A new column at Literalab that will follow-up B O D Y’s Sunday European Fiction starts off with an essay by the translator of this week’s story, Gale A. Kirking.
It was a riddle that required my reading two wonderful novels and a collection of short stories to sort out.
In dedicating the novel Rustic Baroque to his father back in 2005, Jiří Hájíček had begun by writing the following: “To my father, who is 70 years old this year, and who from the beginning of the 1950s was not permitted even to learn a trade because he was the son of a kulak…” The dedication ends with these words: “…and who to this day remembers as if it were yesterday every square foot of that 59-acre farmstead that already long ago ceased to exist.”
Several years ago, when I first read this dedication in the original Czech (there was no English version of Rustic Baroque at that time, as I personally would later become the translator of the novel into English), these final words of Jiří’s dedication left me feeling melancholy mixed with puzzlement. This was a tragic enigma. How could the elderly Mr. Hájíček’s boyhood farm have “long ago ceased to exist?”
Okay, it probably had been incorporated into the local collective farm during the 1950s, but in the 1990s many families had had their formerly collectivized land returned to them. Buildings may be razed, trees cut, but the land does not cease to exist.
This mystery perhaps touched me a bit more emphatically, because I had myself grown up on a family farm in the rural Midwest of the United States. I, too, can walk in my mind through the fields where I passed my youth and learned about hard work and the fickle unpredictability of nature and humankind. It is saddening to think that I live so far removed from the source of those childhood memories, but I still visit occasionally.
The solution to this riddle of the disappearing Hájíček farmstead came to me in two steps, through two more of Jiří’s writings. The first, is the story “Melancholy Leaves from Democracy’s Autumn Trees,” which was published in B O D Y’s Sunday European Fiction series. It is one my favorite stories from Jiří’s 2004 collection published under the title The Wooden Knife, and we included it into the same volume when we published Rustic Baroque in English.
In “Melancholy Leaves,” which was written prior to Rustic Baroque, the reader gets an inkling of once-proud villages in South Bohemia that are being razed and flooded for some unknown but clearly man-made reason. That was a clue, but not a definitive answer.
The puzzle was ultimately solved for me when I read Fish Blood, Jiří’s 2012 novel (not yet available in English), for which he was awarded the Magnesia Litera prize that recognizes this novel as the best book (of all genres) published in the Czech Republic in 2012. In Fish Blood, the cause for the villages to have been bulldozed and flooded becomes clear. It is a story about former village residents whose lives were transformed when their villages were sacrificed to build a giant pond for cooling water from an enormous nuclear power plant.
The family farmstead of old Mr. Hájíček’s childhood is at the bottom of a lake. In this life, he can never go home.
Gale A. Kirking is the translator to English of Jiří Hájíček’s Rustic Baroque (Real World Press, 2012). The publishing division of his Brno-based communications company, English Editorial Services, is also the publisher of Rustic Baroque in English, which includes several selections from The Wooden Knife.
Photo – Ruins of a former collective farm in the Buda section of Bakov nad Jizerou, Czech Republic by Packa/wikimedia commons