Interview with Patrik Ourednik
By Céline Bourhis
Context, 17, 2005
CB: You’ve translated such authors as Boris Vian, François Rabelais, Raymond Queneau, and Claude Simon from French into Czech, and Vladislav Vancura, Bohumil Hrabal, Miroslav Holub, and Jirí Grusa from Czech into French. Would you consider these writers as your literary influences? Are there other writers that you would like to add to this list?
PO: There is a distinction to make: from French to Czech, I only translated texts that I chose and proposed to publishers. If you consider this, then you can maybe talk about influences. However, I don’t really like this word, since we are all influenced by many books without necessarily being aware of it; and vice versa, we can definitely love an author without being influenced whatsoever as far as our own writing is concerned. Let’s say that what unites those authors – Rabelais, Queneau, Jarry, Beckett, Vian, and Michaux – is their use of literary language, or even of language period.
The situation is a little different as far as authors I translated from Czech to French are concerned: sometimes it was a matter of taking advantage of an opportunity I knew would not present itself again. Until the fall of communism, the literary criterion wasn’t the only one at stake; obviously there was also a political dimension that mattered. Moreover, influences are not limited to only the authors one translates. Only one critic mentioned the name of Kurt Vonnegut when writing about Europeana, and he is an author to whom I owe a lot, especially Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.
As for your second question, there is one very important author that is not listed: Flaubert.
CB: Did you first work as a translator and then start to write or did these two processes happen simultaneously? Can you tell us something about the translation process, how you perceive it and what you take from it?
PO: It happened more or less simultaneously, but I always had a clear fondness for translation. I think that translation is more adventurous – in a noble sense – than writing. Most of the time, I introduce myself as a translator rather than as a writer; it has nothing to do with using an alias, or being modest: I just believe that translating gives me more satisfaction than writing. Let’s say that I have much more fun with Rabelais or Queneau than I do with Ouredník.
Translating is probably the most economical way to be confronted with the world’s otherness: not through what languages can tell, but through what they think, and how they think about themselves. The translator can be – the choice is up to you – a transporter, a smuggler; translating is about moving things from one place to another. This meaning is to be found in all the European etymologies, traducere, translate, traduire, übersetzen, etc.
CB: What caused you to write Europeana?
PO: I don’t know. Probably the question: Is it possible to express a period of time, a specific historical time, without using traditional narrative means, however direct or allusive they are, such as a historical novel or an intimist narrative? To find a form that would enable the narrator – like History itself – to be terribly banal, while pretending to be original.
CB: Europeana will be the first of your books to be translated into English. What kind of reception do you anticipate in the U.S.?
PO: You know, I never expect anything. The relative success of the foreign versions of Europeana sometimes generated questions like: Did you expect such a success? And: Are you surprised? I belong to the group of people who think that books live their own lives independent from their authors’ options or opinions. Once the book is printed, it is emancipated, you can’t do anything for it anymore, it can’t do anything for you anymore.
I also believe that when you sell more than a few thousand copies – no matter how big the market is – it is probably due to a misunderstanding. It is very funny to note the amount of incredible things readers can find in your books – that you never planned, nor even vaguely thought about. What the reader finds in it, what probably calls out to him – 90% of the time – has to do with his imagination, not yours.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m not curious about what kind of reactions American readers will have. What interpretations, dreams, will an American from the third millennium have about a text dealing with the terrible “old Europe”? Will he find anti-American feelings? Or will he find it comforting – or even necessary – to conceive of such a “distant world”? Will he find his own anguish? His own bitterness? His own laughs? Will the book be classified as an essay, narrative, or fiction? Taught in which department: “history,” “philosophy,” “cultural anthropology”? “Disciplinary psychoanalysis”? “Retroactive science-fiction”?
CB: One of the most curious and most remarkable qualities of Europeana is the voice of the narrator, which is perplexing, funny, disturbing, serious, matter-of-fact, naïve, confusing. There is no clue in the book about where this voice might be coming from. How difficult was it to maintain the detached, and for the most part, indifferent quality of the voice?
PO: I think it is just a matter of rewriting, of the amount of obstacles you impose on yourself. But what I think is funny, is the profusion of interpretations that the narrator aroused for critics. An extraterrestrial being? A really perverted professor of discourse? Bouvard without Pécuchet, Pécuchet without Bouvard? The “good savage” of Rousseau? A resuscitated Candide? Faulkner’s Benjy with a slightly higher IQ? A historian gone crazy? Personally, I never met him... I have no clue who he is.
CB: You emigrated in the 1980s from Czechoslovakia and since you have been living in Paris. Was this move politically motivated?
PO: Why does one emigrate? I don’t think that there’s just a single reason, except maybe in extreme situations when one wants to escape from death. Political reasons, of course. Just like any other self-respecting person, I had trouble with the regime. But it was not enough of a reason though. There was a feeling of weariness, of intellectual suffocation, of the fear that my brain would not work at its full potential year after year. And there was also curiosity: How do people think in a different place? The absence of otherness is the principle per se of totalitarian regimes.
CB: Europeana achieved an enviable success in the Czech Republic, and in translation, in France, Holland, and Hungary. Do you consider yourself part of international literary community at large, or a part of some narrower literary group?
PO: I don’t know what “international literary community” means. I don’t really know what a “literary group” is either. In general, I am very suspicious of communities and groups. As far as Europeana is concerned, I consider it a “supranational” book rather than an “international” one. Apparently everyone finds something in it – but this little something is sometimes contradictory. One appropriates Europeana differently in France, or in Bulgaria, or in Holland, or in Switzerland, or in Lithuania, or in Germany, etc. But I’ll let you refer to what I said previously: all this is not my business anymore.
CB: The subtitle of Europeana is “A Short History of the Twentieth Century.” You book is only 125 pages long, which is fairly short considering it covers such a large amount of time. Does the brevity of this novel suggest that we try to remove ourselves from the twentieth century and its horrors, or were you trying to illustrate the absurdity of this past century?
PO: One and a quarter pages per year is not that bad. If I had started the narrative with the Anatolian upsurge in Greece... the book would have been 5,800 pages long – if I was concise.
Yes, of course, we would like to get rid of this stupid century. However, I don’t think that people have decided to do so.
In any case, my goal was not to conceive of the twentieth century as a theme – not even in the sense of a “reflection theme” – but as a literary figure. The primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it, in what sense was it redundant, etc.
I could simplify this: what were the key words of the twentieth century? Undoubtedly, haste (rather than “chaos,” which is no more appropriate to the twentieth century than to any another). This meant, let’s try to write a hurried text. Another peculiarity of the twentieth century, I think, is infantilism – with everything that it implies, from the romantic-commercial image of juvenility to the refusal of taking the full responsibility of one’s acts and words. Let’s try then to write a childish text, a text that could have been told by a kid reciting his lesson or by the village idiot. Thirdly, this century has been explicitly scientific. This meant, let’s use a vocabulary more or less scientific, with all its contradictions and, if possible, with all its vacuity. These are the elements that gave birth to the form and content of the book.
CB: Do you consider yourself a Euro-optimist?
PO: What does “optimist” mean? I think that the European Union as it is now doesn’t serve anything but to generate disappointments. But this doesn’t prevent me from thinking that it was a necessary political project. But, in the end, it is perverted, and counterproductive, and finally completely secondary. There will be other projects, other hopes, and other disappointments. It is fine as it is.