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15) The Seven Churches: a Gothic murder mystery from Prague

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The Seven Churches, a Gothic crime horror, is Miloš Urban’s second novel, published in 1998 by Argo. Subtitled A Gothic Novel of Prague, it describes a murder mystery set in the city’s Nové Město and combines the genre of thriller with the characteristic features of the Gothic novel with a dose of black humour. It has been described as one of the most haunting and terrifying thrillers to come out of Europe in years and was translated into 11 languages, becoming a best-seller in Spain.  I discussed the novel with its author, Miloš Urban:

"It was a beautiful early November morning. All through October a lingering Indian summer had kept autumn at bay until, with a flick of its wand, the first sharp frost numbed the city into immobility.

"Not half a year had passed since the end of the Modern Age; now the metropolis was bracing itself for the coming winter. As the days closed in and the cold crept under fingernails, factory chimneys exhaled their jot fetid breath and window-panes glistened with condensation. But they were the fumes of putrefaction, the sweat of death.

"For all the smart new facades and fast cars – the city’s make-up and jewellery – this stark truth was best disguised by the unchanging trees in Charles Square, some a year old, some a century, some old as the millennium itself. Yet everyone saw it coming.

"Many averted their eyes in dread and yielded to the onslaught of that final autumn, as the three-headed hound lunged headlong at the ancient city of Prague, its three ravenous maws devouring any living being that dared venture forth at this late hour of human history. The massacre was merciless.

"That was last year, before everything changed. Then came the Age of Mercy."

(The Seven Churches, Robert Russel translation, 2010)

“It is a murder mystery in the first plan but it’s not only that. It’s a very personal book where I tried to cope with the city of Prague, as I always found it as a hostile place and I did not like it.

“This was my journey to its core, though not the Old Town or Malá Strana or Charles Bridge, but a part of the city that was not very well known and not very famous. It is historical, founded by Charles IV in 1348 as the new town of Prague, if I may say so, modern in its times.

“I thought this place has a special, sinister quality and I had the urge to think about a story that would be appropriate for such a unique place.”

“I thought this place has a special, sinister quality that I can feel, but maybe other people don’t. I had the urge to think about a story that would be appropriate for such a unique place. It had to be a special story, as I have said, a murder mystery but with another side to it.”

Without giving spoilers to those who haven’t read the book, how would you describe the main storyline?

“It’s about a young man - me, but not really me. He is from Mladá Boleslav and he’s got this problem with Prague, just as I have had when I was young. He looks for a place in the world for himself and doesn’t have any idea what to do.

“He tries to be a policeman for some time but then he finds out he cannot really do this very hard job and quits. And now he is quite at a loss. He suddenly meets some peculiar people in Prague and they seem to take interest in him and he does not know why.

“That’s because this young man, Květoslav Švach, has some special powers. He is no superhero, in fact he is no hero at all, but these people know about his capabilities and they want to use him, or misuse him, and that’s what happens.”

You already mentioned the hero’s name, Květoslav Švach, which is very unusual even in Czech. What does that name reveal about the character?

“It’s a somewhat weak name. Švach is weak in German and Květoslav is such a flowery name, because there a flower in it. So I wanted to tell by this name to those that understand it that he is quite weak and he is not very manly at all. He is not a homosexual, but he is very timid.

“Though he is no rook, he has got a certain weakness for immorality. It’s something he doesn’t consider very important. He succumbs to beauty and he is a beauty lover, but not a lover of morality. And that’s why the book in a little apocalypse.”

The novel takes place in a small part of Prague, roughly between Charles Square and Nusle Bridge. How have you yourself discovered that place?

“I knew very little of it, but by a mere coincidence I walked into this part of the city and I got lost. I felt a special atmosphere there and I found the churches really scary. Because there are no more Gothic buildings in this part of the city, only these churches, like remainders of its great past.

Photo: Argo

“Because I have read some novels that deal with the English architect Nicholas Hawskmoor and his East London Churches, I thought these historical churches really have something similar to the churches in London.

“And I thought that in my story, a series of murder should occur here, because this place calls for it. And as I needed this place for my story I felt that that place needs to occupy it with characters and stage a drama there.”

So we could say that it’s the place that created the story, in case of The Seven Churches.

“Yes.”

The book takes place in a part of Prague which really exists, yet you recreate a large part of it, because many of the streets and buildings you describe haven’t survived to this day.

“I was quite nostalgic and sad about this and read a lot of historical books on what happened in various parts of the city. This was not a special occurrence in Prague.

“Anyway, it did happen and many historical buildings had to make way for the new ones. And I really was a bit depressed about that.

“So I wanted to give them a special memory in the text, because I think it’s important to at least have memories if we don’t have these buildings physically. “

Your book has a subtitle ‘A Gothic novel of Prague’, which refers to the Medieval town that no longer exists, but it also refers to your literary inspiration, the Gothic novel. What do you find so fascinating about this literary genre?

“It’s a very personal book where I tried to cope with the city of Prague, as I always found it as a hostile place and I did not like it.”

“I think that among the students of English at the University in the 1980s I was the only one who took interest in this kind of really old literature. But I found it thoroughly modern.

“Before that, literature got somehow obsolete. It was so rational, devoid of great drama and things irrational, though it is a part of our feelings and a part of human condition as well.

“So now these young writers popped up and they came with fantastic themes, with things couldn’t happen. At the same time, there was a great quality in it and irrationality and madness and even horror.

“It was the beginning of the horror genre and I have always been, from my childhood a fan of horror fiction. So that’s why I did like it and I thought maybe it was time to get my inspiration from this so it was a little joke that it is a Gothic novel through it is not at all.”

And I guess another source of inspirations, aside from the Gothic novel, is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

Church of St. Apollinaire, Prague, photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza

“Yes of course. I majored in English and we have always been told that everything has been written and contemporary fiction is just superficial and there is no literary quality in it at all.

“And suddenly I read Ecco, who came with a novel that was both literary and very readable, we can say sexy, in a way. So I wanted to write something like that.”

Your novels have been translated to many languages. What kind of reactions have you received to The Seven Churches?

“Well, in the Spanish speaking world it was a huge success, both economically and critically, and it was quite well received in Slovenia and Hungary but not in Germany.”

What about Britain, the birthplace of the Gothic novel? How was it received there?

“I think it wasn’t received at all. It was published in a small publishing house and I think nobody reacted. That’s a sad story but I think it happens to most foreign writers and even native writers that their books get no recognition, which is maybe unfair, but what can you do about that?”

Do you tend to oversee your English translations and do you discuss things, such as for example the place names or the names of the character?

“Yes. There were some consultations, but I did not read and compare the translation with the original, because I find this very harrowing and I don’t want to do that.

“I am a translator too and I trust translators to do their job well. But when I was in London at a special event, I don’t remember what it was, and I read from my translation and I have to say I found it really fine.

You wrote The Seven Churches more than 20 years ago. Is there anything today that you would change about the novel?

“No, there are books that I have written that would like to change a bit but not this one. It was a part of my life where I considered literature as art and I think that I was quite successful in making this a literary thing. I have got another book called Hastrman, which I think is even better, but this one is really good.

Miloš Urban is a Czech novelist, translator, publishing editor and author of stage plays. He was born in Sokolov in 1967 and graduated in Nordic Studies and English Studies at Charles University in Prague.

Urban debuted in 1998 with the mock-documentary novel Poslední tečka za rukopisy (The Final Mark on the Manuscripts), which he published under the pseudonym Josef Urban. The book was exceptionally well received and reissued in 2005 under the author’s real name.

His second novel, Sedmikostelí (The Seven Churches), a Gothic crime horror set in the centre of Prague, was published in 1999. It was followed in 2001 by Hastrman (The Water-Goblin), for which Urban received the Magnesia Litera for best prose work. Miloš Urban’s most recent book Kar, is set in the town of Karlovy Vary, where he grew up.
Urban’s books have been published in many languages including English, German, Spanish, Polish and Italian. He is especially popular in Spanish-speaking countries, where his novels sell tens of thousands of copies.

Apart from the Magnesia Litera he also won the Mladá fronta Prize (1996) for his translation of Barnes’ novel Flaubert’s Parrot. Miloš Urban is an editor-in-chief for the publishers Argo, which have also brought out his books.

Author: Ruth Fraňková