Radka Denemarková and the importance of digging up skulls

The novel “Peníze od Hitlera” (Money from Hitler), is one of the best Czech books I’ve read for a long time, and luckily for English-speaking readers, it has just been published in an excellent English translation by Women’s Press in Toronto. When it first appeared in Czech over three years ago, Money from Hitler caused quite a stir; it won the prestigious Magnesia Litera award, but Czech critics remained divided. Perhaps this is no surprise. The author, 41-year-old Radka Denemarková, chose one of the most sensitive and painful episodes of modern Czech history as her starting point, a subject that for many remains taboo to this day. Her book goes back to the days just after the end of World War Two, when tens of thousands of Czechoslovakia’s German-speakers were being rounded up and expelled from the country. It is no secret that the expulsions, especially in these early stages, were often accompanied by acts of violence, sometimes quite indiscriminate. In her novel Radka Denemarková literally pulls these events out from the topsoil of the recent past, as we see in the vivid opening chapter, when a small boy digs up a rather unusual object in his parents’ orchard with his little green spade. Here is an extract:

When he has finished, he is out of breath; on the ground in front of him lies some sort of bowl, which is strikingly long and narrow and has strange bits sticking out of it and rough cracks and holes. A white bowl. He picks it up and cleans it, removes all remnants of dirt. Then he rinses the object with a child’s watering can, also green, with a red sprinkler spout. Only twice and briefly does he walk away to fill the can with dirty rainwater from a rusty old tub, set down years ago by the strawberry plot so that Denis could paddle in it in summer. Now that the hole-ridden bowl has been emptied out and cleaned, he turns it round and round, before lifting it up. He is surprised to see two hollows: eye sockets.
It is a skull.
A human skull.
With care, five-year-old Denis carries it from the orchard to the sandpit.

Radka DenemarkováRadka Denemarková When I met Radka Denemarková to talk about Money from Hitler, I couldn’t resist asking her to tell me more about this gruesome opening scene which – at once grotesque and hyper-realistic – vividly sets the tone for the novel, described by one reviewer as an “existential detective story”.

“I first started writing the book in a kind of philosophical style, but then I said, no, I don’t want to risk being boring as I write about serious, difficult subjects. I have to make it readable, pushing my ideas into the background, and wrapping them up in a story that has tension, in this case almost like a detective story. It starts with the discovery of a skull, so you would expect it to be revealed by the end, who the skull belonged to and what happened to that person. But I try to make everything uncertain, so I hope that even at the end the reader isn’t quite sure whose skull it is. In a sense it’s also playing with what I’m trying to do in the book, as I’m sticking my fingers into the wounds of Czech, or Central European, history, just like Denis when he sticks his fingers in the ground and digs up a skull, playing with it in the sandpit.”

Radka Denemarková talks about her work with passion; her writing is a great deal more than just a sophisticated intellectual exercise. Even before the story begins, the author turns the traditional disclaimer about any similarity with real events or people being pure coincidence on its head, stating on the opening page: “All these stories happened,” with the added comment, “I have never known why.” And this is typical for her approach to recent history. She argues that we bear full responsibility for our past, and even for the acts of our parents and grandparents.

Denemarková outlines the plot of the novel: it tells a story which, tragically, has well-documented parallels in real historical events:

“The main hero, Gita Lauschmannová appears at the age of six, at sixteen and then in her old age. I follow her life from birth to death, to show all that can happen. She is born in Bohemia, into a German-speaking Jewish family, only finding out she is Jewish when she is sent to a concentration camp. At the end of the war she is the only survivor from her family. She wants to come back to her village, but discovers she has nowhere to return to. She finds out that the so-called Red Guards have confiscated all the family property, because they labelled all German-speaking inhabitants as Nazis. All her life, she is trying to return. She comes back 60 years later, offering reconciliation and suggesting that a monument be erected to her father’s memory, but she finds that she is still just as unwelcome. We often hear the cliché, that hope lies in children and the young, but that’s not how it is, because children are brought up by their parents, who pass down all their prejudices; everything is passed down from generation to generation.”

At the core of the story is the terrifying episode, when the young Gita Lauschmannová returns, weak and emaciated, from the camp, but is driven out of her own village by her Czech neighbours who have taken over her family’s old estate. Here is a brief extract, at the moment when she first walks into what had been her family’s dining room, an unwanted ghost from the past.

Someone is standing there. But it isn’t Mother. Or our cook. Nor is it my sister.
It is a strange woman.
A young, startled Woman with a bulging belly. In an apron. She’s using our ladle to serve a man hot lentil soup, thickened with beans and peeled barley. The dish is from our white dining service with the blue flower pattern. A pattern my mother designed for the Vienna porcelain factory.

All three of us stiffen.
The man wipes his mouth nervously, with the back of his hand.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know how to knock?”
“Knock? Why should I knock?”
Once again the tears spring, but I gulp them back as they scramble for the starting line, using my vocal chords to rein them in.
“I live here. I’m Gita, Gita Lauschmannová.”

Adolf Hitler in PragueAdolf Hitler in Prague The 16-year-old Gita is forced to leave, her very life in danger, but she proves immensely tough. In 2005, by now nearly 80, she returns again, armed with documents proving that her family’s property was wrongly confiscated and by rights belongs to her. She meets the people of the village - all of whom are only too aware of the injustice of all those years before. She is offering reconciliation, but the villagers are so blinded by their own paranoia, that they fail even to recognize her gesture. In these scenes, Denemarková deliberately stretches the narration beyond the limits of realism, painting a picture of the villagers as a vividly grotesque and shrivelled version of the chorus in classical drama. Narrated in part from the perspective of Gita herself, one of these meetings with the village council culminates in a spectacular and unexpected event, worthy of Edgar Allan Poe: the stigmata – the marks of the Cross - appear on Gita’s hands. One of those present is Denis, the child with the skull in the opening chapter, these days a successful pathologist. Here is a short extract from that scene:

Unable to hide his professional fascination, Denis gasps, “Stigmata?”
He wants to look at the wound out of which the thin stream of blood flowed.
I chuckle.
“Yes. Of course. What else would you expect, Doctor? The blood that flowed from my parents, from Rozálie, from my brother, Adolf, from Rudolf, my little boy. All that blood was pumped into my heart. Into my arteries and veins and capillaries. There are times when I need to let it out. Before your lying faces and the garbage-strewn cuckoo’s nest of Puklice are flushed away in a great bloody splat. Once and for all. To hell.”

With her focused anger and her refusal to let the dust settle on the past, Gita Lauschmannová is the unquestioned hero of the novel, a woman who will not give up fighting to make others face the truth – in this case the fact that they brazenly stole the property of her family. The novelist makes no secret of the fact that she identifies closely with Gita’s struggle.

“We have to confront the past, otherwise it will come back to haunt us. It’s like with the individual. If you shut things out, they can come back in ways that are unexpected and brutal. If you put the past under the carpet, it festers, and ends up poisoning more and more people. You have to look into what really happened. I have to keep asking, because I wasn’t born in Australia or England, but here in Bohemia, in Central Europe, where various things mixed together and various things happened. These things in some way influenced our culture, the behaviour of people, of politicians and also my own life”

Money from Hitler may sound like a very political novel, but in fact it is much more than that, and is certainly not just a platform for discussing the traumas Czech-German-Jewish relations. Its plot and language are far more subtle. Radka Denemarková relishes the richness of language, without forcing its symbolism or associations down the reader’s throat. I’ll leave her with the last word:

“I really enjoy putting in allusions to authors I like, and there are also plenty of biblical references, as if it were a book about a martyr, but in fact she’s a kind of grotesque martyr. It’s a way of working with language and with the cultural background you have, but I don’t want to make it stand out. I like it when the reader has the choice to take it or leave it, I like writing for a variety of different readers, with each being able to find something.”