To Be Moral and Not Lose One's Hope

An Interview with Radka Denemarková

Week of the Festival: Hausacher LeseLenz, Hausach, Germany

Jon Cho-Polizzi: In Kobold (2011), the last novel in your trilogy, you speak of people who behave like kobolds: “highly intelligent, but lacking in any emotional intelligence and social empathy. Through the manipulation of others, they quickly propel themselves to the top.” Similar to the mid-20th century, in which many of your novels take place, we again find ourselves in a time in which the loudest and most deplorable voices “quickly propel themselves to the top.” What kinds of lessons might we learn from history, and how do we protect ourselves, as a society, from these kobold figures?

Radka Denemarková: It’s interesting how it is humanity’s worst qualities that make their presence known. Not its best. Today, things like populism, chauvinism, racism, antisemitism, and sexism are again rising to the surface. Again, this image of the “collective guilt” of others is being disseminated. And it happens quickly. First one particular group is selected, dehumanized, criminalized: “They’re bringing nothing but disease; they’re all terrorists, even the children.”

21st century ‘kobolds’ are more dangerous than ever before. Thanks to new forms of media, they can coordinate easily and more quickly manipulate the masses. Where money talks, truth is silent. Kobolds are narcissists. They care only about power; psychologically, they form a kind of international fraternity. Yet again, we’re seeing how mass vs. individual dynamics work. Suddenly, everyone is again looking for a strongman leader. 

The President positions himself like a monarch, a czar. It is the germ of the Eastern Bloc which has remained within us: fear of civil society, an inborn tendency toward the exploitation of others. To act as though we, too, are not a part of Europe—as if Europe were located somewhere outside ourselves—as if we could betray and ridicule it, and then go on unscathed. Czech isolation is dangerous—the egocentrism, the unwillingness to experience what is happening before our very door. People act as though we understand everything better now, like we’re at the center of the world. But we’re lacking in humility, curiosity, and humanity.

Developments in the relationships between European countries over the past years demonstrate the critical need for an experiment in humanity. They should compel us to think of others, to finally transcend our national pigeonholes. The discussion is becoming ever-more intense: Is Europe “a house without a roof” or “a roof without a house”? A rewarding metaphor. Because it’s not merely about the union, but about our common interests. It has always been about a Europe united through a basis in democratic and amicable relations: about the immaterial dimensions. Perhaps it’s also time to modify the metaphor: not one big house, but many tiny houses, with attention paid both to those shared, common spaces, as well as to the private spheres. 

JC: You’ve recently returned to Prague (due to COVID-19-related measures), following an extended residence in Taiwan. Your most recent novel, Hours of Lead—which was distinguished with the Magnesia Litera prize for book of the year in 2019—also takes place in China. Among other things, it is concerned with the experiences of Europeans living abroad. As someone who also moves frequently between the continents, I’m interested in the ways your own experiences abroad have shaped your perception, particularly in regards to the current global pandemic. 

This novel reveals the many layers of sicknesses (but also hopes) in our time, and warns of a new form of dictatorship. I spent three years in China, where the very worst aspects of both capitalism and communism “kiss,” and (economically) it works wonderfully—though without regard for human rights. And all the kobolds of the world marvel at it, which represents a grave danger for our collective future. In times of neoliberalism and economic pragmatism, many are quick to forget concepts like human rights, democracies, freedom of expression. Many simply do not care about the censorship. But the free expression of opinion is the fundament upon which all other human rights are built, the root of humanity, the mother of truth. To curtail freedom of speech means to trample upon human rights, to take the air out of humanity, and to fetter truth. Power today unwittingly betrays its most deep-seated intention: to render life utterly uniform, to surgically remove anything which is even minutely divergent, idiosyncratic, negotiated, independent, or difficult to classify.

And then I lived on the island of Taiwan, which is constantly threatened by military occupation from the Chinese government—particularly by the current Chinese President. Only when I was on the ground there could I understand just how alone they truly are. China desires to be a world power. It’s buying up the world, and the stipulation of its business is that no one retains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

In Taiwan, I experienced the ‘birth’ of an epidemic which, by January, was swiftly extending across the world. Taiwan is one of the places which has managed the epidemic. Naively, I hoped that other countries would borrow from Taiwan’s valuable experiences and know-how, or that the WHO (World Health Organization)—as a global security net for disease prevention—would build upon these comprehensively. But Taiwan is isolated and was excluded from membership in the WHO under pressure from the Chinese government. Taiwan received no information—neither from China nor from the WHO. Instead, Taiwan was left to its own devices; but it did not underestimate the challenge. The Taiwanese government acted swiftly and objectively through an expert team and precise directives. The leader of the crisis center, an epidemiologist, maintained the final word: Chen Chien-jen, doctor, scientist, and expert on infectious diseases. And the government followed his directives. 

It is becoming apparent that the invisible coronavirus is a social virus, revealing the weaknesses of politicians and the systems we live in. The fate of the Chinese doctor Li Wen-liang is illustrative of the Chinese response: Already in December, he had warned of an unknown virus and was silenced, branded an ‘enemy of the state.’ He became infected, and he died. All those who then, in legitimate fear, sounded the alarm through their social networks were arrested and disappeared. All the videos appearing out of Wuhan from that time vanished. China not only closed off the city with its eleven million inhabitants, it blockaded the entire region—in total some 60 million people. Foreign journalists were immediately expelled. China is a brutal police state, and the Chinese government was afraid (since Chernobyl, we are aware of the uncertainty which an unexpected catastrophe can spell for a political system—it may be either dismantled or reinforced). 

Taiwan is a symbol of democratic hope for the entire world. The struggle for Taiwan is also a struggle for our own democracy. This place—in search of equilibrium—creates a parallel world against the fears and risks of a shared (and at the same time isolated and unstable) existence in our modern world. In this context, I have to think of Europe and the USA. Must we really redefine our understanding of human rights, as I so often hear today (and not only in Europe), for this time of economic pragmatism in which we have reduced democracy to business? I know precisely what people’s main concerns are everywhere: What should I do with my life? How should I overcome my human, existential, moral, and civil dilemmas and move forward? 

Answers to these questions will require generations to develop. Western Europe and the USA are lagging both as inspiration or example. Eastern Europe has almost exclusively adopted only consumer culture and neoliberalism from the West. Democracy requires other values. 

JC: We currently find ourselves in a time of extreme isolation, but simultaneously, in a time in which we are learning to interact differently with our environment. What is changing in your works during this epoch of the coronavirus?

I experienced the first epicenter of the pandemic in Taiwan, then the epicenter in Europe. Underlying everything were the same questions which I have been processing in my novels—the questions that plague all of us today. Like all important questions, they are incredibly simple ones: Mass or individual, closed society or open democracy, totalitarianism or freedom, censorship or freedom of speech? It seems that these questions, today, are universal.

The borders of our world do not so much divide different peoples, nations, or confessions: They divide between reason and fanaticism, tolerance and hysteria, creativity and censorship. Antihumanism is often the result, a process previously known as dehumanization. A united Europe is the successful answer to our history and our geography, and if we do not manage to bring Europe to the world stage as a full-fledged player, then we will all individually become playthings for other powers. This requires level heads, clear understanding, creative thinking, and the defense of human rights and freedom of expression. 

A meaningful life requires trust in others and trust in our own existence. Freedom of expression is fundamental. Those who, today, lack in sufficient education, affluence, health, time, and free access to the internet experience only limited possibilities. Our freedom of expression depends largely on the state we live in. The struggle over the power of words may take place in a global system of information and communication, but it begins in our own immediate environments. If democracy goes under, it will not happen suddenly, but rather incrementally: sustained, centimeter by centimeter—as much so in the East as in the West. We must defend the positions we have carved out in the pursuit of freedom. This requires a lot of energy these days.

An undertone of populism is being stoked up and exploited by demagogues in many nations worldwide, be they traditional or newer democracies. But Europe and the USA also have other traditions. In the context of the Czech Republic today, I can hardly believe that there were times in which organizations such as Charta 77 did not exist. Imagining such a thing calls to mind the feeling of a vacuum, of the total relativity of values. 

Founded by Václav Havel, Charta 77 was the first meaningful act of solidarity during the Communist era. It represented a beginning for our civil establishment. It brought about an atmosphere of equality, solidarity, cohesiveness, collectivity, and a willingness for self-sacrifice in our efforts to help one another. But all this was wiped from the table in 1989, as though it had never existed. One-time ‘Party members’ are today attempting to establish a capitalism with “a socialist countenance” in Bohemia: The chosen few carry their victory without opposition; there is no free competition any more than there is rule of law (as was common practice under Socialism, enemies are neutralized by means of political persecution). The old mentality has been resurrected through which not those who are more talented and capable receive promotion, but rather those who are equipped with fewer capabilities—because these people have distinguished themselves through their loyalty and unscrupulousness. We are, indeed, a country which needed to be rehabilitated through Kafka after 1989. 

The crux of the matter today is that we—in the long eras stretching between explosions of solidarity and cooperation—mostly occupy a world which is distinctly, visibly, and undeniably divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Today’s problems primarily represent a moral and ethical challenge. What does it mean today to be moral and not lose one’s hope? To be moral—in the broad sense of the term—means recognizing one’s own responsibility to demand good and resist evil. The most important thing for me is a bit less conspicuous, yet it is of the utmost import from a perspectival vantage point: To comprehend the plurality of our social union ‘from below,’ also on the lowest and least political level, as a fixture of the diversity of interests, fates, perspectives, etc.—as a vital defense against the totalitarian aspirations of this system. I find the persistent defiance of these diverse, small social networks to be more important than sensational, political revelations. We need more humor, straightforwardness, hope—an atmosphere in which people stand for something, pursue something, suffer for something, as they did in times when the world did not yet everywhere seem to be besieged by the lava of general indifference. 

Literature, in this sense, has not changed in meaning for me during the era of the coronavirus. In my life, literature is the totality of all forms of courage: art, love, friendship, and thought which permit a person to be more than enslaved. To live literature this way is the purest form of love. Only literature can speak the truth. I was interviewed in February by a journalist from Hong Kong. The interview was censored, so we instead excerpted quotes by Albert Camus (from the novel, The Plague). We know that—in the context of climate change—global politics which impact the entirety of humanity stand before the most portentous of fateful human strides. And here it is again revealed that it is precisely a form of humanism—one which every individual manifests within the environment in which they live—that is so critical for the future of humanity, as a whole. We need a morality derived from the basis that all of us are alive and share our one planet with others.

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Radka Denemarková is a Czech author, translator, and educator whose bestselling novels include Hours of Lead (2019), A Contribution to the History of Joy (2014), and Money from Hitler (2006). She was born in Kutná Hora in Central Bohemia in 1968, and received her doctorate in Czech and German literatures from the Charles University in Prague in 1997. Her writings have been translated into at least 19 languages, and she is, to date, the only author whose works have been distinguished with four Magnesia Litera prizes: one each for prose, non-fiction, translation, and the 2019 Book of the Year award. In between her many extended travels, she lives and works in Prague.

Translated into English by Jon Cho-Polizzi