„We are China“ | Die Presse

REVIEW. 

Michael Stavarič: Wir sind China. Die Presse, 8. 1. 2022.

Radka Denemarková is a chronicler, witness and admonisher rolled into one. In her magnum opus, “Hours of Lead”, she exposes an inhuman system that threatens to assume global dimensions.

It is easy to claim that someone has written a remarkable novel, one it is imperative to read since it articulates a kaleidoscope of human insufficiencies.  Only great authors capable of laying bare our past and future (albeit over nearly 900 pages) can take on such a mammoth task.

Radka Denemarková is undoubtedly the most important writer in the Czech Republic today – razor sharp, debunking and incorruptible. Her vast knowledge of the totalitarian way of thinking, her analytical view of the failure of our societies, the power of her language and her mischievous spirit of resistance speak for themselves. Czech media regard her as the nation’s Elfriede Jelinek, since she has mastered the art of (literary) provocation better than most others: she breaks taboos, defies ideologies and points the way ahead for her nation’s literature.

Her “Chinese novel” takes us on a journey that could hardly be more multi-faceted: “Europe is an anthill. Giving off a sticky smell of fear, the ants regroup their possessions and build walls. All to no avail. China is buying up the world. A total market economy against a free market economy. China is a concentration camp within impermeable borders.  China is a blossoming garden. This is not a contradiction.“

It soon becomes clear that Denemarková’s protagonists (secret policemen, minions, lawyers, the Writer, a thinking tomcat among others) are dramaturgically designed to demonstrate a variety of views reflecting our perspective and behaviour and those of China. However, a closer look reveals that much more is at stake: the ambivalence of male-female relationships (particularly in China), capitalism and its innate greed, the hypocrisy of Europeans, the power struggle between the older and younger generations, as well as between urban and rural areas, and so on. Almost effortlessly, the book addresses the moral rot that undermines any hope of a change. “Any contact with one of the world’s greatest economies is a harbinger of success, claims the man with dog eyes and a defenceless moustache. Contact with an economy hardened not by democracy but by modern Maoism and Stalinism, it courses through the blood of both our countries; we will understand one another.”

Radka Denemarková is equally daring on the formal level, mixing elements of the classic novel with essayistic passages that would have been admired by Václav Havel himself. She switches from dialogue to inner monologue and surreal narrative passages (think Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) that suddenly give way to manifesto-like treatises. One minute you are reading a psychological drama, then, all of a sudden, you find yourself reappraising history, exploring Chinese pearls of wisdom, humming a tune.

Needless to say, this kind of approach is audacious, and some readers might find Hours of Lead heavy going, but my advice to them is to persevere. After all, “system China” has greater influence over us than we can ever admit. “Images of velvet revolutions staged by the courageous Czechs in 1968 and 1989 were swept off the table by the behaviour of twenty-first-century kobolds and normalisers. They have shown their true face. Indifference and everyday fascism. We are Chinese.”

In searching for a root cause it is quite legitimate to point to Havel’s “endeavour to live in truth”, that is, in Denemarková’s case, to let one of her characters, the Writer, contemplate what provides the basis of China’s dominance. The protagonist is concerned about human rights but it soon transpires that “the Writer has no idea what these people are thinking. There are words that never make it into sentences. There are sentences that never experience the human voice.”

The fact is that we live in a time when one has to wonder what (moral) purpose the European Union serves in global terms – and whether our greatest failure may be to have allowed things to get this far. “None of the politicians visiting Beijing mentions the labour camps. If they did, all the Chinese would walk out of the room without a word. And with them, the hope of investment to the tune of millions. These days no European diplomat goes out on a limb for the sake of a prisoner.”

Hours of Lead is a book about inhumanity and Denemarková’s sentences highlight the role literature ought to play: she articulates evil and records it for posterity. Her book is a burning appeal to rethink our attitudes, since our human flaws make us susceptible to demagogues, false prophets and would-be leaders. “We are closer to each other than you think,” the book sums up succinctly, paraphrasing the advertising slogan of a Chinese airline that flies between Prague and Shanghai.

Denemarková is a chronicler, witness, admonisher and diagnostician. The protagonists of her novel demonstrate China’s unbelievable supremacy – the country is more capitalist than we can possibly imagine while being also more cynical, contemptuous, inhumane and perfidious in every respect. China is a carcinogenic counterproject to our (European) idea.

When she speaks of individuals at the mercy of the state, Denemarková obviously knows what she’s talking about. Her personal experience of living in the country and maintaining contacts with China enable us to rethink our own attitudes. The efficiency of “system China” is nourished by our fear of losing everything. But if this thought can even occur to us, does it mean that we’ve lost everything already? “Money was the solvent and it has corroded the fabric of 1989 like acid.”

Translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood

Radka Denemarková: Stunden aus Blei. Novel. Translated from Czech by Eva Profousová. 880 pp, hardcover, EUR 32,90 (Verlag Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg)

Buy German edition