CZECHPOINT: New Czech Writing

Messages from the Margins
Alexandra Büchler
The past decade has ushered in two waves of Czech prose writing: in the first were authors who emerged around the time of the Velvet Revolution and who have, each in their own way, recorded the time of political, social and economic transition and reorientation in a world of collapsed and discredited values. Among them, Jáchym Topol, featured in Transcript 6 which was dedicated to Czech writing, is perhaps the best known writer of the latter generation whose early prose uncompromisingly delves into the detritus of social change, following the paths of petty criminals, down-and-outs, misfits and those left on the margins of society in the newly liberal capitals of Central Europe: Prague and Berlin. The breathless, frenzied narrative of his brilliant novel Sestra (1994) (City Sister Silver, Catbird Press, 2000), which has yet to find a wider English readership, or of the novellas Andel (Angel) and Výlet k nádrazní hale (Trip to the Train Station) are products of a perception of social chaos onto which it is impossible to impose order. In his later novels Nocní práce (2001) (Nightwork), and Koktat dehet (2005) (Gargling with Tar), Topol looks back at recent Czech history - the time of the Russian invasion in 1968 which crushed the short-lived Prague Spring - through the eyes of children. Sent from occupied Prague to a remote part of the country near the German-Polish border, the child-protagonist of Nocní práce and his little brother are outsiders in an unfamiliar social environment governed by suspicion and superstition, myth and folklore. The microcosm they try their best to survive in is peripheral to the distant events in Prague until the Russian forces arrive in a nightmarish final sequence of mass exodus reminiscent of so many previous catastrophes.

Emil Hakl belongs to the second wave which first started publishing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He became known with his short stories and novels set in Prague. His peripatetic, meandering narratives - his narrator rarely sits still and the novella O rodicích a detech (2000) (About Parents and Children) literally takes place during a walk around the city lasting several hours - have been likened to the writing of the master "palaverer" of modern Czech fiction Bohumil Hrabal. Mostly anchored in the here and now of the narrator's life, his stories and episodic, plotless novels give way to an expression of nostalgia for a time when, paradoxically, a restrictive regime offered its compensations in a form of freedom from material worries. Hakl's narrator, whose lack of gainful employment leaves him with time on his hands, is a consummate observer of the minutiae of daily life with its unique, unforgettable moments of sometimes raw and perplexing human encounters.

Petra Hulová belongs to the younger generation of Czech prose writers, mostly women, whose work is largely set outside their homeland, representing a "new internationalism". Hulová's first novel Pamee mojí babicce (2002) (In Memory of My Grandmother), which caused a stir on the literary scene, tells the story of three generations of Mongolian women, while her latest Cirkus Les mémoires (2005) (Circus Les Mémoires) is set in a multi-ethnic New York with a Czech woman and Arab man as protagonists, weaving together the stories of immigrants old and new. Though very dissimilar and each belonging to a different generation, the work of the three authors presented here reflects a world in a state of flux, unsettled and unsettling, always observed from the margins as if some centrifugal force of the city they inhabit drives them away from its centre, which is empty and devoid of authentic local life.

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