Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Rustic Baroque by Jiří Hájíček

Rustic Baroque by Jiří Hájíček
Translation from the Czech by Gale A. Kirking
(Brno: Real World Press, 2012)

Opening the wounds of collectivization: Rustic Baroque in English
Articles from The Prague Post: an interview with the author and translator and a book review
Czech literature portal's new book notice
A pdf of the first few pages in the book
(There are more links at Real World Press but not all the reviews are accurate)

”You know, there was one farmer from Tomašice, and after they had fleeced him and cleaned him out of everything, after they had thrown him in prison as a class enemy for not fulfilling his delivery quotas, after defaming him, fining him, carrying out humiliating searches of his house, so this man joined the collective farm voluntarily in ’51. He had thought that by doing so he might prevent more catastrophes and injustice in the village, that maybe the other farmers would be left in peace…”

Suddenly, I didn’t know whether I should continue talking. Why should I?

“That’s all?”

“No. This farmer who had at first worked himself almost to death to fulfill the ridiculous delivery demands and was then declared a wealthy village exploiter by the District People’s Committee anyway, so, years later, he said to his priest one day: ‘They couldn’t force me to hate.’ Do you understand? That’s the story for me.”

She was silent, looking a bit off to the side as we sat in the shade under the trees. I doubted whether I was able to explain it well enough, whether this perfumed missy in her pretty summer dress and straw hat could ever understand it.

“He forgave everyone. That fascinates me, because I’ve read all the archive documents, records of the disciplinary committee, records of the District People’s Committee from that time, list of kulaks, the chronicle of Tomašice. I spoke with old people who had lived there at the time and who also remembered those bad times. And when he was 75, when he was an old and exhausted man, he said a few days before he died: ‘They couldn’t force me to hate.’”

(page 112, ellipses in original)

The book opens with Pavel Straňanský, a professional genealogist, accepting an assignment to find a letter (and possibly more documents) for Šrámek, a local politician. From Pavel’s statements and hesitancy, though, the reader can tell there is something unsavory about the deal. As the story unfolds the job becomes clear—find a signed statement in a nearby village from the 1950s that informs on neighbors. The signer of the statement is the mother of a candidate for mayor; this evidence will damage any chances for election. As Pavel searches for information complications arise since things aren’t always what they seem. It doesn’t help that he is digging up information associated with the collectivization of farms. Many village families were damaged or destroyed during the period while others profited. Surviving villagers are reticent when talking about that period, citing that anyone that didn't go through it couldn't understand or shouldn't judge.

Several other storylines join with Pavel's central search, such as what happened to his marriage, why he had a falling-out with his brother, a possible love interest with an inquisitive tourist, and a look at village life in the 1950s (under collectivization) and the 2000s. I don’t want to go too much into the story because it is wonderfully told, slowly revealing more information and taking many twists and turns. There are several themes I will touch on which won’t spoil the story. The collectivization of family farms in the 1950s runs as an undercurrent throughout the novel. The author lets the insanity of the policy speak for itself, both in personal and practical terms, but as the first link at Radio Prague points out, “By delving into the intricate relations between neighbors and relatives in a small traditional village in southern Bohemia, Jiří Hájíček creates multi-dimensional characters and shows the painful conflicts and difficult situations that neighbors and friends were put in during that period.”

There are many uncomfortable similarities in people’s actions in both that period and the book’s current time that Hájíček explores, too, especially those related to a person’s motivation for performing nasty acts and their consequences, intended or not. The title plays on this dynamic of viewing from the outside, too. "Rustic baroque" refers to a particular style for which southern Bohemia is famous (see the Architecture section of this article for more detail). There are at least two ways to take the title. One approach works on the ornate style of the outside as compared to what is found inside. Or another take, and my preference, focuses on the tourists of today wanting to ogle the architecture and the appearances of the buildings, mostly because it is listed by UNESCO, but avoid studying the recent events.

The villages of southern Bohemia provide an idyllic setting for the hot summer months but their history provides a different picture, as the conversation between Pavel and Šrámek demonstrates (ellipsis in original):

”It’s such a grim place…”

“I know, the 1950s…”

“You don’t know anything about it. They used to kill unwanted babies in the farmhouses there. I found it in the old records. And the place also has the highest incidence of people being hanged far and wide. And there was that tragedy in the stone quarry before the war…”

Just as the government tried to erase awareness of past farmers, so the villages try to hide past unpleasant acts. Parallel to the theme of everything not being exactly as it looks, Hájíček plays off of Pavel’s job as a genealogist to highlight not everyone is who he thinks he is. Pavel explains to Daniela, the tourist looking up her family’s genealogy, many reasons why the apparent facts of a family tree may be incorrect but usually it boils down to people believing what they want to believe. It turns out, as Pavel eventually realizes on at least two different occasions, that he knows part of Daniela’s family history but he knows almost nothing about her. It turns out what he doesn’t know is much more important than what he does, a common thread in his search for the letter.

Hájíček continually shows the troubling relationship between clarity and truth. What the characters believe and feel, whether accurate or not, trumps everything else. Whenever love (or at least romance), or honor, or revenge, or some combination of them are involved, the truth can prove to be elusive and, at times, maddeningly squishy. The moral triumph of the farmer not hating his neighbors and government despite what they did to him may mean nothing to someone whose family went through similar circumstances and are unable to forgive. Morality to them may mean righting wrongs, setting the past straight.

Highly recommended. For anyone beginning to read the novel, there is a helpful list of major characters on page 147. There are also four stories included from Hájíček’s collection The Wooden Knife. I’ll post on those separately at a later date. Update: comments on the short stories can be found at this post.


zmkc said...

Thank you for writing about this - I'd never have heard about it otherwise and it sounds exactly what I want to read. Off to hunt down a copy.

Unknown said...

I saw a mention of this elsewhere a couple of days ago and was intrigued. Your review makes it sound even better - thanks :)

Dwight said...

Hopefully both of you will like it. It's an intriguing read (perfect descriptor), to say the least. It reveals, piece by piece, and sometimes it's difficult to keep the overall picture in mind. Fortunately the author helps a lot at key points.

I obviously enjoyed it and it ended up, ironically, providing a rejoinder to the Saramago I'm reading. But more on that later...

Unknown said...

I'm near the end now (and I'm enjoying it), but...

...the translation. I have to say that I'm finding it fairly poor. Did you have issues with this?

Dwight said...

I noted the style of writing was a little different, but whether that's from the author or the translator (or a combination) I don't know. I didn't have a problem with that difference, though, but did note it. There's a similarity in the short stories, but it's the same translator.

Any particular examples? Or is it just in general?

Unknown said...

The dialogue is the worst - I found it incredibly stiff and unnatural (I'm an ESL teacher by trade, and natural English is what I'm striving for every day). I also found that at times even the grammar seemed unnatural, with definite hints of being taken directly from the original language. I don't know any Czech, but I do speak a few other Eurpean languages, and I could almost hear the way the syntax was being brought across.

Dwight said...

It may be the translation was a little too literal, although that's a difficult call on how much to change to make things feel more natural in another language. But yeah, the dialogue did at times.