We Should Not Rewrite History


The Czech-French debate, featuring Alena Mornštajnová and Laurent Binet, took place in front of a filled auditorium. It was not only their novels that were at the centre of the discussion, but also inspiration and history.

The two amicable novelists have more in common than might be obvious at first glance. They both published books on historical topics and both tried to alter history a bit. "I don't really write historical novels, I just build my stories on historical events. My books are always based on relationships, which may be unfolding at some point in history but I approach them from today's perspective. None of us can fully empathise with a person living in a certain historical period unless we have experienced it ourselves. That's why I am interested in what was happening at the time, because social events form the lives of my characters," Alena Mornštajnová explained. Laurent Binet delved even deeper into historical books and documents, since his novel HHhH, dealing with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, was largely based on facts. Binet's other novel, Civilisations, also draws its inspiration from history but in an entirely different way. Here the author asks himself what would happen had history taken a different course. "Even as I was writing HHhH I was wondering what events would have ensued if the Munich Agreement came to a different result, or if Hitler had really been assassinated. This thinking led me to writing Civilisations. HHhH was looking for historical facts, a narrative of what had happened. What I found fascinating in Civilisations was the possibility of multiple worlds." Alena Mornštajnová used a similar approach in her own novel Listopád. The plot is set in a period after the year 1989, in which not only had democracy not materialised, but the regime actually strengthened its hold. She admitted that not everybody was happy with her attempting this particular twist of history. "Even before the book was published I began receiving letters disputing a certain interpretation of the pre-November revolution period. One miner wrote to me that he could travel under socialism, that he went to Cuba, which means it's not true that the borders were closed. Everybody has a slightly different perspective of that time. But majority of people wrote that it reminded them of the atmosphere of fear, which is good, because we shouldn't forget that. Apparently it also helped some young people understand better why their parents were unable to stand up to the regime, that it really wasn't that easy." Laurent Binet continued by noting the suppression of certain historical events today. "When you were toppling the statues of Lenin and Stalin here, it was the same as today's toppling of statues of the colonisers in Latin America. There is nothing really wrong with that, I would even understand getting rid of a statue of Christopher Columbus, but what I really can't stand is pretending that he never existed, that there was no colonisation, that none of this has ever happened. We cannot change history - these things simply happened." He also remarked on efforts to alter history in the past, which may not have been as radical as they are today. "In the US they wanted Agatha Christie to change the title of her novel Ten Little Niggers. This was actually at a time when the country still had racial segregation. But Agatha was no racist, and you know what, even if she was, then we should know about it and preserve that knowledge. We must not falsify the truth!"

The topic of inspiration was a bit lighter and both authors admitted that instead of looking for things to write about they let themselves be influenced by what takes place around them. "It's always some kind of coincidence. When I was thinking about writing Civilisations, I was invited to a book fair in Lima, where I became interested in the history of the Incas. Had I not been invited to Mexico, maybe my book would have been about the Aztecs," Laurent Binet said, smiling. Alena Mornštajnová revealed that sometimes writing one book brings an idea for the next. "When I was writing Hana, I got some ideas that later developed into the text of Silent Years."

Both authors also lauded the work of the translators, who often have a difficult job with their texts. "Sometimes I write something and immediately think how much work this will be for the translator. I keep in contact with them and when they need something explained, I am happy to help," says Laurent Binet. "I don't make any footnotes while writing that would help explain certain things in my book to a potential translator, but same as Laurent I am ready to consult everything with them," concluded Alena Mornštajnová, adding that while Laurent Binet's books have already appeared in Czech, she is still awaiting her first French translation. But the good news is that it is already under way.