Relax, Set Yourself Free: On Hana Andronikova’s “Heaven Has No Ground”

By Cory OldweilerNovember 17, 2023

Relax, Set Yourself Free: On Hana Andronikova’s “Heaven Has No Ground”

Heaven Has No Ground by Hana Andronikova

SHORTLY BEFORE CELEBRATING her 40th birthday in September 2007, Czech author Hana Andronikova was selected as one of 30 participants for the University of Iowa’s prestigious annual International Writing Program. As part of her application, she submitted translated excerpts from her 2001 debut novel, Zvuk slunečních hodin (The Sound of the Sundial), as well as a story she wrote in English titled “The Call of Bones,” which follows a woman who walks away from a marriage that has grown loveless. The tale’s unnamed protagonist is desperate for change, for answers, and searches for this salvation in nature, slowly leaving behind the few possessions she has taken as her resolve hardens and her confidence returns. She talks to the sea. She breathes in the rain. She buries her shoes, “[h]er footprints on the ground, the soil written into her soles.” She digs in the earth, makes love to the desert, and gets her “glow” back, “feels it inside, burning as a torch, lighting her way.” She becomes compulsive, stopping “only at night to sleep,” but gets stuck on the slope of a mountain, the peak within sight but just out of reach. When she awakens in the morning, she finds that she has transformed into an eagle. As she climbs aloft on “the bones of air,” she looks back on where she came from, at the “weak and pallid” person she had been, and realizes that she is finally free, concluding, “I am home now. For home is everywhere I go.”

This brisk fantasy is valuable for fans of Andronikova’s work for several reasons. It showcases her distinctive style, with short, almost scattershot bursts of thought seemingly recorded in real time, often linked by comma splices or set apart with a surfeit of periods. It reveals the determined curiosity and fearlessness that is inherent to her authorial personality. And it eerily presages the actual physical and spiritual journey that she would undertake shortly after completing her Iowa residency when, in early 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of choosing to begin treatment immediately, Andronikova bought a plane ticket to Peru and lived with the Indigenous Shipibo in the Amazon, the first stop along a remarkable journey that she documents in her second novel, Nebe nemá dno (2010), a deeply personal and intimately autobiographical account of her struggle to come to terms with her diagnosis. The novel, titled Heaven Has No Ground in Roman Kostovski’s new English translation, follows Ama—Hana’s barely fictionalized stand-in—from the rainforest to the Pacific Northwest to the desert of Nevada, before she returns home to the Czech Republic for a year of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment seems successful, with the cancer no longer detectable in September 2009, so Ama travels to Jerusalem and Palestine, which is where the novel ends. In real life, however, Andronikova’s cancer returned after the novel was published in Czech, and in December 2011, she died a few days before Christmas. She was 44 years old.

For Kostovski, the founder and publisher of the nonprofit Plamen Press, which focuses on literature from Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, bringing Andronikova’s work to English-speaking audiences has been a long-running passion project, starting with the 2015 publication of The Sound of the Sundial. That edition, Kostovski and his managing partner Rachel Miranda write in the book’s introduction, is an “amalgamation” of an older, complete translation by David Short, parts of which were drawn on for Andronikova’s IWP application, and a second manuscript provided by Andronikova’s family, a text that had been “heavily edited” and “adapted” by Andronikova before her death. The Sound of the Sundial, which in 2002 won the Czech Republic’s inaugural Magnesia Litera Award for best debut novel, is epic in its scope and ambition. As I wrote for The Calvert Journal in 2021, the book deals with “the Holocaust, […] colonial rule and the caste system in India, wartime betrayals and mercies in Czechoslovakia, spiritual myths and solemn rites, the ubiquity of death, the persistence of love, and much more.” While the storytelling and the story itself are impressive and memorable, the form is familiar, interweaving themes and world events with family history across generations. And Andronikova’s style feels a touch refined, at least in the amalgamated translation, with sentences that occasionally stretch to a few lines or more. When paired with Heaven Has No Ground, the two novels demonstrate the dramatic range of Andronikova’s talent.

I first got in touch with Kostovski about Andronikova’s final novel in April 2021, after seeing it listed in a publishing database of forthcoming titles, but it was another two years before he had completed his translation, which still needed to be edited and vetted by the various parties involved. Among the most challenging problems for Kostovski was the novel’s readability, as Andronikova uses no capitalization and jumps between diary entries, internal dialogue, narration, email exchanges, Skype chats, hallucinations, and conversations, often with no warning, though there are general datelines as in a conventional journal, and occasionally section titles—especially later in the novel, such as “how to pray to god with your hand on your wallet” or “the art of the coyote.” An early version of the translation reflected an attempt to differentiate between some of these sudden mode shifts by using formatting or font changes, but ultimately this route was abandoned. As Kostovski and Miranda write in the book’s foreword, the change was partly made because Andronikova had been “adamant about preserving the book’s [original] format; she turned down several publishers who wanted to bring Heaven Has No Ground into a more conventional shape.”

Aside from being the most faithful decision, the uniformity of the text also makes the novel, perhaps counterintuitively, easier to understand (though I can’t say for sure, as I had already read the earlier version). Instead of artificially preparing for a register change by noting new font types and trying to recall what that indicates, the focus remains solely on Andronikova’s words. The text can still be confusing at times, but the story is incredibly challenging in both its presentation and its substance, as if it were being written as Andronikova/Ama goes through it, which a lot probably was, though Kostovski writes that he has seen “no explicit evidence” that the text is based on actual diaries.

This contemporaneity does not mean the writing isn’t considered, however. An email correspondence between Ama and a science professor friend named Jeff, which runs throughout the novel, delves into intricacies and consequences of quantum mechanics, especially the inherent uncertainty of the universe, a concept Ama takes comfort in during her treatment. Andronikova also loves original metaphors and figurative speech, especially tied to the natural world—“rain is hanging from the sky like tiny nooses,” for example, and “the night spills the taste of your name on a white pillow. the dawn harvests the shadows of stars from burned-out bones.” But this writing still feels unquestionably raw, with Andronikova simply recording whatever crosses Ama’s mind. The result, for me, sits proudly alongside other standout autobiographical novels about survival written by Central and Eastern European authors, works such as Senka Marić’s Body Kintsugi (2018) and Semezdin Mehmedinović’s My Heart (2017), both translated into English by Celia Hawkesworth, or Miljenko Jergović’s masterpiece Kin (2013), translated by Russell Scott Valentino.

Heaven Has No Ground opens in late 2002 with Ama on “coma vigil” in a hospital in Zlín, where Andronikova was born, after her father has suffered a massive heart attack. Ama plays him music and reads to him, but chafes at the reality of his life, which she sees as no life at all: “i call it torture. they’ve trapped you. they can’t save you, but they won’t let you die.” It’s a clarion call for how she feels about being pent up, about having your choices taken from you because of illness. When her father dies some six weeks later, Ama is lost, her aimlessness echoing yet belying the self-assured character from her IWP short story: “i want to go home, even if i don’t know where home actually is. but i still go.”

When the novel’s second section opens, it is six years later, March 2008, and Ama’s “life has been turned upside down.” To “take control of it once again,” she buys a ticket to Peru, to stay with the Shipibo in Santuario Huishtin, deep in the Amazon along the Rio Pachitea, the so-called boiling river. Today, the village has its own website with some gorgeous photos and a lot of information about ayahuasca, a traditional medicine used by the Indigenous culture that is one of the things that draws Ama to the area. While it becomes clear that she doesn’t necessarily believe she will find a medical cure in the Amazon, Ama admits to searching for a spiritual one, for a reason to go on living. In the mass email she sends to friends, she writes, “i believe that the soul has to fall ill first in order for the body to do the same. so i am traveling to the rainforest to cure my soul. something is guiding me, and if i had to ask myself whether this journey has a heart, i would say yes.” What guides Ama—and what Andronikova said guided her as well, according to a Czech TV interview recorded in 2010 during her brief remission—is the spirit of a raven. But however confident Ama seems to those around her, the truth is that “she doesn’t have the slightest idea why she’s going on this trip. maybe she’s running away from those close to her, but also those distant from her. away from their dilemmas, their imploring stares pushing her to the wall.”

Despite the village’s online presence in 2023, life in the jungle in 2008 is austere and isolated, according to Ama. She lives in a tambo, “a hut in the middle of the forest with a roof made of palm leaves, a floor of hard-packed clay, and boards for sleeping. the door is always open because there is none.” She deals with tarantulas, poisonous snakes, and scorpions. She battles depression as well as an ant infestation and bug bites that mark her like “jungle acupuncture.” Ama becomes friendly with several of the locals, hearing their life stories, but remains isolated by language. She is introduced to a five-year-old Spanish teacher named Franco, but after a few weeks of his tutoring, she observes that “she has the linguistic capability of a jellyfish.” She often talks to herself or to the raven, pleading that it is all too hard and she just wants a quick way to die. She undertakes lengthy solitary fasts—one 11 days long, another 14—during which she can’t speak to anyone, eats only a little rice or plantains, and sweats through ayahuasca trips and other “medicina fuerte.”

During one of these treatments, Ama recalls the aftermath of her diagnosis—how she felt a lump five minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve after returning from Iowa for Christmas, how her mother’s “carbon copy” cancer had been diagnosed when Ama was 14, how she wanted to head straight for the Nusle Bridge (a popular suicide spot in Prague). Ama’s simple despair is heartbreaking: “it happens when you least expect it, because you never expect such a thing. and always at a time when you feel that you have just started a new life.” But she is also selfish, unwilling to be responsible to anyone else:

it’s exhausting for a person to constantly try to defend her basic human rights. the right to choose her own road. to make her own decisions. to make her own mistakes. and even further, the naked right to choose her own death. i don’t owe anything to anyone. so, i have the right to die as i choose, don’t i?

Near the end of June in the jungle, Ama realizes “that cleansing the body is helpful, but it is not a cure. it won’t destroy the defective programming. it won’t ignite a flame that is not already burning.” She won’t get her “glow” back in the Amazon, and on June 28, after three months, she leaves for Lima, where she has another vision, this one of the “insistent face of a certain old indian […] hammering a desert landscape into my heart.” Instead of heading back to Prague, she flies to Portland, Oregon, where her ex-husband Evan and his parents live. She writes to her friend Jeff that “the change from the jungle to here is like falling from the third floor onto a concrete slab.” Through a series of coincidences—“every person that she meets is a story. every story opens a door to her own rooms with unexpected corners”—Ama befriends Gil, “an old indian in a white t-shirt with a bald eagle on it,” one of several people who helps her through additional spiritual rituals, including a sweat lodge. She’s still searching, but only just: “have i still not had enough of this? have i hit my lowest point yet? the breaking point is coming. maybe i’ll reach it tomorrow. i’m close.” Eventually, she learns to accept death and not let her visions become obsessions: “it doesn’t matter what you decide. no road is bad or good. a road is just a road. when you don’t know which one to choose. relax, set yourself free.” And so she flies home.

By November 2008, when Ama opts to start chemotherapy after initially balking upon her return to the Czech Republic, her cancer has metastasized to “the ganglia and throughout the lungs.” Andronikova’s descriptions of the sickness and lethargy resulting from the chemotherapy can be brutal to read, but she leavens the harshness with humor, as when Ama decides to shave her head on Christmas Eve because “a person can vomit a lot more easily when her hair is not in the way.” She starts to feel about her own life as she felt about her comatose father: “i’m living even though i don’t know why. i’m writing, and i don’t know why.” But by April, the prognosis has turned around, her ganglia and lungs clear, so she continues with radiation treatment before resuming her spiritual search in the Middle East, having not traveled anywhere for a year.

The gently valedictory, even whimsical, conclusion of Heaven Has No Ground is bittersweet since we know that Andronikova would die within two years. Even more difficult to process is the conclusion of the Czech TV feature, in which Andronikova gives her own answer to a question posed by Albert Einstein that she used for the epigram in her final novel: “The most important question we can ask ourselves is, ‘Is this universe friendly?’” Andronikova’s answer is so sad for its ultimately betrayed faith: “A na každem z nás je, jak si na tu otázku odpovíme a podle toho, jak si odpovíme, tak asi se k nám vesmír potom chová.” A rough translation: “And it’s up to each of us how we answer that question, and depending on how we answer it, I guess that’s how the universe treats us.”

Despite the brevity of her career, Andronikova’s legacy is an important one, and yet another example of the importance of translators. While in some cases translated work is supported by outside funding or sought by publishers, often a translator is acting on their own, almost like an explorer who comes across an author they love and sets about presenting their findings to a wider audience. As Jeff writes to Ama in one of their many emails in Heaven Has No Ground, “the main difference between discovery and evidence lies in time, when you discover something, it takes time to prove it. that doesn’t mean that the discovery is nonsense.” I’m thankful to Kostovski for allowing me to discover the power of Andronikova’s writing, and I hope that, in time, other readers will come to see the evidence of her greatness. But what I really wish for more than anything is the discovery of a cure for cancer, so lives like Hana’s are no longer lost just as they’ve spread their wings to soar.


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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