Tereza Boučková’s “Year of the Rooster”: more than just a literary debate

Few books written in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism have aroused as much debate as Tereza Boučková’s 2008 novel, Rok kohouta. The title translates as Year of the Rooster – in the Chinese horoscope the year in which the author was born, in our calendar 1957. Tereza Boučková is one of the best known Czech writers of her generation. Nearly all her books are highly autobiographical: her best known work, the short novel Indiánský běh (Indian Run) is a vivid and very frank evocation of her life in dissident circles before the fall of communism. In her more recent work, it has been her life in the post-communist Czech Republic that has come under the microscope.

Tereza BoučkováTereza Boučková So why has her latest novel caused such a stir? For a start, it is very well written, a rare treat from an established Czech writer who is far from prolific. It also has a very authentic feel, based on Tereza Boučková’s own diaries. But what has added a sense of controversy to the novel is its central theme, a blow by blow account of the disintegration of the author’s family life with her two teenage adopted sons, both of whom are of Romany origin, and both of whom she adopted when they were still barely toddlers. In the novel they are given the names Lukáš and Patrik. Here is a short extract, in my own working translation:

Five on the dot and there’s a racket coming from Lukáš’s room. Another day begins with me yelling. Most weekday mornings some kind of noise wakes me up, because Lukáš has all the dexterity of a bull in a china shop. And that’s the way his mind works too.

Today he put on a video over breakfast (at five there’s not much on television) and dropped the remote control – on the floor tiles. Then he dropped the knife, again on the tiles. Then the brush, on the tiles of course. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Every day he wakes me up and says SORRY. Every day he steals something, and when we find out, he says I DIDN’T MEAN TO. Every day the same bloody thing!

The sky is a uniform grey. The day has ended as dreary as it began. To make things worse, two men I’d never seen before rang at our gate this morning. It’s been the same story all summer. Every time they’ve been from the criminal police, looking for Patrik.

This time they weren’t from the police, but they were looking for Patrik. One of them was worried about his brother. On Friday he’d gone off with Patrik, now it’s Monday and they haven’t heard from him. They’re afraid. It hasn’t happened before. He isn’t even answering his mobile. It’s switched off. All this fuss for a lad who’s already twenty!

I remembered how I felt the first time Patrik disappeared like that, when he was seventeen-and-a-half. He was gone three days. Not a trace. At first I’d been furious, but as time went by I got more and more worried. I was crippled with fear.

I told them Patrik doesn’t live here any more, he’s drifting somewhere. We don’t have an address for him. Disappearing without a word is his speciality. We pay for his mobile, only for him to switch it off every time he goes off. I said: You’d better tell the police.

They already had, but they hadn’t given up looking themselves.

I can’t help you, I apologized.

They apologized for bothering me.

I apologized. For Patrik.

Given its strong autobiographical content, I was interested to find out more about how Year of the Rooster came about, so that was my first question when I met Tereza Boučková in Prague’s Café Slavia.

“I started keeping a sort of diary, because I was going through several crises at once, and one of them was in terms of writing. I just couldn’t write. My self-confidence was in shreds, and our family situation was so complicated that I started off just by writing a few brief notes every day. I didn’t dream that a book would come out of it. It was only when I started working up the notes that I saw I had the makings of a novel, but I was really surprised that it was so successful and had such a resonance with people.”

As you will probably have sensed from the extract above, The Year of the Rooster is not an optimistic book. Despite its moments of humour, it is above all a detailed account of the experiences of a mother on the brink of breakdown, as she gradually loses her two adopted sons to a life on the street, an exact reflection of what has happened in Tereza Boučková’s own life.

“I decided to be as frank as possible. It’s true that I could have left out a lot of things. I could have made it much easier for myself, but I decided not to do it, that if I wanted to write down everything that I experienced so intensively that it would not make sense to make things up. But I think what appeals to people who read it is a feeling that it’s not just written with passion, but also that it’s a chunk of real life.”

When they hear about all our tribulations as surrogate parents, even those who are nearest to us cannot begin to understand what our daily life is like. A daily life, where the boys have stopped showing the slightest willingness to adapt to our way of life, where their natural inclinations and unnatural deprivations run wild. Is there any way of getting this across? How is it, to live for nearly half your life twenty-four hours a day with someone who – as is becoming increasingly clear – is utterly different from you?

How can that person be so different?

Tereza Boučková’s book has caused considerable controversy. It is not so much the despair – very evident in this extract - or the bleak portrayal of what can go wrong when you adopt a child, as the more general conclusions that she draws at several points in the book, when she takes a step back from the immediate events.

What can you do with unwanted children, damaged to the extent that they are unable to live a normal, relatively decent life? Children that are unloved from the start, cast aside in institutions, in the first year of their life only learn to make an emotional bond with a milk bottle.

With nothing human.

It has long been known that the most important thing for a person’s emotional development is the first year of life. But I think – I know! – that for a baby it is just as important, to be wanted by its mother, even when it is still in her womb. If she loves the baby from the moment she finds out about it. And once it is born, it shouldn’t be separated from its mother even for a moment.

The biological mother of the two adopted boys in Year of the Rooster is Romany, and the book has been accused of reinforcing anti-Roma prejudice and stereotype. A couple of interviews with Tereza Boučková since the book was published have provoked some angry reaction. She told the paper, Lidové noviny, that “one typical Romany quality, although there are certainly exceptions, is a total lack of ambition. Hardly any kind of success is worth the effort.” And in the same interview she referred to a Romany “inability to think even an hour ahead.” Her critics argue that she has been too ready to jump to general conclusions from her own specific experiences. So how does she defend herself against these charges?

“I’m sorry, but it’s just the way it was. It was awfully frustrating for me as well. I really came to the conclusion that there was nothing we could do about it, that all that remained was for us to save a little bit of our dignity. Whatever we did, we couldn’t stop the boys following the path they wanted, ending up in the streets or wherever they are, without documents, without responsibility or anything. We really tried, but we didn’t manage it. But you know, I get a lot of letters – from head teachers of special schools [“special schools” is a term used to describe the schools for children with learning difficulties which many Romany children attend] and social workers, who write that they’re really pleased that someone has had the courage to portray the situation in the way that - in 90% of cases - they have experienced themselves. It’s hard to stand up to the kind of condemnation that you face from people who have no experience of that kind of thing. I just described what I went through. If it stops someone wanting to adopt or help children, then that person certainly doesn’t have the motivation needed to face the problems that can emerge. Of course, there are also people who have been lucky with adopted children, for whom it’s worked out, and I’m really pleased for them. But I can’t just write something that’s going to reassure everybody. I wrote about what I experienced and those things that really took me by surprise.”

Year of the Rooster has sold well in the Czech Republic and the level of discussion it has provoked shows that books in this country are not as marginal as we may think. Tereza Boučková says that as far as she knows neither of her two adopted sons has read the book. She currently has no idea where they may be.

At the moment there are no plans to translate the book into English, but I hope that a translation will be published, as The Year of the Rooster is a thought-provoking and provocative contribution to a complex debate.