Tomáš Zmeškal: putting things in their proper place

Tomáš Zmeškal, photo: David Vaughan

“Socrates on the Equator”, the latest book by the award-winning Czech novelist, Tomáš Zmeškal, offers insights into a huge country in the heart of Africa that for most Czech readers is nothing more than a name: The Democratic Republic of Congo. His book is neither a novel nor a travelogue, but a many-layered account of a very personal journey. David Vaughan talks to the writer.

The chirping of an African sparrow Every morning I am awakened by the chirping of a little bird, the size of a sparrow. Its song is quite different from that of any European bird I have heard. It is singing in a foreign language. Maybe it is a bird’s version of Lingala or Kikongo, perhaps Swahili. The difference in the way it sings is so marked that it keeps me awake at night. I still am still trying to get used to it. (tr. David Vaughan)

Tomáš Zmeškal,  photo: David Vaughan
A few lines from Socrates on the Equator, evoking the permanent sense of strangeness the author feels during the month he spends in Kinshasa. The Socrates in the title of the book is Tomáš Zmeškal’s father, Joseph Lukoki, a university professor who was given the nickname by his students. He came to Czechoslovakia as a young man at the very end of the 1950s and left again in the mid-60s, around the time when Tomáš was born. Tomáš’s mother was Czech and brought him up on her own in Prague. He never knew his father. It was only recently, not long after his mother’s death in 2010 and not without a good deal of detective work, that Tomáš managed to reconnect with his Congolese family; he ended up travelling to Congo to meet his father and his younger half-brothers and sisters, along with aunts, uncles and cousins. After much hesitation, Tomáš wrote the book after his return. When me met to talk about Socrates on the Equator, he reminded me that this is far from being a classic Hollywood story of a family reunited.

“There is one thing that is similar to Hollywood movies – that it ends well, that I found him – but apart from that, I think it’s different, because my father was a complicated personality and the times in which he lived were also very complicated. Also Congo’s history is anything but Hollywood!!”

In the book you write about how you were looking for ways to tell the story, for models, for language to describe the experience. Several times you refer to the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible, which you find hopelessly inadequate as a way of describing your experience, as in your case it was the father who ran away rather than the son, and the forgiveness is on your part.

“Well, as you said, I found it hopelessly inadequate and while thinking about it I realized that my experience was not in any way unique. Lots of people have had very similar experiences and over the last two or three generations there has been a huge migration of people, which is still going on, so this is a normal story, in a way. But the strange thing was that I didn’t find any cultural or religious or philosophical foundation, which you could use for your thinking. Out of that also came the problem with the form, because I want the reader to have a similar experience as I had. I had a lot of material for that, because there is no recipe, there is no proper structure, how to find your lost family.”

With your previous highly successful novel, Love Letter in Cuneiform Script, one of the things that was often said about it was that it was very precisely and well structured. In this book you have chosen a form which is more like a mosaic.

“I thought about it for a long time and then I decided not to narrate it retrospectively, because with a retrospective narration, you know what happened. But in a way it falsifies the feelings which you had at that particular moment. So I thought that it might be more truthful, even with its inadequacies and I’m happy that I did it this way, because the reader might get the feeling of how I felt when I was in that particular situation.”

'Socrates on the Equator',  photo: Mishkezy publishing
And it means also that there are big leaps in style. At the beginning of the book there are some descriptive sections written with considerable literary sophistication, such as your visit to Brussels, as you reflect on the different aspects of the colonial legacy of Brussels. Then, once you go to Congo, we experience with you the sense of not quite knowing what to think, how to describe it and the sense of frustration that I think many of us feel when we go somewhere new, of being a tourist and not quite being able to understand where we are.

“Yes, I think that is spot-on, because neither the family I had found nor I myself knew what to expect from each other, so that was a time of tension, emotional pressure. While you are in that situation, you can’t make any conclusions, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and the day after. So I just used the brief notes which I had made during the trip. Only afterwards can you make some kind of conclusion about it, but while you are in this situation, to make some kind of conclusion would be quite limited, and also at that time you learn new information every day, which changes completely your perceptions.”

A very moving element of the book is that even though you find your father, he has already had a stroke. He is already a shadow of his former self. So, even as you meet him, you’re still trying to understand who he was.

“My siblings were sadder than I was, because they wished that we had met when he was in his prime. So there are these two contrary emotions…”

… and there is a third emotion as well, in that you remind them a lot of what he was like in his prime.

“Well, that was completely unexpected, because I learned that I look very similar to him and I have the same gestures and the same way of talking. To a certain extent, I still couldn’t believe it, but then I slowly started to realize that it’s really like that, as they said. That was when I met his last wife and suddenly I saw that she looked at me completely differently…”

In the book you describe that as being probably the most powerful moment while you are meeting members of your family.

“Yes, because nobody planned that and suddenly it came through very clearly and very forcefully. So, I discovered that I look like him, that I have the same gestures and that I have the same way of speaking, although I didn’t grow up with him.”

Your family in Congo is several thousand kilometres away, but with today’s electronic media you can keep in touch with them. Have you found that since you were there and since you have written the book, you’ve kept in touch with them closely?

“Yes, we keep in touch and we inform each other about everyday things.”

Are you quite nervous about the day that the book gets translated into French or English and your family read it?

“In a way, yes, because one reason why I wrote the book was on the suggestion of several members of the family, because they knew that I’m a writer and they said: ‘Try to write a book about it.’ So, I thought about it for about one year and then I decided that I would put it together.”

There is quite a lot of anger, even bitterness, in the book, about what happened, both in terms of the politics of colonialism and the post-colonial era, and also your own situation of having grown up with no contact with you father. You must have found it very difficult, juggling these two elements: on the one hand, your personal search for your father and to understand the dynamic of your own family, and on the other hand, the legacy of colonialism, and in particular Belgian colonialism, a subject you confront especially in the first half of the book. You state that Belgium was probably the worst of all the colonial powers in terms of the way it behaved in its colonies.

“From the technical point of view it was a key issue which I had to solve, because Czech culture has no idea of colonialism, since it never had any colonies. So, I had to choose which parts I had to explain and clarify. Also, as I was getting my father’s story, it was even deeper, because, first of all I thought that he had been a student in this country – that was the official story – then I discovered that it actually wasn’t true at all, because he was sent to Czechoslovakia in order to help to establish an independent Congo. So, it was really a cover. And then I discovered in a Foreign Office archive that there were secret operations involving the Czechoslovak secret service and the Guinean secret service and false passports and false names – these kind of things. So I realized that he was actually one of the people who helped with Congo’s independence.

“When the Czechoslovak Communist Party realized that Congo was not going to be a left-wing country, they tried to put pressure on him, so that he would help to persuade people in Congo. Because he came before Congo was independent and he didn’t have any papers, any legal documents, only some kind of refugee passport, they took that passport away and he couldn’t travel. Later, when Congo was independent, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the first president, sent him a new passport and naturally, once he got the passport he didn’t want the same thing to happen again, so he immediately travelled to France and Belgium.

“So that was really the reason why my parents broke up, because my mother didn’t want to follow him. They kept in touch till about the mid-70s; then he finished his PhD in Paris at the Sorbonne and then he finally decided that he was going back to Congo. That was when my mother broke up the relationship completely, because she was simply scared to go there.”

Was the subject of your father more or less taboo in conversations with your mother?

“Yes, probably, in a way, as I was writing the book, I was subconsciously defending my mother’s side against my father, because she never wanted to talk about it and her response was most of the time quite emotional. I don’t know if she was still in love with him – I don’t think so – but I think it was simply a big part of her life. She just didn’t say anything.”

In terms of your research for the book, it must have been quite a departure from researching for a novel. Did you enjoy the process of historical research?

Kinshasa,  Congo
“Yes and no, because I realized that I had to do it, because in one letter from my father, which I quote in the book, he has a sentence like: ‘I had to leave Congo, because Congo in the 40s and 50s was like a concentration camp.’ He uses this phrase, ‘concentration camp’. I realized that I had to explain something about Congolese history, so that Czech readers would understand that actually it wasn’t mean to be hyperbole, that it was a description of a very tragic situation in Congo at the time.”

This is the most personal of your books so far. You strike me as being quite a reserved person. Did you find it hard writing something that was at times even quite confessional?

“For me the big problem was to make the decision that I’m going to write it. It took me a year. It was quite difficult for me because my father died and my mother died also, so it was a very difficult time.”

We haven’t mentioned yet that your father died shortly after you met him.

“Yes, he died just over a year after that. We all knew that his health was very bad already, but for me it was at the same time also a very joyful period of time, because I had tried to get in touch with my family about three times before that and this was the last time that I decided I was going to try it.”

And, paradoxically, in the end it was your relatives in Congo who found you, not the other way round.

“I still don’t know how that actually happened. I have a suspicion that it was like this: through a network of friends I got a message to Congo that I was looking for my father, and because African families work in a slightly different way than European or Western families, there is a big network. So I think that somebody there heard somewhere that I was looking for my father. So they probably said – well, let’s check it. But because the families are really wide networks, I think I’m never going to find out how precisely that happened.”

Was writing the book in a sense some kind of catharsis for you?

“I think that if I had been in my twenties, it would have been a cathartic moment for me, but now it was like putting things in order, and for me it was a key thing that things are finally put in their proper place. Whatever might happen, when I have kids they will know that they have uncles and aunties in Congo. In a way I think this was something we both felt – my siblings and I – that our parents, for cultural reasons or because of their love or because of their personalities, they simply were not able to keep the family together and so we had to do it. We were quite happy that we succeeded in that. So in a way we had a very simple task.”