Blanka Čechová: finding Kafka in Kosovo

12-05-2012

Not many people would give up the salary, status and security of a job as a high-flying European lawyer for all the uncertainties of being a full time writer. But this is exactly what Blanka Čechová has done. After several years working for international institutions that seemed to feed on their own bureaucracy, she became disillusioned, and instead has taken her experiences as an inspiration for her writing. Her new novel, “Totál Balkán” draws richly from the time the author spent with an international mission in Kosovo, and the picture it paints is far from flattering. David Vaughan meets a writer who has not been afraid to court controversy.

Blanka Čechová, photo: archive of Blanka ČechováBlanka Čechová, photo: archive of Blanka Čechová When she left school, it took Blanka Čechová a while before she decided whether to study law or journalism. In the end she concluded that a lawyer can always start writing, but it is much harder for a writer to become a lawyer. It proved the right decision, as Blanka has fulfilled her own prediction. She is rapidly becoming an established voice on the Czech literary scene, writing with edge, pace and humour. On her blog, she also gives advice to other people struggling to take up writing as a full time career. When I met Blanka Čechová, I began by asking about her brief career as a lawyer.

“I was 25 when I was admitted to the Czech division of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which was a great honour for me at that time and a huge opportunity. However, I stayed less than two years in the position, partly due to disillusionment – I wouldn’t say loss of idealism, but loss of certain illusions that I had about the international environment as such, not particularly about the court in Strasbourg.”

When you went there, did you really feel that you could do something about human rights – that you could make a little bit of an impact?

“Obviously, you have this positive image of the institution before you join, so you have maybe exaggerated expectations regarding the functionality and efficiency of the whole body and the system. So when, for the first time in your life, you confront a huge Kafka mechanism that has its long procedures and often inefficient mechanisms, you are shocked – especially when you’re 25.”

And so what did you do after that?

“Well, I thought that was the first and last international organization that I would have anything in common with. In the meantime I got admitted to the University of Oxford, to the creative writing programme, so for nearly half a year I was a full time devoted student of creative writing. Then there was an opportunity to join a field mission in Kosovo – it was a field mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I got to the position through a competition, and I didn’t have much expectation that I would be successful, but, as to my motivation, why after that partly disillusioning experience in Strasbourg I chose to enter the competition, I thought it must be very different to work in a field mission, when you really have this operational space, manoeuvring space of going out into the villages, of working with people, of implementing projects. I thought that must be very different from sitting in an office and working with papers and computer screens and judicial procedures.”

And you tell the story of your experience in Kosovo through the book that you’ve just completed, which is highly critical of the way that international organizations function.

“In the novel I try to explore how you can coexist within an organization that sends you into a field mission like this. You don’t want to break the rules, yet you want to achieve something reasonable and sensible for the local people, for whom you are there in the first place. And this exploration led me to some very interesting concepts. So, on the platform of humour, I tried to show what eventually could be done. I’m not saying that I am the protagonist, even though it is very autobiographical.”

The book is written in Czech but you have translated some of it into English.

“It sounds very different from the original Czech text because I never translated my own texts from Czech into English and obviously this is just a working translation.

Am going through a pile of documents that landed on my table. Soon it occurs to me that there were so many principles, regulations, standards, transformation policies, short-term goals, mid-term plans and long-term strategies set up for Kosovo, that the European Commission would turn green with envy, if they knew.

There are heaps of it. Six basic directives. Just follow them! Or Fifteen key questions and answers. Brilliant! Thirty two goals for 2004. (What a pity it didn’t work out again.) Twelve recommendations of the Troika. Crisis package of Mr. A. Nine conclusions of working group B. And so on. If efficiency would be measured by the volume of printed paper, the democratization of south-Serbian province of Kosovo would be the greatest success in modern history. Sadly, not every graphomaniac is a writer at the same time, even though many graphomaniacs can’t be denied that within the huge amount they produce, they do come up with a reasonable thought from time to time.

For instance, all the preambles. Bearing in mind, recalling, regretting, determined, condemning and stipulating that Kosovo is to become the place where everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race or religion can live and work without fear and danger, where freedom of movement is guaranteed and where justice prevails. About a thousand and five hundred items follow, explaining what exactly the UN had in mind: we will all be healthy and safe over here, the kids will go to school, there won’t be power-cuts, there will be water, no such things like drug smuggling or human trafficking will ever occur again, the courts will be prompt and fair, the police will act incorruptibly and duly, while we, the international community, will temporarily manage all that, and as soon as perfect order is established and a functioning multi-ethnic society inhabits Kosovo, we will return it back to Serbia, who, in the meanwhile can sit back and relax. Just leave it up to us!

Nice. Unnecessarily lengthy. If they said no way or just kidding, it would have been explicit enough. And whoever came up with the concept of functioning multi-ethnic society in Kosovo must have been either insane or horribly drunk, just like the guy who invented collectivization in Ukraine back then, and they should have reduced his legal capacity or simply hit him. Too bad that, again, he got away with it.

Aren’t you being unfair? It almost looks as though you are blaming the people who are trying to do something about a difficult post-conflict situation for the fact that the situation is there in the first place.

Pristina, KosovoPristina, Kosovo “Unfortunately this is how I felt when I confronted the libraries of documents and libraries of concepts, policies, strategies, solutions, for this tiny province of Kosovo, which has about two million inhabitants. But when you look around and leave Pristina, which is obviously a big city and many things have changed for the better there, you go to the villages, you see power cuts, no fresh water, elementary schools in total ruin, unqualified teachers, doctors, policemen and judges – you name it. So, what I was aiming to do was to show the discrepancy between the amount of administrative work, policies and ideas, and the actual result, because in the book there are many situations where the protagonist goes to the villages and does the actual field work, and gets into the trap of communication with the local people and trying to explain that everybody is doing everything on paper, but actually it’s very inefficient.”

And one subject that is also brought up in your book is the question of corruption.

“The protagonist, in the beginning, when she is trying to decide whether she will take the position in Kosovo, sees a piece of news, where some spokesperson declares, ‘We have built a row of new houses and it is a huge success, and there will be electricity and running water and the refugees will return there.’ And then she comes to Kosovo, and she tries to find the place. She finds it and she realizes that there is nothing, that actually it was all just a ‘Potemkin village’. And she wonders how many times in the past, when she was watching the news from much more distant places, like Afghanistan or Sudan, it was manipulation or fabulation, because she cannot believe that somebody could just invent things that have their origin in public budgets.”

You have a very interesting and active blog – articles and short stories that you have written, things that you have written about the process of writing and about your decision to leave what would have seemed to many a glittering career as a successful lawyer to become a writer, with all the risks that involves. And the blog includes a few things you have written in English. Is the blogosphere a medium where you really do feel at home?

“It is, because it’s entirely up to me what I write, how I write it and, of course, it has its negative sides as well, mainly discipline, because you have to organize your time, push yourself sometimes. But there are many readers of my blog, which really pleases me, and I think it has already helped several writers who are in the same position as myself, who are trying to find ways of existing as a full time writer in the Czech environment. That is very difficult, because books – novels – would typically be published in the volume of 2-3,000 copies. If you manage to sell three thousand copies of a novel here, as a relatively unknown author, that’s already very successful.”

I found reading your work very refreshing, because it’s very lively, it’s engaged writing, it’s very fast – you tell stories – and in much of what I’ve read of your writing you come quite close to journalism. There are not many writers in the Czech Republic who are writing like that at the moment and there would probably even be quite a few who would look on it rather scornfully, saying that it isn’t proper literature.

“I think I developed this approach to writing very strongly in Oxford, where we were ‘trained’ to write stories…”

So the story isn’t dead…

“Oh no, definitely not. If I can add to resuscitating it, I will do that. I still think, if nothing else, it’s much easier to be entertaining on the platform of a story, because it already gives you a structure that suggests certain things with which otherwise you have to really struggle.”

You are writing about real places, real time, telling stories which are very close to your own experience. There must be some process going on in your mind as to what extent you should allow your imagination to carry you away into the realm of fiction, away from documentary-type writing. After all, you’re talking about controversial things, such as corruption. The reader might ask, ‘Who are these corrupt people?’ given that you are writing about something that appears to have really happened. This tension between fiction and documentary must be in your mind when you are writing.

“When I’m writing, I don’t think it occurs to me. I’m just trying to write a good story, bearing in mind the purpose why I’m choosing the topic, which is, in the case of Totál Balkán, to open up discussion about the efficiency of international missions. It would be great if I could achieve that, but obviously the individual stories and some of the individual characters are fictional.”

And where do you go from here?

“Well, I was very lucky last year, because I got a novel commissioned from a big publishing house. I’ve already finished it, and now it’s in its pre-printing phase, so hopefully in one month it will be out. It will be a comedy or a humorous novel from Croatia, so I’m still in the Balkans.”

May I ask what it’s about?

“Broadly it’s about a woman who comes to Croatia for her friend’s wedding – she comes as a witness – and she falls in love with a local man. From the original couple of days staying there, she ends up staying the whole summer. For several reasons, an important aspect of her staying there is cooking, and she can’t cook. So she’s trying to learn to cook the local recipes. People say that it’s funny, so let’s wait what the broader community of readers will say.”

Is there anything more that we can look forward to in English?

“Since I specialized in screenwriting in the last year of my Oxford MA, I had two scripts in English that now are circulating around screenwriting competitions and two production companies, so let’s wait what they’ll say!”

You can find Blanka Čechová's blog at: jinepsani.blogspot.com

12-05-2012