Not Necessarily About Politics: Contemporary Czech Prose

The Czechs are cultural overachievers. In film, photography, theater, architecture, music, art, they punch above their weight, with an impact far beyond what you’d expect from a nation of ten million people. The same goes for literature. Authors writing in Czech have always had plenty to say, and plenty of ways to say it, but the best-known writers in English translation have historically been those whose work is viewed as political, or at least as having an underpinning of politics.

This phenomenon begins with Jaroslav Hašek’s 1923 novel Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války (first English translation Paul Selver, 1930, The Good Soldier Schweik), considered one of the first antiwar novels. It continues with Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (first English translation Paul Selver, 1923, R.U.R. [Rossum’s Universal Robots]), viewed as a commentary on class, labor, science, and utopia; and his 1936 novel Válka s mloky (first English translation Marie and Robert Weatherall, 1937, War with the Newts), a satire of, among other things, European fascism and colonialism, as well as US racism and the global arms race. No other Czech author attained such a level of both popularity and critical acclaim until Milan Kundera, in the 1980s, when this phenomenon reached its pinnacle—not just with regard to Czechs but to all of Central-slash-Eastern Europe—in the Penguin Books paperback series Writers from the Other Europe, edited by Philip Roth and published between the years 1974 and 1989.

The series title alone reveals the politics behind it: “other” meaning East, not West—geographically, yes; culturally, also; but even more so in terms of regime type. Most of the writers in the series—seventeen books by eleven authors from four countries—lived in states that were under Communist rule in the years Penguin issued the series. A few of the authors created their works under Nazism rather than communism, a variation on the theme of writer-as-bastion-against-oppressive-ideology; and several wrote before either system had taken hold in Europe. There was a strong Jewish thread running through the selection, with five of the authors Jewish or at least half-Jewish. And all the writers were male and heterosexual (or at least not openly gay).

To say that the selection of authors was political is of course not the same as saying the authors themselves were political. Looking at the Czechs who appeared in the Writers from the Other Europe series (Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, and Ludvík Vaculík), Vaculík was the only one who not only tackled political themes in his writing but was active in human rights work. Politics have been a focus of Kundera’s books but far from his only concern, and he famously shunned protest. As for Hrabal, although politics were hardly absent from his stories, often impinging on characters and events, he deliberately shied away from politics as a citizen. Apart from these three, the names you’re most likely to hear if you ask an English-speaker to name a Czech author today are Václav Havel and Ivan Klíma; sometimes also Josef Škvorecký. Again, all typically interpreted by English-language readers and reviewers as essentially political, the word dissident ever ready to surface next to their names. (Arnošt Lustig is an interesting case: a Jew who, like Klíma, survived the Holocaust, Lustig actually has more books translated into English but is less widely known—perhaps because most of his works have been issued by a university press rather than trade publishers, or perhaps because he didn’t remain in Czechoslovakia and so couldn’t be characterized as a dissident.)

To be fair, the tendency to view Central or East European literature, and Czech literature in particular, through a political lens makes sense given that the region was at the center, geographically and metaphorically, of so many of twentieth-century society’s greatest upheavals. Unfortunately this narrow focus has had a lasting impact. To this day, the handful-and-a-half of Czech writers I’ve mentioned here are the only ones likely to receive reviews in major US publications when their works are translated, or, as the case may be, re-translated (the British have a slightly better record at running reviews of newer authors). To take one prominent example, the New York Review of Books, a generous host to East European topics in general, has yet to write up a book by any Czech author who wasn’t already published in English before 1989. Meanwhile, as this database shows, there’s been a small but steady stream of works by new Czech authors in English translation since the so-called Velvet Revolution.

In assembling this issue, my goal was to show not only the excellence and diversity of Czech literature today, but how different it is from the image—exclusively male, mainly political—that still exists in the minds of many English-speaking readers. I began by looking at authors who’ve won a Czech literary prize and have at least two books of prose in print, but not more than one translated into English. I was also committed to having an equal number of women and men, and age was not an issue. After that my only guide was what appealed to me as a reader. The no-more-than-one-book-in-English criterion ruled out some of the brightest stars in the contemporary constellation of Czech letters—Jáchym Topol, Emil Hakl, Miloš Urban, Patrik Ouředník, Michal Ajvaz, Iva Pekárková, Ewald Murrer—all, wonderfully, with two or more works in English translation (though notice, only one woman), but still left me plenty of great writers to choose from. In the end, as often happens, I couldn’t stick strictly to my criteria—there were writers just as talented and fascinating as the ones in this issue who couldn’t be included because their work proved resistant to being sampled—but I can say honestly that I believe every book excerpted here, if translated in full and published, would find appreciative readers. Between them, these ten authors have received eight Magnesia Litera awards (the Czechs’ most prestigious literary distinction), four Josef Škvorecký Prizes, three Jiří Orten Prizes, and a host of other honors. As for a few of the ways these writers are like and unlike their more famous predecessors: They range in age from thirty to seventy-four; one, Jan Balabán, is no longer alive. Some of them write about politics, sometimes; some never do. Family is a theme often missing from the Czech writing most readers of English know. Four of the ten contributions here feature children or children’s voices (Hůlová, Denemarková, Soukupová, Kratochvil); family reunions figure in two (Balabán, Zmeškal). The fantastic four of Kundera, Klíma, Havel, and Hrabal all wrote almost entirely only about their homeland (though it’s true Kundera continued to write about Czechoslovakia for years after he emigrated to France, eventually he turned his focus to his adopted country), but in fact Czechs have a long and rich tradition of writing from and about other parts of the world; in this issue Katalpa, Ryšavý, and Zmeškal all tell stories in or about other countries: Germany, Russia, Congo (and other novels of Hůlová’s than the one excerpted here have been set in Mongolia, the United States, and Russia). And finally—not to suggest that these authors have nothing in common with their better-known counterparts—history, ever contested and always close at hand in the middle of Europe, is either in your face or looking right over your shoulder in four of the pieces (Katalpa, Kratochvil, Denemarková, Hůlová).

If I were to make a plea, an argument, a pitch, as to why you should read Czech literature and what it makes it so vital right now, I think I’d go with something along the lines of what Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum, said in an interview earlier this year: “The bigger mission is not necessarily to build a bridge but to provide more perspective. That’s the most important thing. It’s the idea that I’m not reading this book from Russia because I want it to say Putin is bad, or Putin is good. I just want to read a book from Russia to be like, Yo, how do people live in Russia? How do people think in Russia? Not necessarily about politics but, like, how do they fall in love?”

On the other hand, I don’t mean to suggest it’s all about love in this issue. Oh, no. It’s also about the “bumps, bends, and snags, and the weariness that comes with them,” as the narrator says in the Magdaléna Platzová story “This Time Last Year.” It’s also about fantasy, and terror, and uproariousness, and wonder. Because reading literature can help us identify with other people, make us more empathetic. It can teach us about foreign cultures. These are great reasons to read literature, especially in translation. But who would read if it were no fun? If the words themselves didn’t draw us in, rousing us, intriguing us? All of the Czechs in this issue have written books full of words that do that. A few of those words are captured here, as they say, for your reading pleasure.

In closing, a word about the translators of this issue: Craig Cravens, Christopher Harwood, Julia Sherwood, Peter Sherwood, Michelle Woods, and myself. In line with the idea of presenting “new” Czech authors, I sought “new” translators to bring them into English. None of the skillful translators contributing to this issue published a translation before 1989. All were a pleasure to work with, and I’m grateful to them for making this project possible. I couldn’t have done it without them.

© 2014 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.