Tomasz Kamusella: Europe’s Hour of Lead

Europe’s Hour of Lead

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

Radka Denemarková. 2018. Hodiny z olova [Hours of Lead]. Host. 752pp. ISBN 9788075774743. 469Kč.

Beijing welcomed the arrival of the 21st century with the project of the Great Firewall for censoring and controlling the internet. A decade later the system became fully operational, as symbolized by the permanent blockade of the Google search engine in China from 2010. In the same year, writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.’[1] Beijing was furious. In expiation, the Nobel Committee gave the 2012 Prize in Literature to the pro-regime writer Mo Yan, who, in the words of the 2009 laureate, Herta Müller, ‘celebrates censorship.’[2] In 2013 Xi Jinping became Chinese President and immediately launched the Belt and Road Initiative. Ostensibly, it is to promote trade and peace by connecting Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America to China, but some fear this is a portent of Beijing’s global economic, military and political domination to come. Five years after his election, in 2018, the National People’s Congress allowed President Xi – as the first Chinese leader since Mao – to remain in office for life.

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Meanwhile, in 2014 Xi met Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán in Budapest. A couple of months later, the latter announced his desire to overhaul Hungary into an ‘illiberal democracy,’ in emulation of China.[3] In 2016 the populist Czech President Miloš Zeman hosted Xi on state visit in Prague. In the never realized expectation of multi-billion-dollar contracts and investments, the Czech authorities permitted Chinese security officers to operate freely on the Czech soil to prevent protesters from defacing Chinese flags and from flying Tibetan ones. Zeman expressed his wish to learn from China ‘how to increase economic growth and how to stabilize society.’[4] In 2017, upon experiencing mild berating from Brussels on the dismantling of the rule of law in Poland, the unelected autocrat Jarosław Kaczyński’s populist government turned eastward and offered Poland to China as a ‘gate to the EU.’[5] All the central European leaders were latecomers in this pro-Sinic sycophancy, since the Belarusian and Russian dictators of long standing, alongside their likes in Asia, had already curried favor with China’s über-dictators for a decade longer.

Having been born and raised in communist Poland, I remember well what totalitarianism was like. The fall of communism and the Iron Curtain, followed by the breakups of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union were unbelievable and offered a once-in-many-generations chance for democracy and prosperity in Central Europe. The heart-felt desire took over a decade to become reality, before the region’s countries joined NATO and the EU. But somehow this unique success soured many politicians and voters. They began dreaming about a strongman of yesteryear who would impose ‘law and order,’ perhaps complete with censorship and concentration camps. This nazi-cum-Soviet nightmare of the past was rebranded as a China-style ‘brilliant future.’

At this moment, I feared that after having spent my childhood and teenage years in communist Poland, my adulthood in a liberal democracy may be actually cut short, subsequently condemning me to an old age under another totalitarian regime. During the last decade, at the University of St Andrews, I taught a module on genocide and ethnic cleansing. We covered China, as well. Yet, several Western students of mine went to China on lucrative internships. I asked them why. They replied that they would not do there anything political. I pressed on whether they would be happy with similar studentships to Auschwitz, had nazi Germany won the war. That was over, no discussion followed. Being a great believer in literature as an excellent means for providing holistic insights and explanations of complicated sociopolitical changes, for a long time I hoped for a novel that would come to grips with this unsavory reality-in-making. Yet, nothing was on offer until 2014, when Belarusian writer Viktar Marcinovič’s ground-breaking ‘Chinese novel’ Mova (Language)[6] was published. In a near future China absorbed Russia and Belarus, resulting in a gigantic Great Wall that separates this enlarged neoimperial China from the European Union. Not surprisingly, Belarusian authors were more prescient about the danger of reviving totalitarianism with China’s help and approval. After all the too brief four years of independent and democratic Belarus, dictatorship was re-imposed on this country in 1994, with a promise of a Soviet-style communist ‘prosperity’ on the Chinese model, in exchange for giving up civic and political freedoms.

Unfortunately, Mova was translated only into Russian, while critics label it as a sci-fi novel, instead of identifying the book properly as a solid work of political fiction. Intellectuals and politicians’ lackadaisical dismissiveness of the existential danger posed by China’s hi-tech totalitarianism to democracy and human rights in Europe angered the currently best Czech writer Radka Denemarková. After repeatedly sojourning in China, in 2013, she embarked on her opus magnum, a 21st-century Gulag Archipelago with the vast network of non-stop e-surveillance and labor camps looming ominously in the background, hidden behind the colorful Great Wall of consumerism. Denemarková saw through this camouflage easily, thanks to her experience of Czechoslovak communism in the 1970s and 80s, or the period of ‘normalization’ in the wake of the 1968 Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Almost symbolically, Denemarková was born in 1968. According to the writer, Beijing in its quest for ‘harmonized and stable society’ married the worst from both communism and capitalism. Xi’s rule is the Chinese ‘normalization’ of further tightening the screw on individual freedoms in exchange for a modicum of material prosperity, for which people had to pay with blind loyalty to the totalitarian system. Through the lives of the characters, Denemarková’s monumental novel analyzes and chronicles how today’s Chinese totalitarianism deludes gullible Europeans, crushes individuals, ridicules human rights, and aspires to export this system across the world, including Europe. Heartbreakingly for the writer, to most western expats and politicians pecuniary gain (‘economic pragmatism’) ensured by collaboration with China and its authorities is a sufficient reward. In return they are ready to give up on democracy and individual freedoms. The hour of reckoning has arrived in Europe.

The 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, once wrote that ‘This Hour of Lead [that comes] after a great pain […,] if outlived [is then remembered,] First [as] Chill – then Stupor – then [as] the letting go.’[7] Her poem encapsulates the despair and a potential catharsis offered in Denemarková’s opus magnum. But this vast novel is so much more. The writer made her reputation on the mastery of prose that borders on hauntingly poetic and experimental in the service of probing into repressed dark corners of modern European history and society, be it a post-Holocaust legacy of nazism,[8] or misogyny[9] and violence[10] that still pervade the continent’s patriarchal societies. Before she turned to writing full time in 2004, Denemarková worked in the Institute of Czech Literature, as a dramaturge, and most importantly, she translated German literature. Especially, the last activity prepared the writer to take up an uncompromising moral stance and to be equally uncompromising when it comes to the quality and beauty of prose. Since 2010, Denemarková has been the main Czech translator of Herta Müller’s books. In recognition of her rare achievements, as the only writer ever, Denemarková was three times awarded the highest Czech literary accolade, or the Magnesia Litera Prize.

After the initial enchantment with the difference and colorful vibrancy of present-day China, Denemarková was quick to notice how under the cover of official platitudes about harmonious society, the communist party extends a steel grip on alienated individuals. They are made to spy on one another to ‘weed out traitors.’ ‘Traitors’ are those who dare to think differently, let alone to act upon their ideas. What awaits them is a Soviet-style staged trial with ‘due process of ideology,’ followed by a long term in a concentration (‘reeducation’) camp, or even the liberally dispensed capital punishment. Denemarková sought out dissidents to learn more about China and to help them. However, due to such ‘missteps’ she has not been welcome in China after 2016. Hodiny z olova follows this poignant route of discovery beyond the tourist-pretty image of China. The novel’s characters are named after their professions or social roles. Programmer, Ms Writer, Diplomat, Ambassador, Minion, Friend, or Ms American Student constitute a close circle of Western expats who escape to China to win a fortune, to start a new life, or to find a true love. The plot circles around an ersatz Czech Republic in Beijing, or the co-joined Czech and Slovak Embassies, complete with a pub in the idyllic garden.

Ms Writer is closely observed by Chinese Mother, who officially works in the Czech Embassy, but in reality for the Chinese secret police. Chinese Mother’s daughter, Chinese Girl, is a medical student with some command of Czech. Chinese Mother requests Ms Writer to teach Chinese Girl more Czech. Residing in the embassy, Ms Writer reluctantly obliges. They read Czech books together, while Chinese Girl writes down all their conversations and dutifully passes to Chinese Mother. Ms Writer sees Chinese Girl as a brainwashed product of the totalitarian system, and wants to wake her up from stupor by discussing Václav Havel’s dissident writings, especially The Power of the Powerless;[11] seemingly to no avail. In this multi-plot and richly-textured novel, the story of Chinese Girl drives the novel. One day Ms Writer discovers that Chinese Mother and Chinese Girl vanished without a trace. Ms Writer feels obliged to find out what happened. Diplomat reluctantly helps her. As Chinese Mother puts it, Havel and Ms Writer’s ideas ‘infected’ Chinese Girl’s mind. She wrote about individual freedom and democracy to Fiancé, who summarily passed her ‘dissident letter’ to the security service. Subsequently, the family and Fiancé are repressed, fired from their jobs and exiled from the capital. Chinese Girl is imprisoned, harshly interrogated, raped and sent to a concentration camp. Naively, she believes it is a mistake, and continues writing missives to the highest functionaries of the land to make them aware of such injustices suffered by simple folk. Eventually, for her obstinate disobedience she is condemned to death. Prior to execution, an emergency ambulance team cut out her kidneys without sedation for commercial transplantation. Should Chinese Girl’s words not toe the party line, at least her mute kidneys would serve the country.

Ms Writer feels guilty of Chinese Girl’s sad fate, that she underappreciated her, that she did not predict what Havel’s ideas might inspire Chinese Girl to do in totalitarian China. Ms Writer vows to find out the details of Chinese Girl’s death and to recover her letters. With Diplomat’s tip-offs, Ms Writer follows the officially non-existent trail of persecution and death across China, reluctantly accompanied by Ms American Student who is fluent in Chinese. Ms American Student sees this escapade as a folly, but agrees to the arrangement on Diplomat’s insistence. Her US passport protects Ms Writer from summary arrest and disappearance into a ‘black prison.’ At great personal expense that eventually costs Ms Writer her own life, she recovers some of the letters. They turn out to be simplistic though well-intentioned. It is no redemption that Ms Writer hoped for. The letters are not worth smuggling out of China, as they would not add up to a publishable volume. Yet, these letters earned Chinese Girl her gruesome end. The only hope is a new generation, symbolically endowed with names, Olivia and David. Freed from the Czech and Central European narrow-mindedness of ‘economic pragmatism’ and misogyny, alongside an acute awareness of pre-communist Old China and Democratic China (in Hong Kong and Taiwan), they follow liberal university education in North America, and become true citizens of the world, that is, compassionate and understanding cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitans, individual freedoms and democracy are so much hated by Chinese communists or Czech nationalists, because they offer an attractive alternative to the unfreedom of totalitarianism and economic pragmatism.

When the novel was published, Denemarková did not know that the last vestiges of liberal democracy would be rolled back in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020. This makes her novel’s message the more urgent. Translations into English and other European languages should follow soon, as a necessary inoculation against the deceptively colorful lure of totalitarian capitalism made in the People’s Republic of China.

December 2019

[1] Dwyer Arce. 2010. China dissident Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. Jurist. 10 Dec.

[2] Alex Mutter. 2012. Mo Yan Defends Censorship as “Necessary,” But is It? Publishing perspectives. 11 Dec.

[3] Gideon Rachman. 2014. Viktor Orban’s illiberal world. The Financial Times. 30 Jul.

[4] Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka. 2016. Czech courtship pays off with landmark visit from Chinese leader. Reuters. 28 Mar.

[5] Poland, a gate to Europe in Belt and Road Initiative. 2017. New China. 12 May.

[6] Viktar Marcinovič. 2014. Mova [Language]. Miensk: Knihazbor.

[7] Emily Dickinson. 1999. After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372). Poetry Foundation.

[8] Radka Denemarková. 2015. Money from Hitler. Toronto: Women’s Press.

[9] Radka Denemarková. 2014. Příspěvek k dějinám radosti [A Contribution to the History of Joy]. Brno: Host.

[10] Radka Denemarková. 2011. Kobold: Přebytky něhy / Přebytky lidí [Kobold: An Abundance of Tenderness / An Abundance of People]. Brno: Host.

[11] Václav Havel. 2010. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe. London: Routledge.



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