The Pied Piper: a Czech version of a classic story that defies interpretation

Mark Corner, photo: David Vaughan

Most Czechs know the story of the Pied Piper through a writer called Viktor Dyk. His short novel of the same name – Krysař in Czech – is a Czech classic, written on the eve of the First World War. But this is no children’s fairy tale. Dyk’s version of the story is complex and ambiguous, and the Pied Piper himself emerges as a troubled character, part dreamer, part revolutionary. He also seems unnervingly relevant to our own time. Karolinum Press has just published the Pied Piper in English, in an excellent translation by Mark Corner. David Vaughan met the translator to talk about the book.

Mark Corner,  photo: David Vaughan
Viktor Dyk is little known outside the Czech Republic, but he was a major figure in Czech letters and politics in the first decades of the twentieth century. Following his early years as an anarchist and rebel against Austrian rule, he later became a conservative politician in the First Czechoslovak Republic, taking a line that brought him into conflict with the liberal politics of President Masaryk or his fellow writer Karel Čapek. The paradoxes of his biography are reflected in the Pied Piper, and it is just this imperviousness to simplistic interpretations that makes the book so good.

I asked Mark Corner whether he considers The Pied Piper to be a book for children.

“It’s a fairy tale and like all good fairy tales there’s something nicely sinister about it, something almost immoral – think of Hansel and Gretel! We have the idea that writing for children requires us to put aside the nasty things in life. I’ve never been convinced that’s really true. It’s just that the nasty things in life come through in a rather different way. The Pied Piper, I think, is one of the most fascinating of those stories – not necessarily originally intended simply for children. It’s a story with a thousand different interpretations and Viktor Dyk has his own take on the story. Although it has a lot in common with other versions, there’s also something that’s very much his own.”

Just to get a taste of the book, let’s hear you read the opening couple of paragraphs.

“This is the way the book begins. The Pied Piper is arriving in Hamelin and there’s a woman called Agnes standing in a doorway, watching him. And she begins the story.

And your name is…? “I don’t have one. I have no standing. Worse than that, I’m the Pied Piper, a ratcatcher.” The man who spoke held himself erect before the gate while the outline of a female figure was a white glow in the twilight. His dark searching eyes were fixed upon her. He was tall and thin, the thinness accentuated by a close-fitting velvet coat and tight trousers. He had small and dainty hands, ladylike in fact. There was no weapon about his person, not even a cane, although he seemed to have come from afar on roads that weren’t always safe. However, he was clutching something long and ornamental which had aroused the curiosity of the woman he was speaking to. It was a pipe and the workmanship was foreign. She had never seen anything like it before. “A ratcatcher.” The woman in the doorway laughed. “then you’ve come to Hamelin at just the right time. There’s no ratcatcher here, while there’s no shortage of rates. Tell me something, ratcatcher, how did all these rats get here? In the old days there weren’t any around, or so they tell us. But that’s old folks for you,” she finished with a smile, “always thinking that the world’s going to the dogs.” The piper shrugged his shoulders.

The relationship between Agnes and the Pied Piper is central to the story.

“There’s an element of the wild rover about the piper. He goes from place to place, as she notices right at the start of the book. He performs his service of getting rid of the rats, but then he moves on. He’s never tied down in any place he goes to.”

And it’s interesting, just from that opening paragraph, we see him as an untypical hero. He’s described as being quite effeminate, he’s not carrying a weapon, he’s carrying his instrument – his pipe. The opening paragraph really does ask more questions than it answers. This is very much a book that is interested in the psychology of the story, isn’t it?

Photo: Karolinum Press
“I think that’s right. One of the things I like about it is that although it’s taking up a very well-worn theme it creates characters with their own individuality. The Piper is not an ordinary Piper, the Agnes is certainly not an ordinary Agnes, Sepp Jörgen, the slow-witted fisherman, who in the end is in some ways the hero of the story, is another character who is drawn in a very sympathetic light.”

Sepp Jörgen the fisherman is pretty much the sole survivor of the story. This isn’t a typical telling of the story of the Pied Piper, in which only the children get taken away, but in this story it’s apocalyptic. The entire town disappears into the abyss.

“There are variations of the story where there are some survivors. In one version three children survive – one who was deaf and didn’t hear the piper, one who was blind and one who was lame. There are versions in which the children are not taken away for ever but held ransom by the Piper and then sold back for rather more than he was initially supposed to have been paid.”

There is always the common thread that he was meant to be paid by the townsmen for having got rid of the rats and that they fail to keep their side of the bargain.

“Yes. There is that theme of a rather nasty, petty-minded group of people who do not keep the bargain they have made, simply because they think they can exploit the person who has delivered them from the rat infestation.”

Another fascinating thing about the Pied Piper in this version is that he is destined never to be able to settle down, but he’s also plagued by his role. He has doubts about whether he is doing the right thing, whether he can stop and go back, and there are passages in the book that show this self-doubt. Could you read us one of them?

“There’s one where he’s on his way back to Hamelin. The chapter begins like this…”

The Pied Piper was on his way back to Hamelin. He had been driven outside the walls of the town by unease; now a much greater restlessness was driving him back.

“He’s uncertain of himself, partly because of the relationship with Agnes, which has affected him much more than he’d bargained for.”

And what on earth is behind the restlessness in his heart. The Pied Piper goes where he likes, stays where he likes and moves on when he likes. Could he really be held captive now? He reached proudly for his pipe. It was right there. No one had taken it and for as long as it was in his grasp he felt sure of himself. He hadn’t lost any of his power. The only thing was… The only thing was, the Pied Piper did not feel at peace. The evening was drawing on. Would he be back in time? Would the gates of the town still be open for him?

The book dates from just before the First World War, which is quite a tumultuous time in Czech history. The war broke out and at the end of the war an independent Czechoslovakia came into being. Viktor Dyk was very much part of that process – of the revival of Czech literature and the Czech language, and he was a passionate nationalist.

“Yes he was, but one of the problems I have if I try to link the book with Dyk’s politics is that in some ways I find it fits better with the idea of the lure of the sort of ideology that became dominant after the First World War. I mean communism – this belief in a perfect society realisable on earth as long as various actions were taken. To some extent, if one wants to have a political interpretation, one is drawn to the idea of the Pied Piper as someone who is leading people on to a kind of impossible left-wing utopia.

“What you have in Hamelin, and this comes through towards the end, is that a lot of people are enthusiastic about the idea of going over the edge of the Koppel Hill because they become aware of how awful their lives have become and how they have betrayed something inside them. This transforms itself into a longing for something different, and the promise of the Piper becomes totally alluring. I feel drawn to the idea that it’s a kind of critique of left-wing utopianism, yet I’m also conscious of the fact that that’s a terribly anachronistic view to take. This isn’t a book written in the 1940s but that was published in 1915, before Czechoslovakia had been formed and two years before the storming of the Winter Palace. Yet I think one’s entitled to say that it can speak to later generations in that way.”

Viktor Dyk,  photo: Public Domain
And it is true that Viktor Dyk moved from anarchy in his early days towards being deeply conservative later in his career. I’m talking about his career not just as a writer but also because he became a conservative politician. What you’ve just been saying about his rejection of utopias fits in quite well with what we know of his biography.

“Yes. He lived till 1931. As you say, he was a conservative Senator in the First Republic and he would have known by that time what was going on in the Soviet Union. But not at the time he wrote this story.”

He was defining himself very much as a Czech in opposition to the German language and to German culture, and yet he set the book in a German context and based it on a famous German legend, which had been adapted by the Brothers Grimm and Goethe and many others. Do you think there is a paradox there?

“Writers in the 1910s would presumably have understood how German and Czech culture were deeply intertwined in the political environment they were growing up in. However much they might have wanted an independent Czechoslovakia, nevertheless the connections between German and Czech culture are undeniable. It was something that obviously inspired him, because there is a sense in which any work of art, from whatever particular nationality it’s inspired by, has a universal appeal.”

At first sight it might seem strange that you’ve chosen to translate a book that is a hundred years old and based on a medieval legend. Yet it is relevant to our own time. That’s the thing that struck me most when I was reading it – that it is very modern. The psychology of the story is remarkably modern.

“That struck me as well. I think it’s partly because the characters are so well drawn and partly because the conflicts that it points up are eternal ones. The Pied Piper is someone who has talents beyond those of most people, but he discovers that having enormous talent does not make him immune to certain restrictions that life brings. And I think that is something that is just as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago, perhaps more so. At the same time, the narrow-minded pettiness of the burghers of Hamelin, trying to exploit their ratcatcher, we can think of plenty of examples of that in the modern world. So it doesn’t surprise me that it really is a book that has lasted.”

And what were the challenges of translating it?

“To some extent it was the problem that any translator always has of being as faithful as they can be while recognising that they can’t always be entirely literal. Translations also have to be readable. Translators also have to hide themselves to the extent that you don’t want the person who reads the book to say that it reads like a translation. So you want simply to disappear from the scene. I don’t think this was as difficult as some of the other things I have attempted. I did try to make sure that the characters had a voice, which I think they do have in the Czech original, and that that could come through in the translation as well.”