One of the legends of the Czech underground, Ivan Martin Jirous (1944), has been awarded the 2006 Jaroslav Seifert Prize for literary achievement. The moment that many thought would never come was made official on Monday evening, when Ivan Jirous stood on stage inside Prague's St. Anne's church amongst a crowd of well-wishers and supporters, to accept official recognition for his poetry, and a recently published 500-page collection of his letters from prison.
Ivan Martin Jirous—or Magor, as he's affectionately known—is a man not easily overlooked. He's not a tall person, but his character is magnetic. The author of numerous poetry collections (first published in samizdat in the 1970s and 1980s), an edition of children's stories dedicated to his daughters, and now an impressive collection of his own letters written to those he loved from inside communist-era prison cells, Ivan Jirous is perhaps still best-known as the artistic manager and spiritual leader of the underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. Jirous' work with the band began in 1969. It was, for example, Ivan Jirous who convinced the Canadian, Paul Wilson, to join the Plastic People in 1970 because Wilson could translate lyrics for the Plastics, who wanted to sing in English. The band members also often had to listen to Ivan Jirous lecture about Czech history and national identity, and in many ways he shaped the band's direction.
Ivan Jirous was educated in art history at Charles University, and his MA thesis completed in 1968 was devoted to visual poetry in the works of Jiri Kolar, among others. A man of great perception, and the ability to craft the written word, in his younger days Magor—which literally means 'the crazy one' in Czech—also developed a trademark habit. Underground gatherings were always livened-up with Magor reciting his poetry or singing, and inevitably stripping-off his shirt. Magor preferred bare-chested performances. So conservative types dismiss him as a simple exhibitionist, but Ivan Jirous' life has been anything but simple, though he doesn't regret it for a moment.
Ivan Jirous sums up his life's motto in one sentence: "I enter a battle only when it's already lost." In other words, Ivan Jirous never backs down. This attitude and his rebellious nature, which was also directed against the communist authorities in Czechoslovakia, earned him five prison sentences—the first sentence came down in 1973, and the last ended in November 1989, the month of the Velvet Revolution. In total, Magor's battles with the communist regime resulted in eight and a half years behind bars. When not in prison, Ivan Jirous was allowed to work only as a labourer. It was the price to pay for remaining true to his beliefs, the price to pay for living freely inside communist Czechoslovakia, he says.
Now, Ivan 'Magor' Jirous joins the ranks of Dominik Tatarka, Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Jiri Grusa and Josef Skvorecky as a Jaroslav Seifert Prize laureate. The prize, named for the only Czech author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, was first established by the Charter 77 Foundation in 1986, to recognize the literary talents of Czech writers who would not be honoured inside the communist bloc.
When Ivan Jirous got up on stage on Monday night to accept the 2006 Jaroslav Seifert Prize, he laughed about how some people may be afraid that he'd ditch his shirt by the end of the acceptance speech. Instead, Magor kept his clothes on, and recited from memory one of his favorite poems by Jaroslav Seifert, "Autumn." His old friends, the Plastic People of the Universe, played in Ivan Jirous' honour.
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