Children of the Revolution: politics and writing in today’s Czech Republic

28-10-2010

A few days ago Radio Prague and the Czech Literature Portal, this country’s foremost website promoting Czech literature abroad, got together to hold the first of a series of public literary discussions. David Vaughan’s guests were two of the Czech Republic’s best known literary figures, the novelist Petra Hůlová and the critic and translator Martin Machovec. They were joined by an international audience at one of Prague’s most atmospheric literary dens, the Shakespeare and Sons bookshop, tucked away in one of the ancient houses in Prague’s Lesser Quarter. The subject was politics and literature; twenty years after the fall of communism, are the two in any way compatible here in the Czech context?

David Vaughan: I’d like to welcome our audience here in the Shakespeare and Sons bookshop, just off the Charles Bridge in Prague and also Radio Prague’s listeners all around the world. We’re here for a short discussion on the complex relationship between writing and politics. In the course of the twentieth century, Czechs have found themselves at the receiving end of so many experiments in the “engineering of human souls”, to paraphrase Josef Škvorecký, that they might be forgiven for being allergic to politics in literature in any form. So, twenty years after the fall of communism, is there any sense in talking about Czech literature in a political context? How, if at all, do politics and writing interact? To talk about the subject, I’m joined by the academic and translator Martin Machovec, who has written extensively about the underground in Czechoslovakia under communism, and Petra Hůlová, who was ten years old when the communist regime fell, and has become one of the most acclaimed, widely read and also widely translated Czech novelists since the Velvet Revolution. Her latest novel Strážci občanského dobra (Guardians of the Common Good) deals with the legacy of the communist regime, written from the point of view of one of the losers.

DV: Petra, I’d like to start with you and your book, Guardians of the Common Good, because – when we’re talking about politics – one of the interesting things about the narrator of that story is that she is completely “politically incorrect” in today’s terms. She’s very nostalgic about the communist regime and she talks about the changes since the fall of communism as the “counter-revolution”. What inspired you to write from that point of view?

Petra Hůlová, photo: authorPetra Hůlová, photo: author Petra Hůlová: “I think in most of my books I’m looking for some kind of provocative voice. For example, in my fourth book [Umělohmotný třípokoj – The Artificial Triple Room], it was a story told by a prostitute, so it was provocative in a sexual way, and this time it was provocative politically. So, why did I choose this woman to tell the story? I thought it would be an interesting view that somehow is missing here, that we don’t hear very often. There are many books about the time before the fall of communism, and they are almost always told by people who were trying to fight the regime, were in opposition, and I wanted to tell a different story and provoke some kind of debate. So that’s why I chose this communist fanatic.”

DV: I have the impression that you quite like her as well…

PH: “Well, I always have to love my characters, when I write in their voices. So of course I like her, although it’s not me. But I have to be sympathetic and empathetic with the character. That’s the only way I can be persuasive.”

DV: I’d like to turn to Martin Machovec and go right back to the early days of the communist regime, when there was a sincere and widespread support among writers for the new regime. For example, here is a quote from one poem in the early 1950s, from the time just after Josef Stalin died: “The battle’s not over./ The battle is just beginning/ Stalin has died,/ But Stalin’s work and Stalin’s children live on.” This is written by none other than a man who went on to be one of the foremost dissidents and émigrés, Pavel Kohout. So even writers like that, in those early days, were enthusiastic about the communist regime, weren’t they?

David Vaughan, Martin Machovec (right)David Vaughan, Martin Machovec (right) Martin Machovec: “Well, they certainly were. In the ‘50s the official guidelines were that the representatives of the working class – the vanguard writers – were to write about political matters as well, to fight for the cause of the working class, humanity etc. So, don’t let the fact surprise us that Pavel Kohout was in the early ‘50s really a convinced communist. He must have trusted it. Václav Havel on several occasions in the ‘70s and ‘80s claimed that there was no political life, because what officially existed was no real political exchange. There was a monopoly of power, one ruling party, so of course there was no real politics in terms of western civilization, western democracy. And through this he claimed that everything is becoming political. Whatever you do, whatever individual, independent act you do, it turns out to be political, because it’s potentially dangerous. It jeopardizes the monopoly of power. And there was this abrupt change, I would say, that happened in 1989, that suddenly literature could be only restricted to its original aims.”

DV: Petra, in several of your books you’ve written about generational conflicts in families. You’re from the same generation as the narrator of your book, Guardians of the Common Good – you grew up in a similar world to hers, that of ‘normalization’, as it was called here. Your daughter [Karla, born in June] is going to be growing up in a very different world, isn’t she?

PH: “Yes, that’s right…”

DV: More boring, maybe?

PH: “Before the fall of the communist regime it was somehow easier to find yourself a particular position, or voice you want to speak out in, because the distinction between good and evil was easier than now and reality those days was less boring than now somehow.”

'Guardians of the Common Good''Guardians of the Common Good' DV: And yet the legacy of that time, as you show in your book, is felt very strongly today, even in people of your generation, who were still children when the communist regime fell.

PH: “I was ten years old when the Velvet Revolution happened and I remember mostly aesthetics, how things like the city and the shops looked. And I can remember the atmosphere at school and some emotions I felt, for example at official ceremonies at school …”

DV: In the book you write about the Mayday parades and how enthusiastic everybody was for them. It was fun, it was a day off school and everybody put on their Pioneer’s red scarf. There was an atmosphere of celebration. Is that what you remember as well?

PH: “I do remember a little bit. Of course this is a work of fiction, so most of it I just made up.”

MM: “I don’t think I would feel nostalgic about things like Mayday parades, but I think this does correspond with what Petra has just said about the heritage of the past, of the four totalitarian decades – a relatively long time when three generations were formed – that they carry on the burden of the past. They can’t get rid of it. That’s for sure. And even their children, because they’re influenced by their parents. So that’s what gives good causes to making up heroes such as Petra has just made up – a person who can’t be interpreted in negative terms necessarily, but also in positive terms. That’s at last something that to me is evidence that we’re getting rid of this black-and-white division. Any experience can enrich you. If you happen to spend some years in a labour camp, in as much you can then somehow use them in positive terms. So I quite agree with Petra.”

PH: “The funny thing is that, although I know about all the awful things that happened, for me personally it was not evil at all. All I remember from those days are just positive experiences. I had a happy childhood, a happy family and I was very positive about the world I lived in.”

Mayday paradesMayday parades DV: So could we take a first question from somebody in the audience?

QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: “Stephen Weeks. What you were saying earlier about having a childhood reality in those times. Of course there is film footage of children playing in the Terezín concentration camp and still-photographs of children playing in Auschwitz. That was their reality and children will always play… What I used to feel sorry for, when I first started coming to the Czech Republic from 1994 onwards, was seeing older people, who were just coming up for or had just reached retirement. It must have been really terrible for them, because they were being told that all their life, all their active life, from childhood onwards, was for nothing, that what they had worked for, striven for, what they had enjoyed or suffered, was actually nothing. It seemed a terrible thing for them, and I can understand that bitterness, which is still inherent in this country. And that’s one of the problems. Then, of course, that bitterness is passed on to other generations as envy, distrust and so on."

MM: “I quite agree with what you have just said. There is this ambiguity of experience that I’ve been talking about before. It is quite difficult, I think, for people coming to this country, or any other country that went through a similar experience, to understand the local people’s experience. So how come you liked your childhood? If you lived under communism, you must have suffered only! In Russian literature you can find a lot of similar examples. Even there, in a real hell, you try to establish conditions that enable you to survive. And then – even with nostalgia – remember those days. Because they were your days. You were young and you were active at that time. So that’s it. Let’s say, thanks to fiction, thanks to poetry, we can be helped to understand our own past and the past of nations that went through similar disasters or whatever, and are going to in the future, because this is not going to end.”

PH: “You said that you empathized with the older people who spent most of their life in the communist era and suddenly were told that your life was for nothing and so on. Well, I wouldn’t be so empathetic with them because I think that at least after 1968, and even before, anybody who was sincere and wanted to know, and was not scared or lazy to think, had to somehow understand that the regime was not good, and that the reality as described by the political elite was a lie. So I wouldn’t be so empathetic.”

DV: Looking to the present day, with the current elections going on [local and Senate elections, October 2010], I was looking at some of the slogans you see around, which strike me as every bit as absurd as some of the things that were being said in the communist days. My favourite was: “The fourth best zoo in Europe” – I wasn’t quite sure whether it was referring to the country or the fact that Prague has a good zoo. There was another ambiguous slogan that said, “That’s not the way to do it”, and also, “If trees could vote, they’d vote for us”. There’s much less rebelliousness in today’s society than there was in the underground literature of before the fall of communism. Isn’t it about time today that we had another wave of rebelliousness against all this nonsense?

MM: “I think that’s something that I would welcome. I would be ready. I think that few writers are ready to involve political topics and themes in their fiction, and I think that this is a very substantial, essential change. So far this has always been present, and suddenly the situation is different and the energy that was present in the underground writings of the ‘70s and ‘80s – of the ‘50s as well – now could find expression in a different way.”

DV: But isn’t politics potentially fatal, because you end up with slogans like some of the ones on the billboards or the nonsense that writers like Pavel Kohout were writing in the 1950s in honour of Stalin? It’s a dangerous path, isn’t it, Petra, to be too political, or too overtly political?

PH: “Well, actually I’m glad that Martin said what he said. I somehow didn’t expect it. There was a conference about the engagement of contemporary Czech artists into politics and the civic area, and I read that most of the visual artists were much more pro-political engagement, while writers were much more hesitant towards it, saying stuff like: ‘Any text is always an engagement’ – and meaningless sentences like that. I think that it’s important and it’s valuable to reflect in your writings what’s going on around you right now. It does not mean necessarily politics in the sense of what politicians say, but to somehow be aware of the world you live in and deal with it somehow, because I think that many writers tend to enclose themselves in a world of these timeless topics like love and hatred, and kids and death, and relationships. It’s really difficult, but I think it’s something important. It’s quite rare in contemporary Czech literature.”

DV: But in a way you can be quite subversive, or even political, in writing about very internal, personal things, can’t you? In your own short novel, The Artificial Triple Room, you write about the life of an aging prostitute from her own perspective, and it’s very overt sexually. This, in a sense, is a form of politics as well, isn’t it?

PH: “I definitely agree. This monologue of a prostitute, who deals with sexual topics in her speech, was somehow a covert message about the world we live in, and also my latest book, the story told by a communist woman, is partly science fiction – there are completely fantastic parts. It’s just the way I dealt with the genre, because I didn’t want to sound like a newspaper, but still wanted to refer to something we are living through.”

DV: Any comments or questions from the audience?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “In the West, usually the people, who call themselves dissidents, would have to be on the left, because if they were not, they would not be called dissidents. The regime would not be a problem. Usually, when the regime became a problem, then you would become a dissident and you would write against it, you would try to find problems with it. I was wondering how you would compare those people in Western Europe with the dissidents that we knew in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s.”

PH: “We have left oriented intellectuals here as well now and I would say that they are dissidents in the way that their voice is somewhere on the margin, and because of our communist experience we usually tend to label anybody with a leftish world view as a communist. We tend to be full of prejudices towards these people. So there is something in common in that both of these groups are on the margin.”

MM: “Let me remind you of one thing. There’s still this misunderstanding that’s going on, interpreting the Soviet Bloc countries as if they were real communist, leftist countries. They were no leftists. This is something that we should make clear at the beginning of any discussion. On the contrary, first of all I would say that the terms of what’s left and what’s right have been so much misused that they’ve lost their original content, so that’s one thing. Secondly, those Central European dissidents who claimed to be anti-communists, meaning anti-Soviet, anti-totalitarian, anti-Kremlin-like politicians, were manipulated into the position in which they were identified in the following way: ‘You are anti-communist, so in the long run you are right wing thinkers’, or something like that’ On the contrary, there’s a rich variety within the dissidents. For instance there were also figures like Egon Bondy, who claimed to be Maoist – though of course he was rare bird here – or Petr Uhl. So there were some who never let public opinion manipulate them into the black-and-white idea of ‘I’m against you so that means I have to be a right wing politician or right wing thinker.’ In late 1968 [after the Soviet invasion], those who were pro-Kremlin communists were nicknamed ‘konzervy’ in Czech, meaning ‘conservative’ politicians. What did they want to keep? Of course, their own positions! So they were considered to be conservatives.”

DV: Do we have any more questions or comments?

MAN IN AUDIENCE: “I have one question for Petra Hůlová, because you know the writings of your colleagues, Czech writers. Do you see in their works the marks of some new politics – a revolt against what is happening now?"

PH: “Let’s define political writing as something that deals with the situation of the Czech Republic right now in general, not definitely tied with politics. As far as poetry is concerned, I would name Jan Těsnohlídek, as somebody who really speaks of these things in his poems. He is some kind of voice of his generation, dealing with a kind of nothingness in terms of ideology and the difficulty of finding a standpoint you can judge from. I would definitely also name David Zábranský, especially his first novel, Slabost pro každou jinou pláž (A Weakness for Every Other Beach), though he is very controversial. It’s very much language- and thoughts-oriented. But he wants to bear a message about what he sees around him, and I do respect it and I think it’s intelligent writing. I would probably also mention Petra Soukupová, whom I respect very much as well, but it’s not very political. It’s more relationship-oriented."

MM: “I’m quite happy that Petra mentioned the writers she did, because I would say that this is something that would enable us to establish, let’s say, two different approaches towards political matters on the Czech contemporary literary scene: those ones who somehow try to involve social issues, burning issues that really need to be expressed through the language of fiction, and through these, they somehow mirror also the world of politics. Those ones could be defined as one group, while there are also still some other writers, and I’d like to mention those who are burdened by the legacy or heritage of the old underground writers, who go on writing and feel it necessary to express their direct political attitudes. The trouble is that these writers are not much published and their criticism doesn’t reach the ear of the reading public, to say nothing of the politicians.”

28-10-2010