Grave Matters

12-04-2009

This week Czech Books is looking at the novel Mrchopěvci, or Gravelarks, the first novel by the hugely accomplished polymath and polyglot author Václav Pinkava, who wrote - amongst others - under the pen name Jan Křesadlo. Pinkava was born in Prague in 1926 and emigrated to Britain in 1969 where he worked as a clinical psychologist in Colchester. Gravelarks was his first novel, written during his early retirement; it was hailed by author Josef Škvorecký as "one of the most original, shocking, truthful works of contemporary Czech fiction" and was awarded the prestigious Egon Hostovský prize. I met, in a rather lively café, with Michael Tate, who is in Prague researching into the works of Pinkava and other writers of his generation, and first asked him to say something about the whole creative work of a man who truly deserves the often over-used epithet 'Renaissance Man'.

“Broadly, he wrote novels, he wrote poetry, he composed music, he wrote some very very interesting short stories, most of which are available in translation. He was also an artist and a major scientist – he wrote something like two hundred articles on the subject of his profession, which was psychology, abnormal psychology.”

He was also an incredible linguist and a wonderful translator.

“Yes, let’s list some of his languages. So, at school he learnt English, German, French, Latin and Greek. Whilst he was in the army he was posted in a regiment with a lot of Romany gypsies, and, being Václav Pinkava, he learnt the Roma language and from that he got interested in Sanskrit and I’m absolutely sure I’ve missed a few languages out. Distilling that down, he’s famous for translating some of the poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, that was published, I think, in the 70s in the UK, i.e. published in English.”

He started to write late on in his life.

“Well, creatively yes, though there’s a lot of evidence that he started to write creatively before the first novel. But the first novel was written as part of a bet. One of his patients, who regarded himself as a professional poet, challenged his doctor to write a novel. He wrote it in a month and sent it off to Josef Škvorecký, who liked it, though he didn’t like the ending, and one of the many fascinating things about this book is that the ending was originally very dark; Škvorecký wrote to Pinkava and he ended up winning, but in a very interesting way. I’m not going to spoil the ending for anyone who wants to read it.”

And Josef Škvorecký wrote about this book that it was one of the “most original, shocking, truthful and artistically very interesting works of contemporary Czech fiction”. Could you briefly describe the very unusual plot?

“It’s not a particularly unusual plot – it has good guys and bad guys. I suppose what’s unusual for Czech literature in particular, because there’s no other plot like this, it’s set in a graveyard, and I’ve checked, and there are no other novels set in graveyards in Czech literature. The good guys are a group of singers, who sing at funerals, there is the general “bad guy”, which is the situation, and that situation is represented by the very very very bad guy who blackmails one of the funereal singers to do unspeakable acts inside mausolea inside this graveyard.”

It’s set in 1950s Prague, though Prague is never named; it is really about the oppression of the Stalinist era.

“It’s a satire. It’s a satire on post-Stalin 1950s Czechoslovakia, it satirises Stalinists, it satirises Czechoslovak society, it also satirises some dissidents, it also satirises Marx. It’s a very funny satire on the final bit of the first part of the Communist Party Manifesto, which I can quote to you. Right at the end of the first section, Marx and Engels state; “The development of large-scale industry pulls from under the feet of the bourgeoisie the very foundations on which they produce goods and appropriate them. Above all, it produces its own gravediggers, its downfall and the victory of the proletariat are equally unavoidable”. I think that’s hilarious. So the novel is about grave-singers, so there are a number of subversions here. So, you’re not talking about gravediggers, though they do appear in the novel, but grave-singers, or funereal singers, and these singers are victims of the wonderful Marxist utopia, if you want to put it that way, but they’re singing over the decay of Stalinism and Czech society in the 1950s and I think that’s absolutely wonderful.”

In fact the graveyard is seen as some kind of space for “internal emigration”. I’ll just read a short extract to illustrate this.

* * *

The ‘interment industry’, for some reason overlooked by the revolutionary Humiliators of Space-time, offered a kind of dreamy, melancholic asylum. Large city cemeteries are in general pleasant, becalming institutions. Compared to ordinary parks they have the advantage that most people don’t go there just for a stroll with their families, you’re not allowed to holler, play football, or ride a push scooter. Dogs, where we come from in central Europe, are traditionally excluded also. You’ll find there beautiful old and wise trees, somehow calmer and more dignified than those in normal parks, they aren’t surrounded by ice cream men or peanut sellers. Undisturbed, birds and small animals live there in an incredible variety of species. One can go for long walks there, without meeting unnecessarily many people. Into the more remote corners feet don’t stray for long hours or even days at a stretch. Numerous works of stone-masonry offer to educate in many respects, and the subtle melancholy of impermanence breathes forth from the inscriptions. Posters won’t be found here exhorting one to “vigilance and alertness” and for the fulfilment of the Five-year Plan. … Similarly, it is difficult to fight for “more and better” funerals.”

* * *

“It describes the period after Stalin died, and I’m paraphrasing from the beginning of the book, Stalin’s died, but the people of Czechoslovakia are still in love with the monster that he created. And the monster is personified in the novel by this secret policeman, who is very, very nasty indeed.”

And this secret policeman you’ve just mentioned, he blackmails the main character in the book into a sexually compromising situation. It’s not only in this work that sexuality, particularly deviant sexuality, features.

“Indeed. I think that this is a very important theme within Pinkava’s work generally. It’s a characteristic of emigré writing that sex features, and an obvious comparison is Kundera. But I think that there are two things that make Jan Křesadlo’s work different from Kundera and that generation. And the first thing is that Jan Křesadlo, or Dr. Pinkava, was a full-on, no-nonsense psychologist who specialised in sexual deviancy. So, when he described these acts it was correct in its scientific detail, including the psychology surrounding the acts. And the second is that there is a huge moral dimension to it in that he’s using deviant sex as a metaphor to describe two sections of society within Czechoslovakia as it was. So there are the people being ‘screwed’, if I can say that at this hour, the general population, and there are those doing the screwing, which is the people in the party, or the elites, or however you want to describe them, including the secret police.

The follow-up to this book, which was written as an angry reaction to his critics who described him as a pornographer, was a traditional thriller with tons of sex, but the sex is in Glagolitic text, and there is a helpful glossary of Glagolitic to Czech at the front of the book, so if you want to read the sex you can read it in Glagolitic. It’s actually modern Czech but the characters, instead of Roman are Glagolitic, and I think that’s wonderful.”

This is his only novel so far that’s been translated into English. But fortunately, one of his four very talented children has set up a wonderful website where other available translations can be found. The website address is www.kresadlo.cz.

The English translation of GraveLarks is something of a family affair because the illustrations were done by his son, Jan Pinkava, an Oscar-winning film animator.

“Yes, Jan did the illustrations. He won the Oscar for best-animated short in 1997, for Geri’s Game. And just for people who don’t know it, the character Geri appeared in Toy Story 2 as the restorer of the cowboy character, Woody – a bit of trivia for your listeners.”

Do you think it’s time more people knew about Jan Křesadlo’s work? He was placed, in his obituary in the Independent newspaper, somewhere between Hašek and Kafka so clearly a writer of some importance, and yet so far only one novel has been translated into English.

“Absolutely; very definitely more work needs to be translated, and is being translated. You quoted the website – six of his short stories are on the site in English translation – and very good translations, and also extracts from some of the novels.“

Thank you very much for talking about this exceptionally interesting, multi-talented, “Renaissance Man” and writer, and good luck with your research into his work.

“Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure.”

Website about the many works of Václav Pinkava/Jan Křesadlo – www.kresadlo.cz

12-04-2009