On “The City of Torment” by Daniela Hodrová
I remember very well my first visit to Prague. I was a Polish teenager and went to Prague to see the Rolling Stones. They came because Václav Havel asked them personally. He did not send a formal invitation; he instead invited Mick and Keith over for a few beers. The Stones loved it, of course, and quoted the message to the press. They skipped Poland on this world tour – a country that, in light of Havel’s amusing invitation, probably looked like a pompous, humorless neighbor. So my classmates and I went to Prague, the most beautiful city in the world, as recently voted by readers of Free time magazine. Its beauty, which had survived many wars, was both striking and surprising to us (especially since 90% of Warsaw’s original buildings had been destroyed during WWII). The Czechs have always treated their capital as if it were the central figure in their lives – Prague has always been human!
Daniela Hodrová’s Prague also has ears and eyes, and often a belly. Sometimes it is some kind of monster that haunts its inhabitants. Other times, it is a living room inhabited first by Czech Jews and then by a German family. Beautiful and sensual place, he often changes lovers. A “moving interplay of meanings and references”, as Hodrová notes in his 2006 book, The sensible cityPrague is inhabited by both the living and the dead:
I am the pantry, the chamber of resurrection […] shivering petty thieves and masturbating youngsters. […] I am the bedroom of suicides and the bedroom of dreamers. […] I belong to all those who enter into me and defile me with their secret sins, their little vices. I take them all indiscriminately in my decrepit arms, press them against my hermaphrodite body, for I have lost all feminine charms in my old age, my source of femininity long since dried up. […] I am a wasteland. […] I am what my visitors make of me, they come to satisfy me as they would an elderly prostitute, only in moments of helplessness and anxiety.
London publisher Jantar has been publishing Hodrová’s work in translation for more than a decade. First, they released their gender-mixed “guide” Prague. I see a city… in 2011, then his 1991 novel, A kingdom of soulsin 2015. Today, Jantar unfolds its most ambitious effort to date: a superb translation by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol of a loose trilogy of novels, city of torment. The novels were first published separately in the early 1990s by a Czech provincial publisher, to great critical acclaim but very little sales. When, in the late 1990s, they were reissued as a magnificent collection, with the elusive city of Prague at its center, Hodrová’s profile rose. She received the Franz Kafka Prize in 2012; his book Točite věty (Spiral sentences) won the most prestigious Czech literary prize, the Magnesia Litera, in 2016; and his scholarly work on the theory of the novel has been well received internationally, especially in France and Russia.
Hodrová was never associated with the dissident movement in the former Czechoslovakia, and none of her writings were published in the clandestine but half-tolerated samizdat form. As a scholarly woman writing in a rather obscure literary tradition, she probably wasn’t taken very seriously by the more “political” (male) authors, and she didn’t really care about them either, it seems. -he. In the end, it all served him well. The many “banned authors” of the 60s, 70s and 80s were finally published in the early 90s – then the world all but lost interest in them, paving the way for the emergence of “new voices”, including that of Hodrova. After receiving the Kafka Prize, whose winners include Harold Pinter and Margaret Atwood, Hodrová was even nominated a few times to the Nobel committee.
Although city of torment is an experimental work, it is not a difficult read. In the opening scene (a suicide, it seems, although this fact is not directly mentioned), the protagonist, Alice, falls from a window, dies, is buried and reunites with her deceased ancestors in a few moments. seconds, as if she were Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole:
Alice […] would never have thought that the window of his childhood bedroom was so low above the cemetery in Olšany that the body could cover the distance in less than two seconds. […] Alice walks in and sees her grandmother at the table, tears streaming down her cheeks. The table is covered with the Sabbath tablecloth. He tells Alice that maybe one day someone will make a dress out of it, a Sabbath dress.
In this very first scene, Alice’s faith and hope have been traded for death. It’s Alice’s decision; she has free will and she acts. She did not give up a life of possessions or material happiness; she gave her life. What this fully means is revealed in the more than 600 pages that follow. On one level, the story is a very personal account of things that happen to Alice in her short life, particularly the events she witnesses in her apartment building. On another level, it is a historical study of the Czech lands that begins, vaguely, in the first millennium and ends with the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. It is also saturated with literary allusions — to Virginia Woolf, to Dante, to Tennessee Williams, to the Czech poet Karel Hynek Mácha… Did someone miss me?
As the story unfolds and the complex story it tells, Prague throws all manner of grenades at its citizens. The way Alice’s parents and neighbors absorb blasts or throw back grenades (with interest) becomes another layer of town life. Actions taken hundreds of years ago bring new insights and new results. History comes back and bites hard. As Alice waits for a happy ending, her neighbors struggle to survive and love each other, while the city’s beautiful architecture – even the gargoyles on its cathedrals – come to life. The citizens of Prague may find space to thrive for a while, but the city always wins.
city of torment is magical realism on steroids. People turn into ghosts, then they become pupae. The characters begin to merge. Souls rustle in the vases. Wings flutter inside the pillowcases. The nails of the statues turn into claws. The dead swap bodies with each other, are spun and turned into statues, hear each other speak softly in the pantry. Alice’s grandmother turns into a swan, her grandfather into a moth.
Souls cling to life through things, or rather through the relics of things. As if these relics contained some kind of promise of rebirth, the pledge of a new life. There is, after all, the aura, that extraordinary fluid which surrounds and animates things, which the dead perceive much more strongly than the living. Touching things is almost like touching life itself.
As I read through the trilogy, I became aware of the distinctly feminine voice, an observant and structuring awareness that becomes increasingly self-reflective, openly exploring the author’s relationship to her text. The autobiographical ties are most apparent in the last and shortest novel in the sequence, Theta, when Hodrová touchingly describes the life and death of her parents, friends and husband, and what those lives meant to each other and to her. Now their ashes are mixed in death:
This one, whose ashes had crossed the ocean and on June 11, 1985 at 10:50 a.m. were scattered by the hand of the sower of Olšany, now walks lightly, it almost floats. At the end of the meadow, she even makes a little jump (isn’t that called a throw?), at the same time her legs meet in the air — it’s of course an assembly. She dances – wonder of wonders. I’m probably dancing because my ashes got mixed up with the ashes of that ballerina, they too – it sounds a lot like a novel – crossed the ocean to Olšany, thinks Milada Součková, is now half Yelena Rimská. It would be better to call her the Dispersed, since she is now the writer and the ballerina in one and the same figure.
Novels have also become an important part of the lives of their two excellent translators. For Véronique Firkusny, the journey began with her mother in the 1990s when she was translating fragments of A kingdom of souls in English. The task continued in an intense six-year collaboration with Elena Sokol to translate and polish the three novels into this masterpiece.
It’s hard to disagree with the Icelandic poet Sjón when he describes Daniela Hodrová as “one of the best writers in Europe”. I could add something like “one of the best writers you’ve never heard of”, but that’s really not enough. This book can change your life, as it changed mine. Reading city of torment has become an important and personal exercise in creative, open and light reading – a practice we all need to learn.
Agnieszka Dale is a Polish-born author based in London and conceived in Chile. His first collection of short stories, fox seasonwas released in 2017.