Marek Toman: The Special Meaning of Pancakes

Marek Toman, photo: David Vaughan

The work of the novelist Marek Toman is diverse. It takes us from Jewish Prague in the 16th century all the way to the drama of the Velvet Revolution four hundred years later. He has even written one novel in which radio becomes a central character. His latest book, due to be published next year, again takes us back in time. It focuses on a notorious 17th century court case, but is far from being a mere costume drama. In the author’s work the past is always nearer to the present than you might expect. David Vaughan met the novelist.

Marek Toman, photo: David Vaughan
Marek Toman currently works for the Czech Foreign Ministry and has served at the country’s embassies in Hungary and Estonia, but in the early 1990s he started his career in the literary section of Czech Radio. It was a time of huge changes and the period provided the inspiration for his novel The Special Meaning of Pancakes, a book which is every bit as quirky as its title. When I met Marek at the Róza K café in Prague’s Vinohrady district, I began by asking him about the novel, and the very special role played in it by the very building in which I am now sitting – the headquarters of Czech Radio.

“I’m not saying that I was trying to catch the spirit of the building, but the spirit is definitely there. The work of the radio editor has a kind of practical magic, because there are many things in radio that are difficult to influence. My novel is very much about those things you are not in control of.”

Something happens in the novel which I think is the ultimate nightmare for any radio journalist. The protagonist suddenly starts to stammer.

“My main hero, the radio editor, is also suffering a deep crisis with his girlfriend, so the inability to speak is parallel with the inability to get through to your beloved. So it’s a physical demonstration of something which is very much in the brain and heart.”

And here’s an extract in my own rough translation of part of the scene in the book, where the protagonist first starts to stammer – to lose his radio voice:

The red light came on – the studio guest was a psychologist, here to talk about her new book on self-confidence. The first challenge was to read the introduction. I couldn’t get those five sentences out. Under the ill-tempered scrutiny of the sound engineer and with the studio technician glowering at me from behind the glass, I just couldn’t do it. And then there was the psychologist. I read it and killed it dead, as the radio rule goes. You just have to talk as if your best friend were sitting opposite you. The psychologist was sitting there, clearly wondering what on earth I’d dragged her into. I lifted my eyes from the paper. I could sense how the introduction had sounded hoarse, dry and impossible. There was only one way out: to drown it with a friendly question. I wanted to ask: Can you learn self-confidence? Unfortunately, the word self-confidence brought my radio career to an end almost before it had started. What came out sounded like “self-iiiiii-eee-on” The louder I tried the less sure I got. The psychologist was silent. “Self-immolation?“ she suggested. “Celibacy?” “Sub-collateral. Super-infidelity! Soap-opera?” Behind the glass the producer stood up with the ruddy face of the heavy drinker.The light went out and from somewhere I could hear his tortured voice: “Could you try that little question just once more?”

Photo: archive of Czech Radio
This is not an autobiography, but you obviously draw immensely from your experiences of the atmosphere in Czech – and previously Czechoslovak – Radio in the 1990s.

“Definitely. I think it was a period that was still a mixture of at least two or three periods, because there was very much the spirit of the 60s, of the liberal atmosphere present at the time, then there was the atmosphere of the beginning of capitalism and free society, but definitely also some remnants of normalization, as the period of the 80s is called. There was an enormous clash of these three things and for me as a youngster of twenty, I was just flabbergasted, and it was quite difficult for me to cope with that.”

There are quite a lot of things that some readers will probably think are rather surreal, such as the new boss who decides to serialize the entire Bible, and then another boss turns up, who is a 60s hippy and decides to recreate the atmosphere of the 60s in the 1990s. This all seems comically absurd, but it’s not entirely surreal, given the atmosphere of the time, when the whole of Czech society was in flux.

“Very much so. And – talking of literature – that was the time when the books of forbidden authors started to appear and there was an enormous mixture of different things published. The atmosphere was great and difficult.”

And one of the characters who has remained most vividly in my memory from the book is the 60s hippy, who becomes the department head. He used to be the lead singer of a band called the Transparent Debils. And he turns what is meant to be the radio’s literary department into an endless alcoholic party.

“The name of the group, the Transparent Debils, which might sound really absurd or clumsy, is very much similar to the names of real bands in Czechoslovakia in the 60s, like the Primitives Group or even the famous Plastic People of the Universe. So I just took the same pattern with other words.”

And what is it about Czech Radio? It seems to be a magnet for eccentrics and it does have a very special atmosphere, which, against the odds, seems to survive pretty much even to this day.

'My Golem', photo: Argo
“I think there is one particular aspect and that is that the living word, I mean the word on the radio, is very difficult to control, because you might control the text, but the tone, the context, that’s pretty difficult. So the Czech Radio played a very important role in the 40s, during the occupation, then at the end of the 60s. We’re dealing with something which is beyond the control of text-controllers and text-editors, and there is some anarchistic freedom which is inevitably present even in the building of the Czech Radio. So that’s probably the explanation. There is some magic.”

And tell me about your writing since you wrote The Special Meaning of Pancakes.

“There is a book called My Golem, which is a version of the Golem legend, so it’s very much a Prague Jewish-Christian story…”

For any listeners who don’t know, the Golem is a kind of mechanical man, said in legend to have been created by the famous 16th century Rabbi Löw in Prague.

“…And the last book is called The Cool Guy. That’s a story from 1989, from our Velvet Revolution, with two brothers, one a policeman, one a demonstrating student.”

Going from 16th century Prague to a novel about two brothers at the time of the Velvet Revolution is a huge thematic jump.

“Yes, but still it’s all the same, because it’s the magic of Prague. It’s about the secrets of Czech society or Czechoslovak history. It’s about the feeling of living in Central Europe, which is a very special place to try to understand, and so again, it’s a mixture of drama, fun, tragedy, love and so on.”

In that novel you have the two half-brothers, one of whom is someone demonstrating against communism, and by a weird stroke of fate, on the other side of the barricade, his half-brother is one of the police, beating up the demonstrators.

“There I simply put different pieces of my own family puzzle together, because actually I did have a half-brother, a policeman. We didn’t meet then, but it was very easy to imagine that we could have met there.”

I know that you’re currently working on a book which again goes back into the past, this time into the 17th century and, as with the Golem, it has a Jewish-linked subject. It’s about a figure that most of our listeners probably won’t have heard of, called Šimon Abeles. Could you tell us a bit more about this story and how you’ve approached it?

'The Cool Guy', photo: Argo
“Šimon Abeles is a real person from 17th century Prague. He was a boy, ten or twelve years old, who was allegedly killed by his father. They were a Jewish family. The reason was said to be that the boy wanted to convert from Judaism to Christianity. There was a huge trial which followed with the boy’s father. There was a wave of sharp anti-Semitism and also a wave of ‘media’ attention. In those days, by media I mean leaflets, published by book-printers, and these leaflets brought the story of a Christian martyr of Jewish origin all over Europe. But the thing is that it isn’t as clear as it seems. Since then, signs have emerged that it was a trial very much influenced by the politics of those days, reminding us of the trials in Czechoslovakia in the 50s and the political trials at the end of the 30s in the Soviet Union. So I was attracted by this similarity and also this huge media wave reminded me of today’s tabloid and TV coverage of real cases, so I tried to tell the story while also paying attention to this.”

And so, when can we look forward to the book being published?

“It is already finished and is going to be published next year, in 2014.”

And I hope too that at some point it will be translated into English.

“You know, that depends on its reception in the Czech Republic. If it is not a great hit, one can’t say what the future will bring, but there is a well-respected publishing house behind it, Argo, so we shall see.”