The Czech Republic is country of honor at the Leipzig Book Fair 2019, with some 130 events featuring 60 Czech authors. We met four and dip into their novels on everything from life in a wardrobe to taboo Czech history.
Prague, the beautiful 1,000-year-old city, a magnet for tourists from all over the world, a place of longing, with winding alleys, countless domes and towers and with the Vltava river spanned by magnificent bridges. The dreariness from the time of socialism long a thing of the past, the gray of the facades has been whitewashed over.
Tereza Semotamova lives here — and observes the hustle and bustle in the Czech metropolis from an amused distance: "The city is a halved plum in sugar syrup, its flesh is well supplied with blood and nutrients. A sweet fruit to bite into," is how the German translation of her novel In the Wardrobe (not yet translated into English) begins. "I feel more like a bitter fruit to be thrown away. But it's hard for me to throw myself away. Falling fruit."
Semotamova earns her living as a translator. In the Wardrobe is her first novel — a story about a young woman who has too often tried in vain to adapt, who has been hurt and disappointed and finally makes a radical decision: She moves into a disused wardrobe left standing in a courtyard! She could live with her sister or with a friend, but she doesn't want to deal with others, only with herself. The wardrobe offers a bit of temporary freedom. It's the result of a forlornness that perhaps only exists in the success-driven and consumption-oriented Western world. An absurdly honest story, told with casual self-awareness.
Freedom and insecurity
One constant in the young protagonist's life is a a friendly Vietnamese shopkeeper. She's allowed to use his toilet, receives some food from him and a smile. What could seem like a banal detail is actually an acknowledgement of multiculturalism in a country whose politicians categorically dismiss its large Vietnamese minority — and who let in fewer than 200 asylum-seekers during a surge of migration to Europe in 2015.
It's a painful topic for her generation, says Semotamova, who was born in 1983. Czechs naturally value the material side of freedom, the ability to travel, she says. But for many, changing the way they think can be a slow process, she adds, explaining that there are still people who have thought barriers and are unsure about how to relate to freedom.
Does this worry her? Not at all! "I think that people see things, even if they maybe vote for a bad politician. Time goes on and they realize, ok, maybe that person wasn't so good. And that's a development."
Prague Castle: The city's icon is also the residence of the country's president, currently Milos Zeman, who entered office earlier this month following a narrow margin of victory and whose views polarize the country. He's for close relations with China and condemns sanctions against Russia, as he defines the fighting in Ukraine as a civil war between rebels and the state. He has also called the 2015 increase in asylum-seekers to Europe an "organized invasion."
Zeman is the Czech Republic's first directly elected president — this shocks Jachym Topol. The writer and journalist has always fought for a truly free country, both before the fall of communism in 1989 and after. The current political situation makes "history seem like a giant pendulum," he says.
In 2011 Topol was appointed program director of the Vaclav Havel Library by Havel himself, a celebrated writer, communist dissident and the first post-communist president who is a gigantic moral figure in Czech history. In an echo of Havel, Topol curates cosmopolitan and critical programs all while writing novels that are wild and unusual.
The newest, A Sensitive Man, belies a quirky start to become a story of the grotesque set in the Czech provinces, where the tone is raw and the poverty biting, but where humor exists nonetheless.
The former Czech President Vaclav Klaus publicly scolded Topol for the novel, for its "arrogance" and "distance" from the Czech people. Shortly after Topol won the Czech State Prize for Literature. A liberal reaction?
A train ride through the past
Prague is booming, yet it's easy to imagine that Franz Kafka once strolled its streets in the early 20th century, when the city was the capital of the Habsburg Kingdom of Bohemia and a hub for Czech and German-speaking artists and writers.
"Everything is oh, so beautiful, so pretty, as pretty as a picture!" gushes the author Jaroslav Rudis while rolling his eyes. "But below, in these layers, yes, there are some graves, some corpses lying on top of each other. And it's with these corpses, these spirits, that we must live here."
Rudis studied history, and he says that Czechs who want to do so have to know German. Without the language, he explains, he wouldn't have been able to research for his new novel, Winterberg's Last Journey. It's a rousing, laugh-inducing declaration of love for train travel, life and Central Europe — written in German.
The 99-year-old Winterberg, together with his melancholic carer Kraus, travels back into the past and his own history with the help of a densely detailed travel guide from 1913. Winterberg's meanderings through time and his pedantic musings illuminate the past in a delightfully pleasurable manner, despite all the melancholy.
A 'blind spot' of history
The past is also explored in Katerina Tuckova's book The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch. It's set in Brno, which is a good three-hour train ride away from Prague. In the 19th century, the city was also known by its German name, Brünn. In 1910, two-thirds of its population of 120,000 listed German as their native language; the rest were Czech. All lived peacefully side-by-side — until the Nazis marched in. Around 11,000 Brno Jews fell victim to the Nazis. Many political opponents were also tortured and executed.
Tuckova was born in Brno in 1980. For many years she knew nothing about the city's German history, until the German lettering on an old building facade caught her eye: "Mährische Glas- und Spiegelindustrie," or "Moravian Glass and Mirror Industry." What could that mean?
Tuckova began to research — and ran into a taboo. In 1945 nearly all Germans living in then Czechoslovakia — some 3 million people — were forcefully expelled from the country in retaliation for the crimes of the Nazis. The expulsions were particularly brutal in Brno, where a death march towards the Austrian border saw between 2,000 to 5,000 people die.
Tuckova was able to speak with some survivors, who she says let her see Czech history from an entirely different historical point of view and discover how an unspoken "blind spot" exists in Czech education. This is what compelled her to write. The result, her fact-filled, moving novel, quickly became a media sensation in the Czech Republic after its publication in 2009. It's an emotionally challenging read but one well worth diving into — as are many other contemporary Czech novels.
The above mentioned books are not yet available in English. Their titles have been translated from the German.