Every once in a while, and it is not often, one comes across a text that both ideally captures its author but also comes to define a period. A text that speaks with such frankness but also with finesse you find yourself recalling its passages at odd, unexpected moments of the day. In today's Czechs in History: a book of personal letters - written to one's loved ones - a book from prison. We look at the life and work of journalist, philosopher, and dissident Milan Simecka.
1981 was a grave year for the 51-year-old Czech native who had lived almost all of his life in Bratislava: on May 6th he was locked up at Prague's notorious Ruzyne prison, for so-called subversion to the state. The writer had already achieved recognition abroad - and disfavour from the regime at home - for his book 'The Restoration of Order', published in Czech in Germany in the 1970s, brilliantly analysing the politically and culturally stifling normalisation period that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring. But, his outspokenness and convictions eventually led to him to prison doors: his apparent crime smuggling manuscripts of his work abroad. The absurdity - but very real consequences - of his internment are recalled by his friend Jirina Siklova, in the introduction to 'Letters from Prison' (Twisted Spoon Press, 2001).
"Today, over ten years since the fall of the Communist regime, even I, who spent most of my life in totalitarian regimes without freedom, find it impossible to understand how it was possible to imprison people for sending their book manuscripts abroad, for translating George Orwell, or Hannah Arendt, for writing political essays about Andrei Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, or Heinrich Boll, lending the magazines Svedectvi published in Paris or Listy published in Rome, or reading Milan Kundera's novels published in Czech in exile... It was sufficient for three people to testify before the court that a text incited them against the socialist order and the author could be convicted."
How someone with as much warmth and kindness as Milan Simecka could end up behind bars is something that Siklova saw as absurd put in with "murderers, arsonists, and robbers". Historian and close friend Vilem Precan describes Simecka's imprisonment as "a watershed" that changed his view of the world, though it would only become apparent much later, once the writer had been released. As Vilem Precan described it:
"I came to realise that I was witness to a phenomenon I had seen in others who returned from 'over there'. Years before Simecka had decided that it was impossible to remain silent and that he would not be a 'naked human being who had nothing except himself and his anxiety about the rest of his life and the lives of those close to him'. Now after his return, it was more as if he were clinging to his identity as a man more than before..."
'Letters from Prison' reveals what kind of a thinker, as well as man, Milan Simecka was - and just as importantly - what kind of a thinker he was in the extremes of a prison cell. In contrast to his harsh, bare cell, there is a softness in his prose, unabashed love for his wife and sons, and empathy for his inmates that evokes a man of rare moral calibre. It is important of course to remember that his words were intended for personal letters - not for publication. At the same time he was well aware all his letters would be closely monitored, read by strangers, and possibly censored. It was clear that some would never reach their destination, even if inmates steered clear of political discourse as they had been ordered to do.
Most of us - at one time or another - have probably tried to imagine - or had nightmares of - what it must be like to be imprisoned. Milan Simecka's experience - though lonely and certainly frightening - is illuminating: he did not know how long he would stay, and like any of us, he missed his family. He wrote with longing for his wife Eva, using her nickname Muki, wrote about his sons and their development, wishing he could be there for one son's 24th birthday, and he wrote with self-criticism, questioning what kind of a parent he had been. Then, the most ordinary things began taking on special meaning as he imagined lying back, talking, dining together, going for walks, spending time outdoors. Locked up, he pined for nature, years before Milan Kundera lamented in The Art of the Novel that we had already lost it and never even noticed.
"Apart from a lot of other things I have come to understand here I have fully come to realise the enormous importance of nature in human lives... for months I have waited for someone to say something to do with nature, to voice a longing for the peace of summer, sun, water, or even a garden, but have heard nothing of the sort... There is not even a reference to nature in any of the different tales I've heard. As if nature were completely divorced from the lives of those people and played no role in them. As you might imagine, the most recurrent yearnings concern beer, food, women, tape recorders, discotheques, civilised adventures, and so on. And suddenly it occurs to me whether this lack of any feeling for nature has a causal connection with their social and human disorders."
Not surprisingly, Simecka was also beset by down periods when he doubted the future, recalling his translation of George Orwell's 1984 and the scene where Winston and Julia stand at the window above the antiquarian shop and realise they are "the dead". Simecka wrote that he had strived to understand what it all meant, including how "believable or otherwise" that sentence was. There was a hint of causality and inescapable fate, but, he always recovered his love for reason - and it seems his faith in humanity. In one letter he wrote to his wife his fascination with a story told to him by a temporary cell mate, absurd but human and honest, reminiscent of the stories of Bohumil Hrabal.
"[He was] by any normal criteria a burglar, no doubt about it. Yet, he related to me a love story I would never have expected... It was a short story of love for his own wife, whom he married when she was fifteen and with whom he had two children. They lived together until his arrest... He would dreamily tell me how he would go to meet his wife after the afternoon shift at the factory every evening at ten and how he would rub her all over with camphorated oil when they got home because her back ached... He told me how they would watch their sleeping children with tears running down their cheeks, and many other things that sounded as if they had been copied out of romantic stories from the last century... But... the genuineness of his feelings was beyond doubt. It occurred to me that at any moment he would tear out the bars or punch his way through the metre-thick walls. I've never seen such animal-like longing to...break out of a cage."
This ability for understanding was one of Milan Simecka's strongest traits, remarked upon by English translator Gerald Turner, who met Simecka in 1985, after working on 'The Restoration of Order' under the pseudonym A.G. Brain. Later, Turner would also translate 'Letters from Prison'- a decade after the fall of communism, a decade after his friend's death:
"I think what is very important about his writing is that always operates from the particular, from the individual. That he had enormous sympathy and empathy - that he had an ability to react to people around him. That he had a deep understanding for peoples' foibles, for the reality of peoples' existences. I think this deep sympathy brings him close to the greatest of journalists. The love of plurality was always incompatible with any totalitarian or communist view of the world..."
Today, thirteen years have passed since the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall the burden - and loneliness - of stepping out against the regime. Ensuing consequences, the ostracising, the eavesdropping and wiretapping, and prison time were real. Some, like Vaclav Havel, almost died behind bars. Others, like poet Ivan 'Magor' Jirous, lost ten years of freedom. In retrospect, one could say, Milan Simecka was one of the luckier ones, spending 'only' 13 months in jail, although it could have easily been more. In any case, 13 months for what? One didn't stop being a dissident from one day to another, based on convenience. The burden of that decision - to abide by one's convictions at any cost - was 'full-time'. Risking prison, and being taken away from people one loved, had to be heavier than we can know.
"Eva, my love, all the time I've been here I've been trying to comfort you... arguing that you were and are capable of leading a meaningful life; it might not be a cheerful one, but you can at least manage a serene smile... we have a whole year behind us and by now we both realise that theoretical assumptions and practice can diverge. It's harder than we were ever capable of imagining, isn't it?"
Milan Simecka was released May 27th, 1982. He lived to see the fall of the regime in Czechoslovakia, although he was deeply saddened by separatist tendencies that immediately appeared between what would become the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He never lived to see the split, dying suddenly in 1990. He was just 60 years old. At the time he had been serving as a senior advisor to President Vaclav Havel, his fellow dissident and friend.