An Upheaval for Czech Readers

Ivan Klima, translated by Paul Wilson

About a year and a half ago I took part in a conference in Turin on culture in the post-Communist countries. Included on the agenda was publishing. Most of the participants came from Central Europe, and their contributions were like lamentations by the rivers of Babylon: the book market was flooded with trash; people had ceased to take an interest in worthwhile art; literature had lost its sense of mission; writers had lost their themes and their status which, until only recently, resembled in many respects the status of prophets.

I vehemently disagreed; such wailing seemed to me not only like cowardice in the face of new circumstances, but also like a blasphemous disregard for a barely attained and still insecure freedom. Nevertheless, I admit that in the post-Communist countries the material conditions for the flourishing of culture, and thus of literature, are not simple.

Let me cite an example from my own experience. In February 1990, after having been banned for twenty years, my first book came out in Prague. It was My Merry Mornings, and it was brought out by a practically unknown publisher who came to Prague immediately following the November revolution in 1989 from London, where he had published Czech literature in tiny editions. Although it was a book of short stories, he printed 100,000 copies and because the book quickly sold out he immediately printed another 50,000. At the same time, an established state publishing house brought out my novel Love and Garbage, also in an edition of 100,000. Later that year, three more of my books appeared, all of them written in the Seventies and Eighties: they too quickly sold out. Less than two years later the publisher who had brought out My Merry Mornings published my novel Judge on Trial in a print run of 15,000 and managed to sell only two thirds of the copies. My most recent novel, published before Christmas 1993, sold only 5,000 copies. Where had all my readers gone? Had I disappointed them? Or had the object of their interest changed completely? And is a sale of 5,000 copies of a novel really such a small number in a country of ten million?

I mention my own experience only to illustrate the dynamic process that took place, and is still taking place, in the book market in our country. The same fate was shared by most of the writers who, until recently, had been banned or unpublished, beginning with Franz Kafka and ending with Nobel prize laureates like Solzhenitsyn and Czeslaw Milosz.

There are many reasons for this change, some of them entirely nonliterary. The first is a declining interest in what might be called dissident or non-conformist culture. This decline has several causes. The initial postrevolutionary enthusiasm for that literature might be explained, for instance, by curiosity. What had all those forbidden works been about anyway? What taboos had they shattered? What message had they conveyed? The moment such curiosity was …

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