Olga Walló: a Bohemian tale

Olga Walló, foto: Jan Sklenář
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In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan meets the poet and novelist, Olga Walló. In recent years she has become something of a literary phenomenon in the Czech Republic, even though she was over fifty when her first novel was published in 1998. Prior to that, she was better known as a translator and dubbing director, a career which she describes as a form of “inner emigration” from communism. Her novels are strongly autobiographical and Václav Havel has described them as a way of “tracing the path which our nation travelled not so long ago.”

Olga Walló
The path that Václav Havel refers to can now also be traced by English readers, as Olga Walló’s novel “Tightrope! A Bohemian Tale” has just been published in English translation. When Olga came to the studio, we talked about the book, but we began on a completely different subject. Like so many of the writers we have interviewed for this programme, Olga Walló has a link to Radio Prague. It is no coincidence that she has the same surname as one of our first announcers way back in the 1930s, Zdeňka Walló. I couldn’t resist asking Olga about the connection, and I even managed to find a recording of Zdeňka Walló in the radio archive:

“Zdeňka Walló was the second wife of my grandfather. I’m very sorry I never had the opportunity to meet her because of her fate in the war. She was an interesting personality and a gifted person. I believe that she presented the programmes in two, three or four languages. She was very devoted to her mother. Her mother was only fifteen or sixteen years older than her – a very young mother – and these two girls spent all their life together. Zdeňka followed her mother voluntarily to Terezín and to Auschwitz too.”

She herself was only half Jewish, so she didn’t have to join her on the transport, did she?

“Yes, she was only half Jewish and was married to a Christian man, my grandfather.”

Today, all that is left to remind us of Zdeňka Walló at Czech Radio is a plaque bearing her name on a list of radio staff who were killed in the war, by the entrance to main radio building.

The plaque commemorating the radio staff who were killed in the WWII
Although Olga Walló has not yet written about her step-grandmother, she does plan to in the future. Her complicated and unusual family colours nearly all her writing. But perhaps, she says, having a complicated family is part of what it means to be Czech:

“I’m afraid the family history of the majority of families in the Czech Republic is a bit complicated, because that is the nature of the history of this country. But this, our family story, is a story of outcasts.”

How do you mean that?

“It is a story of different types of being outcast, but there is a Czech proverb – and I’m not sure how to translate it exactly – that the raven or the crow sits beside other crows…”

… so the outcasts find one another.

“Yes, the outcasts find one another. Yes.”

In the second half of the 20th century, to be an outcast in a totalitarian society like Czechoslovakia was particularly difficult, wasn’t it? It didn’t really tolerate eccentrics.

“Definitely. Because if there is some freedom, the way is open to be eccentric, but in a totalitarian system, you should be black or white. It’s impossible to live in such a sharp distinction.”

We’re here to talk primarily about your book “Tightrope! A Bohemian Tale”, which was published very recently, in November 2010 in English translation. This book tells the story of your life, as a girl growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. Perhaps we could start with a short extract. Your mother was an actress, your father a film and theatre director. So here is a very brief extract about your mother:

My mother was an actress who did not want to act. In our Prague apartment, an old oak wardrobe hides a large cardboard box. On the cover it says, “Sugar cubes, 25 kg”. It is full of make-up – talcum powders, eye shadows, grease-paint, powder-puffs, mineral-jelly, a mirror sticky with all of them – along with the sweat and dust of actors’ changing rooms. Maminka sometimes – but seldom – opens the box and dives into its smell, as if it were a tunnel to a hidden paradise. There was a mystical divide somewhere in time; the ugly box is material evidence of this. Once Maminka was truly, but truly, beautiful. And gifted, of course. Now, in the time after that, eaten-away into regrettable rags of incomprehensible cinders, there is no reason any more to put this truth to the test. Now maminka doesn’t want to go anywhere; she doesn’t want to eat, either.

In that extract, you talk about your mother as “an actress who did not want to act”. What happened?

“I don’t know what happened. She didn’t want to act. The story of my mother is in this novel. I could not answer…”

… because the complexity of it is what the novel is about.

“It’s an enigma for me till this day, so I cannot simply answer.”

But the book is, in a sense, an attempt to find answers, isn’t it? And it’s also an attempt to answer questions about the very complicated relationship that you had with both your parents, with your broader family and with the time you were living in.

“On the one side my father was a communist – a commie, a very red one and a sincere one, which is not an excuse, but just a fact – and a film director of very red movies. On the other hand, he was by origin from the ‘grande bourgeoisie’. It was very complicated at this time. On the other side my mother was from a farming family.”

They were wealthy farmers, weren’t they, with quite a big farm?

“It was not so big. It was just a medium sized estate, less than a hundred hectares. They were hard-labouring farmers. But after the year 1948, after the communist take-over, they became the enemies.”

And the farm takes a central role in your book. In a sense it becomes a character in the book, doesn’t it?

“In my mind too! And all my life. This hidden history of farmers. It is a forgotten story, I believe.”

It is very clear from the book that you grew up with a very close relationship to the natural and to the agricultural world. Here is another extract, describing your enjoyment of the cherries at the farm.

The cherries are beautiful, and there are loads of them: I absorb the orgies of plenty, somewhere there above the ladder, picking them right from the branches with my mouth, splitting the stones all around, taking aim and randomly; the juice splashing and flowing down: I am wonderfully sticky and dirty. Just a little below me, a on a rung of the ladder, lurks a singing and reproachful futility. Because I should be doing something proper; something should be created by now. My father has made his living by writing ever since he was thirteen, and I will be thirteen in a few days. My father knows this very well. When he looks at me, his eyes are silent, hopeless.

“My father understood himself as a poet, as a creative person, and I’m afraid he did not make a distinction between himself and me. And he saw me as a part of himself. And it was unbearable… Do something, do something not useful in a material way, but something great, something important, something meaningful! It’s a very funny task for a little girl, nine, ten or eleven years old.”

In terms of the language of the novel there are some quite big jumps, aren’t there, between the language of philosophy, the language of the child, of the countryside – and the language of communism, as well?

“The language of communism is an important part of this, because one of the big conflicts here is the conflict with the communist school, with the communist system of education.

“Children, education is the foundation stone. I’m sorry for you, you are all victims of your parents. But don’t worry, your children will no longer have such experiences! You will live in large collective houses and will do everything together! Cooking, ironing, washing, everything!” “And shitting! We’ve already started that,” says Michael von Dobrowitz…

This book, “Tightrope!” was published at the end of last year. It’s very well produced and also includes some very useful notes, which explain some of the specifically Czech aspects of the context of the story, and there’s a map, showing the farm. Tell me how the book came about? It’s interesting that it was published in Hong Kong.

“It happened purely by coincidence. I was invited as a guest to a workshop by Hong Kong Baptist University, and the theme was ‘the writers of Eastern Europe’. I was there as a representative of the Czech Republic and it was really a great experience for me, because Hong Kong is a very special nation. I was very lucky to meet there Gillian Bickley of Proverse publishing house, and especially the question of education and communism was very interesting for her, because she’s an academic with great experience of the universities of three or four continents. The way how the English text was born is a story of its own.”

It was actually translated by a team, wasn’t it, and then edited by Gillian Bickley?

“I said to Gillian that it’s impossible to translate it. It’s an extremely difficult text. It’s not so easy. But Gillian said, ‘So try it!’ It was a challenge for me, so I addressed all my friends and non-friends who were English-speaking, and I asked them to try to translate one or two chapters. Two of them went on with the work and I’m very grateful to them.”

“Tightrope! A Bohemian Tale” is published by Proverse Hong Kong and can be bought through the internet. See www.proversepublishing.com