The Madness of Central Europe

All my titles have sparked strong controversies, and only after some time did I understand what was going on: I am not Czech enough – says the writer Radka Denemarková.

Anna Maślanka, Lukasz Grzesiczak: You have always travelled a lot, taken advantage of writer’s residencies and journeyed all over the world to literary events. How much has this changed in recent months?

Radka Denemarková: Last year there were no major changes, I managed to make a few trips. At the beginning of the year I was in Taiwan, and from August to January in Switzerland, as part of the Spycher: Literaturpreis Leuk 2019 literary award, which I received for my “Contribution to the History of Joy”. Now I am back in the Czech Republic. Of course, the limitations are troublesome, because travel always helps me see things from a different perspective.

The position of a freelance author, who also earns a living from royalties for participating in various events, has certainly changed a lot. The pandemic has also shown that in the Czech Republic, as well as in our whole region, there is no systemic support for artists and culture. On the other hand, in my opinion, it’s no great change, because working as a freelancer is in fact a permanent crisis. The pandemic is just another crisis that we have to go through one way or another.

Poland has recently received reports of the dramatic epidemic situation in the Czech Republic. Is it really that bad – and what do you think is the reason?

The Czech Republic is a model case of a country with problems that were visible before, but now, in the era of the pandemic, they can no longer be hidden. Because the pandemic is a hard reality – a virus cannot be bribed, brainwashed with propaganda or threatened. And suddenly it has come to light that the government we have is completely indolent.

Our real problem is an incompetent government, headed by a Prime Minister who was a collaborator with the Communist security services and who, as a businessman, swindled millions from the EU.

So our real problem is an incompetent government, headed by a Prime Minister who was a collaborator with the Communist security services and who, as a businessman, swindled millions from the EU. Even his alleged ability as a good manager has not stood the test of reality – it is now evident that he is completely incapable of managing crisis situations. His propaganda is still up and running, however, due to the fact that he has bought part of the media in advance. Consequently, he always succeeds in pushing his own story.

When you are walking along the river and you see someone drowning – you save them. But we are in a situation where the whole nation is drowning. We have a government that believes the Prime Minister’s every word – it’s not a government but a cult, and Andrej Babiš is not a Prime Minister but a guru. So he stands on the shore with his government and pushes everyone else away so that they drown and only his companies make money. When someone climbs ashore through his own efforts, the Prime Minister takes a picture with him and claims that it was he who saved them.

When you are walking along the river and you see someone drowning – you save them. But we are in a situation where the whole nation is drowning.

In addition, Andrej Babiš and Miloš Zeman have completed what Václav Klaus started, they have isolated us from the civilized world. We lack solidarity, we don’t even cooperate with the European Union, from which, to make matters worse, we have stolen a lot of money with the hands of our Prime Minister. We are no longer a partner for anyone, no one invites us anywhere – and where else could we go?

To Poland, for example.

Yes, and maybe to Hungary or Serbia. Or to Israel. All this is hard to explain to an outsider – I know, because I tried to tell a friend from Sweden about it. I think it is the same with Poland, it is just as difficult to explain to people from civilized, democratic countries – which of course have their own problems, but at least respect the principles of democracy – why the situation has gone so far in this direction. But, as Mr Hrabal wrote, “if you want to live in Central Europe you can’t sober up”.

What about the restrictions currently being imposed by the government?

They do not help at all. They are only destroying small businesses so that companies owned by the Prime Minister can make even more money. Those who are moving towards an authoritarian regime are unfortunately also using the pandemic to achieve that. This is a dangerous situation, because imposing restrictions on the citizens’ freedom has already exceeded all limits, we have a hard lockdown, and the number of new infections is not coming down at all. There are no vaccines. But it’s always someone else’s fault… So I’m afraid that this terrible current situation, where the government should just step down, will turn into another mendacious story.

And you can do things differently after all. I’m very glad that I was able to watch the fight against the pandemic with my own eyes in Taiwan, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have believed it. The government there has a group of reliable advisors, clear information is given every hour, and people believe in it and comply. In addition, the organization is great – at the very onset of the problems there were free masks, there were protective measures everywhere. Such a strategy gives people hope and belief that it will lead to something.

In the Czech Republic, politicians pretend to be saviors, but in fact, they use what is happening for their own purposes. It’s as if they didn’t understand that the time for lying is over. The pandemic has shown that our government is incapable of handling any crisis. If World War III broke out, the government would be completely at a loss as to what to do.

In the Czech Republic, politicians pretend to be saviors, but in fact, they use what is happening for their own purposes. It’s as if they didn’t understand that the time for lying is over.

From our perspective, it looks a bit like this: the Prime Minister blames Brussels for the epidemic, Czech politicians break the restrictions they introduce themselves, and you have had three different health ministers in the last twelve months.

It’s true, the main problem in our country is that officials don’t follow the rules – it’s a mentality that we inherited from the previous regime. Babiš, for example, did not achieve anything on his own, he was simply lucky to be born into a family of high Communist officials who stole a lot of money. Such people always feel that they are better than others.

I call it the “Teplice syndrome” – from a story where one politician’s birthday party was held in Teplice and the whole political cream of the crop was there. It all happened at a time when it was already forbidden to organize any collective events, to go to restaurants, nothing. The police inspected various premises in Teplice, but skipped this one. Since this aroused a wave of criticism, the police reacted by violently dispersing children who were sledding on Petřín hill.

This is classic mafia behaviour – we can do anything, and those at the bottom can only try to bite us. This level of insolence and crudeness reminds me a bit of the times I grew up in. It’s all back.

As for the health ministers – it’s also a bit of a psychological issue. Babiš is a man who thinks only about himself, who thinks he knows everything, from health care to education to culture. Who would want to work with someone like that? Only people who are absolutely loyal. Their competence doesn’t matter.

The question is where is it going – elections are coming up, but in the public space we don’t have any strong voice, any moral authority like Václav Havel once was.

I’m following all this with some curiosity, because I’m stuck in the Czech Republic at the moment when the country has completely fallen apart. But it’s also a great misfortune because people are dying; a drama that as a writer I couldn’t even imagine. The question is where is it going – elections are coming up, but in the public space we don’t have any strong voice, any moral authority like Václav Havel once was. Some say that Babiš no longer stands any chance in the next election, but I wouldn’t be so sure.

We also hear that large anti-lockdown protests are taking place in the streets, with speeches by, among others, Václav Klaus, the former president you already mentioned.

This is a different group of lunatics. Our former president, who has connections with Russia, is the guru of all Eurosceptics. He is a man who, in my opinion, should be tried for treason. He has attended several congresses of the neo-fascist German AFD party. He did great harm to our country, for example, by introducing technocratic thinking and economic pragmatism, the dictates of money, after the era of Václav Havel. In addition, he is a narcissist who thinks he knows everything, but has no idea about anything – he is not concerned with the pandemic, but with becoming more visible. In my opinion, he is behaving like a psychopath.

There is also another important factor at play – all these conspiracy theories and nonsense on social media that people start believing in when the government fails and they are frustrated. It doesn’t occur to them that this is just brainwashing, which is the work of Russian and Chinese propaganda. And Klaus takes advantage of this – he has years of experience, he knows how to use this information. So I have a feeling that he or his son – who also wants to enter politics – are behaving like people who work for Chinese or Russian money. Because why else would they be doing all this?

Is there anything that the pandemic has taught us?

I hope it will teach us the politics of the human community. If the World Health Organization had pointed out early on that this was a global problem – not something happening somewhere far away in Asia – we would have dealt with the pandemic faster. And we will still need similar policies, for example in the context of climate change.

Besides Taiwan, I like what the Prime Minister of New Zealand is doing. This is an example of a completely new policy, different from all those Babišes, Zemans, Trumps, Kaczyńskis and Orbáns. It is about a new political language, but also about compassion and consideration for others. It is heart-warming to look at her parliament, which includes many women, indigenous representatives, sexual minorities and all of them jointly solving the problems of today’s world. The pandemic has shown us that politics can be done in various ways.

It also showed us that such a serious global problem cannot be solved by closing ourselves off in our own country. It cannot be the case that each country pursues its own policy and imposes its own restrictions. This happened in the European Union and it showed us how weak this institution is and that it cannot be built on economic pragmatism alone, without a common vision and values.

The pandemic has shown us that politics can be done in various ways. It also showed us that such a serious global problem cannot be solved by closing ourselves off in our own country.

It will accomplish nothing if only rich countries vaccinate their populations, because the virus will continue to grow and mutate. For a pandemic to be defeated, everyone must be vaccinated. So cooperation is necessary and this is what the pandemic could teach us.

Would you say that the pandemic exposed some of our sins? And what would those sins be in the case of the Czech Republic?

Yes, it showed us that since 1989 we have been following the wrong path. The path of neoliberalism, economic pragmatism, a society of self-centred individuals. We lack values: solidarity, cooperation, thinking about others. We have to return to what democracy is about, to equal rights and a dignified life for all, and realize how important access to education, health care, and culture is.

In your books, you also write about violence against women. I think this topic has gained a new dimension in the era of the lockdown?

I think, unfortunately, that it has gained an old dimension. Like so many other things. Old thinking has suddenly acquired a space to grow. Like, for example, in October in Poland – I thought I would faint when I heard about the changes in the abortion law. As if we wanted to chase women back to the sixteenth century and reduce their role to giving birth to little nationalists. Control is back, patriarchal patterns of thinking are back, also towards minorities like homosexuals.

The theme of domestic violence has indeed resonated more strongly, in Latin America, for example, it made women take to the streets. Because in an era when everyone is locked up and has all sorts of psychological problems, who does it affect the most? The women, of course, and the children.

Mental problems themselves are also a serious issue, especially for children. They have a completely different perception of time than we do, for them every month is like a year, and they need stimulation, contact, group activities, talent development. The time of lockdown is lost for them. So we have a whole generation that will be frustrated. However, Switzerland, which is not a perfect country either, managed to solve this problem – despite lockdown, schools remained open. With many restrictions, of course, but it turned out to be feasible.

So maybe the coronavirus has shown us what we are doing wrong and what we should focus on? Maybe there is a cycle coming to an end, after which things need to be different? Perhaps we were expecting some other disaster, but one like that has come.

In your opinion, are writers under any obligations?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a writer’s obligation – everyone does what they believe in and what they care about in their work. But I also think a writer’s talent imposes a duty not to remain silent about the times we live in and about things that affect us all.

In the age of a pandemic, however, I do see a certain obligation – or at least something I require of myself. It sounds trivial, but it turns out to be difficult: not to lie. Because literature today is the only space where we can show everything from a different perspective. We have independent media and the Internet, but it’s becoming more and more confusing there.

In the age of a pandemic, however, I do see a certain obligation – or at least something I require of myself. It sounds trivial, but it turns out to be difficult: not to lie.

That’s why I value the work of Karel Čapek. He is an example of a writer who sensed the danger hanging in the air. Some authors, for example in totalitarian regimes, paid for writing the truth with their lives. But there are also positive examples. After all, the abolition of slavery was largely due to literature. I’m thinking first of all about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the first book that showed reality completely differently. The second such writer who showed things from a different perspective was Toni Morrison.

This year I was a member of the chapter awarding the Slovak Anasoft Litera prize. There was a book on the list that ultimately didn’t get nominated, but it was ardently defended by another member of the jury. It is a well-written text, but the protagonist takes the side of racism and totalitarian thinking while being smart enough not to say it outright. A fellow chapter member argued that it didn’t matter after all, that Céline had also been an anti-Semite. But Céline was aware that he was an anti-Semite; he said that the worst person he knew was himself. It’s not a matter of not using the characters of anti-Semites, fascists, Ku-Klux-Klan members in a novel, but it’s about something more dangerous – wrapping it up in some innocent form and giving these people arguments against their victims.

I think it’s especially important in times like these – because it’s also the issue of control, politics, the Catholic Church. Even more so because some things can come back. Switzerland recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage – until half a century ago, that is until 1971, Swiss women couldn’t vote or even work without their husband’s permission. So you can’t remain silent.

If so, should a writer, apart from diagnosing problems, also look for solutions? Try to change reality?

Want to change it, I would say. You can’t write a book thinking that it will change something – it doesn’t work at all. It’s impossible to plan what impact our work will have on reality, and that’s the beautiful thing about art. But you can try to open your eyes.

Bohumil Hrabal, in his essay Who I Am, wrote: “I live exactly as I have lived and as I would live if there were a governor of the Habsburg dynasty residing in the Castle. I have so many troubles to shape myself, so many troubles with my fellow men, that I do not have enough time for any change of political events; I do not even know what those who desire such changes are talking about, for I would only like to change myself.” So I guess this is not your vision of writing?

Not exactly [laughs]. Although it is a nice vision. I often say to myself: you have so many other problems in life… But I don’t agree with this vision, if only because when we stop being interested in politics, it starts being interested in us. And it does so in such a fundamental way that it affects our most intimate matters and decisions.

It’s impossible to plan what impact our work will have on reality, and that’s the beautiful thing about art. But you can try to open your eyes.

In my youth, I often wondered – like a child trying to understand – why nobody had helped the Jews when they were taken to the death camps. Even friends, neighbours. Their answer was often: “We didn’t know where they were being taken.” But why didn’t it bother them that they were being taken anywhere? You have to react early, while there is still something you can do. Today’s Hungary is one example.

Going back to Mr Hrabal – the perspective is also different when you have no family. For example, I can see how reality influences my children, their lives and their minds. Anyway, today he couldn’t even go for a beer in a pub!

Does a writer in the Czech Republic bear any special responsibility? In Poland, there is still a belief that a writer should suffer for millions.

Perhaps there are certain expectations that date back to the nineteenth century, to the time of the National Revival. This is the problem of small nations that had to defend their identity. The Czech language was saved with the help of books. The writers from those times, poor things, in a way wrote to order – they carried out a patriotic mission. The nonsensical belief that the writer is the conscience of the nation is a relic of those times. It was strengthened by the events of the twentieth century, the year 1968 when writers pushed for reforms and became politically involved.

But these were mainly men: Vaculík, Kundera, Kohout… Perhaps the new times demand that we introduce the perspective of a human who is also a woman into the public space. To show that it is a voice of equal importance and that it is possible to change the style of politics and communication.

This leads to slightly absurd situations. When I returned from Taiwan, I took part in an online debate as part of the Colours of Ostrava Festival, which had shifted online last year. And since I get distracted by keeping track of the questions that viewers send in, I asked the moderator to pick them. In the end, he chose one lady’s question, which was whether I would like to run for president. My first thought: never in my life. I replied that my commenting on politics is something completely different, that everyone should do it, and that writing is also hard work. But I added, just in case: never say never. And then I got a surprisingly large number of messages about it, some group even wanted to raise money for the election campaign.

It just goes to show how much people are missing from politics – so much so that all it takes is for someone to say what they think and people flock to them. Maybe people also see in me a combination of our Czech tradition – after all, we had the playwright Václav Havel as our president – and the hope that Zuzana Čaputová has sparked in Slovakia. But under our current socio-political system a woman would not stand a chance.

Is the fact that you are a writer from the Czech Republic somehow a burden?

Yes… But this realization came only gradually. Recently, after fifteen years, a new edition of Money from Hitler came out and I realized that the book had not received a single positive review in the Czech Republic. All my titles have sparked strong controversies, and only after some time did I understand what was going on: I am not Czech enough.

Again, this is the problem of a small nation: we have our traditions, our problems, and if someone ignores them, because after all we are also part of the world, and as artists, we can write about whatever we want, it is looked upon badly. There is also an ongoing discussion about how individual countries should be represented internationally, so when I have some success, my compatriots are unable to forgive me.

We have our traditions, our problems, and if someone ignores them, because after all we are also part of the world, and as artists, we can write about whatever we want, it is looked upon badly.

The other burden, which is actually a joy for me, is language. A burden – because as a Czech writer I am dependent on translators. I have to find a talented, sensitive person in each country who will translate my books.

And one more aspect: as a Czech writer, I am always perceived as someone ‘from Eastern Europe’, with all the clichés attached to it. So I emphasize that I am a ‘Czech’ writer only in the context of the language, which I will never give up, but I don’t feel compatible with my country at all; with the way it is developing, the way people behave here, with its mentality, pragmatism, cynicism, sense of superiority resulting from complexes.

I never wanted to be a rebel, I never wanted to create some parallel world. But I am worried that if the political situation keeps going in the same direction, we will have no way out. We will have to build some world of our own.

Radka Denemarková

is a writer, literary scholar, translator and screenwriter. She is one of the most popular and awarded Czech authors, a four-time winner of the most important Czech literary award Magnesia Litera. Born on 14 March 1968 in Kutná Hora, she studied Czech and German at Charles University in Prague. She worked at the Institute of Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Sciences and at the Prague Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zábradlí); she has also taught creative writing at the Josef Škvorecký Literary Academy.

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Can Art Change Society?

After 1989, instead of constructing a common narrative of Central Europe, we kept looking to the West. However, art itself cannot offer any magical solutions to everyday political issues, it has always been a valuable ally in many struggles all over Mitteleuropa. The pandemic has shown us that serious global problems cannot be solved by closing ourselves. Artists and cultural institutions can teach us to open our eyes and minds. Read the brand new Aspen Review and look for what unites our region.

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