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During communism the literature of this nation flourished in the underground circles of samizdat publications. Now that writers can publish freely, Czech literature is struggling to find its voice.


By NICOLE R. ACHS
Photos by SEAN GALLUP

n the offices of Revolver Revue, editor Michael Spirit tosses aside recent, handsomely bound issues of the literary magazine to unearth a much simpler tome, from 1986, tattered and nostalgic looking as a high school scrapbook. Unbound sheets of onionskin paper are pressed between its covers like dried leaves, with letters, notes, and humorous illustrations tucked loosely into the binding. The uneven pages of construction paper, photocopies, and newsprint-bound with duct tape-are the testimony of an era.

It is this samizdat ("self-published," anti-regime) edition of Revolver Revue, and not its slicker modern-day offspring, that Spirit is eager to show to a visitor. To distribute this underground magazine, he explains, collaborators toiled with the devotion of 13th-century monks, typing out hundreds of copies. Spirit estimates thousands of people read it, handing editions from friend to friend. Eventually, aspiring writers made no attempt to publish in official magazines, but headed straight for samizdat. In literary circles, it became an ignominy to publish officially and an honor to be banned. From the reign of samizdat emerged names like Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima, Ludvik Vaculik, Zdenek Urbanek, and Bohumi Hrabal.

Today, Revolver Revue rolls off the presses in slick, 2,000-copy editions with four-color covers. The bawdy cartoons ridiculing society and government officials have been replaced with more sophisticated art. Writers choosing to publish here need not risk jail or persecution. But today, says Spirit, it is harder than ever to find work to fill its pages.

"A large portion of the texts coming into the editor's office are without any value," Spirit says.

Others have similar complaints. Publishing house Mlada fronta ("Young Movement") puts out a "Contemporary Czech, Fiction" series. But director Vladimir Pistorius says he has nothing to publish for the coming year. "I haven't found one good manuscript," he says, adding that the few works he likes have been snapped up by other publishers.

"In my sweet, strange country ", Milan Kundera once wrote, poets still exercise a charm over the hearts of women." Somewhat less eloquently, an early Revolver Revue pictured a pair of women's panties with the words: "Women Read Poetry." Whether or not literature helped writers get dates, people were certainly more voracious readers during the communist era. Western works that the government permitted by writers like John Updike, Virginia Woolf, and William Saroyan-would sell more than 100,000 copies and be sold out only hours after hitting the bookstores.

Today, works by these authors sell about 10,000 copies. The average book by a Czech author sells 2,000 copies, says Mlada fronta's Pistorius. Poetry and works by unknown authors sell only a few hundred.

Publishers do not make money from most works of literature, but fund their publication with either grants or profits from more lucrative avenues of publishing, like how-to-book~ and romance novels. Bozena Sprivcovi, a young Czech poet, spent three years working on a collection of poetry. Her book, Gulas z Modry Kravy (Blue Cow Goulash) was runner-up for the Jiri Orten prize, awarded to the best first work by an author under the age of thirty. Spravcovi says she did better than many of her colleagues; she got paid 500 Kc for the collection. People just don't have the time or motivations for reading they once had when it was an avenue for rebellion, escape, and information about the West, publishers say.

If so, it's the end of an epoch.

Writers in the Czech lands have been combining their political and literary roles for the last 200 years. In the 19th century, they rebelled against the Hapsburgs and fought to save the Czech language by refusing to write in German as was dictated by law. After a 21-year respite during the First Republic, writers took up their pens against the Nazis, then against the communists.

In a sublime display of Orwellian double-speak, the Communist Party ascribed to writers the role of national conscience.

"The role of the writer was exaggerated because of the Soviet model that the writer was the 'conscience of the nation,' the engineer of human souls," says Jiri Stransky, president of the Czech PEN club and a former banned writer who spent eight years in a uranium mining camp for the anti-communist position his family had taken prior to 1948. "The funny thing is, that [title] turned against them. Writers were suddenly the conscience of the nation, and they were the bad conscience of the regime."

The underground writers weren't very well known until their persistent illegal publishing provoked the regime. "It was their reaction that drew attention to [us]," says Stransky. In the final analysis, the government provided the fire that helped forge a true conscience in the underground movement.

"The Czechs were always fighting for survival, thanks to our neighbors, the Germans and Russians," says Jachym Topol (left), one of the most visible of the emerging Czech writers. "The writer here wasn't only a writer, but a fighter for the nation."

Although the common cause of oppression provided focus for the writers, there was no way of completely escaping the down side. In the forty years that the Warsaw Pact borders isolated Czech writers from the rest of the world, "the same thing happened with literature as happened with Czech industry," says aspiring playwright David Canek. "It was kept isolated and it wasn't able to develop."

The benefits of democracy, however, have not been as far-reaching as one would have hoped. It is clear that Czech industry will improve; with literature it is not so apparent. "The opening of the Czech Republic's borders will bring a much needed exchange in literature, ideas, and opinions," says Canek. "But some of the effects [of capitalism] are counter-productive."

Petr Placak, a journalist, essayist and fiction writer, claims it is harder for him to write what he thinks now than it was before. Under communism the state issued menial jobs to samizdat writers (those lucky enough to avoid jail), which cost little mental energy and left plenty of time for writing.

"Today, writers have to take care of making a living," Placak says. "They were involved in the creation of this society and now they are dependent upon it."

Writers intent on making money from their work face a different set of problems. Some critics have claimed that Ivan Klima's latest book, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light was deliberately written in simple language so that it would be easy to translate.

"Getting translated is the only way to survive as a writer," says Canek.

Spirit says Revolver Revue is seeking commercial "outsiders," despite its need to participate in the commercial system. "This type of person usually has art as the main reason for his existence, but maybe he makes his money by cleaning or some other sort of menial work. As soon as a Person starts making a living as a writer, lie must accommodate the critics, and then that writing becomes something which is not coming from his soul," Spirit says.

Viktor Hait can be considered such an outsider. He earns just enough from his writing to support his fondness for beer. Unable to find a commercial publisher for his work, Hait has taken to what the Czechs call moderni samizdat, producing work out of his apartment with a typewriter, photocopier, and a little help from friends in the printing business. He may have artistic freedom, but his life isn't very different from the way it was under the communists.

Ludvik Vaculik, editor of the weekly Literarni noviny (Literary News), which features essays on current affairs, says he is still motivated to write about social issues, but he does so in the form of essays. His fiction, he says, "...was never political. It only seemed so because it had political consequences for me."

It also had political consequences for the nation. In 1968, Vaculik wrote a manifesto called 2,000 Words, calling for artistic tolerance. When the Soviets got wind of it, they took it as additional proof that the Czechs had strayed too fit. Soon after, they rolled their tanks into Prague, demoted General Secretary Alexander Dubcek to trash collector and prohibited Vaculik and scores of others from ever writing again. Not that this stopped Vaculik, who went on to be one of the major producers and distributors of Samizdat literature.

The dissident ideal of writer-as-warrior went out the window with the regime's dirty bathwater in 1989. At last, writers claim, they can do what they ave always wanted: cast off the mantle of social responsibility and frolic in the sun of pure aesthetics.

"Now I am quite free of politics," Vaculik says. "I no longer have two roles; I don't have to influence society," even if he still observes it. "It is dangerous for a writer to feel himself more destined to be the consciousness of society. He is responsible for writing the truth about himself."

Topol feels some of the same relief. "I am very happy that I have the chance after centuries of this oppression to be a normal writer that doesn't have the burden to fight," he says. "I don't want to defend any nation or minority. I just like writing... why does everyone demand so much from a writer?"

His novella Vylet k Nadrazni Hale (A Trip to the Train Station), however, wryly observes not his, but the country's transformation:

The city was changing. New owners took charge of dilapidated buildings and tried to convert them into hotels, pubs, wholesale glass, and crystal shops, agencies. Pants, coats, wooden toys, hot dogs, newspapers, gingerbread, and gold were sold on the street out of ground floor apartments and the idea of declaring income was a joke. Nothing sleazy about money, said the sleazeballs, and they parceled up the streets and squares to fit their stands.

Writers simply may not be geared to react as quickly as others to social and economic land shifts, says Stransky. "It must take a certain time for the writers to reflect on [the changes that have occurred] and chew on them. We are still a stabilizing democracy. We still cherish what happened. We still think it is a miracle. Most of us know the government is doing a lot of nonsense, but we also know that all of us are still learning. Criticism is always good, but always with the second thought that even with positive intentions, we could destroy something that is too fragile."

Despite their long role in Central European politics, many people believe intellectuals have done a lot of harm. Few have forgotten, for example, that it was the intellectuals who ushered in the communists in the late Forties, while visions of utopia danced in their heads. After the Velvet Revolution, some dissidents put away their pens and took up political office. Many proved to be as agile in government as "elephants dancing among the porcelain." Stransky says, and most were gracefully ushered out as quickly as they stepped in.

"Another extreme has turned up," says Spirit. "I think young writers are trying to get out of the way of all this. Sometimes their attempts took very forced, as if they have said: 'now I am not going to write about what is wrong with the world around me.

Vaculik regrets that more writers - in fact more people in general - don't take an active part in political discourse. "It is hard to force writers to write on it. I guess they are tired of such things." They take little inspiration from the dissident movement, claiming that the work of the older underground authors is provincial and narrowly focused. "I don't think it is as great as it is considered to be," says Spravcova. "There are some interesting things in it, but around 1990, a lot of books were published just because they were written by people who had escaped or were dissidents."

Says Placak, "I would rather judge these writers from their personal side than from their literary work."

Meanwhile, older writers complain that the work of the younger generation is frivolous and devoid of purpose. They accuse what Topol calls the "rock generation" of apathy and materialism.

Spravcovi says the gap is one of the things that bothers her the most about contemporary society. "I feel like a foreigner here. I found [recently] that I can't even understand my father. I don't understand the system of values that was established here." Her father doesn't understand, for example, why she is not interested in politics.

Young people have been free to travel, had access to material goods, have never had to worry about their neighbors spying on them. They speak foreign languages, choose their own career paths, and listen to American rock bands. People of this generation "will have their own complexes," says Topol, "but they will be personal as opposed to being part of the national condition."

Writers in the middle, who have known communism but can relate to those who haven't, find their position particularly tenuous. Some of them have found a middle ground, like the 33-year-old Topol, who hangs out with twenty-somethings and writes lyrics for rock bands. Another is Michael Viewegh, 32, whose deconstructionist humor is popular over a range of age groups.

Others are still searching for common ground. Placak, 32, admits he finds the younger generation "completely elsewhere" and says his followers among them are "fools or lunatics."

Some craziness, says Spirit, is healthy. "Writers around thirty to forty have never known anything different than a totalitarian regime, so these last five years have been a mess for everyone, including myself. This mess is normal, organic. It was the [imposed] order that was abnormal," he says. "This mess turns up in writings of people [in his age group] as one of the feelings of life."

Then there is another group still on the literary scene-that of writers like Jan Zabrana, whose diaries Cely Zivot (The Whole Life) is one of the most important books of the last five years," according to Spirit. But don't expect the author to turn up at the readings. Zabrana, a banned poet who worked during the communist years as a translator, has been dead for eight years.

Letters, diaries, and memoirs have become popular recently: "Many people read it as a testament of reality that is much more exciting [to read] than history," says Spirit. "It looks like it is not literature, but it is, and a very complicated one at that."

Spravcova, on the other hand, calls such works "an erosion of literature." Today's writers, already upstaged by the famous dissidents, are sharing the contemporary stage with ghosts.

At a cafe where rock music blares and trendy collegiate cut from table to table, Topol celebrates having just submitted his novella Andel (Angel), due out in the fall. "The story happens at the Andel intersection. What fascinates me is that after five years, I can see big changes in this area. I can see it in two basic directions: positive and negative. Positive is the building of the community. Before it was all full of spies. People didn't even talk to each other; it was forbidden to have private parties. Now it seems impossible that that ever happened. The negative part is that it is full of gangs and Mafia. The type of crime that was organizing in the States for over fifty years is here in five."

But not everything has changed. "There will always be people to read literature," says Topol, "and there will always be a few people to write it."

"But with capitalism," he adds, "The books have nicer bindings."


Nichole Achs is a contributor to USA Today International, among other publications.

 

 

Cover credits

  Pg. 07 Editor's Letter
  Pg. 09 FIRST: Ghost Busker
  Pg. 10 The King is Dead
  Pg. 10 Kik's Kaka
  Pg. 11 Trick of the Trade
  Pg. 11 Telephone Obsessive
  Pg. 12 The H.O.G.s are here
  Pg. 12 Fugazers
  Pg. 13 Windex
  Pg. 14-15 POLAROID: Laurie Anderson
  Pg. 17 Letter From L.A.
  Pg. 18-19 6 Kc and Peace of Mind
  Pg. 20-23 Velvet Devolution
  Pg. 24-27 FASHION: Cafe Couture
  Pg. 31 REVIEW: Jiri David's "Hidden Image"
  Pg. 32 Czech Cubism 1911-1919
  Pg. 33 REVIEW: Klub Lavka
  Pg. 33 REVIEW: Subway Club
  Pg. 34 MUSIC: The Ecstacy of St. Theresa
  Pg. 36 RESTAURANTS: Here's the Boeuf
  Pg. 37 RESTAURANTS: Comedy Cafe Akropolis
  Pg. 42 COFFEE: Meduza Kavarna
  Pg. 43 ALTERNAMALL: Jilska 22
  Pg. 44 SHOPS: Ligne Roset
  Pg. 45 Above & Beyond
  Pg. 47-48 BOOKS: Expat Mixed Bag
  Pg. 50-51 MUSIC REVIEWS
  Pg. 54-55 MOVIES: Karlovy? Very.
  Pg. 52 Scene
  Pg. 53 LAST: Intro to Cool.
   
 

Volume 1, Number 1
August 1995

Editor and Publisher MICHAEL WAYNE JR.

Executive Editor CHRISTOPHER HOLLAND

Senior Editors
WALTER R. DEVINE, JOYCE-ANN GATSOULIS

Associate Editor
SUSANNAH ROSENSTOCK

Editorial Assistants
HELENA SIPKOVA
MAURA GEDID

Contributing Editors NICHOLE ACHS
OMRI BEN-AMOS
MATT WELCH

Contributing Writers RADHA BURGESS, LOU CHARBONNEAU, DAVID FREELING, JOHN HECK, MARKETA JIRASKOVA, ANNE RENAHAN, JENNIFER TORPIE, LAURA ZAM


Creative Director GERMAIN E. DESEVE

Senior Designer
CLARE MANIAS

Production Associates STEVE ROWLAND
D.A. STRUBLE

Staff Photographer ZUZANA OPLATKOVA

Contributing Photographers
SEAN GALLUP,
AHMED RAHIM

Publicity
MICHELLE LEGGE


Advertising Director CHRISTOPHER LOVERING


The Prague Review s.r.o.

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CFO: DAN ROSE

COO: MICHAEL WAYNE JR.

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Velvet is a publication of the Prague Review, s.r.o. (c) 1995, The Prague Review, s.r.o. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited by law.

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