A couple of years ago in this programme we spoke to the young Czech novelist Petra Hůlová about her epic novel of life in contemporary Mongolia, “Paměť mojí babičce“ – which translates literally as “Memory for My Grandmother”. The book has just been published to considerable acclaim in English translation by Northwestern University Press under the title “All This Belongs to Me”. Since writing it back in 2002, Petra has been far from idle, publishing no less than four further novels that take us from inside the mind of an ageing prostitute to the steppes of distant Siberia. At the moment she is putting the finishing touches on another novel, this time with a theme closer to home, spanning the years just before and after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. With the twentieth anniversary of the revolution just days away, I joined Petra Hůlová in the Café Louvre, just above the spot in Prague’s Národní třída (National Street), where it all began on November 17 1989. It was here that the police violently suppressed a huge student demonstration, causing a wave of protest across the country that eventually brought down the regime. So I began by asking Petra about her memories of that time as a ten-year-old child.
“Of course I remember everything from the perspective of a kid and when all these events broke out in November 1989 I remember me and my mum joining the demonstrations. I didn’t understand very much what it was about in the beginning and I liked the enthusiasm – and it was dramatic and something was going on. And then I slowly began to understand. First of all I felt a sort of deception - if that’s the proper word. Was there something wrong with my childhood? I thought it was really happy and we had plenty of everything. We were happy, so why should all this change? I didn’t see the reason.”
Do you think it would have been different if you’d already been a few years older – 16 or 17 – at an age when you’re already beginning to rebel and question the world of your parents and the world around you? Would you have recognized more the cracks in the society around you?
“Yes, I’m sure I would have a more black-and-white experience of the revolution, I guess. And also the revolution would be - sort of – my revolution, while the revolution that I remember was the revolution of adult people and I was somehow there but very confused.”
I remember that for people who were a bit older than you, that there was a real atmosphere of euphoria for the first years after the revolution. There was a feeling that just about anything was possible and that things were changing for the better. It’s very interesting to talk to someone a few years younger, who really wasn’t part of that euphoria. It’s also a theme that comes up again and again in your books – this inability of people to communicate across the generations. You use the metaphor of “frosted glass” - that people are looking at each other through frosted glass.
“Yes, I really felt very much the impossibility to talk about all these issues, not only because of the generation gap, but because of the fact that I was too small to be able to talk about it. Then later I resented my parents, that they didn’t tell me more about the regime. Their authority was also shattered for me, because again and again I thought: How did they live all those years, and were they part of this grey zone of people who compromised themselves and were too scared to speak freely and speak out. So it was also very difficult for me, this shift of my parents’ authority for myself, and I think I haven’t really come to terms with it a hundred percent up till now.”
You have chosen on several occasions to write about distant places. Your best-known novel is set in Mongolia, which really could hardly be further away. Is that partly a way of not having to deal with the story back home?
“Critics criticize my writing sometimes for escaping all the time from here to some other places. It’s difficult to say, but I have to mention that I’m just one of a whole generation who are labeled ‘escapists’. And all these people – I can mention Jaroslav Rudiš, Markéta Pilátová, Bára Gregorová – they all set their novels abroad – Germany, South America, Russia and so on. First there was this big euphoria because of the open borders. People could travel, so it was something very appealing. Also, I think, to write about my country seemed to be necessarily very political and very constraining somehow. So young writers, also for these reasons, probably unconsciously, chose to go abroad – to write abroad.”
Is there maybe also a problem that, 20 years after the fall of communism, Prague has in some ways become rather boring, very much like many other European cities? As we sit in this café, just across the road we can see Kentucky Fried Chicken, in the other direction there’s a Tesco department store – it could be just about anywhere in Europe in some ways. Do you think that Prague is becoming less stimulating for a writer?
“I’m sure it’s definitely true, but also I don’t like when it’s verbalized in such a way, because that’s the danger of freedom - of losing it, because it’s so boring. So in a way you don’t even like it. So it’s very easy to bitch about all these disadvantages – boredom and globalization and uniformity – that’s true, but that’s something we maybe pay for freedom.”
“I am just finishing the book, so it hasn’t been published yet, and the story covers the history of a Czech city, built in the novel as one of the last communist project industrial cities at the end of the ‘70s. The narrator is a girl. We see her from her childhood up to her middle age, and she tells the story of the city, the story of herself. She is a communist herself and in the democratic era – in the ‘90s and later – she’s trying to revitalize this isolated, odd city on the basis of slightly shifted communist ideas. So, what I wanted to show is a piece of Czech history and society and what happened, but with a hint of fantastic, science-fiction moments, and with this unusual perspective of a woman, whom you wouldn’t like to have as a friend.”
I’d like to ask you about the legacy of the older generation of Czech writers. There are several very well-known Czech writers, who are now in their 70s and 80s – like Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera – writers who are well-known internationally and who went through so many of the traumas that this country has faced in the course of the 20th century – the German occupation, the Holocaust, the years of Stalinism, the 1968 Soviet invasion – and their work has a kind of weight behind it. Do you find it quite difficult living with that literary legacy?
“Yes, it is very difficult, but it’s more difficult morally than in literary terms. The burden is more their moral authority that their literary quality. Some of these people I know a little bit, in that we met somewhere at a festival and we talked a little bit, but I don’t know them personally very well – none of them. I don’t know what they think about my work, and I’m not sure that they respect it very much. Maybe they think it’s nothing in comparison with their moral braveness.”
The dissident world was quite male-dominated. Have you felt that as well - as a woman writer?
“Yes, I do very much think about it, and it’s actually present in my last novel – the fact that the very much respected fighters for freedom, fighters against communism, were very often very traditional in gender terms. Their gender perspective was very old-fashioned and easy to criticize from today’s perspective: I mean all these dissident families, with men writing and spending hours and whole evenings disputing with other men everything from philosophy to politics, while the women did all the work with the kids and keeping the household going. One wife of a dissident said that the only time when she could rest a bit was when her husband was in prison!”
And there are a lot of women prose writers who are getting a lot of attention at the moment - who have written to critical acclaim and are also very popular. There are probably more well-known young women Czech writers than there are men, aren’t there?
“I would say that more than half of new writers are women, definitely. But I don’t want to speculate too much why. It’s just a fact, maybe just time is changing somehow. What I can say is that I’m very happy about it, and it’s new for Czech literature.”