Czech Nightmares

Werner Paul, translated by Gitta Honegger

Listy (“Letters”) Rome, Italy) June 1981, no. 3-4

Journal of the Czech Socialist Opposition (Via Torre Argentina 21,

Summer and Indian Summer Reading” was the title of an eighty-two page literary supplement accompanying the June issue of the important Czech exile magazine Listy. Now in its twelfth year, Listy is published in Rome by Jirí Pelikán, who had been director of Czech television prior to the August invasion and is now the representative of the Italian socialists at the European Parliament. He and his staff, above all A.J. Liehm, who was before 1968 an important Czech journalist and is today professor of Slavic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, apparently wanted to show their consideration for their “vacationing readers’ immediate needs” by offering them something different from the usual articles about politics economics, and philosophy, that is, a selection from the literary output of seventeen Czech writers.

This publication would hardly deserve more than a short notice—after all, there are many magazines offering literary supplements today—were it not for the fact that it offers an opportunity to describe the abnormal conditions of literary life in Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, what the editors call (in inverted commas) their “vacationing readers’ immediate needs” is far from the kind of undemanding summer reading one might expect. The authors represented in Listy span several generations: the oldest among them, Jaroslav Seifert, a literary figure who commands the highest regard and popularity, just turned eighty on September 23. Their styles vary drastically. They are scattered all over the world from Toronto via Lisbon and Paris to Prague and Brno. Aside from the fact that they all write in Czech, they have only one thing in common: they are prohibited from being published in their native country. Therefore, Listy‘s survey—even though the list of authors is far from representative—stands as a sample for this particular brand of literature.

Among these writers is Milan Kundera, fifty-two, one of the few contemporary Czech writers who accomplished the leap into world literature from a French starting point. His conversation with Philip Roth, originally published in the New York Times Book Review of November 30, 1980 on the occasion of the American publication of his Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is reprinted in Listy. There is also Josef Skvorecký, fifty-seven, whose well-known novel The Cowards (also published in the United States and England) had inaugurated the renaissance of Czech writers in the Sixties. He now lives in Toronto, where he teaches and also heads, together with his writer-wife Zdena Salivarova, 68 Publishers, the most important Czech publishing company today. That it is located in Toronto instead of in Prague is symptomatic.

Also represented in Listy is Jirí Grusa, forty-three, whose present stay in West Germany for purposes of study has been officially sanctioned by the CSSR government. This is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that Grusa’s indictment in 1978 for “inciting dissent” had never been followed through with an actual trial. The “incriminating evidence” was Grusa’s novel The Questionnaire, which, according to official charges, had been written out of …

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