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November 2014

Contemporary Czech Prose

This month we’re presenting Czech writing. Czech literature is underrepresented in translation, and its profile in English has been mainly political and largely male. The ten writers showcased here—men and women, ranging in age from thirty to seventy-four—demonstrate the richness and diversity of contemporary Czech writing. Magdaléna Platzová tells of love (and life) lost. Jan Balabán’s startled academic discovers a sister. Radka Denemarková depicts a young man with a unique obsession. In stories of families, Marek Šindelka shows a sporting outing turned deadly, and Tomáš Zmeškal tracks his estranged father in Congo; Petra Soukupová sees a family rocked by a devastating injury, and Petra Hůlová‘s Czech girl finds a “model” Communist town is anything but. Jiří Kratochvil shows a chess-playing boy realizing he’s a pawn in a terrorist cell; Jakuba Katalpa sends a German teacher to police a Czech town. And Martin Ryšavý transcribes the monologue of a theater director turned street-sweeper. We thank our guest editor, Alex Zucker, who provides an illuminating introduction as well as several translations.

  Elsewhere, we celebrate the launch of our new education site, WWB Campus, with three essays on the discovery of literature. Mexico’s Valeria Luiselli recalls learning to read in an alienating Seoul, China’s Can Xue juggles fairy tales and Marxism, and Abdel-Moneim Ramadan reflects on a poetic education.

Not Necessarily About Politics: Contemporary Czech Prose
By Alex Zucker
The Czechs are cultural overachievers. In film, photography, theater, architecture, music, art, they punch above their weight, with an impact far beyond what you’d expect from a nation of ten million…
This Time Last Year
By Magdaléna Platzová
Several times that night I forgot her name and she had to repeat it to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. The reason her name kept slipping my mind was because I had to pay such close attention…
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker
from “Down, Beast!”
By Jiří Kratochvil
In 1952 Communist Czechoslovakia, a precocious thirteen-year-old from Brno is abducted by unknown assailants and brought to a secret location for what he believes is a special military training program…
Translated from Czech by Christopher Harwood
from “Disappear”
By Petra Soukupová
In this section, from the first of three interconnected novellas in Disappear, we listen in as the seven-year-old Jakub (nicknamed “Kuba” or “Kubík”) describes life just…
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker
from “Guardians of the Public Good”
By Petra Hůlová
The narrator of Guardians of the Public Good (2010), Petra Hůlová’s sixth novel, is a young girl who finds herself at odds with the rest of Czech society after the collapse of the East…
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker
Bow and Arrow
By Marek Šindelka
“Is there anything you want to say about it?” Petr breaks the ice. His sentence fogs the windshield a little. But has no other effect. The patch of condensation quickly shrinks until it’s…
Translated from Czech by Michelle Woods
from “Kobold”
By Radka Denemarková
Radka Denemarková‘s Kobold is made up of two loosely connected stories, run head to tail. This extract, which opens the longer story, “Excesses of Tenderness,” describes the first…
Translated from Czech by Julia Sherwood & Peter Sherwood
from “Germans”
By Jakuba Katalpa
In the midst of World War II, Klara, from Germany, takes a job teaching schoolchildren in a small, mostly German-speaking town in Czechoslovakia; her duties include policing the children’s use of…
Translated from Czech by Michelle Woods
from “Talespinner”
By Martin Ryšavý
Holy shit, hear that roar? Yeah, that’s the bora. Who wants to go out for groceries in weather like this? And we don’t even know the forecast since the freaking radio doesn’t work. Not…
Translated from Czech by Julia Sherwood & Alex Zucker
The Cherry Tree
By Jan Balabán
Leoš was convinced nothing else could happen, that the worst was behind him, that it had died along with his past life and now he was all right. It was important to be all right, not to be afraid…
Translated from Czech by Craig Cravens
The Prodigal Father
By Tomáš Zmeškal
Tomáš Zmeškal’s father was a Congolese intellectual who traveled to the capital of Communist Czechoslovakia in 1959 to win support for the soon-to-be independent Republic of…
Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker
“The Fair-haired Princess” and Serious Literature
By Can Xue
Father’s bookshelves were lined mostly with Marxist-Leninist books. I remember the titles on some of the spines. I can’t remember some others, because the words were too abstract. I loitered…
Translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
Building a New World
By Valeria Luiselli
I don’t know if people remember how they learned to read and write—or swim, or do cartwheels. I know that one day I wasn’t able to do these things, and the next day I was, even though…
Walt Whitman and Me: Notes on a Poetic Education
By Abdel-Moneim Ramadan
To the poets of the Lebanese Journal Shi‘r  I know I’m about to write myself into another maze and I’m going to get lost in it.In my infancy there was my father, there was…
Translated from Arabic by Michael Beard & Adnan Haydar