2 May 2015
The Sound of the Sundial by Hana Androníková published in English
The Sound of the Sundial is the internationally acclaimed novel by Czech sensation Hana Androníková, told over the course of a single day and night, but spanning three continents and much of the twentieth century. In this intimate and affecting love story about a Jewish teacher and a German-Czech builder, Andronikova sends her readers on a captivating journey through time and memory, from the Czech town of Zlín in the 1920s to Calcutta in the 1930s, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz during World War II, Toronto in the decades afterward, and finally into modern-day Colorado. It is at once a deeply personal narrative and an homage to the lost relationship of the Czech, German, and Jewish peoples. In 2002, The Sound of the Sundial received the Czech Republic’s prestigious Magnesia Litera Award in the category of Best New Discovery, just a few years before its young author died. It is making its world premiere appearance in English here.
“One of the most important books to appear in the Czech
Republic since the fall of Communism.”
David Vaughan, Radio Prague
David Short graduated with a BA in Russian with French from the University of
Birmingham (United Kingdom) in 1965 and spent 1966–72 in Prague, studying,
working, and translating. He taught Czech and Slovak at the School of Slavonic
and East European Studies in London from 1973 to 2011. Among his literary
publications are Bohumil Hrabal: Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp (Prague:
Karolinum, 2008) and Vítězslav Nezval: Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Prague:
Twisted Spoon Press & Jeppe Press, 2005). He has translated a wide range of
literary and academic Czech texts and has won awards both for translations and
for his contribution to Czech and Slovak studies. In 2004, he was awarded the
Czech Minister of Culture's Artis Bohemicae Amicis medal and the Medal of the
Comenius University in Bratislava.
Rachel Miranda Feingold was born in Zurich, Switzerland, immigrated to the US at the age of eight, and has lived largely in Connecticut. She relocated to Washington, DC in 2014, after completing an M.F.A. in Writing and Literature at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She received her B.A. in European Cultural Studies from Brandeis University, and has since written and edited literary and scholarly works ranging from historical retrospectives and memoirs to poetry, novels, and plays. In her current position as editor-in-chief for Plamen Press, she has adapted the world premiere English translation of The Sound of the Sundial by Czech author Hana Andronikova; in addition, she retains a freelance editing practice, coordinates literary events in the region, and is writing a novel about the immigrant experience. She was the recipient of a 2015 Vaclav Havel Writing Fellowship to research Andronikova’s biography in Prague. Her fiction has been published in The Bennington Review and in the anthology Seeking Its Own Level, which was named a Top-Five Finalist for Best Anthology in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
SNEAK PREVIEW EXCERPT FROM
The Sound of the Sundial
Tom came back from work early one day and found the house deserted. He took off his jacket, went into the kitchen, and lifted the lid of the teapot. He raised an eyebrow and let out a sigh. He poured the remaining tea into a cup and looked briefly for the sugar, but mentally he had already abandoned the idea. He headed for the living room, loosened his tie, undid his top button, and sprawled out in an armchair with the Times of India. Having read it, he reached for the week-old paper from Zlín. In March 1936, a headline proclaimed: Germany arms—France has qualms!
Beneath the headline was a cartoon of an arrogant Nazi fully armed with the modern trappings of war, and a cowering Frenchman equipped for an Iron Age encounter. A shiver ran down his spine.
Suddenly Rachel was standing behind him. Immersed in the red-hot news, he hadn’t heard her approach. She placed a hand on his shoulder, bent over him, and inhaled deeply. She loved that smell. His sweat. A mix of cedar and peppermint. And the tobacco that clung to his white shirts. He stretched out his right hand and touched her face above him. She took the long fingers between her palms and put them to her lips. She took another breath. A waft of nicotine between his middle and index fingers. He watched her for a moment, then tipped back his head and pulled her face towards him. He parted his lips as if ready to swallow her.
I stood in the doorway, staring at my parents as they kissed with all the passion of a pair of film stars. I dropped my tennis ball, forgotten in the intensity of the moment, and it rolled across the floor and was lost. My parents shot apart. At first they looked startled, then they burst out laughing.
“Don’t you know how to knock?” said Mommy.
“Come here,” Dad said, with the gesture that so typified him. Beckoning, giving his permission to approach. I sat on his knee. Dad put one arm around my shoulders, slapped his free thigh with the other, and nodded to Mommy that she could sit down too. He winked at me, but my mother was quicker than my father expected and sat right down on his hand. He howled and tried to pull his squashed fingers out. When he was in the mood, he could be very funny.
That evening, I watched the intruders I’d discovered in my room. When the light went out, they began their silent perambulations. When I turned the light back on, they froze on the spot. Colorful, almost transparent little bodies and goggling eyes, clinging to the wall.
“Mommy, there’s a lizard hiding in here. Behind the furniture. And there’s another one underneath the picture.”
“That’s good. Lizards are the guardians of your dreams. They clamber up the walls and catch moths and mosquitoes. And they drive away elves and ghosts. You have nothing to fear.”
She was smiling. I never hurt them. Ever.
Years later, during my first year at boarding school, I thrashed Sid Hindley for snapping lizards’ tails off. I had wanted to give him a good thumping because he was such a show-off, and his cruelty to the lizards was just the pretext I needed to start a fight. I tore the boy’s shirt and his stiff collar came off in my hand. A few shirt buttons with bits of fabric still attached, blood trickling from his nose. It was a strange feeling. After that, he steered clear of me. And the lizards, too, I hoped.
As a small boy, I demanded bedtime stories. My mother, who was the daughter of a history teacher and herself passionate about history, adored myths and legends. She would always describe in detail what each of the gods looked like.
Stories of sun gods and goddesses fascinated me most. “Tell me the story of the Sun and Moon again, the one where the Sun is like a hummingbird and they run away together.”
“All right. Or I can tell another one, the one the Aztecs used to tell. About how the Sun and Moon came into being and about Nanahuatzin’s great courage. How’s that?”
“It all began long, long ago, at the beginning of time, with a quarrel among the four brothers who were the most powerful gods of the Aztecs. In the end they became so mad at one another that instead of working together to create the Sun, they each tried to do it alone. But none succeeded. So they made up, and met with the other gods at the sacred place called Teotihuacán. The wisest of them, the Plumed Serpent, mounted the top of the pyramid and spoke. ‘It is time to put an end to our quarrelling and create the Sun. Because all our attempts have failed, we must make a sacrifice. One of us must enter the sacred fire in order to be transformed into the new Sun. Which of you will make the sacrifice? Which of you will enter the fire?’ Silence descended. No one said a word. Then one handsome youth, Tecusistecatl, rose and strode proudly forward. ‘I will sacrifice myself for you all!’ From somewhere in the back came a timid call. ‘I also want to enter the fire and become the Sun!’ Nanahuatzin, thin and ill-favored, eyes scanning the dust, stepped up before the gods. Tecusistecatl laughed mockingly. ‘What an ugly Sun you would be!’ The Plumed Serpent checked him. No one had the right to scorn such a sacrifice. The next day the sacred fire blazed up. Tecusistecatl ran toward it. At two paces from the fire he felt the terrible heat and stopped. He hid his eyes and burst into tears. ‘Jump!’ the gods cried. ‘Jump!’ When the Plumed Serpent saw Tecusistecatl quaking with fear, he looked towards Nanahuatzin. ‘You jump, since this coward cannot.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Nanahuatzin ran, and his wretched frame disappeared in the flames. They all waited there with breath held. Nanahuatzin appeared in the sky, a golden sun with a glorious, bright face. When Tecusistecatl saw that, he too ran into the sacred fire. The gods were stunned. Another sun rose into the heavens. The Plumed Serpent flew into a rage. ‘Tecusistecatl must not shine down on us like a sun! I will not have it!’ That instant he saw a hare scampering down the valley. He grabbed it by the ears and hurled it at the sun that was Tecusistecatl. His golden face changed into the pale Moon. The Plumed Serpent gave his verdict. ‘Nanahuatzin’s Sun shall shine all day for us. And when he goes to bed in the west, his place will be taken by the Moon, who will cast his gentle light upon the world of night. In the morning, the Sun, having had a good rest, will chase the Moon back into the darkness where it belongs. And so it shall remain!’ All the gods agreed, and as they decreed, so it is to this day.”
As ever, I was in raptures, but something puzzled me. I sat up and grabbed my mother urgently by the hand. “But, Mommy, what happened to the hare?”
“The hare? I expect he stayed on the Moon.”
“I want to go and see!”
“All right, come on. But get your shoes.”
We went out onto the veranda and craned our necks back to look for Tecusistecatl’s face.
“Two days ago it was full moon, and today the moon is already beginning to shrink away. Can you see the hare?”
I was all aglow. “Yes, yes. I see him! Curled up in a ball asleep!” Breathless, I clapped for joy.
“And you ought to be asleep as well, you know.”
My dad appeared at the door to the veranda, strong arms raising me up. “Come on, it’s high time you were in bed.”
The climate in Calcutta was made up of sunlight, water vapor, and columns of white ants. Mildew found its way into every nook, and the exterior wall of the kitchen looked like a mushroom farm. Rachel was amazed to discover that the pins and needles in the sewing kit she had inherited from Aunt Esther had turned rusty in only a few months, and the thread had shredded. Clothing, even of the stoutest material, disintegrated, and the carpets were in tatters. “You should put your clothes in mothballs,” she was advised. The crumbling books pained her the most. Frequently, after taking one off the shelf, she would find herself gathering it up from the floor, with just the binding left in her hand.
India does not obsess over immortality. On the contrary: every Hindu yearns to attain moksha, liberation from samsara, the endless chain of birth and death.
2 May 2015