Interview: Jindra Tichy talks about Prague in My Bones
Jindra Tichý is the author of nineteen novels, including one in English and also published in NZ, and her short stories have been published in Czech literary journals.
She is well known and loved in her home country: in 2012 she was voted number eleven on a list of the most influential personalities among the two million Czechs living abroad. Jindra talks to NZ Booklovers.
What inspired you to write Prague in My Bones?
Prague in My Bones is MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY. I can tell you exactly the moment when I first conceived the idea to write it.
I was sitting in the midnight train, which three hours ago left Prague and was now speeding towards what was then the Czechoslovak border with West Germany. I looked at my watch and could see that in few minutes we would reach the border and I made the promise, to myself, also to providence or God if you like. The promise was, if I managed to cross the border I would write one day my story. The date was 17 November 1969.
I knew two things could happen in the next hour. The secret police could arrest me right there at the border and send me back not to Prague but to another destination, to one of these labour camps which doted the countryside of the Czechoslovakia then, and where life was nasty, brutish and short, to use the words of my favourite philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. The big question was what would in that case happen to Peter, my six year old son, who was at that point sleeping peacefully in my lap.
Or the whole train would not be allowed to cross the border and would be sent back to Prague.
I was lucky to be on that train leaving Prague on Monday. It was allowed to cross the border, one of the last four trains allowed to cross. The Friday train was not allowed to cross and the Czechoslovak border was then hermetically shut for the next twenty years.
I was just one step ahead of Czech Secret police, fortunately they did not catch me at the border. Later I received their message: since I was in their opinion a contra-revolutionary, I was given a sentence of confiscation of all my property in Czechoslovakia and to be jailed for five years in a labour camp.
But when I received their love note I was already safe and happy on the other side of the border in exile.
Twenty years later the Communist rule was overturned in Prague on 17 November 1989 and a new president, and famous anti-communist dissident, Vaclav Havel granted me amnesty. By a stroke of chance I knew Havel. We both attended the same high school in Prague in 1954. Notice the date, 17 November, played a big role in my life.
It took me some time to fulfil my promise. But here it is, Prague in My Bones.
My main inspiration in writing the book was the following:
I consider New Zealand the nicest country in the world with supremely kind people, beautiful nature and truly a superb and relaxed life style.
Yet I discovered that the happy citizens did not know much about how hard and horrible life in East European countries was under communist rule. My book, I hope, is an eyeopener about the reality about how communist governments work.
What research was involved?
I have an university degree in philosophy, history and political studies. I conducted the research in all these three disciplines and I was qualified to do it myself.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I got my first job as a university lecturer when I was twenty-four. Since then I developed the following routine. The mornings and early afternoons were spent either lecturing or writing and researching the lectures. From 4-7 PM I wrote fiction, after dinner till midnight I did research.
I retired from the university in 2004, so I have more time now for writing fiction. Usually in the morning I write fiction in English language, in the afternoon in the Czech language and I do research in the evening.
When I emigrated in 1969 I could speak and read Russian and German but not English. To write in English is for me still a laborious process. It took me five years to write this book in English.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
The first and my most favourite song is HEY JUDE. It was composed at the time when Prague was invaded by the Soviet army and four other armies of East European countries. The clandestine Czech radio, which managed somehow to avoid capture by the Soviets and was a uniting force of the Czech underground, was playing it all throughout the bloody and destructive Soviet occupation.
The second would be also be by The Beatles, Penny Lane. I went to Liverpool in 1970 in search for a new job. I did not find a job but I have found the street. Penny Lane is cute.
What did you enjoy the most about writing Prague in My Bones?
Two cities were important throughout my life. One was Prague, a beautiful city where I was born. The second is Dunedin. I love them both and I have written books about both of them.
When writing about Prague I was in my mind again walking in the streets and visiting places I used to love when I was first child and then a young adult. Prague has got eternal beauty, which no other city has for me. I have seen and even lived in all the major European cities, Vienna, London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence, Stockholm, Zurich, Moscow, St Petersburg, Krakow and Warszaw. They all are beautiful but no one has that special magic, only Prague. And it has a special magic according to Seasons, different when it is covered and sparkling in snow, or her parks are covered with spring flowers, or colourful autumn leaves, I love and miss her in Winter, Spring, Autumn and Summer.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I skyped to three best friends in Prague and they informed what was going on during the covid lockdown in Prague.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
It was Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel. Werfel was born in Prague like myself and loved Prague like I. He was a refugee, who managed to escape at the last moment from the Nazis, who wanted to kill him.
I read the book years ago when I still lived in Prague This year I wanted to give it to a dear friend who suffered a great loss. But instead of wrapping it quickly and giving to her immediately. I opened it with the best intention not to read it. But it is so wonderfully written that after first page I was again captured, read it again all and bought another copy for my friend. It is a beautiful book about human misery and redemption.
Quentin Wilson Publishing