“Without books, we would be left alone for everything,” thinks debut writer Marek Torčík. His novel about a traumatic coming-of-age may seem depressing, but paradoxically, it provides readers with hope.
“I am proof that things will get better,” thinks Marek Torčík, a poet and debuting novelist whose novel Rozložíš paměstí was published a few weeks ago by the Paseka publishing house. It tells the story of a young boy growing up on the fringes of society who comes to terms with his own sexuality and otherness. He is not helped by the fact that he lives in a small town, deals with poverty and living with an alcoholic grandfather. They have to face bullying, violence and loneliness. Torčík’s novel nevertheless has a soothing effect on its readers.
“The most important thing I took away from my book is that we all make mistakes,” says the young writer. “Society tells us that we have to be perfect, to meet standards. Deep down we know it isn’t. We understand that others are not perfect and we don’t want that on them.”
You will break down memory is not a record of painful traumas, but rather a cautious, self-critical attempt to reconstruct one’s own past. “There is no such thing as a true memory,” realizes the author of one of the most interesting domestic novels of this year.
In the interview with Marko Torčík, we talk about the fact that only literature will help us accept our own otherness, about the need to forget the beneficial influence of anime and manga.
What was it like growing up on the edge? As an outspoken homosexual, a boy who deviates, in Přerov at the turn of the millennium?
It was probably pretty similar to growing up gay anywhere else. I think people in big cities where it’s much easier to get lost in the crowd had a slight advantage. But time is more important than place. I don’t remember seeing any reflection of myself in the media at that time. In the stories that were told at the time on television or in books. One of the first books I read that had a queer character was Michael Cunningham’s The Clock, in which the character had AIDS and died.
Only today is a positive representation shown. It is very important that children especially know this. To let them know that there is nothing wrong with them because they are trans, because they like girls or boys and so on. For example, Heartbreakers by Alice Oseman and many other young adult texts and series do a great job in this. We look down on youth literature, but it’s so important for kids to have these stories and know that everything is okay and that they’re not alone. This is not propaganda. Children should know that there is someone out there who is like me and can live a happy life. That’s what I was missing and it was the hardest thing for me at the time.
How did you help when you didn’t have the books you’re talking about? At that time, the Internet was not yet that widespread.
I went online to the library. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking at what I was googling. I scrolled through the comics. It was very important for me to run into stories that were not about me, but offered me a way out.
They keep saying that queer sexuality and feminism is a trend. It’s not true. All literature is a paradise for all people who do not feel that they are enough. If we look at the texts that are also required reading, they are always about someone who doesn’t fit in. We don’t really fit in with anyone. That’s the secret no one will tell you. We are all queer in our own way. Literature is amazing in that it can hold all that difference, accept it, express it, describe it. Show: here is a person who thinks like you, perceives what you do, you are not alone.
The hero of your book meets a boy named Marián through anime and manga. Via Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion. We also tend to separate these genres.
It really bothers me that we look at it as a sub-genre. We don’t even consider comics as literature. Why do people read this much more than, say, poetry collections? Because they can offer a space in which it is possible to somehow exist and accept people without prejudice. At the same time, we push high art to the fore even in cultural sections, even though anime often solves exactly the same questions. In the end, even Akira is a brilliant account of how institutional violence works. It is also speculative fiction. He was ahead of his time.
You talked about school reading that recommends stories about people who deviate. And at the same time, you write about bullying, during which you experience punishment at school for your otherness. How did these forces balance each other, who was winning?
The real world was winning. Otherwise I wouldn’t need to run. But I’m proof that it will get better because I’m out of it and living a relatively comfortable life, and I think if it weren’t for books and movies to escape to, everything would be many times more difficult. One would have the feeling that one is completely alone here.
Is bullying in schools something you keep studying?
I don’t know how old the survey is, but it said that incidents of bullying have increased over the past few years. It’s tricky because compared to 2007 and previous years, we have a much greater awareness of what bullying is and how it manifests itself. At schools, there are trained people in the choir who have experience with it and manuals on how to proceed and how to recognize it. So the question is whether bullying is increasing because we notice it more. It’s still a big topic for all teenagers. It happened to me and the narrator in an extreme form, but there are also more subtle forms, such as cyberbullying.
For Nauzal, I wrote about Mieko Kawakami and her novel Heaven, which is also about an extreme form of bullying, although for completely different reasons than I experienced it. But the target is always someone who doesn’t fit in at first glance, and it’s important to say that people who bully are often exactly the same way. They bully because they are also alone. They also often feel strange, afraid that violence will follow them. That’s how they prefer to do it first. From insecurity comes violence.
Marek Torčík (*1993)
Poet, writer and publicist. He comes from Přerov, lives in Prague, where he also studied Anglophone literature and culture at the Faculty of Arts, UK. His poetry collection Rhizoma was published in 2016, and since then he has mainly published prose and poems in magazines.
In 2018 and 2020, he became one of ten finalists in the Czech-Slovak Poems SK/CZ competition. You will spread memory is his debut novel.
The art of forgetting
I think now is a good time to dive into the novel and tell a little about what it’s really about.
It is primarily about memory. And about growing up. I have a hard time describing it, because for me it’s about an awful lot of things, but it’s the memory and how it works that plays the main role. How unbearable it is sometimes, how important it can be to forget.
I remember how my grandfather, one of the more prominent characters in the novel (just a fictional version, of course), once told me that I had to remember everything. He who does not remember what happened is doomed to repeat mistakes. It’s the phrase we like to say to ourselves, even with regard to the previous regime, to the wars. But it is equally important to forget. A person who remembers everything is burdened by the past. He is unable to face the future.
I know you like the anthropologist and writer Marc Augé. In addition to Nemíst, he is also known for a book called Oublié. Augé describes memory a bit like a coast that is tossed by the sea, memories are eroded soil that takes shape through forgetting. It is important to know that memories are not the past. What we remember is always altered by context. So I remember something differently than my parents, readers will remember the novel differently than I do. There is no such thing as a true memory.
The importance of forgetting – a bit like taking out the bin. If you don’t do it for a long time, things will rot. Do you have to do it once in a while, start with an empty head?
It’s true, but you never quite start with an empty head. It has some limits. It’s beautiful to see in traumatized memories. They bond. You keep reminding yourself of the terrible things that happened in your life. You can walk down the street and suddenly remember the horror he went through. You need to learn to forget things. Keeping in mind the important thing, but at the same time not having it in front of your eyes all the time.
What are the turning points that forced you to write?
I had an idea about that book for a very long time. Even before I started writing my first collection in 2016. The biggest turning point was when my grandfather died. I already had some writing about him back then, but I knew I couldn’t publish it. I wrote it without understanding Grandpa. It would be terribly damaging to look at those things without having read my grandfather’s hospital diaries at the funeral. Thanks to them, I began to look at what happened in a completely different way.
The hero of the novel lives his whole life with some assumption about the people around him. And suddenly he learns that they were completely different, even if they made terrible mistakes. He also looks at himself that way: that he made mistakes. But he’s still human. And mistakes define who we are.
I recently read somewhere that a person is only as good as the worst in them. I found it very burdensome.
But it’s not. We all make mistakes, we know we are not perfect. Society tells us that we have to be perfect, to meet standards. Deep down we know it isn’t. We understand that others are not perfect and we don’t want them to be. The most important thing I took away from my book is that we all make mistakes.
Looking at others like this is very difficult, but it is necessary. One realizes that we are not so far away.
In your book, it doesn’t matter how the characters change. But how he changes his view of himself and others.
This is hard for some people. But not for the narrator’s mom. Mom will never judge her son no matter what he does. I remember, for example, when I was a teenager lashing out at my mom. It was during an argument, I basically got my revenge. She just shrugged and said, Okay. We often think that people will not be able to accept what we think is wrong with us. It’s the people we don’t expect that can do it.
Poems are raw emotions
You entered the Czech literary scene as a poet. What made you turn to the novel?
There may not be as great a difference between prose and poetry as is often said. I don’t agree too much with the autofiction label. For me, the writing process was very similar to poems, and it was important to me that the poetry somehow worked there. The poetic language is somewhat paradoxically more straightforward. He can convey raw emotions, convey subjectivity. Prose tries to describe things in a big roundabout way, poetic shorthand often works much better.
In addition, autobiographical aspects, whether the poet is describing reality, are not addressed in the case of poems. I wanted this approach to work in the prose as well. I did not decide whether things really happened as I describe them, sometimes I took away, sometimes I added. It was important to express yourself, ask some questions, rather than stick to a strict form. I wanted to ask questions rather than give answers.
In a different way. Why do you dissolve the memory is not written in verses? Why is there not a collection of poems before us, but a novel of three hundred pages?
You are also a poet. You know very well why. Not so many people read poems. And I knew I wanted to say something that deserved to be more understandable than my poems. I never wanted to convey something very specific in them, it was about feeling more than meaning. Here, on the contrary, I wanted to express things as simply and clearly as possible. But at the same time, I still held on to poetry because, as I said, its emotional charge is much stronger.
When you write poems, you don’t have to check yourself formally, or at least I don’t – I don’t think about what will happen next like in a novel – I leave it to intuition. Is this something that also applies to your prose?
Certainly. I remember that when I started writing, I saw some video interview with Jáchym Topol, in which he describes the difference between poetry and prose. He says that it is very difficult to write to the end of the line. They claim that you can simply break poetry where you want, whereas prose you really have to finish to the end of the line, to the end of the paragraph. I find that the hardest.
Is it an overly controlled process?
It actually explains why it took me so many years to write the novel and why I spent so much energy on it.
What Czech books have you enjoyed lately?
I’ll probably mention non-fiction first. I admire Kateřina Nedbálková for her books Quiet toil and Pracovat, which are absolutely unique in their sociological approach. And then I will mention, somewhat expectedly, the bodies of Klára Vlasáková and Jakub Stanjura’s Srpna. These are the exceptional prose of this year for me. Both literary and what they are about. They are statements about today’s world.
Interviews by Jonáš Zbořil
“The culture column does not have to be only about opinions, but also about questions. We don’t just have to indirectly comment on books, exhibitions, films or more general phenomena, but also ask the artists themselves and other people who move in cultural traffic. Dialogue belongs to culture,” says Jonáš Zbořil about the new format.
You can also listen to Jonáš Zbořil’s interviews in the audio version at the beginning of the article, on Podcasty.cz, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and in all other podcast applications.