28) Marek Šindelka’s epic ‘monster’ Aberrant, award-winning ‘anabasis’ Material Fatigue

Marek Šindelka
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The poet, novelist and screenwriter Marek Šindelka is among the leading authors of the generation to come of age after the Velvet Revolution. Known for acclaimed novels such as Aberrant and Material Fatigue, the 37-year-old has won the top Czech literary prizes for his poetry, short stories and books.

The poet, novelist and screenwriter Marek Šindelka is among the leading authors of the generation to come of age after the Velvet Revolution. Known for acclaimed novels such as Aberrant and Material Fatigue, the 37-year-old has won the top Czech literary prizes for his poetry, short stories and books.

Marek Šindelka was only 20 when he burst onto the Czech literary scene with the collection Strychnine and Other Poems – “an intimate, contemplative reflection on the thinking of the young, and a search for the self” – to paraphrase one enamoured reviewer.

For Strychnine, Šindelka won the prestigious Jiří Orten Award for young authors in 2006. Two years later, he made his debut as a novelist with Aberrant (Chyba), a multifaceted work of intertwined genres and styles. Part detective story, part horror novel (inspired by the Japanese tradition of kaidan) and revenge fantasy, with a dash of Siberian shamanism.

Photo: Paseka publishing

Aberrant was well received by critics and readers alike, and has since attained a near cult following. But it was his sophomore effort, Material Fatigue (Únava materiálu), inspired by the fates of refugees for which Šindelka won the Magnesia Litera prize in 2016. (His second, in fact, having won in the prose category five years earlier for Stay Tuned (Zůstaňte s námi) a collection of short stories and novellas).

Marek Šindelka is perhaps best known for the novels Aberrant and Material Fatigue – which are indeed two ‘Czech Books You Must Read’. Before getting into the meat of those works, we hear from the author himself about what sparked his love for literature. As a child, he lived in one of the country’s best-known castles, Křivoklát, founded in the 12th century.

“For me and my brother, it was like a huge playground, with all these ancient walls, fountains and attics. We were like spies in this world. The police sometimes had to come because we triggered some alarm.

“We fished for coins that people used to throw in the fountains – with a magnet, we fished for them – and used to swim there. That was great. These are my fondest memories of living at Křivoklát Castle as a child, taking advantage of this world.

“It was full of tourists, and sometimes we pretended to be beggars, living in the ruins, and so on. It was mostly about how to get some money from tourists! We also played badminton in our living room – it was so huge. That was great, also.”

And your mum was the castle warden (castellan), is that correct?

Křivoklát Castle | Photo: Thuargo,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“Exactly, she was the warden. But I don’t feel any imprint of this experience in my writing for example – it wasn’t that romantic for me, actually.”

When you got the stage in your teens, I presume, and became a serious reader, who were the writers that you most looked up to?

“I started with Czech poets, like Josef Topol, the father of (novelist) Jáchym Topol and Filip Topol (pianist and frontman of the band Psí vojáci).

“His poems were very influential for me, made a huge impact on me, on my view of the world – I suddenly realised how powerful literature is, especially poetry.

“And of course also Czech poets like (Jaroslav) Seifert and (František) Hrubín – Hrubín was one of my most favourites. His poems are like stories, very epic, and I guess I was very influenced by his writing.

“But the interesting thing is that initially, I hated reading. My mother was an intellectual and pushed us into it. We always had a big library full of beautiful books. But in revolt, or whatever, I just didn’t read until I was I guess 14 or 15 years old.

“Actually, I fell in love with a girl who was a reader – a big reader. And that was the ignition, or initial spark.”

Your first book was a collection of poems – Strychnine and Other Poems – for which you won the prestigious Jiří Orten Award. Why did you make the switch from poetry to prose – I don’t know if it was a complete switch – but, generally, why the change?

“Well, I think it was very natural move or switch because I’ve never made a distinction between those two genres, actually.

“For me, it’s like there is a sort of osmosis between those two genres, or two worlds, because my poems were very epic – the same as Hrubín’s. And my prose is, or at least critics usually describe it, very poetic, full of metaphors and so on.

“I guess many of my poems are actually more prosaic than most of my prose, maybe. So, for me it was something very natural.

“For example, the book I published after that collection of poems was a novel, Aberrant, but a very experimental one. It was soaked with poetry – and it started as a poem, actually. As a short, haiku-like poem.

“And then there was like a snowball effect. It’s ‘gravity’ somehow attracted other pieces of text, and it grew to this, yeah, monster of a novel.”

Photo: archive of Marek Šindelka

Aberrant – “a monster of a book”

That remarkable debut novel, Aberrant, also known as The Error in some translations, is a multifaceted work mixing and mashing genres and styles. At the heart of this tale of darkness is the literal shell of a man, inhabited by an alien spirit, or demon.

The seemingly garden-variety plant is in fact more like Venus flytrap – except that rather than lying in wait to drown victims, this parasitic assassin, not quite flora or fauna, pursues victims across Europe and through a post-apocalyptic Prague, ravaged by floods.

In the novel, Marek Šindelka weaves a tale of wayward childhood friends, the murky world of rare plant smuggling – an ecological revenge fantasy – where nothing is what it seems.

On the surface, Aberrant is about a Czech flower smuggler, who takes an extremely rare and valuable plant to Prague from Japan. Where did the original idea come from? You say it began as a poem, but where did the germ of the idea originate?

“It was triggered by an incident in New Zealand, where two Czech scientists tried to smuggle out a couple of rare orchids. It was an international (scandal)…

Marek Šindelka | Photo: Pavel Kotrla,  Czech Radio

“I’m not sure if they went to jail, but there was a huge problem with this. Those plants were protected by international law. I was somehow fascinated by this and started to research such things – it happens with rare flowers, rare species of insect, and so on.

“Immediately, I had this idea of a young guy smuggling of this kind from continent to continent. That was the starting point.

“Then I wrote that small [haiku-like] poem which I mentioned. Later, I rewrote it as a short story, and this short story again evolved into something bigger. It was a very strange process.”

Marek Šindelka has repeatedly reshaped that debut, and in 2019 published another version of Errant. So, for readers, which is the ‘real’ version?

“It’s a good question. As I said, it’s a monster of a book, for me, because it was my first work of prose, my first novel. It’s sort of an obsession because I still can’t live with this text – but I have to.

“It’s so deep-rooted – and that’s probably a good expression because the book has roots – it’s so vivid, you know, and you can see how it started as this seed I mentioned, as this small poem. It was like an evolution, or something dangerous – like a disease or something. I used to call it a literary cancer.”

'Material Fatigue' | Photo: Jiří Šeda,  Czech Radio

Material Fatigue – a journey of ‘what literature is capable of doing’

The second novel by the poet, novelist and screenwriter Marek Šindelka that we feature in this edition of the Czech Books You Must Read is his award-winning Material Fatigue, published in 2016. Coincidently, perhaps, it also involves smuggling – although of people, not rare plants.

Described as akin to an “anabasis”, Material Fatigue is the story of two brothers, one 13, the other about 20, who are forced to flee their war-torn homeland (perhaps Syria) and try to make their way to Europe (perhaps Germany), with the help of professional human traffickers.

The brothers are separated at the start of the treacherous journey. We find the younger one, referred to throughout the novel as “the boy”, in a refugee camp with little on his person save a tattered scrap of paper with the name of the town where his older brother, Amir, is heading.

“The boy” makes a desperate decision to flee the camp in the midst of winter. In a series of alternating chapters, we follow the paths and inward journeys that the two brothers take, though Marek Šindelka focuses on the physical – the hardships endured by their bodies – as much as their minds.

How did you go about creating those stories? Was it based on research or was it purely imagination?

'Material Fatigue' in Arabic | Photo: archive of Marek Šindelka

“It was based on very thorough research. I felt that it wouldn’t be possible (to write) otherwise. But at a certain point, I realised that I had to change the strategy. I realised that I didn’t want to do it as a ‘documentary’ or newspaper article.

“Back then, in 2015, it [the European refugee crisis], was everywhere, and I decided to go deeper into these characters, to do what literature is capable of doing – to grab you and take you ‘inside’ some other person’s skin.

“Eventually, I wrote it as fiction, based on very thorough research. I met people from Syria and Afghanistan and so on, but I realised I couldn’t use their stories without any changes, so I just took some inspiration from their lives, and their journeys – because it is all about this journey to Europe.

“Of course, I was very afraid how – because it was skating on thin ice, on very thin ice, as the main protagonists of the book are from a different culture, from a completely different background – and let’s say a ‘reward’ for me was translated into Arabic and published in Syria.

“My translators, they told me that it worked… And that was great. It was better than the prizes and so on that the book received. That was the best.”