A Mosaic of Books

Miroslav Peraica

This week Czech Books talks to a popular bookman about town, Miroslav Peraica. Miroslav is originally from Croatia but has worked in the book trade in Prague for well over a decade and is now involved in running three of the city's English language bookshops. Over the years his interest in literature has led him to become involved in a variety, or as he puts it, a "mosaic", of cultural ventures, from organising film shows, hosting lectures, editing a literary magazine, and, most recently, setting up a publishing house to translate contemporary Croatian literature into Czech. I visited him in one of his shops in the centre of the Old Town and asked him how he first became involved in the world of books.

“Well everything started by accident because a friend of mine, Dean Ivandič, and a very good friend of his Zachary Cohn, who has unfortunately passed away, decided to open a bookshop in the centre of Prague because they found there was a gap in the market for a proper, interesting, independent bookshop. Everything I learnt, everything I know, besides my experience that is now eleven years, I had from Zachary Cohn, who was basically the father, or grandfather of Anagram, the bookshop that was established in 98. It’s one of my babies now, besides the Big Ben shop that I run here all by myself, and I partly own it and still do the book buying and pretty much do the taking care and managing.”

And would you say there’s been a very rapid growth in interest in books in English in the Czech Republic?

“Yes, especially by the end of the nineties of the last century. There was a big boom in tourism and as we know Prague is a beautiful city and there are a lot of people coming here not only to see the cathedrals but also to know a little better the literature that was happening during the long history of this city and it’s very important to provide them with a good service and a good bookshop. So this was the reason why to have an English language bookstore in the centre of Prague.”

Are a lot of your customers tourists who just pop in for some reading matter when they’re on holiday?

“Well, if I had to divide customers into different categories I would say that yes, tourists are very important and we’re trying to offer them the best of Czech literature in English. But I think even more important are the locals, who are not only expatriates but also lots of Czechs come in to find books that are not translated into Czech.”

Do you think that during the time you’ve been involved in the book world in Prague that there has been a growing cosmopolitan feeling?

“I think definitely, yes. And lately what I’ve been seeing is that more and more couples I see around are not the same, and they look very different and they speak differently but they are also happy as if they were one. I’m coming from there as well – my wife is a Serb and I’m a Croat, we’ve been in the war, my kids were born here in the Czech Republic and I think that they’re Czech. So yes, this cosmopolitanism that’s happening here in Prague is very important because it brings more colours, more things. It’s very important also for my business because I know that people are suddenly not afraid, they’re not scared having something that’s from someone else. We should all be open to each another and show the best of all of us.”

I’d like to read an extract now from an intriguing book I’ve just taken from your shelves, which I imagine is popular with both visitors and locals. It’s called A Traveller’s Companion to Prague and it’s a compilation by Jan Kaplan of letters, diaries and memoirs covering the whole history of Prague. And this is the rather startled account of a 17th century French traveller, a physician, Charles Patin, who encounters an early version of a Czech nudist camp.

* * *

As we were passing between the River Elbe, and a small wood or copse, we were surpriz’d to behold at one end of the Meadows, as it were, an Epitome of the Resurrection, and of the Last Judgement: For three and four hundred Persons suddenly rose up from the Ground on which they had lain: They took no care to dress themselves for want of Cloaths; not but the some few were meanly furnish’d with ‘em, yet none had any sense of shame. I durst not describe what I saw, and much less what they proffer’d to shew me… This was a Company, or if you please, a regiment of Bohemians, not of the Natives of Bohemia, but of those Bohemians by Profession, they have no trade, no Wealth, no Friends, and no Industry, and yet they live, and that too with a sort of liberty, that you shall not meet with in the most free Republick in the world.

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Your interest in selling books is part of your wider interest in writing and cultural life in Prague. I know, for example, that you host ‘meet the writer’ sessions and book signings for the Prague Writers Festival here in the shop and you’ve also been involved in publishing a literary magazine and setting up a film club.

“Yes, once you start to sell books then you suddenly realise that what you’re doing is not only about books and literature, it’s also about the society and about the people you are selling the books to. So, several years ago, because lots of professors and very wise people were entering my shops and became my friends, I decided to make one of our winters more interesting and I made one project that I called Anagram Underground Lecture series. I invited all these dear friends of mine who were acknowledged experts in some subjects, and we would invite our friends and then we would have the expert tell us, in words everyone could understand, about that particular subject. So we had, for example, something about post-modern philosophy. Because for someone who doesn’t read post-modern philosophy it’s very complicated, with long sentences, and you really don’t know what it’s all about. So therefore we had one professor who came and he wanted to get this post-modern philosophy closer to someone who is not a philosopher. Or then we had scientists who were telling us about the paradigm shifts in the sciences during the twentieth century. We also had movies and listened to music and we always had someone who really told us something more, and it was really very interesting because we always had thirty to fifty people who basically came together to have something like a book club, only our connection wasn’t a book. Another project started when some other people told me, “Miro, there’s not really an English art magazine, or literary magazine, that’s published here in Prague, let’s do that”. So I did that as well because I thought that we have to somehow spread things and ideas that are not only about selling books but also a little bit about going into society, giving people something more, some more colours so as not to be black and white.

“So with all these things I’ve been involved in in the last ten years I would say it’s a kind of mosaic of my life, and a mosaic as you know is lots of little stones glued together and only if all of them are in the right place do you have a full picture of something. So I think my life is a mosaic. I’m not only a bookseller, I want to do something else, to show the picture of myself, and not only myself but also everyone around me in this mosaic. So therefore I’ve just started to publish books because I think that’s a natural evolution of someone who is a bookseller and involved in all these things and in this particular project it’s about translating Croatian contemporary fiction into Czech.”

So your idea is to find the best of contemporary Croatian fiction and offer it to a Czech audience?

“With this publishing venture, that I call KPL edition, we are planning not only Croatian authors but are also thinking of maybe getting writers from all the south Slav nations and translating them into Czech. So, my first book just came out on 23rd February, it’s named The Last Days of Punk. The second book that we are planning is called Guide to an Island. Its author is Senko Karuza, he’s a very good friend of mine, a philosopher, and he lives on the island of Vis, which is in southern Croatia. And this is I think very important for Czechs because lots of them go and spend their holidays in Croatia. And Senko, with his short stories - there are about thirty short stories - tries to explain how important some words, some nouns, are for the people who live on an island and we don’t understand that, because for us a ferry-boat means nothing, for example, or a boat, because we live here. But can you imagine how important that is for someone who’s from an island?”

Well actually, I am from an island, the British Isles…. so I’d be interested to read this and see how differently I’d read it from a Czech.

“Yes, but this Guide to an Island is not about a big island like Britain is, or Madagascar- we’re talking about islands with about one thousand inhabitants altogether, so those kind of islands.”

And do you think that Czechs are open to reading books in translation from smaller languages?

“I think that they are, and if they are not I’ll change their minds. What I’m also going to try to bring here - when I see the market is ready for it, and probably it already is because we are already ten years after the war that happened in the Balkans, in ex-Yugoslavia – I want to bring them war fiction as well. Because I know that lots of people are asking me, “Miro, how was it being in the war?” and things like that. And sometimes I really don’t know how to answer all those questions and the best thing for me would be – to go and find the good quality war stories and translate them into Czech and spread them and give them to Czech readers so they can maybe find and see the picture of that war that I was unfortunately in.”

And is there any interest on the side of Croatian readers in Czech literature?

“Oh yes, of course. We’re talking about big brother and small brother and the Czech Republic is the big brother and Czech authors are big. When I was in high school some of the Czech writers were something that we had to read as part of our education; some of them became a cult in Croatia. Someone like Milan Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as far as I remember, was something we were really amazed with. And of course Czechs are really big, in this part of Europe probably one of the greatest nations in showing their ability to write and write well. If you just go back to the Čapek brothers, and Hašek and then Seifert, and in the second part of the twentieth century Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal. Lately even Michal Viewegh, who is a best-selling author, not only in the Czech Republic; but I know lots of people in Croatia, including my mother and sister, they read Michal Viewegh. So Czech literature is well known in Croatia. But what I want to do is to bring south Slav literature to Czechs as well because there are definitely lots of things to say and to read.”

I’ll just read another very short extract from the Traveller’s Companion to Prague, this time a very Anglocentric view from the 18th century traveller and friend of Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale.

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Bohemia seems no badly-cultivated country; the ground undulates like many parts of Hertfordshire, and the property seems divided much in the same manner as about Dunstable… Dr. Johnson was very angry with a gentleman at our house once, I well remember, for not being better company; and urged that he travelled into Bohemia, and seen Prague; - “Surely,” added he, “the man who has seen Prague might tell us something new and something strange, and not sit silent for want of matter to put to his lips in motion!” Horresco referens; - I have now been at Prague… but have brought away nothing interesting I fear…

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Have you got any other stones in your mosaic planned?

“Right now I’m going to be occupied with my bookstores and I’m going to do the publishing house. And then - what’s going to happen tomorrow, I don’t know. Someone might come and tell me, “Miro, listen, this is a great idea, let’s do this” And probably I’ll be there to do so.”

So maybe in the future I can come back and see how the mosaic’s progressing. Thank you very much Miro for the time you’ve taken today from your bookshop duties and good luck with your new publishing venture.

“Thank you very much.”

References: A Traveller’s Companion to Prague, Jan Kaplan, Robinson Publishing, London 2005

KPL publishing - www.edice-kpl.cz

Main outlets for books in English in Prague: Anagram - www.anagram.cz, Big Ben - www.bigbenbookshop.com, The Globe - www.globebookstore.cz, Shakespeare and Sons - www.shakes.cz, Palác knih Luxor (basement) - www.neoluxor.cz