Tuesday, 25 December 2018

On the move

By Kristina Alda | Prague Daily Monitor |
5 June 2009

Like the protagonists in his novels, Jaroslav Rudiš exudes a certain nervous energy and restlessness. He arrives for our interview at Prague's Café Kaaba talking into a mobile phone and carrying another in his free hand, hair swept to the left in his trademark extreme side-parting, face framed by dark-rimmed glasses. A novelist, playwright, radio host and musician, Rudiš, belongs to a new generation of Czech writers who find it hard to stay put, travelling extensively and seeking inspiration abroad.

For the 36-year-old Rudiš, that inspiration comes from Germany. He wrote his first novel Nebe pod Berlínem (Heaven Under Berlin) while in the German capital on a yearlong journalism stipend in 2001-02. Rudiš continues to visit the city often.

Besides Nebe, Rudiš is best known for his trilogy of graphic novels, a collaboration with his friend and bandmate Jaromír 99, that follows the life of a Sudetenland railway worker called Alois Nebel. Trains travelling between Bohemia and Germany pass through the station, carrying a load of shared history and traumatic moments. It's a theme that recurs in most of Rudiš's work, likely stemming in part from his Sudetenland origins.

His obsession with the rails, meanwhile – Rudiš longed to be a train driver as a boy, but the dream fell through when he learned his eyesight wasn't good enough – manifests itself in the rhythm of the dialogues and energy of the cityscapes in his novels. Nebe, he says, tries to mimic the jerky motion of Berlin's subways. Trams and trains are also where Rudiš seeks inspiration for his characters, catching bits of conversation that he can later incorporate into works like Potichu (Silently), his latest novel.

Only the first volume of the Alois Nebel trilogy has been translated into English so far. English-speakers can also check out Grandhotel, a 2007 film based on Rudiš's novel by the same name, or catch Rudiš at this year's Prague Writers' Festival, which runs from 7 to 11 June.

In your books you focus a great deal on Czech-German relations. How have these relations changed over the last decades? It seems that the current generation of Czechs no longer feels the antipathy that their parents did toward Germans and German culture.
Definitely. And my books try to treat this topic with a certain lightness. I try to approach the very dramatic history shared by these two nations with some level of irony. We're the first generation that is able to view this history with detachment. It's no longer an open wound. But the point is that Czech-German relations exist, as [Czech-German writer] Lenka Reinerová said. You can't avoid them.

You even do some of your writing in German now. How did your relationship with the language develop?
I like German because it's such a precise language. It's a bit of a cliché, but I started learning German because I fell in love with a German girl. In any case, the combination of Czech and German are part of Czech culture. I think it's too bad that young people today prefer to learn English. Speaking German helps us understand our neighbours, as well as ourselves.

So how long will it take before Czechs are able to view Czech-Russian relations with the same level of detachment?
Here, even I still feel the weight of history, and I'm aware that I have a negative bias. So I don't know how long it might take. But I've read recently that Russian is becoming a popular language among young Czechs to study in school.

You've said in the past that living in Berlin helped loosen up the Czech in your head and allowed you to start writing. Can you talk more about that? How does this process work?
I tried writing earlier on in the Czech Republic, but it wasn't going well. When I moved to Berlin, I was able to clean up in my mind a little bit, and I suddenly found that in the German environment I was able to write in Czech. So I wrote a story that was inspired by the city called Nebe pod Berlínem about a Czech teacher who runs away to Germany, looking for a new beginning. Like many men, he is trying to run away from his problems. It's also sort of a Czech phenomenon. It seems to be a trend with young Czech writers to go abroad for inspiration. Petra Hůlová [who started writing while living in Mongolia] and myself were among the first.

Compared to Prague, which is very compact and can feel cramped, Berlin has a lot of open space How does your physical environment influence your writing?
Berlin is like a European version of New York. There is no other city like it in central Europe. Czechs long for the sea, the mountains and big, busy cities. I like Prague; it's beautiful in a fairy-tale like way, but I'm also glad that I can leave if I want to. Berlin is in some ways ugly, but it's full of surprises and it continues to inspire me. I'm also really pleased that for many people, Nebe became a sort of guidebook to Berlin. People are exploring the city, trying to follow the steps of the characters in the book.

All three of my novels are very connected the cities in which they take place. There's Nebe and Berlin, Grandhotel and Liberec, and Potichu and Prague. The city becomes almost like another character in each of these stories. And, of course, it influences the language. In Nebe, for example, I tried to write in the rhythm of a subway car, to convey that movement.

And what about your work environment? Where do you like to work how do you structure your writing days?
If I'm working on a novel, I try to be in contact with the text every day, so that I don't loose the rhythm, the mood and the flow of the dialogue. That's very important for me, because all my books are basically rooted in Czech-German dialogues between a boy and a girl. I write in the mornings, then go to work. And I can work anywhere: at home, in cafés, on trains. I'm always trying to listen to the dialogues around me. I have a good memory for dialogues, and sometimes I end up using bits of what I hear in my novels.

You have new baby now. How will that be reflected in your work?
I certainly don't expect to start writing children's books. I did write a short story about my daughter's birth. But it frightens me the way some writers start to turn all gentle [after becoming parents]. I will continue to write for my fellow 30-year-old kids. Many of my characters have this problem. They aren't willing to fully grow up. They're the children of the Velvet Revolution, who were around 18 years old when the regime changed. Suddenly all these opportunities opened up for them and they got a little bit lost. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. The typical Czech story is that you die in the place where you were born. Many Czechs are still afraid of change. We are the first consumer generation, and we can really take advantage of all these opportunities and free ourselves of the Czech environment. And create our own stories.

Jaroslav Rudiš
Born: 8 June 1972 in Turnov
With his partner has daughter Nina
Plays in bands Jaromír 99 and the Bombers and U-Bahn
Works at Český rozhlas 3 Vltava
Organises EKG literary cabaret at the Archa Theatre

Published novels:

Nebe pod Berlínem

Graphic novels:

Alois Nebel trilogy

In the pipeline:
novella, which will again deal with Czechs and Germans
new graphic novel with Jaromír 99
film version of Alois Nebel, set to come out in the spring of 2011

Kristina Alda is the Monitor's managing editor. She likes writing about buildings and public space.
You can reach her at kristina@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.