The Czech literary world held its annual awards for the best literary works of 2008, the Magnesia Litera, this weekend. The prize for Book of the Year went to Petr Nikl’s Zahadky, but the reader’s prize went to the author and children’s book illustrator Petr Sís, for his The Wall: Growing Up Behind The Iron Curtain, a book of memoirs of life in communist Czechoslovakia that’s rapidly winning acclaim throughout the world. Petr Sís lives in New York, and before he left to pick up the award in Prague, Ian Willoughby discussed the book with him at his studio in downtown Manhattan.
“You know, sometimes I wonder why I wrote that book. All my books become a struggle. It starts as a simple idea, then it becomes much more complex. But this really started by thinking about how things were and why things we experienced as children were the way they were.
“I was trying to explain it to my kids, who were very young teenagers at the time. Sometimes they would say – oh Dad, it doesn’t make sense and it’s not funny, and I started to make doodles of things we had to do.
“I was trying to tell them we had to wear red scarves, we had to march in these parades, we had to go and pick hops, we couldn’t do what you could do and we weren’t free to say what you can say, and from these doodles I started to pull together this whole memoir of that time.
“The first version even had my kids in the book – where they really don’t care at all, playing Gameboys etc – and I put too much information in, because if you live through something you tend to think people know what the bureaucracy was like etc.
“And then I realised children can’t deal with it, so I had to strip the whole thing down and this is really what you see now with this book, which has got a slightly different version in Czech, it’s longer, and a simpler version in America, because nobody knows anything about communism.
“When I look at it I still have many, many more memories, but I thought at least it’s a beginning maybe of some discussion.”
Was it hard for you to write, and how do you now look back on that era in your own life in Czechoslovakia?
“It is hard because I get angry now thinking about things I didn’t angry about back then, because when I was a child or when I was a young man, you take for granted some things that are so stupid and so ridiculous. You just know that’s the rule and you just follow the rules.
“At the same time I feel embarrassed by the fact that when we were into rock music and we would go drinking and talking about Led Zeppelin, there was this whole group of dissidents with Vaclav Havel and we thought these guys were pathetic.
“And then I somehow got hold of the memoirs of my friend Mejla Hlavsa, who played with the [underground rock group] Plastic People of the Universe, and I had tears in my eyes because really the book is about him being a working class guy who just wanted to play rock music and wanted to grow long hair.
“And by all these circumstances and the rules, when he didn’t fit into the system, he became a political hero and they tortured him to the point that he died at age 50, so all these things make me angry now but they didn’t make me angry at the time.
“It’s sometimes a surprise to people of my generation who say – oh it wasn’t such a big deal and we had great fun and don’t you remember you were in love with this girl when you were 19, but it sort of reminds me of the stories of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig who was in Auschwitz at the age of 16-17 and he fell in love then too. It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love but it’s not the right thing to be in Auschwitz. So when Czechs say – didn’t we have fun too? I always say yes, but it was ‘sranda v marnici’, which translates as something like ‘fun in the morgue’.”
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