Daciana Branea: Are there any similarities between Central European and South American literatures? We have the impression that when The Unbearable Lightness of Being appeared, critics compared Kundera with Márquez, as “two masters of magical realism.” 

Michael Heim: I can’t say the two literatures have all that many features in common, but it’s clear that both are very different from Anglo-American literature. Both look at things from a different perspective, and I think, at that moment, we were ready. We were at least open enough to accept a new way of looking at the world. One of the characteristics of Latin American literature, as you well know, is magical realism, while the principle feature of Central European literature is, I believe, an interest in the intimate connections of public and private life. Here is something that does not interest American literature. Someone once defined the difference between English literature and Russian (not Central European) literature like this: you read an English novel to find out whether or not the heroine will marry well, but you read a Russian to find out whether or not the hero will commit suicide. Central European literature is intellectual, a literature of ideas. Russian literature is also a literature of ideas, but extreme ideas. Central European literature seems to me to present its ideas more subtly, as incarnated in its characters. It is more ironic, more cynical in many ways, and because of this, very modern. And it’s this modernity that has appealed, I believe, to the American reader. Also, it offers a way to understand what happens in “the other world,” to know how the Communists think. Just that it actually means much more, it expresses, if you will, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, what happens in the world in general. 

Daciana Branea: Is this part of the world still interesting to you? 

Michael Heim: To me personally, yes. Generally, interest has waned, but it’s cyclical. The West believes it has less profit to make here than elsewhere on the globe. I fear this is the explanation. 

Dorian Branea: How have these translations affected American literature?

Michael Heim: The translations have greatly affected American literature. Not the best-sellers, of course, those don’t change very much. But I have read a string of authors who I can say were very influenced by, say, Kundera. I don’t think they are among the best, because you can sense the imitation right away. Still, in general, I think that our literature—that is Anglo-American (not just American) literature—is at the moment very healthy. There are tons of excellent authors and you can sense that they have read Central European literature, and as a result, their perspectives are much broader. I am happy to discover, in a good writer, the subtle influence of a Czech or Polish or Hungarian writers. I know he has read them and emerged the richer for this literary experience. Certainly, our literature only stood to gain from these translations. . . . Literature, in general, was extremely important under the Communist regimes, for two reasons. First, because the regime itself considered it important and promoted it, as an ideological tool. Second, because literature taught its audience to read between the lines, so that any allusion, any subversive idea, any protest could be decoded. 

Daciana Branea: What does this kind of literature offer a foreign reader? What happens if he doesn’t have the key?

Michael Heim: Of course, the foreign reader is at a disadvantage, but I believe the translator can lend a hand, transposing the text into his language not only well but also in a manner that helps the reader understand certain nuances, sometimes clarifying points. He can also write a useful introduction. I don’t like footnotes at all, because they transform a literary work—something very different from research—into a scholarly article. I often tell my students that I like to read the notes to a translation, but only because this is my profession and I have to know as much as possible about the text. I think however of the real audience, the real reader, who deserves the same book its first reader read. And that work had no footnotes. Furthermore, it is too easy to explain things in footnotes. A translator should be more creative.

[. . .]

Daciana Branea: What is happening now in Czech literature? 

Michael Heim: It’s hard to say. It is not a propitious period. Immediately after freedom came, there were many light novels, superficial, even pornographic. There was a frenzy to write what could not have been written before. Content was all that mattered. This period has exhausted itself, and writers are trying out other things. There are quality books being written, experimental ones especially, such as the novel Silver Sister from the young writer Joachim Topol. 

Daciana Branea: How would you describe the Czech sense of humor? We use a certain phrase to describe their particular humor, and it makes us laugh every time: “the grotesque Czech.” 

Michael Heim: First of all, it is a humor based on irony and self-irony. Then, there is the great love for the Czech language, puns and other plays on words. This is true not only in literature but in everyday life. I speak from experience.