A literal literary pub crawl
Emil Hakl is best known for one novel, but has more to say
Posted: January 8, 2009
It's not often that a writer - even a humble one - repudiates his own most famous book. But that's exactly what Czech novelist Emil Hakl did within minutes of sitting down for coffee at a Žižkov café.
When asked about Of Kids and Parents, Hakl's most lauded novel, which won the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award before being translated into four languages and made into a feature film by Vladimír Michálek, this reticent novelist gave a wry smile that seemed at once mischievous and world-weary.
"This book is damnation for me! Yes, unfortunately, it's my most famous book, and it's already translated in English, German, Polish and Spanish. My God! Why only this one book?"
"This one book" is Hakl's second novel and one of seven books, including collections of short stories and poetry. Hakl's attitude toward Of Kids and Parents recalls the classic tale of a writer who strikes gold once and never again. But as he went on to describe the novel's genesis, it became clear that Hakl's love/hate relationship with Of Kids and Parents is more than a sad luck story.
Real name: Jan Beneš
Number of published books: Seven
Favorite book: The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley
Healthiest habit: Brushing his teeth before sitting down to write
In 2001, a friend and fellow Czech writer approached him with a short novel consisting of a dialogue between him and Hakl. When asked to comment, Hakl was brutally honest.
"I told him it wasn't a dialogue at all, but his own monologue. He told me to do it better if I thought I could."
Do it better is exactly what Hakl did. Using the model of a novel based on dialogue, Hakl wrote Of Kids and Parents in about six months. He based the story on one Prague 7 pub crawl he'd had with his father, a microbiologist who experienced the horrors of World War II in Croatia, and, according to what he says in the book, had a penchant for reminiscing about obscure models of fighter planes.
The book's publication immediately secured Hakl's status as one of the pre-eminent contemporary Czech novelists. His friend, however, wasn't exactly pleased with Hakl's sudden success.
"That ended our friendship. He doesn't speak to me anymore because he says I stole his idea … and he's right!"
Of Kids and Parents was published in English in 2008 by Prague's Twisted Spoon Press, and the translation, by Marek Tomin, met with as much acclaim as the original. Writing for The Independent, reviewer Boyd Tonkin called the book "an utterly beguiling novel of uproarious surfaces and melancholy depths."
Howard Sidenberg of Prague's Twisted Spoon Press locates the novel's universal appeal in its rambling, associative narrative style.
"I read the book right when it came out and liked it … a lot. In general, everyday reality is presented through anecdotes and the innate absurdity is revealed through the spoken language, its idioms and dynamic flow. As you've probably experienced, your normal pub session is an exercise in free association, for hours on end."
Free association is a good way to describe much of what happens in the novel, which takes place in one rambling afternoon of chatter between forty-something Honza Beneš and his 71-year-old father. Their talk ranges from women to airplanes to World War II to microbiology to cocktail recipes such as The Red Hammer, an atrocious concoction of rum, cherry liqueur, fruit wine, "and a drop of Francovka liniment."
"Yes, yes, even the cocktails are real," said Hakl. "The '80s were a crazy time. I don't know how we survived!"
A writer's past
Emil Hakl was born Jan Beneš in Prague in 1958. A graduate of the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory, he began writing poetry with his classmates, who formed a literary group called "8" and dreamed of being famous poets. It was this dream that prompted Beneš to adopt a pseudonym, thinking that all famous poets use false names. Hakl published official collections of poetry in 1991 and 2001, having printed numerous samizdat, or underground, self-published books in his younger days. Though Hakl still cites American poet Robert Creeley as one of his primary influences, he switched to writing prose full time in 1998.
"I got tired of poetry because it's more for young men. Old men can't write poetry, so I began writing short stories," he said.
Initially inspired by American writers, Hakl nevertheless took a deep interest in Central European literature, especially Polish and Hungarian. Hakl claims that "Czech literature doesn't exist because it's always been tied up with the literature of other cultures," and his own cultural background - he was born to a Czech mother and Croatian father - substantiates his claim. Nevertheless, he says that Czech culture has had an undeniable influence on his own work.
"I want people to find my work more European than specifically Czech, but I can't deny the Czechness present in my writing," he said.
Any Czech writer who, like Hakl, grew up during communism, writes with an acute sense of history. Writers who cut their teeth against the communist regime had a cruel kind of historical luck - a common enemy and the instant martyrdom that comes from living under oppression. Looking back on his early days as a reader and a writer, Hakl laments some of the integral cultural changes that have swept the Czech Republic since then, but points to some of the common challenges all writers face, even if they are not engaging in literary politics.
"Writing is about expressing your environment and whether it's repressive or not, you find something to write about. I think [unofficial] Czech literature gained a certain status because it was forbidden under communism so people automatically thought it was more interesting," he said.
Despite the fact that the previous regime was an oppressive one, Hakl says that the age demanded and often produced a type of complex intellectual that is rare in what he calls today's "shallow" Czech society. As an example, he points to the writer Bohumil Hrabal, whose work has achieved international success, and whose idiosyncratic style is seen as a pervasive influence on the work of contemporary Czech writers. Any writer who writes directly out of personal experience is said to be a descendant of Hrabal, a comparison Hakl does not deny.
"It might be silly to say, but Hrabal is one of the most important Czech writers, and a very complex individual. Hrabal was original, but certainly there exists a line after him to writers who write about their personal world and the people around them."
Though Hakl is by all accounts a successful author, he's kept his day job. Unfortunately, however, what he calls "the hand of the financial crisis" does not spare the creatively minded. Time In, the magazine he edited until recently, was forced to shut down in the wake of the credit crunch. Hakl is currently looking for new employment, but he is taking advantage of his free time to write. He's working on a new novel about a 50-year-old man - "but not me!" - and his opinions about the world, and is currently planning another film with Michálek.
At the end of our interview, I asked Hakl to comment on the state of literature in the 21st century. He grew suddenly quiet, affected, he said, by the "responsibility" of giving such an answer. After a full minute of staring into an empty cappuccino cup, he lost the self-effacing shyness that had hovered over our conversation and spoke decisively.
"Today, literature is significantly losing its value, and I think this is OK. I hope that in five or 10 years literature will go back to fulfilling its normal function. That would be the end of the time when people believe that literature is saying something grand. Every book contains the truth of its author, and that's enough."
- Nina Makelberge contributed to this report.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at
Tags: Emil Hakl, Of Kids and Parents, Czech novelist, Magnesia Litera.