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Deciphering the Past Through Fiction: An Interview with Tomáš Zmeškal

By Jessie Chaffee

Set in Czechoslovakia between the 1940s and the 1990s, Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform (Yale University Press, 2016), translated into English by Alex Zucker, follows one family’s tragic story in communist and postcommunist Eastern Europe. Josef meets his wife, Květa, before the Second World War at a public lecture on Hittite culture given by Bedřich Hrozný, the scholar who first deciphered the Hittite language. Květa chooses to marry Josef over their mutual friend Hynek, but when her husband is later arrested and imprisoned for an unnamed crime, Květa gives herself to Hynek in return for help and advice. Told out of chronological order and in different voices, Zmeškal’s novel traverses time and genre, weaving together mythology, science fiction, and history.

I met Tomáš at Bosie Tea Parlor in Greenwich Village, New York when he was in town for the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival.  

Cover of Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomas ZmesklWords Without Borders (WWB): One of the things that most struck me about Love Letter in Cuneiform was its scope—it encompasses so many time periods and so many genres. What was the initial inspiration for the story?

Tomáš Zmeškal (TZ): The story changed from when I first began writing it. Initially, the main character was Alice, the daughter [of Josef and Květa]. And then as I was writing, it struck me that Alice’s parents had more interesting lives than she did, and so I started to be drawn more to that older generation. I finished it in 2003 and I felt that, at that time, the older generation didn’t get recognition for all they went through. I also wasn’t happy with the initial form. I had studied literature and at the time I was doing a PhD, so I knew everything about literary structure, and that was really inhibiting. It took me some to give it up—to overcome the inhibitions and to take some risks and to introduce a different structure than a chronological one. So I began with certain ideas, most of which I left behind, and I came up with something new. But I started with Alice.

WWB: The story is told from a variety of perspectives and through a multiplicity of voices. How did you think about the way that language would function in the book, and did that affect the way that you structured the narrative?

TZ: I think it’s important to be conscious of who is telling the story, what their intention is, and the kind of language that they use. I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia, so you were brought up with the phrases that the communists used—you lived with propaganda. I think it’s a mark of my generation that you don’t trust language, in a way. The writers I most admire don’t only narrate a story, they also convey that the way that language is used is important—who talks, how they talk, why they say what they say.

And sometimes even the silences are important. For example, when I spoke with my family and we touched on political issues that influenced their lives, they sometimes wouldn’t say anything, or they would make some kind of evasions. It was important that when I asked a question, there was this kind of long pause. I saw their eyes, and it told me everything. It was enough.

My first thought was that I would tell the story chronologically. But once I had sixty or seventy pages, I wasn’t happy with it. It wasn’t a bad text, but it didn’t convey what I wanted to convey, which is something much more complicated. For example: I had an uncle who smoked a certain kind of cigar. They’re cheap and curly and they have this terrible smell. You can still buy them in the Czech Republic, but you rarely see anyone smoking them. Maybe once every two years I see someone smoking them and it immediately reminds me of my uncle. But these things happen in completely unpredictable circumstances. You might be at the dentist or in a meeting, and suddenly you start to think about someone who you loved. Now how you are going to convey that as a writer? It doesn’t fit into an ordinary structure because, once you remember, it leads to something else and then something else. In a way, in order to be more realistic you have to stop using realistic methods.

The writers I most admire don’t only narrate a story, they also convey that the way that language is used is important—who talks, how they talk, why they say what they say.

And that also concerns language. For example, the media creates incredible, moving stories in a completely unified language—and what does that say about language? Do they really care about what they are saying? I used to be a teacher, and in a university or high school you hear students saying that they love each other, but they use the language of soap operas. What’s tragic is that they might be completely honest. It’s an honest feeling. But if you speak like this, you can’t believe anything that you hear. Language loses its meaning.

This is one reason that I used slightly different styles and voices. Because we have conventions in language, and those conventions are very useful. But at the same time, life is more complicated than that.

WWB: One of the things I admire about the novel is that you play with different styles and genres. You create a very real historical and political context, but mythology and science fiction narratives break that reality. At what point did you make the decision to include those other narratives? And how did you become interested in Bedřich Hrozný, the scholar who decoded the Hittite language whose translations play a role in the book?

TZ: I knew from the start that I wanted to be clear about what was going on between the wars, when my grandmother lived. And I was familiar with Bedřich Hrozný. He was a bit of a character himself. He was a lieutenant during the First World War and he was stationed in some kind of military warehouse. And his superior said, “Well, Hrozný, everybody steals from the warehouse, but you don’t steal anything. So I don’t care what you do here. You can do whatever you like.” So he studied, and he deciphered the Hittite language in that military warehouse during the war. When his study about how he deciphered the language was first published, he actually dedicated it to his superior.

He was also an admirable kind of person. For example, when he was doing an archeological excavation in the Middle East, he and the workers got sick with malaria, and he gave the workers his own anti-malaria tablets because, he said, they work and I don’t. And during the Second World War, he was Chancellor of Prague University, and the Germans were taking away Czech students to concentration camps. He managed to save the lives of some of those students by getting into a shouting match with the German officers.

So he was an interesting character, and it was natural that people of my grandmother’s generation would know him, because he was a public figure. But his story [and the Hittite stories he deciphered] actually come later in the novel because his work was not yet translated into Czech when I started the book. Most of it was in German. Then they published some of the Hittite myths in Czech—like the myth of Ullikummi—when I was already into the writing. And when I read this myth, it suddenly clicked. The horror that people felt several thousand years ago and the horror of the time that I was writing about came together. It mirrored the main story. I love old stories and myths, and I think that whatever changes in the world, we still live similar lives, though in different circumstances, of course.

I love old stories and myths, and I think that whatever changes in the world, we still live similar lives, though in different circumstances, of course.

WWB: One of the most memorable storytellers within the novel is the pastry chef, Marek Svoboda. How did you find that character?

TZ: The pastry chef was a minor character in the first variation. In the Czech Republic, and Austria and other parts of Bavaria, there is this tradition of pastry chefs and small shops that are just for pastries. Pastry chefs are loved by children. But he was a minor character in the first version. And then I started to write the wedding scene, and I thought, they should have a cake, everyone has a cake. The pastry chef wants to provide a wedding cake that no one will forget. But it gets completely mad—it develops into this mythological cake—and I thought if the pastry chef makes this kind of cake, he must have something to say as well.

What I like about writing, and what I have always loved about literature, is that minor characters can become major characters. When I was young, my grandmother used to love classical music, so she took me to operas. When I first saw The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, what I liked was that Figaro is the servant and he has a main part. I realized that ordinary people can play a main part. And in the case of this pastry chef—I said, well, okay, he has a cake. But let’s give him something to say, let’s give him a story.

Image: Tomáš Zmeškal and Alex Zucker during the author’s visit to New York City. Photo courtesy of Alex Zucker.(Image: Tomáš Zmeškal and Alex Zucker during the author’s visit to New York City. Photo by Alex Zucker.)

WWB: How involved were you in the translation of the book into English? And were there words or ideas that couldn’t be translated?

TZ: Alex [Zucker] sent me the first draft of the translation, and there were just two corrections, which he made in the second draft. And then the really hard work started, especially for him. For example, I like poetry and sometimes I use language poetically. And some of it is difficult to translate. There was a sentence in the book concerning hospitals. When I was a kid and you went to the hospital, there was this kind of special disinfectant that they used everywhere, so all hospitals in the Czech Republic smelled the same. In Czech it was called karbolka, from carbolic acid, the chemical ingredients, and I could use that word in Czech because everybody in the country knew that smell. But when Alex looked up karbolka, he found that it’s now used mainly as a wood preservative, so he was confused. He tried to come up with a common name that would work the same in English, but in the end he just called it carbolic acid.

The level of detail to which Alex went was really remarkable. In the book there was a description of a glass display case. In English, you say “first shelf, second shelf, third shelf,” but in Czech we say “the bottom shelf.” We just count it differently. Alex said, “I can’t get the number right—somehow it doesn’t work.” I discovered after all those years that we refer to it differently. So I drew this display case, and I mailed him a drawing.

The most difficult chapter to translate was “Second Vision of Immortality,” which Alex described in a recent article. The chapter is semi-science fiction and I used this kind of wordplay in Czech in it. Alex had to come up with really ingenious English wordplay so that it would make sense. And I couldn’t help him—this was up to him because I read English, but I’m not a native speaker.

WWB: The book has been translated into many different languages. Is there anything that has surprised you in how readers or reviewers in other countries have responded to it?

TZ: I was in Poland several years ago when they dramatized a part of the book, and I realized there were things that we took for granted in Czechoslovakia. Even within Eastern European countries, the communist totalitarian regime was very different. For example, in Poland or in Croatia, they had bad regimes, but the regimes were not as “thorough” as the Czechs. You start to think about the nature of your country. Czechs pride themselves on being civilized and cultured and so on, but they are also very thorough, and when that kind of diligence takes the form of something bad, it’s very bad. When I spoke with readers in other countries, they said, “We didn’t realize that it was so tough.”

WWB: We published a nonfiction piece of yours in Words without Borders, “The Prodigal Father,” about your experience of visiting Congo. In it you talk about a writer going from the phase of “boundless observerdom, to which the beginner is condemned” to finding “his own voice, his own themes, until he discovers what his writing is actually about.” Do you have any advice for writers on how to get from that state of observation to the authentic voice and story?

TZ: I think that you can’t avoid that observation phase. It is really important. Modern American literature is very good at this. But you can’t only observe. And it has to be the right topic for you. There are many ideas that one can have, and not all of them are good—at a certain stage you start to recognize the good ideas, the topics that will work for you. You have to find the topic in which you are interested, and not only a “good topic,” but one that you can somehow grasp and make your own.

You have to find . . . not only a “good topic,” but one that you can somehow grasp and make your own.

I think the next stage is that you have to believe—you have to believe your story. If you don’t believe it, then forget it. Sometimes a student will say to me, “I have this story, but it’s completely stupid,” and I say, “Well, stupid for who?” I think that it doesn’t have to be a “great story”—no one expects Anna Karenina—but if it works for the writer, if you enjoy it and if you trust the story, then I think that you are on the way to creating a good story.

It’s important not to be afraid to take risks from time to time. I was aware in this book that I was taking risks. My second and third books are written differently, because it’s my view that each story asks for how you should narrate it. The second book, which hasn’t been translated, is chronological and there aren’t any side stories because I thought as I was writing that I needed to spend a long time with the main characters, to get to know them. I didn’t know that it would be chronological when I began it. So I think that one shouldn’t be afraid to change as well.

The rest is technical stuff—style and so on—that one learns over time. And, of course, there are editors. And they are very important. It is important to find a good editor—an editor who appreciates the view that the writer has. But the most important thing is to find the story that is right for you and then trust it. I think the core is that one has to trust his or her own story. The rest is difficult, but it can be learned.

WWB: Do you have any rituals or superstitions as a writer?  Do you like to be in a particular place or environment when you write?

TZ: I don’t have these kinds of rituals but I have to work in my own study. I think that concentration is quite important. Everything has to be really perfect. For example if the water tap is dripping, it gets on my nerves. I need peace and quiet. And no disturbances—the phone is always off. I enjoy writing, but I don’t find it easy. There are some writers who can write at parties, or can be on a trip and write—I make notes, but to write I have to have my study, a closed door, and some tea. Because otherwise I would be distracted and then I would get upset that I’m distracted. Sometimes that’s used as an excuse. (But I have three books, so I can say that!) Otherwise I don’t have special rituals.

WWB: But you need quietude.

TZ: Quietude, yes. Complete. Concentration is so important for everybody. But writing requires a different type of concentration. When you are at home, your spouse might ask, Do you have five minutes? I just wanted to—and then all your concentration is gone, and you have to begin again. And you can’t explain it to them. I think only writers can understand how difficult that kind of concentration is.

(Image: Tomáš Zmeškal.) 

WWB: After growing up in the Czech Republic, you lived in the UK for ten years, and then as an adult you visited Congo, where your father was from. Have those experiences found their way into your writing, or influenced it in specific ways?

TZ: I wrote a book about looking for my father, about that search. I realized that my life was in a way similar to my father’s life, although I didn’t grow up with him. I think my sister pointed it out—she said, “Well, you are like Dad.” Because he also left home and spent a long time away, in France. And then he returned—in his case it was for political reasons and in my case it was also for political reasons, although the circumstances were completely different. But my father was a political activist—I’m not and I don’t want to be and I wasn’t interested in politics beyond ordinary things.

I still haven’t written anything about the UK. I spent more than ten years there and I haven’t written anything about it—it might come at a certain stage. But being there at a formative age was very important for me. I think the experience that you get when you live abroad for a while is that you realize that you have deeply held beliefs or customs, but when you are in a different country, they are completely useless. And then you observe other people and their beliefs and you think, Well, they are completely useless as well. And if you are from a small country like the Czech Republic, which is ten million people, it is probably more important. Even before I went to the UK, there was the opinion that Czech writers should know other major literature because the Czech language was so often under threat. Now Czech literature isn’t under threat and there are loads of really good writers. Even within the last twenty years, there is this new generation of writers and good literature. Still it’s useful to see how things work elsewhere—like institutions and so on—because there are certain things in Eastern Europe that are still developing. And there are also things that are good in one’s own country that one might not be aware of [until living elsewhere]—it goes both ways.

The experience is similar to what I like about literature—you can be passionate and at the same time rational.

It’s also important because it makes you a bit skeptical—not only about what you see, but about your own beliefs and thoughts. When you first go abroad, if you like it, you get swept up in the enthusiasm—but you are on a trip, you are not going to live there. After a while, you realize that it will calm down. I think for me the experience is similar to what I like about literature—you can be passionate and at the same time rational. You can be both. I don’t think there are many things like that. In other walks of life you have to be completely rational or sometimes too emotional. And literature gives you the possibility of being both.

Read Alex Zucker’s translation of Tomáš Zmeškal’s “The Prodigal Father.”

Tomáš Zmeškal was born in Prague and educated at King’s College, University of London. He returned to his native country after the collapse of communism in the 1990s and is now a writer and teacher. He is the author of two novels, a work of literary nonfiction, radio plays, and short stories. He lives in Prague, Czech Republic. 

Published Oct 27, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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