Jaroslav Rudiš: craving for noise and silence

Jaroslav Rudiš, photo: author

If you live in Prague, it is quite likely that you will have encountered Jaroslav Rudiš as a rock musician, performing with gloom and late ‘70s angst with Jaromír 99 and the Bombers or his own band U-Bahn. Novelist, playwright, screenplay writer and musician, Rudiš is a man of many talents, and in recent years he has acquired something of a cult following on the Czech literary scene. If you want to know a bit more about Jaroslav, a good place to start is with his Facebook or MySpace profile: there you’ll find out that he’s straight, going on 37, he likes Milan Kundera, Walter Benjamin, The Cure, his favourite make of car is Saab, and so on and so on. But how much does this tell us about what Jaroslav Rudiš is really like? When I met him to talk about his recent work, I began by asking him if there was anything important he had left out in his Facebook and MySpace profiles.

“I like trains. Actually, when I was a child I wanted to be a train driver or train dispatcher. But I got glasses and at that time it was kind of impossible to be a railwayman in Czechoslovakia.”

Last time we interviewed you for Czech Books it wasn’t long after you’d written your first very successful novel Nebe pod Berlínem (The Skies Under Berlin), which has a railway, or rather subway or underground theme – focusing on the Berlin U-Bahn among many other things. You went on then to write a trilogy, three graphic novels about a character called Alois Nebel, who is a railwayman. Tell me more about what it was that inspired you to choose this particular form for the novel. Some readers might see it as superficial, a kind of selling out.

“I don’t think so. I believe in graphic novels and I think this is maybe one of the many ways storytelling can go. I did it together with the illustrator Jaromír 99, and we decided to do it as a graphic novel. At the very beginning we thought we were doing it for ourselves, but then there was a big interest from my publishing house Labyrint, so we did a trilogy which was a big success in the Czech Republic. We thought we would sell 500, but it was much more.

Jaroslav Rudiš
“This Alois Nebel is actually a very sad character. I think he has something that Czech literary characters have in common. He is a kind of loser. He’s about 50, he has no woman, he is only interested in trains and timetables, and he works at one very small railway station in the former Sudetenland. Through the station, trains from the whole last century are passing.”

So in a sense it’s a kind of allegory of 20th century history in this part of Central Europe.

“Yes, and all on one small railway station, because the trains and stations and railways – that’s what we have really here in common. It’s a kind of Middle European theme for us.”

You’re also one of several contemporary Czech writers who have turned quite a lot to Germany. You’ve written one novel set in Berlin, your books are very popular in Germany and you have taken a very active interest in Czech-German relations. I don’t want to be over-philosophical about it, but do you think that this is in a way recreating a link between Czech and German culture that was interrupted by the Iron Curtain and the burden of the legacy of the Second World War?

“Definitely. I was born in 1972, so there is no resentment in me going back to Czech-German history. Berlin is in the Czech Republic now maybe the sexiest city in the world and there are lots of students going there to study or just to hang out, to see concerts there, to visit exhibitions. And of course there are lots of Germans coming to Prague, to the Czech Republic. Of course, they cannot find something as dramatic, as full of inspiration as Berlin today, but maybe they find a little bit of history, they find a city which for me is a kind of big museum, a very slow-moving town. But maybe some Germans need it for a while.”

Which brings us to your latest novel, Potichu, which we could translate into English as quietly or silently. It’s set in Prague and follows the lives of several different people in the city, but one thing that intrigues me about it is that the Prague you describe is really a rather soulless place. I found it almost interchangeable with many other European cities.

“Actually you are right. If you go to the centre of Prague, there is a big and dramatic change over the last 20 years. This town is no longer this kind of romantic, post-Kundera, post-Hrabal, post-Hašek, post-Kafka town any more, as it was discovered by Americans in the early ‘90s. If you come to Prague for the first time now, you cannot find this kind of Prague folklore any more. You really have to go and look round the corners.”

Here is a short extract from the book, in my own rough translation. It’s from the point of view of one of the characters, called Hana:

* * *

Tourists use their digital cameras to cut up Prague – and every other old European city – into little pieces, which they take home on those tiny, flat memory cards. How many photos fit on each one? A thousand? Ten thousand? Do they ever actually look at them? Hana assumes that they don’t. Prague has been dismantled into a hundred million digital photographs, which no-one ever opens.

On her trips she never takes pictures. She tries to record everything inside her head. Not just streets, cafes and old buildings, but also colours and smells, because every city has a different smell. Or maybe stink.

Thanks to the tourists Prague is falling apart more and more. It is emptying at a galloping rate. What communism and capitalism didn’t manage to destroy is now being finished off by mass tourism. Without bloodshed and without torture nobody even notices what is happening. One day it will be an empty city made of posters, and the tourists will flock somewhere else.

* * *

“Maybe that’s how it is!”

It’s a pretty grim picture. Maybe we shouldn’t broadcast this, as it will put listeners off coming to Prague. Is it really that bad?

“Or that good, I don’t know [laughs]! I’m not sure. But I think lots of tourists must be disappointed, because if they go to the centre they will not actually meet the real Prague, the real citizens of Prague, because lots of the old houses were sold and they were changed into hotels, and there’s no real life. If you go there in the winter or in the night, there are no lights in the windows. But I like this town. The story of this book, Potichu, is maybe a long sad song about Prague.”

Tell us a little bit about the plot.

“There are a few main characters. The whole book is set on one day in the fall in Prague, on the last summer day, when something will change. One of the characters is a tram driver, Petr. He’s about 30 and his tram line is the most beautiful tram line in Prague, the tram 22. He’s not the main character, but he’s looking for a girl who will stay with him more than one night. This girl is maybe Vanda. She’s almost 18 years old and she’s typical of a kind of girl I meet every day in the tram, with an ipod in her ears and no interest in history. Then there is Hana, a successful woman, about 30, travelling through Europe and comparing one city to another city. And Hana is thinking that everything is kind of similar now in Europe.

“Actually, that’s what lots of these characters have in common. They are looking for a kind of silence or harmony in their lives, but when there is too much harmony, too much silence, they need something different, they need some movement, a little bit of punk or a little bit of energy. But I think the main character of this novel is Vladimír. He is – or used to be - a classical musician. Vladimír has declared war on the Prague of today and on noise in lots of forms – these noisy things which are disturbing us.”

And he literally cuts through the wires, doesn’t he?

“He is cutting wires. It is also a big theme and a big problem in Prague, this kind of looking for silence. Everywhere in Prague you feel the city, you feel the city has got you and you cannot escape. You hear the city. Actually this Vladimír is a bit obsessed. He thinks that noise is the biggest problem of his life and also that noise has killed his wife.”

Jaroslav Rudiš, photo: author
It’s interesting that he’s a man who is obsessed with creating silence, given that you yourself are not only a writer but also a musician. You like to make a lot of noise. So to what extent do you identify with him?

“I need both. I need silence and I need noise, because in noise there is also lots of energy. But I like silence and I like going to the mountains, and I like very much to lose myself somewhere in the forest. So I need a kind of balance between noise and silence, between town and the countryside.”

You’re approaching 40. You and your partner are expecting a baby any day now. Do you think you’re going to change? Do you think you’ll find yourself getting bored of Prague and building yourself a little house somewhere in a village outside Prague, settling down and turning your back on the world that has defined your writings so far?

“I’m living a kind of normal Czech life, which is not as noisy as it maybe looks, but I think now is really time for a change, because I wrote three books which are actually connected with three cities: one is from Berlin, the second one is from Liberec, which is a town in the north of the Czech Republic – this book is called Grand Hotel and was made also into a film – and Potichu is about Prague. In all three books, the town, the place, is one of the main characters, which is influencing all the other characters. But I think I’ll write something now from the countryside, but I’m not sure. I need a little bit of time. I wrote these three novels quite fast and I am looking forward to being a father. Maybe it will be, as I feel, the biggest change of my life.”

So, Jaroslav Rudiš, thank you very much indeed and best of luck as a father in the coming months. I hope that you don’t suffer too much of a mid-life crisis over the next couple of years – or if you do, that it will be an inspiration as well.

“Yes, exactly. Why not? Maybe it will be a good inspiration. I’m looking forward to it.”