Contemporary Czech Prose Writers

Czech Literature in the Post-Communist Era: the Socio-Cultural Context
Hastrman urban11
Siostra topol11
Lehni besti kratoch
Urmedved kratochvil
by Petr A. Bílek, (Charles University Prague)
Looking at developments in Czech literature since 1989, some of the questions which arise have to do less with textual analysis than with the status of literature and the role it plays in Czech society. Written in the language of a population 10 million strong, this figure complemented by a few thousand expatriate readers, and a small potential Slovak readership, Czech literature has in the past suffered from a ghetto mentality. A typical minor literature, it prefered to dwell on specific domestic issues rather than be party to international exchange.

Since the beginning of the National Revival towards the end of the 18th century, literature was seen as a tool to define 'Czechness', to illustrate the beauties of the Czech language, and to show that the Czech language was equal to the major European languages when it came to style, expression and the capacity for thought. Since that time, writing in Czech has filled gaps in such non-literary disciplines as sociology, politology, and philosophy. Furthermore, in a country which is neither religiously uniform nor geographically distinct, language has served as a cornerstone for national identity, and its literature evokes a shared and illustrious past.

For much of the 20th century, the country experienced little peace and democracy, and laboured under two totaliarian regimes: the Nazi occupation of 1939-1945 and the Communist regime of 1948-1989. During these years, Czech literature looked again to the paradigm prevalent during the years of National Revival: literature became a means to a non-literary end, promoting or challenging official ideology.

At the same time, it was divided into three strands which remained distinct and did not intertwine with each other. One was official literature; another unpublished literature which remained in the drawer or, at best, appeared in 'samizdat' editions; the third strand was that of literature written and published in exile. Books were published, sold, and read in remarkable quantities, offering on one hand veiled commentary on reality and allusions missed by censors, and on the other a simple escape from the daily drudge.

Since the second half of the 1950s, about 4000 titles have appeared per annum. The average printrun per title increased from 10 000 copies in the 1950s to almost 20 000 in 1988. Official, ideologically correct authors were, of course, published in unrepresentatively high print runs, while, on the other hand, authors like Bohumil Hrabal would sell a 100 000 copies in a single day.

The era following the Velvet Revolution ushered in major change. The first response to the fall of Communism and its institutionalized model of literature was a growth in the book market. Publishing became a national hobby: instead of a few state-controlled publishing houses, there were suddenly over 2000 registered private publishers. Data from 2001 suggest that out of the 3,136 registered publishers, one third published one book a year, and less than 100 publishers brough out more than 30 titles per year.

Initially, most of them focused on formerly banned writers, either with the good intention of disseminating formerly prohibited ideas, or with the expectation of a vast profit. Lacking experience and knowledge of the texts they were publishing, they flooded the market with thousands of copies of books by former dissident writers, some of whom had accumulated a dozen manuscripts which they would then publish with different publishers. At the same time many of these books, written from the perspective of life under a defunct regime, had little to offer readers looking for orientation in a new, changing world that requires responsibility, individual approaches and ability to make choices and decisions.

In a few years, fiction, both from domestic and foreign production, lost its dominant position and in the mid-1990s non-fiction, and especially historical, biographical and autobiographical genres took over the market. Fiction genres that remained popular and were mostly published in translation were those not that were not encouraged under Communism: romances, thrillers, crime, fantasy.

In the literary sphere, there were three generations of writers at work in the 1990s. The oldest generation - Josef Skvorecký, Ivan Klíma, Pavel Kohout, Ludvík Vaculík, Arnoat Lustig - is perceived by most Czech critics as being past their peak. They still publish but no one expects any surprises of radical novelty from the 32nd book by, say, Ivan Klíma.

Abroad, however, these writers are still treated as the core of contemporary Czech literature. A paradoxical exception is Milan Kundera, internationally considered to be a Czech (or possibly Franco-Czech) writer, whose books are still rare in the Czech Republic: there has been no official edition of Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or The Unbearable Lightness of Being up to now, and the same applies to his essays and novels written in French. Perhaps, partly precisely due to his lack for concern for his original home country, Kundera is the only writer who provokes a strong response at both extremes: of hatred on the one hand (he betrayed the anti-Communist struggle to became a commercial writer) and love and pride on the other (he is the only one who has truly made it into the international league of Rushdie, Marques, Fuentes and Grass).

The middle generation comprises authors from the so called 'grey zone': not exactly banned but not 'offical' dissidents either, they may have published a book or two but they were not part of the Communist literary canon. Some of these authors comment on current reality by means of re-stating positive values (Daniela Fischerová), or by means of a hyperbolic rejection (Alexandra Berková, Tereza Bouková), others, like Jirí Kratochvil show a strong tendency to create complex fictional worlds with their own logic, which in some way shadow reality, yet others challenge the reader looking for any references to reality whatsoever (Michal Ajvaz, Václav Jamek).

With the younger generation, this tendency to produce texts based on internal structure on inner textual logic is counterpointed by an autobiographical emphasis (Iva Pekárková) eagerly welcomed by the media. Media attention has especially focused on two authors of the same generation: Jáchym Topol and Michal Viewegh, who fit the sterereotypes of the good guy and the bad boy: Viewegh, the good guy, is always impeccably turned out, ready to give interviews and to talk at length about his private life (first marriage, divorce, dating teenage girls, second marriage, new mansion, political opinions, assumptions about politicians plotting against him, etc).

Topol, the bad guy, wears jeans, chainsmokes, is rude, refuses to talk about his private life and can be very laconic with interviewers. Viewegh is a deliberate best-seller writer: since his promising early book The Wonderful Years that Sucked (1992), his novels offer a linear story peppered with clichés and stereotypes, and reading him becomes rewarding if you are looking to have these confirmed: a 'nouveau riche' character is uneducated and surrounded by body guards, but hides a sensitive core under his rough exterior; a young author is male, smart, handsome and witty.

Topol, by contrast, produces ambiguous texts, which are difficult to negotiate: mixing different styles and narrative levels, making hundreds of intertextual allusions, de-stabilizing any stable point. The fact that his books make it to the best seller lists has more to do with the fact that the media made him into Viewegh's opposite rather than with Czech readers' desire for sophisticated postmodern writing. If it were not for the media attention he receives, his readership would be far more limited.

Milos Urban, the third prominent author of this generation and the youngest, stands somewhere in between. Well versed in Czech and English fiction, he is able to design and handle larger literary experiments. At the same time, he seems to be more and more obsessed with the idea of writer as a spokesperson, as someone having the privilege to comment upon social and political reality. In his case, the concept of a writer as a 'fighter' is a new version of the old concept of writer as 'conscience of the nation'.

All these three writers, in one way or another, are still able to provoke some response, to make critics take notice and readers buy and read them, which is a rarity. Other than that, Czech literature seems to be still trapped in the sudden silence that descended after the Velvet Revolution appraisals. We seem to live in an era of hangover: having burdened literature with too many tasks in the past, we now doubt is its role on the whole. Literature has lost its position of being the guru of everyday life. Some say it is a loss. Some say it is freedom.

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