Opening the wounds of collectivization: Rustic Baroque in English

A month ago the English translation of Rustic Baroque by Czech writer Jiří Hájíček came out in the Czech Republic. The book won the prestigious Litera Magnesia prize in 2006, and has received international recognition as well. A historical novel that reveals the complexities and struggles of the time of collectivization in Czechoslovak countryside in the 1950’s, Rustic Baroque also shows how modern Czech society is still influenced by those events.

Radio Prague had a chance to speak to both Jiří Hájíček and the English translator Gale Kirking, an American who has been living in the city of Brno for a number of years now about the book and the translation process.

To Mr Kirking, the book has resonance for international audiences not only because of the historical content:

“First of all, I think it’s a really wonderful story. I probably would not have chosen to translate it – no matter if the subject matter was interesting or not - if I didn’t think that it was a really good story. But also there is a lot of interest outside of the Czech Republic and Central Europe in the things that are going on here in this culture. So I think that this is a book for people who either live in the Czech Republic, or who visited the Czech Republic, or maybe someone who is only thinking of coming here one day and is learning about it – it will give them a chance to get a deeper appreciation for this country, its society and its culture.”

The collectivization of farmland in post-war Czechoslovakia is a topic that has not gotten much attention in the cultural discourse, except maybe for New Wave films like Všichni dobří rodáci and Smuteční slavnost from the 1960’s. Rustic Baroque stays away from the now common black-and-white portrayal of communism. By delving into the intricate relations between neighbors and relatives in a small traditional village in southern Bohemia, Jiří Hájíček creates multi-dimensional characters and shows the painful conflicts and difficult situations that neighbors and friends were put in during that period. One of the reasons he chose to write about this topic, and maybe why the complexity of the situation is so well related in the book is that, is that it is also part of the author’s own personal history.

“In a way it is a story of my own family – my grandparents and great grandparents from my father’s side – because they are from the South Bohemian countryside. My grandfather owned 24 hectares of land, which was all fields. And he was one of the people who had to give up their land in favor of the newly forming farming cooperative. But the story of the farmers in the book is not the story of my grandparents. It is more of a reconstruction, based on old chronicles, history books, research and so on. As a member of the generation that was not directly touched by this, I returned to that time through this novel.”

Jiří Hájíček,  photo: Vlastimil Bečvář
There are actually a number of parallel plots and storylines in the book. There are the stories of the inhabitants of the small Tomašice village both in the 1950’s and today. The narrator of the book – Pavel – through whom we find out about these stories is a professional genealogist, who in addition to his job at the archives, takes private commissions for genealogical research, which brings him to Tomašice.

I asked Mr Hájíček where the inspiration came from:

“I met a professional genealogist in the archives in Třeboň, who gave me a sort of introduction to this kind of work. I actually ended up going there, interestingly enough, after a relative from the US wrote to me asking to get him in touch with Czech archives, because he was interested in finding out more about his roots. So I went to the archives in Třeboň and tried to find something there. But it is very difficult. And this man, who puts together genealogies for people professionally, helped me out. I was already thinking of writing this book, and at that point it came together for me and I decided that the narrator will be a genealogist who is research this old village story for a client.”

Although the painful parts of Czechoslovak history - such as farm collectivization, the post-war exile of Germans, or escapes to the West in the first decades under Communism – have not received much attention in the first decade after the Velvet Revolution, more and more young authors are turning their attention them now. Mr Hájíček says that he is by far not the only one who has turned his attention to these historical topics:

“Quite a few of today’s young authors are writing about historical themes – either the Second World War or the 1950’s. For example, Kateřina Tučková’s Žítkovské bohyně, or my friend David Jan Žák. It is interesting that the generation that lived through those times usually did not reflect it in their literature, while it’s the second and third generation who are coming back to these topics, often by asking their parents. Which was exactly my case. I used to ask my father about what it was like in the 50’s, although he didn’t want to talk about that painful period that much. I think the perception changes from generation to generation and I think young people are interested in it today.”

Gale Kirking,  photo: English Editorial Services
In addition to the interest in these topics from the Czech public, Rustic Baroque quickly gained interest abroad as well. The English translation, though, will hopefully introduce this less known topic to an audience that maybe had very different historical experiences:

“Actually, Rustic Baroque, has already come out in Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, Bulgarian, it will also come out in Poland soon. But those are all European countries, which known about these kinds of topics. Obviously, this topic will be much less familiar in some places like Britain or the US. But, at the same time, this cultural and historical context of Central European may be interesting to those audiences, because it is exotic and very particular."

Besides the desire to bring this subject matter to English-speaking readers, Rustic Baroque caught Gale Kirking’s interest also because of the similar personal history that he and Jiří Hájíček share.

“I saw an article in the paper – a feature about [Jiří Hájíček] and his book – and it really struck me. It was a subject that was really interesting for me, I think partially because we have a sort of similar background. I also come from a rural area. I grew up on a family farm in Wisconsin. We were both working in the financial sector at the time, because I am a former banker as well. And once I took a look at it, I felt that this a book really deserves to be brought to an English-speaking audience.”

Of course, relating the cultural and historical context of rural mid-century Czechoslvakia to readers who may have very little experience with the subject matter or the region was not simple. Yet, the fact that Jiří Hájíček’s economical prose appealed to Mr Kirking’s taste in literature, helped him

“In general, I found Jiří’s writing to be quite approachable. My favorite writers are Steinbeck and Hemingway, and their writing tends to be very direct, I would say. So, I probably moved the writing more in that direction, but I think that Jiri’s style of writing is quite direct to begin with.”

Of course few successful novels are without some romantic twist in the story. In Rustic Baroque, the romance is more than subtle, and essentially unfulfilled, but it does add to the emotional impact of the book. For Gale Kirking, this particular storyline actually helps brings out the history of the early years of Communism in Czechoslovakia and the way that period is echoed in Czech society today.

“I think that the sort-of romance, or romantic aspect of it, really helps to portray the overall complexity and the overall difference of views and the strong feelings that are associated with the transformation and the re-transformation of this society. I think that it is a very good way of expressing and strengthening that aspect in the story.”

Rustic Baroque was published by Mr Kirking’s Brno-based publishing company Real World Press and is available in bookstores around the Czech Republic. The volume also contains the translation of selected stories from Jiří Hájíček’s collection The Wooden Knife.