Marek Šindelka is a writer who’s not afraid to hose down our stereotypes. He relishes tearing apart the thick walls of our taboos, of our prejudices. In his 2016 book, Únava materiálu (Material Fatigue), he asks the reader, What is the meaning of loss? The loss of one’s home, one’s dignity. Is there just one truth or several, and where do we find the truths we choose to believe in?
I meet Marek on a chilly afternoon in downtown Brussels. He has spent a few weeks as a writer in residence at Passa Porta House of Literature, and I’m curious to know what his routine has been like while living here. I want to pry into his creative universe. I want know what magic he’s been able to find in the city.
“I want to show you something,” he says, after reflecting on my question for a while. “I believe it’s one of the places that captures the essence of my being here.”
We walk on Rue de Flandre until the traffic light, then cross Rue du Marché aux Porcs. The brown and yellow leaves lie scattered and crushed on the pavement. “This is it,” he says, as we reach the alley of Rue de la Cigogne. “In the afternoons, after working on the manuscript, I would come here for some quiet. Whenever I needed to recharge, this place right here is where I would come.”
The alley is empty. Only a few bicycles stand next to the water pipes, the trees that have crept and followed a trail close to the walls, and Marek looks at all of this as if there lay a secret meaning he wanted to decipher.
During his residency he also enjoyed going out for a run on Antoine Dansaert and up Mont des Arts, past the Place Royal and further into the park where he would try to untangle his thoughts while giving a few laps around, nodding from time to time to other fellow runners.
Marek had been to Brussels before, in 2017, when he attended the Passa Porta Literary Festival and talked about his book Mapa Anny (The Map of Anna). The book is not only a multifaceted portrayal of the main character, Ana, but also an adventurous exploration form. Conceived as a set of stories told from different points of view, The Map of Anna continue to reveal the multi-dexterity of Šindelka as a poet, novelist, and short story writer.
The Dutch edition of Material Fatigue is on the short list for the Europese Literatuurprijs (European Literature Prize). In the Czech Republic it won the prestigious Magnesia Litera Prose Book of the Year Award, and when I ask about the genesis of the book he recounts, as if it were yesterday, how on a sunny day in 2015 he had been playing with his first daughter, a toddler, and the news of a truck with 70 dead people in Austria appeared in the news. All of them migrants.
“I was shocked,” Marek says. “I had my daughter sitting in my lap. She was babbling something, chewing a toy, and we were enjoying our time, feeling happy. And then the news arrived. I thought, How could this be happening in Europe?”
The shock, he continues, only grew when he started to see the reactions in the Czech Republic. “Some people were even celebrating it. That’s how far the media and some politicians had gone. That made me really angry and sad at the same time. I felt I had to do something about it.”
Shortly after, he began interviewing migrants and refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. But soon he realized he couldn’t possibly write the book as a documentary retelling someone else’s story. He chose to use all of those experiences to inform the novel, to create the fictional world of the two main characters. “Because if someone came to me and asked, ‘What’s the most horrible thing that has happened to you?’ I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t tell them. For my novel I didn’t want to use someone else’s suffering just for effect.”
Material Fatigue tells the story of two brothers, fleeing from an unnamed country which is being ravaged by war. They’ve lost their home and family. They’ve lost their sense of direction. Professional traffickers have smuggled them into Europe. At the start of their long journey they get separated. The novel contains passages that suffocate, narrow spaces that push the limits of what many readers can tolerate.
“I’ve received letters from readers saying that they cannot finish the book because they feel claustrophobic,” he says. “I’m totally fine with that. I just wanted them to experience, even if for a short while, what it feels like to be in a place like that. A refugee camp.”
In the Czech Republic he’s faced difficult moments with people who disagree with his ideas. After the success and media attention that followed the Magnesia Litera Prose Book, he received hundreds and hundreds of hate emails. He had to disable the contact form on his webpage.
“There is too much disinformation these days. The Czech Republic accepted twelve asylum seekers in total. Twelve. Where is the Islamic invasion many politicians like to talk about?”
These days the situation in the Czech Republic has slightly improved as many people have realized that the data and information provided by certain politicians was misleading. They wanted to use the migration crisis to their advantage. Fear can be a powerful currency in politics.
Can literature help us understand each other better, the competing emotions and contradictory behaviors each and every one of us is susceptible to?
In the study where he has been working in his latest project, he tells me about someone close to him who, in the midst of anti-migrants campaigns in Prague, decided to buy a gun. “It’s totally crazy, you know, because I know he is a good person. That’s how complex human beings are.”
Despite the current climate of polarization in different parts of Europe and the US, Marek continuous to focus on his work. He remains hopeful. “It might be naive to think that a book can change how people live but that’s what I can do, and so I choose to do it.”
Before I leave his study on the Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains, I ask him what souvenir will he take with him when he boards the plain for Prague. “A sore throat,” he replies, and we both laugh. “I take with me the feeling of the colorful and lively city Brussels is. People of all cultures and backgrounds live right here in the center of town, which is not the case in the center of Prague, I can tell you that much. Brussels offers a cultural mix in a city that’s unique.”