Daniela Hodrová: novelist of a many-layered Prague

Photo: Jantar Publishing

There are some novels that take us on a journey to a place, either real or imagined; others take us into the world of the mind. Every now and then a novelist manages to do both. Such is the case with Daniela Hodrová and her novel “Podobojí’ which has just been translated into English for the first time under the title “Kingdom of Souls”. It is also a brilliant book to read if you are visiting Prague, as we recognize a city that is intensely physical but at the same time shifting in time and space, in imagination and memory. David Vaughan finds out more about one of the classics of Czech literature of the last fifty years, now at last available to English-speaking readers.

Photo: Jantar Publishing
When she wrote “Kingdom of Souls” in 1977, Daniela Hodrová was around thirty. It was her first novel, but, with its references to the recent past and in particular the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, it had no chance of being published. So it was not until 1991 that the novel first appeared in Czech to immediate critical acclaim. It has been followed by several further novels, all of which in some way refer back to this first book. But until recently, none of Hodrová’s work had been translated into English, other than in fragments. Then Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol came onto the scene and, luckily for us, they took on the translation of Hodrová’s rich and complex prose as a labour of love. For the two translators this has also been a personal journey, as I found out when I met them at Prague’s Montmartre Café on the day before the book’s launch.

VF: “My name is Véronique Firkusny. I’m American of Czech parents, and literature and language are my passion.”

And your personal interest in this book has a connection with your family.

VF: “It does absolutely, in two ways. Prague was a city that I grew up hearing about from my father, who spent many years here as a student during the First Republic of Czechoslovakia [before WWII] and adored this city.”

He was a very famous Czech pianist.

VF: “He was and his Czechness was always very important to him, which probably had something to do with the fact that when he finally did get married, he married a Czech lady, who was a lot younger, so she remembered a different historical time of Czechoslovakia. But we really did grow up in a very Czech household, in which we spoke only Czech. And this translation is also connected to my mother in that it was my mother who fell in love with the text originally.”

Elena, could you introduce yourself as well?

ES: “I was the child of Czech grandparents, who came while it was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire and grew up knowing Czech. My mother was bilingual, my father knew Czech, and when I decided to go to university, I studied Russian and Czech.”

So you were very much part of the Czech émigré community in Chicago.

ES: “That’s right. My great-grandmother lived in ‘Little Plzeň’. I began coming to Czechoslovakia in 1960 and came regularly – and saw the culture evolve.”

And what about your journey to this book?

Véronique Firkusny,  Elena Sokol,  photo: David Vaughan
ES: “When it was possible to spend a sabbatical here, I had a semester in spring of 1991, when I also decided that I would start exploring the writing of Czech women writers. Daniela Hodrová was one of them. So, in the course of the ensuing years I have read and studied and written and published about eight different writers. But Daniela Hodrová is the one that I think that I have bonded with the most closely.”

Tell us something about Daniela Hodrová as a writer.

ES: “Daniela Hodrová is the daughter of a well-known actor in Prague. He was an actor at the Vinohrady Theatre and her initial desire was to work in the theatre. But she studied literature – she studied Czech and Russian literature and went on in graduate school to study French and comparative literature, she even worked as an editor for a while at Odeon publisher. She became a scholar, working at the Institute for Czech Literature, where she still continues, even though she’s retired. At the same time she began writing, already as a young woman, but this novel is the first one that she let out into the world. At first it was only circulated among friends. She never published it in samizdat or in the exile press in the way that many of the untraditional writers did in the 70s and 80s.”

So that means that even most Czech readers didn’t encounter this book until after the fall of communism.

ES: “That’s absolutely right. It appeared with a provincial publishing house in 1991.”

And the book is called “A Kingdom of Souls” in English translation. The Czech original is “Podobojí”, which could be translated literally as “Utraquist” – a liturgical term meaning “Communion in both kinds”. How do go about translating a title like that, which goes back to the times of the Hussites in the 15th century and to the disputes within the Catholic Church about reform of liturgical practice.

ES: “It’s impossible to convey it absolutely and so we focused on the cemetery – the Kingdom of Souls.”

And so what, in essence – and with Daniela Hodrová it is difficult to give a simple answer – is the book about?

ES: : “On one level the book is about people who lived in Prague – a family that lived in an apartment building and then the subsequent families that lived in that apartment building. It’s about the souls buried in the cemetery across the way, all set against the evolving historical background of Prague.”

Here is an extract from the translation. This is the very beginning of the novel, the first two paragraphs:

The Window of the Children’s Room Alice Davidovič would never have thought the window of her childhood room hung so low over the Olšany Cemetery that a body could travel the distance in less than two seconds. A sound in the pantry, as if someone was softly moaning. Alice enters and sees her grandmother at the table, tears streaming down her cheeks. The table is spread with the Sabbath tablecloth. It occurs to Alice that maybe one day someone will have a dress made of it, a Sabbath dress. – Grandmother, why are you crying? asks Alice, and Grandmother Davidovič points to the corner. Can’t you see, Grandfather is peeling onions. – But Grandfather is… – Shhh, Grandmother Davidovič puts a finger to her lips. Grandfather Davidovič, peeling onions in the corner, as if having heard Alice’s objection in full, gives a wry laugh. Alice realizes her mistake, although until the moment she entered the pantry, she knew for certain that Grandfather had died three months ago, she could distinctly remember the day he returned from Mrs Soška’s, where he’d been staying for many years. Grandfather had come back to the pantry to die, his whole body mangled by the Germans who had racked him and broken him on the wheel at Hagibor.

In a sense that extract gives us a taste of the whole book – this sense of shifting between the real and the imagined, the living and the dead. Could you say a bit more about how that language is echoed throughout the book?

ES: “This first sentence came to Daniela out of the blue. It came from the room in which she had grown up as a child, and all of her writing comes from that initial sentence.”

She grew up in a flat in which a Jewish family had lived before the war, and when they were summoned to join one of the transports to the Terezín Ghetto, the daughter of the family jumped out of the window and committed suicide.

ES: “That’s absolutely true. It’s something that Daniela didn’t know when she was a child. She only learned it later.”

That sense of the past, both the traumatic and the mythical and magical past, being still present today comes up again and again throughout the book.

ES: “Entirely. It’s like you said: from the Second World War, through the coming of communism, to the positive days of the Prague Spring and then the Warsaw Pact invasion. That’s the underlying historical setting of the book. But it’s so much more because it brings in literary, mythological and earlier historical allusions. It’s an amazing blend, kaleidoscope of themes and images.”

Vinohrady,  Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Could you add something about what it’s like to translate this kind of prose, because it’s full of references that people who aren’t familiar with the Czech or Prague context might not pick up?

VF: “In a way that was very much my case, because I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t grow up knowing Prague, so I’ve really been introduced to Prague and its history through this translation. And it’s been a fascinating process because it’s like a palimpsest in the sense that there are so many layers and through Daniela’s own experience of the city which she basically shares with us through this novel you get a sense of the incredible layers of both history and the degree to which one’s personal experience of that influences one’s knowledge of the city. And because it’s a city that’s had such an incredible history, it’s been really a journey of discovery for me, not only through Prague and the references and the history that is alluded to through the text, but also linguistically because it is an incredibly dense work.”

In a sense the main protagonist is the city itself and the book is multi-layered, in just the same way as the city is multi-layered. It is also slightly elusive: you think it’s about one thing and then it’s about something else. In a way that is how we experience cities, because they can’t be reduced to one thing…

ES: “And yet the part of the city, Vinohrady and Žižkov, in which the novel is set is that part of the city where Daniela has lived all her life. So it’s a very intimate association between her life and the cultural and historical aspects of the city in a larger sense.

VF: I’ve only now been discovering that particular part of the city and I’ve realized that having read this book opens windows onto so many aspects of the history of that area; I feel that I see every block that I walk on in a completely different way, thanks to having read this novel and spent so much time with it, which is, I hope, what readers will also find. It’s a novel in and of itself, but it’s also an incredible novel to read if you are coming to Prague, because it just enriches the experience of the city so profoundly.

To end with, here is another short extract, also from close to the beginning of the book:

The Pantry I am the pantry, the chamber of resurrection. My one window – my one little window – is blind and doesn’t open onto this world. When it’s ajar, centuries-old dust falls in, dust from the dreams and lives of others, it covers the cracked paint of the table upon which Grandmother Davidovič rested her head. And after her the maid Cyrila rested her head upon that table, and after her the hunchbacked maid Anežka, and after her the maid Mařenka from the village of Karhule near Blaník Mountain… Suffer little children to come unto me.

Daniela Hodrová’s novel, “Kingdom of Souls” has been published by Jantar Publishing in a beautiful and elegant edition that also includes a rather atmospheric black-and-white map of Prague on the inside of the front and back covers. It is much to be recommended.