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.1 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 animosity toward the social structure in Czechoslovakia and was made available in nineteen copies. A first-person narrative, this novel is in fact an accomplished literary attempt to trace back to his childhood Jan Chrysostom Kepka’s conflicts with the Czech system of “cadre divisions,” which reduces a man to a questionnaire, and to interpret the narrator’s predicament through the history of his tribe and home town.

This novel gave Grusa a risky but deserved place in world literature. Initially published in German, it was followed by its Czech edition in Toronto and it will be published in the United States next summer.

But Listy also presents quite different personalities: for example, Frantisek Listopad, sixty, who had left his country after the communist takeover in February 1948. He has been earning his living as a journalist, director, television editor, and professor of literature in France and Portugal. For many years he had been ignored and nearly forgotten in Czechoslovakia, although throughout that time he had also continued to write in Czech.

The case of Karel Pecka, fifty-three, is completely different. One of the victims of Stalinist terror in Czechoslovakia, he spent 1949-1959 in prisons and labor camps, then worked as a stage technician before establishing himself as a promising prose and film-script writer between 1965 and 1969, only to join the list of prohibited authors after 1969. He now is a laborer. The Czech government has refused to allow him to accept an invitation to visit the US.

Eda Kriseová, forty-one, was originally a journalist. Her short story published in Listy tells about a village of butchers, where all human contacts, including man’s relationship to nature, the community, and his fellow man are reduced to processing every living thing into meat and sausages and to their nonstop consumption. Yet all this happens in a very real little town, “surrounded by the loveliest landscape replete with ponds, pebbles, pine-needles, and grass” as the author begins her narrative. The story is not a symbol-studded parable: it might be called a surgical probe, with the former reporter applying her curiosity and gift for accurate observation to a new purpose.

Kriseová’s metamorphosis into a fiction writer began in 1969, when she was prohibited from practicing her profession. She differs sharply from those over-intellectual contemporary authors who keep licking their own wounds as if they were the wounds of the world. Within the tiny worlds of her short stories, which take place in Bohemian towns and villages, in an insane asylum, Kriseová captures the tragedy, despair, and greatness of human existence with a suggestive power that is rare among modern writers.

What Listy refers to as its “vacationing readers’ immediate needs” turns out to be the luxury of mental concentration which is possible only during vacation. The samples offered in the literary supplement begin to suggest the scope and importance of the body of work which is generally known as prohibited Czech literature. In a few months, 68 Publishers will come out with an encyclopedia that will offer a nearly complete survey of this work. According to this trustworthy source (the book has been compiled over a period of several years by three “prohibited” authors) there are more than four hundred writers who cannot be published in the CSSR. This means among other things that there are several thousands of works written in Czech which only exist in manuscript form and are circulated in a few copies or published outside Czechoslovakia, either in Czech or in translation. This repression of a significant part of the national literature, which has been going on for more than ten years, not only hurts Czech literary life; it virtually cripples life in general, because it cuts the Czechs off from a vital aspect of their experience as a nation.

There are two urgent reasons for calling these facts to mind at this particular moment. The first is that on May 6 over a dozen apartments of black-listed intellectuals living in Czechoslovakia were searched, and this led to the arrest of eight of them who are still in jail awaiting trial. If and when those trials are to take place is a secret to all but the authorities. Literature is the issue once again. Among those arrested are three writers, Eva Kanturková, Jaromir Horec, and Milan Simecka, an excellent essayist from Bratislava. Furthermore, the whole affair was set in motion when two Czech border officials searched the car of two young Frenchmen and found, according to the official information service, “large quantities of ideologically offensive printed material.” What was actually found were magazines such as Listy and Svedectví. The latter is published in Paris and is the most comprehensive in its publication of prohibited authors. Also found were several volumes published by 68 Publishers and other exile publishing companies. The arrests were obviously an attempt to stop the circulation of prohibited literature and at the same time to isolate those advocates of toleration and reconciliation whom the regime finds “ideologically offensive.”2

Will it succeed? Ludvík Vaculík’s new book makes us painfully aware what a tragedy this would be. Originally entitled The Czech Book for the Interpretation of Dreams, this novel by the fifty-five-year-old author has just been published in Germany under the title Tagestraeume (Day Dreams). Writing in the first person, Ludvík Vaculík finds himself caught in a triple conflict: with the regime, which forces him into either isolation or emigration; with his fellow dissidents, whom he warns not to degenerate into carbon copies of the regime; and finally, with himself, a man over fifty, troubled by the feeling that life is running away from him, squeezed out of Prague by the regime that placed him in a suburb, behind his own private desk, surrounded by a little garden.

To free himself from this threefold entrapment he strikes out with the weapon he uses best: his own poetic language. It is firmly anchored in his childhood experience of the unity of man and nature. With this very personal language, Vaculík fights his way through the political machinery, ideological pressures, and the demands of technology and finds a path to the positive values of life, humanity, and nature. But those values are not easy to come by, as we see from Vaculík’s struggles for and with them in his encounters with the editor of his famous manuscript series Edice Petlice, with his friends, his wife and mistresses, even with the police when he is interrogated. He expresses this struggle in a language that breathes, moans, stammers, and smells, a language that is direct, colorful, and precise all at once.

Finishing this book we realize that a dissident’s factual journal has been transformed into a great novel and, as such, a significant contribution to the understanding of the situation of modern man both in the East and the West, where the usual pessimistic clichés are confronted both with existing possibilities and fresh ones. It is astonishing that of all people Ludvík Vaculík, a troubled man himself, could write such a book. This novel is the second important reason to talk about Czech literature, prohibited yet very much alive.

Listy’s literary supplement quotes the motto for the Cross-Current Festival, sponsored by the University of Michigan last winter: “To make Eastern Europe, its people, and countries an integral, living part of our global perspective.” The new persecution of all independent literature by the Czech police as well as Vaculík’s extraordinary achievement should incite people who care about culture to help realize that goal.

translated by Gitta Honegger

  1. 1

    The only partial exception is Jaroslav Seifert, who, because of his tremendous popularity, managed to get some of his work officially published.

  2. 2

    See Barbara C. Sproul, “Czechs in Trouble,” NYR, Nov. 5, 1981, p.50.