Artist publishes illustrated book based on great-grandfather’s diaries from WWI

Photo: archive of Jindřich Janíček

In this week’s Arts, our guest is up-and-coming Czech artist Jindřich Janíček, recent graduate of UPMRUM (Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design), co-founder of the small independent publishing house Take Take Take, and co-author of K večeru spustil se déšť (The Rain Started at Dusk). The book, which Janíček illustrated, is based on diaries kept by his great-grandfather Štepán Zadražil, who served in the Austrian army in WWI and deserted in Russia.

Jindřich Janíček,  photo: Jan Velinger
In our interview, I began by asking the artist what shape the source material, handed down in the family, was in.

“The source material varied on the time spent in Russia and in Siberia, so he had several journals and diaries. But the main core was just plain papers stitched together. It was quite damaged, he wrote it in 1919, covering the period from 1914 – 1918.”

So his journey in the war took him across Russia; he must have seen some incredible things.

“The strange thing about it is that it is that the period in Siberia is such a famous period for the Czech legionnaires, but that part was left out, I don’t know why. Whether it was lost or he chose not to write about it. He was in Siberia but his diaries end in the idle of 1918. His texts are quite political, he wanted an independent Czechoslovakia to exist, but his writings ended before the country was founded in October, 1918. He was pro-Russian, pro-Bolshevik, so he was sent home earlier than some of the others.”

What do we know about his experience during the war, what does he focus on?

“He wrote a lot about daily life and the interesting thing is that he wrote it as if he was an independent observer, as if the things he describes didn’t affect him directly and he wasn’t a participant. It is not written as a personal tragedy. He was recruited in Znojmo in 1914 and was sent east to the Russian front. He describes tow battles, he loathed the Austrian army and then he deserted. So his writings are about his time in captivity.”

“He wrote a lot about daily life and the interesting thing is that he wrote it as if he was an independent observer.”

What are some specific moments?

“He complains a lot about the lack or food. Often he tried to create a pact with friends to try and get better food, whether he was in prison, on a farm or in a coal mine. He tried to use the fact that he was Czech as a lever and tried to join the Czechoslovak legion and describes how the different nationalities, the different prisoners were treated. According to him, the Czechoslovakians were treated the best.”

How did he desert?

“He was sympathetic to Russia and I don’t think he shot at Russians. When the Austrian forces were forces into a retreat, he offered cover but then hid somewhere in an attic and laid down arms. He then gave himself up. He was treated like any ordinary prisoner along with Austrians and others. Sixty of them were crowded into a tiny room. Or they were transported by train in poor conditions. But he never describes his misery.”

Photo: archive of Jindřich Janíček
Still, it must be unusual to read someone ‘voice’ like that, who has been long deceased, who has experienced something like that, which most of us luckily won’t have to…

“I used to joke that eight months into the project I was tried and a bit stumped about how to move forward and then I thought of my great-grandfather who spent six years abroad, living in terrible conditions and here I was here feeling bad in a cosy apartment in Prague… So that was a bit of a reality check.”

How many illustrations did you complete for the book and what were some moments you chose to illustrate?

“There were sixty-five illustrations. Originally, I planned for a larger format book with a picture on each spread but that changes and the book became smaller with more pages. The first picture I illustrated was based on a one-line description of the Czechoslovak legion playing a football game against the French Army and winning by a score of around 7-2.

“For the illustrations, I used thick grey markers, five shades of grey, never black.”

“Another central illustration is of a photograph of him and his Czechoslovak friends in one of the camps. I don’t have this picture, so it is based on just his description: they were photographed against a building which they later learned served as a gallows of Polish citizens following the 1905 revolution. So they scrapped the photo and went somewhere in Nature to take it again.”

What is your method? They look like charcoal drawings…

“I used thick grey markers, five shades of grey, never black. Layering them down, they create even more shades of grey. It took me six months to settle on the approach because I am usually used to drawing using very fine lines. What this method allowed me was to hide details which were never described in the text and I think it is more personal. They look like old photographs.”

Photo: archive of Jindřich Janíček
There is a hazy quality, a sense of something found which had been forgotten or lost. Let me ask you about the title, K večeru spustil se déšť… is that a line from the diaries as well?

“Yes, that was from the second part, a diary he kept on his way home. He took the southern route to return to Czechoslovakia, from Vladivostok to Singapore to Djibouti, Port Said on the Suez Canal back to Italy and then home. The title was an entry: he described many things he saw, such as the visit to Singapore or a shark attack when someone fell overboard into the sea but there were many, many days when nothing was happening: just the sea, maybe a bit of coastline in the distance, or music playing., K večeru spustil se déšť is one of the lines; in English, it is ‘the rain started at dusk’.”

“The title ‘The rain started at dusk’ was perfect for the book, conveying a lot without spoiling anything.”

That’s just as nice in English…

“I just felt immediately that it was perfect for the book, conveying a lot of things without spoiling anything. There is a subtitle on the cover describing what the book was about, so my girlfriend and I just felt that the open, more poetic title would be perfect, matching the style of his writing.”