This is what we live in, it’s not just a wild fantasy of mine

Alena Blažejovská interviews writer and screenwriter Michal Viewegh about his book Biomanželka (Bio-Wife, published by Druhé město), the movie adaptation of his novel Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel), which was directed by Tomáš Bařina as well as his success abroad.


Michal Viewegh. Photograph © David Konečný

Michal Viewegh. Photograph © David Konečný

Soon, twenty years will pass since the publishing of your first book Názory na vraždu (Opinions on a Murder), which came out in 1990. One could assess these two decades from various perspectives. Before we move on to the adaptations and translations, let’s first take a closer look at your original works. You’ve just published your new book Biomanželka (Bio-Wife), which in your own words is “an ostensibly comic novel. This spurs on some questions: is the novel aimed at women or men? Is the novel supposed to defend women or men? Is it a text through which you strived to understand the world of young wives and mothers of young children who – as is often the case these days – are more likely to find themselves in unconventional roles? Or who conceive of their traditional roles in an alternative way…? Is it an attempt to better grasp this phenomenon?
The book can be interpreted in many different ways including completely erroneous explanations. I’ve just received a text message from a friend of mine, a university educated young woman, who thanked me for supporting women’s emancipation movement, as if she didn’t notice the inherent subtle irony and male defense mechanisms. I would like to believe that the book is written with a hint of affable irony and that it’s permeated with strong, perceivable self-irony. At the same time, it is a literary humouristic complaint. I think that an open-minded reader will realize that Mojmír, the book’s hero, tries to support his wife in her countless activities. Nevertheless, when the number of these endevours gradually rises to five to eight to twelve, he has – in my opinion a thoroughly natural feeling that it’s simply too much.

Mojmír is definitely not a male chauvinist. I don’t really identify with Mojmír totally, at one point I even openly say that he is a bigger ignorant than me and I‘m sacrificing my real opinons at the altar of humour. For example, I don’t disdain homeopathy practitioners and I have completely different views on many things than Mojmír. But let’s say, Mojmír’s opinions and attitudes are not unusual in the male world. I’d say that the book calls for a better understanding between men and women. In the end, Mojmír admits to Hedvika that he knows that women have been discriminated by men for centuries and that men owe them a historical apology.

Yet he says: But I wouldn’t want it to be the complete opposite. I write – in a joky hyperbole – about Mojmír’s sexual abuse. And this is, let’s say, sixty percent joke but the remaining fourty percent is what I really think. There were plenty of articles written about “singles”, women who get pregnant and don’t necessarily need a man – that’s the extreme example of what I’m talking about. Here all the interest and admiration suddenly vanishes and women follow their own paths for which they naturally have every right for, but as Mojmír says: “A Cinderella who completely ignores the prince – I think that‘s really unfair.”

Could you briefly define the “bio-wife”?
“Bio-Wife” is a slightly confusing title because the novel is not only about “organic clubs”, food and snacks. A “bio-wife” is a woman who hops on the emancipatory train – as Mojmír says – and opens kindergartens, attends doula courses (a doula is someone who guides women through their pregnancy, labour and the postpartum period – I’m explaining this to men, I suspect women will know this), visits infant massage courses and plunges into a project of home education. She creates her own educational tools, casts animal footprints and so on. And with all of this on her mind, she somehow forgets that she also has a husband.

Yesterday, I read an interview with Doctor Plzák (famous Czech psychologist – ed. note) who said that the only true expression of love is the sentence: “Eat it, while the food is still warm,“and everything else is only twaddle. I know that Mr Plzák aphoristically exaggerated it but I’m fighting for men to hear it. So that they can hear this sort of love profession and the woman would realize that her husband perhaps hasn’t eaten yet, and that she’d ask him if he had some food on his way home or should she should cook something. This might sound medieval but for me, food is a metaphor of interest. I don’t expect warm lunch, dinner or similar prehistoric things and neither does Mojmír but I’d want my wife to ask me if I had some food on my way home from Prague to Sázava because it’s a sign of interest.

Coinciding with the publication of Biomanželka (Bio-Wife) is also the film adaptation of your novel Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel) which is playing in cinemas as we speak. Isn’t it a pity that you as a scriptwriter didn’t transplant the more complex structure of the book onto the screen? I would have liked it. Did you want to simplify the narrative style, or wasn’t it also the case that the level which deals with the writer who’s on a tour of readings, discussions and autograph singing is paradoxically more vulgar than the main story?
It‘s extremely difficult to convey the subject matter: the writer who’s working on Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel) is heading to a talk and subsequenltly reads from Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel). To transfer that metatextuality onto screen is hard. Actually, I said that the writer shouldn’t be there, same as in Účastníci zájezdu when I asked for Max to be a singer, not a writer. It‘s a little discomforting to watch my alter-ego on screen. But it’s not only for personal reasons, I really think it was good for the story even though I absolutely respect your opinion.

The theme is a result of contemplation – it’s my twentieth book and I might as well do a self-ironic evaluation. In those short chapters inserted into Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel),I’m making fun of my writer who‘s oogling young girls at secondary schools when he’s there for a talk. By the way, I don’t see it as indecent. You mentioned the world “vulgar” but I’m always taken aback by this. We are discussing my presumable vulgarity fifty years after Henry Miller and Joyce and Bukowski, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to the translations of your books and their reception abroad, you’re a very successful author. Do you pursue these processes actively or is your upcoming tour in German-speaking countries a consequence of the cogency of the texts alone?
I don’t know if people will believe me but I don’t do anything for it. I have a literary agent Dana Blatná who attends the Frankfurt Book Fair and she deserves the credit for most of the recent translations. At the same time, I’m hoping that I do get invited to Austria and Germany because, for instance, the aforementioned novel Andělé všedního dne (Angels of the Everyday) became the Austria‘s Best Book of Spring. It’s good that they stick to the text, not the author’s reputation. I’m alluding here to the fact that traditionally, I’ve had better reviews abroad than here. Even though it’s starting to change.

My last question will be about your future creative plans. Right now, you are probably meeting all your readers and audience – the travelling phase. Once you’ll sit down at your desk again, how will your list of writer’s priorities look like?
You said “writer’s list” so I don’t have to add that life is superior to writing for me and these days I really try to live more and write less. Even though I still write quite diligently. I’ve been keeping a diary all year – the 2010 diary. In November and December I’m going to work on an original script for the first time – not an adaptation of a book but an original work.

We have an idea with the director Jan Hřebejk to do a comedy about human relations. As for ambitions: I have a dream to see people all cheerful and happy after having seen my film. With Román pro muže (A Men’s Novel) I witnessed lovely reactions at premieres in Ostrava or Hradec. People laughed and cried, and I’m not exaggerating. But the film itself is sad, of course. They call it a “bitter” comedy in marketing speak but I think it’s more of a light-hearted tragedy. The movie is more sad than joyful even though there are funny bits and lot of slapstick. I’d like to write an unadulterated comedy that is not loaded with anything, just a relaxing piece. I look forward to that one.


Interviewed by Alena Blažejovská for CzechLit