When Tomáš Zmeškal’s first novel was published four years ago, one critic described it in ecstatic terms as a “gold vein amid the deadwood of contemporary Czech scribbling”. The book, A Love Letter in Cuneiform Script, went on to win the coveted European Union Prize for Literature last year and Tomáš Zmeškal has won international acclaim, although we are still waiting for either of his two novels published so far to appear in English. David Vaughan talks to the writer.
Now in his mid forties, Tomáš Zmeškal has plenty of material to draw from in this own life and family, although he says that as a writer he is cautious about exploring his own experience too deeply. Of mixed Czech and Congolese origin, he left his native Prague for London in 1987, returning again after the fall of communism. He studied English language and literature and has worked as a university and secondary school teacher. Both his published novels, A Love Letter in Cuneiform Script (which he has talked about in a previous edition of this programme), and The Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb, are set in communist Czechoslovakia, but that is pretty much where their similarities end. I met Tomáš on a chilly winter morning in Prague to talk about his life and work, and he began by remembering his first impressions on leaving Czechoslovakia as a 21-year-old.
“It was very exciting, but it was also more than 20 years ago, so I was young. I still remember coming to Victoria Station. In most English movies, when someone comes from the continent, they come to Victoria Station, so it was quite fun. But what was most interesting for me was the cultural life in London, because it is, together with Paris, unsurpassed. So I found that very, very exciting.”
Your father is from Congo, so you’re half Czech, half Congolese. In London you suddenly found yourself in a context where people wouldn’t look at you and find you in some way different or exotic.
“It was, in a strange way, a very calming influence, because London is a multicultural city and no-one was surprised that I was mixed race, or black, while at that time in Czechoslovakia foreigners were very unusual, and I was considered by many people to be a foreigner. So that was, in a way, very calming. On the one hand it was a very exciting time, but on the other hand it was very relaxing.”
“I remember much later when I got friendly with one of my lecturers, that he told me that when he saw my name and that I’m coming from Eastern Europe, he expected someone much older and with a long, white beard, some kind of Tolstoy figure, which I didn’t fit at all!”
We’re talking here in your flat in Prague, a flat that you’ve inherited through your mother’s side of the family. On the wall there are some pictures of your Prague forebears. You seem to be from a typical Prague middle-class family.
“Yes, my family on my mother’s side were accountants for two generations for different banks before the communists took over, and actually they continued working in the banks even after the communists took over, but they were always frustrated because they didn’t join the Communist Party, so, like most people, they weren’t promoted.”
On your father’s side your roots are very different.
“Well yes and no. My father actually studied something like political economy, but he switched to political science and he finished with a PhD in France at the Sorbonne. He finished his career as a professor of political science in Kinshasa.”
And how did he come to be in Czechoslovakia?
The main line of the story is how it was to grow up in the 80s. So it was a description of the period and what I was really interested in was to show this kind of conformism. Anybody who was unusual with his ideas or thoughts was always considered suspect…“Well, this is really a rather strange fate, because in 1959 he was one of the people who helped with the demonstrations in Kinshasa which were suppressed and several hundred people were killed. He was also in fear of his life, so he escaped from Congo. It took several months before he reached Ghana, and there he met with Patrice Lumumba and they planned the independence of Congo. He asked my father to go to some Eastern European country, to get some support for the independence of Congo. So my father actually got here as a supporter of Congo’s independence. That was his main objective.”
And with the twists and turns of fate he ended up getting more or less stuck in Czechoslovakia.
“The Czechoslovak authorities thought that Congo wasn’t following the right kind of leftist path and he wasn’t given the promised official documents. In the end he got in touch with Joseph Kasavubu who was the first president of Congo and was actually one of the organizers of the demonstration in 1959. Meanwhile he met my mother in Prague and Joseph Kasavubu sent him a diplomatic passport so he could leave Czechoslovakia.”
And in the meantime, in the mid-1960s, you were born.
“Yes, he met my mother here, I was born and he proposed to my mother that she go to Congo with him. But the turbulent 60s meant that meanwhile Patrice Lumumba had been killed and Congo was on the brink of war, so my mother decided not to go. This is how their relationship really ended, although they stayed in touch for many years.”
And so you grew up in Czechoslovakia. You were a very small child when the Soviet invasion of 1968 happened, so you grew up in the period known as “normalization”, a time of very grey, hard line communism.
“It was very difficult for my mother and for my grandparents, who were older, but when you are a child growing up, you really don’t care, because, first of all, you don’t know anything about what happened. Anything that happened before you were born is like history. Secondly, you didn’t have an alternative, so we didn’t really think about it. The only time I really started to notice it was when I started to be interested in literature, because a lot of good Czech writers were not in the libraries and you could only borrow them at friends’ houses. So people like Milan Kundera or Josef Škvorecký or Bohumil Hrabal were not in the libraries. The best writers were simply prohibited. Of course, when you are a child it makes them very attractive!
“When it really began to be difficult was paradoxically after Gorbachev got to power in 1985, because the Czech top brass in the Communist Party decided that they were going to be even more hard line than they were before. So when I met my wife, we decided that there was really no future.”
You recently visited Congo for the first time. Your father is still alive and you have relatives there. Did it seem to you a completely foreign country?
“The difference between Europe and Congo is such that there is almost nothing similar. Everything is different. Of course, I was sheltered by my step-family, so life isn’t at all as grey as the news coming from Congo shows. But everything is so different – from the climate to the culture. The people, the Congolese, are very friendly and they are very open. These are very positive things, but of course there is also huge unemployment, for example, and there is absolute capitalism, which we don’t have in Europe and I hope that we never will have, because you can get everything for money and nothing without money. So this is completely different. But I met my family there and my father, and it was very nice.”
It happens in many families that the parents split up, but normally it’s for personal reasons. In your family there were many other factors – your father’s decision to go back to Congo, your mother’s decision not to go. It must have left wounds on both sides.
“I think it was very hard for my mother. For me it wasn’t so difficult because children get used to anything. I grew up with no father so I didn’t miss him. But for my mother it must have been very difficult. She never talked about it, even when I asked about it before she died. And for a writer there is a kind of danger if you start to explore this history and start to write about it, which is a temptation which I don’t think is actually very good. So I was always very circumspect about it.”
This brings us to the subject of your writing, and your two novels, A Love Letter in Cuneiform Script and The Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb. You say that you are not being autobiographical in these novels, but there are clear autobiographical elements in both novels, aren’t there?
“I think in the first book there aren’t many autobiographical elements. In the second one, there are three or four chapters which are inspired by personal experience. But the main line is not autobiographical. The main characters are mixed race. At the time that was very unusual in Prague, so I thought that might be very interesting. The main line of the story is how it was to grow up in the 80s. So it was a description of the period and what I was really interested in was to show this kind of conformism. Anybody who was unusual with his ideas or thoughts was always considered suspect…”
… and also anyone whose skin was a different colour. There is also a theme of racism in the novel.
“Well, I tried to explore that, but I think it wasn’t really racism. I think it was much more this conformism. If anything was ordered by the authorities, people would follow it. There was a complete lack of knowledge of any foreign cultures. So even if you came from Finland, you would be kind of unique.”
And that conformism has also led to some of the extremes that we’ve seen in this country over the last 60 years or so, with the Stalinism that came in the 1950s and then the return to hard line communism after 1968. This history figures quite prominently in your first novel, where you look at the impact of these developments on one family, and how it wrecks the family.
“I think that Czechoslovakia, as it used to be, prided itself on a kind of rationality and a high living standard. It was one of the highest living standards in communist countries. But at the same time, there is this kind of almost Jacobin streak. For example, when the communists took over, they nationalized absolutely everything, even the small corner shops. So I saw a private corner shop for the first time when I was 15 or 16 and went to Poland, where there were private corner shops, because in Czechoslovakia everything was nationalized and you had nothing private. So this was the uniqueness of the Czechoslovak – or rather the Czech -situation, because the situation in Slovakia was more tolerant than in the Czech part. But it is a thing which I think is still very uncomfortable for Czech society.”
“I’m in the process of writing a series of reportages. I started by writing about the 60s and how my father and my mother met, and how it was in Prague, and how it was in Brussels where my father lived afterwards. For me, what is interesting about it is not just this personal story, but how much they were both influenced by history, because he came to Europe for political reasons, he left for political reasons; then Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Russians in 68, their whole life changed again for a generation. So for me it’s a kind of learning experience.”
And you say you’re writing about this in the way of a journalist. What about fiction?
“I’m doing what I promised myself that I’d never do. I’m writing two books at the same time, which I never wanted to do. One is a novel and the other is the book of reportages. As far as the novel goes, I still have at least another one or two years of writing, so I really don’t want to get into the question of what it is all about, because I still don’t know! I’m exploring it.”
And do you think that Prague is the city where you would like to spend the rest of your life?
“Perhaps. I’m a city person. I love the countryside, but the city is where I want to be, because I love art and culture and I love meeting people, and Prague is definitely my home, for sure.”