Hana Andronikova: mourning a powerful Czech literary voice

Hana Andronikova

It seems very strange to be talking about the Czech writer Hana Andronikova in the past tense. When she died of cancer on December 20th last year, she was only 44, and until the last months of her life had been at the height of her creative powers. Author of two successful novels, several plays and numerous short stories, she was one of the most versatile younger Czech writers, and will be hugely missed. David Vaughan looks at her life and work.

Hana Andronikova
By a sad irony, Hana Andronikova died just two days after Václav Havel and in the whirlwind that followed Havel’s death many Czech papers devoted only a few lines to her life and work. But the Czech literary scene has lost one of its most gifted writers. Hana’s epic novel, The Sound of the Sundial, first published in 2001, is one of the most important books to appear in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. In recent years, Hana Andronikova had worked closely with the Archa Theatre in Prague, and I spoke to the theatre’s director, Ondřej Hrab about her legacy:

“For those who met her for the first time she looked like a tiny, fragile girl, but those of us who knew her for a longer time knew that she was a strong personality, and she was always heading to her goals. She was also very versatile in her activities…”

… and in her writing style. She wrote in many different styles, different genres, didn’t she?

“Yes. Actually she always used the style of her writing according to the topic – what she was writing. From this point of view she really was using the richness of her language. She was good not only in Czech, but also in English.”

Before we talk in a bit more detail about her writing, I think that one thing that is interesting and very relevant to Hana Andronikova’s writing and life is the fact that she wasn’t a Prague writer. She came from Moravia, from the city of Zlín, which is a very interesting place in its own right, and very different from Prague.

“It is quite a small city, but probably the only really cosmopolitan city in the Czech Republic. In the 1920s, the Baťa company decided to transform this very small town into an industrial metropolis. So you can find really modern architecture there, you can find people who live there or the descendants of people who were Baťa managers, who lived for a while in India or in other countries. So this small town was really connected to the world since the beginning of the last century.”

And what’s also very interesting is that Hana’s best known novel, Zvuk slunečních hodin – The Sound of the Sundial – is in part about Zlín and the shoe-making industry. In fact, the family that figures most prominently in the book does go off to India to work for Baťa – for the shoe company – in Calcutta.

“Yes, but not only this. Hana’s grandfather was a painter. He was drawing illustrations for the well-known travel-books of Hanzelka and Zikmund, and he brought the world to their house. Hana was living with drawings of Bushmen in South Africa, with drawings of Indians in Latin America. So that was her virtual world already from her childhood.”

Back in 2003, Hana Andronikova came into Radio Prague to talk about The Sound of the Sundial and read some extracts.

Hana Andronikova: “The whole book is narrated by two people, and these two people have a dialogue during one night and they slowly reveal the whole story of Daniel Keppler's family. I'm going to read a part that takes us to the thirties. This part is narrated by little Daniel when he's a boy, and his father Tomáš Keppler comes back to Czechoslovakia to take his wife and his little son to India, where he's working on the construction of the Baťa shoe factory. Of course Tomáš Keppler is quite enthusiastic about India and he's hoping that his wife is going to like it there."

She didn't like it in India at all. She saw the dirt, the mouldering walls of the houses, litter floating in the sludge. It made her feel sick, the putrid stench wafting towards her, the dozens of curs and cats running around, hairless and mangy. She went into fits when she saw crippled children lying in the dust of the street, wretched beggars with their club-feet and outstretched hands. She suffered from phobias. About dirt and disease. She couldn't bear the naked face of reality, the raw shape of misery, sickness and dying. The day she saw her first snake she wanted to go home. Mother India. Land of an ancient culture, mysterious and inscrutable. Broad rivers of rolling yellowy-grey water, silent and everlasting. India. Father tried to merge into the land and extract the best from the tangle of different people, cultures and religions. At first, mother tried to understand the country. She always tried to find sense in things. But then, you have to hate India. India wasn't going to change for her sake. India had remained the same for thousands of years. It was Raquel who changed. She came to terms with it. Thanks to her obsession with age-old myths, images of faith and the power of the word, she revealed, for herself and for us, the poetry of the oriental continent; she let herself be carried away by extremes and by the abundance of destinies. She fell in love with India. India became our common love. Scorching and relentless, sweet and distressing, sensuous and repellent. I grew up in the embrace of her contrasts, amongst people who ignited in my life a desire for harmony with myself. My India. I didn't try to understand her. I loved her.

Ondřej Hrab reminds us that Hana had an unusual beginning to her literary career:

Hana Andronikova
“First she was in business. She was a businesswoman in the first wave of entrepreneurship after the revolution. She was very young, she was very well educated, she spoke perfect English, and in a very short time, she raised to the top management of international and Czech big companies. And at a certain moment she decided that she would go a different way, that she would write a book. She left her job, she shut herself into her room for two years and she wrote a novel. And when she finished the novel and opened the door of her working room, she realised that the world of business is not for her, that she had totally different values. Writing totally changed her life. She decided to be a writer and also it influenced her personal life, because she divorced from her husband, she started to travel and started to live her independent artistic life.”

Here is Hana Andronikova, talking again about The Sound of the Sundial back in 2003. Pavla Jonssonová asked her about her very distinctive writing style, and Hana gave an answer that reminds us of two of the strengths that pervade her work: firstly her ability to tell a story through the characters to whom the story “belongs”, and secondly her rare gift of combining an internal, even confessional narrative, with an ability to step outside the story. To this we should add her strong feeling for the musicality of language.

Hana Andronikova: "I just wanted to let the story flow in the most natural manner, and I think that when two people talk they make pauses, it doesn't really fit sometimes, it's not chronological, they have different ways of telling the story. Both of them, these narrators of the story, they both know the same people, but from different angles, and that also gives you a very interesting point of view."

Pavla Jonssonová: It seems to me that the voice of a young boy is very strong in your writing, that these are among the strongest parts of your novel.

Hana Andronikova: "I think it's just the luck of people with good memory, that I just somehow do remember my childhood and lots of things, and so you can build on that. People tend to forget, or maybe their childhood was not really something nice, something they would want to remember. My childhood was very nice and I can build on that very much."

When mama first allowed me to go with Zam to the fish market, I was in raptures. I ran here and there in the stifling Babylon of smells and chatter, peaking into baskets full of florid shrimps, crabs, catfish and sardines. Dumbstruck, I followed the flashes of the sharp boti, with which the sellers divided the catch. Zam offered to let me choose, to point out which fish I wanted, but that was a superhuman task. I couldn't decide, I pointed to the right and to the left and somewhere else again. I wanted them all. In the end I did choose. It was a gold-coloured fish. Topshey. The English call it mango fish, but for me it was a golden fish, and I didn't want any other. When we got back, I did not relish the prospect that my golden fish would be for dinner. I wanted it to play with; I wanted to take it to bed with my teddy bear. Mother got cross. - You can't take a dead fish to bed! - It's not dead, it's mine! I chose it! - Listen to me. I know you chose it, but that fish is not for playing with. If you like, we'll get you an aquarium for your birthday and you can put another golden fish in that and look after it, all right? - And why can't we have my fish in the aquarium? - Because it's dead, and dead fish don't swim. They have to be eaten. As soon as possible! I scowled. She lost her patience. - If you can't be sensible, I won't let you go to the market next time! I lost my patience as well. - I don't care! In the evening I cried in my room while my parents ate my golden fish. I had fought in vain and what was more, I was afraid my mother would never let me visit the fish market again. I sneaked into the dining room and watched them eating it all up. Father noticed me. He put his knife down. A sinewy forearm in a rolled-up sleeve waved to me to come in. Do you want to taste the golden fish? He sat me on his knee. He almost never got angry. I looked at mother out of the corner of my eye. She was smiling. That gave me courage. - And when will I get the aquarium? They looked at each other over my head and burst out laughing.

Ondřej Hrab
Hana’s writing then took her to other parts of the world, didn’t it?

“Yes. It was not just that foreign countries were interesting her. It was more that people from different parts of the world had different fates, and that was interesting for her. That’s why, when we invited her to collaborate with our theatre, when the director Jana Svobodová invited her to work on a project with immigrants and refugees, she joined the project with great commitment. She collected the stories of refugees in the refugee camps and together they created a show called Dance Through the Fence, which showed five different fates of immigrants who were seeking a new home in the Czech Republic. It was again totally different work from her previous books.”

It’s something that is very difficult for a writer, especially an established writer, to do – putting their own ego in the background to help other people tell their own stories. It also takes a great deal of empathy.

“Yes, absolutely. I think this is something that only few writers know how to do. Usually you have a writer who gives you the text and says, ‘No change!’ In this case it was perpetual changing.”

Hana’s last novel Nebe nemá dno – Bottomless Heaven – which last year won the Readers’ Prize in the Magnesia litera awards went in a very different direction. It was a novel that was in many ways autobiographical, telling the very difficult story of a woman’s coming to terms with having cancer and travelling to Latin America, to the Peruvian jungle, to stay with a shaman, and then eventually coming back to Europe to face conventional medical treatment.

“This was really a hard time for her, because, out of the blue she went to the doctor and she realised that she was suffering from breast cancer. She was not prepared and she decided to go to Peru but not to find a way of healing herself. It was not that she believed that this alternative method would help her. It was more that being together with nature and with some kind of old wisdom would help her to be ready for everything. You could read her second novel almost like mystical literature, but at the same time Hana was able to look at herself with distance and with a very particular humour. She wrote parts where you had to laugh, even if it was at the same time a story about the fight with death. You could not help laughing.”

the strong thing to do would be to head out into the jungle, following the trail to the rapids, then on to the cold waterfalls, and there to shout out loud, instead she just lies and beseeches, lord have mercy. kyrie eleison. christ have mercy. jesus christ. calm down girl, fear is corrosive, before long it eats you up, so up you get. machete, hat, water. vamos.

“So she came back from the jungle, from the treatment that did not actually heal her body, but probably prepared her soul. She got classical medical treatment and surprisingly it looked like there was hope. But this hope was only for another ten months and then it started again.”

I think that one of the things that are most tragic about Hana Andronikova’s early death is the fact that she was so obviously developing as a writer from book to book.

“This is a big question, because she died so young that you can’t say what kind of book she would have written next. We were, of course, planning another theatre project and I know that she was also planning to write a new novel. This time she was thinking of writing it directly in English. She was a really gifted writer even in English. She got a scholarship to Iowa for an international writer’s residency and there she wrote some nice short stories in English.”

You recently wrote an article for the newspaper, Lidové noviny, about Hana Andronikova. I found the way you ended that article very moving.

“I was thinking what kind of story her own life is, that this is a story for another novel and that maybe someone will find the courage to write a novel which maybe will have the very simple title: Hana Andronikova.”

Ondřej Hrab was talking about the writer Hana Andronikova, who died on December 20th 2011 at the age of 44.

Translations by Barbara Day and David Vaughan