Czech author Bianca Bellová’s dystopian novel The Lake, translated by Alex Zucker, appeared earlier this year. Published in the Czech Republic in 2016, the book won the 2016 Magnesia Litera Prize for Book of the Year and the 2017 EU Prize for Literature and has been translated into two dozen languages. In this conversation with Sal Robinson, Bellová reflects on her impulse for writing the novel, its uncanny anticipation of current environmental devastation, and her relationships with her translators.
Sal Robinson (SR): Could you talk about how you started writing The Lake? What sparked it or kicked it off?
Bianca Bellová (BB): In this particular case I think it was the National Geographic photo reportage from the Aral Sea area and its powerful imagery which set my mind in motion, but I guess something was in the air or in the collective unconscious, if you like, which creative people are often the first at noticing. Since the book was published and internationally recognized, a number of people have contacted me to show me their artwork from the same area: a collection of documentary photography, a semidocumentary film, a book. The Aral Sea was probably calling for attention; it wanted to have its story told. Yet while my book took inspiration from it, I didn’t write a novel about the Aral Sea; my lake is more abstract, perhaps mythical and archetypal. It’s pretty much another character.
SR: Environmental devastation is clearly an important aspect of The Lake, and yet I noticed how casually the characters in the book treat its terrifying effects—for instance, the eczema that everyone who lives around the lake experiences, or the fact that anyone who swims in the lake spends hours vomiting afterwards. There’s almost, disturbingly, a sense of acceptance. Also, the people in the book are so vulnerable—working class, or even lower on the social scale—and they are the most exposed to the toxic environments around them. They live in poison. Could you talk about the role of environmental devastation in the book as you see it? Or in the world generally?
BB: We all know the apologue about the boiling frog: people tend not to react to, or even be aware of, sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly. We always cling to the hope that things will work out eventually, that it can’t be that bad. It’s in our nature. Like those Russians who spent the first seven months of the war in Ukraine placidly living their everyday lives with the conflict solely as a backdrop on their TV sets, with the grip slowly tightening—until mobilization was called upon and now they’re flooding the border crossings in an effort to flee their country. But it’s too late for many of them, and it will cost them dearly.
To a large extent, The Lake is the story of the clash between the traditional world and way of living and new, fast, ruthless forces. Obviously if you’ve spent your life living off of the lake and the fish in it, like generations of your predecessors for centuries before, you don’t want to think about changing that abruptly. You adjust and adjust until you can adjust no more and the wave rolls over you.
SR: The Lake was published in Czech in 2016, so a number of years elapsed between its initial publication and the English translation, and yet it seems very timely—the sense of a real ecological tipping point (possibly already past) and all of its effects: violent storms, massive migrations, a world of extremes. Are you surprised by how your book seems to anticipate the current situation? Do you feel that it does?
BB: I would not say the book is in any way visionary or prophetic; I am merely working with history and logic. And by the way, the disaster of the lake in my book is negligible compared to the actual story of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk to 10 percent of its original volume over the years, purely as a result of human intervention. But very often in fiction, you have to water down reality by a factor of two, or even more, for the reader to believe you.
SR: I was really struck by your descriptions of labor in the book, industrial labor in particular, but also farm work, housework, gardening. They were so overwhelming, so precise, so evocative, that I kept returning to them instead of to “plot” points in the narrative when re-reading it. Is labor something you’re particularly interested in?
BB: It never really crossed my mind before you mentioned it, you know? I guess it’s through work that we interact with our environment, that we shape the world, through which the human race moves forward. I value labor really highly. I used to stop by a construction site here in Prague along with all the moms and their children and admire the workers there, the skill and stamina they exerted and the risks they often took. It was fascinating to watch the construction workers pouring concrete onto the new tram track; they were standing in concrete up to their waists, and this was in the middle of winter. It was literally chilling. And, yes, I do admire anybody who manages to master their trade, no matter what it is—because it means they have worked hard on it, they’ve persevered. I’ve observed it in CEOs of multinational corporations (I earn my bread as a freelance interpreter), as well as in engineers, lumberjacks, and florists. Perhaps it’s because I myself very quickly get bored with repetitive work. So I guess it’s worth talking and writing about. Even though some types of labor I describe in the novel—like the operations of the conveyor belt—were so unfamiliar to me that I had to look them up on YouTube, and I was the first person to ever watch the video!
I used to love visiting my grandmother at work; she was a gardener and the greenhouses weren’t far from our home, so I would often go and see her, get my hands dirty in the moist soil, get intoxicated by the warm and humid air, and watch the gardeners cut tulips and daffodils. My dad was a sound engineer at a film studio; that was another pleasure of mine, to watch the soundtracks come together and wander around the studios watching the filmmakers do their work. On the other hand, my mother worked in an office and that didn’t interest me at all.
SR: Why do you write?
BB: This is a very interesting question for me: why write? What is the point? Why write another book when so many, perhaps even all of them, have already been written? It’s a subject I keep exploring. I feel instinctively that writing is a substance of its own. It’s self-powered, exciting, and the most satisfactory activity that I have ever experienced. For me, an adrenaline rush is a sign of a good writing session. I relate to ancient Greek drama, where the events, exposition, collision, climax, and resolution of a story give a sense and explanation of the chaos around us. In my own writing, I’m trying to find that sense or meaning in human actions and their consequences. I guess we’re all just trying to retell the Bible.
SR: A significant part of a successful writer’s life is taken up with ostensibly nonliterary activities: tours, festivals, interviews, and so on. Do these feel like a distraction from your work, or do they feed your work?
BB: It is a distraction, undoubtedly, even if often an ego-flattering one. They ask you for an interview, and then they want to put your photo on the magazine cover, and they have a makeup artist and a costume designer who pimp you up, and a fashion photographer who’s going to make you look desirable, and you know the whole time that it’s wrong and it has nothing to do with books or literature, but at the same time you know it can help you reach more readers, so mentally it’s a struggle. At the beginning of my writing career I avoided it completely; later on, I realized it’s a necessary evil.
For me there is a very fragile connection between the text and its reader, and anything that comes from outside disturbs it. You as a reader should not need any additional explanation, background, or the writer’s views on this or that. The text should have it all. And any activity of the type that you describe eats away at the time you could have spent writing. Also, I believe that as an author you shouldn’t know what the reader thinks of your text, as it might lead your future writing into lands where you try to please the reader with something you already know they like. As a writer, the only fidelity you swear is to the text: the text is king and you have to be careful not to frighten it away with your preconceptions and expectations. Ideally, you shouldn’t be sure whether you are riding the text or it is riding you.
SR: What has the experience of having your books translated into other languages been like? Do you interact with the translators translating your work? As an interpreter, are you particularly sensitive to issues of translation?
BB: We often do interact. They write to me when they need something clarified or explained. I meet them when I present my book in their country, we chat, and we make friends for life. Though this isn’t always the case. Some translations of my books were done without me knowing about it. And in certain cultural areas the translators wouldn’t ask me questions, as it would mean admitting their lack of knowledge. However, I find that those translators who do ask a lot of questions usually produce the best translations. (This was the case with Alex Zucker, who translated The Lake into English.) So it’s hardly a surprise that two of those translators who posed a lot of questions—the Polish and the Italian—were nominated for national translation awards for my book. And, yes, translating is more than simply finding the corresponding words in another language; it’s like taking the book across a bridge to a new territory and giving it a soul in that language. It’s total magic.
Bianca Bellová’s novel The Lake, translated from Czech by Alex Zucker, is out now from Parthian Books. You can purchase it from your local bookstore. Bellová will be appearing Nov. 3 in Ottawa; Nov. 8 in Los Angeles; Nov. 10 in Chicago; and Nov. 14 and Nov. 16 in New York City.
Bianca Bellová was born and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. She is the author of six novels and one collection of short stories. Her novel Jezero (translated into English by Alex Zucker as The Lake) was awarded the national award Magnesia Litera for Book of the Year and European Union Prize for Literature and has been translated into twenty-two languages.
Copyright © 2022 by Sal Robinson. All rights reserved.