"The Sound of the Sundial" - Hana Andronikova talks about her award-winning novel

Hana Andronikova

Welcome to Czech books and today we're going to be meeting Hana Andronikova, a young Czech writer whose name has recently been buzzing around Czech literary circles. Two years ago her debut novel, "Zvuk slunecnich hodin" (The Sound of the Sundial) was published to huge critical acclaim. It tells the story of the Keppler family from Zlin - Hana's own hometown that was built from nothing in the 1920s around the famous Bata shoe factory. The story is panoramic, moving in time and place from Zlin to India, Colorado and Auschwitz - a twentieth century family epic. The Sound of the Sundial has won Hana Andronikova several prestigious literary awards, and was recently followed up by her collection of short stories, "Srdce na udici" (Heart on a Hook). A few days ago Hana came into the Radio Prague studio to talk to Pavla Jonssonova about "The Sound of the Sundial". Pavla began by asking her whether the book's sudden success had changed her life.

Hana Andronikova
"I would say it did not really change my life, it changed the live of my book. I think in terms of publicity it made a lot of difference, of course. So the book started to sell and people read the book. I was really happy to see that people do have access to the book and that they do actually read it and enjoy it.

Could you please tell us, what were your sources, what inspired you?

"It just happened. I cannot just describe the inspiration because it's just something you cannot put your fingers on. It just comes. I started to write about something else, and then all of a sudden there was this topic. There was this family, and it just grew in my head, and I just had to write about it. It was as if someone else wanted to tell his or her story through me, through my writing. There were so many things that influenced my writing and the topic. It was my grandmother, of course my family, but this is not my family's story. It's an invented story, but that could happen and did happen, I believe, but I just invented it."

It seemed to be a very relevant comment on one's hometown, because it seems to be so well researched.

"I had to have something that I could build on, so it was Zlin, because I knew that town very well. But it was just one of the building stones. For me a more important part was the Holocaust thing. I think that was much more important for me than this Zlin thing."

So you're going to read something to us from your novel, "The Sound of the Sundial"

"Yes, I should say that the whole book is narrated by two people, and these two people have a dialogue during one night and they slowly reveal the whole story of Daniel Keppler's family. I'm going to read a part that takes us to the thirties. This part is narrated by Daniel when he's a boy, and his father Tomas Keppler comes back to Czechoslovakia to take his wife and his little son to India, where he's working on the construction of the Bata shoe factory. Of course Tomas Keppler is quite enthusiastic about India and he's hoping that his wife is going to like it there."

She didn't like it in India at all. She saw the dirt, the mouldering walls of the houses, litter floating in the sludge. It made her feel sick, the putrid stench wafting towards her, the dozens of curs and cats running around, hairless and mangy. She went into fits when she saw crippled children lying in the dust of the street, wretched beggars with their club-feet and outstretched hands. She suffered from phobias. About dirt and disease. She couldn't bear the naked face of reality, the raw shape of misery, sickness and dying. The day she saw her first snake she wanted to go home.

Mother India. Land of an ancient culture, mysterious and inscrutable. Broad rivers of rolling yellowy-grey water, silent and everlasting. India. Father tried to merge into the land and extract the best from the tangle of different people, cultures and religions. At first, mother tried to understand the country. She always tried to find sense in things. But then, you have to hate India.

India wasn't going to change for her sake. India had remained the same for thousands of years. It was Raquel who changed. She came to terms with it. Thanks to her obsession with age-old myths, images of faith and the power of the word, she revealed, for herself and for us, the poetry of the oriental continent; she let herself be carried away by extremes and by the abundance of destinies. She fell in love with India. India became our common love. Scorching and relentless, sweet and distressing, sensuous and repellent. I grew up in the embrace of her contrasts, amongst people who ignited in my life a desire for harmony with myself. My India. I didn't try to understand her. I loved her.

It was a revelation to me to realize this incredible expansion of Bata shoe factories into all parts of the world, and it was very exciting to visit India with the heroes, but of course I think the core of the book is in the Holocaust story of Rachel, the wife of the main hero Tomas. How did you get to this method of changing the narrators?

"I just wanted to let the story flow in the most natural manner, and I think that when two people talk they make pauses, it doesn't really fit sometimes, it's not chronological, they have different ways of telling the story. Both of them, these narrators of the story, they both know the same people, but from different angles, and that also gives you a very interesting point of view."

It seems to me that the voice of a young boy is very strong in your writing, that these are among the strongest parts of your novel.

"I think it's just the lack of people with good memory, that I just somehow do remember my childhood and lots of things, and so you can build on that. People tend to forget, or maybe their childhood was not really something nice, something they would want to remember. My childhood was very nice and I can build on that very much."

So in "The Sound of the Sundial" the voice of the little boy Daniel, when he's growing up in India is a very refreshing voice in the novel.

When mama first allowed me to go with Zam to the fish market, I was in raptures. I ran here and there in the stifling Babylon of smells and chatter, peaking into baskets full of florid shrimps, crabs, catfish and sardines. Dumbstruck, I followed the flashes of the sharp boti, with which the sellers divided the catch. Zam offered to let me choose, to point out which fish I wanted, but that was a superhuman task. I couldn't decide, I pointed to the right and to the left and somewhere else again. I wanted them all. In the end I did choose. It was a gold-coloured fish. Topshey. The English call it mango fish, but for me it was a golden fish, and I didn't want any other. When we got back, I did not relish the prospect that my golden fish would be for dinner. I wanted it to play with; I wanted to take it to bed with my teddy bear. Mother got cross.

- You can't take a dead fish to bed!

- It's not dead, it's mine! I chose it!

- Listen to me. I know you chose it, but that fish is not for playing with. If you like, we'll get you an aquarium for your birthday and you can put another golden fish in that and look after it, all right?

- And why can't we have my fish in the aquarium?

- Because it's dead, and dead fish don't swim. They have to be eaten. As soon as possible!

I scowled. She lost her patience.

- If you can't be sensible, I won't let you go to the market next time! I lost my patience as well.

- I don't care!

In the evening I cried in my room while my parents ate my golden fish. I had fought in vain and what was more, I was afraid my mother would never let me visit the fish market again. I sneaked into the dining room and watched them eating it all up. Father noticed me. He put his knife down. A sinewy forearm in a rolled-up sleeve waved to me to come in. Do you want to taste the golden fish? He sat me on his knee. He almost never got angry. I looked at mother out of the corner of my eye. She was smiling. That gave me courage.

- And when will I get the aquarium?

They looked at each other over my head and burst out laughing.

That was the young Czech writer, Hana Andronikova, reading from "The Sound of the Sundial", in a working translation by Barbara Day. And Hana was talking to Pavla Jonssonova. The novel is yet to be published in English, but we'll let you know as soon as an English translation becomes available.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.