Alexandra Berková: great author and compassionate teacher

Earlier this year, a leading author and very well-known and much admired personality in the Czech Republic died - Alexandra Berková. She was a journalist, writer for tv, novelist and short story writer, a campaigner for social justice in many areas, as well as being a beloved teacher of many. Her novels were highly experimental in nature, mixing, for example, allegory, fairytale and satire. In order to discuss the work of Alexandra (or Saša) Berková, I visited Pavla Jonssonová, a cultural theorist who teaches at the Anglo-American University in Prague.

Hello Pavla.

“Hello Bernie”

Alexandra Berková was a sensation when she first emerged on the literary scene in 1986. Her first book, The Little Book with the Red Cover, sold out, 60,000 copies, within days.

“Exactly, I remember that so well because a friend of ours gave about twenty of her friends a Christmas gift, which was the first book by Saša Berková, and it was a true sensation.”

This first book already showed the extent to which she was experimenting with form. It wasn’t a straight narrative, it was a number of short stories, which were interwoven, and it followed the destinies of a number of female characters at the crucial points in their lives adolescence, marriage, childbirth, death in fact. But it was already undermining our expectations of what a narrative should offer.

“Yes, and it introduced a new character in Czech literature which was an ‘If’. And so there was this ‘if’, or we could say a number of ‘ifs’ and if those ‘ifs’ happened, then life would have been so perfect. But these ‘ifs’ are kind of elusive, are somewhere out there flying but you cannot quite catch them”.

This is an example of the very playful aspect of Alexandra Berková, who is often considered to be a very serious, rather dark interpreter of the possibilities of happiness between men and women in their personal relationships, for example, but her work is playful in an almost Joycean way.

And she continued, over the years, to be one of the leading Czech literary personalities and writers. And she also wrote for television I think this was an important part of her profile.

“Exactly, yes, Saša Berková wrote for television and that’s how she got in touch with basically everyone in the country, whereas before that it was a literary elite sensation. And then she became very famous for her debates within the framework of the newly arising women’s movement in Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic.”

And she was one of the very few, very public, high-profile women who were open to identifying themselves with the struggle for equal rights.

“Yes I think that for a long period she represented the most famous image of feminism in the country”.

In many respects she was always an author who was very concerned with what was going on in the society around her. And I think we can see this in one of her books, which is a clear allegory of life in the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia then, before 1989. It describes a life of pure absurdity, where the ‘bellies’ and the ‘corpses’ rule. And this is her book Magoria, or a Tale of Great Love. And I’ll read a very short extract from this satire to give a sense of the humour and experimentalism in her work. And this is the father of the family, fantasising about rebellion

You stiflers and defilers of values, who gave you the right to elevate your obtuse cretinism to a general yardstick and consign to oblivion whatever exceeds by as little as an inch the common-or-garden bound?!

(The pot-belies nod and exhalate mist).

Who gave, I ask you, you self-appointed inquisitors, who gave you the right to represent your own shallow interests as the interests of the people of this land?

The pot-bellies nod and exhalate mist. The pot-belly with the curly tuft takes notes.)

No-one, eunuchs! So hearken unto me, as I call aloud! Be ye stripped of your privileges, fat savings accounts and foetid benches in the senate, the which you have acquired by guile! be ye stripped of your special physicians and armed guards and obliged to earn a living by that work in whose name for years you have rewarded your own purses!

(He is speaking beautifully. He had no idea he could speak so beautifully.)

Away with you, you parasites of the living, you body-snatchers! Away with your tutelage!

Dad sat down with a thumping heart. The pot-bellies nod and exhalate mist. Dad smiles, carried away by the sound of his own voice - just to let you know, Mum, I told them right and proper! - and he began to listen to the coughing and scraping of chairs. Now a forest of hands will shoot up - and the consuls will be tossed out the window - inevitable in the end, somebody had to start the ball rolling -

(translated by James Naughton)

Many people who talk about Saša Berková talk about her great heart and her compassion.

“That’s exactly the feeling I got from Saša from the absolutely first moment. Of this golden-hearted woman who comes up to you, and there are no barriers, and you feel that you have someone who is interested in you, somebody who really wants to know who you are and that the conversation that you’re having is absolutely precious.”

I think this ties in with what one friend of hers, Libuše Ludviková, who works at the PEN klub here in Prague – and Alexandra was instrumental in setting up the Czech PEN klub in Prague after 1989, and I asked her about Alexandra and what she would say about her and the first thing she said was that she was the most wonderful of teachers, who absolutely devoted herself to her students.

“Yes, she taught at the Literary Academy, and I heard it personally from several of her students, what an incredible teacher she was, and I imagine it must have been like going to a psychoanalysis class, or to classes of loving and being taken seriously by someone who is already a respected writer.”

I’d like now to move to a brief discussion of her last major work, Temná laska, or Dark Love, which many considered to be the most significant, interesting, important works of the last decade. But it was also quite controversial; many people found it a very dark work.

“She herself had this funny comment – ‘have I not really gone too far here?’ – and originally she wanted to name it ‘The Old Woman and the Sea’, which speaks for itself. But it is not that dark – there is a similar humour to Kafka; she’s using all these clues, and of course it’s mainly psychoanalysis, and her take on it, but it’s so hilariously mixed with Harlequins, that it really makes a unique reading that is dark, but at the same time funny, in an eerie way.”

When you say Harlequins, I think British listeners will be more familiar with the brand, Mills and Boons; so she actually uses popular romantic fiction to underpin the more serious things that she’s saying. And the book is structured around conversations between a middle-aged woman and her psychotherapist

“Yes, the main heroine, Karolina, has a kind of life crisis, when she walks naked along one of the main streets of Prague, going to buy groceries in a bistro, and she is retelling this moment to an older woman psychoanalyst.”

The book is structured in three parts, beginning with a description of a love affair and then the darker aspects of the relationship. And I’d like to read a brief extract from this second part.

When he’s not attending to his toys, he walks around me in large circles. At a distance, so that I’m not able to touch him; he examines me with concentration. He doesn’t mind that I’m dirty. He likes dirt. He’s dirty too, and he stinks. He doesn’t talk to me. He doesn’t talk with me. Not even in moments of contentment, when he is scrawling on my body with his crayons, when he’s driving his tanks over me and leading his battles – not even when he’s sniffing at me – not even then does he answer my questions: he is silent. If I speak he freezes, as if turned to stone, looking away he waits for me to fall silent, then he spits on his drawing and angrily rubs at it with his elbow. Then he simply continues where he left off.

(translated by Andrew Oakland)

In the conversations with the analyst, the analyst tells her, ‘you could always have escaped’. Do you think that to an extent that Alexandra Berková was this incredible personality who was in some way trapped within all of these political forces?

“Of course Karolina, the main heroine, is trapped, in the same way as, let’s say, the greatest woman writer of Czech literature in the 19th century, Božena Němcová, was a victim of the situation that she lived in.”

That’s a very interesting comparison with Božena Němcová, who was also an incredible open, active political woman and writer. And many people have felt the loss of such a personality very much since her death in June. What do you think her legacy will be?

“I believe that many, many of her students will be bathed in this glorious love that she radiated through her personality. That might be the strongest thing. But also, in terms of her influence as a writer, her literary legacy, that would be some kind of feeling of the necessity to reinterpret, I don’t know – the fairy tales, the Harlequins - or what we call the myths we live in, and being prepared for the fact that these myths are just myths and they have to deal with reality, which is – dark love.”

I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to say something about a very complicated, very important, very interesting writer. And fortunately it’s possible to read Alexandra Berková’s work in some English language anthologies, at least extracts, and there’ll be information about these on the website. And I’d like to thank you very much, Pavla, for sharing your personal memories and also your ideas about the literature. Thank you,

“You’re welcome, thank you too.”

English language anthologies containing the work of Alexandra Berková:

Daylight in Nightclub Inferno: Czech Fiction from the Post-Kundera Generation, Catbird Press, 1997, Allskin and Other Tales by Contemporary Czech Women, Women in Translation, 1998

Povidky: Short Stories by Czech Women, Telegram Books, 2006