Stories of Foreign Cities

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HUFS students on modern Czech literature with the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz

Within its educational as well as social and cultural programs, the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies keeps close tracks of important events, dates, people, anniversaries of diverse countries and cultures, the languages and literatures of which it teaches. Over the last two years several such connections were brought to notice by the East European and Balkan Institute, now celebrating its 20th year of existence. Among many other events, such as the Institute’s annual fall and spring conferences, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the establishing of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Central and East European states, its students and staff had a chance to welcome two distinguished contemporary Czech writers – Arnošt Lustig in September 2010 (for more information see Ivana Bozděchová: Czech Literature in Korea and at HUFS. The Argus, No. 435, December 15, 2010, pp. 30–31) and Michal Ajvaz in May 2011.

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Obr.1: Michal Ajvaz and the Czech language HUFS professors in front of the University library

Having been invited to 24th Jiyong Festival held every year to commemorate the literary spirit of Jeong Jiyong, Michal Ajvaz came to South Korea first to participate in this international literary event at Okcheon as its foreign poet. His participation in this meaningful event was organized by Seoul’s Silver Train agency and – courtessy of Embassy of the Czech Republic – Michal Ajvaz visited also the HUFS Global campus in Yongin to meet with the students of Czech language. He presented them with a lecture on the topic of Czech Literature's Destiny in the Second Half of the 20th century, which was introduced by a short reading from his book and followed by discussion. And the HUFS students of Czech sang a Czech song and danced a Czech polka for him afterwards. In his free time, Michal Ajvaz went to see the monument dedicated to Jaroslav Seifert, the Czech Nobel Prize poet, and to Karel Čapek, the distinguished Czech writer. The monument has been put close to the campus lake thanks to the Department of Czech and Slovak Studies, HUFS and the Czech Embassy in Seoul. He enjoyed the campus and visited also the University library to see a representative collection of Czech fiction and writings kept there. Accompanied by the HUFS professors from the Czech department, he visited the Waujeongsa Temple in Yongin to see the 12 meters long and 3 meters tall Lying Sakyamuni Wood statue, the world’s largest wooden Buddha statue. He also met with Korean journalists and publishers in Seoul.

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Obr.2: Michal Ajvaz lecturing for HUFS students

As Michal Ajvaz says it is interesting for him to get acquainted with different literary receptions of his books and moreover, he likes to meet first perceptions in foreign cities, where the city shows itself, reveals its mood. These impressions play quite an important role in what he writes. Since many of the stories in his books spontaneously arise from the spirit of foreign cities, let us wish and hope that Korea and its cities could bring a fresh, fruitful inspiration for his further writing.

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Obr.3: Michal Ajvaz at the Jaroslav Seifert's monument

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Obr.4: Michal Ajvaz at the Karel Capek's monument

Michal Ajvaz kindly answered three questions about his writing in our interesting interview:

1) One of the topics in your novel „The Other City“ is leaving and the idea that a real dialogue is possible only between those who have left and those who are staying behind. From where are you leaving and where are you staying right now, with whom or with what do you have a dialogue – both as an artist and as a human being?

There is a figure inside of each of us that is leaving and the other one that wants to stay and so the dialogue or dispute between the leaving and staying ones takes place primarily inside of us. As a matter of fact, the question where are we going to can never be answered because the other place to which one figure inside of us is aiming while the other one tries to keep the first one from moving is characterized exactly by the fact that the place is unknown. We are not able to name the place, it is letting us know about itself and shows us the way by hints only, while searching it we grope about in the darkness; we can find the place only when we make it a home but then it is not the other place anymore but our new home which again tries to keep us away from another journey.  A double desire is fighting inside of us, a desire to follow the ripening of existence which is liberating us from old forms when searching new forms and a desire to stay in the world, the rules of which we know intimately and where we can move easily and without trouble. Leaving is not, at the same time, identical with outer mobility; someone lives as a nomad, traveling around the whole world and yet he never leaves his intimately known space which he is carrying with himself, someone else never leaves one house for his whole life and yet he becomes an inhabitant of dozens of other worlds…

Saying that the dialogue takes place inside I do not mean that we are closed into ourselves only and turned away from other people and the surrounding world. Searching for a new world we are led and shown the way by our meetings with people and places; only when encountering we can realize the direction of our own journey. And so the inner dialogue is at the same time also a dialogue with people and the world. And therefore I also try to listen to everything that I encounter, to keep a dialogue with it. It is not, however, easy and I do not always succeed; it requires me to overcome laziness, and a lack of concentration and restlessness…

As inside everyone, there is a desire also inside me to stay with what I have known, learned, with what I already manage somehow, whether old rituals of life or approved techniques of writing, fighting with a desire to help new forms to be born that are calling me in my life and writing. I do not know at this moment to which places these desires are leading me. The journey of changes is more clearly visible only when turning back; for example now looking back to the changes in my writing I realize that they had a form of gradual transfer from fantastic stories and situations to less obvious magic hidden in discrete everyday things…

Am I going to follow this road or shall I return back? Or is there any other new detour to appear which I did not expect? That I do not know.

2) Your artistic picture of Prague shows a rich myth of a historic city. Are you concerned about losing it under the pressure of growing commercialization and the tourist boom in your city? Is there any way to prevent such a loss?

To look at beautiful houses inhabited with shops full of kitshy souvenirs and overpriced restaurants without any atmosphere is truly depressive as well as to see unpremeditated decisions to deprive historical parts of the city of its life by turning them into monofunctional seats of offices. But it holds true for the life in a city too that it is necessary to learn to manage the skill of leaving old places and searching new ones. Prague, as every city, has lots of magic places where no tourists go, which are not described in any tourist guides and which each of us has to find for himself: there are empty, dreaming streets on the periphery, railway stations with the atmosphere of distances, departures and arrivals, railways overgrown with bushes, embankments of the river, various quarters with their own souls, mysterious facades of houses, secrets of cold gate-ways and half-opened windows of ground-floor apartments, borderlines between countryside landscape and the city…

Prague suffered heavy blows in the struggle with commerce, but I think that the city is a powerful and mighty rival and it has its secret weapons and therefore I hope that Prague will not loose in that struggle.

3) When starting to write you begin, as you said, with a feeling. Starting to write after returning from your first visit to Asia, what figures and stories do you expect to appear from your Korean white fog? Can we hope that the Land of the morning calm inspired you?

I do not know, the emptiness at the beginning into which experience from traveling is soaking up to later crystallize into images in the book, is fruitful and large for images only when you behave kindly to it, when you do not force any images beforehand to it, when you do not ask it anything and are patiently waiting for its gifts. On the other hand, it is true that the Korean experience is so powerful that I am almost sure that it will show somehow in my literature. Already I can feel some movements in that emptiness, some unclear outlines of stories but I do not want to give them names yet not to scare them away… 

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Obr. 5,6: Michal Ajvaz with the Czech language HUFS students

About Michal Ajvaz

Native to Prague, Czech Republic, Michal Ajvaz (1949) ranks nowadays among the best and most popular Czech writers at home and he has already achieved a significant response and recognition for his works internationally, too. He graduated from the oldest university in the country and Central Europe, Charles University in Prague (established by the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348), which is one of HUFS partner universities. He majored in Czech literature and aesthetics, then worked manually in different occupations - as a janitor, night watchman, or pump attendant, as well as an editor at the literary weekly Literární noviny (Literary News) after the Velvet revolution in 1989 (which meant the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia). He works as a researcher in the Czech Academy of Sciences now.

So far, Michal Ajvaz has published sixteen books: four novels, a book of poetry, short stories, a book of two novellas, four books of essays, four books on philosophy and two books of philosophical correspondence (in collaboration with Ivan M. Havel). His books were translated into several languages (e.g. English, French, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, Swedish, Dutch). One of his short stories appeared in Korean translation in an anthology Prague – City Loved by Writers (프라하 - 작가들이 사랑한 도시) published by Happy Reading Books in 2011. The American edition of his novel The Golden Age reached No. 1 on UK’s list of Amazon Best Books of 2010: Top Ten Science Fiction/Fantasy Selections and made it also to No. 37 on US Top 100 Editor’s Choice: Best Books of 2010. He was also awarded Jaroslav Seifert’s Prize for his novel Empty Streets (in 2005).

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Obr.7: Michal Ajvaz in front of the Castle Praha, Seoul

Michal Ajvaz started to publish when he was forty, before that he had already written surrealist texts (poetry and fiction). His books are different stories intertwined, in some of them there are people living on the border of the community or in direct conflict with it. The bizarre and sometimes also cynical movement of images is typical and somehow natural in Ajvaz’s artistic manifestation – his books are filled with animals surfacing in miscellaneous situations and spaces, sculptural works emerging in forgotten or completely inappropriate localities, and so on. Even though his books are fantastical on the whole, the plots remain classic stories (with a plot line and a dénouement). As he claims, his writing begins with some feeling, often tied to some definite space, and he even does not have any ideas to be expressed nor the topic or plot to write about. His feelings recall for him a white fog, in which indistinct shapes and individual stories flicker, wanting to be liberated from the fog, to be given a form. Even though it looks like it, there is nothing in his writing taken from his dreams. He believes that dreams are not the only sphere from which to extract imaginary and fantastic plots, but that especially our consciousness could offer subjects of many fantastical novels. In his opinion, we are discovering the sense of our existence by that which we have yet to enter, into “the opening of unknown lands”.

“To really leave one must leave everything behind and go smiling and empty-handed with no thought of return. Those who depart while counting on returning do not leave home, even if they reach the white cities in the depths of the jungle and repose on the marble of its squares: their journeys remain woven into the tissue of the objectives that create the space of home; the shining borders of foreign parts retreat before them.”

(M. Ajvaz: The Other City. Transl. by G. Turner, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009, p. 162)

 

Ivana Bozděchová

Professor

Department of Czech and Slovak Studies, HUFS

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