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That Old Czech Magic

The Questionnaire, or Prayer for a Town and a Friend

by Jirí Grusa, translated by Peter Kussi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $15.95

Books written in Eastern Europe often have dramatic destinies. In that part of the world, life is more than usually inclined to imitate art: the writer who imagines a gulag may—to take the simplest example—find himself in a gulag. The scholar who points out the deformations of official history will soon read amazing versions of his own career, while the poet intrigued by the informer and the provocateur will probably be rewarded with more raw material than he would wish to absorb.

But even by these standards, the fate of Jiri Grusa’s The Questionnaire reached a special pinnacle of the grotesque. It was as if Bleak House had plunged Dickens into an interminable Victorian lawsuit, or as if swarthy foreign agents had pursued John Buchan across Scottish moors because of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Questionnaire, as the title tells, is organized around the list of stupid, prying questions that every Czech citizen must fill in these days before he is allowed to take a job. It is also about the sort of people who, in every generation, endeavor to reduce human beings to the status of ball bearings.

Grusa wrote this novel in 1974, and circulated the manuscript among friends. In June 1978, he was arrested, and a certain Captain Smolik of State Security then issued a questionnaire to Messrs. Hoferek and Nussberger of the Prague censorship bureau inviting them to answer a set of questions on the “document” by “Jiri Grusa, born 18.11.38, housing co-operative technician…accused of an inflammatory act under Article 100, paragraph 1, note(a) of the Criminal Code.”

The two censors set to work, and their completed questionnaire on The Questionnaire, now available in the West, remains a monument to servile imbecility that has few rivals. A few selections:

He completely refuses to communicate by means of generally accepted criteria of the moral and ethical principles of our socialist society. The novel…purports to show subjective views and attitudes as objective descriptions of an existing situation….

The novel offends the strong internationalist feelings of our people and throws doubt on our friendship and co-operation with the people of the USSR…. The author attacks our socialist society indirectly yet quite intensively…in particular where people of merit, i.e., Comrades, are concerned.

The humor probably took time to be appreciated by Grusa himself, who spent two months in jail and was then induced to emigrate to the West. Protests were made on his behalf to the Czech Writers’ Union* by Czechoslovakia’s most celebrated writers, including Václav Havel, Jaroslav Seifert, and Ludvik Vaculik, but since the Union had long ago decreed that they were unworthy of the title of writer and expelled them, it took no notice whatever.

Messrs. Hoferek and Nussberger thought that the novel was a sort of counterrevolutionary tract or satire. The well-known Czech critic A.J. Liehm, who now lives in the United States, even compared The Questionnaire to Joyce and Proust, a judgment that says something about Grusa’s handling of time and memory but not enough about the specifically national tradition in which he writes.

Since the Sixties, the West has been aware that the Czech novel has entered a period of very high achievement, with Vaculik and Milan Kundera especially emerging as leading figures in European literary culture. Why this should have happened in these decades, at a time of national tragedy and of repression so intense that none of the later work of these superb writers has been published in its native country, remains puzzling; desperate season are not usually fertile for novelists. But Jiri Grusa, the “housing co-operative technician” who in 1978 was already a distinguished writer—he had moved from poetry into fiction—must now be counted with the other names of the Czech renaissance.

The Questionnaire is not an easy novel to describe. Subtitled “Prayer for a Town and a Friend,” it is ostensibly a reply to the questionnaire of Comrade Pavlenda, personnel officer of the Granit enterprise. In effect Pavlenda is asking the narrator, Jan Chrysostom Kepka, who he is. The answers come in a grand flow of recollection and fantasy, even of magic and dreams. But there is nothing soft or evasive about these supernatural elements; similar forms of religious and magical imagery are used by Vaculik and even by the more classical Kundera. They seem to come naturally in the country where Emperor Rudolf II once collected the most adept alchemists and wizards of the Continent.

Jan Kepka draws vitality from horoscopes, soars over the half-imaginary town of Chlumec borne by wild geese, comes to life again unharmed after real Russian troops riddle him with bullets during the 1968 invasion. At the same time, the novel is a “prayer” for Chlumec (there are several places of that name, but this Chlumec, carefully illustrated by the author in the endpapers, seems to be an imaginative mixture of several Bohemian towns), an ancient settlement whose people have survived all the invasions and occupations and regimes of some two thousand years.

How can Kepka answer Pavlenda’s questions without knowing the secret history of this place, and of its dead generations? How did Chlumec survive the Habsburgs, the Prussians, the Nazis, the Stalinists, and finally the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, and how—this is closer to the deep purpose of the novel—do human beings transmit to each other the power to feel ecstasy, freedom, and hope in a part of Europe so comprehensively trodden underfoot as Bohemia has been through the centuries? Jan Kepka is born in Chlumec just before the Second World War. One of his cousins, called Uncle Olin, becomes his friend and counselor, transmitter of wisdom when he is not away in England fighting with the Royal Air Force or hewing uranium underground as a political prisoner under the communists. An uncle, Bonek, displays that other Czech talent for bureaucracy and becomes the officious Party secretary in Chlumec.

For Jan Kepka, the secret of such survival seems to lie in his genes. There is a lot of rich lovemaking in this book: at Jan’s own conception, between Jan and the woman who teaches him the piano, among his lusty ancestors, with the tall German beauty who strides into Chlumec with all the arrogance and promise of the forbidden West. Grusa’s enthusiastic accounts of sex much distressed the two gentlemen from the censor’s office, Messrs. Hoferek and Nussberger, who reproached him with “intentional lewdness.” But the real intention of the lewdness is to celebrate the anarchic and mysterious nature of sexual attraction, and the way genetic characteristics are smuggled down with a prodigality no Party committee can restrain.

Kepka comes from the line of Jewish Jakub, who led an Adamite sect under the Emperor Joseph and was deported for it. Jakub’s daughter Katerina mates in a snowstorm in 1803 with Ignac Trubac, smuggling the “black-olive, chrysoberyl eyes” she got from her father to her granddaughter Alzbeta—the daughter of a merchant who died of fright when the Prussians stormed Chlumec in 1866 and of a blue-eyed town poetess—and the eyes pass on down to Alice, Jan’s mother, gleaming as she conceives him under the bushes in the year of Munich. All these figures, and their dreams and private symbols, weave through this book with the friends and relations and enemies of Jan Kepka’s own life, with his dogs and bicycles.

The following passage shows something of the close interweaving of Grusa’s technique. It takes place during the Nazi occupation. Amdas senior is the German commander at Chlumec, Herman Vohryzek was a Jew.

The carriage climbed up the hill, we saw the Amdas villa, where Herman Vohryzek used to live before he was forbidden to buy raisins, travel by boat, etc. (in landlocked Chlumec—where the only body of water was the White River), and before they chased him into the former wax factory, where he mutely pounded beef bones. From the carriage I saw the villa and in the garden a gazebo and in the gazebo young Amdas, that beautiful child, who was grazing peacocks…. Little Amdas seemed like a magician to me: he waved his magic rod and giant flowers sprang up, burst into a spectrum of greens and blues, wavy contours undulated and merged with the fin-de-siècle outlines of the iron fence and the fin-de-siècle villa on the slope….

The Nazis come and there are mass executions; the Russian soldiers arrive as liberators and Uncle Bonek self-importantly takes them around the town. Just as Bonek and his Party are closing the family brewery and nationalizing the family chocolate factory, the local moth-collector Mr. Vostarek designs his own hang glider and leaps off the hill. His fall, in a smash of canvas and broken bones, is the end of a moment of wild optimism about the future. Jan grows up and embarks on a difficult affair with a widow, whose husband once saw a treasure buried in the castle rock and defended by a magical serpent. The evil times close in once more. Now Uncle Olin is arrested and sent to the mines; Jan does his military service under a psychotic lieutenant who used to be the hangman.

But the seasons are slowly changing again. Uncle Bonek, the officious Party secretary, catches a deadly chill and dies; he has defied the sixteenth-century curse laid upon anyone who opens the tomb of Jost, the ancient seigneur of Chlumec. When he had the stone slab lifted, he was seized by invisible vapors of revenge rising from the black pit beneath. Bonek’s successor is a decent fellow (the only hint the reader gets that the “Prague Spring” of 1968 has arrived). Then, for the second time in twenty-three years, there are Russians in the streets. “The way they made themselves at home & set up their Cyrillic typewriter, it was clear they had come to stay.” And a queer, rust-yellow cat from which Jan and Olin hoped to raise a new breed—the symbol of this cat dodges in and out of the novel throughout its length—breaks from its pen and vanishes into the hills.

No summarizing can do more than suggest how rich this novel is. It is complex, confident, luminous. It is about the modesty of ordinary Czech life, and about the angels and demons that sustain that life. The Questionnaire is a brilliant addition to the novels of the “Czech School.” It has the crystalline sense of place and detail that Josef Skvorecky achieved in his early novels, the ominous and surreal pressure of Vaculik’s Guinea-Pig, a magical quality present also in Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. Readers of The Questionnaire can be confident that Grusa’s talent, though not yet achieving the very high quality of Kundera’s recent work, is strong enough to carry him across the trauma of exile.

  1. *

    See NYR, November 9, 1978.

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