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The Persecution of Jiri Grusa

A.J. Liehm, translated by Tamar Jacoby

On June 1, ten years after the Soviet invasion, the Czech government arrested Jirí Grusa, who is, according to his older colleague Pavel Kohout, probably the most talented Czech prose writer to have appeared since the war. It seemed at first that Grusa was only one of the dozens of Czech intellectuals arrested on the eve of Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Prague, and that like the rest he would soon be released. But the Czech authorities, perhaps encouraged by the example of the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, decided differently. Jirí Grusa was put under close surveillance. He was released at the end of July, but is still awaiting trial. The warrant for his arrest, issued by the Administration for Investigation of State Security, and dated June 2, stated that

Jirí Grusa…is accused of the crime of initiating disorder. The facts prove that in 1974, for reasons of hostility toward the socialist Czech regime, he wrote a novel called The Questionnaire which contains grave calumnies against socialism and the Czech social system. He himself made nineteen copies of this work and distributed them to his friends. He sent three more copies to Switzerland, in the hope that the novel would be published there…signed: Chief of Instruction, Captain J. Skoblík.

That was the crime. The punishment could be three years in prison.

A delegation of dissident writers, made up of Václav Havel, Karol Sidon, and Ludvík Vaculík, tried immediately to intercede on Grusa’s behalf with the president of the Czech Writers’ Union, Josef Rybák. He refused to speak to them, explaining, “The Union is concerned only with its own members [who are carefully selected for political reasons]. Talk to the police. I have nothing to say to you.”

Since this attempt to intervene directly, a group of more than twenty Czech writers—including the internationally known Ivan Klíma and Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, and the national artist and poet Jaroslav Seifert, who has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature—has distributed an open letter which begins with the following description of the incriminating book:

The hero of the novel,1 who is looking for work in a large business, is asked—as one always is here—to fill out a questionnaire about his past, his character and his political attitudes. Unlike many people, the hero gives serious attention to the inane questions of the typically stupid questionnaire, and he tries to answer them.2 The novel is thus his long response to the rather perverse questions that certain authorities ask of people: Where do you come from? Who was your father, your grandfather, your great-grandfather…?

The hero begins an introspective search that leads him to wonder about even his genes. He tries to remember what kind of substance he is made of, and what form that substance took before World War I and World War II and even the Austro-Prussian War of 1886. Grusa writes brilliant prose, and he is concerned here with his favorite subject: Where did man begin? In what manner? How is it that his individual consciousness and destiny are not identical with the collective consciousness and destiny of his nation? What dark, or enlightening, influences are responsible for the emergence of the individual?

The novel ends in 1968, but Grusa pays little attention to current events. The book is neither allegory nor political satire. That would not be Grusa’s way: for him the present political situation in Czechoslovakia is not worth the trouble it takes to think seriously about it—not even for an hour.

Since 1969 Grusa has not been allowed to publish a single line from his new manuscripts, which include a collection of poems called Prayer to Jeannine, his earliest fiction, The Gambit of the Queen, and the fantasy novel Mimner. He works for a construction company, and writes only in his free time. He takes very little part in political activities because he firmly believes that literature can best serve liberty through the literary work. Ideologically he could be called a non-Marxist socialist:

Why was he alone chosen by the authorities? Since the annihilation of Czech literature in 1968, a new generation has grown up, and with it new authors have emerged. Because of the current regime’s cultural politics, Czechoslovakia has no place for these new authors…. Some of them have reacted by trying to publish their manuscripts in the Czech samizdat, which is called Petlice [Padlock] Editions. The persecution of Grusa is meant to intimidate all of these authors.

Perhaps the authorities chose Grusa because he is not yet well known outside Czechoslovakia and they thought few foreigners would take up his cause. But that was a mistake, because Grusa will soon be famous. First for his brilliant novel. But also for his trial—if he gets one—the trial of a work of art! It would be a shameful spectacle even in a backward country! Something not to be missed! It is an advertisement that should make the Czech literary agency DILIA blush.

But there is a third possible explanation why only Grusa was arrested. Someone wanted to see what would happen, to see if it were possible to do it. What would happen if they locked us all up? We couldn’t do very much about it except try to arouse public opinion. Everyone would have to decide for himself what to think and what to do….”

Thus the Czech government prepares to add to its sad record for “normalization” yet another case: the trial of a literary work and its author. The trial of an unpublished book, a manuscript of which the author has made “nineteen copies.” That is an idea that deserves the attention of writers and intellectuals throughout the world.

translated by Tamar Jacoby

  1. 1

    To be published in France by Gallimard and in Switzerland by Bucher.

  2. 2

    One thinks immediately of Ernst von Salomon’s novel Fragebogen. But the difference between him and Grusa is fundamental. Grusa’s novel is a major work in the tradition of twentieth-century prose begun by Joyce and Proust.

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