Fons Montevirgenes: a Belgian writer in Prague

Fons Montevirgenes, photo: Nathalie Devos

"Prague is the most beautiful city in the world.... after Antwerp, of course." This is a line from a new book, Nerudova 34, by Fons Montevirgenes, and as you might have guessed, the author hails from Belgium. Nerudova 34 has just been published in Czech translation, and caused quite a splash in the Czech newspapers. In today's programme, Fons tells Bernie Higgins something about the book.

"I came to Prague three or four years ago and started to write a book. I found a flat in Nerudova Street, number 34, and so many stories happened around me, and things happened to me, that I thought I had to write a book about it, because Prague tells you so many stories. But I should tell you immediately that the book is not my diary."

Yet there are some obvious similarities, insofar as the main character Alfons is from Antwerp and was involved in a theatre company there, and he has some adventures in Prague that bear some resemblance to yours, I think.

"Yes, and the book is written in the first person singular, his name is Alfons, my name is Fons, so we do seem to be a little bit similar people, a bit the same. But it is fiction. It's not my diary."

It's set in Nerudova Street, a very beautiful street, which winds up to the castle. How much was this an inspiration to you?

"Well, Nerudova Street is the centre of Mala strana [the Lesser Quarter]. It's a mix of local people, expats and tourists. The confrontation of these different cultures was very interesting to write a book about."

It's interesting to me that it is a book about an expat, and we hear a lot about expat communities in Prague, particularly Americans and British and some of the larger countries. Is there a Belgian expat community?

"Actually there is not. There are some Belgians in Prague, but the Flemish tend to stick to what the Dutch do, to go to the Dutch parties, and the Walloons go to the French parties, so there is nothing left like a Belgian expat community. Also the main character of the book is not part of any community. He is completely on his own in Prague. He is not working for a company or something that provides a big community."

So the character is rather a lonely character, rather isolated.

"I thought that was very important to make him isolated, to make it a better confrontation, with the city of Prague. Actually there are two main characters, one is Alfons from Antwerp, and the other is the city of Prague. If he had been a member of a group of people, the confrontation would not be that strong."

Many people have written about Prague, but I think not so many have had it actually published and translated by a Czech publisher. Why was this important to you?

"Well, it is my first book and I wanted to publish it first in Prague, because most foreign writers who come to a city, whether it be Prague or somewhere else, write a book and then go back to their own country, and publish it in their own language. They never have the confrontation of what they have written with the real characters or the situations in the book. So I wanted to have that confrontation."

Did you have a confrontation? How did local people respond to your particular take on the city?

"Quite a lot of people were surprised by what I wrote. I wrote it in a very honest way, and I must say that some people really hated the book at the start, which is very interesting."

The book is made up of three loosely connected stories, and it focuses on the main character Alfons, who is working for some vague, mysterious institute...

"He comes to Prague to make an inventory of the house fronts that are damaged by the floods, but in the first story he comes as a tourist. In the second story he is in Prague to work, and in the third story he lives in Prague. So it was this different view or different perception of Prague that I wanted to put in the book."

Here is a short extract from the second story, which is called "A Man Called Tram-Stop". This is your own working translation. There are plans for it to be translated into English in the near future.

The Institution would soon contact me. To kill time, I wandered the streets. Repair works were happening in streets and squares. Many of the marble cobblestones on the sidewalks got dislocated, and were lying like great heaps of sugar cubes waiting for the repairmen. From open basement windows, emerged the smell of water damage. The lower part of all the house fronts was to be removed and the pieces of stucco were thrown into dozens of waiting containers. The work continued through evenings, nights, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, as business as usual. In spite of the events, the iron faces of the inhabitants of the golden city showed no sign of grief. Children played games: those finding themselves above ground level were invulnerable. Construction workers on scaffolds yelled dirty talk to female American tourists. In a narrow street by the Certovka, some men were drinking a bottle of pivo. The eldest was too old for this and other work. Because of the lack of skilled workmen the contractor picked him right out the sanatorium, just to keep track of the doings of his younger companions. Obviously they were recruited at the bar of the local hospoda. The facade of the house they worked on contained soaked wall paintings. Some islands of soaked stucco were waiting for execution.

The men noticed me, and greeted me kindly.

'Old?' I asked. The surveyor produced a mix of German and English. Recent work of a local painter. He pointed at some details that still had to be removed. Each island offered an interesting view of female anatomy. Big breasts formed a whole archipelago. A triangular island of pubic hair pointed the visitor to the entrance. An artistically painted bottom provoked sounds of admiration from the old man. A big part of the plaster down on the right side of the wall still had to be removed. In little time the entire wall would consist of bare brick.

'Was it a sex club?' I guessed. It sounded like the cry of the lonesome traveller; desperately looking for the red light quarter.

'No nothing sex. Bar. Good bar.' Approving mumbles from the others. 'Nice publicity painting for a bar.'

'Nice women in the bar,' according to the old man. More approving mumbles.

Nerudova Street
This touches on one aspect of the book, which I suppose is a cliché in a way, of the expat experience - the male expat experience - that a lot of people come to Prague for cheap sex and cheap beer.

"I think we must admit that it's one of the main attractions of Prague, in spite of all the beauty of the city, that most of the tourists are here just for that reason. The main character of the book is not in Prague for that reason, but he is exposed to it, as everybody is."

You chose this time in Prague when the stucco is taken away and layers are coming away. How did this idea of peeling back the layers tie in to your vision of Prague?

"There is a very big difference between what you see in Prague, the perception of the house fronts, and the things that are going on behind these house fronts, behind the walls. The moment that the stucco was taken off, you saw the real structure of the houses. You have these Baroque facades, but in fact they are from Gothic or Renaissance times, and you can see all the stages it has gone through. But once it is repaired everything is covered up again, and Prague is again a beautiful city, revealing its own past and mysteries."

It was clear from the extract I read out that this is a comedy. It's a comedy really about the failure of Alfons to find love, to understand. Failure is perhaps too strong a word, but he's certainly hapless.

"The city of Prague is so strong, so important, that he becomes very small or humble, just like a marionette in a bigger game called Prague, and events just happen to him. Actually he doesn't really do anything, he doesn't provoke anything. He just is in Prague. That's why things happen to him and that's why the book is full of adventures. They are, I think, very humorous, because I don't think we should take ourselves too seriously."

You are in the process of completing a second book to be published here, in which the same character is a little more active.

"Indeed my second book is ready and it will be published here in Prague in Czech this year, I hope. You might say it's the fourth story of the book. Now he has been living a bit longer in Prague. He is more used to the lifestyle of his compatriots in Prague, and he undertakes action himself. But that makes it even more dramatic."

But let's return now to the second story with another extract, taking up where we left off.

The old man took me by the arm and pulled me to a piece of plaster that still had to be removed, down on the far right side of the house front. He pointed at a drawing, and gave me a crystal clear explanation in an undecipherable language. I understood I was facing the artists' signature, thought that seemed rather unlikely: an elephant with sad eyes and a sloppy penis as his trunk.

'Tomorrow everything gone.' Their job was infinite sadness.

'Inside also everything painted.'

The eldest held both his hands in front of his chest as if he were

carrying two white cabbages, to give me an idea of the genre.

'Everything damaged.' The floods in August didn't only destroy the house front, but also the entire interior. On opening night. A sad occurrence. The owners had asked the police if there were any risks of inundation. Everything was under control, according to the council. The worst case scenario would be that some drops of water would drip over the embankment, and regarding the level of the street where the bar was located, which was 1.5 meters higher than the embankment, there was no immediate danger. Precautions were taken. It was the day the bar would open, and they did not want to postpone that. It was even a bit exciting, an opening night with the risk of flooding. The party was a success, and with the help of some hangers on all the furniture was placed on woodblocks, so everything was 2.5 meters above the level of the embankment by the Bruncvik statue. That would do. In the worst case they would have to clean some water from the floor next day. Seven hours later the water reached the ceiling of the brand new bar.

'John Lennon Wall,' the youngest said. He pointed towards the bridge over the Certovka. 'John Lennon. Umaginalldepeepel. More paintings.'

Disapproving mumbles. The notorious John Lennon-memorial in front of the French embassy couldn't rival the wall paintings of the bar.

'Elephantino much better,' whispered the eldest.

For the last time I admired the gigantic body parts on the plaster islands on the wall.

"So I first published the book in Prague in Czech because I wanted to avoid the colonial kind of viewpoint of people going to a certain city, writing a book about it and then publishing it in their own language, and looking at it in the way we Belgians used to look at the black people in the Congo. We even had these books with black women naked, and we were looking at it from an ethnographical point of view. But in fact they were just books with naked black women. So that's how most of the travel books are written these days, and I wanted to avoid that. Besides that I would want people to learn from my book that whenever you go to a foreign city, the interesting thing is not everything that resembles your own city, or your own world, but the differences are interesting. Apart from that I think it's a very humorous book that people should enjoy reading, just because of the humour and because they are funny stories."