22. ilb 07. - 17.09.2022

Tomáš Zmeškal

Portrait Tomáš Zmeškal
© Ali Ghandtschi

Tomáš Zmeškal was born as the son of a Congolese father and a Czech mother in Prague in 1966. His debut novel »Milostný dopis klínovým písmem« (2008, tr.: Love Letter in Cuneiform Script) made him immediately the hope-bearer of young Czech literature. The novel tells the story of a family in Prague in the second half of the 20th century. Josef and Květa marry in the early 1950s, but Josef is sent to jail as a political prisoner, and the couple are separated for ten years. Hynek, who works with the Czech secret police, forces Květa to entertain a relationship with him. Out of resignation, Květa accepts the role of the victim, and even identifies with it. When Josef is released in 1960, he wants to return to Květa and resume their old life. However, he learns about her liaison with his tormentor, and their love becomes a dead end. Only after his death, does Josef’s cuneiform letter to Květa appear, evidence of his unconditional love for her. In his first novel, Zmeškal employs different styles and forms, including letters, a diary, descriptions of dreams, and literary, philosophical and historic allusions. The reader realizes that the communication of emotion is almost impossible within a dictatorial system that promotes the abuse and perversion of power: Josef can only express his love in an encoded form − a cuneiform letter. The story of Květa and Hynek also shows how sexual dependency is used to subdue people so that the victim feels guilty in the end.
Zmeškal’s novel »Životopis černobílého jehněte« (2009; tr.: The Biography of the Black and White Lamb), written long before his debut was published, is the first novel in Czech language dealing with the experience of Africans in the communist countries in Eastern Europe. It is the childhood and youth story of twins, who do not know their ethnically mixed parents and grow in their grandmother’s house. In spite of her attempts to protect them, they suffer from the racism and hostility that surrounds them. Which is all the more absurd since the society, in which they live, officially encourages internationalist attitudes and an understanding among nations.
Tomáš Zmeškal’s novel »Milostný dopis klínovým písmem« was on the shortlist for the Magnesia Litera Award 2009, and received the distinguished Josef Škvorecký Prize. The writer, translator and English teacher lives in Prague.

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