Author Jan Novák on Hrabal, Škvorecký and scandalizing the Chicago Czech community

Jan Novák

Jan Novák left Kolín in Communist Czechoslovakia a teenager in 1969. He emigrated with his parents to Chicago, where he studied and started to chronicle Czech life in the Windy City. In more recent years he has written screenplays for Miloš Forman, and a prize-winning fictional biography of fellow Czech-Americans, Josef and Ctirad Mašín. He is settled back in Prague for the medium-term teaching at the city’s film school, FAMU. When I met him in a café by the banks of the Vltava recently, I started by asking him about his first spell in this country, and life in 1960s small-town Czechoslovakia:

“Basically it was a very insular society, it was very homogeneous. The first time I saw a black person I was about 12 or something. Then this one black guy moved to Kolín and he was a great sprinter of all things. He was on the track and field team. He worked at the post office and so that was that. And otherwise there was no other ethnic anybody. And life was about basically making trouble, you know, a typical boy’s life, sports.”

And why did you decide to move to Chicago in 1969?

“Well, it was a matter of deciding to leave because my dad had been embezzling money on the job and we were leaving just right before his embezzlement became public. And so, it was just a question of getting out of the country. That was a race. We went for a four-day trip to Vienna, and eventually we wound up staying in Vienna for ten months waiting to get into the US. We went to Chicago because my father started writing to different Czech organizations from the refugee camp. And the people who answered his letters were some people from Chicago who found us a furnished apartment and found him a job and got us started, and so…”

You’ve written a series of short stories on the Czech community in Chicago, which is famously the biggest Czech community in the United States, historically and even now. Did you find yourself bang in the middle of a Czech community when you moved there?

“Yes, I did. The place we moved, a suburb called Cicero, was heavily Czech. I went to a high school which had maybe 50 Czech kids there at the time. So we were kind of a sub-group in the lunch room, and that was good because I didn’t speak any English, so there were girls I could date and stuff.

“My first connection to America was through soccer. I was playing on the school team, so I had people sucking up to me like the lead players and stuff. So that was good. And so I proceeded slowly to move away from Czech culture and into American culture.”

Why did you decide, then, to write one of your first books on that Czech community in Chicago in particular?

“It was an instinctive decision. I went to school and they had a prize of 1,000 USD for a short story, the best short story. So I sat down and wrote a short story. And I knew then the age-old verity that you write best about what you know best. So I wrote about the world I knew about. And that is the first story in the book, written from the point of view of a little kid whose parents have gone to Las Vegas to get a divorce, and his uncle is giving him lectures on Czech history that the kid is jumbling up. The story won the contest. I wrote it in Czech and then translated it into English and submitted it. It was published by the school newspaper, the University of Chicago student paper.

“Nothing happened, and then maybe two months later all of a sudden, it finally penetrated the consciousness of the Czech community in Chicago and everybody was upset about things in the story. The confusion in the mind of this naive narrator was ascribed to me. There were a couple of articles published in local papers, you know, kind of attacking me. And so I sat down and wrote a young man’s angry letter telling them to get off my back.

“Of course they didn’t publish my rebuttal to their articles, and I thought the whole thing fell asleep again. And then all of a sudden I got a letter from Josef Škvorecký, the writer and at that time budding publisher, asking me if I had more stories like that, and saying that he would like to publish a book of them if I did. So I sat down and wrote more stories from that world. I always find some model to copy and Balzac has got stories that are connected just through the characters, so that was my model writing that book.”

Balzac does that, as does Bohumil Hrabal. You said just there that you find you write best from experience, you have said before that you think of yourself as a sort of ‘zapisovatel’ – someone who makes observations about people around them – and that was Hrabal’s own phrase that you were quoting. Would you say that he has also been a very big influence?

“I’m sure, especially in that first story, Hrabal is all over the place. I was very influenced by him, I was 23 or something when I wrote it, and I have loved Hrabal since I discovered him at the age of 15-16. So definitely. He remains one of the best Czech writers that I know. I still love him, I should probably re-read some stuff again, it’s been a while!”

A lot of your books have come out in both English and Czech, and I know that you don’t just translate your books word for word, but you also kind of edit those translations to make them more appropriate for each audience, in what kind of way would you change your texts?

“You know, there are certain things that some set of readers knows about instinctively, you don’t have to explain, it is assumed, you can jump over it. But other people may not know it. So if you have to fill it in for the Americans, let’s say, then you want to do it in an interesting way where it might twist the common ground that the Czechs would have and entertain them as well. It becomes complicated, but I know that when I’m rewriting – I don’t do it when I translate somebody else’s work, obviously, even though I’m sometimes really tempted to help them along – but since I’m translating my own stuff, I can do whatever I want with it, so I will tailor it to the audience in a way that I hope entertains them.”

Back to Chicago Striptease, the language you wrote that book in is very unusual and quite funny. Is that the way that Czechs in Chicago speak, an odd pidgin of American Czech – Czenglish, I suppose?

“Yes, I think it has been called Czenglish. No, that’s exactly how they speak – and there is a certain strange poetry that evolves from the hybridization of the two languages, that I find exciting. You know, there are writers who are processing the world through the eye; there are writers that are processing the world primarily through the ear. I belong to the latter category, Hrabal did both.

“And I found my only really genuinely American book, ‘Grand Life’ was inspired by the language around computers. Which is kind of very limiting psychologically, yet it has to do in all kinds of human situations. And a certain kind of skewed poetry results that kind of excited me, similarly. Because it was a similar hybridization of different things clashing, and the sparks that it gives off, that really excited me.”