Edgar de Bruin: conquering the world with Czech literature

Edgar de Bruin, photo: David Vaughan

With the economic crisis and countries becoming increasingly introverted, you might expect this to be the worst of all possible times for getting Czech books published abroad. But that is far from being the case. In this week’s Czech Books, David Vaughan talks to Edgar de Bruin, who runs a literary agency from Amsterdam and promotes Czech writing all over the world.

Edgar de Bruin, photo: David Vaughan
Edgar de Bruin was in Prague last month for the Czech Republic’s biggest annual book fair, Book World, which draws together publishers, agents, booksellers and writers, along with thousands of visitors under the steel vaults of Prague’s turn-of-the-century Palace of Industry. Book publishing in the Czech Republic is very much alive and well, but how is contemporary Czech writing faring in the rest of the world? Few people have been as active and successful in getting Czech writers translated and published abroad as Edgar de Bruin. He represents some of the top Czech writers to emerge in the last 25 years. His list includes Patrik Ouředník, Petra Hůlová and Miloš Urban, all of whom have had novels translated into a surprising variety of languages. Edgar took a few minutes out from the bustle of the book fair to talk to me about his work. I asked him how it all started.

“I started to study Czech language and literature and in the course of learning the language I ended up here, staying for a year at Charles University in 1981-82.”

And that was an unusual thing for somebody from the West to be doing at that time.

“At first I thought it was, but we ended up with quite a few foreigners – from Germany, from England. But at that time foreigners were pretty much kept away from the local people. All the foreigners ended up living on one corridor. There were some Czechs around there but we soon found out they were informers.”

And you were studying Czech in the Netherlands.

“Yes, I was studying Czech language and literature. That’s why I learned pretty good Czech. I still make mistakes, but people understand me, which is most important in communication.”

And Czech literature has become your life.

“Yes. Twenty-four hours a day I’m occupied with Czech literature and sometimes I would like to take my mind off it as well!”

Photo: Argo
Together with your wife, Magda Hüblová, you have founded the literary agency PLUH, which means “plough” in Czech and represents Czech writers internationally. How did it come about and how easy has its work been?

“It was an opportunity that came by and some circumstances played into it as well. I was looking for a job and then Miloš Urban came to me. He’d just had his second book, ‘Sedmikostelí’ – The Seven Churches – published in Germany. I’d translated his book into Dutch, and he asked me if I wanted to be his agent. It was the right moment so I said I’d do it. That was early 2003. Of course, I had the problem that I had no experience as an agent. But I found out that it isn’t so difficult, because, being a translator for a long time already, I had got used to going to publishers and offering them books. So what I do as an agent is the same thing. I go to publishers, not just in Holland, but all over the world and offer them books.”

I’ve met a lot of people who have said that interest in writing from Central and Eastern Europe has faded enormously over the last twenty years and that it’s tough to get western publishers interested in commissioning translations and publishing works by contemporary writers.

“Well, it goes in ups and downs. Of course, just after the revolution there was a great interest. Middle and Eastern Europe was sexy, just as places like Afghanistan or Egypt are now sexy. But generally there is no interest. If you look at western publishers, if it was up to them and nobody would do anything, we would end up with 99% Anglo-Saxon literature, because they don’t need to promote themselves. So you have to create interest, and that’s what I do. I create interest in Czech writers and what I see now due to the crisis is that publishers have less money, they have bigger programmes, but they also can’t compete on the market to buy titles from Britain or America for a lot of money. So they turn east once again. So this is good in a sense.”

And when you talk about persuading publishers, how do you go about it? You must feel as though you’re in advertising, “sexing up” the writers you are trying to sell.

Miloš Urban, photo: archive of Radio Wave
“In some ways it’s easier for me, because I only promote books which I like myself. Publishers know me by now and trust me on these things. They know my taste and they know that what I offer is good quality, because I want to offer good quality literature – not per se commercially very attractive. So they know what they get and nowadays, every year before I go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the big publishers – usually from Germany – ask me if I have anything new for them, not meaning that they want to buy it, but they want to know about it and hear about it, and – who knows – one day there’s something I can offer them and they say, ‘This is good, we’ll take it.’ So I can only compete in this market with all these books by emphasizing the quality of the books I offer to them.”

And tell me about some of the authors you represent.

“I already mentioned Miloš Urban who was the first one I started to represent…”

… and he’s a writer, now in his mid-40s, who often gets put in the Dan Brown category.

“It’s true that he’s been put in that category and that’s how the market functions, because when his book, ‘The Seven Churches’, was first published in Germany, the German publisher promoted it as a kind of thriller, as a literary crime novel, while I think personally it’s much more literature than crime. But when you get this mark on you as being a literary crime writer, you can’t lose it. So other publishers do the same thing. It worked out in Spain because, when it was published there, suddenly he was a bestseller. Over 60,000 copies have been sold in Spain and Latin America. Another author is Petra Hůlová, who’s one of the greatest talents. She’s very young and she has a high production of books. Sometimes I think, ‘Take it easy – a bit slower can also be better.’ But she’s very good and I’m very anxious to see in what direction she will develop. She’s already been sold in more than ten languages.”

Who else is on the list?

“I should mention Patrik Ouředník straight away, because his book ‘Europeana’ is the most translated book since the revolution. I think it’s already been published in more than 25 countries. It’s now being published in Japan, it’s probably going to be in Korea. It’s in Arabic. This book has conquered the whole world, I think.”

Except for the Czech Republic itself. I have a feeling that it’s a typical situation for a Czech writer who lives abroad – he lives in Paris – Czechs seem slightly to suspect Patrik Ouředník as a writer.

“If I talk to people in the Czech Republic about promoting Czech literature, I ask why they don’t use the name Milan Kundera [who lives in Paris], and the first reaction I get is, ‘Is he a Czech writer?’ Or nowadays I’m very interested in Egon Hostovský. He was an émigré. He always wrote in Czech but he lived in America, and people say, ‘Is he a Czech writer?’ I don’t understand it and it makes me very angry. I say, ‘Be proud of your writers. Be proud of them and do something with it. Don’t put yourself down all the time. Don’t question all these things. Who cares that Patrik Ouředník lives in Paris? He writes in Czech, he publishes in Czech, he has great success. So be proud of it. He’s so important for your country, for your culture.’ It makes me mad!”

Here is a short extract from the very beginning of Patrik Ourednik’s ‘Europeana’. In just over a hundred pages the book tells the story of the twentieth century, but from ever-shifting perspectives, mixing seemingly banal details with the great dramas and tragedies of the time:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again. Trans.: Gerald Turner

Petra Hůlová, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
You sit on two stools. You are both a literary agent and a translator. Tell me something about the writers you enjoy translating. Most famously, you have translated several of Jáchym Topol’s works into Dutch.

“Yes. The first author I translated into Dutch was Josef Škvorecký. In cooperation with a colleague we did a translation of ‘The Engineer of Human Souls’. Then the publisher wanted to continue, which was great because I could say that I wanted to do ‘The Cowards’, because it’s one of my all-time favourites. It’s one of the real classics of Czech literature. The fact that the publisher came to me and asked me what I wanted to translate was a great feeling. And another of my favourites is Jáchym Topol. It’s such fun to translate him, maybe because we’re about the same age and we have some things in common. I’ve got great contact with him as well. We’ve worked closely together on several things. Jáchym is one of the people who help me out with my agency, giving me tips and saying which authors I should turn to. He pointed me, for instance, to Petra Hůlová when her book came out and told me to read the book because it was very good.”

You’re Dutch, your wife is Czech, you are living in Amsterdam. Do you find yourselves travelling back and forward a lot between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic?

“Once a year we come to Prague for one week during the book fair. That’s basically it. We used to go more often when our kids were smaller, having a holiday here. But when the two of us are here, nearly all the time is work, meeting the Czech publishers, authors, editors and so on. So we’re always confronted with our work, and it is no holiday for us anymore. But when the kids were smaller we used to come here three or four times a year. “

Are your children bilingual?

“Yes, they are. Not completely because they’re predominantly Dutch-speaking, but they can manage in Czech, they write in Czech with their friends on Facebook and so on, and when they come here they can get around.”

Keep up the good work!

“I surely will. It’s a great joy to do this work. There are still a lot of publishers and editors around who work for the love of literature, which is great.”