Daniela Hodrová on the city. Translated by Elena Sokol.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

If we accept Heidegger’s view that a house becomes a home when someone dwells in it, then the world becomes a home-world when mortals live there, and a city becomes a home-city only when people walk and sleep in it – when one ‘poetically dwells’ in it – for without inner life, a city exists merely as a stack of stones. Even a city that has turned into a stack of stones can speak to a person walking in it, although it has long ago ceased to function, with its stories fossilised, as in Pompei. In this place, its spirit lives on. A spirit of the dead? As long as it is perceived, it does not cease to be a city, even if it is already an open-air museum, or slowly being overwhelmed by wilderness. Inscriptions on the walls of Pompei, both celebratory and defamatory, are amazingly alive today. Even drawings of an ancient Art Brut remain, leading some to assign them a ‘great’ history in a carnivalesque spirit.

A city is revealed through its stories – not only the ones written in books, in novels, performed on the stage and in the streets, but also those stories experienced on the streets and within dwellings. Architecture as the exterior and material form of the city (it too, of course, does not lack an interior aspect), just like pictures, texts, theatrical performances – that is, stories which arise, are experienced, staged, lived in the city – are the means of self-expression of a city’s inhabitants and of the city as such. All these creations, characterised by diverse methods of realisation and various degrees of visibility (from architecture to intimate stories), belong to the habitation of a city and are – I dare say – its meaning. 

A city for the most part makes its inhabitants-authors anonymous. Yet it is precisely these creations through which the inhabitants are at least temporarily and partially saved from anonymity, making them co-authors of the city ‘text’, and also helping them survive in a place where, among other things, hopeless impermanence and anonymous death are a phenomenon of instability and crisis. While in nature, as well as in the countryside and the village, death is still viewed more or less in the natural scheme of things – that is, in the mythological cycle of annual seasons and agricultural labour – and therefore it retains the hope of ‘rebirth’, in the city, death would be a mere caprice, the whim of some cruel player, an unmerciful deity. Of late, it seems that urban inhabitants are beginning to realise the importance of the city’s mythological framework, trying to discern it beneath the layers of other frameworks, such as ideological ones, and are gradually resurrecting it. A definite hope is emerging here, after all. 

Daniela Hodrová is a prize-winning author and literary scholar of French, Russian and comparative literature. She has written 9 novels, one ‘alternative guidebook’ (Prague, I See a City, Jantar 2011 and 2015) and several academic monographs on various aspects of the European novel, in particular the novel of initiation, as well as mythopoetics of the city. Her novel Spiral Sentences won the most prestigious Czech literary award Magnesia Litera in 2016.  She was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize in 2012 and the (Czech) State award for Literature in 2011. The trilogy City of Torment was first published in English in London by Jantar in November 2021. Her novels have been translated into 10 languages.

Elena Sokol is a second-generation Czech-American, born and raised in Chicago. Already as a teenager she began regularly to visit relatives in Czechoslovakia. Professor Emerita of Russian Studies at The College of Wooster, she is the author of Russian Poetry for Children (Univ. of Tennessee Press), as well as articles on the prose of major Czech women writers of the post-89 era, including Hodrová. Prague has been her second home for almost two decades.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s