Daniela Hodrová - Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Hodrová shares her unique perception of Prague
Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls, Trans. by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol, Jantar Publishing, 2015.
Daniela Hodrova shares her unique perception of Prague, through playful poetic prose, and by imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments. A Kingdom of Souls is the first volume of this author's literary journey - an unusual quest for self, for one's place in life and in the world; a world that for Hodrova is embodied in Prague.
“Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Daniela Hodrová shares her unique perception of Prague. A Kingdom of Souls is the first volume of this author’s literary journey — an unusual quest for self, for one’s place in life and in the world, a world that for Hodrová is embodied in Prague.” - From the introduction by Elena Sokol
A Kingdom of Souls is the first in a Prague-trilogy, the novel itself dated: "December 1977-October1978, June 1984" but only published after the fall of the Communist regime. Its prime locale and vista is the Olšany cemetery -- or at least a building opposite it, specifically a fifth floor apartment -- but even as much of the action is focused here it is a sweeping novel of Prague, and the modern Czech experience, since the Nazi occupation. It begins with one character dead(-but-not-entirely-departed), a presence in the pantry of that fifth floor apartment -- and he is soon joined by others, the small chamber eventually getting quite crowded. In a A Kingdom of Souls death isn't a complete release, and the dead figure just as much as the living.
There are several prominent characters in this novel of criss-crossing stories, but the central one is young Alice Davidović, longing and waiting for her beloved, Pavel Santner. But as the novel opens Pavel Santner had left with a transport two weeks earlier, and the possibility of their reunion seems slight; Alice never entirely gives up hope -- and yet also does so almost immediately, in shocking fashion. It is the time of the Second World War; Alice's family is Jewish; they too "were to join a transport" .....
Hodrová's novel is one of history, and characters whose stories are not fixed and definitive, not absolute (so also in the dead continuing to be very real presences, even if on an entirely different plane). As she writes at one point in the narrative:
That's how it happened, but perhaps it happened somewhat differently.
The novel, and its stories, are fluid -- and flowing into and out of one another. The past -- and the dead -- linger and blend into the present -- right down to the onion-smell that remains in the Davidovićs' old apartment.
Beyond the individual characters, dead and alive, this is also a novel of objects and places, many of Hodrová's short chapters giving voice to the inanimate: "I am the Olšany Cemetery", for example (where its past incarnation -- as vineyard -- also still blends into present), or: human skin, or a silkworm (with its shifting identity, from egg to caterpillar to moth), or a dressmaker's dummy called Kain. One chapter describes the souls of this 'kingdom of souls' -- "endowed with a capacity for infinite metamorphoses and reincarnations" --, another the nation itself:
I am the nation disillusioned by its revolutions and its occupations, even by its sacrifices to fire.
One chapter gives voice to Alice's muff -- an object that figures at various points in the story as well, symbolic, like so much in this novel, in so many ways.
Hodrová's poetic, elegiac, and dark novel doesn't lend itself to summary; fluid seems the best description -- and slippery too. In a way it is a small, domestic novel, following several of the inhabitants of the same house -- and especially that fifth-floor apartment -- across the decades, but in keeping roles for the dead -- separated from and yet still as real as the living -- Hodrová explodes the traditional house/hold novel.
History, too, pervades the story -- but it is subtly woven, determinative but still background, in in a text that is filled with allusions. A commentary on Czech history -- sometimes very direct ("I am the nation disillusioned by its revolutions and its occupations") -- it is also movingly personal. Equally effective is her use of the inanimate -- which often has a very different scale of time and change --, as real and significant as any of the human beings.
A Kingdom of Souls is a dark and elusive novel, but it is also seductive. Hodrová's precise expression (in this fine translation) and unexpected perspectives make for an impressively disturbing, compelling text. - M.A.Orthofer
I actually approached the publisher for a review copy of this novel. This is unusual as I normally receive my review copies via Netgalley or Edelweiss, but this is a book about Prague and I am a Czechophile. Prague of course was influential on magic realism, given the importance of Kafka. Indeed this is the fourth magic-realist book I have reviewed on this site that features that great city. As in many of Meyrink's writings the central character of this book is Prague and in particular a small area of Prague focused on an apartment block overlooking the Olsany cemetery.
I am writing this review in my Czech home in South Bohemia. In the shops and supermarkets at this time of year the shelves are packed with candles and candle containers. Along the journey home last night I noticed candles burning at roadside shrines to the dead. We are drawing near to All Souls Night and the Czechs are getting ready to remember their ancestors. The souls in the title are of both the dead and the living. The two "live" alongside each other in the house and in the pantry and as most of the action takes place between the time of the Nazi occupation and the Velvet Revolution some characters move from the living to the dead in the novel. This is not however a ghost story but merely a presentation of a world in which the dead exist alongside the living. That this world should be in Prague is not a surprise to me. I too have felt the presence of history there and the presence of those who have walked the streets before me. Hodrová's portrayal of this other city is realistic to my mind.
This is an extraordinary book - erudite, moving and poetical. At times a non-Czech reader, even this one who is relatively familiar with the city, its history and culture, will have difficulties picking up all the references. It helps to read the Introduction, which explains some of them, but I would suggest that footnotes might have been useful. But even without catching all the references it is possible to enjoy this book. The Introduction tells us that Hodrová is interested in Jungian concepts. This is apparent throughout the book and her use of archetypal symbolism allows us to respond to themes, even if we do not consciously know the specific references.
As the Goodreads description states, this is the first volume in a series by this author all focusing on Prague. The publisher very kindly gave me copies of the two books published so far (Prague, I See A City being the other). I look forward to reading more. - Zoe Brooks
Q & A with Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol
An excerpt from A Kingdom of Souls won the 1992 Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing.
Daniela Hodrová won the 2012 Franz Kafka Prize and the 2011 Czech State Award for Literature.
Daniela Hodrová, Prague. I see a city, Trans. by David Short, Jantar Publishing, 2011.
Excerpt from Prague. I see a city...
Originally commissioned for a French series of alternative guidebooks, Hodrová's novel is a conscious addition to the tradition of Prague literary texts by, for example, Karel Hynek Mácha, Jakub Arbes, Gustav Meyrink and Franz Kafka, who present the city as a hostile living creature or labyrinthine place of magic and mystery in which the individual human being may easily get lost.
Suffused with the atmosphere of the year following the fall of the Communist regime, Prague. I see a city… takes the form of a novel of quest, in which the heroine abandons the material world of everyday society and linear history, perceiving it as false, temporary and distracting, and journeys in search of her true identity.
With a foreword by Rajendra A. Chitnis, Senior Lecturer, Russian and Czech, University of Bristol.
"We published Prague, I See A City... because we view it as an amazing work of literature. It can be viewed as a novel, a biography, a guide to Prague, a history of Prague or just simply an amazing piece of literature. We have been astounded by the number of readers who have downloaded the e-book version in the United States. We only made it available in an e-version because one of our founders wanted to experiment with the format. In the end, we didn't experiment with the format at all; we just put the text out there. We have a grand plan for a second edition of the e-book to include photos of the city from the author's own collection and taken by others. I love the idea of people wandering around Prague with their Kindles or iPads or whatnot, reading the text and looking at the places mentioned in the book."-- Michael Tate, director of Jantar Publishing
The American aphorist Mason Cooley once said, "The routines of tourism are even more monotonous than those of daily life," a sentiment that has only become more evident in recent years, as the tourism industry has split into subsidiaries: educational tourism, medical tourism, ecotourism and even doom tourism - also known as "last chance tourism," for environmentally threatened locations. But there isn't yet a lucrative category of tourism that deals with "psychogeography."
French filmmaker and writer Guy Debord defined psychogeography in 1955 as the study of the laws and effects of geographical surroundings on an individual's emotions and behavior. In practical terms, the concept can be interpreted as encouraging pedestrians to go off the beaten path and develop a new awareness of their urban environment. Czech writer Daniela Hodrová, in her book, Prague, I See a City…, translated by David Short, clearly treads off the beaten path, guided by her intimate knowledge of Prague's geography, its history and its effect on the wanderer's psyche.
The book, which was originally published in French as part of a series of "alternative" guidebooks, is a dream-journal-cum-city guide that blurs the border between contemporary events, history and Prague legends by examining popular destinations in the city, such as Karlovo náměstí and Golden Lane through a poetic lens. Above all, Prague, I See a City… is fluid, with no clear organization other than the leaps of the author's imagination. As such, it will not necessarily help tourists navigate Prague's streets, but it will provide those familiar with the city an intricate, intimate glimpse of its metaphoric inner workings.Hodrová is renowned as a postmodern Czech writer who has been active in Czech literature since the 1970s but didn't achieve widespread recognition until after 1989. As opposed to her nearly 20 novels, Prague, I See a City… is a transcription of her mental and physical wanderings through Prague and evidence of her being "unstuck in time," as Kurt Vonnegut phrased it.
Prague, I See a City… can be read as a novel, a biography, a guidebook or a history of Prague, a city Hodrová describes as "orphan queen." It will be interesting for those curious about Central and East European culture or anyone who likes traveling and wants to discover more than they can from a simple guidebook. Hodrová uses stream of consciousness to introduce the streets, alleys, churches and monuments while illuminating their history, as if she were witnessing events that took place centuries ago.
There is no distinctive plot present here. Hodrová jots down wholesale experiences, real or imagined, which can be enlightening and exasperating by turns. Her writing style is more focused when introducing the city's landmarks, but the average reader may not be prepared to identify which of her recurring characters, such as the stray dog, the madwoman or the man in black, are real, and which are merely Jungian archetypes.
Hodrová certainly gives the reader more than any traditional guidebook to Prague has to offer, and Prague, I See a City… is purposely elliptical. Legends and historical events are conjoined and interwoven to the point where the reader often gets lost between Hodrová's transitions, which show a poet's whimsy. "I saw the dog being led off by two grey-uniformed men of the People's Militia with machineguns, they were dragging the animal by the leather belt that one of them had taken off. Without a word, people made way for this most peculiar procession," she writes, in a description ostensibly taking place in contemporary times.
Hodrová is concerned with Prague's mysterious and magical past rather than logical path-making. Though her journey is wayward, it is never monotonous. - Scott J. Nixon
Let me start with a book, Daniela Hodrová’s Prague, I See a City…, a slim and disorienting text—maybe a novel, maybe a travel guide—in which Hodrová navigates the interdependence of Prague and her personal life. The book was originally commissioned as an alternative guidebook for French tourists after the fall of the Soviet Union. But as Hodrová completed the book, it evolved into an achronological menagerie comprising legends, memoir, literary criticism, and the occasional theater recommendation.
Paraphrasing the gospel of John, Hodrová opens the book, “In the beginning, the city was, to me, a word—Prague.” It was a sound she heard in her crib, it was the shredded headlights of passing trams striping her ceiling with light, it was “a beast of prey sleeping somewhere far away.” The city was watching and waiting. For what? she asks. “For me to come?”
What I knew about Prague, when I first read Prague, I See a City…, could be categorized as a series of verifiable facts. Years before reading her book I had spent three days in the city. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, an incorrigible coward who signed up for tour after tour, never daring to explore alone. I walked in stride with the guides. I carried a journal and asked pertinent questions, filling my pages with facts. “Defenestration,” I wrote in my journal, “throwing someone from a window.”
Like Franz Kafka, my education had done me great harm. I was so very proud of myself for taking diligent notes. I asked my guides, “How many others take notes?” The guides, who lived off the tips and knew what I wanted to hear, answered, “Very few put in the effort.” I believed that I could experience Prague by memorizing its relevant dates. But what I experienced was the promise and pitfall of tourism: I saw what others already have. I learned what others already knew. The effect is deadening, it isolates, as I learned. After the tours ended I was often beset by incredible loneliness. I did not go out at night. When invited out I made up excuses: I needed to write in the morning and wanted to keep my head clear. Alone in the hostel, I ate mountains of chips and threw up. I returned to the states clutching a notebook loaded with fragmented, irrelevant facts:
“Don Giovanni written in honor of Czechs.” “Zizka—general 15th century.” “Scraffito—plaster, whitewashed, pattern scratched out.”
Prague, I See a City… chases what Hodrová cannot forget. It is a guide to Prague’s subconscious, to the network of feelings that arise between person and place—think Jane Jacobs tornadoed by chaos theory. Early on, Hodrová showcases this phenomenon through a series of tableaux vivants. The city, it turns out, is also a theater. She envisions scenes playing out in Wenceslas Square: The Slavs arrive in Bohemia; the Bohemian Princess Libussa prophesies a “great city, its glory touching the stars”; King Wenceslas, that apocryphally jolly old man, murdered on the steps of a church; Jan Palach’s self-immolation; Tycho Brahe’s courteous bladder. These scenes are unfettered, inviting, impactful. And through them we discover what guidebooks attempt to exclude, the guide’s subjective experience:
I am passing the asylum in St. Katherine’s Convent. Twenty years ago I would accompany my mother here every Sunday evening, she suffered from endogenous depression. Then from Monday to Friday she would look out of a window in the ward onto the hospital garden, onto which, from the other side, from Purkyne’s house, Albert Einstein would look and work out his theory of relativity. In the end, a tumor grew on my mother’s brain and they only discovered it when it was the size of an apple. To this day, they are looking at each other—the famous physicist and my insane mother, both long dead.
“Forgetfulness,” Paul Valéry writes, “is a godsend that history is always trying to corrupt.” Hodrová invites the corruption of history. For most of us, the past is a mutt locked in a cage, growling incessantly, placated with the occasional treat, but for Hodrová the past endlessly barrels through her apartment, peeing on carpets, chewing remotes, shedding all over the couch. ***
I returned to Prague shortly after reading Hodrová’s book. I was there on a fellowship for a writing conference. During the first few days of the conference, I told no one I had already been to Prague. I did not want to answer for my previous stay. The lie was part of a plan. This time I would be gregarious, friendly, and happy. This trip would be different, I hoped, secretly expecting it wouldn’t.
Out to dinner, I met Kyle: a former punk who still hadn’t shaken off the attire—I remember him only in black. He had angel food cheeks; his front teeth were squeezing a hunk of barbecued meat. Friendship, great friendship, necessitates a unique rhythm of language. Admittedly, I have never had many friends, but the few great friendships I’ve had have begun as mine did with Kyle: drunken flights of emotion, enthusiastic confessions, an authenticity unanticipated and inescapable.
Early into dinner, he asked, “Have you been to Prague?” Instinctively, I quoted one of my favorite movies, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, the famous line: “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.” In unison, Kyle and I finished the rest: “Well, I haven’t ‘been to Prague’ been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that, ‘Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, fall in love with a sculptor, now I realize how bad American coffee is’ thing…”
For the rest of the night we exchanged stories of woe: I told the one about stealing a TV from my high school. Kyle told the one about his younger brother being arrested. My stepbrother had had his throat slit. Kyle’s dad often cried on the floor of his bedroom. My seventh-grade friends once sat me down and advised me to find other friends. It went on like this, each story a little bit sadder, but never painful to recall, far funnier than the original experience. ***
Prague is a city of layers. A palimpsest resting atop its earlier selves. Hodrová muddles these layers. Like a napoleon pastry pounded to slop, Prague, I See a City… is deliciously messy. She collapses Prague’s historical eras, unifying the commercialized Wenceslas Square with its revolutionary antecedents, H&M and T.G.I. Fridays superimposed over the Velvet Revolution’s jangling keys, the flames of Jan Palach’s self-immolation charring the walls of a McDonald’s.
A city is the collaboration of its dissonant parts. A person? Exactly the same. Hodrová not only captures manifold versions of Prague, but the flight of the mind as it tries to remember, as it tries to create a singular person out of the past. My memory of Prague has become a series of images, scenes experienced and imagined that I can reenter at will: Kyle and I eating the pages out of a book. A metronome, red as a big bloody finger, wags where a statue of Stalin once stood—a statue so dense it took two months to demolish. Kyle and I lounge at its foot, drinking shandies, as the metronome rustfully groans. Freud hangs in an alley. Little Franz Kafka, tall as a knee, ambles to school through Old Town Square, passing flaneurs walking their turtles.
On Kyle’s last day in Prague, we hung out in the train station’s Burger King. We discussed the woman he had fallen in love with at the conference, the woman he asked to move to Detroit. Appalled and confused, she declined. Two days earlier he had given me a book—Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee, a book that meant a lot to him—and now he asked what I thought of it. I hadn’t liked it, but I did, I told him, love the gesture, love the inscription he wrote inside the cover. Together we envisioned the book heavy with dust on a shelf, my shelf, twenty-five years in the future, a symbol of the start of our friendship. We laughed, sadly, then I got up and he got up, we hugged and we promised, so many promises, promised to write to each other, to talk every day, to visit, and anyone watching would have thought that we meant it—I did mean it, I think. But after he left and I left I thought about all the friends I had lost, the friends ghosted by distance, and I wondered, What chance did our friendship have outside of Prague? I feared finding out. On the walk back to my flat I stopped at the bookstore where Kyle had bought Eeeee Eee Eeee new and I sold it back for 50 Czech crowns, roughly two dollars, and used the money to buy an espresso. - Alex McElroy