Main task was not messing up “big story” of poet Blatný, says Magnesia litera winner Martin Reiner

Martin Reiner, photo: CTK

The top Book of the Year prize at the prestigious Magnesia litera awards has just gone to Básník, or Poet, which is subtitled A Novel about Ivan Blatný. The book – which had already picked up other major Czech literary honours – is the magnum opus of Brno-based author Martin Reiner. The day after the prize ceremony in Prague, I asked the writer what had drawn him to Blatný, who spent much of his life in psychiatric care in the UK.

Martin Reiner, photo: CTK
“When I first encountered Ivan Blatný’s poetry it was another space, absolutely something else. I was enchanted.

“The second thing is the story. I knew he was banned for 40 years. He was persona non grata. I never heard of him until I was 22.

“Suddenly I knew that the guy is alive, he is living somewhere.

“In the city where I lived and in the city where I was born and which I loved, which means Brno, there were people who knew him as a young men and I could meet them. It was just fascinating.”

Your novel is a major work. You began doing research into his life and work 30 years ago, I believe, and I was reading that you started working on the book in the year 2000. What took you so long?

“The search for the form. I knew the story was just great. My task, which I was called to, was not to mess it up.

“I tried to find the best possible form as to how to tell people the story. I tried many different ways.”

So basically you tried out all kinds of different approaches?

“Yes. One version was a purely fabulated story, the way Feuchtwanger did it, or Zweig and many others.

Photo: Torst
“There was another try in which the main hero was the one who was searching for Ivan Blatný. It was like two novels in one.

“So yes, I had a couple of serious tries until I found the best possible way.”

Did you try to write a biography of him, not a novel?

“In 1989, 1990, I was about to sign a contract with a publishing house to write a monograph of Ivan Blatný.

“Then it turned out that there was another monograph, from the pen of Jan Marius Tomeš, who used to be a friend of Ivan Blatný.

“Of course I said, Jesus, he’s the man who has the best right to publish this book.

“But not even Jan Tomeš knew the English part of the life story of Ivan Blatný. And I knew that it must be told.

“That’s why 10 years later, it was in 2,000 actually, I decided to write a novel.”

Ivan Blatný, photo: archive of Martin Reiner
Blatný was banned under communism. He wasn’t very well known, as you were saying, when you were young. Do you think he is sufficiently appreciated today in the Czech Republic?

“As a person? Or his poetry?”

Either.

“Well, definitely he is one of the best known poets in the country.

“Unfortunately poetry itself is not a favourite genre or medium nowadays. People like to go to musical productions and watch the TV and movies maybe.

“Yet Ivan Blatný has a story. A big story. Which is something that draws people to his poetry.”