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Interview with Italian-American writer Ben Pastor, the lady of the historical mystery thriller, who after Prague thinks of other places of inspiration in the Czech Republic

“Lumen”, “Master of One Hundred Bones, “Brink tales” are not just titles. Instead, time travels, new environments that not even a Meyrink would have been able to invent. Starting from the Habsburg Prague of 1914, and skipping ahead to arrive in the Rome “open city” occupied by the Nazis in 1944, via the adventures of the centurion Aelius Spartianus, in 15 AD.

The protagonists of these time travels are called Karel Heida (an Austrian Official with a penchant for the Czech capital), Martin Bora (a Wehrmacht major) and indeed Aelius Spartianus, a Roman centurion. Soldiers/detectives who tie up the threads of a fresh new genre: it has been called the “historical mystery” and is the result of the fruitful pen of Ben Pastor. Heroes who seek the truth in the turning points in history, perhaps chasing it around Wenceslas Square or in the narrow streets that lead to the Castle, between dances in the halls of the hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, or a walk to the spa of Mariánské Lázně.

Stories of soldiers, and guilty parties hidden in the shadows. For the cavalry official Karel Heida there is, of course, the sense of “finis Austriae”, so dear to Stefan Zweig, but which Pastor masterfully knows how to evoke. What also probably plays a role, is the myth of alchemist Prague, from the Turin-Lyon-Prague triangle.

The streets, squares, bridges which cross the Vltava, Kampa island, even names of old restaurants that no longer exist today. The enchanted city is therefore revealed again in the theatre of crimes that the good Karel slowly discovers. Reading the pages of Ben Pastor, one is struck by an uncommon accuracy in the details. Where would she have found so much original material?

“I stayed in Prague in several periods, I lived in the historical area of old prestige, near the Cathedral. Even today I have Czech friends who help me with my research. As for Martin Bora, the other character that I created, I found many documents on the Heydrich assassination. That allowed me to set a story in Prague in the Spring of 1942, during the Nazi Protectorate period. It was an important episode, I would say decisive in Czech history. It demonstrates, in fact, that the Germans had never completely dominated the spirits of the Bohemians”.

- The Heydrich assassination is fine, but, in short, would Ben Pastor call herself an archivist with a passion for Central Europe?

“My real name, to be precise, is Verbena Volpi. The surname “nom de plume”, Pastor, I got from my husband, who is of Basque origin”, explains the woman, born in Rome and graduated in Literature (specializing in archeology) at the Sapienza University, before moving to the United States.

So what is the connection with Prague and Central Europe? When more happens to be revealed, you start to imagine that the military animus, the robust Verbena has in her blood: “I have had warlike bloodlines, a grandfather who was a medical officer in World War I, who proudly retained a Habsburg flag in his villa as spoils of war. And then there are other relatives still in uniform”, Pastor/Volpi now explains. “I taught in US military institutions, and this somehow formed me”, she adds. “Surely, then, the environments in which I hung out influenced how I construct characters…”.

The fact is that one day a couple of decades ago, for the “Hobby & Work” types, a publishing house specialized (could it be otherwise?) in war journalism, the first novel by Ben Pastor came out. Who would have considered the work of an academic?

“The meeting with Hobby was a coincidence”, says Pastor, “which then however, I must say, turned out well for me. Since then, around twenty books have come out and numerous short stories. In Italy, I publish for Mondadori and Sellerio. I am not terribly fast, in writing. For a book, I need one or two years. And perhaps, rather than the pages to fill, I repeat, it is the documentation that counts, reliability in reconstructing the environments. For Bohemia special attention was needed: the Habsburg history is fascinating but often complicated, and after 1989 almost all the names of streets and squares have been changed. A job as an archivist, it is true, in addition to a storyteller”.

- Just by reading the adventures of the officer-detective Karel Heida, you are amazed by the accuracy in indicating streets, squares, buildings…

“Yes, I try to be as accurate as possible. This has also led to certain episodes, you could call, humorous ones. I happened to travel round Communist Czechoslovakia with topographic maps dating back to the Habsburg Empire… It also happened in Dresden, when there was still the GDR… When I asked around to locate the ancient streets, people looked at me half stunned and half worried! Prague, moreover, is one of the European cities that I prefer. My university student, Tracy Burnsova, became a journalist right here in Bohemia… Who, after all, does not love, the atmosphere of the end of Empire, the figure of the last emperor, Franz Joseph, whose death we are celebrating the centenary of this year?”

- How is a “historical mystery” written by Ben Pastor born?

“We spoke of the setting. Of a city, of a place, you should know almost everything before you start writing. And then, thanks to Prague I became familiar with Ripellino, Roth, Meyrink, of course Kafka and Musil, in short the background to Central Europe. To a certain extent all the authors of the early Czech twentieth century. After this first step, the plots of my Karel Heida were born, and I want to remind you, of his assistant Solomon Meisl, who is a Jewish doctor. One would not understand Prague without the Jewish animus. Heida and Meisl move between Moravia, Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně, breathing the last tremors of the Belle Epoque while the chaos is about to erupt…”.

- “Kaputt Mundi” too, is earning a certain degree of success. Some, though, have turned their noses up at it because the protagonist wears a Nazi uniform…

“It seems like a provincial observation to me. We have to look at the value of the work, not the uniform of the protagonist. Besides, my heroes are “righteous heroes in the wrong uniform”. And Martin is more a Nibelung hero that a real Nazi, while Karel is first and foremost a loyal officer to Franz Joseph”.

- The next work?

“I love archaic, perhaps even esoteric situations. For stories of Karel Heida, I am looking for a different setting to “Brink tales”. This time, it could be Moravia, or why not, maybe Český Krumlov. A murder between the small streetsand the snowy hills of Český Krumlov in winter … But do not forget that Prague was not the capital of the Empire only in appearance. In fact, the Habsburgs always drew from the value, intelligence and, I must underline, the sense of humour of the Czechs”.

by Ernesto Massimetti