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An Open Letter to the Secretary General

NOTE: ludvík vaculík is one of the leading novelists in Czechoslovakia today, although he is not allowed to publish in his own country. The son of a small farmer, he was born in a village in Moravia in 1926 and trained as a shoemaker; he became a journalist and teacher, and published his first novel, The Busy House, in 1963. His novel The Axe, published in 1966, made him famous in Czechoslovakia. It is, as Neal Ascherson has written,

the story—much drawn from his own life—of a lonely farmer who deliberately destroys his own family relationships and friendships to bring socialist collectivization to his village in Moravia and who—through the very challenge that his own integrity offers to the corrupt Stalinist bureaucracy of the new order—is himself in the end destroyed.1

Vaculík was one of the writers who attacked the Novotny regime at the Writers Union Congress in 1967. He was thrown out of the Communist Party and readmitted during the “Prague Spring” of 1968, during which he wrote the “Two Thousand Word Manifesto.” This, as Ascherson writes, was composed at the request of a group of scientists who feared that Dubcek was losing impetus in the face of Soviet threats. It was a “blazing, reckless and often comic argument against hesitation which led instantly to a major crisis.” Signed by thousands, condemned by the Dubcek regime, it angered the Soviet leaders, and some believe that it may have helped to convince them that military intervention was necessary.

Vaculík was again expelled from the party and disgraced. He retreated into silence, but in 1970 he was able to complete his novel The Guinea Pigs.2 It was originally published in German in 1971 and has just been reissued as one of the series, “Writers from the Other Europe,” published by Penguin Books and edited by Philip Roth. vaculík continues to live and write in Prague, under the conditions he describes in this letter.

Dr. Kurt Waldheim

Secretary General of the

United Nations

Dear Mr. Secretary General:

It used to be the custom in our two neighboring countries, which for some time were part of one empire, to begin letters with flowery expressions like wishes for divine blessing, the protection of patron saints, patience in difficult times, and good health. In the more down-to-earth spirit of our times, Mr. Secretary General, the least I can do is wish you good health, patience in difficult times, and the protection of our patron saints.

I decided to write to you after some hesitation, not knowing whether it was the proper thing to do. Three months have elapsed since an event took place that moved me greatly. It occurred to me to write to you at the time, but I discarded the idea as somewhat eccentric. A sober inner voice was telling me: You’re crazy, what are you getting excited about, so they broke into your apartment, so they went through your files, and carried away part of your belongings; but you haven’t committed any crime, just wait a while! I felt humiliated, but at the same time I was pleased that nothing worse had happened. But the months are passing, and I am beginning to realize what I have to live with from day to day: the expectation that they will come again, or call me in, and the feeling of miserable gratitude for every day in which nothing happens.

I have arrived at my decision to write you for the following reasons: My anger and my feeling of being humiliated continue and are growing stronger. The time limit I set in my mind—for them either to tell me what crime I committed, or else to apologize to me—has elapsed. And in the meantime, another portentous event has taken place—the joint Apollo-Soyuz flight.

Last April, you visited our city of Prague. Charles University conferred upon you, in addition to your Viennese doctorate of law, the degree of Doctor of Law honoris causa, and you said: “About two thirds of mankind lives in conditions that are virtually unknown in the developed world….” What you had in mind was hunger, illiteracy, disease, and war. Our two neighboring countries are considered developed, and, as poverty goes, are almost spoiled. Sometimes one is given to guilt feelings on the Jaspers scale: criminal guilt through metaphysical guilt. And if one is guilty, one should rightly hold one’s tongue, and not boldly attach one’s voice to the indictment.

For that reason, I keep telling myself, sarcastically of course, that I have, or we have, what we wanted, and that I can’t, or we can’t, blame anyone for the conditions in which we here are obliged to live. Do I not, as a Czech, share the guilt, for example, for the disintegration of Austria-Hungary, although that happened long before I was born? In my early childhood, I unleashed the Second World War. Later, I played my part in the establishment and the petrifaction of the two zones in Europe. Today a share of the blame for the Helsinki conference and its (still unknown and unexpected) consequences hovers over my head. That, I might say, is my metaphysical guilt. As a former member of the Communist Party (of Czechoslovakia) I share in the moral guilt for what eventually became of the high revolutionary ideal of social justice in some higher, “people’s” democracy. I cannot, however, find in myself any direct political guilt: I never even earned enough confidence within the Party to be entrusted with the smallest office or function; as a writer I belonged to Her Majesty’s internal opposition.

And as for criminal guilt, I feel none, and I look for none within myself. But this is precisely what they are trying to pin on me. Naturally I must defend myself. I am angry and I yell at them. But deep down inside, from a somewhat more metaphysical point of view, I am not all that angry either. I say to myself: that’s the way things are in this world, and perhaps that’s the way they are meant to be. But on the first plane of reality, we are all motivated—they are and we are—more by day-to-day necessity than by our better selves. That is why I find it difficult to live as anyone’s enemy, an attitude with which, I am sure, you will sympathize, Mr. Secretary General.

But I have a difficult case for you as a lawyer, sir. In the autumn of 1969, criminal proceedings were initiated against me for “subversion of the republic,” because I was a co-author of a public petition addressed to the supreme authorities of the state. The petition expressed disagreement with developments after August 1968. In the autumn of 1970 eight signers of the petition were indicted, and a trial was scheduled. A day before the case was to go before the court, the trial was postponed indefinitely, and the authorities claimed that no trial was ever intended and that reports of it were spread by rumor-mongers. In the autumn of 1973, new criminal proceedings were initiated against me for an interview with British television. That too hit a snag somehow, no indictment was ever filed, but the proceedings have not been stopped or called off, no one has said anything to me since, and I don’t know what my legal position might be, as I properly should and as I would in any more normal legal system.

They took away my passport, demoted me from the rank of first lieutenant in the (military) reserves to that of a private (so what?), and established a permanent watch over me, encompassing all my contacts (postal, telephone, friendly, foreign-language, sexual, and others), in order to isolate me from society and to limit my activity to a few insignificant everyday essentials. Furthermore, once criminal proceedings have been initiated, an arrest can be ordered at any time, e.g., for reasons of “continuation in illegal activity”; so that I am not sure if I should speak on foreign television again, or write to, say, friends in the US. Is there a name for a situation like mine? Is there a term for it in legal language? Is there a precedent—I mean in times of peace?

I suspect that the postponed trial back in 1970 actually took place after all: without the participation of the public or of the accused. And not in the building of the Municipal Court-house, but in an unknown building in a dusty attic, as described with such foresight by Franz Kafka. There I was condemned for an unknown crime to an unknown sentence, my sons and I.

Now I see that, while I was trying to make a point in the previous paragraph, mention of my sons slipped onto the paper, automatically, logically, and truthfully. I have three sons. And the thought of them, at this moment, suddenly calms me down again, and restores me to a higher sense of reality. That is, to the thought that whatever happens, happens for some good reason, and perhaps deservedly—and maybe even for a cause, and with justification. So then it is no misfortune or punishment when children suffer the same fate as their parents; on the contrary, it would be worse if someone were to tear children away from the destiny of their parents, disrupt the continuity of consciousness in a family, in a nation, in the population of a continent.

I even think (I’m being malicious again) that a state that expels any child from its grace is acting involuntarily—but more effectively than it ever could by using its natural inclination to salvage in its subjects the seeds of future courage and of the nation’s honor. Or do you think that I am just making myself feel better, as guilty ironists and skeptical optimists would? If that were so, my dear Mr. Secretary General, I would be misreading your statement, made in Prague when receiving your honorary doctorate, in which you described the state of the world as offering much that is discouraging—and much that is encouraging.

Late last April, a group of members of the State Security came to my home to carry out, with the approval of the Prosecutor General, a search of the premises, because there was allegedly a suspicion that I was concealing papers that provided evidence of the criminal act of subverting the republic. Who was to have committed the criminal act was not stated. But, according to the new penal code, it seems that I do not have to be the suspected culprit myself for my premises to be searched for evidence of the act. It is thus possible to search any apartment, and either something is found, or it is not. Can that happen in any other country—I mean in times of peace? I mean in a country with a European background?

During the search various things were removed, mostly books, magazines, notes, manuscripts of my friends that I had borrowed, correspondence, photographs, tape recordings, but nothing was found that is covered by the term “illegal printed matter.” Since that time, no one has spoken to me, but at least fifteen people were interrogated about me. None of the confiscated items was returned to me, and my complaint to the Prosecutor General was turned over for action to the police investigator against whom I was filing the complaint.

Among the things that were probably lost in this manner was the manuscript of a book on which I had been working for several years. It is a novel whose slow plot is interspersed with observations and reflections about the landscape, people, and history. As the author, I am afraid I must state that it won’t be a “thriller.” It is to be a typically Czech novel. At best I might hope that—if it turns out very well—it might interest some other, contemplative readers inhabiting the basin between the Alps, the Carpathians, and the Sudetic mountains. I don’t know yet how the book will end, what I will add and what I will delete, but our State Security knows already that it will be a deleterious book. So that if I lend it to my friends or even go so far as to allow it to be published abroad, I will be guilty of the crime of sedition. Because, you see, this crime is committed when at least two persons are acquainted with a seditious text. All it would take would be for me to 1) give the manuscript to a typist to retype, and 2) lend it, say, to my friend Karel Kosik (who also had a manuscript taken away from him, but his was on philosophy, which was certainly hard for them to read!).

Moreover: I don’t know what it is like in Vienna, but Charles University teaches that “the act of preparation of a crime is punishable by the penalty set for the crime itself” (Article 7.2 of the penal code). If I am writing a “deleterious” book, I naturally intend it to be read by someone, in other words I am committing the act of preparation of a crime. That is not poetic license; it is logical deduction. But, sir, allow me some poetic license now: Suppose that by some ugly twist of fate it happened that in a recent year you had been in the ceremonial hall of Charles University to receive not an innocent honorary doctorate of law but an ordinary one, and you had then become a judge in our country. You would have had to sentence many a Czech author (with six hundred years of Charles University behind you) to three years for a manuscript found on his desk (according to Article 100), and to between one and five years should he submit the manuscript for publication. In the case of myself, a man with two open criminal proceedings, you, sir, would certainly give me “the works”—sorry, the maximum sentence.

Forgive me, Mr. Secretary General, for having evoked in you such a loathsome image, but at least you can see what kind of person I am and how I irritate them. I only wanted to stress the difference between two types of doctorates of law as they have developed in our dear old basin between the Alps, the Carpathians, and the Sudetic mountains. Once again I apologize, and as an indication of my conviction that you could never become a jurist of the kind described, I must confide to you that I do indeed have things in the confiscated manuscript that are seditious, at least in our pre-Helsinki conditions. If you see what I mean, I wrote those things because I fell victim to a feeling that, in my own home, in my apartment, no one could see me or hear me. Say, it was nighttime and I felt sorrow or indignation. I put it on paper, freely, as it used to be before the war. Or as it was during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or as if it were peacetime. Ever since that event last April, I am unable to think calmly of my absent unfinished book. When I put a sheet of paper in my typewriter, nothing creeps onto it but protest. The world is enthusiastic over the Americans and the Russians screwing together two spaceships, and I, far beneath them, am miserably worried about my papers. And so I am expounding these worries in a lay juristic essay, in the form of this letter to you, which I have decided to publish. And I would like to ask you, Mr. Secretary General, should you find at least some justification in my views, to submit them for expertise to a team of qualified lawyers.

All states, if they wish to appear in decent company at international conferences, consider it necessary to guarantee freedom of the individual in their constitutions. Because this freedom is an integral part of the European heritage. It is also Europe’s greatest invention throughout its history. But—and this is not only my own opinion—the times call for better care to be taken, somehow, of the functioning of this invention. For example: What are the limits of man as an individual? His nose, his heel, his hand, or perhaps the line that emanates from the pen in his hand? Until now, it seemed to be permitted for a person to shift his thoughts from one side of his brain to another. But may he also place them on the table before him, the better to examine them and put them in some sequence?

In my country this already has become controversial, sir, and I am telling this to you because if this is not sharply curtailed, an ugly precedent will have been set in Europe. It cannot be repaired by someone simply returning my papers to me or his papers to my friend Kosik (and there are more of us!). Something more should happen. Otherwise, I see no guarantees that, in the alleged interest of an even better protection of the law, the police will not enter my apartment as soon as I have sat down at my desk and ask, “What do you intend to think about? Come with us!”

And from there it will only be a step—in any other country of that sort—to introduce into the heads of newborn infants an apparatus that will record the shifting of their nascent thoughts from the left half of their skulls to the right. Such an apparatus, then, at some later stage, will permit the control of whole populations from a mere two spaceships, one over the eartern hemisphere, the other over the western. Through this operation on newborn infants, simple like a vaccination, done, of course, in the interest of peace and friendship on the planet Earth, the danger will be eliminated that somewhere on its surface there will remain a tiny seed of future courage and honor of nations.

My dear Mr. Secretary General, that is almost all that I have been thinking. The rest I could communicate to you only perhaps as to a metaphysical fellow culprit. And only, dear sir, if we were both guaranteed at least a square meter of privacy in that dear old basin of ours.

I shall await word from you. In the meantime I wish you faith in the meaningfulness of your work, and also success. And above all, lest I forget, good health, patience in trials, and the harmless protection of the patron saints.

Respectfully yours,

Ludvík Vaculík

Prague, July 29, 1975

  1. 1

    From his introduction to The Guinea pigs by Ludvík (Penguin Books, 1975).

  2. 2

    Reviewed by Neal Ascherson in The New York Review, August 10, 1972.

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