Radka Denemarková is an award-winning Czech writer and translator of Herta Müller’s fiction. Her latest novel, ‘A Contribution to the History of Joy’, was published on 24 October. In this interview, which originally appeared in the Slovak feminist literary journal Glosolália and has been translated into English by Julia Sherwood, she tells Zuzana Uličianska what she feels is wrong with present-day Czech society.
Your writing spans two worlds — those of literature and theatre. In which of these worlds do you feel more at home?
In literature, definitely. Theatre always involves compromise because every production is the result of the director’s interpretation. When I write, on the other hand, I’m completely in charge and don’t have to beat about the bush. For me fiction is absolutely essential and primary. I might go as far as to say that for me literature is the only place left where one can still speak the truth. I’ve lost all interest in anything historians and politicians have to say.
That’s quite a strong statement.
That’s my experience of the past few decades. I’m not so young anymore and I’ve grown tired of many things. I want to explore the world in a different way, in my own way – through literature, through fictional characters, through new forms of the novel.
So you’re done with philosophical, political or other ‘expert’ perspectives on the world?
I just don’t trust them anymore. I suppose it’s got something to do with the kind of language they use: words double-cross themselves nowadays… We bandy about words like democracy, equality, intolerance and tolerance, words that have become bleached of meaning. People still think in terms of Right and Left, of dissidents and communists, East and West. As if they lived in the past. But none of that is true anymore and hasn’t been true for a long time! Sometimes I feel as if people were afraid to speak authentically and were instead trying to hide behind these so-called pearls of wisdom, the great clichés that have been drilled into them. But life flows along a very different river-bed. And it takes courage to remain alone in the middle of the current.
What is of key importance to you then?
The individual life of the human being. The space between birth and death is the only place where you can still show something, examine something properly. Another factor that plays a big role in human lives is irrationality: it can’t be pigeonholed or generalized. I’m not interested in labels, I’m interested in actions. To put it even more bluntly I’m not really interested in knowing whether someone used to be a communist or a dissident. It’s obvious that the younger generation sees things quite differently. For them the key problem is consumer society, which is these days under the control of transnational corporations and those, in turn, influence politics and they have the media in their pocket too.
Is there something that might make you take to the streets these days? Do you think street protest can be effective as a form of protest?
So what would you target with your sharpened pen?
The status of women and men is what I regard as the key problem. It still makes a difference whether you are born in a woman’s skin or a man’s. The world sees you differently, you have different opportunities. In sum – half of mankind doesn’t enjoy the same opportunities. I consider myself lucky to be living in the Czech Republic and in this day and age. In the Middle Ages I would have been burnt at the stake long ago. But there are still countries around the world where women risk their lives on a daily basis just because they’re women. And that’s really terrible! People should go out into the streets to protest this!
Right, but I’d like to see a Western politician who won’t do business with a sheikh because women are not free in his country…
You’ve hit the nail on the head. We might as well call this genocide of half of the world’s population. These women have no rights.
Unfortunately, most people in Europe don’t seem to have the slightest interest in the situation of women in Arab countries, India or Pakistan.
Sometimes you see a glimpse of solidarity, it’s like the tip of the iceberg. For instance, in the case of the Tunisian woman who was raped by two policemen in a car and later charged with being a moral threat to society. People started talking about her case only because she came from a middle class family. But at the same time, they all wondered who she thought she was. If something like that happened to men, if men were unable to leave their house, if they were barred from higher education and faced being stoned for having glanced at a woman, that would mobilize people. But the way things are, nobody gives a damn. Because this discriminatory view of women is still lurking somewhere in our subconscious.
The quotas proposed by the European Union went down much better with the Czech media than with the press in Slovakia. Do you think quotas are the right step toward achieving greater gender equality?
I’m all for quotas. Let’s put them in place and see what happens. When quotas were introduced in the Nordic countries they made quite an impact. I also think that this kind of discussion draws attention to the fact that someone might need quotas, and that alone is something positive.
I suppose that unless the number of women in a particular milieu reaches critical mass, they don’t stand much chance of changing the system…
Exactly. We mustn’t fool ourselves and believe that appointing one, two or three women to some commission or other will change anything. That’s not realistic. Women must either fit in or leave. They are tolerated only if they behave exactly like men. I once took part in a very peculiar discussion about the EU. It was in Germany, shortly after the crisis in Greece erupted, which suddenly laid bare all sorts of problems. I was the only woman on stage among seven men and the air was so thick with hatred you could have cut it with a knife. And that in spite of the fact that I didn’t really attack the men, I just responded to what they said. As someone born in a woman’s skin I’m tired simply of being aware of all these male egos–I’m exaggerating a bit, I know—of watching them play their power games and cling to power. But as a matter of fact, all these problems derive from the way men have fine-tuned the world over the centuries. We live in a society that’s been calibrated in line with the male way of thinking.
Most of the richest people in the world are men. They include media moguls who influence the way people are supposed to think, what they should wear, how they should look and how they should live. We have to break out of this vicious circle somehow. I understand that it would suit men if our rights continued to be circumscribed, if all we did was support them and provide them with a home base. It would suit me, too, if things were set up the other way around, and I wouldn’t want to change it either. I would also like to be like Thomas Mann, to be able to lock myself in my study and not care if everyone around me was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s definitely very convenient that way.
Do you accept the label feminist?
People keep calling me a feminist, but they always elaborate it with a prefix: neo-feminist, post-feminist. They might just as well call me a swallow or a dandelion for all I care. In the Czech Republic—and I guess it’s the same in Slovakia—the term feminist is a swearword. So if people need a label, I tell them right away, yes, I’m a feminist. It makes me very angry when women feel that they have to say they are not feminists and add something to the effect that they’re actually quite fond of men. This is a huge misunderstanding. Whenever I see is a group of people that doesn’t enjoy equal rights—be they women, men or children–I will always be on their side.
Do you think we’ve already entered the post-feminist phase?
Quite the contrary, I think we still have a long way to go. We can celebrate the fact that we have enjoyed universal suffrage for a hundred years now, but women still have to fight to assert themselves. There is this unspoken boundary, this glass ceiling, beyond which the male world doesn’t allow women to go. I’m talking about the highest echelons of power where decisions are taken. It affects politics, the media, businesses, universities, as well as the arts. How many female theatre directors are there? Of course there are a few exceptions. If a woman is happy as a homemaker, I respect that. But I want my idea of a free world to be respected too. I want to practice my profession and I want people to judge me by what I do and how I do it, and not by whether I have a vagina or not.
Do you think we should push for gender equality in parliament?
Most definitely not! Watching parliamentary sessions on TV makes you feel they’re taking place on Mars. The whole party system needs to be overhauled. But who’d have the stomach for a job like that!? Everything has become much more sophisticated and pernicious because men have learned to spout all these clichés about how much they care about women. It’s similar at the university where I teach. Female students are usually the smarter ones but of course it’s the male students whom the professors tend to pick for their assistants.
Why then is female solidarity quite rare?
Isn’t everything driven by commercial considerations these days, especially literature?
There used to be a clear distinction between serious and purely commercial art. What we have today is a weird mix, and you can also see it in the papers. On the same page you find a serious book review as well as gossip about an actress who is getting married. I believe that literature has to be written differently these days. I tried to come up with a new literary form in my most recent novel, ‘Kobold’. At a time when everything—from artificial insemination to your own death—is available for money, the task of the novel should be to expose the way this world really works.
What does Kobold, the character in your novel, stand for?
For me he represents model behaviour, the embodiment of something that scares me. There are some people who are highly intelligent but their emotional intelligence is zero and they have zero social empathy. These people manipulate others and they reach the top at lightning speed. My novel encompasses a plethora of themes, including totalitarianism. However, I understand this term not just in the sense of communist or Nazi totalitarianism. More than anything else I am concerned with totalitarian patterns within the family and in human relationships. While I was writing the book, one of the characters spun off and turned into a separate story. Then I had the idea of including both stories in the same book, run head-to-tail. Readers can choose which story they read first and once they’ve finished, the two perspectives will come together in their minds. This is my kind of response to e-books: I have nothing against them but I wouldn’t like this book of mine to appear in electronic form.
You started experimenting with the form of the novel in your book ‘Smrt, nebudeš se báti’ (Death, You Will Not Be Afraid), an account of the life of the late theatre director Petr Lébl. Didn’t you feel that blending elements of fiction with someone’s biography was morally problematic?
It’s an approach that has been used in literature from time immemorial. As for the moral issue, it’s Lébl himself who is to blame. He was the one who named me in his will, he was the one who wanted me to write a book about him. He knew what I was like, he knew full well that I would struggle with this assignment but he also knew that I would carry it out in a way that would make people talk about the book. So any criticism should, in the first place, be addressed to him. I didn’t have a chance to tell him if I wanted to do it or not. At the end of the novel I say that that if I ever met Petr again, I would slap him in the face and then we’d have a good talk about it. I struggled with this novel for eight years before I came up with a form that perfectly fits the essence of his life. Individual chapters ebb and flow in tune with his bipolar illness. Some chapters drag along slowly, others race ahead at a manic speed. I have included the story of Chekhov’s Seagull in the book because that’s what his life was like. Lébl deserved an original form of biography. As does everyone else, actually.
Some critics complained that his life should have been depicted in a more objective way.
There are countless “objective” biographies of famous people but nobody reads them because their authors did a sloppy job. I set out to write a book that wouldn’t date so fast, one that would really show Lébl’s life, the universe inside him, which has gone forever. It’s a heavy book. Other people may have written about his life without really understanding it. And others still may have just been pissed off because they didn’t find themselves in it. Some people were upset by the mere fact that his life had been laid bare. Suddenly things weren’t just black and white, his life wasn’t just a legend. I crammed into the book everything that made his life so fascinating, the demons he had to fight, everything that had made him unbearable at times but also what had made him such an amazing and gifted person. I wanted to find a form that was completely new. The organizers of the Magnesia Litera contest didn’t know how to pigeonhole the book. First it was nominated in the fiction category, then under non-fiction. Suddenly there was no “correct” label for it.
What would you call the genre of this book?
I call it a documentary novel for lack of a better term. Perhaps it needs a more precise label but I haven’t found it yet. That’s a job for literary scholars, let them come up with something.
You returned to the Theatre on the Balustrade in 2010 when your play Sleep Disorders opened there. Why did you choose three women protagonists – Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump?
That was the time when I felt the need to hide in stories and started looking for women writers who had committed suicide. Both Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath fought for their independence and in my play they suddenly meet Ivana Trump. They stare at her in amazement – is this what we fought for? It’s dark humor, of course, a kind of friendly fire.
What does writing mean for you?
As I was writing the play I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a writer, a wife, a daughter, a mother. This was because after my father died unexpectedly, and suddenly all these questions came up and he was no longer around to answer them. So I decided to probe them by means of the play. For the first time in my life I thought about the way my father raised me. I realized that he treated me differently from other women. I was his gifted daughter. He was a wonderful man but also a bit of an egomaniac. He had to dominate every discussion.
But surely you need an ego to assert yourself?
Yes, you do, but that doesn’t mean you should have no empathy. I’ve met many women who were able to manage their egos, who were capable of sacrificing their time and their life. I think it’s wonderful to be able to spring into action sometimes without wondering if you‘re wasting your time on someone else. And it seems to me that this hasn’t been sufficiently reflected in the arts.
Is there such a thing as female and male writing?
I don’t mix gender into my writing. Whatever I do, I am fully committed to – I always try to conceive of the world in a new way. But of course I use different language for female characters, because their experience is different. And if I find that my language isn’t up to it I have another go at it.
Do women write with their bodies, as Hélène Cixous has said?
I wouldn’t know, I write with my head. I always take an issue that preoccupies me at any given moment, mull it over from every conceivable angle and so before I start writing I already know what line of argument I’m going to put forward in the text. But of course, there are times when the writing happens intuitively. Writing is a very individual process for every woman as well as every man, you really can’t generalize.
Recently a vast number of new women authors has sprung up in Slovakia, producing what’s usually referred to as women’s novels. What does this trend indicate?
What it indicates is that they’ve been duped by the system. This is exactly what has been imposed on us: the expectation that women cover women’s themes: relationships, love and that’s that. But the real world is much more complex for all of us. Men find this rather convenient, of course. They see it as evidence that this really is the case.
Women‘s novels enjoy mass readership.
Some young and pretty women authors have started appearing on billboards.
Because they have become commodified just like their books and that suits the media. As for me, I had to turn down an interview for a women’s magazine because the editor kept pushing me to talk about men and children. I told her I wasn’t prepared to answer questions like that because it helps to perpetuate the system. You should have seen the panic – normally people beg to be interviewed and suddenly there’s someone who turns down the offer! It’s dangerous when society becomes so dumbed down that we lose the ability to spot a dictator.
Do you see a risk of social unrest at present?
I see that some groups are beginning to radicalize. The dumbed-down section of society demands entertainment, brands, holidays and adrenaline sports. And this crowd can be easily manipulated by somebody clever. We know from experience how easy it is to pick a vicarious target, someone who is different, and then dump all the problems on them, whether they are Roma or Muslims. It is interesting how little time it takes for most people to fall for this sort of thing. The promise of a temporary benefit is enough for them to give up what is most precious — their freedom and self-respect. Before 1989 we could at least hope that everything would change once the system collapsed. But nowadays we are the ones who are bringing all this about and suddenly we don’t know how to stop it. What freedom are we talking about? This word needs revising. What we really have is the opposite, we have covert shackling, modern slavery.
What should we do to break out of this slavery?
You have to create a parallel world, have friends, people you trust, your own culture, books, concerts. Otherwise we’d go mad. I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening in the world but I admit that I keep it separate from my private life. I enjoy my life, it amazes me in many ways. There are many great things around even though it sometimes takes a while to spot them among all the flickering adverts.
Do you have any maxims for raising your children?
I don’t tell my children anything, I just behave the way I would like everyone else to behave. I try not to be afraid and to speak my mind and, at the same time, accept that my words and actions will have consequences. I try not to steal, be open to other people. I’ve discovered that the greatest challenge these days is to remain a decent human being.
Readers wanting to know more about Radka Denemarková’s work can find her essay on translating Herta Müller in Asymptote and an extract from ‘Kobold’, her previous novel, in the November issue of Words without Borders.