The Sound of the Sundial
By Hana Andronikova
Reviewed by Denton Loving
In Hana Andronikova's first novel, The Sound of the Sundial, a chance encounter leads two Czech expatriates to discover a common thread. Over the course of twenty-four hours, set symbolically around New Year's Eve in 1989, Daniel and Anna share parts of a story that reveal missing pieces of each other's lives. Yet, The Sound of the Sundial is not so much about Daniel and Anna as it is the powerful love story about Tom, a German-Czech builder, and his Jewish wife, Rachel, both caught in the tumultuous rise of the Third Reich and the flames of World War II.
Given the subject matter, a great deal of sadness in this book is expected. However, the agony of life and death for Jews in German-controlled lands is not depicted as darkly as it could be, in part because Andronikova constantly focuses on the light, showing how even the smallest of victories are sometimes enough to sustain. The first half of the book is also set in India, far away from war-torn Europe, where Tom is working for a Czech company introducing rubber boots and canvas shoes to the Indian population.
It's this time in India, when Tom and Rachel's son Daniel is still a child, where the heart of the book resides. Tom finds more and more success with his company, commanding respect and overseeing tremendous growth. Rachel, initially hit with some understandable culture shock, grows to love India and flourishes there. Czechoslovakia is where Tom and Rachel found each other, but it's in India that the reader witnesses how "they were joined by a bond stronger than friendship, stronger than lust, stronger than love."
It's Daniel, though, who most readily embraces their adopted home. "India: hot and implacable, sweet and distressing, sensuous and disapproving. I grew up," Daniel says, "in the embrace of its contradictions, among people who ignited in me a yearning for harmony with my own self. My India. I didn't try to understand it. I loved it."
When the family leaves the relative protection of India, it is young Daniel's yearning for harmony that is perhaps most at odds with Europe's tense political scene. When he discovers a flyer decrying Jews as the enemy of mankind, Tom explains a universal fact about human nature that remains as true in 2016 as it was in 1939:
The Jews are not the enemy of mankind, Danny. The greatest enemy is men's ignorance and fear. Fear of difference, fear of other cultures, of the things they don't know. Soon the symbols of these other cultures become symbols for their own fear. The Sikh's turban, the Red Indian's headdress, the Muslim headscarf, anything that isn't part of the world they know. The greatest enemy of people is their own stupidity.
Spanning three continents and much of the twentieth century, The Sound of the Sundial is as much about the power of stories and mythology as it is about the lives of its characters. Andronikova sums up this point when she writes:
Rachel's stories were the one treasure no one could take from her. They were the tie that bound her to life, to the past, hauling her out of her apathy and giving her back her true self. They reminded her that her brain was still working, that she wasn't an animal. Her stories were her liberation.
This theme echoes again and again, perhaps nowhere more beautifully than here:
We are stories. We are myths and fairy tales. We are poetry. Our lives are books, covered with the handwriting of our joy, our grief, our successes and defeats. We are pages written by people and events that befell us. We cherish the manuscripts of those who have bewitched us with the beauty of their bodies and souls, those who have endowed us with light and knowledge. Manuscripts of the beloved.
If there's any criticism to be found of this novel, it is perhaps in the imbalance between the past and present timelines. By 1989, Daniel is a married man with children and grandchildren, and both of his parents are deceased. He finds his family celebrating the holidays at a bed and breakfast owned by Anna, who reveals that she was his mother's best friend while they were imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp. This fortuitous moment allows them both to answer many questions that have lingered through their lives. But The Sound of the Sundial is much more Tom and Rachel's story than it is Daniel's or Anna's. To frame the story through the present sometimes feels like unnecessary scaffolding for an already strong, moving narrative.
Translated by David Short and edited for American readers by Rachel Feingold, Plamen Press offers this beautiful writer to a new audience for the first time. The Sound of the Sundial received the Czech Book Club Literary Award and the Magnesia Litera Award for Best New Discovery, delivering instant acclaim to Andronikova when it was originally published in Europe in 2001. A book of short stories, Heart on a Hook, followed in 2002. A memoir of her battle with cancer, Heaven Has No Floor, was published in 2011, shortly before her death. The Sound of the Sundial proves that Andronikova was clearly a writer who endowed us with light and knowledge. Readers will certainly hope for future translations of her other work.