The Book of Prague: Ten stories by Czech authors in first-ever English release

The Book of Prague is a collection of short stories by Czech authors that had never before been translated into English. As the title suggests, Prague, with all its different layers and histories, plays a prominent role in the stories. The book is part of a series called A City in Fiction published by UK publisher The Comma Press. Ahead of its launch in Great Britain, I discussed the anthology with one of its editors, Jan Zikmund, from the Czech Literary Centre, and first asked him how the idea for the book originated:

Jan Zikmund | Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International 

“Actually, the idea came both from the publisher and from the Czech Literary Centre. We first approached Comma Press about a possibility of publishing The Book of Prague back in 2019. After the pandemic, we came back to this idea and we said that 2023 would be the right year for publishing the book.

“In other words, we had to initiate it a bit, but the Comma Press actually considered Prague when they were starting the series. It was on their list, but they were looking for a partner who would help them publish the book and the Czech Literary Centre then became this partner. So it was a kind of synergy.”

How did you go about choosing the authors and their stories presented in the anthology? Because apart from acclaimed writers such as Bohumil Hrabal there are names probably unknown in the English-speaking world.

“The main mission of the Czech Literary Centre is to promote contemporary Czech writers, which means that right at the beginning, we told ourselves we wanted to focus the book on contemporary writers. That’s why there are seven contemporary writers and three 20th century Czech writers.

Ivana Myšková | Photo: Marta Myšková,  Czech Radio 

“I should also mention that the Comma Press has a very specific idea of how the books in this series should look like. Ivana Myšková and myself, the editors of the book, received a list of requirements from the Comma Press and we had to follow these instructions.

“For instance, we could only select short stories that had not yet been published in English. Also, Prague had to play a prominent role in all of the stories. That means we had to discard stories in which Prague appeared only in a secondary way.

“I am very happy that even the story by Bohumil Hrabal, who you mentioned, made it into the anthology. It is one of the last pieces of prose by Hrabal that appears in English, because most of his other texts have already been published and in the UK and in the US.”

Was it difficult to find stories where Prague would be more than just a backdrop? How long did the whole process take?

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International 

“It wasn’t easy, I would say, because as my co-editor Ivana Myšková, points out, most contemporary Czech writers that live in Prague are now moving from the centre towards the periphery of the city, so there are not many people who live in the historic districts of Prague.

“That may be the reason why there are not a lot of stories that take place in Prague. There are some and I hope we have found some really good ones, but I would say there are not many contemporary stories in the historic part of the city.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have space to discuss all of the ten authors, but I would like to mention at least one of them, and that is Marie Stryjová, who has only recently been discovered by the Czech literary community. Can you tell us a little bit more about her?

“Yes, and I admit that she was new to me as well. It was my co-editor Ivana Myšková who first told me about Stryjová’s work and I was quite amazed.

Photo: Mladá Fronta Praha 

“Marie Stryjová didn’t have an easy life, she had long-term health issues and she committed suicide in her 40s. She didn’t publish any books during her lifetime, she only published her work in magazines and journals, and as you said, her work is only now being discovered by the Czech literature community.

“I’m very happy that readers have a chance to read one of her stories in English.  I would say her prose is mostly autobiographical and a psychological. For instance, the short story in the anthology is called The Blue. It follows an awkward date of two students and it is based mainly on dialogues.”

You said that most contemporary authors tend to focus on the lesser known parts of Prague. So what would you say is the image of Prague conveyed through this anthology?

“When selecting the short stories, we were mainly interested in their quality and in whether Prague played a prominent role in them. But then, once the selection was made, we looked at it and realised that it actually covers some very important historical moments.

“It wasn’t our goal, but I think that in the end, the book also depicts the modern history of Prague.”

“There is, for instance a short story by Jan Zábrana called A Memory, which depicts the 1950s Czechoslovakia. Zábrana didn’t have an easy life, his parents were imprisoned by the Communists, and he had to take on some very physically demanding jobs in the 1950s. And this story describes the atmosphere of the time very well.

Patrik Banga | Photo: Agáta Faltová,  Czech Radio 

“And then we also have a few stories set in the 1990s, which was obviously a very important decade in the history of the Czech Republic. Sometimes it is described as the wild 1990s, and I think some of this wildness is also captured in the stories by Patrik Banga and Marek Šindelka.

“So it wasn’t our goal, but I think that in the end, the book also depicts the modern history of Prague.”

Each of the stories has been translated by a different translator or a translating couple. Did they get to choose which story they would translate? Or did you assign the stories to the translators yourself?

Photo: Alena Blažejovská,  Czech Radio 

“Some Czech writers already have their long-term translators. For instance, Michal Ajvaz is collaborating with Andrew Oakland. In these cases it was logical that we approach these particular translators.

“But there were also some writers, like Veronika Bendová or Patrik Banga, for whom this would be the first translation into English. So we approached some experienced translators, like Alex Zucker or Paul Kaye, we sent them the stories and they liked them and decided to translate them.

“Czech literature still has a strong foundation in the English-speaking world but there is still not much interest in the UK and US to publish translations.”

“And I’m very happy that thanks to this anthology, Alex Zucker, who is one of the most prominent Czech translators, got to read a prose piece by Patrik Banga for the first time. And hopefully, these newly formed pairs will continue to collaborate in the future. Maybe, thanks to this anthology, more Czech stories and books will be published in the UK and the US at some point.”

There were altogether 12 translators working on this anthology. What does it say about the position of Czech literature in the English-speaking world?

“I think it shows that Czech literature still has a strong foundation in the English-speaking world, but it’s a bit tricky. We still have a lot of good translators, who are doing a great job and some of them also work as unofficial literary agents. I mentioned Alex Zucker, but there is also Julia Sherwood and others. They promote Czech literature in the UK and in the US and they find publishers for Czech books in English.

Marek Šindelka with his graphic novel Saint Barbara | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio 

“What is more problematic is the fact that there is still not much interest in the UK and US to publish translations. For instance, in the UK, only five percent of books published are translations, so Czech literature has to compete with Japanese, French or Norwegian literatures and it’s not easy.

“So it is hard to find publishers, but once the publisher is found then we have several excellent translators that we can offer and we can make sure that the book is very well translated into English.”

And do you believe anthologies such as this one can help raise awareness of some new Czech authors who have never been translated into English before?

Veronika Bendová | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Český rozhlas 

“This anthology showcases ten Czech writers and for some of them, it is the first time they are published in English. When they will be looking for a publisher for their novel, let’s say, they can show the publisher this anthology and it will definitely work much better than any average promotional brochure.

We will also be promoting this book in the UK. On November 16, we will be launching this book at the Czech Embassy in London. This event is organized in collaboration with the Czech Centre London. I will be accompanied by writers Marek Šindelka and Veronika Bendová and together we will present the book to the British audience.

“I think these launches are very important because there might be some publishers in the audience, there might be some people that will remember Marek Šindelka, Veronika Bendová and the other writers and will want to read more by them. So it is not just the book itself, it also has to be promoted, ideally in the UK, and that can lead to some more publications.”

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