Tale of success for pupil of Chaucer

Tomáš Zmeškal

The guest on Czech Books this week, Tomáš Zmeškal, stunned the Czech literary world and reading public this autumn with his debut novel, Milostný Dopis Klínovým Písmem or Love Letter in Cunieform Script. The book is an unusual kind of love story with a broad historical sweep, covering the post-war period to the 1990s, and has a very innovative stylistic approach. After almost unbelievably positive reviews it sold out immediately and went into a second edition - the sort of "overnight success" and "literary sensation" most writers must dream about.

I must say that for an overnight success you had quite a long time to wait.

"Yes, the book was first finished about four or five years ago and then I sent it to various Czech publishing houses which deal with contemporary Czech prose and there wasn't interest in the book at all. Then a friend of mine took it to Torst publishing house and they liked it and they decided to publish it almost immediately."

And thanks mainly to a review by critic Jan Rejžek, who isn't at all known for his kind reviews. He gave you such an outstanding review, comparing you to great Czech writers such as Škvorecký and Hrabal and also to Salman Rushdie, and this was only part of great critical acclaim. How have you dealt with becoming something of a literary sensation?

"Well I didn't have to deal with it much because I didn't know about it first of all because the friends I have seem to be very timid and careful people, very polite, and they didn't want to bother me with that review because they thought I knew about it, but I didn't. So I was quite surprised, and then of course Jan Rejžek's review brought a lot of attention from other reviewers and so so far I'm surprised because the reviews have been very good - to very very good."

The English translation of the title is Love Letter in Cunieform Script. Can you summarise the plot?

"It's about a family; the main characters are Josef and Květa, his wife, who meet before the Second World War. During that time the Czech scholar Bedřich Hrozný deciphered the language of the Hittites, who used to write in cuneiform script, so there is a chapter which describes that, and this is where the title comes from."

Hittite script deciphered by Professor Bedřich Hrozný
So the main couple meet at one of the pre-war public lectures Professor Hrozný gave. But then the book is something of a family saga almost going up to the present day.

“The book covers a period from the end of the second world war to the 1990s and there is a kind of obvious love triangle, two men and one woman, then the couple get married and their friend, whose love wasn't appreciated, joins the communists later and uses his position in a way to break up the marriage of his former friends. Which doesn't succeed completely but it succeeds to a certain extent to embitter their relationship.”

And it's written in a very interesting, unusual style or styles. Each chapter has a different tone, different perspective, and you also include visionary chapters too. Could you say a little about this stylistic variety?

“Yes, I wasn't interested in writing a novel in this great 18th or 19th century tradition where everything has its proper place and when you can predict what happens in the future so I changed the styles according to through whose eyes the tale is narrated.”

One of the many perspectives or viewpoints in the book is actually an Englishman's, or at least an Englishman of Czech origin.

"Yes, it is, it's George, or Jiří in Czech, who's a nephew of someone within the family. And he has Czech parents but is born and brought up in London and he arrives in Prague and gets involved in this family story. He sends letters back home to his sister about the Czechs and he observes the Czech traditions - some of them seem very funny to him and some of them very absurd. For example, he sends a letter describing the Czech Christmas tradition of carp killing. He doesn't know anything about it and one day he leaves his flat in very late December and suddenly there are all these people in strange clothes with barrels full of fish and they are killing these poor animals. So he writes, for example, about this and says "how can they do that, and how can they eat it even after that!". And then they all disappear suddenly. And it's like when an anthroplogist comes on a strange tribe of a different nation."

Yes, I know that can be very traumatic custom for an outside observer to witness. But George, or Jiří, is also able to bring a focus on serious aspects of Czech culture and history.

“He describes, for example, art exhibitions in the Veletržní Palace. But the same palace was actually used for the deportation of Jewish citizens in the 1940s. And he observes this kind of reversal of fortune and he actually serves as a kind of catalyst for the family events. He doesn't know much what to do with it but he can observe it and describe it, so he's a kind of outsider coming inside and then he slowly starts to understand.”

As you're writing about these relationships between various couples or triangles over such a long period, it certainly must make some observations about the poltiical situation.

“Yes, some Czech readers ask about the view of Czech political history. I'm personally not really interested in politics as everyday politics. The hero, Josef, is jailed for about ten years but within the book this period isn't really described, partly because there are a lot of books that describe this already and partly because if you want to go into that period you would really have to be very historically precise and I didn't want to write an historical book.”

But I think you've used your own family history to an extent.

“From a personal point of view one of my uncles was jailed for about a year. He had a small restaurant in Malá Strana under Prague Castle with his partner. And when the communists got to power they asked him to voluntarily pass it onto the state and he refused to do that so they locked him up for one year, only for a year, he wasn't a political prisoner; they let him go and they said he could be a manager in his own restaurant. And he told me when I was a kid - well, the silver cutlery had already been stolen - so they didn't want to to that. But it triggered in his partner some psychological illness and in a couple of years he stopped recognising family and he ended his life in a psychiatric hospital. But, on the other hand, another uncle was a communist party member, he actually joined the communist party before the war. So you have certain personal things there as well. But of course, I was a kid and you only recognise when you are older the tragedies which are under the surface.”

The general tone of the book is rather a tragic and sad one.

“I suppose so, yes, because that generation, I think that to a certain extent people still don't know how to deal with them, whether they should recognise their efforts or not. There is a discussion, but in my opinion it doesn't go anywhere and I don't think it will ever go anywhere because the Czech way to do things is to forget them.”

You spent ten years in London, and amongst other things you studied English Literature at Kings College, and subsequently taught literature at Charles University. To what extent do you think you were influenced by your very profound knowledge of literature in English?

“Well, I wasn't aware of this until the reviews started. It was a lasting influence but I didn't know it might be engrained in my literary views, but it seems that it is. The Czech critics say it and they are probably right. It has a positive effect probably that it made my book richer, but also a negative effect because some Czech editors didn't like it and said I should rewrite the book because it doesn't sound too Czech.

"I studied English Literature and I enjoyed it and influences would be numerous, from Joseph Conrad even to medieval literature. Because as a writer I think I learnt most from Chaucer and others like him because from a technical point of view it's extremely interesting and inspirational."

These chapters and all the different styles, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales spring to mind.

“What is interesting for me it how he framed the narrator, because the narrator, even in the Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde, he very delicately places himself within the text. Which would be boring I think for ordinary readers to describe, it's really a very technical description. But for a writer it's like a lesson, and if you learn it it enriches you.”

You spent virtually the whole of the nineties in London, even though you were visiting the Czech Republic during this period, and you moved back home finally in 1999. How was this transition for you between the two cultures?

"The transition was very interesting and it lasted quite a while. I don't think that I know England or Britain but I do know London, which is a kind of world within a world. If you a writer, if you are interested in culture, London is one of the great centres in Europe. So obviously I still miss the exhibitions, the theatre and so on. But at the same time English culture is very very different to Czech culture, which is much more down-to-earth I think to a certain extent. And of course you cannot have two things wider apart than Czech history and British history so the cultural and historical traditions are incomparable. So, to a certain extent I obviously miss London and to a certain extent I'm glad that I'm back in Prague because I understand much better the surroundings and the historical context and these kind of things.

I'm fascinated to know that one of the jobs you did in London was as a postman. Did you enjoy the work?

"Well I didn't particularly enjoy it, but you need to get some money. I don't know which, I think, Russian writer said this is your life's university and being a postman was certainly one of those. I got to know a bit of London but not too much because London is such a huge place I don't think any one person can ever say that they know it. But it was a good insight into the life of ordinary working class people which I enjoyed very much.”

And do you still like dogs?

"Being a postman I think that the English dogs didn't particularly get influenced by the English national character and I suppose are just as vicious as anywhere else."

I'm really pleased that because of this great delay in all of these foolish publishers not publishing your book for five years, that you already have a second novel finished as I think otherwise all the great acclaim might have been inhibiting. Can you tell me something about the book or at least when you hope it might be published?

“Well, since there were positive reviews about this book I probably have to have a look once more at the other book I've written and decide whether there would be any changes or whether I would leave it as it is. I don't want to go into great detail about it as I still don't know how I'll respond to it.”

But you certainly won't have any problem finding a publisher this time.

“No, no, it seems that there won't be any difficulties.”

So now we only have to wait for the English translation. And I hope this very great acclaim in the Czech Republic might reach the shores of England and we can look forward to being able to read about this often neglected period in Czech history. Thank you very much for talking about your new book Tomáš and I'm delighted it's had such a positive response.

"Thank you very much for having me on the show."