Hodiny z olova, by Radka Denemarková, Host, 747 pp, 469 CZK, ISBN: 978-8075774743
Radka Denemarková (born 1968) is a major presence on the Czech literary and theatrical scene: a widely translated novelist, playwright, screenwriter and essayist, as well as translator from German. Her works of fiction are attempts to uncover – in narrative prose marked by a distinctively poetic style – the key nodes of power in human relationships, intimate as well as political. Denemarková plays out these relationships in dramas that often have more than a hint of mystery to them – in fact her 2014 novel A Contribution to the History of Joy tries to lure the reader in by the narrative form of a thriller. But the ultimate aim of her “detective work” is not the unmasking of a murderer so much as the symbolic uncovering of power’s corrupting effects. Denemarková’s strong suit is her ability to capture “small” but deeply ingrained cruelties evident in ordinary everyday interactions – typically between men and women, parents and children, social superiors and inferiors, ethnic groups of unequal standing in society – and symbolically scale them up to explain more general movements and large-scale events (often atrocities) in European history and politics. Thanks to her impressively versatile oeuvre, she is currently the only four-time winner of the prestigious Magnesia Litera literary prize, having received the award for her second and most widely translated novel, Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler, 2007); her narrative documentary of the life of the distinguished, tragically deceased theatre director Petr Lébl (2009); her translation into Czech (2011) of Herta Müller’s 2009 prose Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel in Philip Boehm’s 2012 English translation); and, last but not least, for her most recent and ambitious novel Hodiny z olova (“hours of lead”) set largely in contemporary China.
This epic narrative, published in 2018, stretches to more than 700 pages, its title inspired by a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”: “This is the Hour of Lead / Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow ‑/ First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go ‑ ”. In the opening passages the text is presented to the reader as the discarded project of a travelogue by an unnamed Woman Writer of Czech origin. This Writer has repeatedly travelled to China for the purpose of completing it but in the end finds herself forced – by the disturbing nature of her experiences as well as by the resulting struggle with censors over her unpublishable text – to abandon the task. Instead she produces a very different kind of writing, a travelogue raised to the power of a novel – of which the beautifully turned-out book, with calligraphy by the artist and calligrapher René Ochiai, is the final result.
The Woman Writer is in many ways the author’s fictional alter ego. In the afterword, Denemarková explains that her novel is based on her own stays and travels in China in 2013, 2015 and 2016 (since 2016 she has been refused entry by the Chinese authorities). During those visits she became acquainted with the Chinese journalist Xu Zhiyuan, the author of a 2015 collection of essays The Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China. Thanks to him and his circle she had the opportunity to “see China” in ways not always open to foreign visitors. She found herself thinking that the Chinese situation boded ill not just for China’s actual or claimed dependencies (Hong Kong, Taiwan) but also for the future of Europe. Somewhat paradoxically then, her main reason for travelling to China was the need to figure out – and poetically tell the truth – about the climate at home as much as in the Far East.
On a literary level, the novel represents another of Denemarková’s poetic attempts to discern significant moments in everyday human existence – which she herself has called “micro-situations” – and to represent them as symbolic prefigurations of large-scale historical and political developments, if not prophetic signs of the future. “When a nation or family is about to flourish, there are sure to be happy omens; and when it is about to perish, there are sure to be unlucky omens” – this quotation from one of the main texts of traditional Confucianism, The Doctrine of the Mean, runs through the novel like an insidious refrain. As such it may be used and also abused by characters who vary greatly not only in their reading of various “signs” – from lines of poetry to beatings delivered by agents of the state – but also in their understanding of what constitutes true human flourishing and happiness. The Chinese obsession with material wealth (and family obedience) as the main source of well-being and security is understood in the novel in much the same way as in Xu Zhiyuan’s writing – as the only real, if at best partial defence individuals and families possess against the fundamental insecurity of life and livelihood under a corrupt and unpredictable system of a government proud to declare its disregard for “western individualist ideas of human rights”.
On the narrative level, the author weaves together the lives of a varied set of character types who at first sight resemble mere pawns in a much greater game taking place in the “all under heaven” (tianxia). As such they are given stage-names rather than proper names: beside the Woman Writer herself, the cast includes the Chinese Girl, the Chinese Girl’s Mother, Grandmother and Fiancé, the American Student in China, the Writer’s local Friend who is risking his livelihood by helping out a dissident Lawyer, the staff at the Czech Embassy in Beijing (the Diplomat, the Ambassador) and others. All these figures including the Writer are gradually “being played” in a drama of imagination said to originate in the head of an immortal ginger cat called Orange, a talking feline sage accompanied by an immature and occasionally unruly disciple (a kittenish black tomcat called Mansur). Vaguely reminiscent of Bulgakov’s devilish Woland and his giant talking tomcat in The Master and Margarita, the two cats and their antics – carefully watched over by two very different flocks of birds, the state security crows and the dissident magpies – give rise to some of the most entertaining passages in the novel. Orange has seen it all many times over, to the point of being beyond shock or surprise. His laconic feline commentary means the action of the novel is placed in the context of the past hundred or so years of Chinese history, marked by repeated (and largely failed) attempts at reform of a corrupt, authoritarian system – a history which the current regime has deliberately censored and distorted. The youthful rebel Mansur in turn provides occasions for “foolish” dissent: he sides with characters who resist Orange’s dictates of history, who talk back and stubbornly hope this time might be different, this time their gestures of resistance might escape punishment. And indeed the plot they star in starts as a comedy of errors turning on a mislaid bookshop receipt but – because of the way the Chinese state operates – ends in a brutal tragedy.
At the heart of the narrative one encounters a paradox: Denemarková’s plot may strike the reader as endowed with the kind of hyperbolic improbability associated with a twisting (spy) thriller. Yet the background for all the events is carefully researched: the novel draws on events that have actually taken place, such as the October to December 2015 “disappearances” of a number of Hong Kong booksellers, the July 9th, 2015 mass crackdown on human rights lawyers, the existing system of penal labour camps (laogai) and the ongoing harvesting of organs from executed prisoners. (As the independent China Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China concluded on the basis of extensive evidence as recently as June 2019, the practice of forced organ removal from political prisoners – such as Falun Gong practitioners and members of the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang province – has been and continues to be widespread in China in spite of official denials.) Denemarková’s characters too are often just thinly veiled fictional portraits of actual individuals, sometimes easily identifiable. Her Woman in the Headscarf is, for example, based on Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo (the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and author of the Charter 08 manifesto, who died in 2017 during his long-term imprisonment by the Chinese regime); while other characters, such as the Chinese Girl and her family, are more carefully camouflaged, presumably for the sake of protecting the real actors’ identities.
Although the characters of the Chinese Girl, her Mother and her Grandmother are central to the novel, especially in their inability to escape certain key predicaments of Chinese history and family-centred culture, Denemarková’s writing is much more convincing in its critical focus on the “new” Westerners (mostly Czechs or people of central European heritage). These travellers are trying to flee their destiny in the opposite direction – by escaping from the West to China. Especially the central and east Europeans, disappointed by the past thirty years of postcommunist development, have begun to look to the vastly bigger and conveniently distant country for opportunities to improve their damaged self-confidence, poor social standing and insufficient fortunes. They travel to China where “the worst of communism has met with the worst of capitalism” and yet somehow hope they will be able to ignore “all that” and just happily go about their business. Sooner or later, however, in spite of their carefully circumscribed existence revolving around the embassy grounds and nostalgic drinking sessions with compatriots, they are forced to confront their complicity with the regime around them. In moments of crisis – the eponymous “hours of lead” – the physically unpleasant and morally unpalatable aspects of life in contemporary China become impossible to ignore, and not just when the foreigners are directly appealed to for help and asked to become something more than disengaged onlookers.
In Denemarková’s novel most of the Westerners fail the test of character because of something they are paradoxically proud of, namely their home-grown “pragmatism” – which is really an unappetising mix of racism (the Chinese are not like us, they do not understand concepts such as freedom or human rights), unscrupulous greed (why should I care? I am here to make money), cowardice before the powerful (there is no point in risking a conflict with the almighty Chinese state, better stay silent and turn a blind eye) and disdain toward the weaker (those who get in trouble are asking for it, they deserve all the violence they get). In the novel Denemarková follows the power-seeking drive as it takes a variety of forms depending on the individual in question and their primary social role. Her “types” are altogether convincing (and often hilarious) individual embodiments of power struggle and manipulation – brilliantly observed and psychologically accurate – that go beyond the merely Czech context: from a typical Czech Grandma who as the matriarch of the family enslaves people through (force-)feeding them during elaborate, hours-long family feasts, to all those disrespected, underpaid academics reinventing themselves as expert well-paid and well-suited Chinese consultants; from IT nerds with an inferiority complex bolstering their egos by working for Chinese state security to ambassadors seeing their four years in Beijing as something to be endured, a step on the diplomatic career ladder toward “more civilised” postings in London or Paris. And all this with attractive young wives or daughters one can be proud of as important status-signalling and ego-boosting accessories for all of the expat men. One of the refrains that resonates in various scenes in the novel is a kind of throwaway remark bordering on a sigh that goes: “Ultimately, it’s about power, oh yes, it is.” In the final analysis the novel presents the Chinese reawakening of the old European will-to-power as rooted in the Europeans’ postimperial inability to feel good and secure in themselves without being able to rule over others.
Ironically enough, Denemarková comes close to the point made by Michel Houellebecq in his novel Submission (Soumission, 2015): her “China” and Houellebecq’s “Islam” are really metaphors for something dormant and pernicious at home. In Submission, the supposedly secular, democratically minded Frenchmen like the protagonist academic François end up finding the newly established Islamic regime – with its authoritarianism and patriarchal privileges – not only power-enhancing but downright rejuvenating. Similarly, pragmatism toward China is really a kind of permission Europeans give themselves to revert to harmful attitudes and uses of power that are an inherent part of European history and heritage, domestic and colonial. The prominent among these are aggressive nationalism, currently on the rise in Europe (the targeting of “foreign enemies” to distract from failures of domestic policy); authoritarianism (the relabelling of inconvenient journalism and activism as “terrorism” that deserves to be suppressed) and economic exploitation (work conditions for low-paid labour that harm the workers for profit – as recently observed in clusters of coronavirus infection prominent in places like care homes, abattoirs, meat-processing plants and mines, or as was seen in the clusters of suicides at the Foxconn factories in China). The best parts of the novel thus have to do with revealing what Denemarková has called “the China in us” – a deep reserve of greed, power worship and chauvinistic authoritarianism which is not a foreign import but a part of the European heritage newly reaffirmed in the encounter with China.
The author has been criticised by a number of Czech reviewers for being “too politically engaged” – for reducing the novelistic form to a vehicle of political activism rather than giving it its full freedom as the ideologically unencumbered representation of complex reality through a diversity of voices and perspectives. Some also decried its heavily symbolic rendering of the Chinese reality as oversimplified (“writers and Havel good, businessmen and Xi Jinping bad”) as well as emotionally manipulative, especially in the last, tragic third of the narrative. There may be some truth to the latter charge – toward the end of the novel the author finds it hard to keep her narrative distance from the Woman Writer whose voice verges at times on bathos and unnecessary hyperbole. But on the whole this criticism fails to do justice to the profound literariness of the author’s handling of European encounters with the Chinese “other”.
This is evident in the narrative form of the novel: the story is told through a succession of fragmentary, poetically expanded moments of time linked by more discursive passages in order to create an alternating sense of radically different dimensions of time – from the fleeting lyricism of the present moment in individual existence via the last two centuries of European history all the way to the thousands of years of thought and writing that underly the Chinese tradition of letters. This literariness is also apparent in the diversity of styles skilfully brought together in the novel, ranging from political polemic to lyrical poetry, from magic realism to realist satire, from dramatic dialogue to atmospheric description of places. Last but not least, the author’s inventiveness comes through in the novel’s cunning intertextuality. Denemarková manages to integrate into her story not just a good deal of political writing (by Václav Havel and others) but also of European and ancient Chinese poetry. On the Chinese side, she repeatedly uses key passages from the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism – excerpts from songs by Chinese poets such as Li Po and Tu Fu from the Book of Songs (Shijing) as well as passages from The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) and the Great Learning (Dàoxué) – not just to mediate between languages and cultures but also to blur their boundaries. She has characters (and probably some readers as well) mistake lines of Czech poetry for ancient Chinese lyrics and, vice versa, treats the lyrics of an ancient Chinese song as if they were a Czech folk song you could sing at a party to the accompaniment of a guitar – all the while providing an ironic commentary on people’s ability to use “their own” cherished classics as marks of inimitable national character.
On all these levels, Denemarková’s text represents an attempt to tackle certain political questions in a distinctly literary way. “The world of literature does not come down to a struggle for power but to freedom, an opportunity to create a space for one’s own perspective on life and the world,” as the Woman Writer puts it. The reader is pointed toward practices where the truly universal might be found in the overlap of different spaces of freedom – for example, in literary encounters between individuals coming from countries of markedly different sizes, histories, cultures, languages, philosophies. The novel specifically situates the universal in the power of letters – literature that comes into its own primarily as a certain kind of letter-writing, ideally done by hand – to negotiate an unstable middle ground between two extremes.
On one hand, much less is required for effective understanding than the unattainable ideal of perfect identity or perfect translation: Liu Xiaobo has certainly understood enough of Havel’s writings and the Czechoslovak Charter 77, as evidenced by his Charter 08 manifesto and confirmed by the reaction it provoked from the Chinese authorities; and this should in turn be easily understood by Europeans. Similarly, the need to save face at all cost that leads authoritarian regimes to lie about reality, systematically falsify data and make the dissenters disappear seems to be a universal not all that hard to understand. At this other extreme, one comes up against the will to deny all those crucial misunderstandings that threaten to undermine the victorious, one-and-only true version of events.
But these misunderstandings are not exclusive to encounters between people of different cultures, languages, ethnicities. Equally and sometimes more devastatingly, they mar communication and communal feeling between individuals using the same language and brought up within the same culture. It is yet another of the paradoxes of the novel that a Czech woman writer (like Denemarková) can have more in common with a Chinese writer (like Xu Zhiyuan) than with “her own” people, especially those in power – such as the current Czech president, Miloš Zeman (one of the main targets of the novel’s satire) who, during his visit in China in October 2014, declared in a TV interview that he had not come to lecture the Chinese on human rights but to learn from them how to increase economic growth and “how to stabilise society”. (“It seems our President wants to learn how to build concentration camps for his political opponents,” as one Czech opposition MP put it in response to the interview.) What turns Denemarková into a “naive foreigner” in her own country is the same thing that makes her Czech characters fail their “hour of lead”, namely the prevalent “pragmatic” attitude of the political establishment to corruption and abuses of power. The erstwhile Havel-inspired policy of circumspect engagement with China, based on a historically grounded understanding of how communist regimes operate and combined with fearless advocacy of universal human rights, has since 2014 been replaced by a policy of economic pragmatism, a de facto unconditional welcome given to all things Chinese in the hope of securing large economic gains. When Denemarková collaborated with Xu Zhiyuan on an article on economic pragmatism (published in Chinese in DanDu in December 2016), this policy was still being feebly justified as a painless way of ushering in the desired political reforms without risking the economic benefits. Since then, under Xi Jinping’s increasingly belligerent leadership, it has become abundantly clear that the argument for economic pragmatism as a means of political change has failed.
“China is a beautiful concentration camp with an impermeable border, China is a blooming garden, and yet there is no contradiction […] just a two-fold, self-negating, beautiful gesture of joyful affirmation.” The Chinese state can present itself as a blooming garden only by brutally airbrushing from the picture everything it perceives as rot – the dissidents, the detained human rights and labour law lawyers, the kidnapped booksellers selling scandalous biographies of Xi Jinping, the rebellious ethnic and religious minorities (the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Falun Gong adherents), the petitioning peasants deprived of land and the parents of babies poisoned by tainted milk powder, the prisoners “harvested” for organs, the people still “foolishly” trying to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4th, 1989 at the heavily policed Tiananmen Square, the doctors raising alarm about a new pneumonia-causing virus and so on. For them the garden can quickly turn into a prison camp. The novel’s real target, however, are not the Chinese but the Europeans complicit with the logic of this non-contradiction.
The recent developments both in the Far East (especially Hong Kong) and in the West confirm the clearsightedness of Denemarková’s novelistic vision. Sweden recently closed down its last Confucius Institute, spurred by the second abduction in 2018 and the subsequent 2020 trial of Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish bookseller. Canada faces a struggle to free two Canadian citizens detained in China in revenge for the arrest of Weng Wanzhou, the Huawei CEO, in Vancouver in December 2018. In the Czech context, economic pragmatism has not secured the investments promised nor has it hugely benefited the Czech economy beyond one or two jet-owning billionaires. Meanwhile the threats and costs inherent in doing business with China have become harder to ignore – even without taking into account the coronavirus pandemic.
The Czech experience with the Chinese model might serve as a warning to other small countries (such as Ireland) still pragmatically hoping to profit from China. The Chinese have proven themselves expert at political exploitation of economic weakness. As a rule they use the economic foothold gained in a country perceived as the weaker party to start pushing their political agenda. This pressure can range from intrusive demands for the explicit and unconditional recognition of the one-China policy (to the detriment of long-established diplomatic and trade relationships, for example with Taiwan) to a demand that universities compromise on academic freedoms – needless to say, these demands come with threats of economic sanctions that are not at all academic. When a city like Prague refuses to commit itself to the one-China policy in its partnership with Beijing, the penalty is an official Chinese ban on the performances of all classical music orchestras with “Prague” in their title (including those already contracted). Such an affair is often not without its humorous side, given the inevitable intercultural misunderstandings: in this instance the Chinese chose not to distinguish between the name of the city and words only distantly related, such as the common Czech surname Pražák (“Praguer”). As a result of this, the well-known Pražák Quartet, named after its founder, Josef Pražák, has also been banned. (Note to the Irish pragmatists: don’t let anyone called Patrick anger the Chinese mandarins.)
Such pressure can also take the form of directly or indirectly pushing universities to compromise on academic freedoms. Just one example of how this may work in practice: a domestic corporate sponsor of the university demands, as part of the sponsorship contract, that the university commit to safeguarding the company’s good name. In the case of a company with major business interests in China this means the university may be threatened with a lawsuit if it does not restrain its sinologists from publicly criticising the nature of the company’s Chinese business and its dealings with the Chinese authorities (which may entail questionable practices or even potential breaches of human rights).
Irish universities may find it even harder than Czech ones to resist similar pressures given their much greater dependence on income from Chinese students paying international-level tuition fees for courses in English. In fact the pragmatists at their helm may even try to anticipate and accommodate such demands before they are explicitly made. There is some evidence that this kind of thinking may already be at work in at least one Irish university. In 2019, for example, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt was made by the so-called Academic Freedom Working Group at University College Dublin to revise the university’s official Statement on Academic Freedom in such a way as to treat academic freedom in much the same way Xi Jinping treats all the other “so-called universal values” – as a dismissable “Eurocentric” invention rather than a fundamental principle of scholarly endeavour underpinning the very idea of university. One only needs to look at the University of Queensland in Australia and its recent suspension of Drew Pavlou, a student activist who organised an on-campus protest in support of Hong Kong’s independence while criticising the university for its Chinese ties, to see where such attitudes might lead. As Denemarková’s narrator would put it, sarcastically, in the novel: Ultimately, it’s about the power of money, oh yes it is.
“In China the worst of communism has kissed the worst of capitalism, and now the country flourishes. An army of loyal dancers. The epidemic [of self-negation and mental castration] is spreading through the world and breaks characters and bends backbones. […] The mentality has not changed. And there is no contradiction. There is just a two-fold, self-negating gesture of joyful and pragmatic affirmation.” Denemarková’s novel stays in the mind as a deeply imaginative appeal to all of us to be much more discerning and scrupulous about what we choose to affirm, joyfully or pragmatically, not only in our travels abroad but also and above all at home.
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, and most recently The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).