Jaroslav Rudis and the discreet charms of the Berlin U-Bahn

19-10-2003

Welcome again to Czech Books. Now every little boy feels a frisson of excitement as he watches a train thundering past or disappearing into a tunnel, but by the time we hit 30 most of us have become pretty blasé about such things. Not so the Czech writer Jaroslav Rudis. His writing reflects a positive obsession with trains, and even the famously unsuccessful punk band he plays in has the unlikely name of U-Bahn, named after the Berlin underground railway. In fact the Berlin U-Bahn was the hero of Jaroslav Rudis's highly successful first novel, "Nebe pod Berlinem" - "The Heavens under Berlin" - that was published last year. The book's rather quirky title is an inversion of the film director Wim Wender's Berlin classic, "Der Himmel über Berlin", known in English as "Wings of Desire", and the novel offers an eccentric, very Czech perspective on life in the German capital. Trains figure almost as prominently in Jaroslav Rudis's second novel "Bily potok" - "The White Stream" - that came out last week. But his writing is about a great deal more than rolling stock and bogies, as Pavla Jonssonova found out when she invited him to the studio. She asked Jaroslav what it was that drew him as a Czech writer to Berlin.

Pavla Jonssonova and Jaroslav RudisPavla Jonssonova and Jaroslav Rudis "Berlin has a magnet inside and I felt it from the '80s. I liked the music that was made in Berlin, and I liked the energy of Berlin, and I liked the energy, which I found under Berlin in the underground. I was studying there German literature and I had lots of time to observe the city and to smell it and to listen to the people."

Did you have to correct some of the myths of Berlin that exist? Were you surprised in any way?

"Definitely. If you take a look at Prague, for example, you find that it's a consistent city. It's one island. But if you take a look at Berlin, you find ten totally different islands, totally different republics of Berlin. Different people are living there - more Turkish, more Russians, more Germans, East Germans - and that's what I really like there. And I like railways, so it is not an accident that my book is set in the Berlin underground. I like travelling with the U-Bahn and I also tried to start a band called U-Bahn there, but I think that the underground, or the railways, are the only thing that holds the town together."

The title of your book is paraphrasing Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire", so how influenced were you by this movie?

"I like it very much because Wenders describes the city perfectly, but he describes it also from the very slow point of view, with these angels up above Berlin. I tried to describe it more fast and from the opposite side - from the underground, and to build up a contrast, because Berlin is a city of big contrasts."

Basically, if we were to summarize the story, it is the story of a history teacher from Northern Bohemia, who quits his teaching job and leaves for Berlin.

Jaroslav RudisJaroslav Rudis "It's a kind of escape actually, but he escapes with his own problems, which he still has in his mind, and you cannot escape from your problems. They are with you. Actually he finds a new girl in Berlin - Katrin - and starts this band, a great punk-rock band U-Bahn, which is his tenth band, and he is getting obsessed by the Berlin underground world of the U-Bahn, these railway stations - they are fifty or sixty years old - nothing has changed since Hitler's time."

It seems to me that this is a systematic, poetic research of the underground system in Berlin, and all these little, personal stories are falling into the great mosaic - like the train driver who has to run from one end of the train to the other - doing it in fourteen seconds.

"There is also one train driver who believes that the people who are dying under the trains do not got to heaven, but they actually stay in the underground, and that's such a heaven for them, this underground system."

I liked the story of one of the death-jumpers, Bertram, who appeared also at the end of the book at an U-Bahn concert, and even gave the band a lot of euros for their performance.

"Yes, sponsoring their future!"

Also I find the book to be a very witty contribution to Czech-German relations, for example - the story that you have about Czechs loving Germans.

"When German or Czech politicians are talking about our relationships, they say that we have got lots in common, but they don't forget to mention our problems from the Second World War, and I don't see it at all. I have lots of friends in Berlin, Dresden or Cologne and actually we are not talking about politics at all. We are talking about music and literature and history too but I don't see any big problems. I think for me this world of politicians is very unreal, because the Czech-German relations are not better or worse than Czech-French relations or Czech-Swedish relations."

The book hasn't been translated into English yet, but let's find an example. There's this figure of a painter who loves painting on a platform in the U-Bahn. He mixes his colours in a very original way from the various stations of the U-Bahn.

"That's one of my favourite parts."

If he wants green he goes to Unter den Linden, he says the station reminds him of an aquarium, overgrown with weed, for bright blue he goes to Senefelder Platz, when he can't quite remember the colour of the Elbe beneath Loschwitz hill near Dresden which has the oldest passenger furnicular railway in the world. He claims that in the days when the Czech chemical industry was going at full pelt the river was a wonderful natural clear blue colour, but since the factories closed down, it's been nothing but mud, leaves and filth.

The connection between your first book and your next one, that's coming out right now, "The White Stream", is the railway once again. What are the differences?

"As a child I had lots of childhood dreams, and one of those was that I wanted to be a train driver, but I've got glasses and it's impossible to work as a train driver in the Czech Republic. It's a pity. And so I write about the railway. But that's just part of the story. The main character of this book is a train dispatcher, his name is Alois Nebel, and he's working on a very small station in the Jeseniky Mountains in the former Sudetenland, the border region, where mostly Germans were living before the Second World War. He's also partly German - Czech German. He's mentally ill and sometimes he sees what other people cannot see. But for readers that's a great chance how to travel through the last century, which we think is lost and forgotten, but it's still with these stories in our minds. And he narrates these stories in an asylum to one patient. It's very melancholic, a bit horror, but I hope also funny - in a very strange way."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.

19-10-2003