Beetles, gravediggers and a familiar face from Radio Prague

Photo: Olympia

Radio Prague’s literary connections go back over seventy years, starting even before the Second World War. Well known writers like Arnošt Lustig, Lenka Reinerová or Benjamin Kuras have all at one time worked here. And the tradition continues. Pavla Horáková, known to many Radio Prague listeners as the voice of our letters programme Mailbox, has just had a novel for children published with glowing reviews. She is David Vaughan’s guest in this week’s Czech Books.

I should start by saying that your book is set in a cemetery, to be precise, in the Olšany Cemetery – or rather cemeteries – just five stops on the tram up Vinohradská Street from where we are sitting now. I would be very interested to know what inspired you to write a book on this particular subject, but first of all, I think we should set the scene. The book hasn’t come out in English, but I have translated a few extracts, so Pavla, perhaps you could start by reading the opening couple of paragraphs…

The October sun was slipping over the roofs of the apartment blocks, still pleasantly warm. The air was filled with the steady drone of the road junction, as a constant stream of cars and trams passed in all directions. “Out of my way, woman?” A bad-tempered yell drowned even the roar of the traffic and the music coming from a loudspeaker outside the glass and concrete shopping centre. Klára was sitting on the wall of the little flowerbed in front of the shopping centre, watching the old lady as she scurried across the road, dodging the car with the surly driver. She was not using the zebra crossing, but there was nothing special about that. Although she looked very much the typical Prague old lady, there was something strange about her. What made her different was the rake in her hand. A curious thing to be carrying in the middle of the city. The furious driver, who had just come within an inch of running her over, gave a blast on his horn for good measure. He wound up his window, slammed his foot on the accelerator and sped away. Klára watched the car for a minute and did not even notice the old lady with the rake stepping round the red-and-white fence separating the road from the pavement. She forgot the whole episode and carried on absent-mindedly watching people coming and going into the shopping centre. Little did Klára suspect that this Indian-summer afternoon would mark the beginning of a series of extraordinary events that would change her life.

Pavla Horáková
That scene occurs at a real place, just up the road from here at Flora, where there really is a shopping centre. And just beside and behind the shopping centre we find the Olšany Cemetery, and that is just where the old lady is heading. It’s a children’s book set in a cemetery, so you might expect it to be about ghosts and vampires.

“It’s not. I guess I’m an old-fashioned type of person, so it’s a real-life story: no ghosts, no vampires, no supernatural beings.”

What happens in the story?

“Klára is an ordinary girl, about thirteen or fourteen years of age and she lives near the cemeteries. She meets this old lady, and over time the old lady introduces another young person to Klára and eventually there are five teenagers. They find out that there is a secret hidden in the cemeteries and that the secret somehow connects all of them. In the course of the book they unveil that secret and also find out why the five of them had been put together by that old lady.”

So let’s go straight to another extract, where one part of the mosaic, one bit of the secret, is unveiled. The children are actually inside a tomb at this moment, aren’t they?

“But it’s an empty tomb. There are no dead bodies, no coffins!”

The opening under the floor was hidden by nothing more than a thin piece of wood, covered with a layer of plaster, so that at first sight no one would notice it. Evžen, Alžběta and Klára found themselves looking into a small square hole. It was full of rubble and the air was thick with dust, so they still had no idea what the hole would reveal. Klára called to the boys outside, so they would not miss the big moment. Šimon’s glasses misted up with the stuffy air inside the tomb and for a moment he could see nothing. When all five had assembled, Evžen made a solemn declaration. “Friends, the historic moment is upon us. We have just uncovered the hiding place, which could prove that the Cadaver Beetle Club really existed. Klára, come and help me shift all this rubble, and you, Vojta, shine the torch in here.” They both did what he said. Klára and Evžen lifted out all the rubble, and with the help of Vojta’s flashlight, they all tried to make out what had been hidden under the floor. It was not long before they made out a shape. “It’s a bottle!” Alžběta cried out excitedly.

Olšany Cemetery,  photo: Pavla Horáková
The bottle turns out to contain a message, but I won’t betray too much of the plot. I had great fun translating this bit, but I was really struggling with the key word, the “Hrobaříci“, the “Cadaver Beetle Club”, as I translated it. “Hrobařík” is a kind of beetle, but in Czech it also has associations with grave digging.

“Yes. It’s derived from the word ‘hrob’ which means grave, but also it’s the diminutive of the word ‘hrobař’ which is a gravedigger. But the word also has a cute ring to it. It’s not threatening.”

In the story it turns out that these Hrobaříci, this gang or club, are continuing a tradition of a similar gang from over 60 years ago, from the time of the Second World War – a fact that also ends up playing a role in the story. I was intrigued by the way you decided to make a generational jump from the present-day to the generation of the children’s grandparents and great-grandparents.

“Well, it happened somehow. But then I realized that one of the messages of the book that I maybe subconsciously wanted to convey, was that we really should observe our ancestors, and that we should know and learn more about them, and perhaps try to continue with what they started.”

And so the cemetery is not a morbid place, but a place for finding out, a place for reading the messages that were left by the people who went before us.


Olšany Cemetery,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
And that brings me to another aspect of the book which I really enjoyed. It is crammed with all sorts of fascinating details about the Olšany Cemeteries. There are even little asides about the history of cremation in the Czech Republic and about the various different cemeteries that can be found within the area of the larger cemetery. One that features in the story is the little-known Commonwealth Military Cemetery, close to the Jewish Cemetery. You must have had a lot of fun researching into the history and geography of the cemeteries.

“Yes, indeed. Much of it actually comes from my experience as a reporter, because you will recognize many of the events in the books and the details as parts of reports I did for Radio Prague. As a reporter you collect or amass so many interesting facts and so much useless knowledge…”

… which proves useful in the end.

“Exactly. When I realized how much I’ve learned or heard about the cemeteries, it seemed a shame not to use it somehow, and it all turned up in the book eventually.”

What inspired you to write a children’s book? Was it something you had been thinking of for a long time?

“Not at all, strangely. I never really wanted to become a writer, even though it was a bit of a dream – though I wouldn’t admit it even to myself. But when I visited the cemeteries and I kept coming back, all kinds of strange things happened to me there and I found the place really fascinating. I though maybe I should write a few lines, just for myself about the experiences there and when I sat down and started writing, after a few lines it was somehow obvious to me that I had a story and it was a children’s story.”

Olšany Cemetery,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
How easy did you find it putting yourself into the minds – and the mindset – of teenagers?

“Well, I still feel like a teenager in some aspects, but, what I struggled with was the difference between the teenagers in my days back in the ‘80s and today, because we didn’t have things like mobile phones and the internet. I found out that I really knew little about today’s children and teenagers. So I guess the characters in the book resemble more teenagers back from my days.”

They also give the impression of living in a better world than the world we live in. It’s a world where children are allowed to run around the city without their parents worrying about what they’re getting up to. They have a great deal of freedom.

“Also, you will have noticed that there are very few conflicts between them in the group. But, as the evil is external in the story – there is evil which is very much present in the cemeteries – I thought that I really don’t need any more evil, or I don’t need any evil within the group.”

It’s interesting that you say that there is evil present, because there are not really any “baddies” in the story. There are people who do some pretty nasty things, but it is not a story about kids fighting against some person who is doing evil. It is different from that, isn’t it?

“The evil is a continuous evil – the way the kids continue in the work or efforts of their grandparents. The evil that is in the cemetery goes back to the days of the Second World War. It’s not an abstract kind of evil; it’s a very real evil, but it’s not personalized or materialized in one particular person.”

And I believe you have already written a sequel – or one-and-a-half sequels – to this book. So we can expect more.

Olšany Cemetery,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Yes. I thought that I hadn’t used all that there is to say about the cemeteries, so I thought that would be a shame to leave out so many interesting details, and I started writing a sequel in which the kids are in their early twenties. It’s called ‘Hrobaříci a hrobaři’, which is a play on words – meaning something like Cadaver Beetles and Gravediggers. The Gravediggers are a Masonic-type organization. When I finished it, my published said: ‘You can’t have one book where the kids are thirteen and then another book where they are in their early twenties. You need something in between.’ So I decided to write another sequel between those two and it takes place not in Prague, not around the Olšany Cemetery, but in a small town in Eastern Bohemia. It will be called ‘Hrobaříci v podzámčí’, which is something like Hrobaříci Beneath the Castle, and it takes place around a Renaissance castle.”