On Monday, June 20th, at 1 PM, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss famed Holocaust memoirist Heda Margolius Kovaly’s novel Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street, a noir account of secrets and lies in 1950s Prague, and a rare glimpse at the painful effects of Soviet-imposed Communist rule from a woman’s perspective. Innocence begins at a movie theater, mainly staffed by women whose husbands have either died in World War II or have been arrested by State Security, the Communist Party’s secret police. When a dead body is discovered at the theater and the police begin an investigation, we learn more about each woman’s backstory, and see the ways in which the state’s relentless search for informers has torn apart the communities and families represented in the book.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Alex Zucker, the novel’s translator, via Skype. We chatted about the book, translation, and the enduring appeal of Czech literature to American readers. Some of the interview has been condensed to summary form.
- Interview by Molly Odintz
Molly Odintz: It seems to me that Czech literature has inspired more interest in America than other Eastern Bloc countries. When I try to name writers from other small European countries; for example, Bulgaria, or Lithuania, or Belgium, I come up short; when I think of Czech writers, automatically, there are a bunch that come to mind. Why do you think that Czech writers have such a high reputation and recognition among American readers, compared to writers from other smallish languages?
Alex Zucker: I guest-edited an issue on Czech literature for Words Without Borders, and I wrote an introduction to the issue that talks about the popularity of Czech authors; my theory is the reason these Czech authors, Kundera, Klíma, Hrabal, Havel, Škvorecký, the reason as many Czech writers are as well known as they are is because they had people in this country championing them, and writers from other countries have not had this same level of support…There has been a critical mass of important influential people in the US and Europe in publishing who really vouched for Czech authors, and made sure they got published, reviewed and got attention. I think Czech literature in the United States does not have a champion right now; there’s nobody writing about Czech literature on a regular basis, in contrast to the UK, where Czech books are reviewed regularly in the Times Literary Supplement.
Alex goes on to name figures in support of Czech literature in France and the Czech Republic as well.
A lot of translators and publishers now are starting to look more at books that might in the past have been considered less literary. They’ve realized that readers don’t care if a book is a translation as long as it’s a good read.
MO: Do you think that writers in the Czech Republic have more celebrity status than writers in the United States?
AZ: Than in the United States? For sure; but I think, the whole position of intellectuals is different in most European countries than here; there’s a long tradition of them writing for papers, in France they have intellectuals on talk shows…We don’t have intellectuals on talk shows, here, we have “experts.” It is much more common for writers to write for newspapers about topics not about literature or their own writing, so in the Czech Republic you have writers weighing in on public affairs on a regular basis. Alex points out that, during the Prague Spring uprising of Czechoslovakia against Soviet oppression, writers were an integral part of Czech opposition to the Soviets, and spoke out for political change before and after, despite their party membership and orders to toe the line.
MO: Tell us about the initial publication of Innocence.
AZ: Innocence, by Kovaly, was originally published in Czech in 1985 by an emigre publishing house in Cologne, in Germany, called Index, under a pseudonym, and I would guess she wrote it in the early 80s, but set it in the 50s….One of the reasons people are interested in this book is that it is to some degree a fictionalized account of the author’s life in the 50s after her husband was falsely accused of being a traitor to the Czechoslovak communist regime, despite being a high official and member of the Communist Party. Throughout the Eastern Bloc there were show trials with wild accusations against mostly high-ranking Jews in communist parties in Eastern Europe of disloyalty to the Soviet Union as part of a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy.
In 1952, Kovaly’s first husband, Rudolf Margolius, was tried and accused with a group of mostly other Jewish members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party….Rudolf Margolius was, along with Heda Margolius, a survivor of Auschwitz and a few other camps (this was in the intro to the book that her son wrote.) The accusation of Zionism among high-ranking Jewish Communists in Czechoslovakia [was particularly ironic] given that the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was the main supplier of arms to the new Israeli state after 1948….But that’s another chapter of history. Kovaly’s story reflects the fickle nature of Stalinist politics and how the waves rippled through the East Bloc through the early 50s and even after Stalin’s death in 1953.