Josef Rauvolf - the janitor who helped bring American Beat culture to Czechoslovakia


Coilin O'Connor's guest on One on One this week is the translator and filmmaker Josef Rauvolf. Although he now works as Culture Editor of the Czech magazine Instinkt, Mr Rauvolf is perhaps best known in this country as the Czech translator of American Beat writers such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. His translations of Burroughs's novels The Naked Lunch and Junky are particularly popular and have sold thousands of copies. In recent years, he has also helped make acclaimed documentaries on underground cultures in both the US and Communist Czechoslovakia. Interestingly, after graduating from Charles University as a librarian in the mid-1970s, Mr Rauvolf initially spent eleven years working as a janitor in Prague. So what prompted him to make this unusual career choice?

"First of all I didn't want to have anything to do with the regime. I wasn't gong to work under circumstances I didn't want. That was the first reason. Secondly, working as a janitor gave you freedom, because there wasn't much work involved. Basically, you were free. It was a job where you didn't have to go to work everyday, like everybody else had to or they could go to jail for a year. That was another reason. Thirdly, because it was a good way of getting a flat for free. The situation is completely different now, but back then you had to wait for a flat. You were put on a waiting list. In Prague, it could take maybe 20 years to get one. But, as a janitor, you got a flat for free, without resorting to any bribery or tricks, which was great. So that was the reason I took this job. It was really great, because I had time. I had time to meet my friends, to travel and to work on translations. So I really enjoyed the time and, frankly speaking, I now miss my janitor days... It was interesting because my colleagues were either really lower-class gypsy women and people like that or else they were philosophers and people from universities, who ended up in politics or in the government after 1989. It was a very interesting mixture. When we would have meetings, it was great fun having these professors and philosophers mixing with normal people."

You've mentioned how you used the time to translate. You're particularly well known as a translator of William Burroughs. What attracted you to this author. How did you first come across him and what made you decide to translate him?

"It was really interesting because, like most people my age, I liked Beat writers [such as] Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But my access was limited to what was translated. These translations were really great and of a high quality, but there was nothing published from Burroughs. Of course he was mentioned in the articles and essays I managed to read about the Beat writers. And what I read about him really attracted me. I don't know why, but I remember writing to a friend in the early 1970s and telling him that I definitely had to read his book The Naked Lunch. When I eventually got a copy - in 1986 I think - I immediately read it twice and then decided that I had to translate it. As a janitor, I really had lots of time, so I just sat at home and translated it. I was hooked. It was a real addiction. That's the story of my translation of The Naked Lunch. As you may know, it's a very hard book to read, even for English readers. So when I asked some Americans I met in Prague what certain things meant, they were like saying 'Oh man, I don't know - what are you reading that book for anyway?' This was a question people typically asked me. I then decided to write to Burroughs. Because he was the writer, I thought he could explain what was in these pages to me. And he did. That's basically how we got in touch."

You actually ended up meeting William Burroughs in the early 1990s. What did you talk about?

"Well after 1989, I knew that I would like to see him, because he was an old man by then, who might die any day. And so I called Burroughs and said I would be in the US and asked if it would be possible to see him. He said 'Sure, no problem - just come over.' So I bought a flight ticket and flew to New York. I then got a ticket to Laurence, Kansas and took a trip on a Greyhound, which was really something for me - it involved travelling for two or three days on a bus and it was really great. When I arrived, his secretary James Grauerholz met me at the bus station. 'James,' I said 'What should I call him - should I call him Mr Burroughs, Mr William, or God or what?' 'Just call him William,' he said. So anyway we met the next day. I always tell people that it was like meeting a grandfather you haven't seen in a few years. He was very kind and open. He showed me his guns and his paintings. He even gave me some of his paintings. We smoked marijuana together. He got drunk, just like he did every day. We just chewed the fat I guess. It was just normal talk, which was maybe even better for me I guess than discussing the high-minded themes or issues that people usually asked him about in interviews. It was just normal"

You've since become something of a documentary maker. You've made a documentary on American alternative culture and, more recently, you've also made a study on underground culture here. What attracted you to these themes?

"I've always been interested in things that are away from the mainstream, in any possible sense. Things that weren't predictable and which weren't mainstream. So, I guess [US and Czechoslovak underground culture] fits these criteria."

The two documentaries you've been involved in so far have been about the alternative Beat generation in the United States and the alternative underground culture that existed in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and 80s. Do you think there are any parallels between the Beat underground movement in America in the 1950s and 60s and what was happening here in some circles in the 1970s and 80s?

"Yeah, I guess there are many parallels. First of all, these movements are not so much connected with or influenced by real political or economic circumstances. These movements are triggered by people's dissatisfaction with the conditions they are living in, along with the police, the government, suppression and censorship. And these things occurred on both sides of the barricades or on both sides of the Iron Curtain. So I think [these movements] are basically linked to people's will to be free and to be able to express this need or urge for freedom. So there definitely are parallels, because these parallels are in people's hearts and minds, even though that may sound like a cliché"