As part of our ‘Authors and Writers’ interview series presented by Slovenian translator Tatjana Jamnik, Czech writer Radka Denemarková speaks about her work, her relationship with demanding literature, reading and readers, human rights and spiritual poverty.
Radka Denemarková is a four-time winner of the prestigious, Czech Magnesia Litera national prize, and many other domestic and international awards. Her works have been translated into more than 20 languages.
The discussion was supported by the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Ljubljana.
This series of discussions between authors and their translators was developed by KUD Police Dubove in cooperation with Društvo humanistov Goriške within the purview of the ‘Migrations in Reality’ project and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.
Series: Authors & Translators
Online discussion: Radka Denemarková (Czech Republic) & Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia)
Premiere: 17th December, 2020 | Book Festival Under Christmas Trees, Nova Gorica, Slovenia
Video with English, Czech and Slovenian subtitles
“Humanism means that one is not indifferent to how one lives and, above all, how others live”
Tatjana Jamnik (TJ): Ladies and gentlemen, dear viewers and listeners, our guest today is Radka Denemarková, Czech writer, playwright, literary scholar, screenwriter, literary translator and playwright. She is the only Czech author to have been awarded the prestigious Magnesia Litera prize four times, once each for prose, journalism book, translation, Atemschaukel by Herta Müller, and most recently Book of the Year 2019 for her novel Hours of Lead. She has also been nominated for and won other prestigious awards in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Radka Denemarková’s books are translated into twenty-three languages, including Slovenian.
My name is Tatjana Jamnik and I have translated four novels by Radka Denemarková and am currently translating her play Sleeping Disorders.
Real literature is deeply connected to life
Radka, what I like most about your writing is that it is closely connected to real life and the problems addressed contemporary. How do you choose the topics you write about given that you always combine multiple topics at different levels?
Radka Denemarková (RD): Thank you for the question. Once again, it has been confirmed that if I am interviewed by smart people, I do not need to know the questions in advance. Conversations are meant to be spontaneous and to make one think here and now.
For me, literature is closely connected to real life and I cannot break this connection. I think it is true that authors who live literature do not need to write memoirs and biographies because their lives are embedded in their writing; accordingly, there is an imprint of myself at particular times in my life in my work.
I don’t choose topics, topics choose me. I often plan to work on topics that interest me, but life immediately arranges things differently and assigns me another topic related to current events. The times we live in are similarly allocated to us: we do not choose the times we live in.
Mapping the diseases of one’s time
RD: What I have always liked about the authors I love, regardless of what they write about, is the imprint of how they live, what they worry about and how they map out the diseases of their time. Humanism, a word and concept I love, means that one is not indifferent to how one lives and, above all, how others live. Literature captures the essence of problems, personally and socially.
It is best to be specific and not generalize; for example, I have often entered societies that revealed certain problems to me in new ways, as recently occurred in China, or found myself uncertain and doubting myself when rethinking certain things. For example, when my father died, I surprisingly wrote the black comedy Sleeping Disorders, and, for the first time, thought about how he raised me and treated other women; and why our sex, male or female, matters so much, why being born in the skin of a woman or a man has a significance at all, and why there is still no equality.
I once spent eight years writing one of my novels [Death, Thou Shall Not Be Afraid] in very borderline circumstances. Before I went freelance in 2004, I worked at the Divadlo Na zábradlí Theatre, where an unfortunate event transpired. Petr Lébl, a very talented theatre director with bipolar disorder committed suicide in 1999 and saddled tasks on a lot of people in his will. He wanted me to, among other things, write a book about him, which, of course, weighed heavily on me, as I would never have chosen him as a subject voluntarily, but did so by writing a universal story of a very talented artist, showing what it means to live with such an illness and what it means to live at a certain time with such talent.
Real literature is, indeed, deeply connected to life and this is why it never works as a product. Literature written to escape ennui or to see one’s name on the cover of a book does not work; literature is not a hobby; of course, if people want to write for such reasons, let them do so, but it will not be real literature.
Each topic deserves a different language
RD: Besides, it is not just about topics. For me, each topic deserves a different language; this is challenging, but more enjoyable; it is riskier; and it is hard work.
To be specific, my novel Money from Hitler throws a gauntlet at the arrogant patriarchal views endemic in higher education, which argue that to make difficult and challenging historical topics work, we have to process them objectively. I processed historical topics in Money from Hitler suggestively and emotionally, and this approach is successful because it gets under readers’ skins.
In A Contribution to the History of Joy, I invented a language of swallows, combining essayism, prose and poetry. When writing Hours of Lead, I was greatly influenced by Chinese poetry, particularly Confucius. I needed to process my fundamental topics, very brutal at first glance, through a language that enables the possibility of several interpretations in a similar fashion to Chinese philosophy, wherein each question has several answers, each answer raises many more questions, with none being correct.
To sum it up, I’m always a little afraid of what’s going on in my life. Of course, one attracts different people and experiences different situations. And openness is important for those of us who write literature; I don’t fully believe in the utility of ivory towers where authors lock themselves away, this only works to a certain extent.
Literature can give a voice to people who do not have a voice
TJ: You are currently in a writer in residence in Switzerland. This must afford an escape from your everyday duties at home, meaning you can solely work on your two books there.
In one interview, you said you always stand up for the victim, no matter who the victim is, and that victimization is a 20th century theme; and further discuss the issue of victims and perpetrators in Money from Hitler. It seems to me that we see this on an everyday basis, for example, on the one hand, we have the rich few, on the other, the many poor living on a dollar a day.
RD: I would like to briefly return to the word victim, as it is a little misleading. For me, my protagonists are not merely victims, they are the drivers. People who find themselves in unfavourable circumstances are not victims, they are heroes. It constantly surprises me how few people with no major problems in their lives, of course, everyone is focused on themselves, have a deep empathy for the problems of others. If they did, it would solve half of the world’s the problems.
It is best to understand how people find themselves in difficult situations and on the fringes of society through no fault of their own. For example, not everyone is born into families that support them, and the like.
Literature can give a voice to people, individuals and groups, who do not have a voice. And this engagement does not mean that work created in such a manner is not high-quality literature, or that it doesn’t show the world in its entirety, for example, with its black humour, humour, irony, parody, and the like. Life is layered.
The first step is to name the problem
But we must not forget that all of these problems come from somewhere and that the world actually wants to be deceived. Political science’s institutes and experts are not able to cope with this, and I am allergic to experts unable to tell what is happening and always surprised when something does, while evaluating those who have somehow failed in an elitist fashion.
It is important for me to show people in situations where they do not know their way around, as this is true for all of us because life is rarely rational.
My first books are about the space in which I was born, that is, the Czech Republic and Central and Eastern Europe. Why is so much taboo here? Why are there so many problems we don’t want to face? It’s the same with families. If problems are not addressed, if they are swept under the rug, if they are displaced, every problem, individual, familial and societal, will simmer from generation to generation and bring more problems. The first step is to name the problem because only in this way can society recover.
Human rights for all
In the next phase of my life, after my work first proved successful abroad, I began to travel a lot and explore the world. The world has so many forms, so many colours! Unfortunately, everyone, including us in Europe, is locked in their national pens and only solve their own country’s problems. But we are connected. Each of us is part of human kind.
My novel A Contribution to the History of Joy is about sexualized violence and addresses the issue of human connection I just mentioned. I find it absolutely monstrous that the mere act of being born a woman universally and constantly resigns people born with vaginas to being second-class citizens with a limited number of roles. Even if we manage to move a little bit towards equality, a time like today will come, when equality becomes unpalatable to patriarchal politicians and we are one step back again.
I have a need to show where this came from throughout the centuries, why it has been so difficult to eradicate, and what it all means. Women, not only men, reinforce this kind of slavery here. Many people do not know what feminism is. I do not use this word, because it confuses people. Instead, I am talking about human rights for all. And no one can raise objections to that, can they?
Economic pragmatism affects the human soul
RD: In Hours of Lead, I elaborated on my experience in Asia, in China, a modern totalitarian state, a brutal police state, the worst of capitalism and the worst of communism embrace in China. We should be scared. It is a warning. We can see how does it affect the human soul, families, different people.
How extremely dangerous it is that there is a small group of people who are ultra-rich, not knowing what to do with their money, while hundreds of millions starve to death. It doesn’t matter how people get rich, even if they should be in prison for how they did so, society doesn’t care, it merely admires the state of being rich; society is reduced to this, and a new form of poverty has emerged, namely absolute spiritual poverty. Idiocy, stupidity and ignorance are no longer seen as problems, see how they succeeded in Trump’s USA.
And, of course, there is the danger inherent in social media, its wasteful misinformation and how easily and quickly people are brainwashed. Danger lurks all around us.
Kobolds and populists
RD: For me, literature shows us and warns us about where society is heading. I started writing Hours of Lead in 2013 as a warning about the Chinese model, which constitutes a danger for the rest of the world. And I watch in horror as it constantly, negatively, speedily and even more brutally is so.
Similarly, I warned against kobolds [in the novel Kobold], people with high IQs and zero emotional intelligence, who quickly and easily manipulate others. They lie easily; for them, truths and lies are the same. And suddenly, a wave of populists came to power. So, I’m a little afraid to write, because it might come true.
For example, in 2010, I used Ivana Trump, Donald Trump’s first wife, as a model character representing the danger of a certain way of thinking without realizing at the time that this family would co-determine the system we live in.
Victims in everyday life
RD: I often anticipate what’s about to transpire, society’s mood, catch it and shed light on it. Unfortunately, reality turns out to be far more dangerous than I predict in my novels.
There are different types of victim. I want to make space for everyone. For example, when the Holocaust is mentioned, it is clear who the victim is. Nevertheless, many types of victim are found in everyday life but not so keenly seen. Indeed, there are sensitive people who do not want to cheat and lie. There are those who are well-educated, well-read and introvert. And there are extroverts not afraid to shout. There is an apt saying in Czech, “An empty drum makes the most noise.” This means that people who have nothing to say, shout the most. And it is they who come to power, and intimidate and paralyze others. People who are sensitive and educated, those aware of values and context, are the ones I have to protect the most at this moment in time. And literature can do that.
Literature is more than mere product
TJ: As you mentioned Ivana Trump, a character from Sleeping Disorders, let me elucidate that this is a play with three characters, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ivana Trump, performed at the Divadlo Na zábradlí Theatre, Prague.
Regarding your statement that literature is more than mere product, it being much more than a commercial function, I would say that the character Ivana Trump in Sleeping Disorders represents everything that literature is not and what discourages people from reading.
So, my last questions. Can you tell us why we should read? Why should we continue to read artistic literature? There is a big difference between artistic and commercial literature. Why is high literature more than just a product to be compared to any other kind of entertainment, including literary entertainment?
Why we should read?
RD: Thanks for the questions. Nobody has asked me these before.
I don’t trust people who don’t read. Those who read demanding prose and poetry are not afraid to be alone with themselves. Reading develops imagination, and if one has a developed imagination, one can imagine alternative worlds and all of life’s possibility.
At the same time, reading develops empathy towards others, towards inner lives, towards the fact that one shouldn’t believe rumours, slander, the first impression; everything is far more complicated. It teaches respect for the life of the Other, no matter what society one is born in, whether one is rich, poor, black, white, one’s sexual orientation. We are all human, connected and similar. People who don’t read are spiritually and mentally stunted. People who do not read are the dangerous fascists in everyday life.
Another thing contributes to this. If someone reads, they are with themselves only, immersed in their own world, and this reading changes, transforms, and enriches them. Whoever reads, thinks. And those who think are not so easily manipulated and influenced. Readers are solid, they stand erect. They know they are not alone.
Perennial friendship with authors and their books
There is one fundamental friendship that can never be destroyed and that is our perennial friendship with great authors and their work. I make no distinction between historic and contemporary literature. It is the friendship that is valuable. It does, of course, entail a great deal of work when engaging with challenging novels, but reading such novels endows us for the rest of our lives, and this is an irreplaceable gift.
TJ: Thank you for your answer and for the discussion. I wish you a wonderful stay in Switzerland.
RD: Thank you for the invitation. And I wanted to say one more thing.
I would like to emphasize that it is not only important that books are written, it is equally important they find people who understand them. And the first person to understand books are good-quality translators. Translation is not just about knowing the language, it’s about personality, education and culture, being well-read. I was happy and lucky to meet Tatjana Jamnik from Slovenia, who interviewed me today. She is a gift.
Literature increasingly engenders friendships, and we create this parallel world to counter the brutal, simplistic economic pragmatism that is ubiquitous.
TJ: Yes, I agree. Literature is a safe place, it is a space of security. Radka, I’m also very happy to know you. Thank you.
Translated by Tatjana Jamnik
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