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23) Radka Denemarková: “Life always brings me topics to explore”

Radka Denemarková, photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio
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Radka Denemarková is one of the most widely translated contemporary Czech authors. She has received Magnesia Litera Awards for prose, non-fiction and best translation and, most recently, Book of the Year, for her latest novel Hours of Lead. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages, winning numerous foreign prizes, and make her one of the most celebrated Czech contemporary writers.

Radka Denemarková, a novelist, playwright and translator was born in March 1968. She debuted as a writer in 1995, with a novel called The Devil by the Nose, which revolves around two characters trying to come to terms with their past.

Photo: Women’s Press

Some of the themes she addressed in the novel, such as dysfunctional family relationships or facing unpleasant facts about one’s own past, were further developed in her later works.

Just a year later, in 1996, Denemarková published her acclaimed novel Money from Hitler, for which she was awarded the Magnesia Litera for prose. It is also the only book that has been released in English so far, in an excellent translation by the Canadian Scholars’ Press.

The book addresses one of the most sensitive and painful chapters in modern Czech history, the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from post-war Czechoslovakia, which was often accompanied by acts of violence.

Here is the opening scene of the book, in which a small boy called Denis digs up a rather unusual object in his parents’ orchard with his little spade.

“When he has finished, he is out of breath; on the ground in front of him lies some sort of bowl, which is strikingly long and narrow and has strange bits sticking out of it and rough cracks and holes. A white bowl. He picks it up and cleans it, removes all remnants of dirt. Then he rinses the object with a child’s watering can, also green, with a red sprinkler spout. Only twice and briefly does he walk away to fill the can with dirty rainwater from a rusty old tub, set down years ago by the strawberry plot so that Denis could paddle in it in summer. Now that the hole-ridden bowl has been emptied out and cleaned, he turns it round and round, before lifting it up. He is surprised to see two hollows: eye sockets. It is a skull. A human skull. With care, five-year-old Denis carries it from the orchard to the sandpit.”

(Money from Hitler, Andrew Oakland translation)

The novel Money from Hitler tells the story of Gita Lauschmanová, who as a young Jewish girl returns from a concentration camp to her village as the sole survivor from her family, only to find out she has no place to return to. The family’s property has been confiscated, because they all spoke German. Gita is desperate to come home, but she finds she is no longer welcome.

Speaking to Radio Prague in 2010, this is how Radka Denemarková described her character’s struggle.

“We have to confront the past, otherwise it will come back to haunt us. It’s like with the individual. If you shut things out, they can come back in ways that are unexpected and brutal.

„If you put the past under the carpet, it festers, and ends up poisoning more and more people. You have to look into what really happened.

„I have to keep asking, because I wasn’t born in Australia or England, but here in Bohemia, in Central Europe, where various things mixed together and various things happened. These things in some way influenced our culture, the behaviour of people, of politicians and also my own life.”

Radka Denemarková,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
In 2011, Radka Denemarková published her novel The Elf, which draws on her previous two books, and is the culmination of her trilogy about 20th century Europe. Made up of two loosely connected stories, it offers a disturbing description of dysfunctional relationships set against a backdrop of historical events.

Three years later she published her fourth novel, ‘A Contribution to the History of Joy’. The crime mystery, weaving together stories of three women, has been described by critics as a “passionate indictment of all forms of violence against women everywhere.”

In addition to prose, Denemarková has also translated from German, in the work of Herta Müller and has also been prolific in the sphere of journalism. One of her most widely acclaimed book, for which she received the 2009 Magnesia Litera for journalism, focuses on the life and death of Petr Lébl, a prominent Czech theatre director with whom she worked at the theatre Divadlo na Zábradlí.

The Chinese Girl grew up in a country of joy, obedience, and achievement; all of a sudden, she saw her homeland through the eyes of a foreigner. She saw a country of fear, anger, and control. One and the same country. Dissent is punished. Anyone who does not join our long march is on a short march against us. Censors and bureaucrats are far more vigilant and inventive here than they have ever been in the Writer’s country. It is much harder to get to the essence. The codes, hints, oblique allusions, and vague parallels are more sophisticated. Censors and the bureaucrats of propaganda have little trouble deciphering banned characters because they are the ones who release them into the world. Their sweeping brushstrokes infect signs with a squashy fear.

A meteorite drops unexpectedly from the heavens, landing in the mortal realm. On June 4, the Chinese Girl lays a bouquet of yellow roses in Tiananmen Square. She remains alone for just ten seconds before being arrested: tourists don’t even manage to snap a photo. She parrots quotes that have been weaponised and poses questions of a guileless, astonished child; a web of unsophisticated sophistication. She lays bare the truth that is her mind. That is how simple it is. Only truly sensitive people can detect the subtle shifts in the general mental and moral mindset which the majority fails to notice.

(Hours of Lead, Peter and Julia Sherwood translationl)

That was an excerpt from Radka Denemarková’s latest novel, Hours of Lead, published by the Asymptote Journal in a translation by Julia Sherwood.

The novel, for which she received her fourth Magnesia Litera Award, was published in 2018, and was inspired by her stays in China. Spanning over 700 pages, it took Denemarková five years to complete.

Here is how she described the novel for Radio Prague:

“It is not easy for me to explain what the novel is about, because, it is my life’s work, in which I addressed a number of issues, that have always interested me.

“In broad terms, it is a story of several families, generations and societies. For me personally it poses the question of how to capture the essence of an era in which I live, which I didn’t choose to live in, and which troubles me.

'Hours of Lead',  photo: Host publishing

“It is essential for me because I think I opened topics which I think everyone is worried about, such as the nature of totalitarianism, authoritarian rule, and what it does to families and to the human soul.

“The book is simply a part of my life. I have never regarded literature as something separate from my life. In my case, life always brings me a topic to explore and in the case of this book, it was my stay in China.”

The title, inspired by a poem by Emily Dickins, refers to the “hour of lead”, which Denemarková describes as a moment of crisis each of the novel’s characters have to face at a certain moment in their lives. However, symbolically, the expression also refers to critical moments in the history of different states and societies, she says:

“We face such moments even in this part of the world. If we reduce our lives to consumerism and economic pragmatism, it isn’t enough. Owning four cars won’t bring us happiness and contentment.

“We have forgotten that there are things such as solidarity, friendship, that what is important is the meaning of life. We have forgotten that our world has different forms.

“And it turns out that in countries, where terms such as democracy, human rights, dignity for all and the rule of law have been erased from dictionaries it suffocates democracy at its core.

“People are reduced to being a tiny wheel in a huge mechanism, and when they feel they have no power to change things, it reduces their creativity, their joy in life, and makes the society incredibly frustrated.”