Czech Books Milos Urban - the Czech Republic's answer to Umberto Eco
Welcome again to the world of Czech writing, with Czech books. Prague is a city of legend - its origins are steeped in mediaeval mythology - and even the river Vltava is said to be frequented by mysterious and malicious water-sprites. And it's not just Prague. The Czech countryside is rich in folk legend, and the mysteries of this country's past have inspired Czech writers through the generations.
But there are plenty of sceptics. A few years ago the Czech novelist, Jachym Topol, told me he was convinced that this "Magic Prague" was dead and gone, that today's Czechs had other concerns, and the oft-repeated myths had been reduced to nothing but tourist kitsch and pictures of the Golem and Franz Kafka on T-shirts. He probably has a good point, but today we're going to be looking at a writer who proves that delving into legend still offers of a rich seam of inspiration even to the modern Czech novelist.
"It was a lovely morning in early November. The prolonged Indian summer kept autumn at bay throughout October, till the first biting frost galloped in, with a crack of the whip, after which the town was paralyzed in fright. It hasn't been even six months since the words 'modern times' were last written; the metropolis could still reconcile itself to the coming of winter. The light was rapidly diminishing and one's fingers were becoming numb with cold, but the smokestacks of the factories breathed hot and the windows of the houses became fogged up with white light. They were the vapours of decay, the sweat of mortality. Neither the cosmetics of the new facades nor the gems of fast cars could conceal the truth that was as naked as the trees on Charles Square; an old year, an old century, an excessively old millennium. Everybody could see it. Many, with lumps in their throats, looked away and gave themselves over to the teeth of the last autumn: a three-headed dog had broken into Prague and did not deviate from its straight course; three hungry muzzles rushed after everything that dared to move in the late hour of mankind. They throttled their victims mercilessly.
That was last year. Then everything changed. The days of mercy arrived."
The opening lines of Milos Urban's 1998 novel Sedmikosteli - The Seven Churches, in an extract translated by Derek Paton. At first site Milos Urban looks like many other young Prague citizens - he gives the impression of quiet self-confidence that you encounter in many successful young people in the thriving, modern Czech capital. But Milos Urban's novels dig down into a very different world. They are dark, Gothic, and steeped in the legend and gloom of the past. They combine the thriller, the Gothic novel and a dig at contemporary values all mixed in with a strong dose of black humour. In his fascination with the different layers of past and present, Urban has sometimes been compared with Umberto Eco, whom he acknowledges as an inspiration. So I'll read a bit more from The Seven Churches - his thriller of Prague, set in a part of the city that - typically for Urban - doesn't actually exist:
"The low white sun crawled over the wall of the hospital and got caught in the cobweb of the maple crowns. Slowly, as if out of spite, it warmed the dry frosty air that smelled of leaves, of which there were so many you counldn't see the pavement below you. In Katerinska Street it was no worse than in other years, but the whole length of Vinicna Street was filled in with a rustling dune that completely concealed the asphalt and paving stones. The certainty of solid ground beneath one's feet was long gone; every step meant an adventure without fixed outlines; an unclear, vaguely ominous footprint in a red drift. To work one's way through a covered-up street, however, can be dangerous: as dangerous as a walk on a frozen river.
Vinicna Street is about three hundred metres long and straight as an arrow; you can easily survey it from one end to the other. I got about half way down, when I noticed a woman walking not far in front of me. Why hadn't I noticed her until now? I was surprised, for the street was empty. The woman was small, and she was having a hard time making her way along. She was slightly hunched, through not at all shabby, with grey hair cut short, wearing a brown coat and with a brown bag, that prerequisite of old ladies. Fearing I might frighten her, I slowed down. That was unnecessary. Though she was up to her knees in leaves she proceeded with astonishing vigour."
Milos Urban's latest novel, Stin katedraly - The Shadow of the Cathedral, appeared in September 2003 - and its main protagonist is none other than Prague's Saint Vitus Cathedral, that dominates the city's skyline. As Milos Urban himself points out, in many ways the novel builds on what he was trying to do in The Seven Churches.
"I have to go back to my novel Sedmikosteli again, where I created, or re-created a part of Prague that does not exist any more. I was quite said about this, and I in fact built this part of Prague's New Town again in the book. And now in The Shadow of the Cathedral I wanted to write a book about a different place, a different Prague, the Prague that anybody knows, and the Prague that people from all over the world know and that is the one and only place, Prague's cathedral - Saint Vitus"
Urban himself describes The Shadow of the Cathedral as a "sophisticated crime novel with allusions to alchemy, Fulcanellian mysticism, Dante and the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood" - which all sounds rather mysterious. But he is not trying to appeal to an obscure or elite readership. In fact the book sold out within two weeks of appearing in bookshops in October. And in marketing terms, Urban's publishers are aiming firmly at a mass readership. They are very much part of today's Prague of advertising campaigns and Kafka T-shirts. If you go up the escalators in Prague's subway, every few metres you'll see a poster, advertising the new book. This is "Magic Prague" in the era of mass-marketing. But Milos Urban himself is not a literary purist, and takes pride in the posters in the metro.
"They are very beautiful, and they were designed by my illustrator Pavel Rut and I think it is one of the nicest things you can see in the metro, which is not very beautiful at all."
So, from the Gothic heights of the vaults of Saint Vitus, to the depths of modern Prague's public transport network. Our post-modern world and post-modern literature go hand in hand. The Shadow of the Cathedral hasn't yet appeared in English. Although Urban's work has been translated into German, Dutch, Russian, Hungarian and even Bulgarian, unfortunately you can only read a few short extracts from his novels in English.
Milos Urban's own favourite is "Hastrman", published two years ago. A "hastrman" is a mischievous, or even malevolent water-sprite - a figure from Czech fairy-tale - and the Hastrman of this novel is not just a fairy-tale character, but also an ecological campaigner in the age of the computer and the multi-national. The book has been such a success that it's currently being made into a film.
"It's a book where I try to deal with ecological matters. Together with that I try to write about a character from Czech folk tales, and this is the water-sprite. I tried to mingle these two very different things together in this book, and somehow I hope it worked well. As to the TV film, I was very surprised when the people from the TV in Ostrava came and told me they want to shoot it, to make a film out of it. Well, I'm writing the TV script now, and I very much enjoy this work."
"My father hewed into the rock. Initially, he was an ordinary young pond-digger from the little town Bela and there was nothing to distinguish him from any of the others in the region at first sight. Then he went to Italy and saw the work of Bernini. He went to Rome to visit him. The sculptor was at the height of his fame then and took the clever Czech in as his apprentice; he called him the "water-sprite" and consulted during the construction of certain of his fountains. My father took a liking to fountains sprouting water in grottoes and learned how to make them. But when the mast saw his work, he discharged him fearing he might have created a competitor. My father did not want to stand in his way, so he set off to try his luck in France with a series of fantastic blueprints he had drawn up in his saddlebag. When he arrived in Anjou he presented himself at the duke's court. The duke had him make a fountain that would combine in itself the pagan beauty of Roman statues with the Christian faith in one almighty God. It was to be a grandiose structure - so grandiose that because of it the duke ended up falling out with the King, who resented that he had "sunk" in it monies originally destined to arm the troops of the realm. He was forbidden access to the royal court."
That's an extract from Hastrman, translated by Ivan Gutierrez. The novel doesn't stick to this lyrical, historical tone for long. Back in the modern world, in a series of scenes worthy of the best horror movie, the water-sprite becomes a kind of fairy-tale eco-terrorist.
"My hero the water-sprite is trying to contact the people who work for the mining industry, and they are doing severe harm to nature. As my hero is quite frustrated with not being able to protect nature from these people, he goes from one to another and tries his best with threats."
There are such bizarre scenes as the water-sprite's assault on a corrupt representative of a big mineral firm, a firm that plans to quarry a mountain flat. The water-sprite finds him alone in his office, browsing the internet for pornography, and wreaks a rather nasty revenge - involving a knife and the computer monitor. But for more of that we'll have to wait until the book comes out in English. Instead here's a scene where the water-sprite is trying to escape from the mineral company's henchmen in the midst of Ralsko, the huge area in North Bohemia once used for Soviet military exercises.
"...now there are dogs after me and upon me. I blind two of the fastest beasts with my wand; there are three left further off and they haven't yet lost my scent, but their masters are slow and stay behind. The mist isn't thick enough for me to slip away, and a sudden rainfall in which I might reliably disappear remains nothing but a prayer. I stumble over roots and fallen branches and head for a spot where I can smell water. The trees thin out at last and the moon opens up before me like a gaping mirror; bewitching, and yet strangely clouded. With relief I shatter its reflection, plunge under the surface - and then dig into the bottom with my forehead. I sit up, my shoulders and scraped head protruding above the surface of the shallow, greasy water. I bite back a curse; the pond is almost totally drained. There's hardly any water here - it's barely above knee-level - but as if to make up for it, it stinks like a petroleum refinery. And there's a jeep coming through the wood already. Searchlights aim unerringly at me and a figure with a pistol instead of a head leans out of the driver's compartment and points at me.
The dogs stay on the bank; they are reluctant to enter the stinking mud pit as the thick, oily slush would drown them after they'd taken just a couple of steps. A coarse voice shouts, breaking through their rabid barking, and orders me to surrender. I put my hands up. The jeep sinks slowly into the water; the glaring lights illuminate the greasy layer on the surface along with all the half sunken dross: bald tires, a heaping mess of plastic bottles, hole-ridden gas cans, a rust-eaten gate and a complete field kitchen with a blown-out cauldron."
Urban's novels are strange, unnerving and impossible to pin down in terms of time, narrative or style. And, interestingly, unlike many contemporary Czech novelists, Urban deliberately never openly refers to recent Czech history and the legacy of forty years of communism.
"As one of the critics said, my novels are somehow extra-terrestrial or extra-temporary, that somehow the time is not working normally. I would agree with that, I think that what I try to do is to write stories, to write novels, that should have some kind of universal myth in them, and that's why I tried very much to erase the socialist past from the lives of my characters. It's a kind of obsession with my. I hope the psychiatrists will deal with that. [laughs]"
You can find out much more about Milos Urban in both Czech and English on his own very entertaining website www.milos-urban.cz. And many thanks to Milos for allowing us to use some extracts from his work.
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.