When I was looking for my aunt’s grave a couple of years back in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, I came across a section of maybe eight or nine recent burial mounds. I felt a sudden burst of gladness because, for all its oddness as a reaction, these recent deaths meant that there was still an active Jewish community. I’d visited the graveyard a few times; it’s where Kafka’s buried. What had struck me each time before was that the years of death on the tombstones all ended by 1938 (these were the lucky ones), and that most of the names, including my own family’s, were German.
German-speaking Jews were a separate community from German-speaking Czechs, who were themselves a separate community from the Czech-speaking Czechs. But all were part of the vibrant new republic in the inter-war years. It was the Nazi invasion that put an end, so tragically and ironically, to the presence of the German language in Czech identity. The Czechs, too, had their hand in it, through the expulsion and murder of German Czechs after the war, an episode no one likes to talk about.
Jakuba Katalpa, whose novel is simply—but also, not so simply—called Germans / Němci, thinks about these different “Germans” through the search by a young Czech woman for her “German” grandmother, Klára, after her father’s death. The unnamed narrator never met her grandmother, who was sent back to Germany, but left her son behind in Czechoslovakia; throughout the Cold War, he received parcels full of Gummi bears. Klára’s story brings the narrator through German and Czech history, moving backward and forward in time, uncovering individual histories and the linguistic and social interconnections between the different identities. Katalpa is not just interested in the past, but in how these complicated identities still impact Czechness now. Like the recent burial mounds in the New Jewish cemetery, her stories suggest a certain vitality to the remnants of this multilingual past.
What strikes you first about Katalpa’s style is its deliberate simplicity. Each short chapter has a one-word title, something that seems straightforward until the minute you try and translate it. Two instances spring to mind: the title, Němci, and one of the chapter titles, “Ras.” Czech has no definitive articles, so it might make sense to call the novel The Germans except the very heart of the book is the issue of the differences within German identity: Germans seemed more fitting. The old-fashioned term “Ras” can be translated by similarly old-fashioned “Knacker,” someone who would slaughter old horses for glue and dog-meat. The problem was on my end: “knacker” is a Dublin pejorative term with tones, in my Irish ear, of the bully (I grew up in Ireland, a child of Czech and Irish parents). I went with “Slaughterer,” though “Horse-Slaughterer” is more accurate, in order to keep the complex simplicity of the one-word title.
That surprising complexity is also evident in the seemingly forthright, quite declarative, language. There is little fuss about it, little of the obvious playfulness of some of the other writers in Words Without Borders’ Contemporary Czech Prose issue. The plainness of the prose implies transparency and a matter-of-factness about the past, as if to emphasize a clear narrative about a muddied history. Of course, at the same time, it leaves a lot unsaid; the characters and narrator use an unadorned language so as not to speak of awkward things. This sleight of hand is seen in Klára’s uneasy visits to the parents (which are all about the suppression of language) and in the more humorous, and quite delightful, face-off of the principal and the deacon (which is all about the attempted suppression of ideas). It’s perhaps worth saying, regarding that last chapter, that part of the popularity of puppets in the Czech lands lies in the history of puppet theatre. Under Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian rule (from the seventeenth until the Czech renaissance in the nineteenth century), when the Czech language was seen as a dying language, puppet theatre was performed in Czech. That the principal chooses the very contemporary Antonín Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate is also a statement; Dvořák would have been associated with a national pride in his use of the Czech language and Czech folk music in the high-art of his classical compositions.
Němci / Germans opens in contemporary Prague and also hints at the future of Czech identity, not only in a recognizably European (and not merely post-communist) present, but also in a recognizably European diaspora: the narrator lives in England and one of her brothers is in California. It’s not an “Other Europe,” a constructed “East” within Europe but, like in Marek Šindelka’s story, a discernibly human location. “Where is my home?” is the title of the Czech national anthem: here, amongst us all, might be the answer.