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 …

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