Good-bye, Samizad:
Twenty Years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing

312 pages,
ISBN: 0810110350

Post Your Opinion
When Absurd was Normal
by Paul Wilson

No-one knows how many books were written in secret during the era of Communist hegemony: more than seven decades in the Soviet Union and four in Eastern Europe. But in Czechoslovakia, the country I know best, enough clandestine books were written and published as samizdat to keep at least half a dozen émigré publishing houses and two major literary and political journals in exile busy for two decades. Even now, almost nine years into the new era, some Czech and Slovak publishers are still publishing work from the backlog.
Only a fraction of this vast body of writing has ever been translated into English. We have libraries full of books to help us understand in detail the economic and political aspects of Communism, but little as yet-apart from the obvious mountain peaks-to show us the impact of that system on the mind and the imagination, or to indicate what people were thinking and writing about at a time in history when thinking and writing as public activities were, by and large, banned.
For readers curious about the secret life of the mind in harsh political climates, Good-bye, Samizdat is a good introduction. The editor, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, of the University of British Columbia, has compiled an anthology of essays, short stories, literary criticism, feuilletons (brief essays that would have been newspaper columns had there been newspapers willing to print them), and philosophical ruminations. The work is a sampling of the best shorter works written after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (There is no poetry or drama in the book; as the editor points out in her introduction, the amount of this material is too vast.)
Goetz-Stankiewicz has divided the writing into three sections-"Literature", "Philosophy", and "Cultural & Socio-Political Perspectives"-more for convenience than for precision, since in samizdat works, genre and subject-matter tend to be pretty fluid. The earliest piece is from 1970, the latest is dated December 1989, but most were written either in the mid to late seventies, roughly coinciding with the appearance of the human rights movement, with Charter 77, or again between 1985 and 1989, a period when the worst repressions against the dissidents had passed and Mikhail Gorbachev was in the ascendant. Judging from this, the best samizdat work seems to have been written when there was a sense of permission and possibility in the air, perhaps belying the simplistic notion that great oppression produces great literature. This book is therefore not an historical survey of samizdat; it does not pretend to give us a sense of how the literature evolved over the last twenty years of totalitarianism, but merely of what some of it was like.
One general comment on the writers in the collection: all but four of them are over fifty; the youngest contributor is forty-two, and four of them are now dead. They represent the mainstream of samizdat authors, most of whom established themselves as writers in the more liberal 1960s, before the Soviet invasion. There is nothing in this collection from the younger generation that came of age in the 1980s-writers like Jáchym Topol, Tereza Boucková, Iva Pekárková, or Martin M. Simecka, who are now defining the new, post-Communist Czech and Slovak literature.
The book's title comes from a brief editorial written by Václav Havel for the first legal edition of the Prague daily Lidové noviny, in December 1989. "Good-bye samizdat Lidové noviny," Havel wrote, "good-bye conspiracy, good-bye interrogations! Welcome printing house, welcome new readers, welcome freedom." It was a charming victory pirouette that captured the euphoria of those early revolutionary days.
The samizdat to which Havel was bidding adieu was more than just a technique for getting around censorship with the aid of typewriters, carbon paper, and onion-skin. It was a literary genre in its own right, the carrier of a particular tone, style, attitude, and atmosphere. The artifacts themselves, the samizdat books, were a unique form of publishing, fashioned to suit the severe limitations of the circumstances. Even now, these underground volumes and journals radiate something of their original energy and purpose. Many were lovingly hand-bound, created to simulate as closely as possible a published book or magazine, with rudimentary design and layout features, often with the author's name and the title embossed in golden letters down the spine. Some were illustrated with original art work; there might even be a coloured ribbon sewn into the binding to serve as a bookmark. The pages were thin and the typescript, on one side only, was sometimes blurry and hard to read. (In an evocative passage in his story "Bech in Czech", John Updike refers to the ghostly mirror images of words showing through the onion-skin pages.) They seemed at the time to be a small miracle, for despite the efforts of the state to suppress them, they had been written and had arrived in one's hands to be read and then passed on, more like currency than literature. They were, in the words of the editor, "secret messengers, documents of spiritual resilience, composed and distributed by courageous people."
Emblems of courage they most certainly were, but there was nothing mysterious, or even very secretive, about their production. In one of the essays in Good-bye, Samizdat, "A Padlock for Castle Schwarzenberg", written in 1987, Ludvík Vaculík describes the birth of samizdat as an enterprise in the early 1970s:
"What was to be a major cultural undertaking started when Ivan Klíma needed to get a manuscript of his Lepers typed out. To try to save some money, he had it typed in several copies that he then sold to interested parties. There turned out to be more of them than there were copies.. Those original copies were A4 format and at first were just stapled together. But it struck me that they could just as easily be properly finished, bound editions. They might even start a book series.."
Vaculík came up with a name for this series, Petlice, and gingerly set up an unofficial, non-profit operation in which he was editor, publisher, comptroller, distributor, courier, and bookseller, all in one.
"I took care that there should be no reason for the project to be accused of speculation or profiteering. My practice was therefore to `sell' copies of manuscripts to their authors and interested parties `at cost', solely to pay for paper, typing, and binding. The typists were paid the going rate for editorial assistance. And since the product was openly marked as a manuscript and bore the author's signature, I thought nothing could be held against it. I didn't even think of it as `samizdat' of any kind, partly because it is a word I don't like. I used to present authors with a bill for services rendered: they could buy their work for such and such an amount."
There were other ventures like Edice Expedice, sponsored by Václav Havel, or Edice Kvart, run by the poet Jan Vladislav. Samizdat magazines began to appear; young people made tapes of underground bands; with the arrival of the VCR, alternative news programs were distributed on videotape; and mimeographed samizdat newspapers like Lidové noviny were set up. The very existence of such enterprises encouraged people to work: writers surrendered long-hidden manuscripts and wrote new ones. (Václav Havel, for instance, encouraged his father-a prominent Prague real-estate developer before the war-to write his memoirs, and then published them in samizdat.) Moreover, they made it easier to establish and run the émigré houses that sprang up in places like London, Cologne, Munich, Paris, Rome, and Toronto, and disseminate this literature to readers abroad. Just as Charter 77 was, in a sense, a form of post-totalitarian politics gathering strength and purpose in the hostile environment of Communism, so the samizdat publishing ventures were pre-natal forms of post-totalitarian enterprise, preparing themselves for the day when censorship and the centrally controlled economy would collapse and normal market conditions would emerge once more.
Yet the technical aspects of samizdat, important though they may be, are incidental to the literature itself, which-especially now, after 1989-must stand or fall on its intrinsic quality, not on the circumstances of its production.
For those wishing an historical context in which to read the book, the best place to start is with Václav Havel's autobiographical essay "Second Wind", written in 1976 as an introduction to an edition of his plays. Here Havel reflects on his career as a writer, and "the fortunate way in which [his] `bioliterary time' meshed with historical time."
"I was twenty in 1956. It was the time of the famous revelations, the first widespread collapse of illusions, and the first efforts to reconstruct them again in a more or less `renewed' or `reformist' shape. Historically, it was a fascinating period;.the merry-go-round of hope and disappointment, of half-baked remedies and their half-baked liquidation, of renewed ideals and their renewed betrayal, began to turn. For the first time, that peculiar dialectical dance of truth and lies began its whirl in society and in people's minds, of truth alienated by lies and the phoney manipulation of hopes that we know so intimately today and which is brought home to us in such an original way by one of the basic themes of modern art: the theme of human identity and existential schizophrenia."
The same "meshing" happened again in the 1960s, when his first plays were staged: "It was not just the formal fact that my plays were permitted; there was something deeper and more essential here, that society was capable of accepting them, that they resonated with the general state of mind, that the intellectual and social climate of the time, open to new self-knowledge and hungry for it, not only tolerated them but.actually wanted them. And of course every such act of social self-awareness.immediately and inevitably opens the way for even more radical acts."
Havel's crisis, occasioning his need to find his "second wind" as a writer, came as it did for most others in this book, in the late '60s, when he was, along with a whole generation, denied a public forum, cut off from his audience, and forced back upon himself.
"The whole world crumbled, a world that had, as it were, weaned us-the peaceful, somewhat comic, somewhat disjointed, and very Biedermeier world of the 1960s. For a while, the nerves of society were still strung as taut as piano wire, but the tension could not last, and out of the rubble of the old world a sinister new world grew, one that was intrinsically different, merciless, gloomily serious, Asiatic, hard. The fun was definitely over, and things began to get tough.. Once again people's spines were bent, and lying, cheating, and betrayal became common; once again, the theme of human identity and existential schizophrenia was everywhere-but now it all seemed to take place on a completely different level: the time of oral juggling was over and it became increasingly obvious that human existence itself was at stake."
Havel soon did find a new way of being as a writer. A year later he wrote his most influential single work, "The Power of the Powerless" (published in samizdat form but not included in this book), in which he formulated the essential dissident attitude as one of "living in truth" and in doing so, set the agenda for discussion in most of Eastern Europe for the next decade. He also became a key figure in the human rights movement, and was sent to prison in 1979, where he remained until 1983. Although there are only two brief pieces by Havel in Good-bye, Samizdat, (the other one is "Last Conversation", a brief memoir about his relationship with the philosopher Jan Patocka), his vision lies behind much of the writing in the book.

Not surprisingly, it is the fiction that carries the burden of its secret message best. The first story in the book, and also the earliest of the selections to be written, is Alexander Kliment's "The Black Thread" (1970), an allegory cast as a folk-tale. A village tailor is visited by Death, who tells him that when his spool of black thread has run out, his life will be over. Resigned to his fate, the tailor uses his last length of thread to make himself a fine suit in which to be buried. Death arrives-a skeleton carrying a scythe; the tailor persuades him to try on the suit and Death discovers that he likes the look of himself in it. The tailor then offers him a bowl of soup; Death discovers that he likes the taste of the soup. He gives the tailor just enough thread to make another suit and then, like two elegantly attired country gentlemen, they walk to the churchyard where the tailor winds his watch, and dies. Ever afterwards, the villagers can hear the tailor's watch quietly ticking away beneath the ground.
The details of the story suggest many possible ways of reading it, but in its context one interpretation would have been clear: under totalitarianism, Death now stalked among the living disguised in their clothing, in love with their creature comforts. He did not acquire this disguise by stealth, but was offered it voluntarily, with good intentions, by the decent people of the old order who, though they may have been buried by history, lie patiently in their graves, awaiting a resurrection.
"The Eyeglasses", by Ivan Klíma (1974) is a story of a young man who tries to have his glasses repaired in a provincial town. He desperately needs them to read but instead of simply taking his glasses and fixing them, the optician dispenses sage platitudes: "It is good to look into books," he says, "better to look inward, best not to look anywhere at all." He challenges the young man's way of learning about the world: "You don't need lenses, you need to stop being afraid of life." He turns him over to his assistant, a buxom woman of an uncertain age, who takes him into the back of the shop and, as she is testing his eyes, probes further. "How much longer can it last?" she asks cryptically.
"I don't know," he replies.
"That's because you read too much."
By now the young man is exasperated: "Will you fix my glasses?" he asks her. "Books will never tell you as much as people," she retorts. "They come here, and they know. They know how much longer it can last."
In the end she tries to seduce him. "Why are you doing this?" he asks desperately. "What would you need lenses for?" she replies. "There aren't any lenses anyway. Why should they keep making them? For loonies like you?"
On the surface, this is an absurd tale with strong overtones of Kafka's novel The Castle, in which the baffled land surveyor tries desperately to make sense of his situation by decoding the villagers' cryptic remarks. But Klíma's story is utterly realistic: the deprivations of the totalitarian system had made the simplest of tasks monumentally difficult, and turned ordinary shopkeepers into mysterious beings who spoke in an oracular, ambiguous shorthand that seemed like higher wisdom, but was in fact merely a disguise for their own helplessness.
The Brno writer Jan Trefulka's contribution, "A Czech Fairy-Tale" (1976), demonstrates another common device in samizdat writing, the use of history as parable. The story concerns a seventeenth-century Czech cleric and scholar, Bohuslav Balbin, who flourished at the time of the Hapsburg hegemony over Central Europe and got into hot water by writing a history of Bohemia. In historical detail that will be familiar to his contemporaries, Trefulka outlines the tribulations Balbin had to endure before seeing his book in print: it was censored twice, once in Prague, and then in Rome; meanwhile Balbin was rusticated to a small town several days' journey from Prague and placed under surveillance; then, with some help from the Czech gentry, his manuscript was finally reviewed favourably by a Vatican librarian who happened to be a friend of Balbin's. "That's how it ought to be in a proper Czech fairy tale," Trefulka concludes. "In a faraway land, in remote Rome and remote Vienna, there reside learned and honourable men who eventually allow the truth of the words of a decent, temperate, deserving, and loyal Czech to emerge, and who acknowledge his work and his personal qualities."
One of the finest stories in the book is "Mr. George", by Karel Pecka, written in 1982. His tale chronicles the decline of life and manners in the late Communist period in Malá Strana, an ancient Prague quarter disfigured by decay and decadence but otherwise untouched by modern socialist construction schemes. The eponymous tragic hero is an unemployed architect living a shabby genteel life on money sent to him by an absentee wife ("a bit of fluff from small-town America") who is mediocre in bed and hopelessly incapable of appreciating the declining splendour of Prague. The crisis of his life comes when the authorities try to force him to join her in the United States, in other words, to emigrate, because he is a Jew with the wrong attitude. It is a fate he resists, to the incredulity of the other denizens of Malá Strana, who see his impending exile as a stroke of incredible good luck. Pecka's story moves forward at a slow and measured pace, and brings to life the depressing, claustrophobic atmosphere of the early 1980s and the complex strategies people employed-drink, conversation, sex, and petty larceny-as they struggled to maintain their dignity. His work is a marvellously detailed miniature, a canvas of narrow dimensions but with dark, rich coloration, subtle humour of character and dialogue (sometimes missed in this translation), and great depth of perspective.

The section called "Cultural & Socio-Political Perspectives" contains a number of astute essays that have stood the test of time. Jirina Siklová's study "Grey Zone" (1989) turns out to have been prophetic. She analyses a phenomenon that became more and more marked as the end of Communism grew near: the existence of a whole stratum of people who, though they were opposed to the regime, co-operated with it to some extent, kept their jobs, practised their professions, and waited in silence for the right moment to speak out. Siklová predicted that many dissidents would find the transition to a normal society more difficult than those who had compromised with Communism.
"Lost to them will be their unity,.their cohesiveness, their solidarity, their uniqueness, their moral superiority, their aura of being persecuted and ostracized, and along with these, a certain nonresponsibility for everything that is wrong in politics and society.. The most will be gained by those who stood aside, not manning either side of the barricades, those who just sat back and waited, that is, those in the grey zone. But the space that will open for them and the next generation will have been won by the efforts and the dedication of the dissidents."
Miroslav Kusy is one of only two Slovak writers in this collection, and although he remains a federalist to this day, he is sensitive, in a way that few Czech writers are, to the broader problems of coexistence within a single political framework. His essay "We Central East Europeans", written in 1977, looks at the tensions that lie beneath the surface in Central Europe. While the Western European nations, since World War II, have gradually learned to live with the larger idea of a united Europe, no such process took place in Eastern Europe. "Our mutual grudges," he writes, "are still very much alive; so much, in fact, that they tend to exert pressure in the opposite direction." The Soviet Union tried, through economic and military integration, an enforced political unity, and even through programs of "mass tourism", to create a coherent region out of Eastern Europe, but all those attempts failed at the level of daily life. "We have not created any supranational sense of community of culture, spirit, or morals with which each of us could identify. We are still enclosed in our national cages and from there warily observe one another." His conclusion is prescient: "Whoever in the West today counts on any kind of East Europeanism is betting on the wrong horse." Twenty years later, attempts to create a loose association such as the Vysegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) are still meeting heavy resistance, both from ultra-nationalists, and from pragmatic politicians whose sights are set exclusively on rapid integration with the European Community.
This section also includes two revealing examples of samizdat literary criticism, dealing with the work of two major Czech writers, Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal, whose work is popular at home and widely admired in the West, yet whose reputation among dissident writers was troubled. In the early '80s, from his exile in Paris, Kundera had fired off some broadsides against the Sovietization of Central Europe in which he suggested that Czech literature had been strangled by the Soviet occupation. His former colleagues inside Czechoslovakia were happy at the attention Kundera brought to their plight, but resented the fact that a writer who had once been in league with the Communists was now passing the death sentence on a culture they were desperately trying to keep alive.
In his essay "Kunderian Paradoxes" (1985), Milan Jungmann levels a more serious charge against Kundera: that he created a simplified version of his own past for Western consumption, that he played down his own former popularity at home, glossed over his involvement in the literary politics of the 1950s and '60s, and even invented a fictitious martyrdom for himself as a victim of the system:
"[Kundera] knew what he was aiming at," Jungmann writes. "He turned his biography into kitsch for uninitiated foreign readers; he succumbed to the mentality of exiles who are unable to explain to foreigners the complexity of the Czechoslovak development, its turns and reversals, and the seductiveness of hopes that the degenerated project of socialism might be reformed.. [He] reject[ed] everything that made him a collaborator of socialist culture, in anything that might show [that he had once been] captured by avant-garde ideas about socialism as an empire of freedom and new humanity."
Like many of the writers in this collection, Jungmann is determined to document the convoluted moral landscape of totalitarianism, and his essay exudes a deep resentment that someone like Kundera, who had the power as a popular writer to bear witness to the full horror of it all, gave in to his "narrator's instinct to capture the reader", and thus "trivialized" his experience. But Jungmann goes a step further: this "artistic schizophrenia", he claims, has affected Kundera's art as well:
"Originally, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was apparently meant to portray the tragic nature of a love destroyed by a regime of unfreedom, yet the end result is a pastoral tale about a couple that seems so at home in the small Czech world that, to a reader unfamiliar with the model, it must appear as an idyllic tale about a country where even the persecuted live happily and contentedly, troubled at the most by their partner's erotomania."
Bohumil Hrabal is another writer whose life is full of complex twists and turns that are often glossed over in the interests of generosity or simplicity. In the 1970s, he became an object of controversy when he publicly lent his support to the post-invasion regime in exchange, apparently, for being allowed to publish clipped versions of some of his work. His action provoked strong response, the most extreme of which was a burning of his books in a Prague park. In an essay called "Hrabal in 1989", the literary critic Jan Lopatka refuses to be drawn into a discussion of the morality of Hrabal's choice, and instead turns our attention elsewhere, to the relatively liberal era of the late '50s and the '60s, when writers could still negotiate directly with their censors. He points out that because of his willingness to edit or rewrite texts to make them publishable, Hrabal's work suffered more than most. A scholar of "authenticity" in literature, Lopatka rescued unedited ur-texts by Hrabal and, during the Prague Spring, arranged for their publication. The result, a volume of Hrabal's early writing called Poutpata or Buds, was destroyed after the Soviet invasion.
And yet, perhaps encouraged by Lopatka's work, Hrabal continued during the '70s and '80s to publish his work in samizdat alongside the official, bowdlerized versions. One such piece, a meditation on the Prague student demonstrations in early 1989, called "The Magic Flute", is included in this collection. In it, Hrabal disarmingly answers accusations of cowardice, and doing so, demonstrates that while he may have feared temporal authority, he is not afraid to embrace his own weakness:
"I am not brave, I am not like Gaius Mucius Scaevola, the young Roman condemned to die at the stake who put his right arm into the blaze in front of the terrified gaze of his enemies, remarking that Rome had thousands of men of equal courage, but I am afraid, as a matter of fact I like to be afraid for I am full of terminal disquiet like Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, my eyes are full of tears and I am drenched like those who tasted tear gas with their own eyes and felt the shock of water cannons with their own bodies, I feel these things, I feel what others experienced with their bodies and souls thanks to the power of fantasy and tactile imagination."
The philosophical writing in Good-bye, Samizdat is an unexpected pleasure. In his introduction to the section, the Czech-American philosopher Erazim Kohák points out that samizdat philosophy lacks the standardized, shared language typical of philosophical writing in the West. One result is that the borderline between philosophy and literature is blurred. But that is precisely what makes this section of the book so interesting. Though some of the writers are opaque and difficult, others are luminous and eloquent and clearly intend their work to be read for pleasure as well as insight.
At first glance, samizdat philosophy seems furthest from the realities of totalitarianism: most of the pieces are meditations on eternal philosophical questions-the nature of truth, of transcendence, of cognition, the limitations of science, the nature of responsibility-but in fact each of these questions has specific political implications that come out of their immediate totalitarian context and extend beyond it into the post-Communist world. The idea of transcendence, for instance-developed by Martin Palous in his essay "Philosophy as Personal Experience & the Others" (1985)-that there is a higher moral authority above man and society that is the source of our responsibility to the world. This notion of transcendence is a response to the materialism of Marxism and the ideological concept of responsibility as impersonal, unquestioning obedience to the authority of the party and the state. In several recent speeches as president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel has been attempting to articulate a new politics based on these very ideas, and this may well turn out to be one of the most enduring legacies of samizdat philosophy.
Behind every piece of writing in this book, one can sense a titanic struggle, yet one waged with an astonishing sense of calm, good humour, and an immediacy that seems all the more remarkable when you recall that many of these persecuted writers had to take on back-breaking, mind-numbing day jobs to survive. It was a struggle to record and map their present with as much truth as they could muster, to wrest their lives and their experiences from the dictatorship of forgetting. It was, by and large, an inward-looking world, intensified by the atmosphere of extreme isolation created by the regime. Their writing evoked a sense that the world the rest of us take for granted-a world dominated by massive, interconnected technologies for communication-was only a distant commotion on the horizon. The past, on the other hand, felt so close to these writers it was almost present. This sensation soaked its way into the fabric of samizdat writing like smoke into an old sweater.
Yet there is also something very modern, or perhaps even postmodern, about this work, a denseness and complexity of style that emerge from the struggle to find a form that will capture and convey the strangeness of living in this unnatural world, where absurdity has become normal and irrationality wears the guise of reason. Not surprisingly, one of the most common themes-implicit in some pieces, explicit in others-is the clash of what one writer calls "incommensurate realities": reality as defined by the regime and reality as defined by the individual. The most eloquent and witty statement of this theme comes in an essay called "On Uncertain Reality & the Possibility of Agreement," by the essayist Milan Simecka, a Czech who lived most of his life in Slovakia.
"A coercive society such as ours," Simecka writes "offers a wide spectrum of opportunities for epistemological training. The localities at the disposal of the secret police, I would say, are an especially ideal place for such a training. There I have often experienced a strange feeling, as if reality were withdrawing to a far-off sunlit place, into the woods and towards the flowing waters, into the natural world where Newtonian laws may have retained their validity; and as if the room were filled with uncertainty about personal existence and about two times two equalling four."
There is one more paradoxical feature of samizdat writing: it is imbued, against all odds, with a sense of playfulness, the kind of lightness of being that makes the unbearable bearable. Visitors from the West were often perplexed by this playfulness. Perhaps they expected to find an enclave of beleaguered, earnest freedom fighters. Instead they found a community under siege, but buoyed up by an activity that kept them sane and clearheaded.
After the collapse of the Communist system, many expressed the fear that culture would have a rough ride into the new era. Pessimists predicted that theatres and galleries would have to close, that people would no longer have enough disposable income to buy books, or concert tickets, and that culture would be low on the list of any new government's priorities. Anxious symposia were held on the theme of culture and the marketplace, as though the transition to a market-dominated culture would prove arduous and problematic to artists nurtured in an age of complete state subsidy and control. Writers were asked what they would write about now that they no longer had Communism to struggle against. Critics worried that the general level of taste would decline and eventually be swamped by the inundation of junk culture from the West-so much more appealing and so much less nourishing than the high culture sponsored by the ancien régime.
As things have turned out, such fears seem unfounded. In the past few years, the Czech book market has moved from a state of almost total collapse to being one of the most dynamic sectors of the new market economy. There is an annual production of over eight thousand new titles-about half of which are what the Czechs call beletrie, or serious literature. Despite inflation and lingering economic difficulties, Czechs now buy more books per capita than almost any other nation in the world. Their traditional love of the printed word, nurtured in the darkness of half a century of totalitarian rule, has joined hands with entrepreneurial skills that have likewise miraculously survived. The legacy of samizdat, once a literature enjoyed by only a handful of brave people, is gradually making its way into the wider world. `

Paul Wilson is a producer for CBC Radio's This Morning. He has translated many Czech writings into English, and lived in Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1978.


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