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17) Bianca Bellová’s The Lake: childhood memories harnessed in archetypal story

Photo: Host publishing house

Bianca Bellová, is a translator, interpreter and writer with a number of highly successful books to her name. Her works include Sentimentální roman (Sentimental Novel) which describes the trials of growing up near the end of the communist regime, the novella Mrtvý muž (Dead Man), which tells the story of a traumatized family during the normalization 1970s and the novella Celý den se nic nestane (Nothing Happens All Day), a story about interpersonal relationships and unfaithfulness. All of them reveal her great narrative talent and understanding of the human psyche, impressing critics and readers alike, but it was her 2016 novel, Jezero (The Lake), which really transcended borders, winning the EU Prize for Literature and the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year award. The Lake, which has been translated into 20 languages, is a powerful archetypal story of a young boy who fights his way out of a tough environment as he searches for his roots in a fictitious land, with references to a past Soviet occupation. Daniela Lazarova talks to Bianca Bellová about her captivating novel.

“What Nami likes best is going to the harbour, where sometimes he runs into people from his neck of the woods, sailors from the oil tankers and fishermen with deep salty wrinkles. He doesn’t know how to talk to them, so he just takes a seat at a table next to theirs and drinks Russian tea from a tall glass as he listens in on the men’s conversation. They talk about torn nets, withered trees, their moody women, how many of their neighbours have come down with cancer, and, almost always, their visits to the brothel or their plans to go again.”
From “The Lake” by Bianca Bellová, translated by Alex Zucker

Bianca Bellová - 'Jezero', photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

The Lake is a powerful story about a young boy growing up in extreme circumstances. Could you just say, in a few words, what kind of world it is?

“It is a world which is quite hostile, it is a world where he has to find his whereabouts and ways to survive and this is made even harder because he is growing up without parents.”

Bianca Bellová, photo: Jan Trnka, archive of Bianca Bellová

It seems that you like to place your characters in extreme circumstances, where they have to ask themselves questions and make life-changing decisions. What doors does that open to you as a writer?

“Yes, that is true. I do try to put my characters up against challenges and I equip them with basic arms such as their upbringing, the love of their family and the people around them and I try to play with how they are going to succeed in those challenges - and very often they fail.”

I know you are not keen on activist literature. But is this your way of addressing issues that you care about –without moralising and without being boring – by just telling a story?

Jorge Luis Borges, photo: Grete Stern, CC0

“I guess so. I do have a problem answering these sort of questions. Do you know Luis Borges and the Borgesian Conundrum? He said “you don’t know whether the author is creating the story or the story, the author”. The themes and inspiration come to me often without me realizing it and knowing about it. I just start writing and I am pretty much an observer or a medium and something happens without any kind of big plan behind it.”

So it was a story you had inside you for a long time and had to tell?

“Yes, I’ve probably been waiting all my life for it to come out.”

Photo: S. Hermann & F. Richter, Pixabay / CC0

The Lake is wonderfully written, you paint a perfect picture down to the smallest details –the atmosphere, the interpersonal relations, people’s resignation to their fate, the way they live their daily lives as best as they can under oppression, in the midst of environmental devastation and yet you manage to capture brief moments of happiness and kindness that make it all very believable. Did you draw on what you saw and heard –possibly as a child – in the Eastern bloc states pre-1989?

Illustrative photo: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay / CC0

“Yes, thank you for that observation. That’s pretty much my way of interpreting the text.  It is about the ex-Soviet part of the world –with all its traumas, its architecture, its habits and the way of thinking of the people who live there.”

Why did you choose to tell it through the eyes of a young boy coming of age? And why did you pit him against so much? Because in the book we find all kinds of evil – there is environmental devastation, oppression, he has no parents, eventually no kin, there’s local superstition, Lynch’s law –everything. One thing might have been enough-why did you make him face so much?

Photo: Host publishing house

“He does have a very hard fate. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes and I wouldn’t even want to read about him, to be honest. But as I said –I didn’t choose him – he chose me to be written about. And I think he manages, through the little bits of humanity that are pushed his way at the right moment when he needs them most, to move forward.”

And you chose a young boy, because a young boy, maturing, would go it search of answers – unlike maybe a grown up experiencing this?

Bianca Bellová, photo: Marta Režová

“Possibly. But it is hard to say. It was a moment when all these memories and little stories that I had been treasuring since my childhood surfaced and had to be exploited.”

I am not going to say how it ends and spoil it for readers, but is there a light at the end of the tunnel – or is it a dire warning?

Photo: Host publishing house

“I think the ending is pretty much up to readers to interpret for themselves. Some readers see it as a happy ending, while others are a bit devastated by it.”

What kind of feedback did you get from the different countries where it has been published? Did people in the poor regions of the post-communist world find echoes of the time? Did they recognize it and relate to it?

Photo: Host publishing house

“Yes, that’s pretty much so, I did get those reactions from people in Poland or Latvia who have had a similar experience with the presence of the Soviet army and oppression and they could even relate to the barracks buildings because this is how they remembered them. And people who haven’t had the same experience, like in Italy or Japan, are more drawn to the narrative line of the story.”

Czech Magnesia Litera Award, photo: ČT24

The Lake has won the EU Prize for Literature as well as the Czech Magnesia Litera Award for Book of the Year –to what do you ascribe its great success and the fact that it has managed to transcend borders?

“It is probably up to others to explain this, but personally I think it is in the fact that it is quite a simple story, quite liner, with a simple, universal message –very much like Ulysses going out into the world, finding out something about himself and coming home. This is pretty much the same pattern, which is familiar to a lot of readers. So I think that is probably one of the reasons. Then there is the childhood aspect– everyone can relate to childhood, everyone has childhood memories, memories of the challenges they faced. So that is the universal nature of the text, I think.”

Alex Zucker, photo: Strcprst, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

It is an incredibly successful book that has been translated into 20 languages. Why has it not been translated into English yet?

“Well, first of all the English-speaking market is incredibly challenging. In the UK only about five percent of the books which are published are translations and to put your foot in that market -as a “nobody” -is quite difficult. My agent succeeded, nevertheless. After about three years of efforts he managed to sell the rights to a very nice and friendly Canadian publishing house, which however didn’t survive the coronavirus pandemic. So the book is in the process of being translated by Alex Zucker –the excerpt that I read was translated by him –I think it is an excellent translation but we still have to find a publishing house.”

“Nami shares his room with 11 other men. They come home so tired that at night they just collapse into their beds and fall asleep. They’re so used to bedbugs at this point, they don’t even bother. Once, Nami lifted his mattress and discovered thousands of them, all over the bed frame. The men don’t have strength to argue, not even to masturbate. Every so often, Nami remembers Zaza, but the memory is always tainted by the image of a Russian rear end moving up and down, so he quickly banishes it from his mind. His muscles are growing. He scarcely speaks to the other men, apart from exchanging greetings in the washroom in the morning.

“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.”

From “The Lake” by Bianca Bellová, translated by Alex Zucker