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The Sorry Earthmen of Bohemia

Alena Dvořáková

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfař, Sceptre, 288 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1473639997

Umina verze, by Emil Hakl, Argo, 248 pp, CZK 289, ISBN: 978-8025719824
Bytost, by Václav Kahuda, Druhé město, 246 pp, CZK 299, ISBN: 978-8072274000
Stručné dějiny Hnutí, by Petra Hůlová, Torst, 184 pp, CZK 238, ISBN: 978-8072155613

It’s almost never a good idea to read works of literary fiction as straightforwardly mimetic representations of the world their writers find themselves in – doubly so if the multifaceted worlds of life and fiction are to be reduced to the political dimension. Czech literary history in the period from 1948 to 1989 has raised this observation to the status of a categorical imperative. That era was marked by demands by communist literary theorists, ideologues and censors that art represent reality in the only correct mode of socialist realism, accompanied by the condemnation and even suppression of works that failed to conform to the norm. Socialist realism was less a conception of, and more a code for, what was required: it was the obligatory mode of representation as much in order to prevent undesirable ambiguities of meaning, or even messages subversive of the official ideology from sneaking in, as to do justice to privileged – namely collectivist – values and kinds of reality.

The point of going over this well-trodden ground is to alert the reader that in this essay I aim to do the categorically forbidden: to discuss three recently published Czech novels – all instances of science fiction, that is, representations of worlds that by definition do not exist and have never existed – as if each of them were best understood as a more or less realistic reflection of recent Czech history and politics with a collectivist moral, albeit not of any straightforward kind.

The three novels are Umina verze (Uma’s Version) by Emil Hakl, Bytost (The Being) by Václav Kahuda, and Stručné dějiny Hnutí (The Brief History of the Movement) by Petra Hůlová. Hakl (born 1958), Kahuda (born 1965) and Hůlová (born 1979) are all established, well-published and critically acclaimed Czech novelists whose works have a steady following among readers of literary fiction. Hakl and Hůlová have had some of their earlier work translated into other languages: one of Hakl’s best novels, O rodičích a dětech (2003), came out in English in 2008 as Of Kids and Parents, and Hůlová has had two novels issued in English so far – All This Belongs to Me in 2009 and Three Plastic Rooms in 2017, both in acclaimed translations by Alex Zucker. Only Kahuda, the current chairman of the Czech Writers’ Association, remains largely unknown abroad, in spite of the fact that some of his novels, especially his 1999 autobiographical magnum opus Houština (The Thicket), rank among the best Czech literary productions after 1989. (Why has Kahuda not found an English translator/publisher yet? First and foremost, there is his dense and demanding style – the poetic prose of Houština brings to mind the lyrical densities of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, for example. But there is also the author’s disregard for various decencies and proprieties of well-adjusted minds, a refusal to gloss over abysses of human ugliness and perversity which cuts deeper than any mere lack of political correctness.)

Why treat the three latest creations as a singular phenomenon? After all, they differ from one another both in the stories they tell and in the manner of their telling, to the point of seemingly having little in common apart from the ill-fitting sci-fi label. Hakl’s Uma’s Version is set in present-day Prague and revolves around an existential anti-hero called František who, beset by midlife crisis, goes about his life in a less than salubrious neighbourhood with a typical Haklean resignation, fuelled by despair and ennui, hoping for nothing, just barely existing. What brings him alive is an accidental encounter with a shady dealer nicknamed the Deathhead, following which he assumes responsibility for the Uma of the novel’s title, an amazingly lifelike and beautiful female robot endowed with advanced AI. (Uma stands for umělá žena, the Czech for “artificial woman”.) In Hakl’s version of the Pygmalion myth, the anti-hero turns out to be unexpectedly kind-hearted and caring, capable even of falling in love and hoping for the best – even if his experience with defective, if not depraved, humanity should make him know better. (Spoiler alert: the reader too should know better than to expect a happy ending in a novel by Hakl.)

Kahuda’s The Being is a very different kettle of science fiction. It takes place in a not-all-that-distant future after an earthly apocalypse that has wiped out most of humankind and left behind an “empty” world of nature restored to its paradisiacal abundance of flora and fauna and inhabited by a limited number of human survivors. Among them are a handful of the old guard, the unreformable “dinosaurs” (of whom the old white male narrator is a prime, albeit repentant exemplar) whose insatiable greed and lust for power caused the catastrophe – their every move is now carefully monitored to keep them at bay. The new rulers of the universe are a race of reformed humans (young, healthy, perfectly rational scientists and engineers) who with the help of a global system of surveillance and an extensive crew of androids maintain a globally peaceful civilisation based on the behaviourist principles of positive reinforcement, somewhat in the spirit of Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971): there is no violence because there are no frustrations, and there are no frustrations because all humanity is constantly monitored for potentially disruptive thoughts and desires that, as soon as they emerge and are registered by bodily sensors feeding into global info networks, are promptly taken care of by androids capable of satisfying every human need, including the basest of human perversions, without diminishing anyone’s well-being.

Hůlová’s Brief History of the Movement can be read as a realist’s undercutting of Kahuda’s paradise. It is also set in the near future but one that is relentlessly dystopian: a new order has been established by the eponymous Movement, best described as a totalitarian version of #MeToo crossed with militant veganism and environmentalism. The Movement’s members are primarily women – like the female narrator whose intimate memoir we are reading – whose dissatisfaction with the patriarchal sexism and meat-eating bloodthirstiness of the old world led to its revolutionary overthrow and replacement by a supposedly much more equal, mindful and environmentally friendly civilisation. In this brave new world men who refuse to submit to the new dispensation – with its core ideological postulate: beauty is a thing of the soul, not of the body – are incarcerated in re-education facilities such as the one where the narrator has risen through the ranks and become a successful supervisor. If Skinnerian positive reinforcement is the order of the day in Kahuda’s utopia, in Hůlová’s dystopia the communal good rests on the institutionalised use of negative reinforcement techniques of a coercive and increasingly brutal kind; these are ultimately applied not just against insufficiently “progressive” men but also against “backward” women whose makeup and surgically enhanced busts betray their false consciousness.

What then, if anything, do these disparate works have in common? For one, they represent a remarkably synchronous departure by three eminent writers from the high literariness of their previous fictions into the not-quite-reputable genre of sci-fi. This “mere” coincidence is a sign of a deeper congruence: whether utopian or dystopian, whether set in the present or the future, whether ending on a happy note of sorts (like Kahuda’s Being), or rather darkly (like Hakl’s and Hůlová’s novels), the three works exude a kind of bleak pessimism about humanity that would make Steven Pinker apoplectic; one that is, moreover, hard to find in other recent science fiction, no matter how dystopian (with the possible exception of some episodes of the Black Mirror TV series).

What does this bleak pessimism come from? The obvious but misleading answer would be from a conviction that humanity is eternally damned – timelessly, universally sinful, fallen or defective, and thus condemned to making the same world-destroying mistakes again and again. The three novels can certainly be read that way. Hakl’s depiction of humanity as trapped in the banal psychopathology of everyday existence in which one is exposed to the eagle eyes and judgements of “thy neighbour” reads like an illustration of the Sartrean dictum that hell is other people. Similarly, the dénouement of Kahuda’s novel may suggest a universalist allegory implying that in order to ensure permanent peace on earth, all humanity must be overcome by a higher kind of being, a trans-human more radically “other” than even the Nietzschean Übermensch. And Hůlová’s story, too, can be read primarily as a timeless fable about how the best of human intentions always end up paving the road to some totalitarian hell.

A closer reading, however, reveals the novels’ pessimism to be rooted rather in the here and now of Czech history and politics. This becomes much clearer when one compares them with other recent fictions of similar kind: such as, for example, Jaroslav Kalfař’s sci-fi novel Spaceman of Bohemia (nominated for the 2018 Arthur C Clarke Award) or, to move sideways into the Irish context, Danny Denton’s The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow. Denton’s dystopia has no real interest or stake in history or contemporary politics, in spite of being set in a recognisable Ireland polarised between the East and the West as well as the city and the country, and furnished with a mixture of old and new but always datable technology. Its world is the product of the kind of storytelling that turns everything into a timeless fable, myth or legend. Unlike Denton’s dystopia, Hakl’s, Kahuda’s and Hůlová’s fables insist on referring the reader to history and politics as other than “mere” fables, that is, realities not entirely subsumable by, and also more real (and threatening) than any kind of story.

Kalfař, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1988 but has lived in the United States since he was a fifteen-year-old and writes in English, comes much closer to what the three Czech novels are about. His Spaceman reads like an unsuccessful attempt to achieve the same effect of endowing fiction with the greater authenticity and significance of the kind of collectively shared lived experience typical of politics and history. Kalfař attempts to achieve this by anchoring the grotesque cosmic adventures and psychodramas of his astronaut in the central events of Czech history and politics, specifically by having his hero grow up as the son of a communist secret police agent and become an adult in the crucial period from 1980 to 2018, which marks the transition of the Czech Republic from pre-1989 communist dictatorship to post-1989 liberal democracy.

Judging by his novel, Kalfař unfortunately lacks sufficient grasp of the historical events and political developments he uses in his story. He also seems unaware of the risks involved in so incorporating history and politics into fiction. Not only does Spaceman suffer from factual errors, inaccuracies and considerable historical improbabilities, it also conflates history and politics with various kinds of myth-making and image-making to the point of being deservedly labelled “historical kitsch” by one Czech reviewer, in a review tellingly titled “A Coathanger for Nonsense”. Even more unfortunately, the Guardian review of Spaceman of Bohemia by Tibor Fischer – who praises the novel for its lessons in Czech history and even jokingly renames it Historian of Bohemia – makes it clear that in the hands of insufficiently informed readers the novel’s egregious abuses of history may be completely missed.

Last but not least, Kalfař’s Spaceman fails to fully realise the significance of the fact that there are a lot of earthmen still alive in Bohemia (including Hakl, Kahuda and Hůlová) for whom the history he distorts represents an actually experienced and collectively shared past that is not only not dead yet but has not even properly passed, to paraphrase Faulkner. And with this we come to the real source of the three authors’ bleak pessimism. Unlike Kalfař, Hakl, Kahuda and Hůlová can and do draw directly on their personal experiences of growing up in the pre-1989 communist Czechoslovakia. They also write against the background of their own living recollection of the general atmosphere in the Czechoslovakia of the early 1990s – a heady mixture of retrospective relief (the past was a nightmare from which it was possible to awake) and a prospective sense of hope that from now on everything could only change for the better – while at the same time they are personally forced to confront the very different atmosphere of today, marked by a process of re-valuation or even reversal of the Velvet Revolution values.

Their recent novels thus seem to provide literary reflections of the nightmarish realisation that today, nearly thirty years on from the historic turn of events – November 17th, 2019 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Revolution – the current state of Czech politics and mainstream culture makes a mockery of that life-changing experience. For the authors’ compatriots – people who, given their country’s history, should know better – have recently re-elected for his second term a president who is openly rooting for Putin and has no qualms when it comes to using his presidential office as well as the media for Trump-like hatred and violence-inciting attacks against his “elitist” opponents, whom he denigrates as “enemies of the people”. Czechs have also recently elected a prime minister best described as a Berlusconi double: Andrej Babiš is a billionaire owner of a conglomerate of companies currently under investigation as regards their suspected misuse of state and EU subsidies. He is also a man morally compromised not just by his pre-1989 collaboration with the communist secret police but by the way he has in recent times attempted to use the newspapers he owns to settle scores with his commercial rivals and political opponents, showing utter disregard for the underlying conflicts of interest.

To add insult to injury, after the last parliamentary elections, Czechs have ended up with a hung parliament where the balance of power is held by the surviving communist party (nimbly assisted by the Czech equivalent of Ukip). The dark absurdities of the current Czech political setup are nicely illustrated by the following incident: while trying to defend himself against accusations of harbouring secret communist sympathies, Babiš, as the leader of a supposedly centre-right party, let it be known that in his opinion the communist party should have been banned right after its 1989 overthrow. To which the communist MPs responded with a mixture of glee and faux indignation that Babiš was the last person entitled to distance himself from them: referring to his pre-1989 collaboration, they claimed him as currently the communist party’s most successful disciple.

The Czech Republic now seems to be one of those developed and relatively wealthy democratic countries where a growing number of people, old and young, feel “left behind” and hanker after a kind of idyll located in an imaginary past. The extent to which this Czech nostalgia permeates mainstream culture is evident from the ongoing popular replays and re-runs of the greatest pop music hits as well, as the film classics and popular TV series, of the “good old days” of the communist era.

In view of all this, it is hard not to see the post-revolutionary relief mentioned above as not just premature but illusory; and the concomitant hope as an unforgivably uninformed naivety. From this perspective, the novels by Hakl, Kahuda and Hůlová read like imaginative outlines of the options remaining to someone who has experienced the miracle of a historically rooted renewal of one’s belief in humanity – only to realise thirty years later that the belief was unfounded, the miracle was a mirage and the ideal of human reformability a delusion. Hakl’s novel re-enacts this process of disillusionment while shifting it from a public to a private domain: his anti-hero rises from the morass of resignation and wakes up to life upon his encounter with a new life form, still human-like but much more lovable in its freshness, beauty and innocence than the unreformable, degenerate humans around him. But Uma proves to be yet another false hope: she is, after all, a creation of the “deathheads” of this world, shady dealers beyond good and evil, unscrupulous enough to survive and thrive in any and every political regime (nazism, communism, liberal capitalism). In reaction to this epiphany, Hakl’s hero ends where he began: defeated and disheartened he returns to his boring routines, resigned to walking his robo-dog and drowning his sorrows in whiskey.

Kahuda writes history explicitly into his novel in the form of the narrator’s personal memories and fragmentary readings in Czech and European history (these make up at least a third of the book). His narrator is torn between nostalgia for the world of his youth, or at least for certain fleeting moments of peaceful contemplation he recalls from his past. At the same time he harbours no illusions about the history that framed those moments, and uses it as a way of resisting the past’s allure. The most intriguing aspect of Kahuda’s solution to the problem of history and politics – namely the re-fashioning of the human into another kind of being – is this: in the least Christian country in Europe, his novel seems to be suggesting salvation is to be found in molecular genetics informed by the values of radical Christianity. He calls his new being “the Son of Man” and conceives of it as inheriting (literally, through the genes fused to create it) all that is supposedly most precious about humanity: the “code of life” of all those oppressed, exploited and marginalised in current capitalist societies, from the nomadic gypsies to the primitive tribes, from the deaf-and-mutes to those of unsound but sensitive minds, living together in prelapsarian harmony with all kinds of creatures from mighty jaguars to humble mice.

The most chilling reflection, however, is the one offered by Hůlová. Her narrator, Věra (the name in Czech suggests belief or faith), works as a supervisor in a re-education facility for men unable to control their sexuality. In compiling her memoir she also becomes the Movement’s historian – but a highly unreliable one, who tends to overlook all that clashes with the ideologically sound version of the Movement’s history, ideology and practice. The more we read of Věra’s memoir, the clearer the discrepancy between the beautiful, high-minded theory and the ugly, brutally coercive practice, which has to be ignored or explained away by the remaining faithful. Although this recalls the dying days of communism, the targets here are not the communists but rather the new well-meaning idealists of the post-communist era: feminists and gender activists, animal rights activists, environmental protectionists, who all seem to be once again insisting on the radical reformability of humankind.

On the face of it, Hůlová’s dystopia fails to capture the current reality of Czech political culture. In the Czech Republic all of the above groupings are at present extremely marginalised in number as well as political impact. In the 2017 parliamentary elections the Greens won less than two per cent of the vote and failed to come even close to getting into the parliament. Outside of academia, feminism and gender theory are generally seen as harmful and nonsensical imports, something best left to the “crazy Americans”; and veganism is still largely seen as a sign of wilful eccentricity, if not a mental health issue.

And yet at another level the novel strikes a chord: the world it describes would not be possible if there weren’t large numbers of people willing to give up freedom and dignity – their own as well as everybody else’s – in exchange for finding a place within a system where they would not feel left behind but rather become a part of something bigger and better; where they could pride themselves, however deluded, on their usefulness and even righteousness; where they would find themselves on the right side of history and politics, whatever the sacrifices to be made by those undeservedly more beautiful, powerful, smarter, wealthier. The novel ends with Věra’s hoping that she will soon be promoted within just such a system and rewarded with her very own office.

To conclude, the final solutions to the problem of political history offered by the three Czech sci-fi novels – as well as their mood music of hopelessness and despair – are best understood as the result of the authors’ imaginative coming-to-terms with the post-1989 political and cultural developments in the Czech Republic. In Hakl’s Uma’s Version faith, hope and love are shown to be mirages dished out by the deathheads of this world like drugs; better disabuse oneself of all illusions and drown one’s sorrow in drink. In Kahuda’s Being, in order for history to end, humankind needs to be genetically engineered out of existence: our best hope lies in a reversal of values inspired by Christian millenialism where the first will come last and vice versa. In Hůlová’s Brief History all resistance to repeating the mistakes of history is shown to be futile: one has no choice but to get with the programme, whatever fanatics happen to be in power. And if you are lucky and no one kills themselves on your watch, one day you will be able to close the door of your office behind you and shut yourself off from all humankind. When you are done with the sorry earthmen of Bohemia, you might want to go and read yourself some Pinker.

1/12/2018

Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree and, most recently, the novels City of Bohane and Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. She is currently at work on a translation of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz). 

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