Thursday, July 28, 2005

a conversation with jachym topol - part five

Q: Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Given your interest in both music and literature, if someone forced you to the countryside, but gave you a room to write for three months and you could have five books or five CDs, what would you take with you?

A: Five books.

Q: Do you know which ones?

A: Probably The Memoirs of Nabokov, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Warfare and Rights of Western Apaches, - I’ve got it at home but I haven’t had time to read it - some kind of Victorian pornography in English so I can better learn your language - I can’t imagine it in Czech or German - and Winnie the Pooh for my daughter.

Q: When you’re in the country, can you write during the day? I would guess that at least the first draft of each of these books, Sister and Angel, was written at night. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of daylight in either of them.

A: They aren’t daylight books.

Q: But you can write in the daylight now, right?

A: I’d love to get up early in the morning and try to start working when I’m fresh but I hate summer. I hate this weather. The birds singing and all.

Q: What I heard was, I would love to, which doesn’t mean that it’s happening.

A: Mostly not.

Q: Can we talk about the difference between the word tribe and the word gang as they’re used in Sister?

A: I’m studying this very thing right here, because we’re in the Department of Ethnology. In my view, a tribe is based on a kinship, that people have no free choice. But you can become a member of a gang if you want to. It’s a voluntary thing. I think that gangs were formed by people who were expelled by the tribe.

Q: In America, the word gang has criminal connotations.

A: It does here as well.

Q: But if we call the characters of Sister members of a tribe rather than a gang then it becomes more of a naturalistic work. The characters don’t have a choice. This is how they must act.

A: There’s still some freedom involved. The crucial thing for the protagonist of Sister is his relationships to and with other people. They’re sort of forming this sort of kinship in order to protect themselves. And there’s a parallel between the protagonist’s relationship with his mistress and his relationship with his sister. Both relationships are very, very strong. For Native Americans, the relationship between a sister and a brother was a sacred thing. They believed that the kinship of siblings could change the weather, for example. That comes from the ancient cosmic myth that the sun and the moon are a brother and a sister. I’m spending some time studying what kinship is here in the Ethnology Department, but I’m a bad student so what’s in the books is my sort of dreams of what kinship should be. I am not a scientist. It’s a matter of feeling or intuition.

Q: I want to ask you about Czech literature.

A: But then I will start to cry.

Q: There seems to be a fairly clear line separating the generations, at least from the America perspective. You’ve got Klima, Skvorecky, Lustig, Kundera and then you have the younger writers. When I interviewed Lustig he talked about how it is time for the older generation to leave the stage.

A: That’s an absolutely absurd notion to me, given the fact that each writer is an individual.

Q: So you don’t see any kind of tradition that’s been formed recently with this group of writers. Surely Czech prose is much more visible now than before World War II.

A: There are some names like Jaroslav Hasek or Karel Capek. I think they were famous writers. Capek was almost awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Good Soldier Svejk is certainly well-known. Maybe it’s not a line of tradition but they certainly were important.

Q: I don’t mean to diminish the contributions of those two writers but Czech fiction has certainly become more visible the last thirty years.

A: I think it’s because of politics. Being politically persecuted was fashionable and drew the attention.

Q: Sure. Lustig’s writings are going to draw a certain audience, simply because of the subject matter, whether he is Czech, German or Russian.

A: Yes, yes. The specific thing is that there was no generation gap between my generation and the older generation of writers. We all fought together against the Russians. To me, the older guys, like Skvorecky and Kundera, were like the grandfathers of the tribe. They were like my teachers. Maybe I don’t like some of their books but I still take into account that Lustig and Klima were in concentration camps. The history of my own nation is dearer to me than the literature because the nation itself was doomed to extinction.

Q: But what about the Czech tradition? There are stark differences in subject matter and tone between your work and, say, Klima’s or Kundera’s, but were any of those authors, or any of their works, influences?

A: No. It’s interesting that I was always more interested in the writers before them, the writers of the fifties, because the tradition of the literary underground started then. I was very much influenced by the group of Kolar, Hrabal and Bondy. Hrabal died last year, Bondy is now in exile in Slovakia, which is very funny, and Kolar still lives in Paris. He must be seventy or eighty.

Q: Among those three, I’m most familiar with Hrabal.

A: Yes, it’s probably because the other two weren’t involved in the political game somehow. They are very important even for people who are younger than me, for poets twenty or twenty-five. They must know Kolar. They must know Bondy. I have never felt any kind of animosity towards the older generation because we were all fighters. I think there’s going to be a gap between me and the younger ones one day, especially if they keep sending me their shitty work. I’m not particularly interested in the existence of national literatures like Czech literature or Polish literature. It’s not a big deal to me. If there is something specific about Czech literature, then it’s some kind of ironic and sarcastic humor which I haven’t found anywhere else.


a conversation with jachym topol - part one
a conversation with jachym topol - part two
a conversation with jachym topol - part three
a conversation with jachym topol - part four

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