Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 23, 2022

The Vow: A Requiem for The Fifties, by Jiří Kratochvil (2021), Translated by Charles S Kraszewski

I haven’t read much Czech literature, only the usual Kafkas and Josef Skvorecky’s The Cowards (see my review) so I turned to Michael (The Complete Review) Orthofer’s Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (2016) for some guidance in interpreting Jiří Kratochvil’s The Vow: A Requiem for The Fifties (published in Czech as Slib in 2009).  Alas, Jiří Kratochvil (b.1940) doesn’t get a mention and this is probably because The Vow is the first of his books to be translated into English, and it’s taken until 2021 for that to happen…

As you can see from his page at Goodreads, and his Wikipedia page Kratochvil is a prolific Czech writer. In 1991 he was awarded the Tom Stoppard Prize for his book Medvědí román (“A Bear’s Novel”) and in 1999 he was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize.

The Vow is a very interesting book, but it’s challenging. Set in Brno under the Soviets, it uses postmodern techniques to excoriate the culture of surveillance and to show how everyone was a perpetrator, everyone was to blame, and everyone answers to someone in power, though that of course was mostly the state.

The novel uses multiple narrators offering different perspectives.  There is some third person omniscient narration, but the central characters also get a voice: the architect Kamil Modracek, the private investigator Dan Koci who becomes a 2nd lieutenant in the surveillance apparatus, and Modracek’s ill-fated sister amongst others.  Truth be told, it’s not always easy to know who the narrator is, but it usually becomes clear in due course.

The novel begins with Modracek admitting his collaboration with the Nazis.  As the translator Charles S Kraszewski says in the introduction, all interrogators know that an honorable man can be brought to his knees by threats to the ones he loves.  Modracek builds a villa with the Nazi symbol clearly visible from above, and he likewise submits to designing boring Soviet buildings to comply with the new regime in order to protect his sister.  (Her ‘crime; is that she’s an abstract artist, not conforming to Soviet rules about artistic expression.)

He is devastated when he learns that she has died in custody after interrogation by Laska, and he blames himself.

My sister was, most probably, the most important being in my life.  Even in childhood, and ever onwards, I felt for her something more than the mere responsibility of an older brother.  And because I received the news of death the way I did: dully, unmoved, in a stupor; because I was unable to resist when they commanded me not to open the casket, warned me not to break the seal which they’d locked her in, for the rest of my life I will be justly locked up in my own prison of stupor.  As punishment for not protecting my little sister, for not being able to stand up to them.  (p.129)

(You can see in that extract, how the translator Charles S Kraszewicki’s choice of English words is so carefully nuanced.  He chooses  ‘mere responsibility’ instead of ‘ordinary’, subtly dismissing the usual responsibility of an older brother as something inferior to how he feels.  He chooses ‘commanded me’ rather than ‘ordered’ with its implications of an implacable hierarchy: anyone can give an ‘order’ but a ‘command’ can only be made by a superior to a subordinate and there is an expectation of unquestioned compliance. He chooses ‘warned me’ instead of ‘told me’ with its intimations of unpalatable consequences that make Moracek suppress his desire to view his sister’s body. Only a translator with a masterful command of English can make subtle distinctions like this.)

Victims building their own prison recurs in the way that Modracek takes his revenge on Laska. The metaphor moves from the abstract to the real.

Modracek discovers that there are underground cellars beneath his apartment, and he uses them to imprison not just Laska who he holds responsible for his sister’s death, but also a collection of 21 other people who, one way or another, have earned his wrath. The means by which this is accomplished are complex, but the way he funds their needs is not: he uses the proceeds of looted Jewish property. (Czech complicity in the Holocaust is acknowledged in other ways as well.)  This underground city is bizarre, and the narrator gives mixed messages about the advantages and disadvantages of imprisonment there. As if to ward off reader incredulity, there is also a chilling mention of notorious sex predators who kept their victims underground and undetected for years, sometimes decades.  In an allusion to the way Soviet citizens were complicit in their own surveillance, these prisoners built their own place of captivity.

The plot is accessible enough. but Kratochvil and his translator collaborate in challenging the conventions of storytelling and the possibility of stories becoming true after they have been written.  They play with language, identifying Russian as the language of literature; German as the language of administration, music and philosophy; and French as the language for food and women.  The storyteller is front and centre in places, as in this example, and butterflies are an overt metaphor throughout the text:

Did you happen to notice the rather poetic metaphor I used for that otherwise disturbing dissolution of words in a stream of incomprehensible sounds: butterflies in a blooming metaphor? In this particular case, it’s fitting.  For in Annika’s speech, such an ordering agent got the upper hand  that ordered her expression according to laws different from those of linguistic communication. (p.92)

There is a chilling forecast for the future world order:

For after all, that causality touches on our own present state as well. If it hadn’t been for the First World War, Verdun, and mustard gas, there would be no Soviet Union, which rose from the rubble of that war, and if it weren’t for the Second World War, Hitler, and Auschwitz, the spark of Soviet revolution would never have leapt across to Central Europe.  And from my work in Armaments I know that our entire industry is set up in preparation for a Third World War.  That war is no less historically determined than the fact that, following it, there will be just one societal order all over the world — a completely just one, yet not at all happy. (p.153)

If the West doesn’t stop baiting other regimes as if it were not in decline, this forecast could well turn out to be right.

This profile at Words without Borders lists Kratochvil’s writing that is available in English anthologies.

Author: Jiří Kratochvil
Title: The Vow: A Requiem for The Fifties
Translated from the Czech and Introduction by Charles S Kraszewski
Cover art: ‘The Poor Poet’ (1837) by Carl Spitzweg
Publisher: Glagoslav, 2021, first published as Slib in 2009.
ISBN: 9781914337550, pbk., 279 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav


  1. It sounds horribly prophetic…


    • Yes. I find the literature of these former Soviet states very interesting, but they come with a warning to be vigilant (although I haven’t read enough of it to know if that’s just the ones I’ve read, or the ones that this publisher chooses to publish.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This doesn’t sound like a comforting read. At all.
    I’ll look it up in French

    PS : Glad that my language is the one for food and women but I would have preferred it to be the one of literature. :-)


    • At least it gets a mention! English, presumably, is no use for anything at all!


      • Useful for Business. So, no need in a Communist economy. :-)


  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This sounds a really engaging and thought provoking read at a time where authoritarianism is attempting to threaten what were regarded as traditional democracies.


  4. Hello!
    Good choice! Kratochvil is held in high regard back here, well known for his masterful use of the whole arsenal of a true postmodernist’s weapons… he often references or alludes other works, in this case the works of Nabokov and Dürrenmatt’s eponymous novel… I have only read his earlier novel ‘Truchlivý bůh’ (‘A Mournful God’), where he does the same with Kafka and Kundera.
    (In fact I have read it only now and thanks to You – there is a Czech proverb “The farrier’s own horse often goes barefoot”, I did know of Kratochvil, of course, but somehow never took him out of the library – Your review of ‘The Wow’ brought him to my attention :-)
    Just for the sake of clarity, if I may – Czechoslovakia never actually was a part of the Soviet Union itself, only one of the vassal states forming the so called Eastern/Soviet Bloc. If there are any Soviets in the book, they are probably the infamous “Soviet advisors” who have been taking care Czechoslovak Communist rulers followed Stalin’s wishes (these “advisors” did oversee the work of secret services, the army and also helped with the orchestration of political processes and party purges after the 1948 cue)… the term post-soviet state is usually reserved for the now independent states which previously formed the USSR.

    As for the Czech literature in general, well… there are the obvious names, Kafka (if we decide to include him), Škvorecký, Hrabal, Kundera, but I think You’d make no mistake if You read Hašek’s ‘Švejk’ – new, unabridged and non-bowdlerized translations into English are now available I believe, and also Čapek’s ‘War with the Newts’ (which would only strengthen your suspicion about the prophetic abilities of… well, pre-Eastern Bloc authors ;-)
    Personaly I’d probably recommend Ladislav Fuks and his two short novels ‘Mr. Theodore Mundstock’ and ‘The Cremator’. These works reflect the Holocaust and WWII in quite a peculiar, unorthodox manner. Fuks is known for his strange mix of sensitivity and the uncanny. ‘The Cremator’ (the original title – ‘Spalovač mrtvol’ – is more cynical and expressive, something like ‘The Incinerator of Corpses’) has also been made into an excellent Czech New Wave film (dir. Juraj Herz, 1968), arguably one of the best Czech movies ever made, very unsettling yet darkly funny.

    Recalling the aforementioned proverb I am not sure what to recommend from the pool of the contemporary authors – I am quite picky and most of the books I did read are not available in translation. But if You want something weird and imaginative, I’d suggest Miloš Urban – ‘The Seven Churches’, a lively-written gothic crime novel set in Prague, and Michal Ajvaz – ‘The Other City’: magic realism of sorts, but its own kind, vividly imaginative, mystifying and strangely melancholic.


    • Hello Zeter, thank you so much for your most interesting comment…and the wealth of suggestions that you share from your knowledge of Czech literature.
      You will have to forgive me for failing to differentiate between members of the Soviet bloc and the USSR. I grew up in the era when they were all lumped together in the prevailing narrative (us—good; them—evil) and even today the countries of the CIS are often referred to collectively as The Stans (Kazakhstan, Turkistan, etc) in the media. So many nations have changed names, borders and allegiances, it is no wonder that my knowledge of European geography isn’t great.
      As it happens I am re-reading The Castle at the moment, in audiobook form. What a master Kafka is, I have Amerika on the TBR too, and Švejk’ and one by a woman: Platova’s The Attempt. What I don’t ever have, is enough time to read everything!


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