Interview with a Translator: Alex Zucker on Translating INNOCENCE, OR MURDER ON STEEP STREET, by Heda Margolius Kovaly

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.

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Molly’s Top 10 International Crime Novels of 2015

  • Post by Molly Odintz

 Last year, I posted a list of my top international crime novels, and a list of my top novels of the year, foreign and domestic. This year, as part of my life-long attempt to destroy all hierarchies and question all assumptions, I have decided to include my top international crime fiction as one list, and my top domestic crime picks as another.

Below, you’ll find an eclectic group of novels, united only by the scattered and distant nature of their geography. Next week, I’ll be posting my list of top picks for US-based fiction – more concentrated geographically, but just as diverse in subject matter


innocence or murder on steep street1. Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius-Kovály, Translated by Alex Zucker

Explore the world of 1950s Prague, where the men are either Russian occupiers or in the gulag, and the women who try hardest to do the right thing are the ones most morally compromised by the Soviet system. This darkly atmospheric novel was written by a woman who had worked to translate Raymond Chandler into Czech, and functions as a perfect Soviet noir. Available in English for the first time!Read More »

If you like Megan Abbott…

  • Post by Molly Odintz

Megan Abbott is one of the most versatile and creative crime novelists writing today. Her first four novels, Die a Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep use historical settings and noir style to explore female narratives – in particular, the tension between female community and competition.

Her next three novels continue to explore these themes in a modern setting with young adult characters. The End of Everything, Dare Me and The Fever all tackle the the murky waters of adolescence, with characters trapped in the space between victim, perpetrator and witness. Abbott’s novels are mature, daring, intelligent and unique. If you love her work as much as we do, here are a few recommendations we think you’ll enjoy!

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International Crime Fiction Review: INNOCENCE; OR, MURDER ON STEEP STREET by Heda Margolius Kovaly

innocence or murder on steep street

  • Post by Molly

W atching the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, I had an epiphany: heavy metal, a genre created by suburban teenagers, suddenly makes perfect lyrical sense in the midst of a war zone. The violent lyrical content of American imagination manifested physically in the actual experience of Iraqi lives, and Middle Eastern fans of the genre responded not to the escapism of heavy metal, but to its realism in their context.

After finishing Heda Margolius Kovály’s mystery novel, Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street, I had a similar feeling. I felt as though the entire noir genre had been created to represent American metaphors, yet destined to represent Soviet reality. After all, what is more morally ambiguous, more desperate, more traitorous, brutal or compromising, then the uncertain lives of colonial subjects during the Stalin era?

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