‘I’d love to be a twenty-four-year-old gypsy woman weighing eighty kilos,’ she went on. ‘I would sell ice-cream at a stall. … In the evenings I’d feed my five children and get properly laid by my fifth man, and again in the morning. I would feel happiness. I wouldn’t worry about the pain and suffering of refugees, the starving people of Africa, the uprootedness of American Indians or Sudeten Ruthenians. I wouldn’t be brought down by unhappy relationships, by my friend’s terminal illness, I wouldn’t miss orgasm and my thoughts would not turn to promiscuity.’
‘What springs to mind when people think of the Czech Republic?’ asks Nancy Hawker in her introduction to Povidky – Short Stories by Czech Women. Saint Wenceslas, Václav Havel and beer are among her playful suggestions which, for those lacking knowledge of the country, may well constitute a near-complete set of tags.
But there are one or two others… Following the collapse of the totalitarian communist regime in late 1989, the Czech Republic has become a hub for budget lasciviousness. Indeed the country as totem for the ‘new Europe’ exposes something of a problem with this collection, made up as it is of stories written pre-1989, during the years when censorship dictated the bent of sanctioned literature.
The stories picked by Hawker however are not those that pleased the Politburo – quite the opposite. These are the works that were written and kept in drawers, or distributed by hand, or published underground and promptly destroyed. And it shows – they are raw, brutal and unforgiving. Many reflect upon the role of women within traditional structures – the inherent inequities of the mating game, rebellion within static and staid relationships, the brave new world that pornography opens up. But Povidky is no monolith – there are stories on the relationship between man and dog, religious orthodoxy, and tensions between majority peoples and minorities within their midst. Of course these subjects are universal – there is nothing essentially Czech in these concerns, but they are all stamped with the specifics these women writers bring to bear. Male writers wouldn’t portray men in such ‘undecorated’ ways – a point that will hit the male reader where it hurts. And the ever-blowing maelstrom that is minority rights is brilliantly localised via pieces on the Roma people, Jews, and the Sudeten Germans. Indeed the localisation is twinfold – not only to the Czech nation but more specifically to the way they were, during the time of the Communist regime. And to make sense of these stories in 2017, as a non-Czech and as a male reader, adds value upon value.
Any Cop?: On reflection, perhaps Hawker is not wrong to end-date this anthology with the events of 1989. Undoubtedly, the decision will disorientate the ‘beer and Saint Wenceslas’ crowd, but perhaps who cares…