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Vol 2, No 42
4 December 2000
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An interview with Daniela FischerováThe Enduring Desire to Write
An interview with Daniela Fischerová
Madelaine Hron

Daniela Fischerová, born in 1948 in Prague, is one of the foremost Czech writers of the post-Prague Spring generation, which also includes such authors as Václav Havel, Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký. Fischerová is best known for her plays, which have been performed to much acclaim throughout the world.

Her first play, Hodina mezi psem a vlkem (The Hour between the Wolf and the Dog, 1979), provoked such a scandal that public performances of Fischerová's works were banned for eight years. She has written four other plays as well: Báj (Myth, 1987), Princezna T (Princess T, 1988), Náhlé neštěstí (Sudden Misfortune, 1993) and Fantomima (Fantomine, 1996).

Fischerová's screenplays and radio plays have won numerous awards, including the Best Script Award at the International Festival in Calcutta in 1983 for the screenplay Neúplné zatmění (Partial Eclipse) and first prize in the Czech and German Radio Writers' Competition for the radio play Andělský smích (Angelic Laughter) in 1993.

Fischerová is also a well-known children's author (children's books being a "safe" genre during the Communist regime). Recently, she published a textbook of youth fiction, which is now being used in the Czech public school curriculum.

Since 1989, Fischerová's focus has shifted to adult fiction. Aside from the 1995 collection, Prst, který se nikdy nedotkne (recently published in English as Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else and reviewed in this issue of CER), she has published two other collections of stories: Duhová jiskra (The Rainbowed Sparkle, 1998) and Jiskra ve sněhu (The Sparkle in the Snow, 1999). Fischerová resides in Prague with her husband and daughter.

When I learned that I would be interviewing Daniela Fischerová for CER, I could not help but recall her story "Šestatřicáté kuře Mistra Wu" ("The Thirty-Sixth Chicken of Master Wu"), in which the culinary genius Master Wu is finally granted the opportunity to converse with a poet he greatly admires.

The poet's verses have such an impact on the sensitive Master Wu that "he experienced an entire range of emotions never before imagined, and he was quick to appropriate each of them, like a hypochondriac does with the symptoms of diseases." Such was the impact of Fischerová's work on me.

When finally in the presence of the great poet,

"Wu posed questions that are heard all the time on television. He rousted them forcefully from the time's womb. The answers that most of today's artists prefabricate as an integral part of their work were at the time beyond anyone's concern. The creator as subject was beside the point. Wu's insistence came across as slightly vulgar."
This scenario was very much on my mind as I began my own interview with Daniela Fischerová...

Central Europe Review: Why do you write?

Daniela Fischerová: I cannot do otherwise.

CER: What was your inspiration or purpose for writing your collection of short stories, Prst, který se nikdy nedotkne (Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else)?

DF: I don't have any secret sources of inspiration (if only I did!), just an enduring, and by no means effortless, desire to write.

CER: Prst, který se nikdy nedotkne seems highly autobiographical. To what extent does your life inform your writing?

DF: When my daughter was about three years old, she instinctively grasped the crux of all literature. Whenever I read to her, she would ask the strict control question, "Mom, is this made-up, or is this real stuff?" All my books are an intricate blend of one and the other.

The story "Moje rozhovory s tetou Marií" ("My Conversations with Aunt Marie") is made of "real stuff," in so far as is possible in literary art. The story about Master Wu is about people, places and times that never existed, it is pure "made-up" fiction in that sense. However, the most important element—Wu's wonder that someone else is terribly close to him as a writer but completely distant from him as a person—that's my own intense experience.

Women's writing?

CER: In many circles, you are applauded not only because you are a writer, but more importantly because you are a "woman" writer. Do you think that men and women authors write differently? If so, what, in your opinion, is the difference between these two styles of writing? Would you consider yourself a writer who speaks from a woman's point of view—a "woman writer"?

DF: When my first play, Hodina mezi psem a vlkem (The Hour between the Wolf and the Dog), came out, a rumor started to circulate that I had not written the play, that I was merely covering for some forbidden author. That was common practice in former Czechoslovakia. One of the main arguments for this position was that the play "did not bear the trace of a woman's writing."

The most simplistic traditional opinion states that men are intellectual and women emotional, that men grasp the skeleton of abstract concepts and principles, whereas we as women have the sense of concrete details, the live flesh of the "here and now."

If I didn't have the sense of both a strong conceptual skeleton and the eternal that lies in everyday life, I would not be able to do theater. A play is a construction. One can write prose as if in a dream, not to mention the freedom of expression possible in poetry. But theater must be strictly disciplined; it must respect a certain formal structure, much like architecture. If it cannot, or will not, respect these structural rules, it will crumble like a child's sandcastle.

Nonetheless, I also write like a woman. I know something about life I would never know as a man.

By the way, despite the advances in understanding a woman's role, there are still surprisingly few women playwrights—it is not a common profession for women.

Elements of drama and fairytales

CER: In what way do theater and performance influence your story writing?

DF: I have an urgent and demanding drive for the resonance and rhythm of words and phrases. That is the playwright's domain. Over and over, a playwright writes under specific conditions: that the text will be uttered aloud, that the reply must not only mean something but have a special ring. I write, and in my mind I hear every syllable.

When I was a child, I chose my books by first flipping through them. The more dialogue there was, the better. I would skip setting descriptions altogether. It was in dialogue that stories always became alive for me. That is the fundamental way a playwright sees the world: reply, reply... rhythm and sound.

CER: It seems to me that you also borrow many elements from fairytales. Is my perception correct?

DH: I love myths from the depth of my heart, and one of my plays is even called Báj (Myth). Myths are profoundly deep and carry much concrete weight. They never speak of banalities. Every myth asks something of us and, to be sure, even after thousands of years, our blood still seeps through this question.

And we are particularly vulnerable to fairytales. We allow fairytales to tell us things we would dismiss, were it an essay trying to persuade us. Besides, I am still an old moralist, and in these wild times the fairytale is perhaps the only genre in which I can still write about good without using parentheses.

Interpreting reality

CER: Do you believe in the power of the written word?

Daniela Fischerova
Daniela Fischerova
DF: Yes, yes and yes. I even believe that it is much greater than is claimed by the proudest of authors. Reality has absolutely no quality by itself: it only acquires "quality" when interpreted. Each word, each work—each according to its own measure—covers reality with a new interpretative layer, a new grid with apertures, which illuminate some events and obscure others. For example, until the last century, there was no word in Czech for beige. Did beige things exist then? Absolutely! Did anyone see them? Absolutely! But they were not beige, but brown. And that is the way it is with feelings and thoughts, with faith, with everything. Every new word is a new reality. Our world will never be the same.

CER: Do you feel that our world is losing the gift of telling stories and believing in them?

DF: That stems from a different problem, the problem of inflation. There are just too many stories. The media presents us nonstop with so many relationships, conflicts, intrigues and other narrative material—both real and fictional—that we simply cannot absorb any more. The story is devaluating. Surplus is a greater enemy for the storyteller than oppression and censorship. I lived through both; I can compare.

Crossing the language barrier

CER: Do you think your stories hold some particular features only understandable to Czechs?

DF: My stories—probably not, but my "pre-revolutionary" plays—for sure. Everything was about what Czechoslovakia was living through. Simply put: everything, albeit through new images and metaphors, always revolved around one and the same conflict—the individual against power. That no longer interests me, nor Czechs in general. The tension of the times throbs elsewhere.

In 1994, the Juilliard School Drama Division chose Hodina mezi psem a vlkem as their graduating play. It is the tale of François Villon (circa 1430-1465), and in Czechoslovakia in 1979 it spoke of freedom of speech and how society rejects non-conforming individuals from its midst. I felt it was a great theatrical misreading. Why, freedom of speech isn't an American problem! I asked myself, what will they be performing?

The solution they chose blew me away. The role of Villon was played by an African-American actor, the only black member of the cast. I would have never thought of that interpretation; in Czechoslovakia it would be nonsensical, but in New York, it worked. That is simply the unpredictability of the theater.

CER: I just heard that this play has been accepted into an anthology of European women writers. How do you feel now that your books are being translated into other languages, and your plays performed in other countries?

DF: It's a pleasure, of course, but I could live without it as well. For 20 years of my writer's life, it never even occurred to me that this would happen, and I did not miss it. Goodness, I didn't even dream of such a thing! Had the political situation not changed, I would simply have gone on writing as before. I don't think life owes me anything.

By the way, it is a great illusion that freedom is conducive to creativity and that censorship only destroys it. It just changes it. Some flowers bloom well in full light, others in the shade.

CER: In your stories "Daleko a blízko" ("Near and Far") and "Šestatřicáté kuře Mistra Wu" you seem to be making some kind of comment on the status of literature today. Do you feel yourself responding to literary criticism in any way?

DF: No. It's funny—many a time I have been singled out as a typical intellectual author, but I do not take intellect seriously at all and do not have a high opinion of our "status of knowledge." That mixture of illusion, self-deception, prejudice and confusion solves nothing and shields us from nothing.

CER: What do you think of the English translation of Prst, který se nikdy nedotkne?

DF: I am extremely satisfied with it and very grateful to Neil Bermel. I know very well that I am a verbal author, and thus easy prey for poor translators. Mr Bermel was wonderful. He worked very conscientiously.
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It completely flabbergasted me when he sent me his translations of one of Master Wu's poems so that I might evaluate them. In Czech, it is a very simple text: "Císař je císař je císař je císař." Two words, eleven syllables. Mr Bermel offered me five different versions, each of which nuanced the meaning slightly differently. It really touched me, amused me and taught me more about the spirit of the English language than an intensive course ever could.

CER: A final question about the title of this book, in Czech literally "The Finger That Will Never Touch." Do you think there are some things, "somewhere else" perhaps, that we can never touch?

DH: Hmmm... Were the question asked differently—perhaps, "Do you think that there is anything out there that we can ever truly touch?"—I would probably pause and then, with great sheepishness, answer "Yes." It's so rare that a person really touches something or someone. Such an act really only happens at the horizon of hopes and miracles.

Madelaine Hron, 4 December 2000

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A Letter for President Eisenhower

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