Heda Margolius Kovály and a murder mystery in 1950s Prague

Photo: Soho Press

In the course of a life that spanned over 90 years, the writer and translator Heda Margolius Kovály survived the very worst that the twentieth century could bring: first Auschwitz and then the anti-Semitic show trials in 1950s Czechoslovakia, in which her husband was sentenced to death and executed. She died in 2010, but her moving account of her life, Under a Cruel Star, continues to be read widely. Heda Margolius Kovály also wrote a second book, a detective story set in Stalinist Prague. The book is a novel – taking inspiration from Raymond Chandler – but it is also steeped in autobiographical detail, a murder mystery that digs under the surface of a dark period in Czechoslovak history. For the first time it has been published in English translation. More from David Vaughan.

Heda Margolius Kovály,  photo: Tatraplan,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Both in the original Czech and in the English translation the book has an evocative title: Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street. It is set in a very real and identifiable Prague, although, by a nice twist, Steep Street itself – Příkrá ulice – is one of the few places that you will not find on the map. The translator is Alex Zucker, who in recent years has brought many contemporary Czech writers to an English-speaking readership. He took on the challenge of recreating the atmosphere of 1950s Prague, conjured up so vividly in the novel. Alex has just been in Prague to launch the book, which is published by Soho Press in New York. As part of the launch, I talked with him in The Globe Bookstore and he began with Heda Margolius Kovály’s extraordinary life story.

“Heda Margolius Kovály was born in Prague. She came from a well-to-do Czech Jewish family and I think the part of her life story that made her interesting to this publisher was that she had written a memoir. In English it is called Under a Cruel Star and it talks about how she and her family were deported to Auschwitz in the Second World War and she survived by escaping a death-march. She had a childhood boyfriend called Rudolf Margolius, who also managed to survive, despite having been in Dachau. They reunited after the war, he became a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Industry and then was one of the people who were hanged as a result of the show-trials in 1952, along with Rudolf Slánský. Most of them were Jews. They were accused of a Zionist conspiracy against communism. So he survived the Holocaust only to be hanged for being a Zionist traitor to communism. So it’s a pretty awful fate.

“She became a persona non grata and had a hard time getting jobs, but she did end up working in some publishing houses and ended up doing a lot of translating, including translating Raymond Chandler. Her son Ivan was a student in London when the Warsaw Pact invaded Prague in 1968, so he just stayed there. She eventually remarried a man named Pavel Kovály, who was a lawyer. I don’t exactly know how they got out of Czechoslovakia, but they moved to Cambridge. He was at the law faculty there and she worked in the law library at Harvard.

Photo: Soho Press
„This novel, which in Czech is called Nevina, aneb vražda v Příkré ulici, was originally published in the publishing house Index in Cologne, Germany, in 1985, under the name Helena Nováková. She didn’t want anybody to know it was her and she didn’t want to get any friends into trouble, so she published it under a pseudonym. The main character in the novel is also called Helena Nováková. So even her son Ivan did not know that she had written this novel until after she died and he was going through her things. He found a copy of the book in Czech with the name Helena Nováková crossed out and Heda Margolius Kovályová written in, and then he realized that his mother had written the book.

“So he translated the whole book himself – just a rough translation – and then sent it around to publishing houses. It ended up with Soho Press, which is in New York City. One of its imprints is a crime imprint, and it landed in what they called the slush pile – it was an email box where non-solicited manuscripts come. Paul Oliver, who was going out with Juliet Grames who is an editor – now he does their publicity – recognized her name because he had read her memoir when he was in college. So he said to Juliet, ‘Hey, look there’s this crime novel, a murder mystery by Heda Margolius Kovály.‘ They read Ivan’s translation and they thought it was good enough to be worth publishing, but they wanted to find someone to do the translation and Juliet Grames actually found me on LinkedIn.”

And I believe that one reason why Juliet was interested was that the central figures were all women.

“Yes. I think it is an unusual book in that way and lately I’ve become more aware of how few books by Czech women have been translated into English. There are plenty of women writing in Czech and if you look at anthologies of Czech literature they usually have just as many women as men, but there have been very few novels by Czech women that have been translated. And in this book, besides the fact that it’s been written by a woman, almost all the main characters are women and it’s really very much a woman’s point of view of this really harsh period in the early 1950s, basically the Stalinist era, when everybody was spying on everybody else and you literally didn’t know who you could trust. I remember from the time when I lived here in Prague that one thing I knew about some of the dissidents was that there were a lot of male dissidents who went to prison because of their beliefs but meanwhile their wives or partners were at home. They were the ones who had to keep the job, take care of the kids, make sure there was still an apartment, make sure there was still food. So, it’s a different level of risk: the decision that you make about whether or not you’re willing to go to prison depends partly on what you’re responsible for and who you hurt if you go to prison.”

Alex Zucker,  photo: David Vaughan
And that’s a central theme in the book…

“It’s a central theme in the book – this whole idea of how everybody had to prostitute themselves to some extent. If you wanted to go to college, if you wanted a certain kind of job, you had to sacrifice some of your beliefs, do things you didn’t want to do. In this book there are women who are literally prostituting themselves in order to have the life that they want. So it’s very powerful and very creepy.”

Could you tell us in a few words what the book is about and read us a short extract?

“There are actually two murders in the book. The main action takes place in a cinema called the Horizon and there’s a murder in the projection booth, which brings the police and the secret police in to investigate. I don’t want to say too much more, but then there’s another murder and everybody in the cinema comes under suspicion. They are all women who work in the cinema: there’s a manager who’s never named and then there are all the ushers who work there and then there are the women who work in the snack bar. So I’m going to read from the very beginning:

I got off the tram at Můstek and walked the rest of the way. It was a windy day in early spring, the kind when a person ought to be out in a field or in the word, and every moment not spent boxed-up indoors is precious. Even though I was in a rush, I took the time to stop and look at a couple of shop windows. So what? No use driving myself crazy over another minute or two. I was in for a tough shift today anyway. Me, always so careful to stay out of conflict and keep to myself. Of all people, why did the boss have to go and pick me? A curtain of shadow dropped behind me as I stepped into the cinema lobby. I swiveled my head to look at the display case for Fotografia, the state-run photography studio. A bride in a veil holding a bouquet. The same one for six months now. When they first put her up she looked beautiful. Now her blissful smile had turned as sour as yesterday’s milk. A moment in time, snared in a lasso, strangled as it tried to escape. To the left, set in a long blank wall, was the gray-painted metal door that led to the projection booth. I stopped a moment, hesitating. Janeček, poor guy, was in for a tongue-lashing from the boss, and maybe the head office too. Twenty-eight and single, with six years’ experience as a projectionist, he had turned up four months ago with a recommendation from the job placement office. Didn’t talk to a soul. None of the ushers had managed to break him. Those girls tried every trick in the book. Especially Marie. She was eating her heart out having an unmarried man within reach who wouldn’t climb in the sack with her. Janeček was a good worker, too, punctual and polite. God only knows what got into him yesterday. Must have mixed up the reels or something. The movie started halfway through, in the middle of a chase scene: cars speeding around the curve, tires squealing, faces flashing past. At first the audience figured it for an unusually create opening sequence, but then the whistling started.

Photo: Mladá Fronta publishing
One of the things the editor and I had to deal with was that in the Czech there is a shifting back and forth from one paragraph to another from the first person to the third person. And in this case, Juliet Grames, who is the associate publisher and oversees the crime line at Soho Press – and was also the editor on this book – made the point that it is very unusual in a novel in English for there to be a shifting back and forth from first to third from one paragraph to the next when it’s actually all one person, and that at least from section to section it should be the same. So that was one of the changes that we made throughout the book.”

You mentioned in one other interview that you thought that she might have even been doing this shifting subconsciously. The fact that the narrator has the same name as the pseudonym she gave herself when she first published it suggests that there’s something very personal going on.

“Yes. If you take this book as a sort of fictionalized ‘Part II’ of her autobiography, which I do, and certainly that’s the way that the publishing house of the translation was presenting it, I think it’s important that the Czech was originally published under the name Helena Nováková and the main character is named Helena Nováková, so it makes you wonder to what extent she wanted people to see this as her own story. It was clearly her story. She wouldn’t have written it with that name otherwise, given that it’s the same name as the author. But she didn’t want to put people here in Czechoslovakia at risk, because if it were then identified as her, people would try to figure out who the others were. There are a lot of people in the book doing things that do harm to each other.”

So, in what way is a detective story about a kid who’s murdered in a projection booth in a cinema an autobiographical novel? It seems to be fairly far removed from her own life story.

“It turns out that the murder of the child in the projection booth was actually a real murder. That was an actual event. So how many of the things here are real? The narrator is a woman who’s kicked out of her job at a publishing house and goes to work at the movie theater as an usher, so that’s clearly an autobiographical element. And then her husband goes to prison over drawing a map to show some people how to get to their house. And he draws a building on the map that turns out to be an arms depot. But he didn’t know it was an arms depot. And so there’s some kind of fictionalized version of her story with Rudolf Margolius.”

Do you think that the genre of the detective novel is particularly suited to telling a story that is set in the ‘50s in Czechoslovakia?

Rudolf Margolius,  photo: Public Domain
“I have a friend, Robert Eversz, who lived here in the 1990s and he himself wrote crime fiction. He wrote me this great email where he was talking about how he thought that one thing about the crime genre is that it is particularly well suited to depicting corruption in a society and that he felt that was something that Czechs missed out on. It was a lost opportunity to use the genre to write about the communist era and really the only person who followed that was Josef Škvorecký, but Škvorecký did much of his detective writing after he left Czechoslovakia.”

Do you have another extract for us?

“Yes. I have a bit of the more police-procedural part, which is in the second part of the book when the murder of the title happens:

“Can’t see a thing from here. Must’ve happened down the far end of the street. Officers ain’t lettin’ anoyone in. Say there’s a body down there.” “Body?” Božena said excitedly. “Some sorta traffic accident?” “Naw. But could be someone got run over.” “I’ll find out one way or another,” Božena said, catching the eye of the men in uniform out on the sidewalk. She tipped her head and the officer grinned and winked. He was a familiar face. Came to the snack bar almost every day for a black brawn and beer. He’ll be in soon enough, Božena thought to herself, satisfied, going back behind the counter.

I won’t spoil the story by saying what happens next. If you’d like to unravel the mystery, Heda Margolius Kovály’s wonderfully atmospheric crime novel of 1950s Prague, Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street, is published by Soho Press in New York. I was talking to the book’s translator, Alex Zucker.