We spoke with Czech author Petra Hůlová about her novel Three Plastic Rooms (trans. Alex Zucker, Jantar Publishing, 2017), which received a PEN Translates award from English PEN and was selected as one of World Literature Today’s notable translations of 2017. Her second book to be published in English translation, Three Plastic Rooms is narrated by a prostitute in Prague who ponders sexuality, aging, and the nature of materialism.
Petra Hůlová will be speaking tonight at 7pm in New York City as a part of the PEN World Voices Festival. She will also be participating in the Words Without Borders/SLICE Literary Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse reading on Saturday evening at PEN’s Lit Crawl NYC.
Words Without Borders (WWB): One of the most striking aspects of Three Plastic Rooms is the narrator’s voice, which is extremely powerful—witty, bold, and simultaneously empathetic and unforgiving. It is also an intimate voice—it feels as though we’re sitting in one of her rooms with her, listening to her stories. Where did that voice come from? And did it evolve over the course of writing the book?
Petra Hůlová (PH): The voice literally came to me as I was looking at a woman on the street in St. Petersburg, Russia—the book begins with lines from my actual observation of that unknown lady and was soon hijacked by the voice of the narrator of the book. So far, I’ve written nine novels, but writing this one has remained a unique experience. I went to St. Petersburg with the vague, romantic idea of finishing my, at that time, novel-in-progress in the city of Dostoyevsky, but after some weeks of writing, which went badly, I eventually dumped the whole text. So instead of writing, I spent my time walking along St. Petersburg’s rivers and canals, and one day this voice just came to me . . . It was a really magical experience. I felt more like a medium than an author. As soon as I recognized the strength of the voice, I rushed home, opened my laptop, and, apart from a couple hours of sleep, I spent fourteen days writing nonstop—or rather, recording the voice. In the end, there was a book: Three Plastic Rooms. It was something of a miracle.
WWB: The novel’s chapters read like episodes in a TV series. Did you have that structure in mind from the start, or did that emerge in the writing?
PH: There are always many ways to answer the question about the origin of a text, and it’s a matter of choice whether you put more emphasis on the conscious or unconscious aspects. My response to your first question emphasized the unaware, unconscious part of the process. However, I had intended to write a novel exploring sexuality years before I began Three Plastic Rooms, and since finishing it, I’ve continued to be attracted to matters of sexuality and how it relates to gender. But back to your question: The episodic structure emerged along the way as a useful tool to keep the narrator’s all-encompassing voice focused.
WWB: The narrator offers visceral, vivid descriptions of her clients’ bodies and her own (including her anthropomorphized genitalia, or “sticker-inner”). She’s also concerned with the future of her body: whether hot flashes in menopause will mean she needs a larger handbag to hold an extra blouse, whether the extra weight of that handbag will keep her body firmer—the “kinds of mysteries that deserve a special TV series . . . illuminating the little mysteries of life we otherwise dismiss.” Though her tone is wry, her comment speaks to something serious that I think you’ve achieved by delving into a woman’s sense of her body, her desires, her fantasies. Can you speak a bit about how you were thinking about the body—and, in particular, women’s bodies—in the novel? Were you trying to illuminate things that you feel are often dismissed, culturally or in literature?
PH: Women’s bodies are a central topic for me. They serve a biological purpose that can seem to be at odds with our freedom and equality—bearing a child makes us vulnerable and dependent. Also, whereas women can have a limited number of children, men can theoretically have a limitless number, which can make them more likely to womanize and lead to an unequal situation, where the woman is exposed to greater pain since she is the one being cheated on, especially when she gets older. A man never stops being fertile, while a woman’s fertile window is limited. So not only is she in the humiliating position of having a ticking biological clock that she has to hide in order not to be off-putting to men, but when she gets older, she isn’t able to pursue the emotional satisfaction of having children. This is, again, a painfully unequal situation that results from our different biological designs. We could dismiss all these things as mere bodily functions, but they are intrinsically intertwined with our relationships and our experiences of love. If romantic love weren’t involved, a lot of the “biological inequality” wouldn’t matter. But since a woman’s appearance and age are essential to her attractiveness, aging women are afraid of becoming unlovable as human beings. What are the appropriate measures to combat this?
The dependence of a woman’s power on her youth and attractiveness can be humiliating. At the same time, there is also an economic trap. Stereotypically, men are attracted to youth, while women are attracted to wealth and success. So whereas for men, success offers the possibility of becoming more attractive, for women it doesn’t work the same way—or, at least, not as directly. Being the most powerful woman in Europe doesn’t grant Angela Merkel the same desirability that it might a man in the same position. So the motivation to make it to the top is smaller for women—they don’t reap the same rewards of admiration and interest by attaining those positions. Has our biological setup doomed us to lower positions in society? I don’t want to believe that, either!
We could dismiss all these things as mere bodily functions, but they are intrinsically intertwined with our relationships and our experiences of love.
WWB: There’s tension throughout the novel between the real world of human connection and the e-world and consumer culture—the “plastic” that is the narrator’s apartment. Connecting these two extremes is, perhaps, fantasy, which is also central to the book. What were you interested in exploring when it comes to reality and fantasy, connection and isolation?
PH: Our everyday life is full of fantasies that are actually becoming realities, especially in terms of technology. And how does that make us feel? Scared. Our world is full of dreams fulfilled that are now becoming nightmares, which also speaks to the dichotomy of connection and isolation. Virtual connection makes us feel isolated—we already know that. But as with gender inequality, simply knowing isn’t enough. To be connected is so alluring that we become addicted to it, and since our dependency generates profit for the providers of these services, virtual connections will continue to be sought out.
WWB: How involved were you in the translation of the book into English? And given the specificity of the narrator’s vocabulary (including her invented words), were there any particular challenges—or surprises—that arose in that process?
PH: Alex Zucker is the most amazing translator of Czech literature into English. He translated my book All This Belongs to Me a couple of years ago, and both books have been awarded prizes. Of course, Alex consulted me, but I also trusted him completely. He is able to work very independently and he really creates brand-new books—including through his English neologisms for sexual organs!
WWB: As a writer, do you have any rituals or superstitions that you retain from project to project?
PH: I have to start in the morning, right after breakfast. I can’t go out—not even for a little while. I can’t even make a phone call or it will completely ruin my writing day. I need this passage from sleep into my writing to be as minimally interrupted as possible. Mornings for me have the power of purity and natural concentration, which, if lost, rarely returns. My other superstition is that rather than talking about a project, I should just do it. There is an energy in untold plans and works-in-progress that fades once I start to talk about them. There’s a risk of suddenly bursting my creative balloon.
Petra Hůlová’s novels, plays, and screenplays have won numerous awards, and she is a regular commentator on current events and gender issues for the Czech press. Her eight novels and three plays have been translated into twelve languages. Her most recent novel to be published in English, Three Plastic Rooms (Jantar Publishing, 2017), was translated by Alex Zucker and received a PEN Translates award from English PEN.