After the Earthquake

Die Meerschweinchen (The Guinea Pigs)

by Ludvík Vaculík
Verlag C.J. Bucher, 191 pp.

Das Beil (The Axe)

by Ludvík Vaculík
Verlag Fritz Molden, 224 pp.

The Politics of Culture

by Antonín J. Liehm
Grove Press, 412 pp., $10.00

The Czechoslovak Reform Movement

by Galia Golan
Cambridge University Press, 349 pp., $16.50

The Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia: Its Effects on Eastern Europe

edited by E. Czerwinski, edited by J. Piekalkiewicz
Praeger, 224 pp., $14.00

“That would be a real literary triumph: that those a book was aimed at would read the book and die. The trouble is that these characters don’t read….”

The speaker is Ludvík Vaculík, talking to A.J. Liehm in Prague in 1967. They meet in an empty apartment and lock the door behind them before Liehm, industrious and optimistic, takes out his pad and gets down to the interview for a book which in better times may even be published. Vaculík is reticent, almost surly. There is a bottle of Moravian wine and some stale fruitcake. Gradually Vaculík begins to talk more urgently. “What power—what group—finds it eternally necessary to make people as characterless and submissive as possible?… Why must peoples’ support be won only at the price of their moral devastation?”

Five years have passed. Liehm’s book has appeared, but in the West, and he now lives on Staten Island. Vaculík is in Czechoslovakia, disgraced and living in semi-destitution. Under a new flood of moral devastation, he inhabits an anonymous sea cave. But from those depths, there has somehow appeared a new novel, which is not merely his best so far but, I think, one of the major works of literature produced in postwar Eastern Europe.

The Guinea Pigs has appeared only in the West in a Czech version (“Morcata“) and in the present German version. There is no English translation yet either of The Guinea Pigs or of his earlier important novel, The Axe (1966), a lack which any responsible publisher ought now to put right. The prospects of publication in Prague can be considered nil at present. Those who, in Vaculík’s phrase, save their own lives by not reading will insist on sharing their immunity with the rest of the population.

In Prague, there lives a bank clerk. He lives in a small flat with his wife Eva, who works as a schoolteacher, and his two sons. He is petty, loving, possessive, autocratic: the little Haustyrann of the central European bourgeoisie. He cuffs his sons, without much result, and sometimes bullies his wife, with even less. They are amiable and deferential, but they elude him: they have small secrets.

In the bank, he too is deferential, even servile, but skeptical and inquisitive. Something queer is going on in the bank. Everybody takes money and tries to walk out with it. Everybody may be searched by the security guards at the door and their filched banknotes taken away again. This is regarded as quite normal. But there are undercurrents. There is a discrepancy between the money confiscated by the guards and the money returned to the bank. This worries the clerks. Somewhere there is developing a secret circulation of money, which might somehow undermine the whole economy, the whole society. One ancient employee speaks his mind at a meeting: this secret circulation is the first spiral of a whirling movement which will suck everything down with it—“The Maelstrom!” He is shushed. But he is up to something, some…

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