Two Czech-American novelists grapple with the drama of the wartime occupation

15-02-2009

In today’s programme we look at two novels, both published within the last two years by American writers with Czech roots. Both have chosen the same series of wartime events as their starting point. They look back to 1942, when a group of Czech patriots was parachuted from London to assassinate the brutal Nazi chief in occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, an event that triggered cruel retributions and the cold-blooded destruction of the entire village of Lidice.

In very different ways, the novelists, Mark Slouka and Joseph Hurka, have both tried to bridge the historical gap between wartime Central Europe and the present day in North America. They deal with the importance of remembering the past in order to understand the present. As Mark Slouka puts it, in his novel ‘The Visible World’:

* * *

It is up to us, the living, to supply a shape where none exists, to rescue from the flood even those we never knew. Like beggars, we must patch the universe as best we can.

* * *

A few days ago I spoke to Mark on a phone line to his home in New York.

Mark Slouka: “By nature I’m someone who tries to salvage from the wreckage of history. I want to salvage something. And that’s where the stories come in. At its worst that can lead to a certain kind of sentimentality, which is something I try to guard against as much as possible, but to my mind, fiction is how we endure, the stories we tell are how we make sense – or try to make sense – of things that are often inexplicable: the stories I know, the stories I inherited.”

Mark Slouka’s novel is at one level a love story, which, as he puts it, leaves “blood on the floor and wreckage in its wake.” But it is trying to do a great deal more than that. It tells a story of heroism and resistance at the time of the Heydrich assassination, as pieced together by a second generation Czech-American, who is trying to make sense of his parents’ lives and understand why there seems to be a shadow over their past.

* * *

I was born, three years later, into a world that felt just slightly haunted, like the faint echo of an earlier one. We were living in New York then. At night, high in our apartment in Queens, my mother would curl herself against my back and I would smell her perfume, her hair, the deep, cave-like warmth of her, and she would hum some Czech song or other until I pretended to be asleep.

* * *

Like his narrator Mark Slouka was born into a Czech family in New York, which is where he lives now.

Mark Slouka: “Growing up in New York was an odd childhood, because in some sense I think I felt that New York was a suburb of Prague. All our friends were Czech, my first language was Czech, so in a sense my present was always being colored and shaped by the ‘old world’ - as they say - by the historical past, by the stories that my parents and my parents’ friends told. So this is very much an act of reconstruction for me, but a very peculiar kind, because I’m reconstructing something which is actually my own creation, which I’m trying to shape in some way that might be believable but wasn’t literally true. It was cobbled together out of bits of truth. I have this notion that basically the past belongs to fiction. I mean, if you told me a story of what you did this morning in Prague, you’d be telling a story. It wouldn’t be false, it would just be shaped.”

In ‘The Visible World’ the narrator’s mother is haunted by the memory of a man she had loved during the war, and in the course of the book the narrator tries to unravel the story as it was played out all those years before. This is where the fiction interacts with real historical events. The mother’s wartime lover, Tomáš Bém, is a fictional eighth member of the team that plans and carries out the Heydrich assassination, an act of almost suicidal courage that still stands out as one of the defining moments of Czech 20th century history.

* * *

…every now and again, against all the rules of human behavior, it occurred: an act of heroism planned in advance, undertaken for the right reasons, and carried out with the full knowledge, one might even say tragic knowledge, of the risks involved.

* * *

While the other members of the team are eventually cornered and make a last stand against the Gestapo in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague, Slouka’s fictional hero survives. He is saved by his love for the narrator’s mother, because he happens to leave the crypt in order to see her shortly before the Gestapo surrounds the building. In the end, he is unable to live with the knowledge of being the sole survivor. He disappears, leaving her a note:

* * *

….Please don’t look for me – I didn’t have the strength to say goodbye. I love you will always love you. Forgive me.

And my mother refolded the note and put it back under the salt shaker, and began the rest of her life.

* * *

Mark Slouka: “There are different ways of borrowing from history. It can be done more or less cheaply, more or less legitimately. You can make it into a carnival, dress it up and make it dance around or you can try to get at two things – at one thing by using another. In other words I was also interested by what is the legacy of love lost, because for some people the loss of love is survivable and for others it really isn’t. They become these walking wounds for the rest of their life.”

I was intrigued by several common threads between Mark Slouka’s ‘The Visible World’, and Joseph Hurka’s novel ‘Before’ also published in 2007. Just as Mark Slouka adds a fictional character to the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Joseph Hurka creates a young boy, Jiří Posselt, who witnesses and survives the massacre at Lidice a few days after the Heydrich assassination. Joseph Hurka, who like Mark Slouka grew up with a vivid awareness of his Czech roots, also tells the story with hindsight, setting it in the context of contemporary New England. On the phone from his home in New Hampshire, he told me more:

Joseph Hurka: “Odd things were happening with me and my memory as I was doing this, because I often felt in the sections where I was writing about Lidice that I was living there. I felt that I was a part of it. Even though what I have is a somewhat fictionalized version of the story, I felt as if I could see the grass and could see the church and I could see the houses. I became so much a part of it that I felt I was living in it. And of course, as a novelist, I was using my memory of being in Czechoslovakia and seeing the countryside there.”

In Joseph Hurka’s novel, the main character, Jiří, is recovering from a stroke. In his mind past and present become confused and at points in the novel traumatic memories leap back to the present, uncontrolled and frightening:

* * *

During the brain hemorrhage last June Jiří had seen the walls of Lidice on fire and he was looking around for Helena. He was shouting, terrified. They were only the black walls on fire: no houses, no people left. He could not remember where he was. He could remember Anna’s name, for she was there, suddenly, alarmed, leaning over him, but he was not sure if he was in Massachusetts or Seattle, or perhaps Prague.

* * *

As part of his therapy, Jiří tries to write down his memories, and he begins to formulate why he is doing so. To forget the crimes of the past is to grant the criminals a victory and to acknowledge the totalitarian version of history:

* * *

They were determined to destroy any memory we had, you see? To put their vicious stamp on everything they touched. That is what such people do: They wipe out your memory; they replace it with their own. They want you to believe that your own history never existed, to loosen your moorings so that they can control you.

* * *

Joseph Hurka: “When someone has been controlled, when they’ve been told what to eat and how to dress and how to think, they begin to lose their identity and they really don’t have anything to fight with. And I think this is the bottom line to these kinds of situations. As my character in the book, Jiří, at one point writes to his family, even if all they leave you with is wind, sky and grass, if that’s all you have, you still have your memory and you have to fight to remember. You have to fight to get that memory back, and I think that’s the essential ingredient that keeps the species moving on.”

As a novel, Joseph Hurka’s ‘Before’ is more overt than ‘The Visible World’ in its attempt to point to the contemporary relevance of the events of World War II. Hurka sets the novel on September 10 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Joseph Hurka: “When I was in New York City not long after 9/11, I was at the site of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero. It was just a few months after it happened. What actually occurred to me walking through that area was that there were many walls that were covered with tributes and pictures of people who were still missing and relatives were hoping that they would still show up alive, which of course there wasn’t any chance of. It reminded me of the many train stations my father had told me about after the war, which were full of pictures of people who were missing. So these two things began to merge in my head as examples in human history of times when the totalitarian mind was most at work. It seemed to me that there was a very close parallel between the two of them.”

And there is another contemporary thread to Joseph Hurka’s novel. Settled in a comfortable neighbourhood in Cambridge Massachusetts, Jiří and his wife Anna have a young friend and neighbour, Tika LaFond, who often comes to visit them. But Tika becomes the victim of a stalker, called Ghost Man, a man who – almost like a negative mirror image of Jiří - is haunted by his own past. In the dramatic culmination of the novel, it is Jiří who ends up rescuing Tika from this terrifying, shadowy figure. Here is a brief extract from that dramatic scene:

* * *

Jiří has his arms fixed around the waist. There are blows to his head, as if a board is being swung at him repeatedly. He shuts his eyes, hunches his shoulders, squeezes into bone; it is like holding a desperate, wild spider. Just hang on, goddamnit, he tells himself, just don’t bloody let him go.

There is a guttural scream from the man above, a hard cracking behind Jiří’s ear.

They are at the edge of the stairs. Then they are falling.

* * *

I’ll leave it there, so as not to spoil the story. Here are some details about both novels that I’ve been talking about today. Firstly Joseph Hurka’s ‘Before’ is published by Thomas Dunne Books, New York. Mark Slouka’s ‘The Visible World’ is published by Houghton Mifflin Company in the United States and by Portobello Books in the United Kingdom.

15-02-2009