Interview with Czech author Miloš Urban

Czech author Miloš Urban has written such novels as The Seven Churches and Lord Mord. His works have been translated into a variety of languages asides from Czech, including English, Polish, Spanish and Hungarian. He is also a prolific short story writer; has translated books by such authors as Julian Barnes, Graham Masterton and Rose Tremain into Czech; and also works at the Czech publishing house Argo.

Miloš Urban, photo: archive of Radio WaveMiloš Urban, photo: archive of Radio Wave Thanks very much for joining us. My first question to you is – I noticed while reading some of your works a kind of thematic umbrella. The “tajemná kráska” or mysterious maiden; and a mysterious, dark, Gothic past. Which themes would you say you are most interested in writing about?

“There are a variety of themes. But I did somehow start out with the Gothic novel, and with the inspiration it gave me. And I was always intrigued by how these old genres can transform themselves, or can be transformed by the writer into modern prose. So I have tried to undertake this kind of writing for a couple of years. But now I think I have moved on a little bit and am exploring new territories.”

Your novel Lord Mord was set in Prague during the 19th century, and takes place in the Jewish ghetto. What made you select this particular dark period?

“Sometimes my reasons are sentimental. You cannot see that ghetto anymore as it no longer exists. There was this large, great reconstruction of Prague about 120 years ago, and this unique part of the city simply ceased to exist. Something new came after that, but I am always very sad about the phenomena that are no longer here. So I just wanted and needed to reconstruct this part of the city, the Jewish town, for me and for my readers.”

I understand that you spent some of your life in the Czechoslovak embassy in London.

“Yes, that was back in the 1970s. It was a great influence on my life, and then I chose to study the English language and English literature, so that was really something very important for me.”

How did you manage to be in the West during the time of the Iron Curtain?

“That was a coincidence for me as a child. My mother divorced and then remarried a man called Antonín Urban – which is the surname I carry, though he was not my father – and we travelled to London in 1975. So my and my brother’s surnames were changed. It had been Svačína, which translates as a snack [tea time]. And the new name was Urban, which in Latin is a person who is about town, or who is from the city – urbanus. So this happened in the 1970s, and I spent four years in England at the Czechoslovak embassy, and then I had to go home, which was quite a cultural shock for me.”

Photo: ArgoPhoto: Argo And then you started out your professional career as a journalist?

“I did write some journalism, but I was never employed at any newspaper. I started to work as a publishing editor in 1992 – a long time ago.”

So where did your interest in writing stories come from and how did that begin? You presumably began by writing short stories.

“Yes, but it was not good, this writing of mine. I was a teenager and that was really bad stuff. Juvenile stuff. Then I started to translate when I studied at university. And after translating my fourth or fifth book, I found out that maybe I would prefer to write my own stuff. I think that began with Julian Barnes’ Flaubert's Parrot. I think the translation is reasonably good, and I even got a prize for it...”

In 1996, the Mladá Fronta prize...

“Yes, and then I said to myself that this literary topic is very fascinating for me and I would love to find something similar in Czech history, Czech culture, and Czech literature. And so I found a great scam about historical manuscripts [Rukopis královédvorský and Rukopis zelenohorský] that were not medieval at all, and so on, and I wrote a novel about this.”

Tell us about this story.

“That was Poslední tečka za Rukopisy, which roughly translates as ‘The Last Word on the Manuscripts’. And I thought up a fictional story about the history, and about the problem of these manuscripts being real or being fake.”

And you published that book under a pseudonym, Josef Urban.

“Yes, That was not a very good idea because when reviews came out about my second novel Sedmikostelí (The Seven Churches), the reviewers called me Josef Urban, even though I used my real name in that second novel. So there was quite a bit of confusion about that.”

And you have used other pen names too. Your novella Michaela was written under the name Max Unterwasser.

“Yes, Max Unterwasser is one of my heroes, in fact. I did that for family reasons back then. But there is no reason to do that anymore.”

Photo: ArgoPhoto: Argo So you weren’t certain about putting your own name to those works.

“[Michaela] was quite scandalous and very sexually explicit and all that, and I just did not want to sign my name under it.”

Is that a common theme in your works? The maiden, the young man filled with desire; the sexually explicit adventures?

“It was interesting to me at one time because I always find it a challenge to write about sex in an interesting way. To not be banal about it. So I did quite enjoy writing this, but I’m not writing these kinds of things anymore.”

Your books have been translated into several foreign languages, including English, Polish, Hungarian and Russian...

“And Spanish, and Dutch, and you know...”

What kind of reactions have you had around the world to your works?

“I think the best reactions came from the Spanish-speaking countries, because Sedmikostelí sold quite well. I can’t say this about the English-speaking world, as I did not succeed with my books in England.”

And the places where you have found success, has anyone mentioned that they have gained an insight either into your writer’s soul, or the Czech nation – that somehow the foreign reader might be given insights into the Czech people and the Czech experience?

“I don’t think so. I think that maybe I am too different from the Czech writing tradition. Maybe because I possess this other education, studying English literature, Norwegian and so on, and pop culture too. So I don’t think I am very representative of Czech literature.”

It is too dark, would you say...

“Yes, and I think that fiction is really important to me. That my stories don’t have to be authentic. Nothing that takes place in my novels really happened in real life. But in the Czech literary tradition, it is vice-versa. For the critics, and the readers too perhaps, it is always more important if the story really did take place somewhere, sometime...”

Photo: ArgoPhoto: Argo Could it not be said that your works are the flip-side of the classic Czech fairytale? That they are kind of dark, noir fairytales?

“Maybe you could say that about some of my texts, but they are fairytales for grown-ups, not for children.”

Your most recent novel was called Přišla z moře, or She Came from the Sea. It was published in early 2014 and is described as an intelligent noir. So tell us a little bit about that.

“I call it a book that is very ‘Englishey’ – that is my word, I think. I takes place in England. The hero is Czech, but all the other characters are English or foreigners living in England. Partly it is from my experience living in Oxford during the 1990s. And partly it is my childhood in England and it takes place in Eastbourne. That is a seaside resort, which almost everybody knows, but few people actually go there. And those magnificent white cliffs that are much more beautiful than the ones near Dover. There is a murder mystery, and I wanted to write it as a sort of opposite to those modern thrillers in which you have litres of blood and many dead people, families killing each other and so on. So there is only one murder here, and the plot revolves around that.”

I have a question from a friend, who is a fan of yours. She asks: Is the novel Praga Piccola really based on a diary or did you make it up?

“I made it up. And I did fool a lot of people. A lot of readers wanted to see the diary and read it. It was a little joke of mine, but I wanted it to look very authentic, because it is my view of the First Republic, as we say...”

The novel itself is based around a family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“Yes, it begins during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And then it takes place in the 1920 and 1930s. It is set in a car factory. Prague had its own car factory, which was called Praga, and made some magnificent cars. Nothing of this exists anymore, however. And once again I became sentimental and felt I needed to write about this subject.”

What are you working on at the moment?

“Well, it is a novel about experimental architecture. It is called Urbo Kune, which means a city that belongs to us all. It is about an optimistic view of the European Union. So it may be quite a challenge to write positively about these topics, but...”

You are going against the grain there?

“I hope so. I am just about to finish it now, and I am quite satisfied with it.”

I must then ask an inevitable political follow-up question. It is quite popular here, and I suppose across much of Europe, to kick the EU as an institution. Whereas on the outside, a country like Ukraine is longing to enter this Promised Land of the European Union. So do you believe that people on the inside are being too critical?

Photo: ArgoPhoto: Argo “Oh, yes. I side with the Poles. The Polish attitude is much better. And they really are present there when matters of sorting out European affairs are on the agenda. The Czechs aren’t because they are too negative. But I am a Euro-federalist and I hope that we get to pay with the euro in a couple of years.”

That is quite a minority view here in this country, isn’t it?

“[laughs] Yes.”

Miloš Urban, thank you very much for joining us.