Josef Pánek: Láska v době globálních klimatických změn [Love in the Time of Global Climate Change]
Our narrator – we know him (much later in the book) only as Tomáš – is clearly based on our author. Like Pánek, he is a molecular biologist and, like Pánek, he has lived in Norway and Australia. Indeed, his wife, originally from Colombia but of European heritage, is still there with their children and her new partner. The start of the novel finds him in Bangalore, where he is to attend a conference. For some reason, he has arrived four days early.
He does not like Bangalore. It is noisy, dirty, very polluted, shabby, smelly and overcrowded. He had been told not to visit the shanty towns, as they were dangerous and, if he did have to go there, not to take any money nor any of his documents, only photocopies of them. So here is, wandering around a shanty town, with his money and documents in his bag. Nor does he ike the Indian women in their colourful saris. However, he sees a young Indian woman wearing a simple sweatshirt and blue jeans and he cannot resist taking a photo of her. It is, he says, the first photo he has ever taken in his life. She asks him to delete it as she would rather only be photographed when wearing a sari. He is disappointed. She is standing by what looks like a ruined edifice and seems to be the entrance to a rubbish dump. We and he later learn that it is the Alliance française.
Interestingly, the dialogue is in the second person. In other words, he address himself as you. His tone is entirely laconic. He criticises and mocks everything and everybody, albeit in a fairly light way, including or, perhaps, especially himself. Think of the tone of a writer like Bohumil Hrabal or a film director like Jiří Menzel.
His time in the hotel is fraught with problems. He has something of a racist attitude to the Indians but admits that they are all friendly and helpful. He is not impressed with the standard European-style breakfast so asks for an Indian-style breakfast. That, of course, does not go well. He has problems with the windows and with his room, which he changes more than once. He cannot find bottled water and is aware that he must not drink the tap water, so ends up drinking nothing, not least because alcohol seems not to be available in Bangalore. He cannot sleep.
The conference poses a further problem, as he has no idea where it is but he does get there eventually. The first person he sees there is the Indian lady whom he photographed, who is now wearing a sari. He is clearly attracted to her but, at the same time, has his doubts because, of course, Indian women smell. More particularly, were he to be seated next to a wan English woman, a freckled Australian woman or a pale Swedish woman, he would have an erection but not necessarily with an Indian woman.
Sex, as we see, is key for him. He has not had sex for six month, nine months, a year – it keeps changing, depending, he says on how he is feeling at the moment. While unable to find a bottle of water to buy, he has twice been offered an underage Indian woman for virtually nothing and it seems that the Germans he met at breakfast had taken advantage of the offer.
We have already seen his racism but it is nothing compared to that of his brother and best friend. His best friend asks how he could marry a Colombian woman, coming out with various racial epithets, even though her parents were Irish and German. His brother supports this view and he has become a neo-Nazi, despite having seen his grandmother murdered by the Nazis in the war.
He decides that the Indian woman might be worth pursuing, though she does tell him a few home truths, not least that the terrible climate he complains about will soon be the norm in the Czech Republic. She tells him that she would like to visit Europe as, for her, it is an exotic country. No, he responds, this is the exotic country to which she retorts, no this is quite normal. It is home.
Just as we are getting into the story we get a major detour, as he backtracks to his student days. He and a couple of friends decide to visit Iceland. They make several mistakes. They assume Iceland will be very cheap. It is not. In fact, it is very expensive. They assume, as it is July, it will be hot and they can camp outside. It is very cold. They assume hitch-hiking will be straightforward. it is not as Icelanders do not hitch-hike, there are very few cars and even fewer roads. The three have a row and Tomáš continues the trip on his own. While he learns that, culturally, Iceland and the Czech Republic are very different, the Icelanders are very nice and helpful to him in his predicament.
Racism and racial differences are key to this book. We are different from one another but not necessarily in the way we might think we are different and really, if we get to know someone or somewhere, we may well find it is not as bad as we thought. Tomáš thought Bangalore was a dangerous place but it turns out to be anything but, with people very friendly. He thought he could not be sexually attracted to an Indian woman but he is. Countries and people change. He comments on how much his own country has changed since has been away. All countries have their faults, including his own (he mentions a few).
It is a serious book dealing with serious topics but it is also very funny. Tomáš is totally self-deprecating, mocking himself, his incompetence and, indeed, his racism, using a laconic style which we have seen before in both Czech literature and Czech cinema, though he is not averse to mocking pretty well everyone else – the Indians, the Australians, the Hungarians, the Germans and anyone else who crosses his path. I would hope that it will soon appear in English.
First published by Argo in 2017
No English translation
First published in French as L’amour au temps du changement climatique by Denoël in 2020
Translated by Benoît Meunier
First published in German as Die Liebe in Zeiten des Klimawandels by Klak in 2020
Translated by Doris Kouba