“That would be a real literary triumph: that those a book was aimed at would read the book and die. The trouble is that these characters don’t read….”
The speaker is Ludvík Vaculík, talking to A.J. Liehm in Prague in 1967. They meet in an empty apartment and lock the door behind them before Liehm, industrious and optimistic, takes out his pad and gets down to the interview for a book which in better times may even be published. Vaculík is reticent, almost surly. There is a bottle of Moravian wine and some stale fruitcake. Gradually Vaculík begins to talk more urgently. “What power—what group—finds it eternally necessary to make people as characterless and submissive as possible?… Why must peoples’ support be won only at the price of their moral devastation?”
Five years have passed. Liehm’s book has appeared, but in the West, and he now lives on Staten Island. Vaculík is in Czechoslovakia, disgraced and living in semi-destitution. Under a new flood of moral devastation, he inhabits an anonymous sea cave. But from those depths, there has somehow appeared a new novel, which is not merely his best so far but, I think, one of the major works of literature produced in postwar Eastern Europe.
The Guinea Pigs has appeared only in the West in a Czech version (“Morcata“) and in the present German version. There is no English translation yet either of The Guinea Pigs or of his earlier important novel, The Axe (1966), a lack which any responsible publisher ought now to put right. The prospects of publication in Prague can be considered nil at present. Those who, in Vaculík’s phrase, save their own lives by not reading will insist on sharing their immunity with the rest of the population.
In Prague, there lives a bank clerk. He lives in a small flat with his wife Eva, who works as a schoolteacher, and his two sons. He is petty, loving, possessive, autocratic: the little Haustyrann of the central European bourgeoisie. He cuffs his sons, without much result, and sometimes bullies his wife, with even less. They are amiable and deferential, but they elude him: they have small secrets.
In the bank, he too is deferential, even servile, but skeptical and inquisitive. Something queer is going on in the bank. Everybody takes money and tries to walk out with it. Everybody may be searched by the security guards at the door and their filched banknotes taken away again. This is regarded as quite normal. But there are undercurrents. There is a discrepancy between the money confiscated by the guards and the money returned to the bank. This worries the clerks. Somewhere there is developing a secret circulation of money, which might somehow undermine the whole economy, the whole society. One ancient employee speaks his mind at a meeting: this secret circulation is the first spiral of a whirling movement which will suck everything down with it—“The Maelstrom!” He is shushed. But he is up to something, some furtive activity in his cramped room on the top floor of the bank. The bank clerk begins to spy on him out of curiosity.
At home, he begins to keep guinea pigs. They are innocent, timid, active, oblivious. The two boys are absorbed by them. So is the clerk. At night, when everyone else is asleep, he plays with them. He tests their reactions, their intelligence. He experiments with them and manipulates them. He is fascinated by their tiny fears, their tiny turds. He feeds them measured doses of danger, then of terror, then of torture.
At the bank, the queernesses are beginning to ramify, without becoming any more comprehensible. Human beings degenerate into something minute and monstrous. The guinea pigs become the only human characters. Nothing is explicable, not even the actions of fathers and sons. The clerk’s search for explanations reveals only things that are disgusting and even more bewildering. Those who are too curious about what is happening fail, one day, to return home. At this point it becomes impossible to describe the novel further through its particulars. This brilliant book must be read.
The Guinea Pigs has its antecedents in Czech literature. Too many rulers have found it “eternally necessary to make people as characterless and submissive as possible.” I was reminded of Jiri Mucha’s extraordinary prison diary, Living and Partly Living, in which he describes his horror on returning to Czechoslovakia after the war and finding many of his compatriots transformed into “little white mice,” gnawing and scampering. Kafka, of course, is part of the genealogy of this book. So are many Czech writings and films about fetid little bourgeois households and anal obsessions with money or postage stamps or sadism. But The Axe, Vaculík’s previous novel, is also relevant here.
Vaculík is not a metropolitan intellectual. He comes from a small farm in the hills of eastern Moravia, the son of a lonely and original man who sacrificed his family relationships and friendships for the sake of bringing socialism and collectivization to his village. The Axe is the story of this father, who through his own obstinate idealism brings about the destruction of the old way of life and eventually—through the inability of the Stalinist bureaucracy to support a man of such absolute moral standards—his own ruin. It is a tragic novel, and not without a fierce Blut und Boden nostalgia for the vanished life of the Moravian farmer.
Vaculík is inclined to look on cities as the source of bureaucratic tyranny and as sites of an alienation that destroys all moralities. We are constantly reminded that the bank clerk in The Guinea Pigs is a first-generation city dweller; the first sentences of the novel read: “In Prague live over a million people, whom I would prefer not to list here. Our family comes from the countryside….” The family is fond of Sunday expeditions into the fresh air near Prague, where they stare wistfully at little houses in their own gardens, and it is in one of those country villas that some of the most haunting and brutal scenes of the novel take place. Liehm has pointed out the way in which The Guinea Pigs follows on The Axe: in the first novel, powerful moral ideals meet so many contradictions that they finally produce their opposite in a situation of utter moral confusion; while in the second, everything from the first page is conducted in an environment in which moral confusion has become so widely accepted that nobody seriously expects to be able to understand or judge anything.
Vaculík is a formidable artist. But he takes some pains to dispel the assumption that he is “a writer.” He insists that he doesn’t read much, that when he does, it is only to find out who did the murder or whether boy got girl. When he writes, it is, as he told Liehm, “to write in a literary way about political problems.” This is certainly not an adequate description of The Guinea Pigs, which is far more than a fictionalized parable. And, although Vaculík—as the main author of the famous Two Thousand Words manifesto which created such a political earthquake in the summer of 1968—has worked as a journalist and a political polemicist for much of his career, his statement is an utterly inadequate summary of The Axe.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that he should wish to make this point. Through Liehm’s book, a series of long interviews with Czech and Slovak writers conducted, for the most part, on the eve of the emancipation of 1968, there runs the repeated anxiety of writers to profess their political engagement. Milan Kundera, author of The Joke, says flatly that the predominance of the lyric mode in Czech literature has been a sign of immaturity. “Our culture, which has hardly let a single couplet escape its clutches, has failed to translate a single sentence of Husserl, a singly essay of Camus….” Lumír Civrný, from an older generation, agrees with Kundera, and points out that while lyricism is easily acceptable, the drama can only flourish in a society which is differentiated, prepared to recognize its contradictions, and “generous enough to endow the dramatist with conflicts and types.”
The idea of Liehm’s book was to investigate the relationship of three generations in recent Czechoslovak literature. He declares this aim. One feels a momentary misgiving; playing intellectual puppets with generations is a common silliness of the mentally lazy. But “generational conflict” is much easier to substantiate in Czechoslovakia. There are indeed three experiences: the generation of Munich, the occupation and installation of communism; the generation of young enthusiasts who believed in Stalinism, swallowed the show trials, and then proceeded with mounting consternation to lose their faith from the late Fifties onward; and the postwar generation brought up under socialism, who found themselves in a system that had thoroughly lost its impetus and was most loudly bewailed by those who had given most energy to create it. The analysis remains a generalization, of course, riddled with exceptions. But it is a useful account of Czechoslovak consciousness.
Sartre, who provides the long introduction entitled (none too happily) “The Socialism Which Came in From the Cold,” puts it in his magisterial way:
They represent three generations, the first of which was the destiny of the third, and the third of which willingly made itself the judge of the two others; the second, both victim and accomplice, was attracted to both the others by undeniable affinities while, at the same time, it kept itself apart from them because of definite antagonisms.
Antonín Liehm belongs to this second generation. To some extent, The Politics of Culture is compiled on behalf of those “victims and accomplices.” He goes around the town and asks each writer, in effect, “How could we have behaved so?” Some of them help him toward an answer. Sartre, discussing the self-abasement of victims and accomplices in the Fifties, offers a Marxian account: “In the reign of fetishized production, every real man appears to himself, in his simple daily existence, as an obstacle to the building of socialism.” Liehm himself provides a sentence for a textbook on cognitive dissonance: “Since we could not accept the idea that the movement was at fault, the fault had to be within us.”
But many of the interviewees are more anxious to argue the case for intellectual freedom now—or rather, then: the Novotný regime was disintegrating and nobody could foresee the best and worst of what was to come. Not one of them, from the old Slovak poet Novomesky to the young playwright Václav Havel, can contemplate a literature which is deliberately unpolitical. None of them now suffers from guilt about “intellectualism” or bourgeois origins. The middle generation, which passed through that masochistic phase, had its morale restored by the stupidity and nervousness of the late Novotný years. A man like Havel, who came from an extremely rich family, was hit by every kind of discrimination before he was really old enough to feel agonized about his comparative privilege as a child.
Several of the writers Liehm talked to observe that Czech experience is repetitive. In Havel’s search for enlightenment in the Fifties, a patient and systematic visiting of one silenced intellectual after another, Liehm sees his own past as a young man in the German occupation seeking out the writers who could no longer publish. But, as we and they now know, another hideous repeat performance was only around the corner as they spoke.
History has a vulgar taste in irony. The Slovak playwright Karva talks about “the desire to thwart historical development and maintain the kind of status quo which people of limited stature and education are capable of handling.” And the young writer Ivan Klíma, compassionately reflecting on the alien experience of his elders: “International developments brought about violent upheavals, and we cannot blame our fathers for having allowed these events to take place…. The entire nation was sacrificed at Munich, then again at Yalta, until I suppose there was no way left to sacrifice us again…. I often feel sorry for them [our fathers’ generation]; life has given them a terrible beating.” Today Klíma is wheeling corpses about in a hospital morgue. The search for another way to sacrifice the Czechs and Slovaks ended in complete success.
An inevitable question: Will this latest disaster, after so many other disasters, finally produce a mutation in Czech and Slovak literature? Some time after the Warsaw Pact intervention I asked one of the men interviewed by Liehm in this book what the Czechs would now cling to, what element of continuity they would clutch to remain mentally afloat in this new shipwreck. He answered: “What we have always clung to: the continuity of humanism in our culture.” Czech films, Czech writing have remained realist and socially conscious in content, however experimental the form, and even the traditional fascination with the inhuman replica, with the Golem, the robot, the humanoid automaton, only juxtaposes life in its inimitable variety with the sinister imitations devised by autocrats.
But can this last? The Guinea Pigs, although still in the tradition, already has a certain Polish flavor about it. A book by Liehm about writers in Poland would have to be called “The Conspiracy of Culture”: the Poles still produce, to a great extent, a literature and drama and cinema based on evocation and private codes. A Polish officer commanding tanks in Bohemia in August, 1968, said angrily: “Occupation? The Czechs don’t know what real occupation means,” and the culture of Poland has evolved as something achieved in exile or clandestinity in the face of a repression infinitely more savage and thorough than the censorship of Austria-Hungary.
The danger now is that what is being written in Czechoslovakia—and a surprising amount is still being written, although not published—will become more introverted and allusive, more ominous and hopeless. The hope must lie in the way that the moral curiosity of the Czech intellectuals has already survived periods of unrelieved evil, bobbing up triumphantly to the surface of the flood. I am thinking here of Liehm’s interview with Ester Krumbachová, author of some of the best film scripts of the Sixties, who tries to give him an illustration of this curiosity.
“I’ll show you what I mean,” she says.
It’s winter. You’re feeding the birds. You have a nice sentimental feeling because you just gave some tasty crumbs to a sparrow. You watch him hop away—and at the street corner a cat pounces on him and gobbles him up. If you’re a moralist, you may get very angry at the cat. But…you may find that the poor cat hadn’t eaten for four days, while the sparrow was only caught because he was so fat he could hardly move. But of course you shouldn’t stop here: you should go on. There’s a gentleman sitting by a window, munching a chicken leg; he’s watched the whole tragedy. He picks up a shotgun and blows the cat to smithereens. Morally, he was obviously in the right. But you go over and ask him why he shot the cat, and you may find out that he’d just bought a new gun and was itching to try it out. Or perhaps he was simply a sadist. You see, this is the sort of theme which interests me….
This is what the philosopher Karel Kosík means when he tells Liehm, in the last interview of the book.
…the fundamental reality of Czech culture hinges on the question: what is man?…it did not consist of subtle political allusions nor explicit criticism of the political situation nor of veiled attacks on government leaders…. A man who has no conscience, who doesn’t die, who cannot laugh, who is unaware of personal responsibility—such a man is of course the perfect unit needed in a manipulated, bureaucratically regimented system. In contrast, man as portrayed by Czech culture of the last decade is a potential revolutionary, because he finds life in such a manipulated system unbearable.
In her book The Czechoslovak Reform Movement, Dr. Galia Golan provides the most careful and detailed account so far published in English of the events of that “last decade,” leading up to the reform and the invasion of 1968. She has based her work on the Czech and Slovak press rather than on secondary sources, and there is nothing in the small library on the reform movement which has accumulated in the last four years to approach her thoroughness. She begins with the Twelfth Congress of the party in late 1962, whose drab outward appearance gave little sign to the outside world that forces were already at work to make 1963 a “year of rebirth” when the cult of the Plan was denounced, the students and workers demonstrated against the regime, and the Czech and Slovak press began openly to protest against survivals of the Stalinist past. The struggle between reformers and the Novotný apparatus was now joined, its fortunes constantly changing until the last counteroffensive of the regime in 1967 and its final collapse at the end of that year.
One of the advantages of Dr. Golan’s accuracy and caution is that she never falls for a simple explanation or a sweeping judgment. As a result, and this is a relief from certain panegyrics, she is able to remark in passing that student rebelliousness in the early Sixties produced an unpleasant side-effect in the harassment of Africans at Czech universities (seen as spoiled pensioners of the regime), or to note that “Kulturný Zivot,” the magnificently awkward magazine of the Slovak writers, overdid its attack on the official adulation of the working class by stating that many workers were mere “lumpen-proletarians.” She avoids any of the snap explanations of the invasion (the last and oddest I have heard, from a respected academic, is that the Warsaw Pact intervened in order to prevent the Piller report on the Slánský trials being published), and builds up her evidence to the careful conclusion, and surely the right one, that the invasion took place because the Soviet leadership could not conceive of a communist party acting as the Czechoslovaks did and still retaining the essential elements of its leading role in society.
At the same time, Dr. Golan’s facts are rather short of interpretation. In the end, having read what happened, one is left without much added to one’s own speculations on why it happened. At the very outset, she observes that there is a paradox in the fact that in the Twenties and again in the Forties, the Czechoslovak Communist Party was at odds with the world movement because of its “apparent lack of revolutionary fervor,” and yet, once in power, was “the most dogmatic, imitative and loyal servant of Moscow in eastern Europe.” To have explained that this paradox was really cause and effect, and to have talked about Gottwald’s sense of inferiority and even guilt within the movement, would have thrown light on the irrationality of the Novotný period as well.
Similarly, although Dr. Golan provides plenty of detailed information about the successive projects for introducing a reformed market economy, she is not willing to discuss the suggestion that the economic reform, instead of being a major technical adjustment to a mechanism, amounted to the emancipation of a particular class or stratum in Czechoslovak society—that of the educated and qualified in a time when the old production-oriented economy of the Fifties had become an obstacle to social development.
The book is admirable in so many ways that one becomes impatient for a bold generalization. But there is a rumor that Dr. Golan is working on some kind of sequel, to cover the period that followed the invasion. In those months, as A. J. Liehm has said elsewhere, Czechoslovakia’s development became revolutionary rather than reformist as the workers and students took the initiative from the qualified and the intellectuals. With luck, this theme will tempt Dr. Golan to drop her inhibitions and risk some ideas.
The Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, a jumbled but interesting assortment of essays, provides some useful footnotes to all these books. The contributions have no very consistent theme. The most impressive items are two chapters by Ivan Svitak, the Czech philosopher, who repeats his arguments that the year of 1968 brought revolutions in Paris and in Prague which were related and should not be contrasted as adolescent horridness (Paris) and liberal heroism (Prague). He also emphatically declares his belief in the Trotskyite theory (dissident-Trotskyite, one should cautiously add) that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries constitute state-capitalist systems. Another good essay publishes the results of opinion polls conducted in Czechoslovakia during 1968 and uses the results to claim that no public wish for counterrevolution existed. This is true enough, but the polls also reveal the powerful residue of pro-Soviet conservatism among party members.
Several essays discuss the lack of public reaction to the invasion in certain other socialist states, especially Hungary. The Hungarian intellectuals kept extraordinarily quiet, well aware that their own relative freedom of maneuver depended on their discretion at that moment; they are traditionally disinclined to shed too many tears about the tribulations of Czechs and, especially, Slovaks. Rudolf Tokes, however, overdoes his point when he argues that Lukacs and his circle, some of whom did protest, will be dismissed as “historically irrelevant enemies of economic modernization.” He goes on to sneer at the “intellectual deathwish” of Hungarian and Czechoslovak philosophers. If his purpose is to demonstrate the futility of new left interpretations in Eastern Europe, he should reflect that the introduction of “market model economies” like that of Hungary is bringing about the very polarization between bureaucracy and working class that the new left predicts.
August 10, 1972