As If I Have Written Several Books

An interview with Radka Denemarková, where among other topics she talks about the foreign reception of her novel Money from Hitler (Peníze od Hitlera), published simultaneously in German and English in the fall of this year.


Radka Denemarková. Photograph: Radka Denemarková/Tobias Bohm

Radka Denemarková. Photograph: Radka Denemarková/Tobias Bohm

You will translate two novels by Herta Müller, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature. Had you known her before she became this famous?
I had known her books and I had been at her reading in Berlin once. Her agent wanted her novels to get published already a few years ago, but Czech publishers refused, saying that nobody would be interested in “Romanian” topics here. The fact that I should translate her novels is new even to me – they called me from the Mladá fronta publishing house only a few days ago, when I was at a reading in Vienna. I myself was surprised, too.  But I am glad, since I like the tone of her novels. So I will translate it for myself, and if someone else likes it, it’ll be even better…

What makes Herta Müller so interesting for you?
I like the way she works with the language – she works it like dough and paints reality with poetry. She picks rough topics and never skulks. I think this is what we have in common. She comes from a German speaking family from the Romanian region of Banat and in her works, she raises questions of guilt, punishment, victims and offenders. And also, the fact that evil can hardly be punished retrospectively, but must at least be named. When it comes to translating, it is a kind of “relax” for me, when I can breathe out when swimming in the stream of my writing. These days, my translation of the Austrian author Michael Stavarič’s novel Stillborn Elisa Frankenstein is being published by the Labyrint publishing house. And in the Na Zábradlí theatre, director Jo-Anna Hamman, who comes from Berlin, is staging my translation of Fritz Kater’s play And Now, Dance.

Both English and German translations of Money from Hitler were published almost simultaneously.
They were published almost simultaneously, within one month. But it was only accidental. Strange things have happened around this book. It has already been translated or is now being translated into as many as eleven languages. The Hungarian translation was the first and immediately, I became one of the main guests at the Budapest Book Fair, where I and Miklós Vámos talked about the book. The Polish translator was nominated for the prestigious Polish translators’ prize, Angelus. The English translation is told to come into existence due to the fact that the representatives of the Canadian Scholars’ Press publishing house and the Women’s Press publishing house saw a booklet dealing with Czech literature during their visit to a book fair in England. The booklet featured a blurb on Money from Hitler and they became interested. In the German publishing house DVA, the problem was who would translate the book – all Christa Rothmeier from Vienna, Michael Stavarič and Eva Profousová were all interested. And Profousová did translate it, eventually, and I think she did a wonderful job.

Why do you think that foreign publishers choose Money from Hitler? Is it because of the universally comprehensible topic of the relationships between Czechs and Germans?
That would not be enough! Furthermore, I did not write a book on the relationships between Czechs and Germans! That is not the purpose of literature, as it has its own, different rooms and cellars, where “reality” can resonate anew. It is not worth writing if literature is not the only way how to exist for the author. I wrote a model story about what sends chills down my spine: how the hung up always find their victims. I wrote about memory, which fails, and about woman’s life in the world of man. And since I see my heroine going from the cradle to the grave, I can observe her in the situations which destiny sets upon her. And as the woman lives in Central Europe, it is only natural that her life is influenced by the skeletons hidden in the cupboard. Language and the grotesque narrative style play an important part here, too. I hope that the reason why publishers chose this book was that it is a good work of literature, and not only an embodiment of some topic. Nowadays, publishers cannot afford to publish works that they don’t believe are outstanding, too. What frightens me about today’s literature is the fact that it becomes a commodity; a slice of bread that is to be chewed. A topic or a made-up image of the author is enough. And so beachcombers without any literary ambitions become writers today… A good example of this perverse play is the Vietnamese affair of the Knižní klub Literary Prize…. So it is not that I would sit down and decide that I would write about the relationships between Czechs and Germans, or about Sudeten Germans. Oh my God, writing doesn’t work like that!

Does your novel have any authentic historical sources?
It is pure fiction. When you breathe in and jump into water, you are able to learn something about your character and the times it lives in. And of course, you project a lot from yourself into the character. The props must be credible, too. As for the motif of (not) restituting property, I liked an article in the magazine Respekt, talking about a family which did not get back their property even though it was against the law. But only a novel can catch the zeitgeist with all its corners and deviations. And only a novel can afford to not pay attention to the facts that obscure the essence. Then the book can start to live its own life. The surface turns in a lot, but it does not say everything. After three years of writing, I almost started to sign as Gita Lauschmannová. But what was even more incredible: the publishing house started to receive letters written by people who claimed that this was the life story of their aunt, mum or grandmother.

How did Money from Hitler start its journey around the world? Was the Magnesia Litera Prize for Fiction, which you received in 2007, important?
Translator Mirko Kraetsch had invited me to the Leipzig Book Fair a long time before my book was even nominated for the Magnesia Litera. Only a few people knew it here, but it was fairly known among Czech studies scholars. I believe that information spreads better when communicated by people than by any massive marketing campaign.

How is the book perceived abroad?
As if I have already written several books… In every country, a parallel story is added to it. In Hungary they see it as an existential novel, stressing the importance of the question of guilt – if it is the times or particular people who are guilty. Of course, they also perceive a similar historical context: after the war, the Hungarians living in Slovakia were sent away as brutally as the Germans living in Czechoslovakia. I liked the fact that in Hungary, they also liked my debut novel Who Comes Knocking (A já pořád kdo to tluče), where they appreciated the motif of a family falling apart and its reasons and also the variations of relationships between the parents and their children. In Germany, they like the story, because it puts salt into their wounds. In Canada, Money from Hitler is taken for an almost horror story of a woman who refuses to hate life and eventually persists; a Hollywood-style story. As if the historical context faded away during the journey over the ocean, and the strength of the story prevailed. For me, it is a similar principle as in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds – only the Americans can afford to make a story like this, because they have a distance from the “big” European history.

The German edition of the novel has a different title. What was the reason?
The title of the German edition is Ein Herrlicher Flecken Erde, which in translation is And This Is That Beautiful Land, which is an ironic allusion of the Czech national anthem. The Germans did not like the Hitler in the title – they say they have had enough of him and that the name would eventually harm the book. The story has a lot of layers and ultimately is about something and somebody else than Hitler. In English editions, second titles are not common, so the original second title “The Summer Mosaic” was omitted. In Israel, they did not like the title “honorary Aryan”, and so on. But nothing is black-and-white only and human fates are not constructed upon what politicians and historians claim. This is why Gita is not a black-and-white character, she herself is a very unjust when dealing with her family. But I wanted to write it in such a way that it would not be clear if this is the consequence of what she went through, or if it is in her genes…

To what extent did you influence the translators?
Not at all. I stressed only one thing: I did not want a word-by-word translation, but an attractive story full of emotions in a foreign language.

Money from Hitler is to be adapted both for stage and film. Are the deadlines already set up?
The theatre play Money from Hitler will be premiered on 10 January 2010 in Švandovo theatre. And Tomáš Mašín will be in charge of an international production of the film version of the story. I always joke that David Lynch would be an ideal director for my story. I like these type of authors in literature, too – writers that “put their fingers into turbid reality”, such as Céline or Bernhard.