Bianca Bellová: Books still have power

Bianca Bellová, photo: Adrian T. Bell

Bianca Bellová is a Prague-based translator, interpreter and author. Following her 2009 debut, "Sentimentální román" (Sentimental Novel), she has published three other books. It was the latest one "Jezero" (The Lake) published in 2016 by Host that fired the imagination of critics and readers alike and in April 2017 the post-apocalyptic novel was awarded with the Magnesia Litera award for Czech book of the year as well as the European Union Prize for Literature, and has since been nominated for a couple of other prizes. For this edition of Czech Books Pavla Horáková met Bianca Bellová to talk about The Lake, literature and life.

One morning, he wakes with a start before he even opens his eyes. A shock of realization runs through him as he feels his muscles stiffen. The light from the electric bulb on the ceiling pours through his closed eyelids into his head. His heart pounds wildly. With each beat, his fingers seem to get longer and shorter again. He doesn’t even need to reach under his pillow to know that the purple sock with his savings in it is gone. He presses his hands firmly against the blanket, eyes still shut. No point looking round, no one will tell him anything anyway. He was stupid; the money he was saving up to buy a coat is gone. From now on, earnings go in his underwear, that’s it. Attached with a safety pin. He grits his teeth and sticks it out in the dormitory till spring. An excerpt from “The Lake”, translated into English by Alex Zucker

Bianca, you’ve said in an interview that your first inspiration was a National Geographic report about the Aral Sea and the environmental disaster related to its shrinking. But your novel is set in a fictitious country, with references to a past Soviet occupation. Now, almost three decades after the fall of Communism in our part of the world, was this your way of coming to terms with the injustices of the regime?

Bianca Bellová,  photo: Adrian T. Bell
“Well, now you’ve said it, I suppose it probably was. When I look back at my previous novels – this is my fourth novel – they somehow always frame an individual somehow having to confront the injustice of some sort of regime or establishment, so I suppose yes. As for the inspiration, this is a question that I can’t get away from. I get it at every interview. I’m not sure how to answer it because being in my forties, it’s like I’ve been collecting inspiration all my life and this is just an image that possibly triggered it. And when I try to explain this to the journalists, they always say, oh, but you said that you saw that picture! And they really need to pin it down and somehow make it very, very exact and specific. But I think inspiration is a lot broader than that.”

You have just received two major awards and more are perhaps coming. Do literary awards translate into sales in our country? Or do they open doors to international book markets?

“Well, you answered the questions yourself. I think the national award that I won is probably going to deliver sales but I haven’t had that experience before, so we’ll see. And the European award is definitely designed to promote translations into the other languages of the European Union.”

Will English speaking readers be able to read “The Lake” any time soon?

“The dealings aren’t closed yet but possibly next year.”

Are any other translations into other foreign languages on their way?

“So far I’ve had eight contracts signed, surprisingly for me, most of them come from the Balkans. So except for Greece and maybe Romania, it’s being translated into all Balkan languages, plus Polish, Italian and Arabic.”

You’re a translator yourself. Are you planning to be involved in the process of translation, do you want to have the final say?

“Not really. To be able to do that, I would have to be able to be fluent in that language and I can’t do that in more than, say, two languages, one of them being English and still I wouldn’t be confident enough to do it. Because I think if it’s not your mother tongue, you can never quite use it, with exceptions like Milan Kundera for instance. I have translated some of my short stories into English which were published in the States but then they were proofread by native speakers. I must admit also that when I hear my text being translated into a different language, I feel a bit embarrassed when hearing it, so I feel like I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

'The Lake',  photo: Host
You travel a lot to literary events around the world, you meet authors from different countries. Do you ever talk to authors who face persecution at home, in countries with a record of human rights violations, for example?

“Well, I don’t travel that much but I have recently visited Egypt, a literary festival in Cairo, and I did have the opportunity to speak to authors who were exactly in that position where they had to fear the wording and the topics that they talk about. I remember speaking to one author, she’s called Omneya Talaat and she was telling me how she challenges in her novels the setup and the identity of the modern Egyptian society and this has been met with a lot of negative reactions and she’s been called a heretic and outcast or whatever. Well, if you just take the example of the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, the author Mahfouz, he was attacked by an Islamic extremist for his writing and even though he survived, it significantly affected his ability to write. So yes.”

Do you think literature can make a difference in this day and age – when it comes to social or political issues?

“Well, my initial reaction to that question was no. But when I thought about it, I really do believe that it is possible, even if you don’t cause a revolution. But having mentioned Egypt, there is another very strong and powerful text, called ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by the writer Alaa-Al-Aswany which a lot of Egyptian intellectuals refer to as being critical in starting the revolutionary movement in Egypt in 2011, so it is still happening. Books still have that power and even if they don’t cause a revolution, they still can make people see things from a different perspective. So I do think literature matters in that way.”

Critics have described your writing as male. Do you think there is any point in labelling someone’s writing as male or female?

“Actually when I read a good book, I never make that distinction and I don’t think about it. I have a lot of favourite writers, both male and female, and at the end of the day it’s just the quality of the text that matters.”

The main character in “The Lake” is a young boy. Was it difficult to empathise with someone with such a different personal history and psychology?

“I wouldn’t say it was any more difficult than any of my other characters, actually. I think seeing the world from the perspective of a child is probably a lot easier than any other character because we’ve all been through it. So it would probably be more difficult for me to write a book about a farmer because I haven’t had that personal experience. But who am I to say, really? It’s up to the reader to tell whether the character is believable and whether they actually believe that this is what is happening to him or her.”

Were you perhaps influenced by the fact that you have two young sons?

'Sentimental Novel',  photo: IFP Publishing
“Possibly, but not necessarily.”

In a recent interview you called writing a luxury – it’s more of a hobby than a calling for you?

“It’s a calling for me that have the luxury to treat myself to, if you like. I’ve never treated writing as something that I want to make money on or fame. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to voice my – as you said – calling and try to see if the text that I produce is good enough for others to appreciate.”

You have Bulgarian heritage, your husband is British, you live in Prague. You’re a truly European citizen. Do you think it reflects in your writing?

“I definitely do. I think that it’s comparing perspectives which is a very strong driver of creativity. And it happens to me every time when I travel, when I’m in a different environment, I notice that people wear different sunglasses in different places or they gather in a different way or they hold each other’s hand in a different way so it immediately triggers some sort of reaction or some motives or thoughts and it’s very useful.”