A new novel by Jáchym Topol and a prize nobody wants to win

Wolves in Poland, Shakespeare in Japan and the pitfalls of literary translation. These are just three of the many subjects that came up when I visited to the Bookworld international book fair in Prague last week. Bookworld is a huge and diverse event, by far the biggest of its kind in the Czech Republic. It would be impossible to cover everything that was going on, even during the few hours that I was there, but here at least is a taste of the event.

A new novel from one of the critics’ favourite contemporary Czech writers

Jáchym Topol is probably the best known of the middle generation of Czech novelists. It was Jáchym’s poetry that first brought him into the literary limelight in the late 80s, and ever since he published his epic novel “Sestra” in 1994 [published in English as “City Sister Silver”], he has been at the forefront of the Czech literary scene. Jáchym was at Bookworld to talk about his latest novel “Chladná země” (Cold Land), which is in part set in Belarus. He hates giving interviews in English, but I did manage to bully him into saying a few words. I asked him about his recent period working as a journalist, writing articles for the weekly “Respekt”.

“My favourite topic was the wildlife in Central Europe, as I was fascinated to find that wolves are coming back to Central Europe – to Poland, Slovakia and even the Czech Republic. I was so happy to write about it. It was my favourite time as a journalist. Otherwise I hate journalism! I do it only to get money for my poor children, and if I have time I am trying to write a novel!”

And so you spent time wandering around Central and Eastern Europe looking for wolves…

“Yes. For wolves and for ruins…”


“Ruins of old Nazi and Soviet camps. Maybe it sounds cynical, but I am not cynical. I am sometimes looking to find ruins of these death camps, and it helps my imagination to create books about them. Of course it’s a nightmare.”

The past seems to haunt you…

“I am obsessed by the past and I hate it. This is why I hate myself, because this fascination with the past is a sort of obsession. But maybe, if you are a writer you need some obsession. Sometimes I think that my favourite writer is Edgar Allan Poe – the teacher of obsessions. Of course I am a modern, globalized writer, not like in the time of Edgar Allan Poe, but I think obsession is the most important source to write a book.”

During the event to present Jáchym Topol’s latest novel, I also caught up with the literary agent and translator, Edgar de Bruin, who is translating the book into Dutch:

“Jáchym Topol is regarded in the Netherlands, and not only in the Netherlands, as the most important Czech contemporary author. I’ve translated two books by him and I’m now working on his latest book “Chladná země” – I don’t know the English, or even the Dutch title yet.”

Tell us some more about the book.

“I would call it a very actual historical novel, placed in the present day, but it’s about history, the history of mankind, and I see this as the central message of the whole book: we shouldn’t forget our history. Maybe this wasn’t Jáchym’s intention when he wrote it, but when we see around us what’s going on, the economic crisis, people getting more and more extremist, either on the left or on the right, this is one of the main questions I see in the book – what happened in the Second World War and after that. Can it be repeated again? And that’s why we should be conscious of what has happened. We should not forget, because mankind never learns from history. I think that with the passing of time this book will become more and more actual every day, because if the economic crisis gets as bad as everybody thinks, we are back in the ‘30s and we know what happened then.”

This is a subject which many writers have written about. What’s specific or unusual about Jáchym’s approach to this subject?

“Jáchym’s approach is that he came across things in Belarus, things that we in the West and in the Czech Republic don’t know, which amazed him. Atrocities happened there on a huge scale, but we never realize that. You won’t find much in history books. We don’t get taught in the Netherlands or England or wherever, what happened in Belarus in the Second World War. It’s a minor note in history. That has fascinated him, and I think that in his book he has not only shown what has happened, but also that what happened is much worse than we ever could imagine. Also he shows that Belarus is the last dictatorial country in Europe. He poses the question - can it happen again? – and illustrates it with very good facts. Another feature of his style is that he gives you very much room as a reader to think about things yourself. He doesn’t say you should think like this or you must do that, but he gives room to the reader, which makes his books very attractive.”

A comic-strip Shakespeare

Martin Hilský
Martin Hilský is the Czech Republic’s foremost Shakespeare scholar and translator, and when I turned up at the stand of the publishers Albatros, he was presenting his newly published collection of literary essays. Rather surprisingly, he also had with him a comic strip version of Romeo and Juliet, a potentially controversial way of treating the Bard.

“Well, I share the view that it’s a controversial project and I hesitated whether I should offer my translation. They wanted to use my translation and I assented, mainly because when I looked at it I think that - although it does not pretend to be Shakespeare, it’s only one tenth of the text – yet in a sense it is a way to get Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet, to the youngest generation. My hope is that perhaps because of that they might later on be interested in reading the whole text.”

This comic originated in Japan…

“In Tokyo, in Japan, and I’m told that there was a scholarly expertise on the choice of the quotations. The quotations that are actually used are interesting from the point of view of the dramaturgy, because they really are the key moments of the play. I never knew that Shakespeare could be used in this way. I understand the controversy, but I decided not to block in any way this kind of experiment. Perhaps people who don’t like it won’t touch it anyway.”

I also asked Martin Hilský about his new collection of essays devoted to British and American literature, entitled “Rozbité zrcadlo” (Broken Mirror). Interestingly, many of the essays included were written during the communist era.

“I was at the faculty of philosophy at that time. I had no future at the faculty, and I began translating and writing those essays for a very good publishing house – “Odeon” it was called. The Anglo-American department of that publishing house was highly qualified, very good and relatively there was an atmosphere of freedom and independent thought. For me, writing those essays to present British and American fiction to the audiences at that time was not only a kind of literary pursuit, but I felt it was some kind of mission almost, opening a window into a world which was completely different. Although it was not always easy, books were able to come out. The censorship was very active in two directions: political and moral. The moral censorship was even worse, I must say.”

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover could not be published until 1988, which is really funny, because at that time American fiction went far beyond Lawrence in the presentation of sexual experience. But isn’t it interesting that the communist regime was very moralistic, very much concerned with good morals, uplifting morality!”

Your collection includes an essay on Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”. They have a huge significance for Czechoslovakia at that time, between the Soviet invasion and the fall of communism. How is that?

“It’s very interesting that in the United States, Kerouac and perhaps Ginsberg would not be much read nowadays, but they still are in this country. I think because of the theme of ‘the road’ and travel, and because of the association with California and the American West, and the whole cult of the bohemian way of life. It was also because of the non-conformism, which of course was politically different in this country, yet in America the Beats could be seen as a non-conformist movement. Certainly they were not part of mainstream literature. So somehow they came to represent America in a way in which they do not represent America in America itself. This is an interesting cultural shift, but there you are!”

An award for the worst translation

And I end the programme with an award that will certainly never be won by Professor Hilský. It’s become a tradition for the Czech Literary Translators’ Guild to give a prize for the worst translation of the year. To the delight of the Bookworld audience, extracts from some truly dreadful translations into Czech were read out, including a guidebook to Paris that was so badly translated that you might want to think twice before leaving home. In the end the anti-award went to two books: the translation of Neal Stephenson’s historical fantasy novel, “Quicksilver”, and a book called “Polská Praha” (Polish Prague) that looks at the city’s historical links with Poland and was translated into Czech from Polish. Professor Miroslav Jindra was on the panel that chose the books for the anti-award, and he told me about some of the fatal flaws in the winning translations.

“The word ‘grandfather clock’ appeared there, and it was translated literally as a clock belonging to the grandfather…”

… and there was also an example where someone “cleared their throat” and it was translated literally…

“… Yes, cleaning up your throat. I don’t know with what or how you could do that! It’s very difficult translating if you’re not very good in colloquial speech.”

So you’re not aiming to humiliate the translators or the publishers. You’re just trying to encourage people to think more about the quality of translation…

“…. to discourage people who are not very professional, just telling them: Don’t do that! It’s dangerous for you!”