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26) Jiří Kratochvil: “I am obsessed with telling stories”

Jiří Kratochvil

Novelist, essayist and playwright Jiří Kratochvil is one of the most respected Czech contemporary writers.  Over his career, spanning more than 50 years, he has published dozens of novels and short story collection, which have been translated into a number of foreign languages including German, Spanish, French, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian. Jiří Kratochvil is the recipient of many domestic literary awards including the Magnesia Litera Award, Tom Stoppard Prize and the Jaroslav Seifert Award.

Among the themes Jiří Kratochvil repeatedly addresses in his writing is personal identity and memory. He often returns in his memories to the time of his childhood and youth, spent in the Protectorate and the 1950s, mixing realistic settings with fiction. Many of his books are set in his hometown of Brno.

“My life began in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren and I am likely to end my days in the Czech Republic. As it happens, at the start and at the end of my life there it was an entity from which Slovakia has been cut off. However, the majority of my life took place in Czechoslovakia. Does that make me feel a Czech or a Czechoslovak? I would say that things are more complicated, especially in my case.

Let me explain.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Ukrainian. His name was Žyla and he was the grandson of an Orthodox bishop from the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, who had reached these parts sometime in early nineteenth century. My grandmother on my mother’s side (i.e. his wife) née Emilie Hübelová, was a German. My other grandmother came from the Polish Simonides family that had settled in Moravia several generations back. Her husband, my grandfather on my father’s side, was a full-blooded Moravian. That makes me one quarter Czech (Moravian), another quarter Pole, a quarter German and a quarter Ukrainian. Let’s say Central European which is an ideal genetic make-up suited for life in the European Union.

But this is where the problem lies. For that to be true, I would have to feel wholly positive towards this family trousseau and each one of its national branches. And I have to admit shamefacedly that this, unfortunately, is not the case.”

(Tolik času nezbývá / It’s Too Late Now, published by the Central European Forum Salon in a translation by Julia Sherwood )

Jiří Kratochvil was born in Brno on January 4, 1940. His father fled Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s, and as a result, the family was persecuted by the Communist authorities.

Kratochvil studied Czech and Russian at the Masaryk University and started publishing his first short stories in the late 1960s. Just a few years later, he was put on a blacklist, and for the next twenty years, he couldn’t publish officially.

His first samizdat work, The Case of the Inappropriately Placed Chance (Případ nevhodně umístěné šance), appeared in 1978. In the same year he published A Bear’s Novel (Medvědí román) set in the totalitarian state of ‘Island’, an allegory for the Czechoslovak totalitarian regime. The novel, which was awarded the Tom Stoppard Prize, is considered by Kratochvil to be his most important work.

Photo: Atlantis

During the Communist years, Jiří Kratochvil worked as a heating operator, a night-watchman and a manual labourer.

It was only after the Velvet Revolution that his novels reached a mass readership and a number of his works were published in quick succession, including a re-edition of A Bear’s Novel.

Zbyněk Fišer is the head of the Department of Czech Literature at the Masaryk University’s Faculty of Arts in Brno:

“I think he felt he had to catch up and write the stories he had inside his head. And so at a certain period he was in a situation where he was deciding whether he should stay employed or freelance.

“He wondered if he could make a living freelancing. It was clear that it wasn't going to be easy, but he decided to take the chance, because it was really important to him.

“And if you look at the impressive string of titles, published books, since 1999, it's been a title every year or every other year.”

Among his most critically acclaimed book published in the 1990s is Singing in the Middle of the Night (Uprostřed nocí zpěv), based on the memories of a child of an emigrant growing up in 1950’s Brno. The story based on a search for a father, was published in German, French, Spanish and Italian.

Zbyněk Fišer | Photo: Alena Blažejovská,  Czech Radio

At the start of the new millennium, Kratochvil released a loose trilogy, including the novels Despondent God (Truchlivý Bůh), Lie Down, Beast (Lehni, bestie), a story taking place in 1950s Brno reflecting on the 9/11 attacks in New York City, and Lady Carneval.

In 2007, he published a collection of short stories called Stories of the Town of Brno (Brněnské povídky), which he claims to be his favourite work.

His hometown of Brno is present in most of Jiří Kratochvil’s writing. Indeed, he says that although it may not be explicitly said, the characters that populate his books are always people from Brno.

Literary critic Zbyněk Fišer adds that thanks to Kratochvil’s works being translated to other languages, the city of Brno has become part of world literature:

“Jiří Kratochvil grew up in Brno. He seems to like Brno very much, because he dedicates many stories to it. Most of his stories are set in Brno or in its surroundings. If the characters are cast somewhere else, he is able to portray the place believably, but Brno is the most obvious. Of course, whether his texts could function as a kind of local history or a literary guide to Brno, I'm not entirely sure."

Jiří Kratochvil says that writing comes naturally to him, as he has always enjoyed telling stories and turning reality into fantasy. His narrative style usually mixes realistic settings with pure fiction and often has a dream-like quality. Kratochvil himself describes his style as magical realism:

Photo: /z Atlantis z/

“Kratochvil subscribes to it because of the suppression of a direct storyline, the natural traditional narrative that he disrupts.

“His writing also features something fanciful, magical, which is confronted with ordinary reality. And in that world of ordinary characters, the magical is accepted as a perfectly natural thing.

“No one questions the fact that there are paranormal phenomena. That's a feature we find in the texts of South American magical realists, and we could find it here too.”

In 2020, Jiří Kratochvil won the Magnesia Litera Award for his magical realist novel Fox into Lady, released in 2019. It is a tale of a fox turned into a beautiful woman, who is sent by the Russians on a secret mission to Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. There she falls in love with a Brno worker who collaborates with the secret police.

Brno | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

In an interview for Czech Radio, Jiří Kratochvil says he would rather have received the Magnesia Litera Award for one of his many collections of short stories, since he considers short stories his favourite genre:

“I wouldn't say I put short stories over novels. It is simply a genre that is neglected, it rarely receives literary prizes. I don't know about a Nobel Prize for short stories.

“Short stories are considered a minor genre, and I wanted to emphasize that this is not the case. A master storyteller is as important as a novelist. Each of those genres has something in it.

“Actually, when I write novels, I have to have a frame story, and then I fill it with a patchwork of stories. So my novels are actually story books, too.”

Jiří Kratochvil | Photo: Ben Skála,  Benfoto,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

In the interview for Czech Radio, Mr Kratochvil also said his books are always politically engaged at least to some extent, as he cannot help reflecting the political reality around him and revisiting his childhood and youth spent in the 1950’s communist Czechoslovakia:

“Milan Uhde said that politics is present in all my novels and in most of my short stories. That I can't get rid of what we live in. It just bothers me, what is happening in our country and the consequences of that. So I'm actually writing engaged literature.

“Of course, I'm so marked by my life and childhood in the fifties that I can't help it coming up again and again. There's nothing I can do about that. Unless I stop publishing. But I definitely won’t stop writing because I’m obsessed with telling stories and the process makes me very happy.”

Jiří Kratochvil’s last book, You Won’t Step Twice into the Same River (Nevstoupíš dvakrát do téže řeky), came out in 2020. Although none of his books are available in English so far, he is represented in various English language anthologies, such as the Best European Fiction 2012, published by the US Dalkey Archive Press.

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Tomáš Pancíř