Czech Books Remembering Eva Svankmajerova through a weird and wonderful Surrealist novella

18-12-2005 | Bernie Higgins

This October the Czech Republic lost one of its greatest artists, with the death of Eva Svankmajerova. She was probably best known for her painting and her collaborative film work with her husband Jan Svankmajer, but she was also a very accomplished writer. We talk to Gwendolyn Albert, who translated her Surrealist novella, "Baradla Cave".

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Eva SvankmajerovaEva Svankmajerova You are a poet, translator and your "day job" is as director of the League of Human Rights in the Czech Republic, and you've lived here on and off since 1988. How did you come to translate Eva's book?

"I was approached by Howard Seidenberg, who is the publisher of Twisted Spoon Press, and he asked if I'd be interested."

I'd just like to say something about this press for our listeners who are interested in English translations of Czech literature, because it published translations of classics, but also of contemporary literature. For listeners who are interested, their website is: http://www.traktor.cz/twisted/. So, to turn to Eva Svankmajerova's novella "Baradla Cave", how would you describe it?

"It's a completely Central European work. If you know Kafka, if you know Hrabal, you will be in familiar territory. The beginning is incredibly difficult, but it's worth just letting it babble on, and it is really funny. It has sections that are really terribly funny, but it's a bit of work to get to them."

And how about the title "Baradla Cave"?

"The main character of the novella is Baradla, who is sometimes a cave - a physical location described in incredibly scientific terms and terminology - and sometimes a woman, who interacts with the other characters in the novella differently, depending on whether or not she's in her human guise or is actually the place. You can imagine this made it a little confusing for me - not to mention the fact that the book jumps all around grammatically in terms of diction and a sentence will start out first person and end third person. Translating this was one of the hardest things I've ever done."

It was originally published in the 80s I think in "samizdat" form and then I think in 1995 in Czech, and with your translation in 2000. When you talked to Eva about the book, did you find out how it had been written, because it's very much a sort of collage, isn't it? It also contains images as well as text.

"The images that are in the Twisted Spoon version are images that she and Jan selected for this edition. I had a talk with her about it because I wanted to know if it was something that had been the product of years of refining, or if it was something that came to her all at once. She basically said that she had sat down and let it come through her as it came. So, in other words, there wasn't a lot of editing that went on afterwards. That helped me know how to approach the translation of it."

Perhaps we can have the first excerpt from the book.

"One of the main characters in the book is Jostaf, who sometimes is inside Baradla, groping around when she's a cave and sometimes interacting with her as a woman. So here's a little bit about that:

He would have liked to stop by and see Baradla, but once again she had gone to her workshop full of clay and mud, in which she worked from morning to night even though it brought her no more enjoyment than service itself; she was shut away there because she was afraid of assassins. He would have at least brought her something to drink, but she screamed at anything that made a sound. He would have liked to see her, but she was convinced that he would want her to cook for him and wait on bim hand and foot, that he would take all her money and leave her nothing but shabby clothes she had stitched together herself and a few leftovers from lunch, bringing cheap booze so she wouldn't be able to tell he was well off. She thought he would make her work herself to the bone, that nothing would please bim, that he would frighten her with the world so she wouldn't run away from him, so he would have someone to pour his boredom out to. He wanted to be on the other side of her locked door with a cheap bottle in bis hand, and he considered whether he could flush her out with water without damaging the workshop equipment in the process, so she could continue working. She could serve bim and the children and would never go so far as to express her own opinion. After all, no one is ever born with an understanding for others. Baradla was jolly, unhappy, and slovenly fat, but there was always some work to be done with her. Her single pleasure should have been to buy bim presents, but even then he would have constantly driven them both crazy because she was spending too much. Because when Jóstaf was single, his mommy did everything for him, and now Baradla was supposed to do it too! From time to time, should she become completely undone, he could shut her up in the nuthouse. He could do this very easily, arrange it for her own good, a friend of his works there and they would all be terribly nice to her. Prices keep rising, at least that way she wouldn't drink everything up - he could also get rid of her when she was worn out, when it was convenient for him. Because how long could she continue this drudgery, especially if her work was selling? Another woman couldn't be found who would be so stupid in order to avoid misfortune. He would break the window immediately and squeeze through the bars.

You can see from that extract why it has been called a very sophisticated critique of modern woman. Did you talk to her about this whole aspect of the book?

"I don't think anyone could talk to Eva Svankmajerova for two minutes without her opinion of gender relations coming through in every aspect of the conversation, in the language she used. She was a terribly funny person. I did not know her well. I only met her a few times, but that is the theme of her art, also the painting, and it's very funny. It's not just a critique, it's a funny critique, a drole critique."

In terms of how you tackled the book as a translator, you said it was very difficult for you. Can you say a little bit more about why it was so difficult?

"There are long passages that just don't make any sense - on purpose. She's a Surrealist. The point is to dislocate the reader, and she does that even at the grammatical level. I don't think that all the wordplay got through in this translation, or even half of what would come through to a Czech reader. If it ever went into a second edition, I would really love to have the time to go through it again with the benefit of having lived here for five more years, speaking Czech that much better, and really to go through and fine tune it to the English equivalents, because it's a really individual voice, extremely individual."

Could you give us another example of your translation?

"This is a character who lives in Baradla called the Operating Room Nurse."

A few days ago, six hours after the birth of the Five-Kilo the Operating Room Nurse got into her car and calmly left for a lecture at the radio station. The Operating Room Nurse is, among other things, also an instructor, and she lectures on the radio how to bring up healthy children, since she is, after all, a nurse. Her lectures are far from being about medical treatment, or anything at all connected to health. She just thinks, once those brats are fully grown, they will be allowed to live as they like, but until that time they will be governed by her methods. All of her children and nephews have the same name. (Some nonspecific word by which an unfamiliar person can be designated.) They live solely on vegetables, fruit and roots. They eat a lot of roots, mainly at noon, sitting at the big table around which are distributed thirteen little wooden chairs. The boys, nephews and the Five-Kilo Girl sit on the ground, each before their own little chair placed on the table, and beneath its four legs there are hollowed out small bowls which make it possible to wash the table and the dishes and the chairs with a single large bowl of hot water. There are no glasses, not even a bottle for water. The unfamiliar ones and the Five-Kilo Girl drink water only in the garden, where it runs from the fountain - if they are thirsty. Therefore in this corridor, in which they all live, they are saved a lot of work, namely by the fact that half of the roof is made of showers, which the Operating Room Nurse turns on for her little darlings at her discretion, and of course this creates a fifteen-meter long swimming pool undemeath the dining table. AU these children were unusual from their very first year of life. Winter or summer, they wear just a single, peculiar piece of clothing. When the older children came to school like that, the superintendent of the school sent them home. The Operating Room Nurse made threatening gestures with her arms and everyone was so scared that they let her children be, but only until the age of ten. Because she doesn't want to acknowledge this defeat, her children stay home once they are ten and she teaches them herself. The most interesting thing about this family is their iron constitution and the fact that none of the chi1dren speak any distinguishable language.

You mentioned Eva's collaboration with her husband Jan. Last year there was a major retrospective of their work. Could you say something about this aspect of her work?

"This is one of the wonderful things about the Svankmajers. I spent some time also meeting Jan and speaking with him, because I was researching a book on him. They really did work as a team. You can see her art production in almost all of his films. Her style is a very unique, naïve style and you can recognize it immediately. They for many years did ceramics together, which they signed with the surname Kostelec and the few times that I spent with them were always really wonderful, because they were very sweet people, very gentle - you know, two dogs and this wonderful place up by the Loreto. But it was packed with all this Surrealist art, so you would be sitting down for tea and you would be pouring the tea out of this ceramic teapot they had made that was nothing but human genitals or something. People see his films and think, 'Who could think of such things?' but they're wonderful people and Surrealism is just a very specific exploration of consciousness. It's supposed to unnerve, so I think they're both pretty successful from that point of view."

To return to this book, do you think that she's been underrated as a writer?

"I think she was mainly a painter. But you know the thing about Surrealism was that it desired to break down the boundaries between disciplines. This is why they have wonderful things like tactile poems, where the poems are bits of clay that are glued to a board, with a word or two in between, and you are supposed to actually read it by touching it. All of this sort of thing. They were working on a sort of synesthesia, combining two sense areas at once, dislocating usual perception - without drugs! That was Surrealism."

And what would our reading of "Baradla Cave" bring to our understanding of Eva Svankmajerova's work as a whole?

"I think her humour. It's terribly funny, but you have to get into it. I can imagine for people who have not spent time in this part of the world that it could be a little opaque. But anyone who has lived in Prague or anywhere in Central Europe will immediately recognize where we are. We're in a sort of topsy-turvy, nothing-happening-as-one-expects environment."

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