Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The train to Brno is almost empty, even though the Pope is delivering mass there tomorrow (I guess most of the congregation will travel early in the morning). Opposite me sits a girl of about twenty. She’s pretty, with long hair and no make-up. She has no handbag, just a backpack. She may be going to the mass. I’ll try to catch her eye when she looks up from her book, then I’ll ask her.
For the time being, she and I are reading.
Both the books we’re holding have only just come out, and both make unpleasant reading for the Czechs.
The girl is reading a widely publicized book by a nineteen-year-old Czech girl who was born in the south of the country and got nothing but A grades for Czech grammar at school, but is still regarded as Vietnamese. It’s the first proper book to be written in Czech by a representative of the Vietnamese minority, it’s called White Horse, Golden Dragon, and the author’s name is Lan Pham Thi. This autobiographical story is set in Písek, where the heroine graduated from high school and where she was beaten up by skinheads. After years of toil, her father sets up the restaurant of his dreams, which is ceremonially opened by the Lord Mayor (‘because we’re in favour of tolerance and cooperation’), who has a skinhead as his chauffeur (he beat up the author too). The Lord Mayor is a jolly Czech, whose favourite joke goes like this: A Czech comes along to a Vietnamese market stall and asks: ‘Have you got AIDS?’ ‘No,’ says the Vietnamese stallholder, ‘but I can get it by tomorrow.’ The Vietnamese dad in the book has a Czech friend in whose name he has bought a house. It has never been hard to reach agreement. The Czech friend’s philosophy is this: ‘Since the day they invented money, nobody has had to say thank you.’ The dad’s philosophy is this: ‘The main thing is to be careful not to piss anybody off.’ The reviewers were unanimous: ‘We are racists, but it makes for a good read.’
The girl with long hair reads so fast that in half an hour she’s got through half the book without looking up once.
White Horse, Golden Dragon, the book the girl was reading on the train to Brno, won the 2009 Book Club competition for unpublished work. The book that wins this annual award gets published, and achieves impressive sales figures.
The journalists rushed to interview the nineteen-year-old winner, Lan Pham Thi, but she could only answer their questions by e-mail, because in the meantime she’d gone to Kuala Lumpur to study IT.
In her response to the media she said that she was still trying to resolve the dilemma of whether she is Czech or Vietnamese, but had come to the conclusion that she is a Czech with Vietnamese parents. Asked why not a single positive Czech appears in her book, she replied that she hadn’t been aware of it while she was writing.
Despite a patently negative attitude towards the Roma in the Czech Republic, there has been an upsurge of literature by them, and the number of Roma students in higher education is probably at a record level for Europe. As a result, lots of people were quietly hoping that Lan Pham Thi was the portent of another positive development, especially as one of the government ministers for home affairs had recently suggested that the state should give money to any Vietnamese person who was willing to leave the country. The fact that thanks to the Vietnamese, almost every urban district in the Czech Republic has two well-stocked grocery stores, open every day of the year, made no impression on him.
The author sent her signed book contract to the publisher from Kuala Lumpur. With a Vietnamese friend representing her at the prize-giving, she made her acceptance speech and apologized for her absence via a video recording.
A couple of weeks after White Horse, Golden Dragon was published, the critic Zdenko Pavelka wrote that he was concerned about some of the details. For example, one of the verbs used to describe the scene where the heroine’s father opens his dream restaurant in the town of Písek, with the participation of the Lord Mayor. The local television is there, and Lan Pham Thi writes that the camera is ‘whirring.’ But cameras haven’t whirred for a few decades now. The skinheads who attack the heroine use sharpened razor blades. The critic checked, and found that nowadays they use very sharp knives – they stopped using razor blades in the 1990s. On top of that, the story is set in Písek, where the Lord Mayor couldn’t have come to the opening, because Písek has an ordinary town mayor, and not the equivalent of a Lord Mayor.
From these and similar details Pavelka concluded that the book could not have been written by a Vietnamese girl at all, but must have been the work of a man, a Czech, aged at least fifty. What the critic found most annoying was that the book had been widely promoted as being by a young Vietnamese woman, as if that in itself were a literary merit.
His article set off a major media campaign of general suspicion that Lan Pham Thi didn’t really exist.
Two months later the campaign reached its goal, with the help of the writer who had come second in the Book Club competition, who said he knew it was a hoax (his own book hadn’t been published).
But the competition jury announced that even if they’d been aware that the book wasn’t written by a Vietnamese woman, the man who came second still wouldn’t have won. And besides, he hadn’t come second at all – that was just his imagination.
The author of the Vietnamese eye-opener turned out to be thirty-nine-year-old journalist and travel writer Jan Cempírek (the critic had got his age wrong).
He publicly admitted that he had committed literary fraud in order to draw attention to the problems affecting the Vietnamese in the Czech Republic. He also wanted to find out what sort of reception a book that contained nothing but clichés and a black-and-white view of the world would get. And he wanted to show ‘what the ordinary Czech thinks a Vietnamese thinks in the Czech Republic.’
He announced that he was donating the prize money from the Book Club competition to the publication of a Vietnamese-Czech dictionary.
How the Vietnamese really feel and what their lives are like remain a mystery.
This is an extract from Do-It-Yourself Paradise by Polish author Mariusz Szczygieł, one of two books of reportage about the Czechs as a people. The other, Gottland – Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia, has been translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and has just been published by Melville House Books. The true stories told in Szczygieł’s reports often concern strange hoaxes and cover-ups, implying that in a Czech context, for various political and personal reasons, the truth is often subjected to manipulation.