“Not until we’re totally crushed do we show what we are made of.”
For 35 years, Hrabal’s defiant narrator Haňtá has worked underground, recycling waste paper with his hydraulic press. He is not content, however, to simply crush bales for the paper mill, and instead crafts what he sees as works of art, homages to the written word. Haňtá also rescues books from the heaps he recycles, delivering them to friends or taking them home himself, where he sleeps beneath a canopy supporting two tons of them. His erudition comes from his job, which “has hurtled [him] headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence,” but it is formless knowledge kept in check by pitcher after pitcher of beer. Written in 1976, though published only in samizdat until 1989, this celebration of literature and condemnation of socialism’s repression of the arts and artists is a work that rewards revisiting. Hrabal was prolific, and more of his works are being translated into English every year, but if you have to choose one book by this giant of Czech literature, this is one to read.
“All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously.”
Immortality is the last novel Kundera wrote in his native Czech — he moved to France in 1975 and began writing in French with 1995’s Slowness. Standing as the archetypical Kundera novel, Immortality incorporates historical events, both real, like the chaste passion between Goethe and Bettina Brentano, and imagined, like the afterlife friendship of Goethe and Hemingway. It has a metafictional element, with the omniscient didactic author (Kundera himself) crafting the novel in real time and even interacting with its characters. And it has purely fictional narratives, here centered on Agnés and her relationships with her sister, husband, daughter, and lover, that bolster the themes and tie the many threads together. It is dense, at times nearly opaque, but within the thicket lie prescient discussions about topics that remain relevant today, including whether the artist should be judged apart from their art, the dangers of virtue signaling, the desire for approbation from society at large, and the difference between reality and ideology.
“And I was coming around to the thought that the gray, homogenized, carcinogenic hell on earth in which I was forced to live pretty much compelled any rational person to escape it.”
Set in the late 1980s, Pekárková’s debut is unsparring in its condemnation of a crumbling Czechoslovakian society that, unknown to her when she was writing, would utterly collapse for many of the reasons she describes. (The book was published in Czech in 1989.) Twenty-five-year-old Viola Jourová loves the freedom of hitchhiking. It eases her wanderlust, gets her to the countryside to photograph nature, and provides her with men to have sex with if she so desires. Her only true friend, Patrick, shoots photos too, and sleeps his way through the women and girls in the cookie cutter paneláks on the outskirts of Prague — until he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The “socialist fatherland” tells him they will selflessly provide him a wheelchair in five to 10 years, so Viola decides she will do whatever it takes to get him one faster. Pekárková frankly discusses sex and sex work, as well as female empowerment, the human damage to the environment, the destruction of the individual, and the essential human right to choose your own narrative.
“Our lives are books, covered with the handwriting of our joy, our grief, our successes and defeats. [...] But our books also conceal within them pages that are blacker than ink. […] Pages dark with the dried blood of suffering and impotence.”
Andronikova writes with palpable zeal, spinning out the sensuous as well as the heartbreaking in her magnificent debut. The novel is built around the love story between Rachel and Thomas — from their meeting in Zlín during the 1920s, through the extremes of India in the 1930s, to their separation in the hatred and violence of the Second World War. In December 1989, their son, Daniel, is on a family vacation in Colorado when he hears the innkeeper, Anna, speaking Czech. He strikes up a conversation, and it soon becomes clear that Anna knew Rachel when they were both prisoners in Theresienstadt and, later, Auschwitz. Anna helps Daniel finish his mother’s story, in a sweeping narrative that touches on not only the Holocaust, but colonial rule and the caste system in India, wartime betrayals and mercies in Czechoslovakia, spiritual myths and solemn rites, the ubiquity of death, the persistence of love, and much more. Andronikova died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 44, yet English-speaking fans can take small solace that her posthumous second novel, Heaven Has No Ground, is being translated.
“Prague reflects off the river. And so it is here twofold – reality and its reflection – while I can barely endure the one.”
Brabcová’s last novel, completed just before her death in 2015, is a hallucinatory mad dash through a city of homeless Czechs struggling to survive, and ballerina torsos whose legs have been incinerated from dancing on gas burners. Haunted by her brother’s suicide three decades earlier, Běta worries about her 88-year-old mother and her 24-year-old daughter, Alice, who lives with her boyfriend, Bob Dylan, in a shipping container in Costa del Sol. Běta is well read, frequently quoting Czech poets, but has been out of work for more than a year by the time Vaclav Havel dies at the outset of the novel. Her imaginings may stem from addiction or illness — she frequents the city’s waiting rooms for medical, psychiatric, and diagnostic procedures — or they may simply be a consequence of a society that, despite the money pouring in from the West, has left many of its citizens behind.
“We simply sowed, harvested, and drank a bit before dinner. No one tried to take what was ours. We had too little. We were invisible, and in this slower life we were our own gods.”
Kalfař, born in 1988, immigrated to the United States as a teen and writes in English, but his debut novel is all about his homeland. Jakub Procházka, orphaned at age 10, grows up in the freedom of the New West, but the complicated legacy of his Elvis-loving, Party-collaborator father still shapes his life. The 2018 mission to explore a newly formed dust cloud between Venus and Earth is a chance for Jakub to rid himself of his past, and for the Czech Republic to establish itself globally. Alone in space, Jakub has an alien encounter, muses on Czech history from Hus to Havel, and remembers falling in love with the woman he left behind on Earth. This is a cautionary tale about losing yourself — as a person or a country — while trying to change. Kalfař has a bright future, with a film version of Spaceman, starring Carey Mulligan and Adam Sandler, on the way, and his sophomore novel, A Brief History of Living Forever, due out in May 2022.
“This is how the history of the modern age is written: in human bodies the Movement leads to reason and a better life.”
Věra, the narrator of Hůlová’s disquieting third English-language novel, unquestionably believes in “the Movement” that has taken control of the Czech Republic and much of the rest of the world. Early on, she expressly dismisses comparisons with the totalitarian regimes that once reigned, but readers will increasingly question that dismissal. Like many before it, this “Movement” has laudable origins, aimed at ending the objectification of women and recognising that true beauty is on the inside. But what began as a desire to educate has become an imperative to indoctrinate. At the Institution where Věra works, male clients are brought, often drugged or kidnapped, to be transformed into sexually insensate drones, and separate facilities treat women, many involuntarily as well, who are addicted to old ideas like makeup, fashion, and plastic surgery. Hůlová wants her readers uncomfortable, and succeeds beautifully, distorting and exaggerating admirable aspirations, asking what we are willing to sacrifice for a better society, and wondering what the New World should look like.