Three Anthologies of Czech Writing in English

This Side of Reality
This side of reality ab111
This Side of Reality ed. Alexandra Büchler.
Serpent's Tail (London); ISBN: 1852423781, 1996

The following text, by Alexandra Buchler, is the introduction to This Side of Reality.

Order This Side of Reality.

For most of the post-war period, Czech literature existed in a peculiar state of fragmentation and dividedness. It was subject to censorship, ruptured by exile, and deprived of the influence of valid criticism and of a theoretical framework. During the time of 'consolidation and normalization' following the Soviet invasion in 1968, some of the best Czech authors were forced into exile, both internal and external. During this time, crucial cultural forums were disbanded, vehicles of publication and critical dialogue banned, and major works erased from official history. The unofficial, shadow literature continued to be written and published in the underground context of clandestine meetings, samizdat editions and exiles presses. A number of dissident writers, some of whom have in the meantime gained international recognition, were forced to leave the country and were stripped of their citizenship. Those who stayed were subjected to police harassment and persecution, or at least relegated to a twilight zone where their work, while not directly banned, was not available in bookshops and libraries.

What these writers had in common was not only their implicit or explicit rejection of formal and ideological dogmatism, but also a genuine concern for the continuity and integrity of national culture, and for essential human values crushed in an atmosphere of fear, apathy and general complicity. Drawing on a legacy of irony and humour and of the tradition of the absurd and the surreal, they often abandoned the conventions of literary realism in favour of collage, fragmented and episodic narrative through which they examined a continuously distorted image of the past and present, exploring the shifting line between imagination and reality, and testing the communicative capacities of a language corrupted by the hegemony of ideology.

Yet the attention paid to dissident writers by the police state also reflected the traditionally privileged status of the written word, its immense power and influence in a culture in which writers, the 'engineers of human souls', were seen as the ultimate moral arbiters of their society. The central significance of the writer and of storytelling as a way of mediating between society and its representations, between reality and fiction, is evident in most of the texts presented in this anthology as is the preoccupation with the very process of writing and with literary constructs and conventions. These questions, however, are not approached from the perspective of a heightened literary self-consciousness, but rather from the position of concern with moral values to which the issues of artistic integrity and responsibility are intrinsic.

Many of the stories told here share a sense of confined experience and a desire to cross boundaries in a quest for meaning denied to the reality from which they arise. From Fuks's moving story of a Jewish boy dreaming about leaving the occupied Czechoslovakia to see the world, to Murrer's Kafkaesque tale of self-repeating history, or Kratochvil's bizarre proposal to relocate a whole city to the Amazonian rainforest, 'away from all roads, ideas and bad intentions'. Much of the writing speaks of journeys, real and imaginary, of experiential claustrophobia, of breaking out of reality's prison.

Finally, this anthology traces some of the history of the past decades. While Ivan Klíma's story sums up the position of the dissident writer in 1970s Czechoslovakia, and Michal Viewegh's editorial asides reflect the more liberal but still uneasy atmosphere of the 1980s, the last two texts take the reader to the new, post-1989 era. In an intensely personal account that seemingly ignores the momentous events of the times, Ludvík Vaculík focuses on the most essential of private and civic responsibilities, the education of a child. But it is Jáchym Topol's roman-fleuve narrative that opens the floodgates to the nightmarish new reality governed by the twin superpowers of today, the media and the mafia. Literature is knocked off its high ground by market forces and censored by business priorities, the books for which authors and readers once risked their freedom has been hijacked by the jargon of economics. Ironically, this story resonates with the same concerns underlying the writing of Topol's predecessors and older colleagues, bearing witness to a new, deeper corruption of values from which there is no escape, for there are no more walls to fall.

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