Czech Emigré Literature – an attempt at a definition
First, I would like to point out as a matter of interest that Czech publishing abroad has had a long history. Independent Czech publishing was driven abroad several times through the centuries. After the 1620 Battle of the White Mountain, protestant emigrés Kristián Pešek, Václav Klejch, Jan Liberda or Jan Theofil Elsner published mostly religious works in the German town of Zittau, They smuggled thes books into Bohemia. Count František Antonín Špork published more than a hundred and fifty non-catholic theological works on his estate in Eastern Bohemia, but when his printing office was closed by the Jesuits in 1712, he had his publications printed abroad and brought back secretly into Bohemia by various ingenious ways: for instance, in 1721, a thousand copies of a book published in Dresden was smuggled in a musical automaton in the shape of a bagpipe player.
Many Czech books and newspapers were published in the United States during the 19th century. As Josef Škvorecký points out, this is a totally uncharted territory. Several novels from the American Civil War written by Czech authors were published. Around 1900, approximately 340 newspapers and magazines came out in Czech in America.
After the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Czech books were published in the West only sporadically, usually in minimal printruns. Original Czech fiction came out more systematically in the series Sklizeň svobodné tvorby (A Harvest of Free Writing), founded in the Swedish Lund in 1958 by poet Robert Vlach. The Rome-based Christian Academy publishing house brought out major works by Czech authors from the early 1950s onward. Works by prose writers Jan Čep, Egon Hostovský and Zdeněk Němeček and poetry by Ivan Jelínek, Robert Vlach and Pavel Javor were mostly published in the West in this period. For further information about this chapter of independent Czech publishing in the West, please consult Ludmila Šeflová's Bibliography of Czech and Slovak authors published in the West between 1948 and 1972 (an appendix takes this work to 1978).
But the real heyday for the publishing of Czech literature in the West came after 1968. This was caused primarily by two factors. First of all, after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion into Czechoslovakia, between 100 000 and 150 000 Czechs and Slovaks settled in the West. These included a number of writers and translators. Many of these new Czech and Slovak immigrants were intellectuals and in the 1960s in Czechoslovakia were used to rich cultural life. This is why they were willing to buy Czech books even after they had settled abroad. Soon, several emigré Czech publishing houses came into being, while in Czechoslovakia, from 1969 - 1970, many authors were banned. It was also very important that in spite of official obstacles, after 1968, relatively close contacts were maintained between writers living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech emigré publishers. These contacts continued to grow throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. In the two decades after 1968, the Iron Curtain was far from impassable - at least from the East to the West. Czech emigré publishing houses did not live in a vacuum - they were able to offer to their readers the best of the new Czech writing produced both at home and abroad. Thus the continuity with the pre-1968 literary developments was more or less maintained, although after 1968, Czech writers both home and abroad wrote in radically changed circumstances.
Undoubtedly the greatest contribution to original independent Czech publishing in the area of creative writing in this period was made by the Toronto-based publishing house 68 Publishers Corporation, run by writers Zdena and Josef Škvorecký and founded in 1971. Until 1989, 68 Publishers brought out more than 220 works of mostly original prose, poetry and memoir literature. A great contribution to the publishing of original independent Czech fiction was also made by the rather exclusive, small publishing house Arkýř, run mostly from Munich by Karel Jadrný. Between 1980, when it was founded, and 1989, Arkýř published only sixteen titles, but each of them was a true literary event. A great contribution to the cultivation of Czech poetry was made by Daniel Strož's Munich-based publishing house Poezie mimo Domov [Poetry outside the Homeland]. Strož started publishing poetry in 1977 and until 1990 he brought out more than a hundred titles. The Munich based publisher Index, run by Dr. Adolf Müller, concentrated primarily on moderately left-of-centre political literature, but even amongst the 174 titles brought out by Index between 1971 and 1990, there were many literary gems. The Zurich-based Konfrontation Publishers, the publishers CCC Books in Munich and Haarlem and the Archa - Freie Presse Agentur Series, based in Wurmannsquick and Eggenfelden were publishing set ups of a more commercial nature. The Frankfurt am Main and Munich-based organisation Opus bonum and the Rome-based publishers Christian Academy concentrated primarily on religious literature and on fiction and poetry written by catholic writers. Alexander Tomský with his London-based publishing set-up Rozmluvy was a late arrival in the Czech emigré publishing world. He started publishing books as late as 1982, first doing primarily reprints of Czech emigré bestsellers or otherwise important works. Later on, he also published some original work. Incidentally, Alexander Tomský is the only independent publisher who after the revolution transferred his business from London to Prague and has been able to stay in business. Recently, he has also opened a bookshop in Vinohrady in Prague.
Most Czech emigré publishing was strictly non-profit making. The publishing houses were run by enthusiasts, who supported themselves by other employment. Most of these small publishing houses were situated in the publisher's flats, in Daniel Strož's case for instance in his grown up children's small bedroom. The numbers of sold copies of each title differed widely, but it is probably fair to say that the average printrun of most books was approximately 1000 copies. Daniel Strož's Poezie mimo Domov publishing house was able to publish original Czech poetry, because he had gathered together a core of some 200 subscribers throughout the world. These people for many years bought everything Strož published.
The Czech emigré publishing houses were run on a kind of book club basis - books were sent to the most exotic corners of the world by mail. (Subscribers to Czech publishing houses lived even in Paupua New Guinea or in equatorial Africa.) The printruns of Czech books published in the West may seem to have been small. However, if we consider that perhaps between 100 000 to 150 000 Czechs and Slovaks left Czechoslovakia after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, then the comparable printrun of the same books within Czechoslovakia, where there is a potentially hundred times larger reading public, would have been approximately a hundred thousand copies for each title, which to me seesm rather impressive.
Until about 1977, most of the titles brought out by the Czech emigré publishing houses had been written by authors who had settled in the West. To begin with, the Czech publishers in the West were rather wary of publishing manuscripts by writers living in Czechoslovakia for fear that this could bring them into difficulties with the authorities. For instance, 68 Publishers in Toronto originally advertised the first novel by the Prague author Karel Pecka which they published, Štěpení, [Splitting] as an anonymous work. Later on, works published by samizdat in Czechoslovakia started filtering out into the output of the Czech emigré publishers, more and more perhaps especially after the emergence of the human rights group Charter 77 in 1977, which gave samizdat publishing in Czechoslovakia a great boost - although the most important samizdat edition, Edice Petlice, the Padlock Series, was started by Ludvík Vaculík as early as 1973.
I have been asked to give a talk here about the stages of development in Czech emigré literature between 1971 and 1989. I have to admit that this is very difficult. The history of post-1968 Czech emigré publishing can be hardly divided into individual, clearly defined 'stages of development'. The history of each publishing house is a history of individual activity: individual editorial choice, individual enthusiasism and individual effort against overwhelming odds. There were no historical watersheds marking the beginning and end of some clearly defined stages of development. And what about the Czech writers whose work was published in the West? Again, it is, in my view impossible to group them into clearly defined schools. No large literary movements published their manifestoes in this period. Again, as it is the case with the publishers, the history of Czech independent literature of the past two decades is primarily a history of development of individual literary personalities, whom it would be wrong to try to pigeonhole in some kind of groups or movements.
Another difficulty is presented by the concept of 'Czech emigré literature'. How do we define a Czech emigré writer? The answer to this question would seem to be simple: it is somebody who, in the past two decades, lived and published in the West. On closer examination, we discover that such an answer is totally unsatisfactory. A large number of Czech authors who settled in the West brought with them out of Czechoslovakia works that they had written in their native land and which could not be published there. These works were first published outside Czechoslovakia: should they be therefore regarded as part of emigré literature? Is Josef Škvorecký's Tankový prapor (The Tank Battallion), which was written in Prague in 1954 and first published in Toronto in 1971, part of emigré literature? Is Milan Kundera's Valčík na rozloučenou (The Farewell Party), which was written in Prague in 1972 and published in Toronto in 1979, part of emigré literature? Obviously, this type of categorisation does not work. The concept of emigré literature evokes the notion of a writer who has been uprooted from his natural environment and who comments on his new circumstances and on the situation back in his native country somehow 'from afar'. It is immediately obvious that in the case of Czech literature published in the West in the past two decades, this concept somehow is basically inapplicable. There are very few Czech writers who had settled in the West who have commented on life in Czechoslovakia from a glorious isolation 'somewhere afar'. The cultural and literary activities of independent writers within Czechoslovakia and outside Czechoslovakia were, in this electronic age of instant long-distance communication far too closely linked to make it possible for an independent emigré literary mentality fully to develop amongst Czech writers living abroad. A strong, confident stream of independent Czech literary culture developed in the West. It was fed equally by samizdat writers from within Czechoslovakia, whose work was published in Czech in the West in an ever increasing volume in the 1980s, as well as by Czech writers who had settled in the West.
I think it is necessary to emphasise this point over and over again. Somehow, the Iron Curtain was much more penetrable from the West than from the East. This was obviously partially due to the sheer mechanics of distribution. Once an independent literary work was smuggled out from Czechoslovakia to the West and once it was published there, it could be almost immediately made available anywhere in the world. Contrary to that, once a Czech book published in the West was smuggled into Czechoslovakia, its further distribution within the country was fairly limited. Thus the Czechoslovak literary public within Czechoslovakia was not fully aware of the emergence of this strong, international Czech literary culture. In the piece published in ACTA in 1987, Ludvík Vaculík, when writing about his Petlice activities, admitted that at the beginning of post-1968 samizdat publishing in Czechoslovakia he did not even know of the existence of Czech publishing houses in the West. I recently did an interview with Moravian writer Jan Trefulka for Radio Free Europe. In the talk, we discussed his novels published in the West in the 1970s and the 1980s. I knew them from their Western Czech editions: while Trefulka kept referring to their publication in Czech samizdat, as though the fact that they reached an inordinately larger number of readers when they were printed in the West was still, even today, somehow unreal to him. When last year I published Knihy za ohradou, Books behind the Barrier, a study of Czech literature published abroad in the past two decades, the fact that I attempted to examine the strong current of Czech literary culture in the diaspora was somewhat disliked in Prague: I was criticised for not having examined independent Czech literature from the point of view of samizdat publishing. But it is simply not true, as Zdeněk Urbánek states in his memoirs Stvořitelé světa (The Creators of the World) that 'anything that is good in Czech independent literature is of domestic, Czech samizdat origin'. That is a statement made out of sheer ignorance. I would say that Czech writers living in the West have contributed to the high international standing of Czech literature in equal measure as the samizdat writers.
To sum up: it is difficult in my view to distinguish thematically between so-called emigré literature and samizdat literature of the past two decades because in the output of the Czech emigré publishing houses, these two strands are almost inextricably intertwined.
Nevertheless, we should perhaps make another attempt to isolate at least some so-called emigré writers from the stream of Czech independent literature of the past two decades. What about the following definition: Could typical emigré writers be those, who, at least in some of their works, compare and contrast their experience of life in the West with their experience of life in Eastern Europe under communism? Then, undoubtedly, the first names that spring to mind, are those of Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera. Moreover, this angle of vision opens a space for another interesting question.
As I know full well from personal experience, moving from the communist East to the capitalist West usually involves a traumatic psychological transition, because the individual needs to adjust to a radically different outlook, the philosophy and mentality of an unknown environment, usually in a situation of deep uncertainty about one's future. This aspect of emigration is invariably not taken into consideration at all by East Europeans who have not experienced the process.
Perhaps Czech emigré literature par excellence is particularly that literature which attempts to map out different stages of this process of psychological transformation, the process of acquiring knowledge of one's new environment, as Jaroslav Hutka put it, the process of 'being born again, but this time without childhood'. The different stages of this process depend on the given author's length of stay in the West and then, naturally, also on his psychological make up. Karel Hvížďala's book of interviews with twenty Czech writers living in the West, České rozhovory ve světě, Index, Cologne, 1981, provides an interesting introduction to this problem, because it features conversations with authors who find themselves at differing stages of this assimilation process. Josef Škvorecký, for instance, has always professed that his move from Czechoslovakia to Canada was perfectly painless and that he finds himself in Canada perfectly at home. (Sometimes, it seems, as Shakespeare says, that 'the lady doth protest too much' - when I took Škvorecký in a car into the Scottish Highlands some years ago, he gave out a wistful sigh: 'Oh, this countryside is much more like the Czech countryside than Canada is!' But of course, Škvorecký has always insisted that he feels nostalgic about the world of his youth, not about Czechoslovakia as such.) Jaroslav Hutka, who was always very critical of things Western during his eleven years' stay in Holland, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Škvorecký. Other authors, who have dealt with this problem, are prose writers Jan Beneš, Jaroslav Vejvoda, Vlastimil Třešňák, Ivan Binar, Ota Ulč, Jan Drábek, Jan Novák, Karel Friedrich, and perhaps also Sylvie Richterová, poets Ivan Diviš, Karel Kryl, Antonín Brousek, Pavel Javor and Ivan Schneedorfer.
First, therefore, let us have a look at what we might call the emigré works written by the two most well known Czech authors living in the West, Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera.
Josef Škvorecký is a born story-teller. Story-telling, or more precisely, the telling of anecdotes, forms the basis of his writing style. Comedy and surrealist inspired caricature are the fundamental elements of his literary method. At the same time, Škvorecký's works are exremely serious. By writing tragicomic farces, Škvorecký taps hidden reservoirs of energy. This carries the reader along and somehow brings him into contact with the very essence of life. People in Czechoslovakia have sometimes the tendency to dismiss Škvorecký as a low-brow author because most of his texts read extremely well - the reader does not need to work particularly hard to understand them. The simplicity of Škvorecký's writings is however misleading.
Škvorecký's comedy and his narrative skill are largely based on linguistic experimentation. The protagonists of his novels are characterised primarily by their caricatured speech patterns. In line with this basic writing method, Škvorecký concentrates a great deal on the interplay of Czech and English as spoken by Czechoslovak immigrants to the American continent.
The first major work that Škvorecký wrote and published in Canada was his long novel Mirákl (The Miracle Game, 1972) a story of the first twenty years of communism in Czechoslovakia. Here, Škvorecký used for the first time a technique of mosaic story telling. In the novel, several narrative strands evolve at the same time. Stories are broken up into short anecdotal episodes and mixed up. Thus a strong impression of synchronicity is achieved. We are witnesses to a teatrum mundi. Škvorecký's probably most successful novel in English translation is his Příběh inženýra lidských duší (The Engineer of Human Souls, 1977), which uses the same technique as Mirákl, but broadens the scope of the narration both in time and in space. As in Mirákl, the Engineer is held together by the main semi-autobiographical character, the partially cynical, cooly detached observer Danny Smiřický. In the Engineer of Human Souls, Smiřický, like Škvorecký, teaches English literature at a Canadian college. The work goes back to Škvorecký's - or rather Smiřický's teenage years in the East Bohemian town of Kostelec under German occupation and compares and contrasts Smiřický's experience of life under Nazi and communist totalitarianism with the experience of Canadians, who have always only lived in a Western-style democracy. The confrontation of two different value systems produces serious, but also comic, misunderstandings. Basically, the East Europeans consider the experience of people in the West inauthentic, and vice versa. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that words are a very imperfect means of communication, because if you have not personally lived through other people's experiences, verbal testimony will fail to convince you about their validity. Škvorecký also records varying differences in the perception of the world amongst the community of Czechoslovak immigrants in Canada: if you left Czechoslovakia many years ago, there is a chance that you will not understand those who have come after you.
Škvorecký's more experimental and more lyrical novel Scherzo Capriccioso, Veselý sen o Dvořákovi (A Merry Dream about Dvořák, 1984, translated into English simply as Dvořák in Love) is also a comparison of life in Central Europe and in the United States, although set at the end of the 19th century. The novel is attempting to probe the mystery of the creative genius. It also deals with the perennial and mysterious questions of love and death. At the same time, it is a homage by Škvorecký the immigrant to the United States. Škvorecký does not hesitate to criticise various negative aspects of life in America: as a democrat, he is particularly moved by the predicament of the American blacks who are being discriminated against in the United States of Dvořák's time. Nevertheless, although Škvorecký finds many aspects of life in America narrow-minded, limited and gross, he still prefers the populism of the United States to the stagnant, pompous and antidemocratic atmosphere of Central Europe.
In Škvorecký's latest novel, Nevěsta z Texasu, (A Bride from Texas, 1991) this author's process of transition to the new environment has been made complete. As some commentators have remarked, Nevěsta z Texasu is a purely American novel, although it is written in Czech and although it deals with the fate of Czechs in the American civil war. Some Prague readers have even found that the complicated structure of Nevěsta z Texasu is so much preoccupied with various minute aspects of American life that it is bordering on the unintelligible for the ordinary Czech reader, who is not acquainted with detailed history of past American life. Here, perhaps, Škvorecký has left the Czech literary community behind.
Kniha smíchu a zapomnění (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1981), is the first of three novels that Milan Kundera has written in the West. Compared to his previous fiction (Směšné lásky, Žert, Život je jinde, Valčík na rozloučenou) Kundera's didacticism, which was always latent in his work, becames very conspicous here. After arriving in the West, Kundera must have realised that the consumerist Western reading public was generally incapable of deeper abstract reflection over his work and that at the same time people in the West generally had only a very vague idea of what life was like in Eastern Europe under communism. Thus, Kundera reacted to his emigration by creating a special working method. He invited the reader into his literary workshop. As he writes, Kundera builds a complicated literary structure: at the same time, he explicitly explains everything he is doing. He has good reason to fear that without direct explanation, the reader would fail to understand the more complex aspects of his work. In his literary essays Kundera directly describes how his novels are constructed and tells the reader openly what he believes is the message of his works. Writers do not usually do this. Kundera states that his novels are built on the basis of several major thematic concepts, which are used to, as he puts it, 'existentially examine' the world we live in.
This open writing method, which Kundera has obviously created in a reaction to the pressure of western consumerist society, has brought him enormous international success. Kundera is now the only Czech writer who is truly well known internationally. At the same time, not everyone in the West realises that he is a Czech writer.
In most of his novels written abroad Kundera also compares life in Czechoslovakia and in the West, particularly France. He is more critical towards the West than Josef Škvorecký. Kniha smíchu a zapomnění is first and foremost a story of a Czech emigré girl Tamina, who after 1968 settles in France where she works as a waitress. In the new environment, she becomes caught up in an atmosphere of conventionality, petty-mindedness and absurdity. As is the case with many East European emigrés to the West, Tamina cannot make the Western people around her understand her complicated experience, and she does not even try. To her, the lives of people in the West seem empty and facile. Thus, emigration is for Tamina a journey into a timeless limbo, a makeshift existence, in which she gradually loses all memories of her former, authentic life. The novel's leitmotif is laughter, joyful, primitive, 'unconsciousness' of a crowd which lives without historical memory in the timeless dimension of the present moment, without the least awareness for instance of the sophisticated cultural heritage of its own nation. Paradoxically, in Kundera's view, laughter and forgetting rules both the East and the West. Thus emigration offers no liberation: it is only a new type of enslavement.
Kundera's work is a paradox. Kundera has an interest in philosophy, yet his fiction is, basically, 'anti-philosophical' because the writer uses literary philosophical contemplation to show that it is absurd to build all-encompassing philosophical systems. According to Kundera, a reliable and objective analysis of reality is impossible. Man has no firm facts at his disposal: he is surrounded by ambiguity. This is why his behaviour is illogical and arbitrary. Man behaves on the basis of his emotions and prejudices - later he rationalises his earlier irrational decisions.
This seems to be one of the main ideas of the last novel which Kundera has so far been published in Czech - Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1985). This is internationally the most well known work by Kundera - and perhaps the most well known work by a Czech author ever - primarily thanks to Philip Kaufman's film of the novel.
In Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí, Kundera examines, among other things, the general human tendency to create false myths. The instrument for the creation of such myths is the metaphor. From an innumerable number of characteristics, associated with given facts or events, Man arbitrarily and emotionally choses a single feature which seems to link different facts or events together. The most pernicious imitations of reality are those which deliberately supress negative aspects of life. In Kundera's view, such imitations are kitsch. Militant struggle against privacy is one of the main features of kitsch. If we have accepted the view that life in all its aspects is good, argue the disseminators and supporteres of kitsch, there is nothing in the world that should be hidden from view.
Even in Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí Kundera compares life in the East to life in the West: he tries out his theoretical conclusions by writing stories set in both societies. It is perhaps a typical predicament of an emigré that he cannot accept either society. Eastern Europe is intolerable because it is totalitarian: Western Europe is intolerable because it is absurd, degenerate and impotent.
What about the authors who have consciously tried to record the process of psychological change which takes place in the individual after he leaves the East? One of the most interesting works in this respect is a collection of carefully styled texts by - how would he be best described? perhaps a hippie? Vlastimil Třešňák entitled Bermudský trojúhelník (The Bermuda Triangle, 1986). Poet, painter, photographer, songster and fiction writer Vlastimil Třešňák was forced by the Czech secret police to leave Czechoslovakia for the West in 1982. Prior to that, he wrote several playful, prosaic texts set in the Prague working class environment. The texts were distantly reminiscent of Hrabal.
But the five stories of Bermudský trojúhelník constitute a direct testimony to the long and difficult process of psychological renewal and social adaptation after the trauma of being forcibly removed from one's natural environment. Writing these stories had undoubtedly a therapeutic effect on Třešňák. By setting out to describe the process of emergence from the depth of despair and loneliness, the author managed successfully to complete it.
Each of the five stories of Bermudský trojúhelník deals with a different aspect of the immigrant's trauma. In the first text, the hero misses Prague terribly. Grasping for straws, he associates himself with a group of Western outsiders with superficial links to Czechoslovakia. In the end, however, he realises that there is no return. It is impossible to enter the same river twice. By the end of the first story, the hero frees himself of his first burden: the deadening, pathological dependence on the past which cannot return. Here Třešňák's hero differs greatly from Kundera's Tamina who fails to free herself of this particular burden and eventually succumbs under it.
In the second story, Třešňák's hero liberates himself from the trauma of East European politics by describing and naming East European totalitarianism. The story takes place in the epitome of the Cold War - the divided city of Berlin. It resonates with motifs of claustrophobia, hopelessness and subjugation. In the third text, Třešňák's hero comes to terms with a crisis in his love life after his girlfriend leaves him. In the fourth story, the absurd and incomprehensible behaviour of people around the main hero, experienced so often by immigrants into unfamiliar societies, culminates, as does the hero's loneliness. His personality splits and he communicates at least with his alter ego - since there is nobody else. But this story ends in catharsis, a positive reintegration of the hero's personality. The process of renewal runs its full course in the fifth and last text of the book, where the hero is finally fully able to integrate himself into an environment which he until recently regarded as absurd.
Another Czech protest singer who was forced by the secret police to leave Czechoslovakia for the West, Jaroslav Hutka, also produced an interesting record of his psychological readaptation to a new society. It was only after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1978 that Hutka found out that leaving one's homeland was in fact an extremely traumatic experience.
After Hutka was banned by the communist authorities from appearing on stage in 1977, he started writing feuilletons, which he circulated in samizdat form in an attempt to slow down the process of being forgotten. He then signed Charter 77 and for a time, his feuilletons concentrated on defending dissidents. After he left Czechoslovakia, he continued writing feuilletons as a documentary record of his efforts to make himself at home in the new environment. These are very thoughtful and independent-minded pieces, sometimes to the point of being provocative. They are critical not only of life in Czechoslovakia, but also of many aspects of life in protestant Holland, where Hutka eventually settled. Surprisingly, their proud independence was not always acceptable to the Czech emigré community. They were censored and sometimes even completely suppressed in the emigré press. Evidently, the Czech emigré community was incapable of accepting totally independent criticism. And yet, Hutka used methods which are pefectly acceptable in well-established democratic societies. By voicing deliberately 'shocking views' he wished to incite his readers or interlocutors to independent thinking. In trying to map out the new world around him, Hutka used irony, playfulness, humor, philosophical contemplation. Often, he looked at the predicament of Czechoslovakia from his new Western point of view. He objected against the tendency of some Czech emigrés to reduce reality to nothing more than a struggle against communism. He wrote for instance: 'Surely, a struggle against a dictatorship is not yet a free existence. In fact, such a struggle is only one of the manifestations of a dictatorship. What we must be creating is a free world, not just an anticommunist world.' Funny that this quotation remains topical even today, three years after communism had collapsed. Hutka published his feuilletons in 1989 himself, at his own cost, in a volume entitled Požár v bazaru, A Fire in a Second-Hand Shop. The book was named after the most contentious piece, in which Hutka attacked the interpretation of what many Czechs see as glorious national history.
Jaroslav Vejvoda, who lives in Switzerland, first published an almost 'beatnik' collection of short stories with strong lyrical undertones Plující andělé, letící ryby (Floating angels, flying fish, 1974), which primarily deals with the disillusionment of young people in the face of petty-mindedness and pedantry of the older generation. Vejvoda's later texts (short stories Ptáci, Birds, 1981 and the novels Osel aneb Splynutí, A Donkey or Integration into a new society, 1977 and Zelené víno, Green wine, 1986) further develop these themes. Vejvoda follows the lives of Czech immigrants in Switzerland, that rich, but extremely bureaucratic country. He reproaches the Swiss Czechs that in an attempt to integrate themselves into the new, rather intolerant society, they have given up their integrity and their youthful ideals. He does not understand why such people should have wished to leave Czechoslovakia: they had given up their homeland, their most precious possession, allegedly for their ideals, but once they settled in Switzerland, their ideals disappeared without trace. One of the main themes of the novel Osel nebo Splynutí is again, the total, frustrating inability of an East European immigrant to start a new life in the West. In Zelené víno, Vejvoda interestingly contrasts the mental outlook of three generations of Czechs: the grendmother, who is allowed out of Czechoslovakia for a visit to Switzerland, a middle-aged Czech couple who had defected in 1968 and whose marriage is on the rocks, their teenage son who is by now almost completely Swiss.
Jan Drábek, the author of two novels which stand on the borderline between entertainment and serious literature because they partially belong to the category of thriller, finds that when all is said and done, an East European will never settle happily in the West. The heroes of the novels A co Václav? (Whatever Happened to Wenceslas, 1975) a Zpráva o smrti růžového kavalíra (A Report on the Death of the Rosenkavalier, 1977) are both post-1948 Czech emigrés, who are trying to adapt to the new conditions, and at first, the process seems to be very successful. Eventually, however, their subconscious rebels against their new life. First, this manifests itself by various psychosomatic complaints, in the end, both characters are driven to destruction. Incidentally, frustrations over a Czech's experience of life in the United States are also expressed in Jan Beneš's novel Zelenou nahoru (The Green Side up, 1977) and Ota Ulč's Špatně časovaný běženec (Badly timed emigré, 1985). Ivan Binar, in his semi-autbiographical novel, set in Vienna, and entitled Kytovna umění (A workshop for glueing art, 1988) also tries to piece together his incomprehensible life after having been expelled from his natural, Czechoslovak environment. He fails: life is a spontaneous, unmanageable stream of events, a series of trials which we will perhaps only understand after we are dead.
Sylvie Richterová, a literary scholar who works at the University of Rome, used the trauma of losing her Czech roots as a springboard for writing two excellent experimental texts, Návraty a jiné ztráty (Returns and Other Losses, 1978) and Místopis (A Topographic Study, 1983). Richterová makes repeated, concrete forays into an incomprehensible reality surrounding her. By mapping out the world around her, she hopes to be able newly to re-define her own personality. Like in Marcel Proust's work, the point of departure for this semantic and philosophical analysis is the sharp, intensive experience of childhood. But apart from memories of childhood and of her teenage years, the heroine of Richterová's texts (and perhaps also the author herself?) finds nothing she can grasp in her despairing efforts at self-definition. Richterová's existence in the West breaks up into fragments. Logically, therefore, also the text in both of her books soon disintegrates into fragments, which are reminiscent of brief diary entries. Richterová describes seemingly unconnected routine episodes of everyday life (for example a journey by train) or tells short anecdotal or shocking stories. In the final instance, all these episodes are meaningless. Life is an empty bubble at the bottom of which horror resides. Like in a dream or in a fairy tale, Richterová's protagonists act as though guided by unexplained necessity. Without reason, they avoid taboo areas. If the world is without meaning, or, more precisely, if the world is unintelligible, no order and no ban can be convincingly explained. The dreamy quality of Richterová's texts is emphasised by occasional gnomic sayings, which give her text a truly numinous, magical quality.
What about Czech poets who might fit my definition of an emigré writer? Pavel Javor, who left Czechoslovakia in 1948 and died in 1981, used to be seen as a typical, sometimes even as an 'official' poet of the Czechoslovak emigration. Javor is the author of lyrical poetry, which is sometimes slightly conservative in tone. His poems are almost impressionistic, attempting to capture the atmosphere of a fleeting moment. They can be very tuneful, but some of his output is pedestrian. Javor's central theme is nostalgia for the lost homeland. The poet often complains how alien is the country into which he has emigrated, and how uniquely beautiful his native land is, which he has been forced to abandon for ever. After a while, the reader starts having certain doubts over Javor's poems. His attitude turns into a mannerism. It seems surprising that Javor, who in the end spent a longer part of his life in Canada than in Czechoslovakia, never found his new homeland worthy of poetic attention. No wonder that the concrete memories of Bohemia slowly fade out of Javor's mind with the passage of time. Later on, therefore, his poetry becomes lifeless. Nevertheless, Javor does not give up his tragic pose.
The work of Ivan Diviš, who is regarded by many as the most important living Czech poet, is also filled with frustration, which is undoubtedly associated with the author's predicament of an emigré in a foreign land, where he merely survives as a passive observer whom life has passed by. In Odchod z Čech (Departure from Bohemia, 1981) a long lyrical poem with several potential narrative nuclei, Diviš attempts on the basis of his foreign experiences to come to terms with his Czech background, the background of a 'dying nation', whose 'language is primitive' and whose fate is 'without men, without women, without soldiers and without blood'. Diviš despairs not only about Bohemia, but also of Man's general predicament in today's world. Diviš's Beránek na sněhu (A Lamb in the snow, 1980) is another monumental, apocalyptic vision of today's world, an expression of the poet's despair over the second-rate nature of life in the twentieth century. The author creates a series of pressing, shocking images, which tower one over another like boulders of lava. But Diviš's poetry has religious undertones: in the middle of his despair amidst today's mad world the poet has a vision of a peacefully grazing lamb and a sheep. In anxiety he asks them to bring redemption and peace to the world.
Other exiled Czech poets such as for instance Antonín Brousek or the songster Karel Kryl have also written extremely frustrated poetry. On the whole, Czech poetry by exiled authors which deals with the topic of uprootedness does not cover the whole process of psychological adaptation to the new environment, as emigré fiction does. Many Czech emigré poets remain frustrated. Ivan Schneedorfer, who lives in the Canadian province British Columbia, on the Tsawwassen peninsula, is perhaps an exception to prove the rule. In 1987, Schneedorfer published a remarkable seven-part book of poems, entitled Básně z poloostrova, Penninsula Poems. Unlike Pavel Javor, Schneedorfer is not mesmerised by his distant native land, although he sometimes also recalls the beloved Bohemia of his younger years. Schneedorfer has almost completely integrated into his new environment and fallen in love with its wild, exotic landscape. Schneedorfer's poetry is based on his intensely personal experience of life in the exotic countryside 'at the end of the world', where the author has found new roots. He writes contemplative poetry, often inspired by fragments from ordinary life. His poems are languid: they overflow with images of wide Canadian prairies, fishing harbours under the curtain of rain and the boundless Pacific ocean. They are modest, grateful and almost joyful. Schneedorfer is sensitive to the magic quality of everyday life. He belives that Man should rejoice over one's existence, even though he does not understand it.
Generally, it can be said, that the work of writers and poets who are trying to make sense of the world around them by comparing life in the communist East, whence they came, with life in the capitalist West, where they settled, forms a truly interesting chapter in Man's never-ending efforts to understand his existence. I personally find these works more stimulating than Czech literature which merely gives testimony to oppression under communist rule.
There are, to be fair, other major Czech authors who live in the West. Zdena Salivarová, Ota Filip and Pavel Kohout have, in their Czech writing, primarily written accounts of life under various types of totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia; besides, Kohout's fiction has flirted with ma-cabre elements and with motifs that defy rationality and laws of physics. Ar-nošt Lustig has continued to publish stories about the holocaust while Jan Křesad-lo is the author of extremely eccentric, but highly entertaining novels set in the landscape of his mind, and written purely for the author's personal amusement.