Czech It Out

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Firstly, I’m sorry about that pun. Secondly, I’m here to recommend some Czech books, which were in turn recommended (and given) to me by my friend Marcela, who deserves the credit for that. It can be difficult to discover literature from countries not your own without recommendations, so I was lucky to be given some Czech books (in translation, as I know only a few words of Czech) and had the chance to find out about their context. All three books were quite different and I suggest to pick the one that appeals to you most to start off with.

  • How I Came To Know Fish (1974) by Ota Pavel – This memoir of Pavel’s childhood in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War doesn’t sound from this introduction like it would be a sweet, nostalgic story of fishing and family, but it is. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a quick, intriguing read that gives an unexpected viewpoint and the kind of story not often told. It is easily available in translation from Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ range, too, and is apparently popular for its nostalgic view of the rural past. Good for anybody interested in social history or looking for something insightful but not too intense.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera – By far the most famous on this list (and the only one I had previously heard of), Kundera’s novel is famous for its philosophical slant which gives it a fairly imposing reputation. However, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is much more readable than its reputation implies, a novel of love and tangled up lives with the backdrop of Communist occupation. The characters, whilst consciously created by the narrator and described as such, are also intriguing in what they stand for and how they view love and commitment. A novel full of both rich detail and metafictional awareness of the acts of writing and thinking, this is a book to get stuck into. Kundera’s fame means that this is also easy to buy in bookshops or find in libraries. Great for people who like novels that make you think, and also fans of books such as Nineteen Eighty Four or Steppenwolf.
  • Saturnin (1942) by Zdeněk Jirotka – The most fun of the three, Saturnin is a comic novel about the narrator and his strange manservant Saturnin. Their adventures are a kind of mundane-bizarre that is very enjoyable and there are classic comedy side characters such as a money-loving aunt who speaks in maxims. The fact it is in translation does not detract from the humour and in fact it’s a fascinating blend of a Jeeves-like character with Czech writing. The copy I have is a beautifully illustrated hardback one which is well worth it as it is beautiful. For anyone who likes comedy of manners, absurd situations, and well-meaning interfering servants.