Born in Prague in 1931, Ivan Klíma has undergone what Jan Kott calls a “European education”: during his adult years as a novelist, critic, and playwright his work was suppressed in Czechoslovakia by the Communist authorities (and his family members harried and punished right along with him), while during his early years, as a Jewish child, he was transported, with his parents, to the Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis. In 1969, when the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia, he was out of the country, in London, on the way to the University of Michigan to see a production of one of his plays and to teach literature. When his teaching duties ended in Ann Arbor in the spring of 1970, he returned to Czechoslovakia with his wife and two children to become one of the “admirable handful”—as a professor, recently reinstated at Charles University, described Klíma and his circle to me at lunch one day—whose persistent opposition to the regime made their daily lives extremely hard.
Of his fifteen or so novels and collections of stories, those written after 1970 were published openly only abroad, in Europe primarily; only two books—neither of them among his best—have appeared in America, where his work is virtually unknown. Coincidentally, Ivan Klíma’s novel Love and Garbage, inspired in part by his months during the Seventies as a Prague street cleaner, was published in Czechoslovakia on the very day that I flew there to see him. He arrived at the airport to pick me up on February 22, after spending the morning in a Prague bookstore where readers who had just bought his book waited for him to sign their copies in a line that stretched from the shop into the street. (During my week in Prague, the longest lines I saw were for ice cream and for books.) The initial printing of Love and Garbage, his first Czech publication in twenty years, was 100,000 copies. Later in the afternoon, he learned that a second book of his, My Merry Mornings, a collection of stories, had been published that day as well, also in an edition of 100,000. In the three months since censorship has been abolished, a stage play of his has been produced and a TV play has been broadcast. Five more of his books are to appear this year.
Love and Garbage is the story of a well-known, banned Czech writer “hemmed in by prohibition” and at work as a street cleaner, who, for a number of years, finds some freedom from the claustrophobic refuge of his home—from the trusting wife who wants to make people happy and is writing a study on self-sacrifice; from the two dearly loved growing children—with a moody, spooky, demanding sculptress, a married mother herself, who comes eventually to curse him and to slander the wife he can’t leave. To this woman he is erotically addicted.
There was a lot of snow that winter. She’d take her little girl to her piano lessons. I’d walk behind them, without the child being aware of me. I’d sink into the freshly fallen snow because I wasn’t looking where I was going, I was watching her walking….
It is the story of a responsible man who guiltily yearns to turn his back on all the bitter injustices and to escape into a “private region of bliss.” “My ceaseless escapes” is how he reproachfully describes the figure in his carpet.
At the same time, the book is a patchwork rumination on Kafka’s spirit (the writer mentally works up an essay about Kafka while he’s out cleaning streets), on the meaning of soot, smoke, filth, and garbage in a world which can turn even people into garbage, on death, on hope, on fathers and sons (a dark, tender leitmotif is the final illness of the writer’s father), and, among other things, on the decline of Czech into “jerkish.” Jerkish is the name of the language developed in the US some years back for the communication between people and chimpanzees; it consisted of 225 words and Klíma’s hero predicts that, after what has happened to his own language under the Communists, it can’t be long before jerkish is spoken by all of mankind. “Over breakfast,” says this writer whom the state will not allow to be published, “I’d read a poem in the paper by the leading author writing in jerkish.” The four banal little quatrains are quoted. “For this poem of 69 words,” he says, “including the title, the author needed a mere 37 jerkish terms and no idea at all…. Anyone strong enough to read the poem attentively will realize that for a jerkish poet even a vocabulary of 225 words is needlessly large.”
Love and Garbage is a wonderful book, marred only by some distressing lapses into philosophical banality that crop up particularly as the central story winds down and—in the English version just published by Chatto and Windus in London—by the translator’s inability to imagine a pungent, credible demotic idiom appropriate to the argot of the social misfits in Klíma’s street-cleaning detail. It is an inventive book that—aside from its absurdist title—is wholly unexhibitionistic. Klíma juggles a dozen motifs and undertakes the boldest transitions without hocus-pocus, as unshowily as Chekhov telling the story “Gooseberries”—he provides a nice antidote to all that magic in magic realism. The simplicity with which he creates his elaborate collage—harrowing concentration camp memories, ecological reflections, imaginary spats between the estranged lovers, and down-to-earth Kafkean analysis all juxtaposed and glued to the ordeal of the exhilarating, exhausting adultery—is continuous with the disarming directness, verging on adolescent ingenuousness, with which the patently autobiographical hero confesses his emotional turmoil.
The book is permeated by an intelligence whose tenderness colors everything and is unchecked and unguarded by irony. Klíma is, in this regard, Milan Kundera’s antithesis—an observation that might seem superfluous were it not for an astounding correspondence of preoccupations. The temperamental divide between the two is considerable, their origins diverge as sharply as the paths they’ve taken as men, and yet their affinity for the erotically vulnerable, their struggle against political despair, their brooding over the social excreta, whether garbage or kitsch, a shared inclination for extended commentary and for mixing modes—not to mention their fixation on the fate of outcasts—create an odd, tense kinship, one not as unlikely as it might seem to both writers. I sometimes had the feeling while reading Love and Garbage that I was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being turned inside out. The rhetorical contrast between the two titles indicates just how discordant, even adversarial, the perspectives can be of imaginations engaged similarly with similar themes—in this case, with what Klíma’s hero calls “the most important of all themes,… suffering resulting from a life deprived of freedom.”
During the early Seventies, when I began to make a trip to Prague each spring, Ivan Klíma was my principal reality instructor. In his car he drove me around to the street-corner kiosks where writers sold cigarettes, to the public buildings where they mopped the floors, to the construction sites where they were laying bricks, and out of the city to the municipal waterworks where they slogged about in overalls and boots, a wrench in one pocket and a book in the other. When I got to talk at length with these writers, it was often over dinner at Ivan’s house.
After 1976 I was no longer able to get a visa to enter Czechoslovakia and we corresponded through the West German or Dutch couriers who discreetly carried mail, manuscripts, and books in and out of the country for the people who were under close surveillance. By the summer of 1978, ten years after the Russian invasion, even Ivan, who had always seemed to me the most effervescent of those I’d met in the opposition, was sufficiently exhausted to admit, in a letter written in somewhat uneven English, “Sometime I hesitate if it is reasonable to remain in this misery for the rest of our life.” He went on:
Our life here is not very encouraging—the abnormality lasts too long and is depressing. We are persecuted the whole time, it is not enough that we are not allowed to publish a single word in this country—we are asked for interrogations, many of my friends were arrested for the short time. I was not imprisoned, but I am deprived of my driving license (without any reason of course) and my telephone is disconnected. But what is the worst: one of our colleagues….
Not uncharacteristically, he then described at much greater length a writer he considered to be in straits more dire than his own.
Fourteen years after I last saw him, Ivan Klíma’s engaging blend of sprightliness and stolidness struck me as amazingly intact and his strength undiminished. Even though his Beatle haircut has been clipped back a bit since the Seventies, his big facial features and mouthful of large, carnivore teeth still make me sometimes think (particularly when he’s having a good time) that I’m in the presence of a highly intellectually evolved Ringo Starr. Ivan had been at the center of the activities known now in Czechoslovakia as “the revolution,” and yet he showed not the least sign of the exhaustion which even the young students reading English literature, whose Shakespeare class I sat in on at the university, told me had left them numb with fatigue and relieved to be back quietly studying even something as abstruse to them as the opening scenes of Macbeth.
I got a momentary reminder of the stubborn force in Klíma’s temperament during dinner at his house one evening, while he was advising a writer friend of his and mine how to go about getting back the tiny two-room apartment that had been confiscated by the authorities in the late Seventies, when the friend had been hounded by the secret police into an impoverished exile. “Take your wife,” Ivan told him, “take your four children, and go down to the office of Jaroslav Korán.” Jaroslav Korán is the brand-new mayor of Prague, formerly a translator of poetry from English; as the week passed and I either met or heard about Havel’s appointees, it began to seem to me as though a primary qualification for joining the new administration was having translated into Czech the poems of John Berryman. Have there ever before been so many translators, novelists, and poets at the head of anything other than the PEN club?
“In Korán’s office,” Ivan continued, “lie down on the floor, all of you, and refuse to move. Tell them, ‘I’m a writer, they took my apartment, and I want it back.’ Don’t beg, don’t complain—just lie there and refuse to move. You’ll have an apartment in twenty-four hours.” The writer without an apartment—a very spiritual and mild person who, since I’d seen him last selling cigarettes in Prague, had aged in all the ways that Ivan had not—responded only with a forlorn smile suggesting, gently, that Ivan was out of his mind. Ivan turned to me and said, matter-offactly, “Some people don’t have the stomach for this.”
Helena Klimová, Ivan’s wife, is a psychotherapist who received her training in the underground university that the dissidents conducted in various living rooms during the Russian occupation. When I asked how her patients were responding to the revolution and the new society it had ushered in, she told me, in her precise, affable, serious way, “The psychotics are getting better and the neurotics are getting worse.” “How do you explain that?” I asked. “With all this new freedom,” she said, “the neurotics are terribly uncertain. What will happen now? Nobody knows. The old rigidity was detestable, even to them, of course, but also reassuring, dependable. There was a structure. You knew what to expect and what not to expect. You knew whom to trust and whom to hate. To the neurotics the change is very unsettling. They are suddenly in a world of choices.” “And the psychotics? Is it really possible that they’re getting better?” “I think so, yes. The psychotics suck up the prevailing mood. Now it’s exhilaration. Everybody is happy, so the psychotics are even happier. They are euphoric. It’s all very strange. Everybody is suffering from adaptation shock.”
I asked Helena what she was herself having most difficulty adapting to. Without any hesitation she answered that it was all the people who were suddenly nice to her who never had been before—it wasn’t that long ago that she and Ivan had been treated most warily by neighbors and associates looking to avoid trouble. Helena’s expression of anger over the rapidity with which those once so meticulously cautious—or outright censorious—people were now adapting to the Klímas was a surprise to me, since when I had known her during their hardest years she had always impressed me as a marvel of tolerance and equilibrium. The psychotics were getting better, the neurotics were getting worse, and, despite the prevailing mood of exhilaration, among the bravely decent, the admirable handful, some were now beginning openly to seethe a little with those poisoned emotions whose prudent management fortitude and sanity had demanded during the decades of resistance.
On my first full day in Prague, before Ivan came to meet me to begin our talks, I went off for a morning walk on the shopping streets just off Václavské námesti, the big open boulevard where the crowds that helped to chant the revolution through to success first assembled last November. In only a few minutes, outside a storefront, I encountered a loose gathering of some seventy or eighty people, laughing at a voice coming over a loudspeaker. From the posters and inscriptions on the building I saw that, unwittingly, I had found the headquarters of Civic Forum.
This crowd of shoppers, strollers, and office workers was standing around together listening—as best I could figure out—to a comedian who must have been performing in an auditorium inside. I don’t understand Czech but I guessed that it was a comedian—and a very funny one—because the staccato rhythm of his monologue, the starts, stops, and shifts of tone, seemed consciously designed to provoke the crowd into spasms of laughter that ripened into a rich roar and culminated, at the height of their hilarity, with outbursts of applause. It sounded like the response you hear from the audience at a Chaplin movie. Just when I was ready to move on, I saw through a passageway that there was yet another laughing crowd of about the same size on the other side of the Civic Forum building. It was only when I crossed over to them that I understood what I was witnessing. On two television sets situated above the front window of Civic Forum was the comedian himself: viewed in close-up, seated alone at a conference table, was the former first secretary of the Czech Communist party, Milos Jakes. Jakes, who’d been driven from office early in December, was addressing a closed meeting of Party apparatchiks in the industrial city of Pilsen in October 1989.
I knew that it was Jakes at the Pilsen meeting because the evening before, at dinner, Ivan and his son, Michal, had told me all about this videotape, which had been made secretly by the staff of Czech TV. Now it played continuously outside the Prague headquarters of Civic Forum, where passers-by stopped throughout the day to have a good laugh. What they were laughing at was Jakes’s dogmatic, humorless Party rhetoric and his primitive, awkward Czech—the deplorably entangled sentences, the ludicrous malapropisms, the euphemisms and evasions and lies, the pure jerkish, that, only months earlier, had filled so many people with shame and loathing. Michal had told me that on New Year’s Eve Radio Free Europe had played Jakes’s Pilsen videotape as “the funniest performance of the year.”
Watching people walk back out into the street grinning, I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter, its sacramental reason-for-being—to bury wickedness in ridicule. It seemed a very hopeful sign that so many ordinary men and women (and teen-agers, and even children, who were in the crowd) should be able to recognize that the offense against their language had been as humiliating and atrocious as anything else. Ivan told me later that at one point during the revolution, a vast crowd had been addressed for a few minutes by a sympathetic young emissary from the Hungarian democratic movement, who concluded his remarks by apologizing to them for his imperfect Czech. Instantaneously, as one voice, a half million people roared back, “You speak better than Jakes.”
Pasted to the window beneath the TV sets were two of the ubiquitous posters of the face of Havel, whose Czech is everything that Jakes’s is not.
Ivan Klíma and I spent our first two days together talking; then, in writing, we compressed the heart of our discussion into the exchange that follows.
Philip Roth: What has it been like, all these years, publishing in your own country in samizdat editions? The surreptitious publication of serious literary works in small quantities must find an audience that is, generally speaking, more enlightened and intellectually more sophisticated than the wider Czech readership. Samizdat publication presumably fosters an unspoken and unique solidarity between writer and reader, and that could be exhilarating. Yet because samizdat is a limited and artificial response to the evil of censorship, it remains unfulfilling for everyone. Tell me about the literary culture that was spawned here by samizdat publication.
Ivan Klíma: Your observation that samizdat literature fosters a special type of reader seems right. The Czech samizdat originated in a situation that is in its way unique. The Power, supported by foreign armies—the Power installed by the occupier and aware that it could exist only by the will of the occupier—was afraid of criticism. It also realized that any kind of spiritual life at all is directed in the end toward freedom. That’s why it did not hesitate to forbid practically all Czech culture, to make it impossible for writers to write, painters to exhibit, scientists—especially in the social sciences—to carry out independent research; it destroyed the universities, appointing as professors for the most part docile clerks. The nation, caught unawares in this catastrophe, accepted it passively, at least for a time, looking on helplessly at the disappearance, one after another, of people whom it had so recently respected and to whom it had looked with hope.
Samizdat originated slowly. At the beginning of the Seventies, my friends and fellow writers who were forbidden to publish used to meet at my house once a month. They included the leading creators of Czech literature: Václav Havel, Jirí Grusa, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Alexander Kliment, Jan Trefulka, Milan Uhde, and several dozen others. At these meetings we read our new work aloud to one another; some, like Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Seifert, did not come personally, but sent their work for us to read. The police got interested in these meetings; on their instructions television produced a short film that hinted darkly that dangerous conspiratorial conclaves were going on in my flat. I was told to cancel the meetings, but we all agreed that we would type out our manuscripts and sell them for the price of the copy. The “business” was taken on by one of the best Czech writers, Ludvík Vaculík. That’s how we began: one typist and one ordinary typewriter.
The works were printed in editions of ten to twenty copies; the cost of one copy was about three times the price of a normal book. Soon what we were doing got about. People began to look out for these books, new “workshops” sprang up, which often copied the unauthorized copies. At the same time the standard of the layout improved. Somewhat deviously, we managed to have the books bound at the state bookbinders; they were often accompanied by drawings by leading artists, also banned. Many of these books will be, or already are, the pride of bibliophile collections. As time went on the numbers of copies increased—as did the titles and readers. Almost everyone “lucky” enough to own a samizdat was surrounded by a circle interested in borrowing it. The writers were soon followed by others: philosophers, historians, sociologists, nonconforming Catholics, as well as supporters of jazz, pop, and folk music, and young writers who refused to publish officially, even though they were allowed to. Dozens of books in translation began to come out in this way: political books, religious books, often lyrical poetry or meditative prose. Whole editions came into being and remarkable feats of editing—for instance the collected writings, with commentary, of our greatest contemporary philosopher, Jan Patocka.
At first the police tried to prevent samizdats, confiscating individual copies during house searches. A couple of times they arrested the typists who copied them, and some were even sentenced to imprisonment by the “free” courts, but the samizdat started to resemble, from the point of view of the authorities, the many-headed dragon in the fairy tale, or a plague—samizdat was unconquerable.
There are no precise statistics yet, but I know there were roughly two hundred samizdat periodicals alone and several thousand books. Of course when we speak of thousands of book titles we can’t always expect high quality—but one thing completely separated samizdat from the rest of Czech culture: it was independent both of the market and of the censor. This independent Czech culture strongly attracted the younger generation, in part because it had the aura of the forbidden. How widespread it really was will perhaps soon be answered by scientific research; we’ve estimated that some books had tens of thousands of readers, and we mustn’t forget that a lot of these books were published by Czech publishing houses in exile and then returned to Czechoslovakia by the most devious routes.
Nor should we pass over the great part played in propagating what was called “uncensored literature” by the foreign broadcasting stations Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. Radio Free Europe broadcast the most important of the samizdat books in serial form, and its listeners numbered in the hundreds of thousands. (One of the last books that I heard read on this station was Havel’s remarkable Long-Distance Interrogation,* which is an account not only of his life but also of his political ideas.) I’m convinced that this “underground culture” had an important influence on the revolutionary events of the autumn of 1989.
Roth: It always seemed to me that there was a certain amount of loose, romantic talk in the West about “the muse of censorship” behind the iron curtain. I would venture that there were even writers in the West who sometimes envied the terrible pressure under which you people wrote and the clarity of the mission this burden fostered: in your society you were virtually the only monitors of truth. In a censorship culture, where everybody lives a double life—of lies and truth—literature becomes a life preserver, the remnant of truth people cling to. I think it’s also true that in a culture like mine, where nothing is censored but where the mass media inundates us with the most inane falsifications of human affairs, serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious to it.
When I returned to the US from Prague after my first visit in the early Seventies, I compared the Czech writers’ situation to ours in America by saying, “There nothing goes and everything matters—here everything goes and nothing matters.” But at what cost did everything you wrote matter so much? How would you estimate the toll that repression, which put such a high premium on literature, has taken on the writers you know?
Klíma: Your comparison of the situation of Czech writers and writers in a free country is one that I have often repeated. I’m not able to judge the paradox of the second half, but the first catches the paradox of our situation wonderfully. Writers had to pay a high price for these words that take on importance because of the bans and persecution—the ban on publishing was connected not only to a ban on all social activity, but also in most cases to a ban on doing any work writers were qualified for. Almost all my banned colleagues had to earn their living as laborers. Window cleaners, as we know them from Kundera’s novel, were not really typical among doctors, but there were many writers, critics, and translators who earned their living in this way. Others worked on the building sites of the underground, as crane operators, or digging on geological research sites. Now it might seem that such work could provide an interesting experience for a writer. And that’s true, so long as the work lasts for a limited time and there is some prospect of escape from blunting and exhausting drudgery. Fifteen or even twenty years of work like that, exclusion like that, affects one’s whole personality. The cruelty and injustice completely broke some of those subjected to it, others were so exhausted that they were simply unable to under-take any creative work. If they did somehow manage to persevere, it was by sacrificing to this work everything: any claim to rest and often to any chance of a personal life.
Roth: Milan Kundera, I discover, is something of an obsession here among the writers and journalists I talk to. There appears to be a controversy over what might be called his “internationalism.” Some people have suggested to me that, in his two books written in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he is writing “for” the French, “for” the Americans, etc., and that this constitutes some sort of cultural misdemeanor or even betrayal. To me he seems rather to be a writer who, once he found himself living abroad, decided, quite realistically, that it was best not to pretend that he was a writer living at home, and who had then to devise for himself a literary strategy, one congruent not with his old but with his new complexities. Leaving aside the matter of quality, the marked difference of approach between the books written in Czechoslovakia, like The Joke and Laughable Loves, and those written in France does not represent to me a lapse of integrity, let alone a falsification of his experience, but a strong, innovative response to an inescapable challenge. Would you explain what problems Kundera presents to those Czech intellectuals who are so obsessed with his writing in exile?
Klíma: Their relation to Kundera is indeed complicated and I would stress beforehand that only a minority of Czechs have any opinion about Kundera’s writing for one simple reason: his books have not been published in Czechoslovakia for more than twenty years. The reproach that he is writing for foreigners rather than for Czechs is only one of the many reproaches addressed to Kundera and only a part of the more substantial rebuke—that he has lost his ties to his native country. We can really leave aside the matter of quality because largely the allergy to him is not produced by the quality of his writing but by something else.
The defenders of Kundera—and there are many here—explain the animosity toward him among Czech intellectuals by what is not so rare an attitude toward our famous Czech compatriots: envy. But I don’t see this problem so simply. I can mention many famous compatriots, even among the writers (Havel at home, Skvorecký abroad) who are very popular and even beloved by intellectuals here.
I have used the word allergy. Various irritants produce the allergy and it’s rather difficult to find the crucial ones. In my opinion the allergy is caused, in part, by what people take to be the simplified and spectacular way in which Kundera presents his Czech experience. What’s more, the experience he presents is, they would say, at odds with the fact that he himself had been an indulged and rewarded child of the Communist regime until 1968.
The totalitarian system is terribly hard on people, as Kundera recognizes, but the hardness of life has a much more complicated shape than we find in his presentation of it. Kundera’s picture, his critics would tell you, is the sort of picture which you would see from a very capable foreign newspaperman who’d spent a few days in our country. Such a picture is acceptable to the Western reader because it confirms his expectations; it reinforces the fairy tale about good and evil, which a good boy likes to hear again and again. But for these Czech readers our reality is no fairy tale. They expect a much more comprehensive and complex picture, a deeper insight into our lives from a writer of Kundera’s stature. Kundera certainly has other aspirations for his writing than only to give a picture of Czech reality, but those attributes of his work may not be so relevant for the Czech audience I’m talking about.
Another reason for the allergy probably has to do with the prudery of some Czech readers. Although in their personal lives they may not behave puritanically, they are rather more strict about an author’s morality.
Last, but not least, is an extraliterary reason, which may, however, be at the very core of the charge against him. At the time when Kundera was achieving his greatest world popularity, Czech culture was in a bitter struggle with the totalitarian system. Intellectuals at home as well as those in exile shared in this struggle. They underwent all sorts of hardships: they sacrificed their personal freedom, their professional position, their time, their comfortable lives. For example, Josef Skvorecký and his wife virtually abandoned their personal lives to work from abroad on behalf of suppressed Czech literature. Kundera seems to many people to have stood apart from this kind of effort. Surely it was Kundera’s right (why should every writer have to become a fighter?), and it certainly can be argued that he has done more than enough for the Czech cause by his writing itself. Anyway, I have tried to explain to you, quite candidly, why Kundera has been accepted in his own country with considerably more hesitation than in the rest of the world.
In his defense, let me say that there is a kind of xenophobia here with respect to the suffering of the last half century. The Czechs are by now rather possessive of their suffering, and though this is perhaps understandable and a natural enough deformation, it has resulted, in my opinion, in an unjust denigration of Kundera, who is, without a doubt, one of the great Czech writers of this century.
Roth: The official, or officialized, writers are a bit of a mystery to me. Were they all bad writers? Were there any interesting opportunistic writers? I say opportunistic writers rather than believing writers because though there may well have been believers among the writers in the first decade or so after the war, I assume that during the last decade the official writers were opportunists and nothing more. Correct me, of course, if I’m wrong about that. And then tell me—was it possible to remain a good writer and accept the official rulers and their rules? Or was the work automatically weakened and compromised by this acceptance?
Klíma: It’s quite true that there is a basic difference between authors who supported the regime in the Fifties and those who supported it after the occupation in 1968. Before the war what was called leftist literature played a relatively important role. The fact that the Soviet army liberated the greater part of the Republic—and the memory of Munich and the Western powers’ desertion of Czechoslovakia, despite all their treaties and promises—further strengthened this leftist tendency. The younger generation especially succumbed to illusions of a new and more just society that the Communists were going to build. It was precisely this generation that soon saw through the regime and contributed enormously to setting off the Prague Spring movement and to demystifying the Stalinist dictatorship.
After 1968 there was no longer any reason for anyone, except perhaps a few frenzied fanatics, to share those postwar illusions. The Soviet army had changed in the eyes of the nation from a liberating army to an army of occupation, and the regime that supported this occupation had changed into a band of collaborators. If a writer didn’t notice these changes, his blindness deprived him of the right to count himself among creative spirits; if he noticed them but pretended he knew nothing about them, we may rightfully call him an opportunist—it is probably the kindest word we can use.
Of course the problem lay in the fact that the regime did not last just a few months or years, but two decades. This meant that, exceptions apart—and the regime persecuted these exceptions harshly—virtually a generation of protesters, from the end of the Seventies on, was hounded into emigration. Everyone else had to accept it in some way or even support it. Television and the radio had to function somehow, the publishing houses had to cover paper with print. Even quite decent people thought: if I don’t hold this job, someone worse will. If I do not write—and I shall try to smuggle at least a bit of truth through to the reader—the only people left will be those who are willing to serve the regime devotedly and uncritically.
I want to avoid saying that everyone who published anything over the past twenty years is necessarily a bad writer. It’s true too that the regime gradually tried to make some important Czech writers their own and so began to publish some of their works. In this way it published at least a few works by Bohumil Hrabal and the poet Miroslav Holub (both of them made public self-criticisms) and also poems by the Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert, who had signed Charter 77. But it can be stated categorically that the effort of publication, getting past all the traps laid by the censor, was a severe burden on the works of many of those who were published. I have carefully compared the works of Hrabal—who, to my mind, is one of the greatest living European prose writers—that came out in samizdat form and were published abroad and those that were published officially in Czechoslovakia. The changes he was evidently forced by the censor to make are, from the point of view of the work, monstrous in the true sense of the word. But much worse than this was the fact that many writers reckoned with censorship beforehand, and deformed their own work and so, of course, deformed themselves.
Only in the Eighties did “angry young men” begin to appear, especially among young writers, theater people, and the authors of protest songs. They said exactly what they meant and risked their works not coming out, or even having their livelihoods threatened. They contributed to our having a free literature today—and not only literature.
Roth: Since the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia a sizable sampling of contemporary Czech writers have been published in America: from among those living in exile, Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Skvorecký, Jirí Grusa, and Arnost Lustig; from among those in Czechoslovakia, you, Vaculík, Hrabal, Holub, and Havel. This is an astonishing representation from a small European country—I for one can’t think of ten Norwegian or ten Dutch writers who have been published in America since 1968. To be sure, the place that produced Kafka has special significance but I don’t think either of us believes that this accounts for the attention that your nation’s literature has been able to command in the West. You have had the ear of many foreign writers. They have been incredibly deferential to your literature. You have been given a special hearing and your lives and works have absorbed a lot of their thinking. Has it occurred to you that this has now all changed and that in the future you’re perhaps going to be talking not quite so much to us but to each other again?
Klíma: Certainly the harsh fate of the nation, as we have said, suggested many compelling themes. A writer was himself often forced by circumstances to have experiences that would otherwise have remained foreign to him and that, when he wrote about them, may have appeared to readers almost exotic. It’s also true that writing—or work in the arts altogether—was the last place where one could still set up shop as an individual. Many creative people actually became writers just for this reason. All this will pass to some extent, even though I think there is an aversion to the cult of the elite in Czech society, and that Czech writers will always be concerned with the everyday problems of ordinary people. This applies to the great writers of the past as well as to contemporary ones: Kafka never ceased to be an office worker, Capek a journalist, Hasek and Hrabal spent a lot of their time in smoky pubs with beer-drinking buddies, Holub never left his job as a scientist and Vaculík stubbornly avoided everything that might drag him away from leading the life of the most ordinary of citizens. Of course as changes come in social life, so will changes in themes. But I’m not sure this will mean our literature will necessarily become uninteresting to outsiders. I believe that our literature has pushed open the gate to Europe and even to the world just a crack, not only because of its subjects but because of its quality too.
Roth: And inside Czechoslovakia? Right now I know people are wildly hungry for books, but after the revolutionary fervor subsides, with the sense of unity in struggle dissipating, might you not come to mean far less to readers here than you did when you were fighting to keep alive for them a language other than the language of the official newspapers, the official speeches, and the official government-sanctioned books?
Klíma: I agree that our literature will lose some of its extraliterary appeal. But many think that these secondary appeals were distracting both writers and readers with questions that should really have been answered by journalists, by sociologists, by political analysts. Let’s go back to what I call the intriguing plots offered by the totalitarian system. Stupidity triumphant, the arrogance of power, violence against the innocent, police brutality, the ruthlessness that permeates life and produces labor camps and prisons, the humiliation of man, life based on lies and pretenses: these stories will lose their topicality, I hope, even though writers will probably return to consider them again after a while. But the new situation must bring new subjects—in the first place forty years of the totalitarian system have left behind a material and spiritual emptiness, and filling this emptiness will be full of difficulties, tension, disappointment, and tragedy.
It is also true that in Czechoslovakia a feeling for books has a deep tradition, reaching back to the Middle Ages, and even with television sets everywhere, it’s hard to find a family that does not own a library of good books. Even though I don’t like prophesying, I believe that at least for now the fall of the totalitarian system will not turn literature into an occasional subject with which to ward off boredom at parties.
Roth: The late Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski said that the only way to write about the Holocaust was as the guilty, as the complicit and implicated: that is what he did in his first-person fictional memoir, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. There Borowski may even have pretended to a dramatically more chilling degree of moral numbness than he felt as an Auschwitz prisoner, precisely to reveal the Auschwitz horror as the wholly innocent victims could not. I think that under the domination of Soviet communism, some of the most original Eastern European writers I have read in English have positioned themselves similarly—Tadeusz Konwicki, Danilo Kis, and Kundera, say, to name only three “K”s who have crawled out from under Kafka’s cockroach to tell us that there are no uncontaminated angels, that the evil is inside as well as outside. Still, this sort of self-flagellation, despite its ironies and nuances, cannot be free from the element of blame, from the moral habit of situating the source of the evil in the system even when examining how the system contaminates you and me. You are used to being on the side of truth, with all the risks entailed in becoming righteous, pious, didactic, dutifully counter-propagandistic. You are not used to living without that well-defined, recognizable, objective sort of evil. I wonder what will happen to your writing—and to the moral habits embedded in it—and to the removal of the system: without them, with just you and me.
Klíma: That question makes me think back over everything I have said until now. I have found that I often do describe a conflict in which I am defending myself against an aggressive world, embodied by the system. But I have often written about the conflict between myself and the system without necessarily supposing that the world is worse than I am. I should say that the dichotomy, I on the one side and the world on the other, is the way in which not only writers, but all of us are tempted to perceive things.
Whether the world appears as a bad system or as bad individuals, bad laws or bad luck, is not really the point. We could both name dozens of works created in free societies in which the hero is flung here and there by a bad, hostile, misunderstanding society, and so assure each other that it is not only in our part of the world that writers succumb to the temptation to see the conflict between themselves—or their heroes—and the world around them as the dualism of good and evil.
I would imagine that those here in the habit of seeing the world dualistically will certainly be able to find some other form of external evil. On the other hand, the changed situation could help others to step out of the cycle of merely reacting to the cruelty or stupidity of the system and lead them to reflect anew on man in the world. And what will happen to my writing now? Over the past three months I have been swamped with so many other duties that the idea that someday I’ll write a story in peace and quiet seems to me fantastic. But not to evade the question—for my writing, the fact that I shall no longer have to worry about the unhappy social system I regard as a relief.
Roth: Kafka. Last November, while the demonstrations that resulted in the new Czechoslovakia were being addressed by the outcast ex-convict Havel here in Prague, I was teaching a course in Kafka at a college in New York City. The students, of course, read The Castle, about K.’s tedious, fruitless struggle to gain recognition as a land surveyor from that mighty and inaccessible sleepyhead who controls the castle bureaucracy, Mr. Klamm. When a photograph appeared in The New York Times showing Havel reaching across a conference table to shake the hand of the old regime’s prime minister, I showed it to my class. “Well,” I said, “K. finally meets Klamm.” You should know that the students were pleased when Havel decided to run for president—that would put K. in the castle, and as successor, no less, to Klamm’s boss.
Kafka’s prescient irony may not be the most remarkable attribute of his work but it’s always stunning to think about it. He is anything but a fantasist creating a dream or a nightmare world as opposed to a realistic one. His fiction keeps insisting that what seems to be unimaginable hallucination and hopeless paradox is precisely what constitutes one’s reality. In works like “The Metamorphosis,” The Trial, and The Castle, he chronicles the education of someone who comes to accept—rather too late, in the case of the accused Joseph K.—that what looks to be outlandish and ludicrous and unbelievable, beneath your dignity and concern, is nothing less than what is happening to you; that thing beneath your dignity turns out to be your destiny.
“It was no dream,” Kafka writes only moments after Gregor Samsa awakens to discover that he is no longer a good son supporting his family but a repellent insect. The dream, according to Kafka, is of a world of probability, of proportion, of stability and order, of cause and effect—a dependable world of dignity and justice is what is absurdly fantastic to him. How amused Kafka would have been by the indignation of those dreamers who tell us daily, “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” In Kafka’s world—and not just in Kafka’s world—life only begins to make sense when we realize that that is exactly why we are here.
I’d like to know what role Kafka may have played in your imagination during your years of being here to be insulted. Kafka was, of course, banned by the Communist authorities from the bookstores, libraries, and universities in his own city and throughout Czechoslovakia. Why? What frightened them? What enraged them? What did he mean to the rest of you who know his work intimately and may even feel a strong affinity with his origins?
Klíma: Like you, I have studied Kafka’s works—not too long ago I wrote an extensive essay about him and a play about his love affair with Felice Bauer. I would formulate my opinion on the conflict between the dream world and the real one in his work just a little bit differently. You say: “The dream, according to Kafka, is of a world of probability, of proportion, of stability and order, of cause and effect—a dependable world of dignity and justice is what is fantastic to him.” I would rather replace the word “fantastic” with the word “unattainable.” What you call the dream world was rather for Kafka the real world—the world in which order reigned, in which people, at least as he saw it, were able to grow fond of each other, make love, have a family, be orderly in all their duties—but this world was for him, with his almost sick truthfulness, unattainable. His heroes suffered not because they were unable to realize their dream, but because they were not strong enough to enter properly into the real world, to properly fulfill their duty.
The question why Kafka was banned under Communist regimes is answered in a single sentence by the hero of my novel Love and Garbage: “What matters most about Kafka’s personality is his honesty.” A regime that is built on deception, that asks people to pretend, that demands external agreement without caring about the inner conviction of those to whom it turns for consent, a regime afraid of anyone who asks about the sense of his actions, cannot allow anyone whose veracity attained such fascinating or even terrifying completeness to speak to the people.
If you ask what Kafka meant for me, we get back to the question we somehow keep circling. On the whole Kafka was an unpolitical writer. I like to quote the entry in his diary for August 2, 1914. It is very short. “Germany has declared war on Russia.—Swimming in the afternoon.” Here the historic, world-shaking plane and the personal one are exactly level. I am sure that Kafka wrote only from his innermost need to confess his personal crises, and so solve what was for him insoluble in his personal life—in the first place his relationship to his father and his inability to pass beyond a certain limit in his relationships with women. In my essay on Kafka I show that, for instance, his murderous machine in the short story “In the Penal Colony” is a wonderful, passionate, and desperate image of the state of being married or engaged. Several years after writing this story he confided to Milena Jesenská his feelings on thinking about their living together:
You know, when I try to write down something [about our engagement] the swords whose points surround me in a circle begin slowly to approach the body, it’s the most complete torture; when they begin to graze me it’s already so terrible that I immediately at the first scream betray you, myself, everything.
Kafka’s metaphors were so powerful that they far exceeded his original intentions. I know that The Trial as well as “In the Penal Colony” have been explained as ingenious prophesies of the terrible fate that befell the Jewish nation during the war, which broke out fifteen years after Kafka’s death. But it was no prophecy of genius; these works merely prove that a creator who knows how to reflect his most personal experiences deeply and truthfully also touches the suprapersonal or social spheres. Again I am answering the question about political content in literature. Literature doesn’t have to scratch around for political realities, or even worry about systems that come and go; it can transcend them and still answer questions that the system evokes in people. This is the most important lesson that I extracted for myself from Kafka.
Roth: Ivan, you were born a Jew and, because you were a Jew, you spent part of your childhood in a concentration camp. Do you feel that this background distinguishes your work—or that, under the Communists, it altered your predicament as a writer—in ways worth talking about? In the decade before the war, Central Europe without Jews as a pervasive cultural presence—without Jewish readers or Jewish writers, without Jewish journalists, playwrights, publishers, critics—was unthinkable. Now that the literary life in this part of Europe is about to be conducted once again in an intellectual atmosphere that harks back to prewar days, I wonder if—perhaps even for the first time—the absence of Jews will register with any impact on the society. Is there a remnant left in Czech literature of the prewar Jewish culture, or have the mentality and sensibility of Jews, which were once so strong in Prague, left Czech literature for good?
Klíma: Anyone who has been through a concentration camp as a child—who has been completely dependent on an external power which can at any moment come in and beat or kill him and everyone around him—probably moves through life at least a bit differently from people who have been spared such an education. That life can be snapped like a piece of string—that was my daily lesson as a child. And the effect of this on my writing? An obsession with the problem of justice, with the feelings of people who have been condemned and cast out, the lonely and the helpless. The themes issuing from this, thanks to the fate of my country, have lost nothing of their topicality. And the effect on my life? Among friends I have always been known as an optimist. Anyone who survives being repeatedly condemned to death may either suffer from paranoia all his life, or from a confidence not justified by reason that everything can be survived and everything will turn out all right in the end.
As for the influence of Jewish culture on our present culture—if we look back, we are apt to idealize the cultural reality in rather the same way that we idealize our own childhoods. If I look back at my native Prague, say at the beginning of this century, I am amazed by the marvelous mix of cultures and customs, by the city’s so many great men. Kafka, Rilke, Hasek, Werfel, Einstein, Dvorák, Max Brod…. But of course the past of Prague, which I name here only as a symbol of Central Europe, consisted not only of a dazzling number of the greatly gifted, not only of a cultural surge; it was also a time of hatred, of furious and petty and often bloody clashes.
If we speak of the magnificent surge of Jewish culture that Prague witnessed more than almost anywhere else, we must recognize also that there has never been a long period here without some sort of anti-Semitic explosion. To most people the Jews represented a foreign element, which they tried at the very least to isolate. There is no doubt that Jewish culture enriched Czech culture by the very fact that, like German culture, which also had an important presence in Bohemia—and Jewish literature in Bohemia was largely written in German—it became for the developing Czech culture, whose evolution had been stifled for two hundred years, a bridge to Western Europe.
What has survived from that past? Seemingly nothing. But I’m convinced this is not the whole story. The present longing to overcome the nihilist past with tolerance, the longing to return to untainted sources, is this not a response to the almost forgotten warning call of the dead and indeed the murdered, to us, the living?
Roth: Havel. A complicated man of mischievous irony and solid intellect like Havel, a man of letters, a student of philosophy, an idealist with strong spiritual inclinations, a playful thinker who speaks his native language with precision and directness, who reasons with logic and nuance, who laughs with gusto, who is enchanted with theatricality, who knows intimately and understands his country’s history and culture—such a person would have even less chance of being elected president in America than Jesse Jackson or Geraldine Ferraro.
Just this morning I went to the Castle, to a press conference he held about his trips to the US and Russia, and I listened with pleasure—and some astonishment—to a president composing, on the spot, sentences that were punchy, fluent, and rich with human observation, sentences of a kind that probably haven’t been formulated so abundantly—and off the cuff—at our White House since Lincoln was shot.
When a German journalist asked whose company Havel had most preferred, the Dalai Lama’s, George Bush’s, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s—all three of whom he’d recently met—he began, “Well, it wouldn’t be wise to make a hierarchy of sympathy….” When asked to describe Gorbachev, he said that one of his most attractive qualities is that “he is a man who doesn’t hesitate to confess his embarrassment when he feels it.” When he announced that he had scheduled the arrival of the West German president for March 15—the same day Hitler had entered Prague in 1939—one of the reporters noted that Havel “liked anniversaries,” whereupon Havel immediately corrected him. “No,” he told him, “I did not say that I ‘liked anniversaries.’ I spoke about symbols, metaphors, and a sense of dramatic structures in politics.”
How did this happen here? And why did it happen here to Havel? As he would probably be the first to recognize, he was not the only stubborn, outspoken person among you, nor was he alone imprisoned for his ideas. I’d like you to tell me why he has emerged as the embodiment of this nation’s new idea of itself. I wonder if he was quite such a hero to large segments of the nation when, altogether quixotically—the very epitome of the foolish, highminded intellectual who doesn’t understand real life—he was writing long, seemingly futile letters of protest to his predecessor, President Husák. Didn’t a lot of people think of him then as either a nuisance or a nut? For the hundreds of thousands who never really raised an objection to the Communist regime, isn’t worshipping Havel a convenient means by which, virtually overnight, to jettison their own complicity with what you call the nihilist past?
Klíma: Before I try to explain that remarkable phenomenon “Havel,” I’ll try to give my opinion on the personality named Havel. (I hope I won’t be breaking the law, still extant, that virtually forbids criticism of the president.) I agree with your characterization of Havel. Only as someone who has met him innumerable times over the past twenty-five years, I would supplement it. Havel is mainly known to the world as an important dramatist, then as an interesting essayist, and lastly as a dissident, an opponent of the regime so firm in his principles that he did not hesitate to undergo anything for his convictions, including a Czech prison—more exactly, a Communist prison. But in this list of Havel’s skills or professions there is one thing missing, and in my opinion it’s the fundamental one.
As a dramatist Havel is placed by world critics in the stream of the theater of the absurd. But back when it was still permissible to present Havel’s plays in our theaters, the Czech public understood them primarily as political plays. I used to say, half jokingly, that Havel became a dramatist simply because at that time the theater was the only platform from which political opinions could be expressed. Right from the beginning, when I got to know him, Havel was, for me, in the first place a politician, in the second place an essayist of genius, and only lastly a dramatist. I am not ordering the value of his achievements but rather the priority of interests, personal inclination, and enthusiasm.
In the Czech political desert, where former representatives of the democratic regime had either emigrated, been locked up, or completely disappeared from the political scene, Havel was for a long time really the only active representative of the line of thoroughly democratic Czech politics represented by Tomás Masaryk. Today Masaryk lives in the national consciousness rather as an idol, or as the author of the principles on which the First Republic was built. Few people know that he was an outstanding politician, a master of compromises and surprising political moves, of risky, ethically motivated acts. (One of these was the passionate defense of a poor, wandering, young Jew from a well-to-do family, Leopold Hossner, who was accused and sentenced for the ritual murder of a young dressmaker. This act of Masaryk’s enraged the Czech nationalist public so much that it looked for a while as if the experienced politician had committed political suicide—he must then have seemed to his contemporaries to be “a nuisance or nuts.”) Havel brilliantly continued in Masaryk’s line of “suicidal,” ethical behavior, though of course he carried on his political activity under much more formidable conditions than those of old Austro-Hungary. His letter to Husák in 1975 was indeed an ethically motivated but expressly political—even suicidal—act, just like the signature campaigns which he instigated over and over again for which he was always persecuted.
Like Masaryk, Havel was a master of compromises and alliances, without ever losing sight of the basic aim: to remove the totalitarian system and replace it by a renewed system of pluralist democracy. For that aim he did not hesitate in 1977 to join together all the antitotalitarian forces, whether they were reform communists—all of them long since expelled from the Party—members of the arts underground, or believing Christians. The greatest significance of Charter 77 lay precisely in this unifying act, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that it was Václav Havel himself who was the author of this conception and that his was the personality that was able to link such absolutely heterogenous political forces.
Havel’s candidacy for president and his later election were, in the first place, an expression of the precipitate, truly revolutionary course of events in this country. When I was returning from a meeting of one of the committees of Civic Forum one day toward the end of November, my friends and I were saying to each other that the time was near when we should nominate our candidate for the office of president. We agreed then that the only candidate to consider, for he enjoyed the relatively wide support of the public, was Alexander Dubcek. But it became clear a few days later that the revolution had gone beyond the point where any candidate who was connected, if only by his past, with the Communist party, was acceptable to the younger generation of Czechs. At that moment the only suitable candidate emerged—Václav Havel. Again it was an example of Havel’s political instincts—and Dubcek certainly remained the only suitable candidate for Slovakia—that he linked his candidacy with the condition that Dubcek should be given the second highest function in the state.
I explain the change of attitude toward him by the Czech public—because for a certain sector here Havel was, indeed, more or less unknown, or known as the son of a rich capitalist, and even as a convict—by the revolutionary ethos that seized the nation. In a certain atmosphere, in the midst of a crowd, however civil and restrained the crowd may be, an individual suddenly identifies himself with the prevailing mood and state of mind, and captures the crowd’s enthusiasm. It’s true that the majority of the country shared in the doings of the former system, but it’s also true that the majority hated it at the same time just because it had made them complicit in its awfulness, and hardly anyone identified himself any longer with that regime which had so often humiliated, deceived, and cheated them. Within a few days Havel became the symbol of revolutionary change, the man who would lead society out of its crisis—nobody had any exact idea how—lead it out of evil to good. Whether the motivation for supporting him was basically metaphysical, whether this support will be maintained or eventually come to be based more on reason and practical concerns, time will tell.
Roth: Earlier we spoke about the future. May I close with a prophecy of my own? What I say may strike you as arrogantly patronizing—the freedom-rich man warning the freedom-poor man about the dangers of becoming rich. You have fought for something for so many years now, something that you needed like air, and what I am going to say is that the air you fought for is poisoned a little, too. I assure you that I am not a sacred artist putting down the profane nor am I a poor little rich boy whining about his luxuries. I am not complaining. I am only making a report to the academy.
There is still a pre–World War II varnish on the societies that, since the Forties, have been under Soviet domination. The countries of the satellite world have been caught in a time warp, with the result, for instance, that the McLuhanite revolution has barely touched your lives. Prague is still very much Prague and not a part of the global village. Czechoslovakia is still Czechoslovakia, and yet the Europe you are rejoining is a rapidly homogenizing Europe, a Europe whose very distinct nations are on the brink of being radically transformed. You live here in a society of prelapsarian racial innocence, knowing nothing of the great postcolonial migrations—your society, to my eyes, is astonishingly white. And then there is money and the culture of money that takes over in a market economy.
What are you going to do about money, you writers, about coming out from under the wing of a subsidized writers’ union, a subsidized publishing industry, and competing in the marketplace and publishing profitable books? And what of this market economy that your new government is talking about—five, ten years from now, what are you going to make of the commercialized culture that it breeds?
As Czechoslovakia becomes a free, democratic consumer society, you writers are going to find yourselves bedeviled by a number of new adversaries from which, strangely enough, repressive, sterile totalitarianism protected you. Particularly unsettling will be the one adversary that is the pervasive, all-powerful archenemy of literature, literacy, and language. I can guarantee you that no defiant crowds will ever rally in Wenceslas Square to overthrow its tyranny nor will any playwright-intellectual be elevated by the outraged masses to redeem the national soul from the fatuity into which this adversary reduces virtually all of human discourse. I am speaking about that trivializer of everything, commercial television—not a handful of channels of boring clichéd television that nobody wants to watch because it is controlled by an oafish state censor, but a dozen or two channels of boring, clichéd television that most everybody watches all the time because it is entertaining. At long last you and your writer colleagues have broken out of the intellectual prison of Communist totalitarianism. Welcome to the World of Total Entertainment. You don’t know what you’ve been missing. Or do you?
Klíma: As a man who has, after all, lived for some time in the US, and who for twenty years has been published only in the West, I am aware of the “danger” that a free society and especially a market mechanism brings to culture. Of course I know that most people prefer virtually any sort of kitsch to Cortázar or Hrabal. I know that the period will probably pass when even books of poetry in our country reached editions of tens of thousands. I suppose that a wave of literary and television garbage will break over our market—we can hardly prevent it. Nor am I alone in realizing that, in its newly won freedom, culture not only gains something important but also loses something. At the beginning of January one of our best Czech film directors was interviewed on television, and he gave a warning against the commercialization of culture. When he said that the censorship had protected us not only from the best works of our own and foreign culture, but also from the worst of mass culture, he annoyed many people, but I understood him. A memorandum on the position of television recently appeared which states that
television, owing to its widespread influence, is directly able to contribute to the greatest extent towards a moral revival. This of course presupposes…setting up a new structure, and not only in an organizational sense, but in the sense of the moral and creative responsibility of the institution as a whole and every single one of its staff, especially is leading members. The times we are living through offer our television a unique chance to try for something that does not exist elsewhere in the world….
The memorandum does not of course ask for the introduction of censorship, but of a supra-Party arts council, a group of independent authorities of the highest spiritual and moral standards. I signed this memorandum as the president of the Czech PEN club, although personally, for myself, I thought that the desire to structure the TV of a free society in this way was rather utopian. The language of the memorandum struck me as the kind of unrealistic and moralistic language that can emerge from the euphoria of revolution.
I have mentioned that, among intellectuals especially, utopian ideas have begun to surface about how this country will link the good points of both systems—something from the state-controlled system, something from the new market system. And these ideas are probably strongest in the realm of culture. The future will show to what extent they are purely utopian. Will there be commercial television in our country, or will we continue only with subsidized, centrally directed broadcasting? And if this last does remain will it manage to resist the demands of mass taste? We’ll know only in time.
I have already told you that in Czechoslovakia literature has always enjoyed not only popularity but esteem. This is borne out by the fact that in a country with fewer than twelve million inhabitants, books by good writers, both Czech and translated, were published in editions of hundreds of thousands. What’s more, the system is changing in our country at a time when ecological thinking is growing tremendously (the environment in Czechoslovakia is one of the worst in Europe) and it surely makes no sense for us to strive to purify the environment and at the same time to pollute our culture. So it is not really such a utopian idea to try to influence the mass media to maintain standards and even educate the nation. If at least some part of that idea could be realized it would certainly be, as the authors of the memorandum say, a unique event in the history of mass communications. And after all, impulses of a spiritual character really have, from time to time, come from this little country of ours in the center of Europe.
April 12, 1990