Irena Eliášová: a song to raise your spirits

21-09-2013

The poet, playwright and novelist Irena Eliášová spent her early childhood in a Romany village in south-western Slovakia. The memory of this time has become the defining experience in her writing. But Irena does not write just about the lost world of her childhood in the 1950s and 60s. She has also written powerfully and poignantly about the life of Roma in the Czech Republic today. Yet even when she writes about the present, her work is permeated with a sense of family and community that also draws us back to an older world of Roma tradition. David Vaughan meets one of the Czech Republic’s foremost Romany writers.

Irena Eliášová and her husband Zdeněk, photo: David VaughanIrena Eliášová and her husband Zdeněk, photo: David Vaughan Irena Eliášová and her husband Zdeněk, live in the small North Bohemian town of Mimoň, a place surrounded by deep forests, which at this time of year are full of mushrooms and mushroom-pickers with wicker baskets. I’d had a long drive, and as soon as I arrived at the family’s little terraced house, Irena sat me down in the kitchen. Within minutes I had a plate of hot food in front of me. Irena had prepared me a traditional Romany dish.

“I’ve made you gnocchi with chicken and gravy. That’s what I remember from my childhood in the village. It’s what my mother used to cook. Of course, in those days there would only have been chicken on Sunday. Otherwise we’d have the gnocchi with cabbage or whatever else there was.”

After lunch, sitting at Irena’s computer, under photographs of her mother, children and grandchildren, I asked her about her childhood days in Slovakia, the subject of Irena’s short novel, “Naše osada“ – Our Settlement – published in 2008.

Irena Eliášová, photo: David VaughanIrena Eliášová, photo: David Vaughan “It was a big village called Nová Dědina, and we Roma lived in little houses, about fifty of them, just outside the village on a big meadow. So we lived more or less apart from the Slovaks. Every year our parents would travel to the Czech part of Czechoslovakia to work; so we’d all spend the summer near Liberec, until in the end we moved here permanently.

“I wrote the book through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl. I wanted to show some of our traditions, how we lived. I had a happy childhood. I have wonderful memories. We didn’t have much, we weren’t rich, but our parents gave us so much love, and that was something we really felt. That was our wealth.

“I wrote the book in four seasons – winter, spring, summer, autumn. In that way I could offer a flavour of the different traditions like Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals.”

The book, which received excellent reviews, is raw and unsentimental, but also hilariously funny. It is written in Czech, although the dialogue is mostly Slovak, littered with words and phrases in Romani.

Irena reads me part of a wedding scene. The marriage is unusual, as a Romany girl, Maryška is marrying a Slovak boy. There’s a lot of drinking and a hint of tension in the air. The word “gádžo“ [Eng. „gorger“] used here is the Romany word for non-Roma.

It’s very late and the party is in full swing, the gadžo and the Roma are melting into one, the gádžo are embracing the Roma and some are even dancing with the Romany girls. But the Romany men aren’t sure what to think about that. There’s something in the air. Something bodes ill.

One of the gádžo asks the musicians to play a song, but the song he’s chosen does not go down well with the Roma.

“Martin, you are a green tree,” the song goes, “and you don’t need a wife…”

The Romany men take the words as an insult.

“Šunes Fero? So dilavel o ráklo? What do they mean you don’t need a wife? They’re talking about Paľo. They mean he shouldn’t have married a Gypsy! Such an insult to our Maryška, to Gypsies, to all of us!”

“But that’s not true! It’s just one of those bachelor songs!” the singer tries to explain.

“I heard it. I know just what you were trying to say… we all know!” Pociko just won’t let it drop, he’s had a good few drinks and his brain is switched off. Well, to be quite honest, his brain is switched off even when he’s sober.

An argument breaks out, fists fly, and before long, even the parish priest gets involved.

He slammed his fist down on the table with such force that the bowl in front of him leapt in the air and the goulash it contained ended up all over our good priest’s face. The gadžo thought it was blood and all rushed over to protect him.

“So you’ve come to beat up our priest, have you? Father, are you hurt? “

Now, our good priest didn’t want all that good food to go to waste and started to chew on the meat. It soon became clear that he was rather enjoying it.

“My dears, this really is a good goulash. Who made it? Just try it. It’s out of this world!” Our good priest offers it to his concerned parishioners and tucks in.

Irena Eliášová with the book 'Naše osada' – Our Settlement, photo: David VaughanIrena Eliášová with the book 'Naše osada' – Our Settlement, photo: David Vaughan Romany culture has an immense tradition of song and story-telling but, but not of the written word. Irena Eliášová belongs just to a second generation of Czech Roma writers.

“I started writing stories and poems as a child and by the time I was fifteen I had written my first play. Whenever the girls wanted someone to write a love letter or poem, they’d always ask me to do it. My parents always encouraged me, but I think it was most of all thanks to my grandfather. We didn’t have television and he would tell us stories, he’d often make them up and they were wonderful. I stopped writing when I had children, but now the children have left home and it’s just me and my husband, I’ve started again.”

Irena and Zdeněk lead quiet lives in a beautiful part of North Bohemia, but just fifteen miles to the north are the towns of Varnsdorf and Šluknov. These are places that have struggled with long-term economic decline and this has fed social tensions. There have been mass demonstrations, which have seen the Roma as the scapegoat. Some of the language that has accompanied these demonstrations has been openly racist.

“When those protests took place in Varnsdorf, it wasn’t nice. My husband experienced it even with the people he’s been working with for the last five years. At first sight they were friends, but then they began talking about Roma in that same way. I didn’t like it, but, unfortunately I just don’t know how to answer back in the same tone, I’m no good at swearing and arguing, so what I do instead is to write something. I wrote a poem, Nechte nás žít.“

Let us live…

There’s a Gypsy on the corner,
Singing of love and spring
He strums the songs,
The songs the Roma sing.

Hey you, Gypsy, are you still here?
We don’t want you any more,
We don’t want your music here
Just go and beg next door.

Still the Gypsy plays his song,
But with a heavy heart.
Move along now, move along,
But he’ll not give his ground.
I need not beg, I’ll just play on.
You have a problem with my song? Please tell me what is wrong?
A song to raise your spirits, I’ll play it quite for free.

I don’t want to hear you play, I think I’ve made it clear.
I can’t stand your songs.
And you can go to… anywhere but here.

This is the only place I’m home,
I’ll stay and sing my song.
And if you’ve had enough,
Then why don’t you move on?

Life’s too short for all this gloom
Believe me, life’s so good.
I live for my guitar, you see.
Cheer up my friend, and let it be,
Let us be, let us be here with you.

Behind the simplicity of the poem – in my clumsy English rendering – there is a subtle message. The singer is defiant, he will not move on, because he is at home, every bit as much as the neighbour who tells him to leave. The original Czech even echoes the words of the Czech national anthem Kde domov můj, in the line “Já zde domov mám“ (this is my home). In offering his song, the singer is sharing the thing that is dearest to him; the problem lies with the neighbour, who does not want to listen. Typically for Irena Eliášová, the poem ends on a more optimistic tone, as if to say to the prejudiced neighbour: Cheer up. That way you’ll see things in a different light.

'November', photo: KHER'November', photo: KHER Irena’s most recent book is the novella “Listopad” – November – published by the internet publisher Kher (www.kher.cz), which is doing an admirable job bringing out the work of contemporary Czech Roma writers.

“It was published in April and is the story of a prostitute. You know, in 1989, democracy arrived here and in the 90s some people felt they could do anything. This young girl ended up in a brothel. The poor girl had never known her father, her mother died when she was a child and her aunt brought her up, but it worked out badly. The girl had some horrible sexual experiences. She didn’t believe in love, but one day she fell in love, passionately in love. She wanted to throw away her past, wipe it out. She was ashamed of being a prostitute. Sadly her dream of love didn’t come true. It’s an awful but true story. I knew the girl personally. I was working in a shop and we got to know each other. She told me her story and asked me to promise to write down her story. She died. The pimps kidnapped her, forced her into the street. Sadly, she got AIDS and died.”

Death and violence are never far away in Irena Eliášová’s work, which makes her resilient cheerfulness so much the more remarkable. But such, she says, is the nature of the life. And for Roma more than most. Here is a last extract from a poem called Osamocená – Alone. It is about a distant relative of Irena’s who became mentally ill. She lost her husband and children and ended up homeless, living in the street. Irena wrote the poem for her funeral.

[…]
Silent beneath the night sky she slept
and the moon was her bedfellow
with his gentle goodnight kiss.
She has gone, the poorest of women.
Never to return,
the young woman alone below the stars.
But music makes her rich today, one last time.
Music and the priest’s prayers are her quiet company
The lonely woman, who lost her family…

Apart from the few fragments I translated for this programme Irena Eliášová’s work has not yet been translated into English. If you read Czech, you can download Listopad at no cost from the www.kher.cz website, and some of Irena’s work can also be found on www.romea.cz.

21-09-2013