PLUME INTERVIEWS: IRENA DOUSKOVÁ
Irena Dousková is among the most widely translated Czech authors, with ten books of fiction to her name. An excerpt from her novel White Elephants (O bílých slonech, 2008), translated by Melvyn Clarke, will be published in Project Plume’s upcoming Issue Zero.
Irena Dousková is a novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter. At home and abroad, she is best known for her tragicomic trilogy — B. Proudew (tr. Melvyn Clarke, Pálava Publishing, 2016), Onegin was a Rusky (tr. Melvyn Clarke, Pálava Publishing, 2018), and Darda (yet untranslated into English) — which follows the life of schoolgirl Helena Součková during the period of communist normalization in 1970s Czechoslovakia.
Dousková’s oeuvre showcases her hallmark use of absurdity, sarcasm and humour to address tragic themes. As literary critic Jarmila Flaková puts it, Dousková “uses humour and self-irony to mask the anxiety in the world of a faltering soul”. The tragicomic lens through which Dousková frames the dark corners of modern history has been welcomed by audiences, with all three books also having been adapted into enduringly popular stage plays across the country.
The novel tells the story of another naive yet sharply perceptive schoolgirl protagonist, Kamila Papadoulisová, who is also growing up during communist normalization in a village haunted by the not-so-distant memory of the Shoah. As translator Melvyn Clarke notes, “there is also a quiet universal comedy of manners bubbling away beneath the larger individual tragedies”.
In our first interview with an Issue Zero contributor, Irena Dousková answers Plume’s questions about the themes in her writing, her impressions on translated literature and the books in translation that marked her.
Your body of work is often noted for its masterful ability to turn a bright-eyed perspective [on dark themes and grim historical times]. What is behind your decision to use children protagonists to address tragedy?
The one is associated with the other. I didn’t choose a child as a chief protagonist just to make the view of the awful normalization period appear particularly bright-eyed. I hope not, anyway. I’m not one of those authors who look on that period with conciliatory nostalgia. I did it primarily because a child’s viewpoint—curious, astonished and of course naive—offers opportunities for a kind of comedy. It’s a perspective that allows for serious and sometimes even tragic events to be presented with humour.
Of course, an important role is also played by the fact that in the early seventies, I myself was at the age of my protagonist. So amongst other things I wanted to make use of my own feelings and memories of that period, which had a fundamental influence upon me.
In the Czech Republic, B. Proudew (Hrdý Budžes in the original Czech) has been almost as successful on the stage as it has been in book form. How do you approach your playwriting and screenwriting, versus prose?
All three cases — (Proudew, Onegin and Darda — have all now been staged — [and] involved dramatizations of books that already existed, which primarily meant trying to turn a large quantity of material into a substantially [shorter] text that despite being restricted to just dialogue, did not lose its shape or dynamics and contained everything essential. Otherwise, I do not write drama. The last time I tried anything like that was in my distant youth. So it was all quite an adventure for me and basically a new experience. I was very happy to do it, if only because contacts with the theatre milieu made a very pleasant change to my otherwise rather solitary existence as a writer.
What’s more, I was fortunate enough to work together each time with people whose artistry I very much respect, such as the star of Proudew, Barbora Hrzánová, the outstanding director Jan Borna and the ensemble at the Divadlo v Dlouhé theatre in the case of Onegin, and Arnošt Goldflam, who directed Darda at the Divadlo Na Jezerce theatre.
Your work has enjoyed success abroad, having been translated into over ten languages. How does it feel to consider your stories are being enjoyed by readers who are far-removed from their original cultural context?
Of course, I am enormously pleased about all the translations, which now come to thirteen, with work currently underway in another two languages. I’m all the more pleased, considering that Czech, no matter how rich and beautiful it is, naturally counts as a “minor” language, so I know just how difficult it is to promote a Czech text abroad. I can only hope that here and there my books can give something to readers in other countries, even beyond the Central European cultural sphere with completely different social, political and living conditions.
It would be interesting to have your view on why you think there is such a tiny amount of Czech women writers in translation compared to their male counterparts.
To tell you the truth, I had the impression that actually Czech women authors are now very successful abroad, and it’s getting to be a bit of a “hen party outing”. Even though I try to keep up with goings-on on the Czech literary scene, I don’t know the precise figures*, so it’s possible my impression is wrong and the reality is somewhat different.
In any case, there are lots of interesting Czech women authors these days, many of whom are well worth reading. One thing does occur to me that might be seen as a problem. Sometimes it seems to me that women are somehow more perceptive of what the times require. That’s how it always was at school. There were always more star pupils among the girls. They tried to conform more, sometimes perhaps a little to the detriment of their individuality. But that’s just a minor observation and my purely subjective viewpoint.
What are some of the books in Czech translation that have marked you the most throughout your life?
There are so terribly many such books that there might not be much point in trying to list them. I could make a start with the Russian classics, particularly Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and then carry on with the Prague Jewish-German literary circle, then for example, Joseph Roth and Thomas Mann and such Americans as Hemingway, Steinbeck, I. B. Singer and Chaim Potok. Nor can I leave out Marquez. And to name a woman too, for example, I very much like reading books by the Russian writer Lyudmila Ulicka. But that is a very cursory and incomplete list, with lots of seminal authors missing.
*Editor’s note: From 1987 to 2019, 17% of Czech books in English translation (excluding anthologies) were by women authors (data compiled by Alex Zucker, translator of Czech). We don’t have data on languages besides English nor on the proportional number of women published in the Czech Republic.
Interview translated from the Czech by Melvyn Clarke