Jiří Pehe and a novel that pits angels against the isms of our age

Ivan Klíma described the 2009 novel Three Faces of an Angel by Jiří Pehe as one of the most outstanding Czech novels since the fall of communism. The book is not only an epic and dramatic journey through the life of one family in the twentieth century, but also a reflection on many of the issues of our time. If you are more familiar with Jiří Pehe as a political scientist, you may also be surprised to find that it even reflects in some detail on the nature of angels. David Vaughan talks to the writer.

Jiří Pehe, photo: David VaughanJiří Pehe, photo: David Vaughan Jiří Pehe is one of the Czech Republic’s best known political commentators and over the last two decades we have spoken with him on many subjects here on Radio Prague. He worked closely with President Havel and since 1999 he has been director of the New York University in Prague. He has also written three novels, and the most recent, Three Faces of an Angel, has just been published in English translation. The book is in three sections. The first is narrated in the form of a letter to his mother by Joseph Brehme and takes us through the tumultuous first decades of the twentieth century. The second is told by his daughter Hanna, who as a teenager spends three years in hiding during World War Two. Her son Alex narrates the final section. Like the author himself he is a successful political scientist, a Czech émigré living in the United States, but he becomes increasingly aware of the emptiness of his life. The lives of all three narrators are connected by the mysterious figure of the angel Ariel. I began my conversation with Jiří Pehe by suggesting that angels are a rather unusual subject for a political scientist.

“I think that political science and angels do not exclude each other. I was trying to make a point that the entire twentieth century was a struggle between rationalism and the limits of human reason and that’s why we went through all the calamities and catastrophes of the twentieth century, because of human reason getting out of control and failing to see any limits.”

The book is in three sections and tells the story of three generations of one highly dysfunctional family. One of the things that the three narrators have in common is that they all, at a crucial point in their lives, see an angel. This is the angel Ariel, which does appear very briefly in the Hebrew Bible, but remains rather mysterious. What inspired you to choose this vague and ambiguous angel figure?

“We see angels as good beings, as our guardians, but angels, in various biblical explanations, are not always good beings. There are good angels, but there are also fallen angels, and certainly I think that the world of angels is as complicated as the human world. And above all, I really was interested in showing that God may be ambiguous in how he/it/she sees this world. If angels are his left or right hand, then some of them also may be ambiguous. Ariel certainly is one of the most ambiguous angels, because it’s one of the angels which fell from God’s grace very early on and was made responsible for the Earth. I wanted to put the human world into contrast with an angel that looks maybe with a degree of horror at what the human race did with God’s creation.”

It is rather unusual for a Czech political scientist to talk about God as someone or something that exists.

“In the Czech Lands very few people are willing to talk openly about God as something that exists, that they accept, that they see as an inherent part of this world. I thought that maybe I should step out and make it clear that talking about God openly is something that we can do in the Czech Lands without feeling ashamed.”

I grab onto the wash-hand basin to stop myself from falling over and at that moment there seems to be more light in the bathroom. I look up and I almost cry out in amazement because instead of my face in the mirror there appears some sort of space. It strikes me that this is like looking out of an open window. Quite simply there is another room beyond the mirror. It is not like anything I’ve ever seen before and it is empty apart from a table in the middle of it. It is diffused with a weird milky-white radiance.

Then I notice a silhouette standing by the table. It was almost hidden somehow in that bright light so that it wasn’t immediately visible. Now I do really yell out in fear particularly when it moves. Its back is turned to me and it is slowly turning. At first its features are out of focus but then I see the figure’s face with absolute clarity. It reminds me of someone.

The plot of the book includes many of the traumatic events that have beset Central Europe over the twentieth century. You start at the beginning of the century with the death of Dvořák, you have the Russian-Japanese War, the First World War, then the extraordinary story of the Czech Legionaries in Siberia, you have the collapse of the First Czechoslovak Republic, the wartime occupation, the Holocaust, the rise of communism, and then you move onto the fall of communism and even beyond that. And the book ends on the eve of 9/11. It’s an epic and rather bleak picture of twentieth century history, not just in Central Europe. But you see a place for God in this picture.

Photo: Jantar PublishingPhoto: Jantar Publishing “Absolutely. I think that one of the biggest questions of the twentieth century was how you reconcile the existence of God with what happened in the human world that is supposedly his creation or at least is guided by him. And indeed the twentieth century was a terrible century overall, with all of its catastrophes and tens of millions of dead people killed in a variety of most brutal ways. So I thought that I should somehow try to see the twentieth century through an individual fate or the fate of an individual family living through this century as best it can, and at the same time maybe see it also through the eyes of God. I’m not trying to be presumptuous here, but to have this angelic figure that maybe has a different design and different intentions and that we are maybe not as much masters of our fate as we think we are.”

And I had the feeling that the implication at the end of the book is that the whole cycle is beginning again and – it’s rather a frightening idea – that we could probably tell the same story for the twenty-first century in a hundred years’ time.

“That’s the main moral of the story – that if we don’t make the right decisions we are actually going to fall back into the cycle that keeps repeating itself.”

You don’t give a great deal of space in the book for choice. All three of the narrators in the course of the story are dealt pretty bad cards both in terms of the times they are born into and psychologically, given that all three are orphaned or separated from their families. I had the feeling from reading the book that the space remaining for them to make their own choices is minimal.

“Exactly, and I was actually trying to figure this out as I was writing the book. How much choice do we have? Because once you bring what we could call supernatural elements or figures into your story, then of course you have to come to terms with the possibility that we have no choice at all, that everything is predestined and that we are just – as I say in one part of the book – a computer program that runs without us having any influence on how it runs. So I was trying to figure out this principal question: do we have a choice and if we do, how much of this choice is really ours? Of course, living in a world without choice would not make much sense…”

It would put you out of a job as a political scientist…

“Not just me as a political scientist, but basically everyone else. So I was trying to figure out what that area where we have choice consists of. I cannot really say that I found a satisfactory answer, but I think that in the end of the book I found a kind of answer in the choice I was giving my main character.”

You’re pitiless in how you treat the various rationalist philosophies that caught hold in the twentieth century, in particular communism and Nazism – with the idea of moving towards a “better” mankind. You’re also pitiless in the way you talk about post-modernism. One of my favourite scenes in the book is where you parody the world of conferences where philosophers and political scientists talk in post-modern terms about competing philosophies, all equally valid, which you can pick or chose more or less arbitrarily.

“The word pitiless is probably right in this context, because I really have not much sympathy for the overblown, inflated sense of human self-importance or the way we think about our reason. We tend to forget how extremely complex the world we live in is and what a miracle our own existence is. And we have this tendency to elevate our reason to be the arbiter of everything. I think that’s why this confrontation with the supernatural is so helpful, because it shows human reason for what it is – on many levels as a producer of tragedies or in better cases absurdities, such as the discussions that I was parodying at various conferences that deal with many of these post-modern issues and themes where people very often do not know what they are talking about.”

You are also part of that world. Were you parodying yourself to a certain extent as well?

“Absolutely, because we all become part of this industry, which makes us use certain phrases and certain words and expressions which you cannot really exist without if you want to be recognized as a valid member of this community. But if you look a bit deeper you discover that there is not much beneath all of this.”

“Revolution” became the term most used. I took part in conferences about the communications revolution, the technological revolution and the revolution in the organization of modern societies. Then came the period of post-modernism, “liquid modernism”, or the “risk society”. Society was feminized and the patriarchy found itself in retreat. Ideologies disappeared and “third ways” are sought. And these are all revolutions.

Almost everyone in my field is constantly retraining and updating their vocabulary. You see it’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it. If you don’t know the jargon you don’t get taken seriously. If you yourself enrich the jargon of the TV age and the burgeoning conferences then you’re a star.

In the course of the book three people, three generations of one family, narrate their life stories. You have a huge amount of detail – often very precise detail – about the events of the First World War and in particular the fate of the Czechs who ended up fighting in Siberia. With similar attention to detail in the second part, the first narrator’s daughter Hanna Brehme recalls her traumatic experiences of being Jewish during the Second World War. In the third section, narrated by her son, political scientist and philosopher, Alex Brehme, I should imagine that you were able to draw a lot from your own experience, but with the other two stories you must have had to do a great deal of research, in order to get the details right.

Jiří Pehe, photo: Katarína BrezovskáJiří Pehe, photo: Katarína Brezovská “Of course I did a lot of research, but the book is also to some extent biographical. The first part to a large extent is based on the real life story of my grandfather. So I didn’t have to invent very much. All the material was there and I thought it was so rich that I would be foolish not to use it. So it’s partly autobiographical – and to a certain extent the second part is as well. From that point of view it was a difficult book to write, I have to say, because you don’t want to make the history of your own family too profane – to misuse it, in a way. But at the same time I didn’t know so many things. I knew that my grandfather was a legionary in Russia and I knew that he was a gifted violinist, and he travelled around the globe to get back to Czechoslovakia. I knew all of that and I knew that he lived a life that was very tragic in some ways because his mother put him in an orphanage and later he found the woman who was the love of his life, but it all ended tragically. But at the same time I had to fill in a lot of details which I didn’t know because I never spoke to my grandfather. He died in 1935.”

Obviously, when you’re writing a historical novel, which in a sense this is, there’s always a temptation to succumb to stereotypes and to national versions of history. I notice that you’ve gone out of your way not to do this. There is much that is deeply ambivalent in the story. For example, we have Hanna, a Jewish girl with a half-brother in the Gestapo and an uncle who ends up in the KGB; you have good Sudeten Germans and you have Czechs who betray Hanna and her brother and grandparents.

“Frankly I really don’t like historical stereotypes. I think that nations have a tendency to tell history in a way that suits them and that they find comfortable. But I think that history is a much more complex thing with millions and millions of individual human fates. Just as there were, even in World War Two and the Nazi era, good Germans, there were a lot of bad Czechs, and so on… I could continue. So, I was trying to capture the fate of people who do not fit into these stereotypes, where all the Germans were bad and all the Czechs were good and all the Jews were victims, and so on, because I think that it was much more complex than that and I wouldn’t really enjoy writing a book that just summarizes these stereotypes we all know.”

And the three protagonists that you’ve chosen for the novel are all psychologically wounded. They are not unambiguously positive or negative figures. You have, for example, Hanna, the Holocaust survivor who also ends up being unfaithful to the man who saved her from going mad, and you have her political scientist son, who then treats his own family very badly – he seems to have inherited a pattern of behaviour that is both destructive and self-destructive. You could have chosen warmer characters, but you decided not to…

“If you want to tell a story of the twentieth century, you can do it of course in different ways – through warm characters, nice characters – but at the same time, if you want to tell a story that basically is tragic, maybe having too many nice characters is counterproductive. At the same time, just as we talk about national stereotypes in history, I don’t like to write about stereotypical people. So I’m interested in those stories. At the same time, with Alex, the character in the third part of the book, what I was really interested in was the question of redemption. I really wanted to know whether someone like Alex or even his mother can be redeemed. It seems that the angel is not too much in favour of it, but at the same time there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the whole novel that perhaps we still have a chance of redemption – if we repent just as Alex is doing in his diaries, when he realizes what a bad guy he was and that perhaps the angel may take it into account.”

Only one of those decisions is the correct one.

I can’t remember everything from today’s conversation. I seem to have fallen into a dream all of a sudden: in it I am standing at the window in an old house looking out at the garden. I see a child on a swing. It’s a little boy who greatly resembles my mother… He swings down and then up, and at its highest point the swing halts for a moment, for a single moment of eternity, before the boy begins to swing down again backwards.

You’re used to writing as a political scientist and journalist, but it’s a very different world. Did you find the habit of writing as a political scientist getting in the way of your work as a novelist… and vice versa?

“Definitely. Of course when you write essays, articles, commentaries, you work with something that has a very short lifespan. You know that it will be published next day or next week and most of it is useful only for a few days or a few weeks or if you write a more thoughtful essay, maybe for a few months, but when you write a novel you write something that basically transcends your own life. So that’s one huge difference. And also, when you write a novel you have to be with your characters, you have somehow to submerge yourself into the lives of your characters and you have to see some inner logic. You cannot write what just comes to your mind. So I thought there needs to be some connection between the first and the last page of the book, and that’s the way I write novels.”

The book has been very well translated by Gerald Turner and published by Jantar Publishing. It’s great to see a full-length Czech novel published in English translation. It doesn’t happen very often – and certainly not in the last few years.

Gerry Turner, photo: David VaughanGerry Turner, photo: David Vaughan “I was very happy with Gerry Turner’s translation. We had quite a few discussions about how to capture those three different voices. In Czech it was very easy for me, because I am Czech, to write in three different voices which are very distinct in many ways. The First Republic voice of the first narrator – slightly archaic Czech from today’s point of view – then the very loose and slangish Czech of the second character, who is not very educated because of her life story, and then the Czech of a very educated man, who has however spent most of his life in exile. So I was trying to find these three voices and I was really curious how the translator would cope with it. I have to say that Gerry Turner did an excellent job. I think the translation is truly excellent. As far as Jantar Publishing is concerned, I think it’s really great that there is a publishing house in Great Britain that gives space to authors from Eastern Europe. So I am really happy.”