For a combination of different reasons, my first period of imprisonment was very hard to bear, but I’ve already mentioned this in another place,…and I’ve written about it as well, and there’s no point in repeating myself here. The worst time for me was the final week, when I already suspected that I was about to be released and publicly disgraced at the same time, partly through my own fault. I could only sleep about an hour a day, and I spent the rest of the time in my cell tormenting myself and my cell mate (a petty thief who robbed grocery stores—I wonder where he is now?). He bore it all with great patience, he understood me exactly, and he tried to help me; if I could, I’d buy him a supermarket of his own out of sheer gratitude.
The public disgrace was worse than I’d expected: they said, for instance, that I’d given up the position of spokesman in prison, which wasn’t true; the truth is that I had decided to resign (naturally my resignation would have been submitted to those who had entrusted me with the job in the first place, not to the police) for reasons which I still believe were reasonable. But I did not resign while in prison: I merely did the immensely stupid thing of not keeping my intention to resign a secret from my interrogator.
The first days after my return, my state of mind was such that every mad-house in the world would have considered me a suitable case for treatment. In addition to all the familiar, banal symptoms of postprison psychosis, I felt boundless despair mingled with a sort of madcap euphoria. The euphoria was intensified by the discovery that things outside were completely different from the way I’d imagined they would be. The Charter had not been destroyed; on the contrary, it was going through its heroic phase. I was astonished at the scope of its work, at the response it had had, at the explosion of writing it had inspired, at the marvelous atmosphere of solidarity in its midst. I had the intense feeling that, during my few months in prison, history had taken a greater step forward than during the preceding eight years. (Much of the atmosphere of that time has long since evaporated; the heroic period of the Charter has been supplanted by an era of sober and often distressing everyday cares—and if this had not happened, it would have been against all the laws of life and nature.)
In time, of course, I recovered from the psychotic state of those first few days and weeks after my return from prison, but something of the inner contradictions and despair of that time remained within me and marked the two years between my release in May 1977 and my “definitive” imprisonment in May 1979. I became involved in all sorts of ways, and I may have gone somewhat overboard; I was too uptight, if not hysterical, driven by the longing to “rehabilitate myself” from my own public humiliation. I was a co-founder of VONS 20 ; I became a spokesman for the Charter again; I engaged in various polemics (about that time, the Charter went through its first crisis, one that was inevitable and completely useful: a new and deeper inquiry into its own meaning). I was even sent to Ruzyne Prison for six more weeks; it was an unsuccessful attempt to put me out of circulation, with the help of a fabricated indictment for disturbing the peace. They were very good weeks indeed. Each week I spent in prison I understood as another small step toward my “rehabilitation,” and I took delight in that.
Another factor that contributed to my nervousness, understandably, was the increasing pressure the police put on the Charter and on me personally. I was constantly “shadowed”; there were interrogations; the local authorities plotted against me; I was under house arrest several times, and this was made more piquant by insults and threats; “unknown perpetrators” broke into our dwelling and vandalized it, or they did all sorts of damage to my car. It was an exciting time, what with attacks by the police, escaping from shadows, crawling through the woods, hiding out in the flats of co-conspirators, house searches, and dramatic moments when important documents were eaten.
It was also at this time that we had meetings with the Polish dissidents on our common border (the notorious anti-hiker Havel was compelled to walk to the summit of Snezka five times, but there was a reward: he was able to meet and establish permanent friendships with Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, and other members of KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee). I can remember more than one incredible story from that period, the kind of story that to this day I would hesitate to make public for fear of harming someone. As all of this increased in degree, it became clearer and clearer to me that it would all come to a bad end and that I would most probably end up in prison again.
This time, though, I wasn’t afraid of the prospect. I now knew roughly what to expect, I knew that whether my stay in prison was going to have any value in general terms depended entirely on me, and I knew that I would stand the test. I had come to the conclusion—and it may seem overly dramatic to put it like this, but I swear I mean it—that it is better not to live at all than to live without honor. (So there will be no misunderstanding: this is not a standard I apply to others, but is the private conclusion of one individual, a conclusion which I have drawn from my own practical experience, and which has proved practical for me in the sense that in extreme situations it simplifies decisions that I have to make about myself.) If my intuition told me that I was headed for prison, as it had in 1977, then this time, unlike 1977, it was not merely a premonition of something unknown, but a clear awareness of what it would mean: quiet perseverance and its unavoidable outcome, several hard years in prison.
When they finally did lock me up during their campaign against VONS, all my former uneasiness suddenly vanished: I was calm and reconciled to what would follow, and I was certain within myself. None of us knows in advance how we will behave in an extreme and unfamiliar situation (I don’t know, for example, what I would do if I were physically tortured), but if we are certain at least about how we will respond to situations that are more or less familiar, or at least roughly imaginable, our lives are wonderfully simplified. The almost four years in prison that followed my arrest in May 1979 constituted a new and separate stage of my life.
In prison, you wrote an extensive book of essays, called Letters to Olga, but for obvious reasons there is nothing in them about the prison itself. What did you do there? What kind of work were you assigned to?
When I was in prison I thought constantly about what I would eventually write about it, and how. I tried to remember all those curious yet moving, comic yet shocking, strange yet typical experiences I had there. I thought about how one day I would describe the incredibly absurd situations I got into. I looked forward at the very least to rendering some colorful, Hrabalesque eyewitness account of the countless, weirdly complex human destinies I encountered there. And I was frustrated by not being able to make even some rudimentary notes on paper.
But when I got out again, I suddenly realized that I would probably never write anything about prison. It’s hard to explain why this is so; certainly not because my memories of that dark period in my life are too painful or depressing, or because they would open old wounds. I think there is a whole set of different reasons behind it. In the first place I’m not a narrative author, I can’t write stories, and always forget them anyway. In other words, I’m no Hrabal. In the second place, life outside keeps me too busy, and too frequently comes at me with themes of its own, which I experience directly, immediately, right now. It leaves me no time to return to the utterly different and remote world of my years in prison.
In the third place, the most important thing about it is incommunicable. No, I mean it: it was a deeply existential and deeply personal experience, and as such I’m simply unable to pass it on. Of course, there are a lot of things that, with a little effort, I could recall and describe, for better or worse, but I’m afraid that, when it comes right down to it, they’d all be superficial things, the surface outlines of events, situations, actions, and characters, not their inner and personally lived essence, and it would probably end up distorting the whole thing rather than doing it justice. You know what I mean: twenty or thirty years ago, in the army, we had a lot of obscure adventures, and years later we tell them at parties, and suddenly we realize that those two very difficult years of our lives have become lumped together into a few episodes that have lodged in our memory in a standardized form, and are always told in a standardized way, in the same words. But in fact that lump of memories has nothing whatsoever to do with our experience of those two years in the army and what it has made of us.
I tried a couple of times, experimentally, to give a coherent account of prison, and each time I realized that, for all my pedantically precise description of all the factographic details, I was missing the essence of things by a fatally wide margin. That remained hidden behind the factography and, in a strange way, was even falsified by it. Enough has been written about prisons and concentration camps, and in that literature are books evoking that experience in a genuinely suggestive and authentic way. I remember, for instance, the marvelous picture of a concentration camp in [Ferdinand] Peroutka’s The Cloud and the Waltz, or some passages from Solzhenitsyn or [Karel] Pecka. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it—all the more so because I don’t feel like doing it. And rather than miss the meaning of that experience, it’s better not to deal with it at all. So I’d rather not talk about prison at all, though I will respond to the concrete part of your question.
In Hermanice I first worked as a spot welder, and I welded together metal gratings. For several months I couldn’t fill the quota, but, then, fellows twenty years younger, physically stronger, and accustomed to physical work couldn’t fill it either. In any case, that’s why they assigned me to that work, so that when I failed to fulfill the quotas they’d have an excuse to go on tormenting me in all sorts of different ways. The so-called nonfulfillers in prison are pariahs among pariahs; they’re punished in various ways, used for work after work, and given less food (that didn’t bother me), and their pocket money is docked, and they are constantly accused of loafing and ridiculed for it by the police and some of the other prisoners. After several months I was assigned to better work (the contrast between my work classification and my fitness was starting to be noticeable, and there was a danger that news of my health would get out), but I must add that it was at a time when I was beginning to fulfill the norms after all, which gave them fewer opportunities to torment and exploit me.
Next I worked with a big oxyacetylene welder, cutting flanges out of enormous, thick pieces of metal. Jirí Dienstbier21 and I took turns on it, and both of us fulfilled the quotas. After I was shifted to Bory, I worked in the laundry, which was a very exclusive place to work (the human relationships were worse there, however: almost everyone informed on everyone else), and finally I was assigned to work in a scrap-metal plant, where I stripped the insulation off wires and cables; even that wasn’t too bad, as long as you could get used to the cold and the endless filth. Work in prisons is slave labor but it’s also intended to be punishment. The quotas are double what they would be in civilian life. To that I should add that in prison of the first correctional category, where I was, work is generally considered by the prisoners as a psychological rest, and they all look forward to it. The remainder of the day provides better opportunities for general harassment, which is the main instrument of “reeducation.”
Do you think that you fulfilled the goals you set for yourself after you were sentenced? Did you come back from prison a more balanced person?
Once I was sentenced, I knew for certain that I’d be spending several years in prison. That kind of assurance, regardless of how well one is prepared for it, is an important watershed. Suddenly all one’s hierarchical values are changed. One’s chronological perspective is changed, and everything takes on a different meaning. I’m an inveterate bureaucrat, and finding my bearings in this new situation meant above all making a plan. It was a kind of instantaneous autotherapy.
I also knew that I would be better able to bear prison if I could manage to breathe some positive significance into it, turn it around to work in my favor, give it a value. I’ve already mentioned the despair I felt during the two years before my arrest, and the uptightness and excessive behavior that resulted. It was easy enough, therefore, to see that I would have to use that endless period when—as I imagined then—I would be no more than tiny, anonymous screw in the enormous prison machinery, to find inner calm, to rediscover the balance I once had, and to gain some kind of perspective on things. I remembered, rather nostalgically, how I’d been in the Sixties, a balanced, cheerful fellow with a healthy, ironic distance from everything, and not constantly bogged down in trauma and depression. Of course, I was no doubt idealizing my own youth, and my notions of what it would be like to serve my sentences were immensely naive. I had even hoped to write plays in prison, learn new languages, and God knows what else!
An even greater illusion was my hope that I would have peace and quiet in prison, and that I would be no more than “a tiny, anonymous screw”! Just the opposite happened. Prison was an endless chain of nerve-racking situations; I found myself being observed and monitored by an infinitely greater number of watchful eyes than during my darkest time in freedom. In a few days, I understood how foolish, at least externally, my plans had been. But this doesn’t mean that I gave them up entirely. So I tried, along another, immensely more tortuous little path, to proceed in that general direction, or at least to act in the spirit of my original plans. And as I’ve…said, my letters were immensely helpful in that regard.22 They were the only thing left that I could really do, and they became an area in which I tried to do something with myself, to achieve something, to clarify something.
I’m not the best judge of whether I returned from prison a more balanced man or not. I may have rid myself of that excessiveness I felt before my arrest. Yet some things are worse than before. I’m less capable of spontaneous delight, my periods of spleen are more frequent, and I need even more dogged determination to carry out the tasks I set for myself. My wife says I hardened in prison. I don’t know. If I have worsened, then it has only touched my inner self, my intimate self, my private self. In my work I may well be genuinely more balanced, more tranquil, and perhaps more understanding and tolerant too, and perhaps I’ve achieved a greater perspective. If I look over what I’ve done since my release, from the plays and essays I’ve written right down to less obvious civic acts, I have the impression that these things are true. (After all, even Largo Desolato, which is obviously my most personal play, is essentially a rather cold and surgical work!) Whether my impression is correct, however, is something best left to others to decide; I am truly not the most competent judge in these matters! But this progress—if it really is progress—is not free: it is obviously being paid for by a decline in my ability to be quite simply happy as a physical being….
—Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson