TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 5

An Interview with Emil Hakl

 · Nonfiction

By Sonja Crafts and Jeremy Hauck

Emil Hakl (real name Jan Beneš) was born in Communist Prague in 1958. He  is the author of two books of poetry, two story collections, and five novels, the most recent of which is The Actual Event (Skutečná událost), published by Argo (Prague, 2012). His second novel, Of Kids and Parents (O rodičích a dětech, Argo, 2002), was made into a feature film, translated into English by Twisted Spoon Press (Prague, 2008), and won the 2003 Magnesia Litera Prize for prose. In 2010 Hakl won the Josef Škvorecký Award for the year’s best Czech work of fiction for Rules of Ridiculous Behavior (Pravidla směšného chování). His 2008 novel, The Witch’s Flight (Let čarodějnice), is forthcoming this year in English translation from Twisted Spoon. This is Hakl’s first interview with an American publication.

In the past you have said that you draw on your own life experiences in your writing. However, you take it farther than most fiction writers do – though you publish under the pseudonym Emil Hakl, in many of your stories and novels your main character (and narrator) shares your age and real name, Jan (Honza) Beneš. As an author, what is the effect of using your own name in your stories? What made you initially use yourself as a character?

When I was studying at art school (ed: Jaroslav Ježek Konservatory in Prague), all us young morons thought that a true poet has to have a pseudonym – so I invented one, too. Then later when I started to write prose, it just felt natural to have “Emil Hakl” writing about Jan Beneš, to keep things simple. In truth, however, it started as a sort of joke that was already pretty stale by that point, and now it makes no sense to change it.

The character Honza Beneš also seems to have a fixed history, with memories that reappear in different stories. For example, in “Stand Up for Yourself!”, a bailiff who has come to the narrator’s flat notices a walled-up door in the kitchen where “a fire at [his] neighbour’s workshop on the other side burned through there when he, apparently by accident, spilled some petrol on himself…” And in Of Kids and Parents, the narrator tells his father, “Then there was the case of this neighbour of mine who burnt to death, burnt right through my door into my kitchen.” As readers, we wonder if this event and ones like them actually happened to you, the author. To what extent are you fictionalizing your own experiences?

Well, that event really happened – my neighbor had paints stored next door and, unfortunately, they caught fire and he happened to die. Between his storage room and my flat there was originally a securely locked door, and when it burnt down, my neighbor was partially in my kitchen. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Subsequently, I walled up the door. Shortly after the incident I was sleeping on a mattress beneath the bricked-up door, because I was completely reconstructing my flat. It’s no wonder I got the creeps at night. Although I don’t believe in ghosts, I frequently had a strong feeling that someone was trying to strangle me in my sleep – a feeling of intense hatred. It gradually went away, fortunately.

Also true-to-life, your stories tend not to follow the usual model, where conflict arises to a specific climax. Instead, you have generally nice people sort-of getting along, with smaller changes occurring in the main character’s point of view by the end of the work. (An exception is the mountain hut scene in “Two Days in the Life of Eva F.”) What are your reasons for avoiding more intense, climactic scenes, and how do you go about structuring the action in your stories without them?

I’m more interested in the interior psychological structure of events than in rising action. I’m building on the fact that that’s how authors who are far better than me wrote. For example, Raymond Carver, who is one of my absolute favorites, and a lot of European, or rather Central European, authors (Bruno Schulz, Robert Musil, Johannes Urzidil, and, last but not least, Franz Kafka).

While it seems that most of the writing in your work is dialogue, some of your best writing comes when your main characters depart from dialogue scenes and experience moments of intense, often fatalistic contemplation. For instance, this scene at the end of the story, “The News and Views”:

“I was standing on a hill in pitch darkness between Kenvel and Carrefour; there was nowhere to step aside and no reason to step aside either. In paradise there was the rustling of paper and the sulking silence of the saints, while in hell the sweat of constantly screaming and screwing half-imbecile midgets sprayed all over, the stars were silent above and the roaring of lava resounded from below. I was standing on a heavy ship made of earth, full of cadavers engaged in lively conversation and squabbling, and the torn-up cobwebs of youth were flying from the mast.”

When your readers arrive at these scenes, what would you like them to take away from your work?

That brings us to my next favorite author – Cormac McCarthy. He can produce description with minimal dialogue, which is so powerful that the ground rumbles (Blood Meridian). Or he will abandon the poetic language and write only dialogue (The Sunset Limited). Both approaches have their own strengths – maybe that’s why I don’t mix these styles together. At any rate, that’s not an issue I’m going to resolve. Rather, we Slavs are more inclined toward non-conceptual expression, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

Speaking of which, in 2009 you told The Prague Post, “I want people to find my work more European than specifically Czech, but I can’t deny the Czechness present in my writing.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

The Czech Republic has always been a colony and furthermore we praise ourselves for our own provincialism – in this sense it’s good to acknowledge that and not expect that someone will be interested in us a nation. Europe itself is already starting to be small….

Although the narrator is the same as in many of your previous works, the subject-matter of your latest novel, The Actual Event, seems like a departure in that it is relatively action-packed and deals more extensively with recent Czech history. Can you talk about your goals in writing this novel, and about how you came to write about the Red Army Faction?

In the Czech Republic there hasn’t been a civil war for many years, and I don’t want there to be one. But when I really simplify it: is it better when society rots (which is our case), or that, in the name of rebellion, innocents die? Neither one is a real solution. Nevertheless, no Velvet Revolution has taken place here – that’s only legend, camouflage. There are people still in power here who are not about the health of the state, but about wealth, and mostly they are one way or another directly linked with the communist past. What I like about the RAF is they at least drew attention to their principles and tried to find a solution, even if it was suicidal and, overall, hardly acceptable.

As a Prague author, how do you see the recent history of the region molding its literature? In what ways has the literary scene in the Czech Republic changed since the communist era?

In the Czech Republic every fifth person writes, and the scene has changed in that whoever has enough strength to sit on a chair and write instead of have a life consequently has a chance to publish a text – though the author who sells is not always an author who has something to say, but that’s the same everywhere. In this sense, freedom came about after the silent transition of power in 1989. Economically successful writers are not necessarily the best ones here, but everyone at least has a chance here now.

Many contemporary American writers not only hold degrees in creative writing, but they also continue to work in academia – from emerging writers to Pulitzer Prize finalists. You’ve worked in many different professions, from librarian to machinist, as well as editor of a literary magazine, and, according to an interview with Babylon in 2002, you only started writing prose around 1999 (after focusing on poetry). What have been the advantages of taking this route, becoming a fiction writer later in life?

Only a few people can live just off their writing here. And everyone has their own reason for why they write. The most well-known authors aren’t necessarily the best.

For me literature is not a prestigious pursuit or a possibility to make my mark or make a living; I only want to be able to say what I have on my mind. I don’t deal with the formal trappings – I’ve reached the conclusion that, for me, time is more valuable than money. I don’t give a damn what happens in a year – I want to write and not play author.

Let’s talk a little bit about translation. Although you are a major European writer, as English-speakers it is difficult for us to talk about your career as a whole because only two of your seven books of fiction are currently available in English. How important is it for writers from Central European countries to have their work translated?

Translation into English is obviously an absolutely vital issue in terms of publicity, but I cannot personally influence anything: the world is too small and there are too many writers.

When you received the Josef Škorecký award in 2010 for Rules of Ridiculous Behavior, the novel was praised for its “idiosyncratic language” and for transforming “contemporary vernacular into a literary or even poetic one.” In the translation of your work from Czech to other languages, are you concerned that some of the intricacies of your prose will be lost?

That always depends on the translator. For example, the abovementioned Blood Meridian was rendered into Czech perfectly, thanks to the extreme talent of translator Martin Svoboda. For me, it depends less on the presentation of the translation, than on the internal process of reading. It’s perhaps impractical to approach translation this way, but that’s just the way it is.

The forthcoming translation of your novel, The Witch’s Flight, is to be released through Twisted Spoon Press later this year. Its publication is dependent in part by funding from European Union and Czech cultural organizations. How do you view the role of the state in promoting literature?

State support for literature – that is a complicated matter. I think that, for instance, in Scandinavia and Japan they do a great job, and thus their literature in known all over the world. Here in the Czech Republic, support is on a deplorable level, which of course is in accordance with the situation in other fields, so you can’t really complain.

Besides The Witch’s Flight, can we look forward to any other upcoming English translations of your work? Or, of your remaining four books, which would you want to have translated next?

It doesn’t depend on what I would like, but in theory, if I could pick what I want to be translated, I would pick my last two books: Rules of Ridiculous Behavior and The Actual Event. For one thing, they are written in a concise style (nobody has time for long novels today). But mainly I feel like I finally learned to kind of write and to at least kind of clearly formulate what I want to say.

Read Chapter One from Emil Hakl’s new novel, The Witch’s Flight.

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