Czech Partisans, Love, and the 'Visible World'

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Mark Slouka's new novel The Visible World is part romance, part invented memoir. The narrator's parents are Czech partisans during World War II who are caught up in a plot to assassinate the highest-ranking Nazi in occupied Czechoslovakia. But Slouka says there is a very real inspiration for his book.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

"The Visible World" by Mark Slouka is something of a fairy tale. Here, the narrator, the son of Czech immigrants, remembers a story his mother once told him about a realm of underwater elves, gazing up at the human world above.

Mr. MARK SLOUKA (Author, "The Visible World"): These glimpses of our world were very precious to those who live below. They could gaze at a dog's pink tongue lapping at the edge the sky for hours. And on those rare afternoons when they children leaped from the clouds, spearing down toward the silted roofs, their world clothed in white shades of bubbles, they would gather in great swaying crowd, their clothes slathering about them and weep.

A bade her to tell me what happened after that, how the story ended, but she'd forgotten. It didn't matter. There were some things my mother wouldn't tell me. I was used to that.

LYDEN: In fact, it was the very real gaps in Mark Slouka's knowledge of his own parents' lives that inspired him to write this lyrical invented memoir. In "The Visible World," Slouka pieces together bits of lives glimpsed but not fully understood. Mark Slouka's own father was in the Czech resistance during World War II, and at the book's core is a love triangle revolving around the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler's top general and occupy Czechoslovakia. I asked Mark Slouka where his own parents ended and his characters began.

Mr. SLOUKA: The line is not a completely clear one. I mean, this is a novel above all, so it, you know, I took great liberties with the truth. But the truth also is that, you know, my mother had this great love in her life as the character Ivana does in my novel. My father was a member of the underground.

And to some extent, I mean, I wrote the novel to make sense of the bits of stories that I inherited as the child of immigrants. I was always, sort of, living under the shadow of the past, of the war of the old world, and partly, in the shadow of grief and of love lost. And I had to make sense of it.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. What were some of the stories you were hearing in that Czech enclave that you grew up in? I guess you speak Czech very well.

Mr. SLOUKA: Yes, I do. Yeah. Yeah, it was my first language, in fact. I didn't speak English until I was six. Well, there were many. Usually, they were a matter of silences. They were places where the conversation of adults would suddenly stop and veer around something. And you knew that there was something going on.

I have a vivid memory of being in a car as a boy with my mother and father. And my mother is seeing someone, a man on a curb in the rain. I remember this, it's very vivid, and I happened to look in the same direction she was looking. And I saw him, you know, take a puff on his cigarette, and then drop his hand very abruptly. And it was a very characteristic gesture, something very enigmatic about it.

And my mother started to cry. And I understood. I completely understood that there was some connection, that in some sense, she'd seen a version of someone that she once knew and cared for very much. And so there were these kinds of, you know, bits and pieces, stories, fragments. Some were real history. Some were inventions. Some were memories that were shaped in various ways. And I had to couple them together.

LYDEN: In the novel, in "The Visible World," your book, Ivana, the narrator's mother, falls in love with a man named Tomas, who is part of the plot…

Mr. SLOUKA: That's right.

LYDEN: …to assassinate, I guess he's known as the Reichsprotektor…

Mr. SLOUKA: Yeah.

LYDEN: …Reinhard Heydrich. He was one of Hitler's highest ranking commanders, and an architect…

Mr. SLOUKA: (Unintelligible), yes.

LYDEN: …of the final solution, yes?

Mr. SLOUKA: My God, Hitler was - I mean, he was not only Hitler's personal favorite. I mean Hitler loved Heydrich. But he was also his reputed successor. And, you know, he's the architect of the final solution. He was the butcher of Prague, as he was called. Hitler called him a man with a heart of stone, which was a compliment, endearment. This guy was one piece of work. He was, you know, we're looking at perhaps the most heinous regime in history, and he was one of the, the highest-ranking figures within that regime.

So for me, the power of the story, really, is the fact that seven young men, boys, really, pulled off the only assassination, the only assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official during the entirety of the war. They knew that their chances of survival were virtually nil. And they did it anyway.

And actually, when we lived in Prague, I ended up living a few blocks away from the crypt where they had their last stand. And that was - quite a formative experience, too.

LYDEN: I want to get to this crypt where they…

Mr. SLOUKA: Yeah.

LYDEN: …died, which you would portray so vividly. But what I am curious about is why did you interweave your parents' lives with the real story of this unbearably poignant plot.

Mr. SLOUKA: In a sense, I had two things that I was trying to pull together. There were two - I was haunted by two stories. One was the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by these seven young men. That moved me, still moves me. The other one was this - that this uncompleted thing in my own life, you know, I mean, I love my mother very dearly, and I respect her privacy as well. But I think I can say that, you know, there was this love in her life, and that he was as well a parachutist as Tomas Bem is in the novel.

And so I had to try to somehow, I wanted to try to cobble the two together to connect small history, personal history, with big history, with the Second World War, with this, you know, with this enormous assassination. And my task was to try to do it in a way that didn't, kind of, demote one of the other.

LYDEN: You do, I think, resurrect a whole world here. You certainly take us back to the resistance and to these young men and these young people. It almost would be hard, I think, to write about World War II sometime…

Mr. SLOUKA: Absolutely.

LYDEN: …so much has been written.

Mr. SLOUKA: Absolutely. Absolutely. There were cliches at every turn. I think that was the most difficult think for me. And, in fact, I don't think I used the word Nazi in the entire book, because I think as soon as you utter that word the, sort of, a flood of, you know, hackneyed images comes up. I mean, Hogan's heroes for God sake. I mean, everything, sort of, rises to the surface. And the story, the immediacy of the story, the actual historical moment is lost.

And so what I needed to do was try to - through particular details to get back to that moment when the thing occurred. And I used to go to the crypt, where these men were trapped in their own little personal Alamo. And I used to look at the bullet holes in the cement and the place where they try to dig through the wall into the, you know, to sewers to escape. And there was something about that, you know, the smell of the damp stone and, you know, the desperation you could almost feel in that place that made that period, which was, you know, 18 years before I was born or something come a live for me.

LYDEN: Well, you certainly made them visible and come alive here and I want to thank you for it.

Mr. SLOUKA: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

LYDEN: Mark Slouka is the author of "The Visible World," a novel. Thanks again, Mark Slouka.

Mr. SLOUKA: Thank you so much.

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