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Vladislav Vančura: Markéta Lazarová (Markéta Lazarová)

Till recently you could read this book in French, German, Italian, Spanish and, of course, Czech but you couldn’t read it in English, as it had never been translated into English. (It had also been translated into Romanian, Russian and Polish.) If you didn’t read French, German, Italian, Spanish or Czech, you could see the subtitled film, which is a brilliant film and one voted best Czech film of all time by Czech film critics. But, while I can wholeheartedly recommend the film (though good luck finding it in the US), it is not the book. Fortunately, the wonderful Twisted Spoon Press brought it out in English in February 2014.

So after all that fuss, is it worth reading? Absolutely. It is a love story. Indeed, a double love story. It is set in medieval Bohemia involving not great kings and warriors but brigands who have no regard for the law and only their own, very dubious morals, who seem to like nothing more than fighting. The narrator is not our straightforward classical narrator but a man not opposed to commenting, often cheekily and wittily, on the action and the characters. And, ultimately, like any good love story, it is also a tragedy.

The story starts off in midwinter. It is set near the town of Mlada Boleslav. Two bands of brigands operate in the region. The smaller one is headed by Lazar. He has a daughter called Markéta whom he vowed to make a nun. As a result, she does not get involved in the work of the brigand’s hideout as do the rest of her family but, rather learns to read and studies. She is also a beautiful young woman. The other, more powerful brigand is Kozlík. Kozlík has nine daughters and eight sons. Mikolas is his favourite son but Kozlík is not opposed to treating Mikolas brutally, when he thinks it is called for. A crisis for the two groups is now threatening. The King is upset by their brigandage and he is sending a large troop under Captain Pivo (Pivo is the Czech for beer) to deal with them. Kozlík sends Mikolas to negotiate with Lazar, as he feels it will be better if they work together. However, a fight develops and Mikolas is almost killed but manages to get away. Rightly freeing Kozlík’s revenge, Lazar flees with his family. When Kozlík shows up, Lazar has gone and all Kozlík can do is burn the place down and pursue Lazar. Meanwhile Captain Pivo is on the way and Kozlík has to flee from him.

Things get complicated when Kozlík and family manage to capture Lazar and Markéta, particularly when, to Kozlík’s disgust, Mikolas falls in love with Markéta. To Lazar’s disgust, Markéta reciprocates. Meanwhile, Kristian, a Saxon noble has got involved in some messy politics and is running away when he is caught by Kozlík. Kozlík is tempted to kill him but both Mikolas and Kozlík’s daughter, Alexandra, dissuade him. Alexandra soon fall in love with Kristian and her love is also reciprocated. Kristian’s father, also called Kristian, comes looking for his son and the King orders Pivo, to Pivo’s disgust, to help him. Kozlík and family manage to create an encampment in the forest which it will be difficult for an enemy to attack and, indeed, when Pivo and his men do attack it, they are repulsed. But, when spring arrives, they are back and this time they are more successful. Kozlík is almost killed and is captured, Mikolas flees and Alexandra, in the heat of the moment, kills Kristian. The time of the brigands is coming to an end and Lazar and Kozlík and their families will soon pay the price. The final attempt comes when Mikolas and some of his family try to free Kozlík from prison. They fail.

Vančura keeps both the fairly complicated action going but also the strange love affairs between Mikolas and Markéta and between Kristian and Alexandra. Using the narrator to give his clear and not always objective views on what is going on and at times jumping ahead or back in time, we get a fascinating modernist take on a medieval romance (in both senses of the word). The rough characters, who beneath the hard exterior do have feelings – Mikolas and Alexandra in particular – are wonderful creations. And it is wonderful to finally have it in English.

Publishing history

First published by Druzstevni Práce in 1931
First translated into English by Twisted Spoon Press in 2013