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Ladislav Klíma: Utrpení knížete Sternenhocha (The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch)

Reading Klíma’s autobiography, which is published with the novel in the English version, it is easy to see why Klíma wrote this strange novel and why his reputation in his home country has been somewhat varied. He clearly did not like people, including his family, was not the slightest bit interested in material things, fame and fortune or, as he states quite clearly, sex. Once I stole a bitten-into mouse from a cat and gobbled it down, just like it was, with the fur and bones – as if I were eating a dumpling. This novel clearly came from a strange person.

Prince Sternenhoch is an important person in the German Empire, second only to Bismarck in the eyes of Kaiser Wilhelm. One day he meets a thin and ugly woman – Helga – whom he finds repulsive in every way but he is strangely attracted to her. He asks her father for her hand and the father eagerly accepts, though not before roundly abusing the Prince and warning him off. They are soon married, though everyone, including the Price himself, wonders why he married her. At first, she hardly speaks or says anything. She becomes pregnant and produces a child. One day, she brutally kills it and threatens the Prince with blaming him if he does not blame the nursemaid, who is made to pay the price. She then becomes a monster and much of the book is taken up with her monstrous deeds. She has sex with animals, wanders around naked and, finally, gives herself to a nobody, who happens to be very strong. The Prince spies on them as he humiliates her and she enjoys it.

The couple then disappears on their travels and the Prince thinks he is free. However, he keeps seeing Helga in strange places and in strange guises. Eventually, she is trapped in his castle, where his ancestors had killed many people over the years, locked in a room from which she cannot escape and allowed to slowly die. He returns a few weeks later and confirms that she is dead. Or is she? She soon starts appearing again and slowly drives him to madness. The harrowing account of how Helga – whether alive or dead – torments him makes you understand why this book has not always been well received. Eventually, she drives him to his grave and his heirs, of course, find the corpse of Helga in the room where she had been locked up. As a story of one man’s madness, this work is up there with Dostoevsky and Kafka, though with a bitter sense of humour and absurdist, almost maniacal outlook on life.

Publishing history

First published by Rudolf Škeřík in 1928
First published in English by Twisted Spoon Press in 2000
Translated by Carleton Bulkin