour us some more Chardonnay, boy,” says Nami’s grandma, sitting at the table. Nami tops up their shotglasses with potato spirits. His grandma runs a hand over the plastic tablecloth, breathes a sigh, and stares off into the distance.
“Not many of ’em either and they’re dying like flies,” Alea goes on.
“What?” Nami’s grandma replies absently. Today she and Alea are rolling dough for bureks, one sheet after the next, coating it with a layer of butter, then laying another layer on top. Instead of a rolling pin, they use a three-foot-long wooden bar, like the one they have in the school gymnasium. Nami’s grandma huffs and puffs, setting her hands behind her hips and stretching her back.
“The sturgeons,” Alea says, visibly annoyed.
The house is painted blue, with a white roof. The door is made of hard black locust. The roof has a hole in it. When the weather’s nice, it lets in sunbeams; when it’s raining, water. Little snakes live underneath the old floorboards, but they’re harmless, vanishing into the cracks at the first sound of footsteps. Nami’s grandma says they keep good luck in the house, and pours milk into a dish for them.
The house sits on a little hill overlooking the lake. From the front door you can see the boats sailing back into harbor. It’s just one step up to the stoop with the railing. Nami’s grandma likes to sit there and watch the men returning home. Elbows propped against the table, she knits, embroiders, slices vegetables for dinner, peels potatoes, pits cherries with a hairpin, receives visitors.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” she says wearily. Heavy clouds are gathering on the horizon, where the lake comes to an end. That usually means a storm is on the way.
“Don’t be so gloomy!” Alea says. “More Chardonnay, Nami. We get those clouds from the east here every April.”
The old lady sighs, sprinkling lumps of sheep cheese onto the layer of dough. “Look, the Spirit is frowning. He’s still angry.”
“That wasn’t enough.”
“He still wants more!”
The sky above the lake looks heavy as lead. The ponderous clouds cover over the horizon like a fat old man atop his wife on their wedding night. Nami is collecting snails from the garden and stacking them in a pile. He calls it snail school, pairing them in schoolbenches, frowning as he scolds them for giving the wrong answer. Sometimes he even uses a cane.
“I’m worried, Alea,” Nami’s grandma says softly, hanging her hands at her side.
“Me too, you old goose,” Alea says, giving her a hug. The two women fall together to form a sculpture, pressing close as hard as they can, trembling—how many times have they done this before? Someday, someone will make a statue of the fisherman’s wife, shading her eyes as she gazes out to the horizon; whole throngs of women, their right arms taut with muscle from constantly gazing out to sea.
“Go run and fetch the shaman, Nami!” his grandma calls to him.
“Don’t go anywhere, Nami. Your grandma’s drunk,” Alea corrects her. Nami rubs his hands on his thighs, awaiting further orders.
“They’ll come back. They always do, you silly thing. Don’t get hysterical,” Alea says, giving Nami’s grandma an awkward pat on the arm.
As she pulls the burek out of the oven, the first drops begin to fall. They chew the buttery dough, peering out the window through the torrents of water streaming down. Neither woman says a word.
Nami lies on the ground in his room, up on the second floor, drawing in his notebook with his grandpa’s purple ink pen. The rain pounds against the windowpanes, the wind slaps the loose sheet tied to the shed. He’s got the transistor radio on, tuned in to the same program he listens to every night. A soothing female voice recites the 24-hour forecast for sailors and fishermen. In a rich, full alto, she announces the wind speed and expected rainfall and cloud conditions for each individual part of the lake. She describes gale-force winds of 10 on the Beaufort scale with the same steady voice as she does a breeze rustling the leaves in the trees. Nami finds it calming. He lays his head down on the floor and falls asleep. When he wakes up in the morning, the sky looks swept clean and the sun is blazing hot. His body feels like it’s broken and he’s starving. He goes downstairs to get breakfast. He looks at his hands and discovers they’re covered in purple ink. There’s a candle burning on the kitchen table, and his grandma sits in the corner, leaning her back against the wall, staring wide-eyed straight ahead.
Nami’s grandpa, Alea’s husband, and six other fishermen are missing.
(Translated by Alex Zucker)
(Host, 280 pages)
Hájíček is a well-established author whose bestselling novels, with their deceptively simple and traditional narrative style, are regularly nominated for all the major Czech literary awards. He is a two-time Magnesia Litera Award winner and his books have been translated into a number of languages including English, Italian and Polish. In The Rainstick, Zbyněk, a land administrator, meets a former love he hasn’t seen for many years, in order to help her with an apparently simple property-related problem. Having returned to the country village in which he was born and grew up, Zbyněk is gradually apprised of the unclear circumstances of a land dispute; at the same time he becomes embroiled in personal and marital crisis. He struggles with insomnia, loses his way in the countryside and cadastral maps, while a crazy 18th-century rustic aviator hovers above him like an apparition. A turning point is reached when Zbyněk goes into battle with his face covered in war paint. The Rainstick has already won the prestigious Lidové noviny Book of the Year Award and has been nominated for the Czech Book Award.
“The Rainstick is one of the most powerful prose works of the year”
— Radim Kopáč, MF Dnes
“The conclusion of The Rainstick will reverberate in the reader for a long time. Hájíček is an exceptional storyteller”
— Ivan Hartman, Hospodářské noviny
An Angel’s Egg
(Druhé město, 200 pages)
Stančík, author of the Magnesia Litera Award-winning Mummy Mill, has written another playful and linguistically rich novel for lovers of imaginative historical fiction. History books give 8 May 1945 as the date when World War II officially ended in Europe. Few people know that in the Czech Republic, it lasted a few days longer. The author has chosen this lesser known historical event as the backdrop to his latest novel, which blends two story lines. In the first one, we follow the story of the book’s protagonist, Augustin Hnát: his birth and youth in the countryside; meeting his first love; the battles of the First World War, which take him to the farthest reaches of Siberia; and finally, the 12th of May, 1945. The second story line describes the fateful last day, as experienced by the Hnát, from dawn till dusk. Both story lines merge in a dramatic finale where humour turns to tragedy. An Angel’s Egg deserves as much international attention as the critically acclaimed Mummy Mill, which has been published in Spanish, Polish and Hungarian.
“Inspired by Kafka, Petr Stančík dishes out a combination of carefully researched historical curiosities, poetic images and lies.”
— Michal Šanda, Právo
“Despite all the humour, hyperbole, literary gluttony and wacky situations, An Angel’s Egg leads to such a powerful and tragic wartime finale that it will make your skin crawl.”
— Ivan Hartman, Hospodářské noviny
21st February 1898
It was just after Christmas when Augustin fell in love with his classmate, Lenka Číšecká. The only problem was that he didn’t understand his feelings and being in love made him feel ill. So he blamed all of this on Lenka, which is why he also tormented her – he’d put a hairy caterpillar in her sandwich, stick blobs of wax in her long hair, which was the shape and colour of sun-drenched flax tow, or deliberately give away the ending to a fairy tale while she was in the middle of reading it.
Lenka endured all of this with patience beyond her years because she loved Augustin too and believed that one day he’d learn to master his feelings.
Their teacher, Mr Nebejas, was aware of all this, and even though he liked Augustin as much as all his other pupils, or perhaps even a little more, he would often punish him for bothering Lenka, but always in tandem with another offender. This was because Nebejas never beat the children with a cane or a ruler. If someone behaved badly, then they would face a feared method he called “the water of life”: the offenders stood opposite each other, stretched out their arms, palms down, and the teacher placed a cup of water on their hands. You could stop whenever you wanted, but the boys began to compete against each other and wouldn’t give in. The first one who did was labelled a coward. And so they would stand there for long minutes, eyes fixed on the trembling cups, teeth clenched in pain, and sweat dripping from their foreheads into their eyes which they couldn’t even wipe away.
The genius of the water of life lay in the fact that the miscreants punished themselves and no traces of this torture were left on their bodies. The only disadvantage was that there had to be at least two of them.
Augustin could hold the cup longer than anyone else and over time had begun to develop a nice set of biceps.
The teacher felt even more sympathy for Lenka because he himself was very lonely. His only knowledge of female anatomy came from a fold-out atlas of the human body, and his one love was history. He felt embarrassed in the presence of women, and a simple calculation told him that he couldn’t support a family on his derisory teacher’s salary.
But when it came to history he was transformed from a shy virgin into a fearless warrior. For example, when he learned from the old chronicles that the neighbouring village of Kosmo had not been named after the universe, but after the fact that the local peasants built their homes askew, or “kose” in Czech, he wrote an article about it for the journal of the Museum of the Czech Kingdom. He was then lured to the pub in Kosmo on the pretext of giving a lecture, where the locals gave him a right royal hiding.
No sooner had the swelling on his face gone down than the incorrigible amateur researcher found a medieval parchment in the archives in which the lord of the manor, Lord Smil, granted the villagers permission to dig a well. The razor-sharp Nebejas realized that the name of the village should properly be written as Smilavoda, as in Smil’s Water, and not Smylavoda, as in Cleansing Water, as everyone had thought until then.
He even sat down at his desk and wrote a letter to the district governor’s office governorship suggesting that in the interests of historical accuracy the village should be renamed. However, no reply was forthcoming and everyone continued to misspell Smylavoda with a y. But the teacher did not give up. His research ground to a halt, he stopped shaving, his garden behind the school became overgrown with weeds and he began to spend all of his money on envelopes, ink and stamps. He sent request after request to every office imaginable, including the ministries of cultivation, railways and war, the police headquarters, the Jewish community, Emperor Franz Joseph I in Vienna and Pope Leo XIII in Rome, the university, the academy of sciences, the householders’ cooperative, the grand master of the Seven Retorts lodge of the Illuminati, and so on, but no-one paid him the slightest attention.
Nor did Peprník the mayor want to hear about any changes. The town hall would then have had to buy a new sign with the name of the village on it. And so he ordered the town crier to announce that the village had got its name from a legend about a robber knight who had been driven by unrequited love to abandon the Templar order seven hundred years earlier and had stopped at the local well to wash off the blood of his victims, hence the name Smylavoda or Cleansing Water.
When Nebejas heard this, he ran straight to the town hall.
“Mr Mayor, admit that you made that story up!” he accused him in a faltering voice.
“I made it up,” admitted the mayor without blushing, tucking his thumbs into the edge of his fancy gold brocade waistcoat with its pattern of scaly, long-eared demons from the Ace of Acorns card. Amongst other things, the mayor was a passionate devotee of the card game mariáš with its tarot-style cards.
“But in that case it isn’t a legend!” said the teacher raising his voice.
“What do you mean? Of course it is!” the mayor contradicted him. “A legend is a legend precisely because of the fact that it isn’t a fact. Logically, then, every legend must have been made up by someone. So why not me? Now be off with you, teacher. I’ve work to do here.”
The schoolmaster couldn’t think of a suitable retort, so he left, humiliated.
In despair, he gradually began to breakfast, lunch and dine on the cheapest grey liquor that the furrier and merchant Rosenblunt secretly distilled from stolen sugar beet.
In the end, Nebejas proved himself to be an inventor too by making an air balloon filled with marsh gas. He sewed it together himself from his only suit and filled it with gas from a bog known locally as the “Slain Man”. However, instead of a basket he attached a rope with which he hanged himself.
There was not a breath of wind that day and so the teacher’s naked corpse dangled above the village until firemen from the town of Bzdín arrived with a long enough ladder to pull him down.
Doctor Luftstein, who officially examined the deceased, took pity on him and wrote Smilavoda with an “i” for the place of death on his death certificate.
12th May 1945, 12.05pm
He went into the courtyard and his gaze fell on an unsightly, shiny grey patch on the farmhouse wall where Koza the nanny goat liked to scratch her behind on the way back from grazing. He pulled a plank away from a hole in the ground where some lime was maturing – lime which had been slaked before he was born – and filled a bucket with the wobbly white mass. While a loaf was baking in the oven, Augustin gave the whole wall a fresh coat of whitewash. After hundreds of millions of years encased in rock, the crushed shells of Paleozic molluscs reflected the sunlight once again. He cleaned his brush at the pump and the lime water seeped into the ground, leaving behind a white labyrinth in the brown courtyard.
His timing was perfect – from the oven wafted a smell so powerful you could almost touch it, signalling that the bread was just right. He opened the oven door and brought the bread out into the light with a wooden peel. Steam in the sign of the cross issued from the slit crust. As this gift of God began to cool down, it ever so quietly sang to itself.
Apolena came out of the barn with an empty cup in her hand, rinsed out the black strip of coffee and returned it to its place on the sideboard, where a shallow depression had formed over the years. Then she started to get lunch ready.
8th October 1899
For once his schoolmate Krajta had not been lying – their rabbit did have the heart of a dictator. Its furious biting, clawing and screeching had made a slave out of the old ram, who was many times its size, and it had then gone on to terrorize the whole farm. Even the vicious watchdog crawled into his kennel when he saw it, and the gleam would vanish from the eyes of the one-ton bull called Satan under its rheumy stare. The rabbit took a special liking to the ram’s warm, soft, fleece-covered back. Sprawling there like a lord, he let it carry him around his rabbit kingdom and slept on it at night.
Soon the rabbit cast its demonic spell over the farmer and his entire family. For this was no ordinary rabbit but a pure-bred Belgian Giant, a champion breed, bought by Krajta’s father in distant Prague at an exhibition by the Central Union of Czechoslovak Rabbit Breeders, and it had been hellishly expensive, so they couldn’t kill it. However, the rabbit made the mistake that all those who are too powerful make: it believed nothing could happen to it and let its guard down, and that was to cost it its neck.
It met its doom when a band of travellers came roaming across the sleeping village of Smylavoda. Here some hens disappeared from a coop, there a pot of pears went missing from a cellar. And even though in the morning the peasants who had been robbed called the thieves every name under the sun, everyone accepted it as the way things were and part of folklore. After all, if Gypsies had to work, then who would play the cimbalom and the tambourine until their souls danced out of their bodies? Who would tell fortunes from the lines in your palm or from coffee grounds?
That autumn night, the Krajta’s evil rabbit was resting on its laurels and awoke on a bay leaf in the Gypsy camp. Everyone was so relieved that the following day old Krajta sent the Gypsies via the local policeman a bottle of Augustin’s new liquor – candy schnapps.
The Hnát family, in contrast to this, had only nice, peaceable rabbits. Every morning Augustin would lovingly chop up some juicy young nettles and couch grass for them and then watch as they busily munched away.
The Krajta family looked down on rabbit meat and at most would use it minced to bulk out the pork meatloaf for the farmhands so that it would go further. The Hnáts, on the other hand, loved rabbit cooked in every possible way.
Every Sunday, Grandma Rozálie would choose the plumpest male, lift him up by the ears and tell him as usual: “Everything repeats itself and people never learn from it”, and then with one sharp flick of the edge of her wrinkled palm brought his soft existence to an end.
After that Granddad Vavřinec took charge of the rabbit. He slit it open and left it to bleed, hung it by its hind legs from the planks of the fence and gutted it with one clean cut. He kept only the liver, heart and kidneys for food; the blood and the rest of the innards went into an old pot for the flies to feast upon. After a few days the pot would begin to writhe with hatched larvae which were used as a nutritious snack for the roosters – although they were actually hens, in Smylavoda they were all called roosters.
He then pulled off the rabbit skin and left it hanging from the fence for the furrier to see. Once a week, on Wednesdays, Samuel Rosenblut would go around the village to collect them in a goat-drawn cart. All bedecked in rabbit skins, he resembled a furry tree, and he rang a bell, bleated at the goat and called out in both Yiddish and Czech: “Koyfn – pelts! Folks – furs!” He would expertly rub the skins between his fingers and stroke his cheek with them voluptuously. He would perform his ritual of haggling for a while before offering a good price – the Hnáts’ rabbits had wonderfully soft fur which was as black as an August night, ideal for making top-quality felt for rabbis’ hats.
The tender rabbit meat was then cooked in seven different alternating ways: in a creamy vegetable sauce, in garlic, in a rosehip sauce, with dried plums, in rosemary, with mushrooms, or – best of all –with onions.
You take the rabbit’s head and heart, thus ending the conflict between reason and emotion, and use them to make a stock as strong as a stockade. Finely chop half a dozen onions and fry them in rendered bacon until golden. Then let the hot onions enfold the rabbit, sprinkled with salt and cut into six pieces, in their loving embrace. Sear the meat and then add a bay leaf, thyme and pepper. Pour in the hot broth and simmer until tender. Transfer the meat to the pot, sieve the onion and the juices, and then pour the resulting sauce over the meat and cook it all together for a while with the lid on. You’ll know it’s ready when the rabbit begins to smell unbearably good. Then sauté the kidneys and the sliced liver and return them to the rabbit on the plate – which, fortunately, will not be enough to revive it.
What Augustin loved best out of the whole rabbit was the nice crust on the ribs with its lining of tender fat. But he never told anyone, because if he had, his older brother Libor would have eaten it on purpose, even if he didn’t like it. The only family member who knew his secret was Granddad Vavřinec, and he would always give Augustin a forkful of the best pieces from his own plate.
And just as the family was polishing off the small bones from the onion sauce, Zmok the town crier came out onto the square to announce that after Sunday mass they would be choosing the cabbage treaders.
Smylavoda’s pickled cabbage was famed far and wide and was much in demand – just like Pilsner beer, brandy from Cognac, Iberian ham from the Pedroches Valley or marzipan from Lubeck. Not only was the local cabbage more tender and juicy than anywhere else, it was also distinguished by the wonderfully subtle flavour that it got from the addition of grated horseradish, mustard seeds, apple and caraway, which grew on the other side of the cemetery wall, where suicides were buried. What really made it special, however, was it gained most in its flavour from the lactic fermentation in the bowels of a huge earthenware vat known as the cabbager, which occupied most of the cellar underneath the town hall. These days no-one could remember who had built this monster and, more importantly, how they had managed to get it into the cellar, as the only access was through a corridor much narrower than the cabbager.
One theory suggested that the barrel had been broken into pieces, taken to the cellar and then put back together again. However, this was refuted by the fact that no cracks were to be found on the cabbager. Another hypothesis was that the cabbager had first been formed out of clay and then fired inside the cellar itself. However, most of the villagers believed the old tale that the cabbager had been brought there long ago by giants who pickled people in it. It was only later that the town hall had been built on top of it.
Wherever the truth lay, the people of Smylavoda had kept their gigantic cabbager a secret. They didn’t even know about it in neighbouring Kosmo, while Kadlub the parish priest had only the slightest inkling.
The whole village lived for pickled cabbage. Since time immemorial the cabbage ritual had had its unchanging order and traditions, which everyone scrupulously observed. Each year in the autumn, as soon as the cabbage was ripe in the fields, they chose two “treaders” – the boy and girl with the most beautiful feet. Everyone shredded the heads of cabbage themselves and brought it to the cabbager, where the town crier weighed the cabbage and issued a certificate for it. The treaders then walked on the shredded cabbage all night until they had treaded all the air out of it. After six weeks the cabbage was ready and everyone could load their share into a normal fermentation crock and take it home.
It was a great honour to be a treader, and you also received a bonus in the form of the stalks from all of the shredded heads. That was why for years now Augustin had been treating his legs with a decoction of marigold and rich mud from the local swamp “The Slain Man”. So now he couldn’t wait until Sunday, when the decision was to be made.
No sooner had the organ finished playing in the new church with the miniature nave and oversized tower than the young people from the entire village assembled in front of the town cabbager. Peprník the mayor and Stojespal the blacksmith then inspected, sniffed and even licked everyone’s feet, and after much deliberation chose Augustin Hnát and Lenka Číšecká.
They scrubbed both children’s feet with river sand and soap, and then steamed them over a pot of boiling water until they turned red. With the aid of a pulley and rope they were hoisted to the top of the cabbager, where they jumped down onto the pile of shreddings. The strips of cabbage cushioned their fall better than a plump duvet.
They stood face to face with their hands on each other’s waists. Then they began to dance inside the vat to the music of their young hearts, which began to beat to the same rhythm. Inhaling the intoxicatingly pungent fumes from the cabbage sap sent them into a blissful trance, and the lumps of cabbage squeezed erotically through the spaces between their toes.
At first he tried to look down at the cabbage, but Lenka’s big eyes, the colour of morning grass, soon drew him towards them, and Augustin drowned in them for so long that he submitted to death and was reborn in the knowledge that she and she alone was the one for him, the woman of his life, destined to be his until the end of all days and nights.
His heart pounded, the cabbage squelched, and her firm hips burned his hands, but he felt no tiredness or pain, and he would gladly have danced and danced with her until he fell down from exhaustion.
Towards morning the air bubbles stopped rising from the shreddings. When they finally hauled them out from the cabbager onto dry land, Augustin and Lenka already had one foot in the land of nod. And even after they had been washed and put to bed, they continued to tread invisible cabbage in their sleep.
12th May 1945, 1.03pm
Apolena called to him from the kitchen range to bring some cabbage. He went down into the cellar, lifted the lid of the fermentation crock out of the water-filled groove and shook off the drops. Then he placed it on his head like an earthenware hat to free up his hands and ladled small clumps of cabbage into a bowl. Because the lid was quite large, he had to balance it carefully on the top of his head. When the bowl was full, he turned the ladle on its side and let the cloudy liquid run down it. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and with slow sips revelled in the sweet-and-sour flavour of the juice.
Its sensuous bouquet conjured up memories which he quickly pushed aside. That night when he fell in love with her would never return. The two most important ingredients were now missing, never to be found again – Lenka was dead and the cabbager had been blown to pieces by the Germans.
He took the lid off his head and put it back in its place.
Their meagre wartime lunch consisted of celeriac cutlets with potato and cabbage mash. It was difficult to find it among the celeriac, but he managed to do so and gave his daughter the best pieces from his own plate.
(Translated by Graeme Dibble)
(Druhé město, 128 pages)
Aviaries is a posthumously published text from the recently deceased author of one of the first Czech novels to openly describe lesbian relations, Year of Pearls, which has been translated into many languages. Aviaries is an intimate diary account of neurotically oversensitive perception of the world around us. As in her previous works, here too Brabcová works bewitchingly with the language, pulsating from bare recording to supreme metaphors, from lyrical tropes to vulgarity, revealing motifs of being alone and lost in a world that has ceased to make sense. The everyday entries shift to more general and symbolic testimonies. They do not philosophize but cause shock by revealing the grotesque – as if the present generated nothing but black humour, the bizarre, the pompous and the void. The pilgrim has examined the world and now has nowhere to go. There is no longer any paradise of the heart, her own interior world… Brabcová is a Magnesia Litera Award winner and the first ever Jiří Orten Award winner. Aviaries won the Josef Škvorecký Award, has been nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award and an English translation of the novel will be published by Twisted Spoon Press.
“This sophisticated testimony of social exclusion oscillates between the diary genre, dream entries and fantasy prose.”
— Petr Bílek, Literární noviny
“[Aviaries has] a rich style, figurative language, a combination of absolute introspection and reflections on external situations”
— Josef Chuchma, Lidové noviny
20th December 2011
It comes on around four or five in the afternoon, sets in around seven and then takes over for the night. It’s been like that for years – I can’t remember it ever being any different. A day devoted to not going out is a musical score for a melody that nobody has ever played. And if I have to go out all the same, then the people that I pass by have a bloom, a glassy frosting that makes their outlines appear fuzzy; I can imagine they do not exist, and so love them. All that exists merely spoils and disturbs, as if somebody had sprayed over The Night Watch.
The day before yesterday Václav Havel died. In his sleep, in the morning hours. So it does not just take over at night.
21st December 2011
“Gosh, did I cry! I really liked him!” said the woman I bought Nový prostor magazine from at Anděl.
It was around freezing point and she had no gloves. All day long it had been around freezing point and all day she had no gloves. All day long she shuffled up and down by the bus stop.
“Why don’t you have any gloves?”
“They’re expensive,” she replied.
Her top and and bottom teeth were also missing.
They are even more expensive.
I went round the corner to the Christmas market and bought her some gloves. The little round emptiness of her face lit up, while my revulsion over my own gestures contorted me and she clenched the throat of Christmas with them.
22nd December 2011
That bloom is not only on people but also on things, while between me and them looms a mirror rampart, built into the frame at right angles. Smelling of incense, the whole shop tinkles.
I would stand behind the curtain and observe for hours and hours as Míra and Bobeš dribble the ball, a static image in motion, but I do not have a curtain.
I wipe off the dust and look at the dictionary: “Microscopic particles of matter of mineral or organic origin created by a rubbing-off process and settling as dirt.”
Something’s the matter. Something is up. Something isn’t right.
(Translated by Melvyn Clarke)
(Kniha Zlín, 200 pages)
Although this is Kultánová’s debut novel, the response from critics and readers has been overwhelmingly positive, earning the author a nomination in the Magnesia Litera Award’s Discovery of the Year category. Augustin Zimmermann, the main protagonist of this book which takes place in the 1860s, represents an almost archetypal model of an unhappy person. While the world around him is productive and prosperous during the Industrial Revolution, his family is struggling with an existential crisis exacerbated by his alcoholism and hopeless attempts to succeed in this new world. Augustin’s uncertain past, strange unease and deceitful nature cast a dark shadow on his entire family, which is spiralling into increasing despair and falling to the bottom of the social hierarchy from which there is no escape. The story culminates tragically in Prague’s Josefov quarter, a place of misery, which for centuries was a Jewish ghetto. This is a dark novel inspired by true events, nevertheless it also contains moments of humour. Pitch black humour.
“Augustin Zimmermann is an exceedingly good debut novella […] The author’s diverse style is full of naturalism and a number of imaginative analogies, yet it retains its clarity.”
— Petr Nagy, Host 8/2016
“An exceptional and uncompromising novel.”
— Aleš Palán, Hospodářské noviny
It was after lunch on a Sunday when Augustin Zimmermann rose to leave, his rickety chair clattering in the process. His wife asked him where he was off to this time and where he had got the money for booze. By way of reply Zimmerman, a tall man with piercing blue eyes, merely spat out some abuse. “Why are you always fucking going on at me?!” He opened the door and headed out into the Sunday afternoon, muttering something about an old bitch.
It was after lunch on a Sunday when Augustin Zimmermann rose to leave, his rickety chair clattering in the process. His wife asked him where he was off to this time and where he had got the money for booze. By way of reply Zimmerman, a tall man with piercing blue eyes, merely spat out some abuse. “Why are you always fucking going on at me?!” He opened the door and headed out into the Sunday afternoon, muttering something about an old bitch.
The old bitch followed his retreating figure with a sigh. It would be a waste of words, which would run through him like water through a cleaned-out fish head. She placed her veined arms on her lap, then something snapped inside her and she threw an earthenware mug at the door. With an annoyingly loud noise it smashed into several pieces. For a few minutes there was silence. The woman stared into space for a while before getting up to collect the shards, which made a tinkling sound as they spread across the floor like mercury. It was the last decent cup they’d had. She threw the remains of the cup onto the street; they could end up killing someone for all she cared.
Her husband, Augustin Zimmermann, walked along the street in the direction of the pub, though he wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. He loosened his red scarf and for a moment toyed with the idea of going home to his wife, having a chat with the neighbours, letting the day go by, giving the kids a thrashing for good measure and going to work sober in the morning. He felt a strong desire for harmony, a lazy afternoon and a drawn-out Sunday. But how? At home? With his wife? With his neighbours? Or even in the pub? For a moment he thought he could hear festive music being played – the annoying creaking of a barrel-organ and the rattling of a tired old accordion. It all sounded very distant and inhuman. As distant as this day.
It’s this damned thirst, you can’t help it, he said to himself. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so rough on Františka, but he couldn’t control himself. It was always money, money, money. She constantly went on at him about money and drink – as if he didn’t have enough to deal with already. Alone – he was alone in the world. He would sit by himself today. He had a feeling that the drink wasn’t going to improve his mood, that he wouldn’t join in with the carefree singing or bang his glass on the table. Today he would get darkly, grimly drunk. This Sunday owed him something. The whole world, which was constantly making promises, owed him something, and with interest. But no payment or special rate of interest were forthcoming. They were certainly taking their time about it. Instead his life was a succession of blows. Drudgery and a shortage of everything. Where was the joy in it, why was there none left over for Augustin? And why was there none left for his wife, whose ribs stuck out from under her blouse like a rake from straw?
Augustin kept expecting the world to come rushing up with a sack full of joy and, as if by magic, arrange for he and his missus to have a better life. If only that sack existed, he would be able to find at least an ounce of joy for his eternally sour-faced wife. His wife, for whom nothing was good enough, for whom nothing was sacred, his wife who had no respect for her husband and merely ridiculed him. But the sack was empty and full of holes. And where would the world get this sack of plenty from and why would it give it to him of all people? his wife would laugh at him if she could see into his head. What makes you think that you could be a success? she would ask. Just be glad that you’re still alive.
A sharp stab of indignation passed through Zimmerman. He was struck by a sense of injustice and his head was filled with dark thoughts. He kicked a stone, passed by some people, doffed his cap and loosened his scarf until it fell to the ground. Cursing, he picked it up and put it back on. He’d just as happily hang himself with it. He looked at the woman in front of him – she had broad hips and a fat behind. She waddled like a duck – like a miller’s wife he had once known. Prudent and cautious with money. Expansive, as though you were standing alone in a meadow.
But one day all of her nice chubby flesh was crushed by a mill wheel. During one unfortunate storm she was mercilessly swept between its blades, which tossed her around as though she was not a beautiful, fat, pink human body, but a pile of manure. No-one was able to stop the relentless motion of the wheel. It turned and turned, crushing the body of the plump miller’s wife to a pulp.
It took three pairs of strong arms to extricate the waterlogged body of the miller’s wife and the body of her son, who had jumped in after her. When they pulled them out, they averted their eyes. It was a horrendous sight. Where was the beautiful miller’s wife with the wide hips? Why was there this sack, drenched in water, without beauty or form? Fat millers’ wives should die tucked under their quilts, attended to by distraught relatives and well-wishers, surrounded by daisies and bladdernut rosaries, bathed in sunlight, glory and eternity. Their bodies should ascend to the heavens in a dignified manner with a divine smile. They had no business resembling a rotten, mouldy potato sack, or some poor wretch who’d popped their clogs in the middle of a damp cottage. They dragged her into an outhouse and the abating water, which just moments before had been casting up a furious foam, washed the stones of the river clean of guilt.
It silently wept and regretted. It couldn’t help it. Once in a while the storm would take hold of it and destroy whatever it could until it had worked off its anger, until it had reached such a peak of fury that it could rest again for a few years in the aftermath of its convulsions. One brief, powerful summer storm was all it took to cause the accident which broke the miller’s wife’s neck, the miller’s spirit and all of their son’s limbs. Zimmerman then travelled the countryside telling people of the accident. They wanted to know the details. They wanted to know if the wheel had really pulverized everything.
Zimmerman didn’t know exactly what had happened before the jaws of the water had swallowed her up. How did she get so close to the wheel? She had always been careful, and the children had been forbidden from going within several metres of it. She had sometimes argued about it with her husband, who reproached her for keeping the children away from their trade. The miller’s wife ruled the mill with a firm hand, but she was afraid of it. It is so big, so much bigger than me, she thought as she looked at the large, noisy structure. Water can kill as well as heal, she used to say. It awaits your fear like an alert dog.
The tall, blue-eyed man finally reached the pub. The first thing he did was order a caraway schnapps. Then a beer, a schnapps, a beer, a schnapps. He sat alone, staring at the crowd. The gaudy outfits of the spruced-up workers danced in front of his eyes. The clothes sparkled across the whole pub like glass stones from a fair, and everyone acted as though they were not made of cheap and nasty material. They wanted to give the impression that they were beautiful clothes designed for festive occasions full of hope. The female workers would find themselves male workers, with whom they would lead a miserable, squalid life filled with the hooting of factory chimneys, quarrels and the screaming of hungry children. What wonderful prospects awaited these poor women stuffed into their tawdry outfits, dancing to tired old ditties full of double entendres.
# Just you wait, Marie. Pepík, what for? #
They came here to choose for themselves a rather ragged young man, who would one day be the death of them, but even so it was worth it. To put on a dress, dance, drink and fornicate while you could still pretend that life still might turn out to be one big holiday.
# Just you wait, Marie. Pepík, what for? #
The hurdy-gurdy ground away and the young men shouted over one another, running about the pub like wild dogs, eagerly baring their teeth, clinking bottles, clutching one another. Augustin lost himself in the clamour and drank himself into oblivion. He sat alone. He had no-one to sit with and no-one wanted to sit with him. He wasn’t good company. He went from laughter to swearing and from swearing to laughter – it didn’t make for a great sense of camaraderie. And so he sat alone, staring at the bottle and trying not to sober up. He couldn’t take that kind of pain. A new week lay ahead and he had to make sure he was ready for it. A mild drunkenness would still be with him tomorrow, then he’d sober up, and he’d hold out for a while, but just so that the pain didn’t destroy him, and then he’d be back here again. Františka understood – she was a sensible woman who knew she couldn’t expect anything better from him anyway. A week is so unpredictable. You couldn’t even tell how long a week was going to be. When he had finally drunk away all his money, he paid up with a sense of relief and stumbled out into the street, but being so tall he banged his head against the doorframe on the way out. Cursing, he almost fell over. For a moment his arms waved slowly in the air before he regained his balance.
Trudging through the dark streets, he passed the elegant silhouettes of factory chimneys. They looked like those posh cigarettes wrapped in very thin paper, which Zimmerman would certainly never smoke. The strictly right-angled, classicist streets of the Karlín district undulated and merged into one another. For a moment Augustin really had no idea where he was. He pricked up his ears, but in vain. The roads were suspiciously expansive and yet closed-off at the same time. He found himself in a labyrinth with no exit, full of dead ends and false trails, each of which closed at precisely the moment you wanted to get out. A labyrinth full of dark forests whose thorns pricked his nerves. A moth flew around his head while from somewhere came the scratching of rats. For a moment it seemed to him that he could hear the murmur of the harbour, but it was too far from him. He drove away the idea that he was moving upon water and rummaged around in his pockets for his pipe. He had to have a smoke. This wasn’t normal. He drew in the stink of the cheap tobacco and his stomach heaved. Didn’t a train just go by this way? Leaning against a wall, he stopped and stared into the darkness. His head was splitting and he felt a severe pain just above his eye. He should have stayed in the pub. At least it was safe there. Karlín was far too expansive – it made you nervous, made you hear strange things.
His knees began to buckle under him and he felt very tired. He would have preferred to lie down somewhere and sleep, but then there would be a big fuss if someone saw him there in the morning. Františka would fly into a rage. “Children, just look at your father sleeping in the street like a pig.” He could do without having to listen to that.
He could have done with a drink – his mouth was burning like the fires of hell. Like the blazing furnaces of those awful buildings with their tall, thin, black chimneys constantly belching out smoke. At last he stood in front of his house. The windows were stuffed with rags to keep out the draughts, and in the courtyard the hens slept, bloated like footballs. A hovel which it was better to enter in the darkness. A cursed, rented home. He took hold of the handle and tripped over a bucket. He cursed, wondering who had done it. He decided that his wife must have left the bucket there as a trap for him. She wanted to make a cripple of him – she’d like that. He rattled the handle a few times and when he found that it was open he barged inside. He scooped some water in his cupped hands, slurped it down, undid his scarf and fell onto the mattress.
“Don’t pretend you’re sleeping,” he yelled into the darkness. He needed some respect. He was a working man and a father, and his wife was lying around when she should have been working, and his children were sleeping when they should have been helping.
No-one said anything. Any response would set him off and Františka had to work the next day. As well as making buttons, she was now mending clothes as well and had to work hard. If she replied, her husband would flare up and kick up a fuss until morning. That was what he wanted to do – to let off steam. Not even the hours spent drinking could quench his anger. Augustin sat for a while, rolling his fuzzy tongue around in his mouth, thoughts swirling around in his head, narrowing his eyes like a cat. His pupils darted restlessly this way and that, trying to catch hold of something. Even he didn’t know what, and yet he was sure of what it ought to be. Eventually tiredness overcame him and his stomach also started to bother him. He lay down and started to hiccup. This disturbed everyone. The children clenched their fists, closed their eyes as tightly as they could and tried to sleep. The cold floor was like a stab in the kidneys. The room began to fill with the stench of drunkenness and the drunk’s wife saw red. She bit her hand. Finally, however, after about half an hour, God had mercy on them and Augustin hiccupped for the last time before starting to snore. Meanwhile, the gently rolling hills enfolded Karlín, blowing onto the burning wounds of the endless night.
(Translated by Graeme Dibble)
The Praise of Opportunism
(Torst, 420 pages)
Marek Toman is an experienced author and journalist, whose books have been published in English, Finnish, Polish and Hungarian. In his latest novel, Toman has found a truly original voice for the retelling of modern Czech and Central European history: the testimony of the Černín Palace that has been witness to many historical, military, political, and personal events. The author has made the largest Baroque structure in Prague the protagonist, commenting upon the historical events that have passed it by over the centuries. Narrating its own story, the palace describes the turning points in Czech history, from the day it was built up until the present day. Over time, the palace has served as a gallery, a hospital, military barracks, a shelter for the poor, or office of the Reichsprotektor during the Second World War.
“[…] exceptionally convincing, at the same time thrilling and emotionally charged. Thanks to the truly original form through which The Praise of Opportunism manages to capture the passing of history, the novel bears comparison with the best works of current European fiction: Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Hilary Mantel’s Tudor saga, or The Great Century by Swedish writer Jan Guillou.”
— Zdenko Pavelka, Právo
“This novel about one of the most remarkable buildings in Prague has an unusually powerful narrative drive and a comic flair.”
— Markéta Pilátová, Hospodářské noviny
(Odeon, 208 pages)
Material Fatigue is the first novel by a Czech author to address the European migrant crisis. Šindelka is an award-winning young writer whose books are popular with readers both in the Czech Republic and abroad, having been published in Dutch, Polish, Bulgarian and Hungarian. The hero of this book is an unnamed teenage boy who finds himself in a foreign country in the middle of Europe, which in his eyes looks like nothing more than a complex of fences, overpasses, railway corridors and warehouses. Travelling through the cold winter landscape, he is denied real life, moving like a shadow on the periphery of the country and society. He is trying to get to a city in the north where he had been heading with his older brother Aamir, before they were split up by people smugglers. Although the novel is based on the current migration crisis, it explores universal themes of alienation, the loss of one’s home and roots. Šindelka depicts the reduction of the lives of ‘foreigners’, artificially created enemies, to a problem, manpower, material. Material Fatigue has been nominated for the EU Prize for Literature and the Magnesia Litera Award.
“Šindelka’s prose is strongest in its descriptions of the physical experiences of the refugees. Animal instincts seem to awaken in the main characters when their lives are threatened. Some of the insights are extremely powerful.”
— Daniel Konrád, Hospodářské noviny
“[Šindelka] is able to convey the movement of every muscle, twitching nerves as well as the effects of the elements: snow, wind, ice or clouds and their fluctuations which are indifferent to humans. These parts have an almost existential dimension.”
— Josef Chuchma, Lidové noviny 3/1/2017
“Šindelka’s book is profoundly lyrical.”
— Veronika Dvorská, A2 3/17
(Argo, 208 pages)
Hakl is a Czech literary celebrity, best known for his novel Of Kids and Parents, which has also been turned into a successful film. His books have been translated into many languages, including English, German and Dutch. Hakl’s latest novel addresses a hot topic in science and technology — the creation of an artificial human. In Uma’s Version, humanity’s Frankenstein-like desire to create a humanoid robot is fulfilled in genuinely amateur conditions. However, this does not prevent the two main characters from experiencing an intense relationship based on mutual affection, which eventually turns into an addiction, conspiratorial friendship and sex. This is a novel about love with a plot which incorporates detective novel elements and is written in the authors typically efficient and fast-paced style.
“Hakl chose a brilliant topic for this book. Questions about how we will coexist with robots, humanoids and other technological creations are appealing for everyone.”
— Monika Zavřelová, MF Dnes
“The beginning of [Uma’s Version] has atmosphere and a fast pace. […] It will be easy for readers to quickly get through Uma’s Version, it won’t be a problem to read the book in two evenings, maybe even just one.”
— Jarda Konáš, Aktuálně.cz
Cover image: An illustration by Martin Salajka from The Lake (Host, 2016).