You are free to trust him, or not. This conversation was due to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where a young Czech Vietnamese girl named Lan Pham Thi, the author of the novel The White Horse, the Yellow Dragon allegedly studied untill a week ago according to the e-mail entries. The publication was awarded the main prize of the Book Club earlier this year, turned into a blockbuster later, impressed the critics and pleased the Czech Vietnamese.
Yet the reality is somewhat more grey. We´re scrolling over the square of Premysl Otakar II. in Ceske Budejovice and until recently an unknown Czech novelist Jan Cempirek, having aknowledged he was the author of the print, walks straight with the book under his arm, greets joyfully neighbours passing by and is enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame. But how did it all begin and how will it all end-up?
The self-confident host gets nervous only when walking on Krajinska street. He is curious how will Tonda react, he says. In the book, Tonda plays an owner of a Vietnamese restaurant whose daughter tells the story about the Czech rasism, corruption and hyprocrisy. Chu Thein Thanh, who locals really dubbed „Tonda“, smiles politely after the opening hand-shakes. When we reach one inner courtyard, he points to the windows of an opposite house. The „Dragon Bay“ restaurant behind them has been long gone but the colourful mosaic on the floor portraying an Asian dragon still reminds of the latter. It´s the dragon from the cover of the now much discussed book.
„Well now hopefully you believe that I have written the book,“ says Cempirek and goes on how he started a hostel nearby and got to know Tonda and his family. When he learned the eatery went out of business in October, 2008, he decided to write a book about a Vietnamese restaurant and in the background he would display the problems of Vietnamese community living together with the Czechs. As a matter of evidence of his intellectual ownership he shows a contract between the Book Club and Lan Pham Thi plus a review of his bank account to which the prize-money was sent. But first things first.
The novelist of Ceske Budejovice has published two books under his real name in the past, Rafinery and Autostop.cz but none of them aroused much appreciation. So the idea of creating an imaginery author was born – inspired, as Cempirek confesses, by the famous French writer Boris Vian and his well known novel I Will Spit On Your Graves.
At first, Cempirek put down the clichés that the Czechs attribute to the Vietnamese – that they work hard, are incapabla of mastering the Czech langugage properly, have big family clans impossible to penetrate for the Czechs, that they bribe the state´s officials etc. „Everybody has this clear view on the Vientnamese yet nobody knows hardly anything about them,“ comments Cempirek. He then added a bit of the Vietnamese mythology, few greetings and swear-words in Vietnamese and a text named „The Legend about the Dragon Bay“ was born, November last year. Beginnig of December Jan Cempirek created the identity of Lan Pham Thi: a random internet name, then made-up data from her life and some pictures of a real young Vietnamese girl who lives with a friend of Cempirek in Australia. Then he created the girl´s blog and e-mail address, hence a whole net that will soon catch in everyone eager to communicate with the laureat of the Book Club.
The first test of the set-up came with the prospective publication of the print. Jan Cemnpirek contemplated to send out the text to various Czech publishers under a name of an unknown Czech writer. But as he aknowledges in his diary – that he has been keeping from the start of the mystification – such a book, full of schemes of Czech rasism, didn´t have much chance for a success. So that´s why Lan Pham Thi was born.
Initially he wanted to offer the text to different publishing houses. But just a day before New Year´s Eve, 2008, he changed his plan. The deadline for the Book Club award was running out and so he sent the text there. At the end of March, 2009, Lan Pham Thi received the first three e-mails from the Book Club, all of which confirmed the book had been listed as the winner of this season.
A big gamble then started and few more people got involved, as well. For example a film-maker of Czech TV Pavel Kremen."Yes, roughly at the beginning of April Cempirek told me the truth and asked me if I´d interested in shooting a documentary film about the whole story,“ confirms Kremen the intention of Cempirek. But Kremen refused, calling Cempirek´s way a „banal student joke.“
Then there was a problem with the contract. Sent via an e-mail, it allegedly went to Kuala Lumpur where Lan Pham This was supposed to be studying environmental management at the university. In reality it only went to Ceske Budejovice. Jan Cempirek had to resole a problem with a contract that was supposed to have been sent from Malaysia. So he asked a good friend of his from southern Bohemia who was leaving for Malaysia in June to bring the contract along and then send it, with a stamp of a post office in Kuala Lumpur, from there. It happened just as described.
"Only once I wanted to stop it and come clean,“ narrates Cempirek. It was early September of this year when the Book Club held the annually award ceremony and the newly pusblished book was to be officially presented – with the presence of the author. The publishing house insisted on Lan Pham Thi to b ethere for the ceremony; they even offered to pay for the return ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Prague. Still, the inhabitant of Ceske Budejovice withstood the pressure. He shot a video apology and sent it to the Book Club. Campus of Kuala Lumpur university on the video was in fact a window-glass atrium of faculty of philosophy in Ceske Budejovice. The face of Lan Pham Thi was a Vietnamese friend of Cempirek from southern Bohemia who says in the video, with faultless Czech, that she was sorry but she couldn´t come for the ceremony.
The book made it to be the literary event of autumn 2009 with the Book Club even launching a campaign to promote the novel in the Prague´s tube. Lan Pham Thi was frantiny interviews to the press via e-mail and kept answering to the readers on her blog. Also, the bank account of Jan Cempirek saw 50.000 CZK from the Book Club pouring in. But he kept just a part of it – to pay off the tax for the prize – and sent the rest to the Vietnamese association for literature and art that currently works on a Czech-Vietnamese dictionary. „Around September 20th we´ve indeed received 40.000 CZK from an unknwn donnor,“ confirms the chairman of the association Nguyen Quyet Tien.
By the beginning of October of this year things started to get uglier. First suspecion that the book might be nothing but a great mystification popped up and less than two months later the suspicion was comfirmed. Shortly before the end of November a friend of Cempirek, David Zak, was inviting people from book business for a literary party and „accidentaly“ left at the end of the e-mail a communication between him and Cempirek in which Zak is trying to persuade Cempirek to admitt the authorship. A day after of the „leak“ Cempirek goes public and aknowledges he is the author. The publishing house is furious but says later on that if Cempirek proves that was indeed him who wrote the novel, the Book Club would sign a deal with him – this time his true him.
Since then, the print hasn´t ceased to be a hit in bookstores. Only the Czech Vietnamese must wait again – for an authentic story about their life in this country.