A stroll round the edge of the postmodern city

This week Czech Books met with a relatively new, but highly praised writer of prose and poetry, Josef Straka. The way in which Straka describes his experience of modern life, particularly city life, could be considered to be very postmodern in its fascination with the peripheral and the fragmentary. Originally from Jablonec nad Nisou in the north he is now based in Prague, though likes nothing better than to make long walks around the margins of other European cities, seeking out fragments of real life, what he calls ‘small miracles’, and living a life of ‘voluntary simplicity’ in a complex global world. I met with him in the hidden-away, and given his passion for long walks, aptly named Café Marathon.

It’s very appropriate that we’re meeting here in a café in Prague because you describe yourself as a lover of cafes and you claim to live in them more than you actually live in your own flat.

“For me it’s the feeling of home, to observe life, to hear people talking and it is the fulfilling of the private in the public because I’m alone but among people and just to me to spend three or four hours in my favourite cafes, U sv. Vojtěcha for example, to observe life and think about themes - it’s the same to find cafes in other cities, in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and there is just the one table in the café and it’s important for me to find this table after years and spend the evening there and think about texts, about life. On the edge of the cities, on the peripheries, the sub-peripheries, is the place where I can imagine about the text of the day, the mood I have in my mind. I like people on the streets, I’m not interested in a closed flat, for me the streets opening, the view from the cafes is the feeling of home rather than to be in that one room.”

Torpid Rooms 3

Silence expressed by colours or music
almost invisible, almost inaudible
painfully passing through town
as if some streets would never again
find any kind of shape
as if everything that had ever existed were out of joint
several hours later I’m sitting in an empty kitchen
the day is nearing its end
inclining towards the irrelevant
darkness surges through the window
it will swallow me whole in the end
only a white fridge, long unused,
gives light to the room
again that odd humming in the pipes
and unidentified sounds in the hallway
a slight cracking of linoleum
and downstairs by the entrance
a dog barking

You’re something of a “flâneur” in that you experience the city by walking through it and feel more at home walking through a city than you do in your own room at home.

“Yes, just to be a flaneur in the city I feel something like at home; to go to the end of town. I remember for many many years an unrepeatable moment in my life; the weather and the colours and the shape of the light is extraordinary, it’s only just for one day, just a small miracle for me. It won’t be the same when I return, it’s not the same. Only just the one day when I could walk around the city; it’s just like a gift.”

You have published four books and a collection of poetry. I’d like to turn to your last book, the title of which translates as The Church in the Mist. I’d like to ask you about the title first, I think it relates to your home town of Jablonec in the north of Bohemia.

“Yes, there is the visual image of the town of Jablonec nad Nisou, on the top of the hill there is the new Catholic church and from the school window I observed the church for four years every day. For me it’s very important, like a ‘house of hope’. It’s maybe similar to my favourite album of The Cure, Faith, just the praying for tomorrow, the praying for something else."

The poems in this collection are very good at capturing the greyness, the stillness, the depressing quality of life in the 80s and beyond that you’re returning to but there’s a hope in this, as you’ve just said.

“Yes, the church is for me the symbol of praying, of wishful thinking. But I also want to reflect the town in the texts, not just in The Church in the Mist, but in the previous books.”

The Church in JablonecThe Church in Jablonec Jablonec was known in the 30s as the ‘small Paris of the north’.

“Jablonec was very famous for jewelry, the glass industry, for its middle-class lifestyle or dignity. But after the communist break, the communists wanted people to forget the tradition of the town and the specific mood of the combination of the German and Czech. And after the Second World War the communists wanted people not to remember the best times of the 20s or 30s and the streets were cut – three or four houses in the specific Sudeten secessionist style next to panel houses. I think maybe it’s my fragmentary feeling but I think that Jablonec is a very fragmentary city - and absolutely missing cafes and café culture, symbolic of Jablonec of the 20s and 30s. And still now in Jablonec normal cafes don’t exist and in the 20s and 30s on every corner there was a great café. I think the communists did the best job to absolutely destroy café culture in Jablonec for many many years and for me the café is a part of home and part of thinking about life. Jablonec is now another city than it was twenty years ago, but the café culture is still absolutely missing, it’s not the Paris or Berlin of these days. I think that with the café culture some of the ‘noblesse’ some of the charm is missing in Czech society generally. The café culture had the character of the elegance of the place and the people.”

I’ll now read part of one of the poems from your collection, which reflects the stillness, the greyness, the existential tone which is characteristic of your work.

the grey colour of the years succeeding your childhood
is spreading inside you
until it creates a strange substance
similar to fog
that mildly smells of the oil with which you
once lubricated the rotary parts
of machines
once again you can see yourself standing by them
in blue overalls
it was an insignificant time just like the motions
that did not belong to you
the words would absent-mindedly come out of your mouth
but it seemed that this immobility had reached
the steps of others, too
when you walked with a pack of dirty laundry through the whole town
there was no place to take a turn, no place to walk
but that one street with the old ramshackle
secessionist houses
absorbing you like some bottomless mouth
you would peek into small factories, into some
outfits with only a handful of employees
into untidy yards
which were smeared like you
several hours ago
you would observe them for a moment – how they rolled
thick steel wires into strange bundles
as you climbed higher and higher people would grow scarcer
as well as cars
a most ordinary morning, and though
you could not see the end of it, this day de facto
was over for you
at home you shook the rust off your socks
and sat at your desk on which there was a stack
of white writing paper
where for the moment nothing else was left
but in the middle
a horizontal broken line

As well as being a writer you’re an academic connected with the Institute of Psychology and a lot of your academic work seems to me to be reflecting your interest in the peripheral, in the small communities, in the local.

“Yes, I’m interested in the small community economy on the edge of the global economy, in the re-localisation movement and the principle of the balance between quality of life and economic survival. This principle exists, but in the marginal view, but I think that the economic margin is very important for the global economy.”

You yourself try to live a life you describe as a kind of ‘voluntary frugality’ or moderation. You don’t really shop, you try very much to lead a simple, non-materialistic life, which is very much against the trend in the Czech Republic.

“I think that in Western Europe people think about post-materialistic values more than in the Czech Republic where there is materialistic enjoyment. I think that after the financial crisis a lot of things are changing, not dramatically, but a change to return to the values of man.”

What we’ve being saying about your work and the very fragmentary nature of your work, which is made up of small observations of what you call these ‘miracles’ of the occasions of being in a certain place, or experiencing a certain community, and also your own role as a ‘stroller’, you seem to be a writer who could be described as postmodern, in terms of maybe accepting a certain fragmentariness in terms of identity.

“I like to write in an existential tone, something like an emergent text maybe. When I walk around on the streets I think that we live fragmentarily, like the title of the book by Zygmunt Bauman, Life in Fragments. I think that in the fragments, but deeply experienced fragments, maybe we know about our lives more than in the whole.”

I’ll just read a final reading from a translation of your poetry done because of your attendance at a festival in Belgrade and I’d like to thank you very much for talking to me about your life in cafes and walking around the periphery of cities and of life. Thank you very much Josef.

“I also thank you very very much.”

In the Subsidence of Time

We belong nowhere
the days that vanish before our eyes
days when we are silent
when the house is lonely, distant from all others
the days when we need nothing
when we hide behind doors
inaudibly moving things
stopping the clocks and
orienting towards the dusk
and towards the need for sleep
this can last for weeks before we wake again
and everything remains as it was before

All translations by Marja Hamović and Tihana Hamović