On Monday the winners of the annual Magnesia Litera literary awards will be announced in Prague, and the ceremony will be shown live on Czech Television. One book has been nominated in two categories, best fiction and important event in publishing. It is called "Zatim dobry" or "So Far So Good" by the Czech-born author Jan Novak who now lives in the United States. The 800-page book tells a true story of the escape of two brothers, Ctirad and Josef Masin, the sons of a Czech anti-Nazi resistance hero, to West Berlin in 1953. Opinion is divided on the Masin brothers in the Czech Republic: some see them as brave fighters against communism, others as murderers. Regardless of what moral stance we take, their story remains a very powerful one.
I met the author Jan Novak at a Prague café and asked him which sources he used to write the biographical novel.
"The Masins themselves and their sister as well as other people. The story is, I think, the greatest story of the Cold War and it has gathered quite a bit of interest. Other people have written about them and their father. Their father was probably the greatest hero of the Czech resistance to the Germans. He was killed by the Gestapo under heroic circumstances. So there are books about the father and there are various documents and by now also books about the story that I am writing about, about the two brothers and their sister who wound up back here and wrote a book herself, eventually got here archival materials from the StB, from the secret police and let me use those as well. That was another source of the book."
The story of the Masin brothers continues to cause controversy in the Czech Republic. Where do you stand on that issue?
"You know, they were demonised by the communist propaganda for forty years. Nobody really got away with the stuff that they got away with. They ran an active cell of the anti-communist underground. They killed two policemen and another person trying to get weapons. They were actively sabotaging production in the uranium mines etc., and I think the Czech public at large has no idea about what really happened. They've only heard and they have even seen on TV one fictionalised account of what they did which is completely inaccurate, so they have been brainwashed basically and they don't really know the facts of the case and I am hoping that the book will help to put things into right context.
"When this happened, you know, when they were attacking the police stations, they were teenagers. When you see these two kids who are not shaving yet doing all these things, you will have a little different about what happened. Basically, I think they are justified in that that they decided to fight communism that their dad fought Nazism which meant that anybody who stands with a gun and protects this murderous power which is killing innocent people and which setting up camps for hundreds of thousands of people, which is nationalising everybody's property and which has closed off all the borders and didn't even give you a chance to leave if you wanted - so if somebody stands with a gun in his hand facing this power the way their dad fought the Germans, I think it's justified."
You have spent most of your adult life in the United States, did you write the book in English or in Czech?
"I wrote it in English. I have been writing in English except when I get hired here to write a screenplay, I usually write that in Czech because there is no reason to write that in English. I've published one book in Czech that wrote in Czech and that's back in the early 1980s and ever since then I've been writing in English. So I wrote it in English and it was translated into Czech and then what typically happens is I read the Czech translation and I start rewriting the Czech translation because I would never have the strength to just start a project of translating 800 pages that I'm basically done with, regurgitating what I'm done with, I can't face it. But when I see it done and I see that I can help, I always wind up rewriting it."
Prague to finish reconstructing Kafka’s house in May
Banned 1954 documentary on Tibet returns to cinemas
Underwater remains of Prague’s first bridge explored by researchers
The 1946 US operation that proved a propaganda coup for Czechoslovakia’s Communists
Why is it so hard to remove a Czech president?