Young Czech wins EU literature award for novel on photographer Drtikol

'A History of Light'

Czech writer Jan Němec is among 13 young European authors who have won the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature. Němec was recognized for his unusual debut novel about the renowned Czech photographer František Drtikol. Entitled A History of Light, the novel captures Drtikol’s complex personality, and follows his path from photography to eastern spirituality and Buddhism.

'A History of Light'
A History of Light, an acclaimed novel by Jan Němec, came out last October. It has since been nominated for several Czech awards including the prestigious Magnesia Litera for best novel. But the EU prize is the first the young Czech writer has received for his debut work.

“I’m glad of course, mainly because of the book, because the award should help it. The purpose of the prize is to facilitate translation of the book.

“It’s great for any work written in a language with not so many speakers such as Czech, and it might help it reach a much larger numbers of readers.”

František Drtikol remains one of the best-known Czech photographers. Born in 1883 in the central Bohemian mining town of Příbram, he rose to international acclaim in the first three decades of the 20th century. But in 1935, he suddenly retired and spent the rest of his life studying eastern spirituality and particularly Buddhism.

Jan Němec says Drtikol’s fascinating story has great potential to appeal to an international audience.

“I hope it could. When I was writing the novel, I realized that Drtikol’s fate was in fact non-Czech, that he differed from the mood and taste of the time.

“He and was discovering things which were not that known here in the 1930s, such as eastern religions and Buddhism, at a time when only a few people were interested in this. His advantage was that he spoke German and he learned a lot from German sources.”

Drtikol’s photographic work has been the subject of study for a number of art historians, while his spiritual followers focused on Drtikol’s Buddhist teachings. But in his novel A History of Light, Němec aspired to capture Drtikol’s life and career in its entirety.

“My input was looking at his life from a new perspective, enabled by the genre. I could write about things that historians cannot because they cannot be verified, and so on. I wanted to capture his life in its complexity.

“When you read the memoirs of his spiritual pupils and of his photography students, you might get the impression that he could not have been one person, that there were two Drtikols, or that Drtikol went crazy in the middle of his life and became someone else.

Jan Němec,  photo: Czech Television
“But that was not what happened; when you look at it in greater detail, you’ll find that it makes very good sense.”

Jan Němec, who lives in Brno, made his literary debut in 2007 with a collection of poems. He then decided to write a novel about a fictional photographer, and only later discovered that he in fact did not need to invent the protagonist of his book.

“When I decided to write a novel and was looking for a topic, I remember I was thinking of a photographer. I was initially planning to invent the character but after some time I realized that Drtikol fits the idea I had in mind, and that it would be more interesting to write about him. As I said, his fate struck me as unusual and non-Czech, and he was a pioneer in many ways. So this is how it happened.”

One moment covered prominently in Němec’ book is Drtikol’s decision in 1935 to retire from photography and devote his time to spiritual study. The author says that Drtikol’s biographers have often been puzzled by the move.

“There is a lot of speculation about what exactly made him close down his studio, and what role the studio’s economic difficulties played as this was a time after the Great Depression. Some also say that Drtikol took photos of minors in the studio and that it was raided by the police.

“Who knows what the reality was but his intellectual development at the time was leading him away from art and photography. It seems that by that time, he had expressed what he could or wanted through art, and realized that he if wanted to continue his journey, he would need to achieve some direct experience.”

Like many in his generation, František Drtikol joined the Communist Party in 1945, and remained a member until his death in 1961. Some have found this hard to square with his Buddhist convictions. Jan Němec says he doesn’t have a definite explanation, either.

František Drtikol | Photo: ČT24
“That’s quite complicated. The apparent contradiction of being a communist and a Buddhist is very attractive from today’s point of view because we have historical perspective. Drtikol joined the party in 1945 just like many in his generation.

“It’s strange he remained there for the entire 1950s, and it would be interesting to see if he somehow revised his decision. But there are few indications that he did. He was quite ill by the late 1950s and was not really active in the party. I’d say he had different issues on his mind.”

One feature that makes the A History of Light stand out is its form, with the second person narrative creating the impression that both the protagonist and the reader are being addressed by the author. Němec says he likes experimenting with form.

“That was something that I worked my way through gradually. I wrote the beginning of the book in the traditional third-person narrative but it wasn’t convenient. Also, when I realized I was going to capture his life linearly, from his childhood to his old age, I was looking for ways to make the novel formally distinctive, and that was what happened.

“When I first tried it, I knew I was going to use it throughout the book because it seems to me it does reflect the situation – when you’re writing about someone real, the entire novel is a form of dialogue.

“It turns out in the novel that it is not me, the author, who addresses Drtikol, but that’s something else. But I like working with form and various formal games, and I’m glad I could try something less traditional.”

It took Jan Němec about a year to write the award-winning novel. He worked on it mostly in his refuge in Polička, a quiet town in eastern Bohemia. When I spoke to him, he was again staying in his apartment in the historic town – but says the attention surrounding his first novel makes it difficult for him to focus on new plans.

Magnesia Litera prize,  photo: archive of Magnesia Litera
“I’d like to start something new already but something is still going on with A History of Light and the book sort of holds on to me and in fact keeps me away from things I’d like to do now.

“So my sincere answer is that I’m not writing anything. I have some ideas but I haven’t had the time to start working on them.”