In your novel A Kingdom of Souls translated by Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (2015. Original: Podobojí, 1991), we have magical realism with an edge: the dead exist alongside the living, wandering across space and time, always in the brink of turning into an allegory, a symbol, a pervading longing.
The novel centres around a fifth-floor apartment overlooking the Olšany cemetery in Prague. When the story begins, it is the Second World War, and we follow Alice Davidovic, a young Jewish woman, as she fantasizes about the return of her beloved, Pavel Santner, who had been dispatched to a concentration camp some weeks earlier. Alice’s grandfather had also recently died in nebulous circumstances, and she and her grandmother are about to “join a transport”, too. But we feel there is something even darker and stranger going on in the family’s pantry: Alice’s grandfather has come back from the dead, and is making onion soup with onions which, like him, do not exist.
It’s the war, and the family hasn’t had onions for a long time. But these are different: they were brought by Pavel from the hereafter. Perhaps, this time, Alice’s beloved might be coming back for sure. She puts on her best dress, leans over the window overlooking the graveyard, and jumps out to join him – and to escape deportation. From then on, the apartment will never cease to smell after the onions that were never really there. When a German family moves in, the smell will even impregnate their child’s hair.
The book will then follow, in a fragmented, polyphonic way, the inhabitants of the same building and the people living in the neighbourhood, across many decades, going back and forth between different time-frames. The story is pervaded by history: St Bartholomew’s Night, WWII, the Prague Spring, and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion are interwoven with the story of the dead souls that inhabit the cemetery and the building across the street. Some of them are fictional characters, while others are historical figures: such as Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire, in 1969, as a form of protest.
Many characters are souls, wandering in the grey zone between life and death. Like Alice, who is perpetually waiting for her beloved, even in the afterlife, the ghostly characters can never completely detach themselves from the world of the living. They either have a dept to pay, or to collect. They have been cut short from what they might have been, and can never let go of it.
In this Kingdom of Souls, not only the dead have a voice, but also the objects they owned and the places they inhabited: the pantry in Alice’s flat, a stone angel in the graveyard, a tailor’s mannequin, human skin, a silkworm, Alice’s muff, Thomas Hamza’s handkerchief, the button Pavel Santner threw away, Grandmother Davidovič’s Sabbath tablecloth, and the cemetery itself – all are alive and have incantatory powers. Even the nation is given a soul and a voice: “I am the nation disillusioned by its revolutions and its occupations, even by its sacrifices to fire”. In the end, the cemetery around which the story revolves, and where many of the historical figures mentioned in the novel are buried, proves to be the main character, the eponymous kingdom of souls.
The combination of magical realism and the horrors of war is not exactly something new in literature. However, in this novel, the magical elements are not employed to sublimate the horrors being described; instead, the magic intensifies those horrors, making them present and ever more disturbing.
The past blends into the present, as the dead and the inanimate blend in with the living. Nothing is definitive here, not even death nor history: “That’s how it happened, but perhaps it happened somewhat differently.” Good and bad are intertwined: a lamb turns into a wolf; a blood-stained coat seems to come alive; a silk handkerchief erases a face; a muff turns back into a lamb. An object becomes an image, then a kind of entity, and finally metamorphoses back into an object again. The novel evolves in layers, undoing the meanings it had woven in a moment before, like a Penelope’s web.
The stories flow from and into each other, and eventually merge. The dead and the living, the past and the present are one and only thing: a hybrid, where all duality collapses. Here comes to mind the original title of the novel in Czech: Podobojí, which literally means ‘in both kinds’, referring to the Eucharist – bread and wine, flesh and blood, body and soul. “A lamb’s life or a wolf’s life, who can now tell one from the other, a life straddling two extremes, a life in both kinds.”
The characters move from the living to the dead, and back. Eventually, they are reduced to a core forever doomed to repeat itself – much like history, moving back and forth between the dead and the living, going round and round, like “a strange carousel from which there was no getting off”. History and story keep slipping into each other, in an imperceptible leap into the void, and back again.
And suddenly, without knowing why, Alice feels sorry for Diviš and gives him the motherwort from her hair. The motherwort in the meantime has withered, and as Diviš takes it between two fingers, touching it but very lightly, it turns to dust. For nothing whole can pass from the dead to the living, only fragments of words, of ideas, and of images. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
For a thing in the world of the dead can for a time cease to be a thing and become instead an image, a symbol, a mere word. All these metamorphoses of things into images and of images into things are, however, only temporary, and soon things fall back into their ordinary, purely practical interrelations. All that then remains of the image and the form is merely a longing, a very strange longing. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
And just as Nora Paskal seizes Herr Hergesell’s neck in the naïve hope that a dead person can be killed again, a new life stirs within her — a lamb’s life or a wolf’s life, who can now tell one from the other, a life straddling two extremes, a life in both kinds. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
Every space faces life with one of its sides and death with the other, and the place of passage between the two cannot be determined with any certainty. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
Diviš Paskal begins to understand — the dead go on living among us, living their ordinary lives, lives strangely stark, as if reduced to what was essential to them, which after death is repeated over and over again. As if one got on a strange carousel from which there was no getting off, and one had to keep going round and round, spinning like a top. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
How naïve, dear Diviš Paskal, to assume there exists a basic difference between a human being and an object, between the living and the dead, between a person and the world. One slips into the other very smoothly, and the moment and point of transition are imperceptible. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
It would seem the easiest thing in the world for a soul to flutter its wings and fly off, it would even seem much easier than for a body to undertake a free fall. But perhaps because Alice Davidovič is drenched from the rain and her wings have grown heavy with water, she is unable to lift off the ground. She feels her disembodied self slowly dissolving in the rain. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
I am the chamber of ravishers preying on country ninnies, I am the chamber of shivering small-time thieves and masturbating youths, I am the chamber of suicides, and the chamber of dreamers. I belong to all those who enter and soil me with their secret sins, with their petty vices. – Daniela Hodrová, A Kingdom of Souls
About the book
- Jantar Publishing, 2015, tr. Véronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol, 150 p. Goodreads
- Written in 1974, it was first published in 1991
- Original title: Podoboji
- A Kingdom of Souls is the first part of the Prague-trilogy Trýznivé město (Prague: City of Torment)
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for Women in Translation Month & Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge