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To see a city
Alexander Wells
13 June 2022
published in Issue One
City of Torment
Daniela Hodrová

translated by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (Jantar Publishing, 2021)

On death, editing, and the European novel.

Prague’s largest burial ground, the Olšany Cemetery, lies a few miles east of the center of town, just far enough to escape the regular tourist bustle. It is a somber, bucolic, slightly melancholy place. Within its elegant sprawl are said to be some two million souls: soldiers from centuries of major conflicts, prominent 19th-century intellectuals, the famous Prague Spring self-immolator Jan Palach, as well as those buried in the cemetery’s Jewish, Orthodox and Muslim sections, all calmly coexisting in the peace of remembrance. 

Not so, however, in the novel In Both Kinds by the Czech author Daniela Hodrová. Here the Olšany Cemetery—and a block of flats that overlooks it—is a surreal social hotspot, where Prague’s deceased mingle and gossip and judge and narrate. The book begins when a young Jewish girl, Alice Davidovič, jumps to her death from the window of her apartment in order to avoid deportation by the Nazis. That apartment, which overlooks the cemetery, passes from the Davidovič family to a collaborationist German and then to the Czech family Paskal. The plot, insofar as there is one, is a multigenerational history of the apartment’s inhabitants, their neighbors in the building, and the denizens of the cemetery, from Alice during World War II through the 1960s. But the momentum comes from the novel’s swirling shifts of perspective. An array of consciousnesses narrate its fragments: not just the quick and the dead but also a handkerchief, a mannequin, « the nation », and even the cemetery itself. One section ends with a Communist-era professor giving a lecture on human skin while his wife commits adultery. The following chapter is tilted « The Skin » and begins like this:

I am the skin. I am however not just any skin, but human skin. I am the protective peel, the shell that protects the body, like a rare fruit, from the light. Were it not for me, man in his folly would be capable of letting his body dissolve into the world. I am the barrier that keeps the body within its corporeality. As long as I exist, the body lives, should I begin to decay, the body is also doomed to decay. I am the skin.

At another point, the apartment building’s lightwell berates one of the children who live there: « How naïve, dear Diviš Paskal », says the lightwell, « to assume there exists a basic difference between a human being and an object, between the living and the dead, between a person and the world. One slips into the other very smoothly, and the moment and point of transition are imperceptible. » Literal meanings of idioms and names suddenly become true, like the predatorial man who turns into an eagle, or they’re flipped, as when a lamb becomes a wolf. In Olšany Cemetery, every person and every thing casts an associative shadow. Unlike normal ghosts—who tend to stick to one eternal message—Olšany’s spirits switch allegiance.

In Both Kinds is the first novel of Hodrová’s City of Torment (Trýznivé město), a magical-realist trilogy recently published in full English translation for the first time. Hodrová, also a prominent Czech literary scholar, worked on the books from 1977 until the early 1990s, when they were published in the wake of Communism’s fall. She was no dissident in the Václav Havel mold (though she did support the cause), but her work’s formal experimentation and idiosyncratic historical vision made it impossible to publish in Czechoslovakia’s post-1968 « Normalization » period. In Both Kinds circulated in samizdat before its official publication, along with Puppets and Theta, in 1991. A fourth book (and unofficial epilogue) named Prague: I See A City (1991), originally commissioned as an alternative travel guide, is Hodrová’s more directly autobiographical reflection on the period of hope and disillusionment that followed the fall of Communism. She has been translated into French, German, Bulgarian, and now finally English, thanks to Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol. 

The trilogy is unified by its setting. The center is Hodrová’s home neighborhood of Žižkov-Vinohrady – once working class, then bohemian, now rapidly Airbnbifying – from the interwar First Czechoslovak Republic to shortly after the fall of Communism. In Both Kinds broadly covers the 1940s to 1960s, while Puppets and Theta are each set in the post-Prague Spring period of the 1970s-1980s; all three include significant lurches back in time. The geographical aperture widens throughout the three books, taking in more of Prague’s cityscape and more figures from Bohemian history and literature. Like Woolf’s London or Joyce’s Dublin, Hodrová’s Prague is an « Unreal City » that also happens to exist. It is home to a bustling crowd of souls: real historical figures, both familiar (Jan Hus, Rudolf II, Reinhard Heydrich) and lesser-known (19th-century Czech nationalist intellectuals like the linguist Josef Jungmann and the journalist Karel Havlíček); mythic archetypes and folkloric bogeymen; characters from other fictions; Hodrová’s childhood friends, family, and neighbors (her ex-husband gets a particularly unflattering cameo). The city is as big as the world and as big as the self. Throughout her trilogy, Hodrová weaves Prague’s physical and imaginary features into a narrativized urban fabric, one that is inextricable from the individual that perceives it. She said in a 1996 interview that:

[A] human being carries the city in him- or herself, in his or her soul, and vice versa a city carries in its « soul » all its inhabitants – those who are present, but also those who have died (and are buried in its cemeteries), and perhaps future ones too … So that means every personal story becomes a part of the Story of the city, its own memory.

No wonder her Prague is so crowded. Different selves, perspectives and epochs converge in the purgatorial « torment » of the title. « And suddenly we’ll learn that VYŠEHRAD is GOTTWALDOVA again », she writes of a post-Communist metro ride in Prague: I See A City. « And so it is with all other names, valid only for the duration of the play being performed in the City of Torment. »

The title In Both Kinds refers to 15th-century proto-Protestant Jan Hus’s demand that the sacrament be given to all, not just Church leaders, as both body and blood—he was burned alive by the Catholic Church. « I am becoming two », Hodrová writes in Prague: I See A City, « like all else in this accursed space. » This part of the world has suffered deeply from the vengeful interplay of binaries: Protestants and Catholics, gentiles and Jews, Germans and Slavs, nationalists and Communists, mystics and rationalists. In place of accursed binaries, the trilogy offers a monstrous plurality. Hodrová’s Prague permits no reliable distinctions between heroes and villains, locals and foreigners, Germans and Czechs and Jews. One character in Puppets is literally composed of many different people’s ashes.

It’s all too much to hold, with too many interwoven motifs to track, and too many obscure references to master without crashing your computer with a hundred different browser tabs. A critical account seems futile; one would much rather simply describe it, sing along with it, tell readers hey you have GOT to try this, become a sort of tuning fork that passes on the novels’ vibrations. Yet that maximalism is precisely its charm, and its moral power, too.

As a reader in English, one enters Hodrová’s city as a tourist. To read the trilogy in translation is to feel its lure at one remove, since wordplay and name-association are not merely features of its style but fundamental to its narrative. Translators Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol have made the text legible and lively to anglophone readers, with illuminating appendices explaining their careful decisions about, say, which names to render into English and which to leave in Czech. The translation loses some of the original’s rich associative power—for reasons of language, naturally, but also for reasons of local expertise (you don’t need to know that a character named « Eliška » evokes the mistreated last queen of the Přemyslid dynasty, but it helps). But this distance also adds a welcome new dimension to the text. If we encounter Hodrová’s Prague as humble visitors, not locals, then that is just one more mutation of this shapeshifting, generous, unforgettable text.

In Both Kinds conjures Prague as a crowded Purgatorium, a multivalent underworld. The next two novels explore what it means for a person, specifically a female writerly person, to inhabit it. Puppets is made up of a numbered series of 126 short scenes, referred to as tableaux vivants, which loosely track the protagonist Sofie Souslik as she walks the streets of Žižkov and central Prague. The plot meanders through Sofie’s work life, her unlucky adventures in love, her father’s callous adultery and long monologues on European culture. As a seamstress at the Realm of Puppets marionette theatre company, Sofie has a habit of « spinning stories », often while knitting by the window or « criss-crossing » Prague on foot. She and her family members move in and out of the various loosely connected tableaux vivants alongside a broad cast of minor characters plucked from history, literature and In Both Kinds.

Nothing leaves this world, as one character observes: it only transforms into something, or somebody, else.

« Sofie Souslik » combines the Greek goddess of wisdom (Sofie) with the Czech word for ground squirrel (« souslik »). The Czech title for Puppets, « Kluky », also means pupae, and in the novel Prague’s residents seem like so many changeable pupae, the city itself a perpetual womb. Sofie’s grandmother turns into a swan then back again; puppets come to life and make a break for it; Sofie’s father transforms into a deer while remembering how the Nazis killed his friends in a nearby gully called the Stag Moat. Nothing leaves this world, as one character observes: it only transforms into something, or somebody, else. Skins and clothes alike are put on and taken off, shed and regrown. Sofie’s beastly, commitment-phobic boyfriend Hynek Machovec—who occasionally merges with the Czech Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha, an example of Hodrová’s linguistic-symbolic slippage —tries to resist this transformative logic but ultimately turns into a butterfly. The result is an ongoing carnivalesque of the self: the same people and costumes arrange themselves into tableaux vivants, hold for a moment, then start anew. 

Sofie bears more than a passing resemblance to Mrs. Dalloway, as Elena Sokol—a literature professor and one of the trilogy’s translators—has also observed. If this is a Bohemian Dalloway, then it’s a fabulously odd one: Ms. Souslik said she would open a portal to the underworld by spinning the saint around the magical rug-beating rack herself. Flâneurie here is both the source of identity, and the engine of its transformation. One section imagines Sofie « stitched together from the lives of others, like a puppet’s costume made up of all kinds of scraps of cloth ». In perpetually rereading the signs of the city—those present and those past, those real and those made-up—Sofie remakes the world and reimagines herself.

When it’s not being imagined, the city is asleep. The « pupal » status of people and things in Puppets is a sign of their potential for change—but it also reflects the langour and somnolence that Hodrová perceived in Czechoslovakia after the failure of the Prague Spring. Puppets was written at some stage between 1968 and 1989, so it does not bear the traces of the Fall of Communism. One of the novel’s central symbols is that of the « sleeping veil » used by schoolchildren—its sinister effect is to put characters into a « hibernal » slumber that keeps them from changing in form; by contrast, spinning and humming and walking tend to awaken a transformative potential. The trilogy's belligerent liveliness—its insistence on the changeability of things—is best read in its historical context. The « Normalization » period after 1968 was marked by a reactionary turn in Czechoslovakian official culture, declaring Soviet-style Communism « normal » and gradually purging the public sphere of disobedient intellectuals. Most ordinary citizens responded by retreating into a private life of family, holiday house and consumer goods. The result, as attested by literature from the time (most memorably Ludvík Vaculík’s A Czech Dreambook), was an overwhelming torpor—and a feeling that the agora was emptying out. Václav Havel’s reaction was, famously, to call for the development of an alternative public, a « parallel polis » in opposition to the state. Hodrová’s response was less politically vehement, but highly disobedient nevertheless. Her trilogy, particularly Puppets, called forth a more dynamic sense of history and place, one that rejected both the triumphalism of « Normalization » and the cultivated disengagement of Prague’s citizens.

One might say she wanted to wake the city up, spin it around, and see what it turned into.

City of Torment thus represents a departure from the typical anglophone canon of Czech literature, most of which is by men (Kundera, Havel, Klíma) and is understood through the prism of the Cold War. While Communist spies and Soviet tanks do show up in Hodrová’s work, her trilogy—postmodern, feminist, yet politically reticent—demands to be read outside the Cold-War binary of conformism and dissent. One hopes, now, that Central European writing of the 20th century can be read on its own terms, rather than being shaken within an inch of its life in order to determine whether it contains Liberalism or not. 

City of Torment is, above all, about the relationship between people and place. It is a postmodern manual for life in the city. To get by in Hodrová’s Prague, her characters must embrace a kind of urban citizenship that insists on multiplicity, open-endedness and self-endangerment; they must also get used to a world where there are more people, and more ideas, than they could ever keep in mind. The trilogy may not be explicitly political, and yet its pluralistic view of history and place provides a radical counter-narrative to the dubious inevitabilities of both late Communism and the nationalist-neoliberal system that succeeded it. Locating yourself in space and time, Hodrová seems to believe, should never be simple.

If you believe the old story, Prague began with a prophecy. Sometime in the eighth century, the Czech princess Libuše—the wisest of King Krok’s three daughters—went out onto a rocky cliff overlooking the river Vltava. Stretching her arms wide, she declared: « I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars. » She ordered the building of a town at the place where a man could be found sawing a block of wood. Since that man happened to be working on the threshold for a house—a prah, in Czech—the city was called Praha, or Prague. 

The idea of the magical threshold-burg, the gleaming half-real city borne from utterance alone, has contributed to Prague’s mystique for writers, both local—Vitězslav Nezval, Franz Kafka, Sylva Fischerová—and international, from Guillaume Apollinaire through Arthur Ginsberg and Carolyn Forche to Louis Armand. The foreign contingent in particular has gravitated to the mystical Prague. « There were moments », wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor when visiting in the 1930s, « when every detail seemed the tip of a phalanx of inexplicable phantoms. » 

Ooky-spooky! And yet Prague’s built environment genuinely is enchanting, and still relatively unrationalized, even in its current phase of massive commercial development. The architecture reflects hundreds of years’ worth of incomplete campaigns of iconoclasm, renaming, and megalomaniacal new building—from the Jesuits and Habsburgs through 19th-century Czech nationalism to the Communist era and the subsequent national restoration. (There’s now a Primark on Wenceslaus Square.) Baroque monuments stand near absurdist sculpture, interwar Cubism and Soviet Modernism alongside decadent art nouveau. Place names and buildings alike bear traces of the ethnic and linguistic plurality – Czech, German, Jewish, Italian – that was wrecked by the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi invasion, and the later Czechification of the city: Prague's German population was generally expelled by 1945 but left behind names like Šmid (Schmidt) and Cimrman (Zimmerman), Slavicised in vain.

The Prague of Hodrová’s trilogy likewise defies rationalization—not because of « dark magic », but because of its plurality. The city in her novels is built of words as much as stone. Stories, names and quotations are just as real as the city’s physical architecture; to rename or re-narrate something is no mere question of interpretation, but very practically changes how her characters experience it. In this way, it makes sense to call the trilogy postmodern. If you take Hodrová on her terms, her novels are not just « about » Prague—they are Prague, or at least one Prague, her Prague. (Il n’y a pas de hors-Prague.) Her city is a text that is constantly re-written; it appears different from every angle, and it changes over time, and it changes as the person who’s witnessing it changes.

Her novels are not just « about » Prague—they are Prague, or at least one Prague, her Prague.

To the writing of Prague, Hodrová offers a third way between authoritarian rationality and exoticizing mysticism. She doesn’t ignore the old mythologies, but she doesn’t sanction them either—they are simply woven in, and forced to coexist with everything else. Hodrová’s city-as-text is much more capacious than a real one. If you want to project your abstract ideas onto it—your enshrined sense of order, your historical narrative, your contemporary priorities—then you can do so without knocking down its walls or melting down statues or re-engineering and expelling the population. All you have to do is join in the co-narration. Hers is a difficult, disorienting vision. But it is a vision that sanctions neither iconoclasm nor ethnic cleansing. Rather than editing the physical city—its symbols, its people—with violence, one edits the text and lets the story mutate.

After the wild proliferations of In Both Kinds and Puppets, the trilogy’s third novel turns to questions of editing and death. Theta wraps up the previous two into a narrative mise-en-abyme. The form mutates once more, with a single narrator and a continuous body of text, uninterrupted by section breaks or chapters. As in Puppets, Theta’s plot plays second fiddle to the excavation of history and memory: the world of publishing during the last few years of Communism; dramatic moments of local history such as the brutal Nazi reprisals that followed Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination in Prague or the Communist show trial waged against Milada Horáková in the 1950s.

The excavation takes on an openly personal edge, as Hodrová reflects on her father’s death from cancer. He was an actor in the local theatre, and in that setting we are positioned as Hodrová the child, hanging around backstage, alert to the recycling of bodies, costumes, and histories:

Or is the more truthful point of view the skewed one of an actor’s child, peering over a fireman’s helmet, a view obscured now and then by dark-coloured curtains, where banter from the play-as-reality mingles with that of the actors off stage, in the wings, coming from their lives?

Theta, in turn, shows us its own backstage. It is the trilogy’s most explicitly postmodern novel, playfully drawing attention to Hodrová’s position as an author who hopes to master (and then live beyond) the text. She has so far hidden behind her alter egos, giving them elements of her biography (and sensibility) and then surrendering them to their fates. In Theta, however, she admits her strategy and comes dangerously close to her narrator, Eliška Lamb: « this was my intention, to hide behind Eliška Lamb as earlier I had hidden behind Sofie Souslik and before then behind Alice Davidovič as well as behind Diviš Paskal. » Daniela (author) and Eliška (surrogate) will duel for control in occasionally humorous ways. Daniela/Eliška works as a copyeditor for a local publishing house, and occasionally steps in to correct the text as it is written. Eliška attempts to steal a copy of In Both Kinds from the library, before Daniela steps in to explain that she couldn’t possibly have done so because the book had not been published. 

Writing and editing both appear as liberating acts of creation and recreation, part of the quest to rescue loved ones from both fixity and forgetting. « I am writing a novel to save the living, » Daniela/Eliška explains, « but also to lead the past and my dead ones out of time immemorial, to lead out of it even myself. » Like Sofie Souslik’s reweaving of the city, the trilogy’s final narrator reassures herself that, as long as she is writing, « there remains a glimmer of hope for a way back, for a return to life and to consciousness, to will, to a human face. » This fated hope makes a cheeky appearance in the form of a theta sign—the mark for « to delete » at Eliška’s editing job—that mutates into the shape of a scarab beetle, an ancient Egyptian symbol for rejuvenated life.

Hodrová’s narration peters out, but one closes the trilogy with the sense that the show will go on.  Fictional characters, real people and unvanquished dead will continue to share the space of the city, to carry on and mutate, in defiance of our editing. « What if all fictional characters from novels continue to dwell somewhere, just like the dead », Theta asks, « enveloping our world in an ever more hermetic sheath, created from all our feelings and memories as well? » 

City of Torment is a text that challenges both passivity and fixed ideas. In this sense, it was certainly anathema to the Normalization period of Czech history. But we can also read in it a challenge to the dubious inevitabilities of our own time, particularly the nationalist-neoliberal system that has declared itself « alternativeless » since the end of the Cold War. Living in a city means sharing a place with more people and more ideas than one can feasibly keep hold on. The only sensible response, the only compassionate response, is a radical form of openness. Hodrová notes in her travel guide that she stopped writing Theta during the heady days of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, because the sudden eruption of hope would have interfered with her book – but she picked it up again once the frustration and disillusionment of post-Communist life settled in: « The city », she wrote, « is once more slipping back into its sleep, its unconsciousness, its oblivion. » (At the trilogy’s very end, there appears, in addition to the mandatory crowds of tourists, a « video game bus » and an « apocalyptic party horn »: not the savviest portrait of urban alienation you’ll read, but her point stands.) The opposite of such oblivion is engagement—not only with the present, but also with the past. A place’s old stories cannot be protected and preserved like objects in a museum. One needs the courage to enter into them oneself. Yet the risk of this engagement is that one becomes vulnerable to change oneself. To write against fixed ideas means putting one’s own ideas at stake. As conservatives in Central Europe and beyond espouse « national heritage »—as something that is inherited and must be defended—Hodrová’s self-endangering, pluralistic version of the European story appears defiantly humane.

« I imagine Europe as a living thing cloaked in an aura »

Hodrová’s Prague is an experiment in European microcosm. The novel is local in focus, but broad in ambition. In an academic context, Hodrová has written about the potential of fragmented (« woven ») narratives to generate not discontinuity but a multitude of simultaneous connections. She may be a dedicated Prager, and a Czech – but her project is also deeply European. « I imagine Europe as a living thing cloaked in an aura », she told a 2003 symposium of authors in Hamburg, « an invisible mental substance woven out of every thought, memory, notion, illusion, dream, anxiety, obsession, and trauma that has ever passed through the head of this maiden, or rather lady, of an uncertain age. And it is in this narrative web of literary Europe that the writer is caught. »

For the fiction of Central Europe, particularly its literature of place, that narrative web involves more languages and more cultural strands than most authors can stay on top of. City of Torment’s shifting, multivalent vision of history offers one solution to this riddle. 

Hodrová thus finds her companions in other Central European authors using fragmentary and open-ended forms as they respond to place and history in irreverent ways. It anticipates the constellational logic of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (2007, translated 2017) and Judith Schalansky’s ironic use of scientific structural conceits to challenge the naturalistic fallacy in An Inventory of Losses (2018, translated 2020); its experiments in continuity also resemble the interplay between fragment and epic monologue in László Krasznahorkai’s novels like War & War (1999, translated 2006). Saša Stanišić’s Bosnian-German family memoir Where You Come From (2019, translated 2021) pushes his self-editing logic to a playful extreme with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style ending. All these authors write about place and the past in a period—the so-called End of History—that sees its favored political and social forms as inevitable, normal and exclusively legitimized by history: the « natural » conditions of nationalism and neoliberal capitalism that reshape the urban environment, while citizens are encouraged to see their modern lives as fundamentally separate from history’s dramas. And each author resists this by making history itself unstable, overdetermined, and vulnerable to rearrangement and re-narration. The past is made a real domain of possibility for the present. Forgotten pluralities come back to haunt us. Like Sofie Souslik in Puppets, these authors take what’s come before and use it to wake the place up.