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A Never Written Letter to Judy Garland - Marek Kusiba speaks with Josef Skvorecky
This interview took place on May 6, 1999 at the home of Josef Skvorecky in Toronto.

MK: You live on a dead-end street near the intersection of three "No Exit" signs. Do you consider exile a dead-end street? According to your books, you are quite happy to be in exile.

JS: I am happy. After all, this is getting to be more and more a world of exiles. Especially in Canada. I do have nice memories of my native town, because I was so young, but not of Prague, where I was under scrutiny all the time. You know how it is. So for me it was in Canada where, for the first time in my life, I could feel free, in every sense of the word. I could write freely without having to consider the possibility of censorship.

MK: But you fell in love with this continent a bit earlier. I would say Judy Garland was the reason...

JS: Well, I fell in love with Judy Garland...

MK: And you decided to learn English in order to write to her?

JS: Yes. My father was the manager of the local cinema. I saw all the American films, including Judy Garland's. But after Pearl Harbour, I had to give that up: that was the end of American movies in Hitler's Europe. That was also the time when I already decided to learn English, which I studied from a little book called Brush Up Your English.

MK: What is it that attracted you to American film and literature?

JS: When I was a teenager, I played in a swing band. It was the time when many of the American films had scenes set in a nightclub with a jazz band playing. That was my idea of America. I admired this music.

Then I fell in love with American literature. During the war, I found an English teacher who spent her childhood in England. I also listened to the BBC: the announcer spoke slowly, clearly. By the end of the war, I could already read Hemingway and Faulkner.

MK: You wrote once that it is very important for the writer to be confronted every day with different languages in order to be able to master his own tongue.

JS: To appreciate it. When you are in your homeland, you are not sensitive enough to the language because everyone speaks it. When you are in a place where everyone speaks a different language, suddenly you start caring about the possibilities and beauty of your own. It's an interesting process. But that is not my invention. If you remember, Henry Miller wrote about it.

When I lived in Czechoslovakia, I never read Czech novels, only American and English. And then when I went into exile, I started discovering the classics of Czech fiction...

MK: You didn't read your friends' works?

JS: I didn't have close friends who were writers. My closest friends were musicians. One was a psychiatrist by profession, but he also played the guitar in the Prague Dixieland jazz band-very famous in Europe. He was a connoisseur of old American silent movies as well. Prague has a very good film archive. He used to identify many of their films. His grandfather was the first Czech film actor. And his father was a bookseller who started an anti-Nazi group with some Prague Germans. The Gestapo caught them and he was executed. My second best friend was a jazz critic. The third was a translator and poet, but he was never in the Writers Union; they would never accept him because his parents had been in concentration camps. I was never a member of the Writers Union either; after the scandal with The Cowards, they wouldn't accept me. I had friends among comedians, actors, and musicians also.

MK: And the film director, Milos Forman, as well. You met him in Náchod when you were very young.

JS: Yes, he was a child then, just seven or eight. He's almost ten years younger than I am. His parents were also arrested by the Gestapo and they both died somewhere in the concentration camps. He was taken care of by his uncle, who was a grocer in my native town and a mountain climber. I knew about Milos then, but I never talked to him.

MK: In your essay, "I was Born in Náchod", you wrote that he approached you in Prague after he finished film school...

JS: ...with his young wife, who was a very famous film actress. We wrote a script called "The Band Has Won" about a jazz band under the Nazis. At the time, all scripts had to be read by a great dramaturgical council, which was made up of about seventy people. They had so many suggestions and criticisms that we kept rewriting it and in the end we had something that was still called "The Band Has Won", but there was no jazz band in it. It turned out to be about sabotage in a Nazi Messerschmitt factory. After the political situation warmed up, someone pointed this out. We kept rewriting it until they finally approved it. Then some enterprising journalist thought that the filmmakers were trying to film The Cowards, which was banned under censorship, and announced it on Prague Radio. President Novotny was listening to the evening news and spotted my name. The next morning, he told his apparatchiks that under no condition can Skvorecky's novel be filmed. Of course, it wasn't based on The Cowards. But no one had the guts to explain to the president that he had made a mistake.

MK: Didn't you feel somewhat proud that the president personally banned your film?

JS: I didn't feel proud but sorry because I really wanted to have this film made.

Under the Dubcek regime, I wrote a synopsis for a film based on The Cowards with Milos Forman. He intended to make the movie in the summer of 1969... It might be made now in Prague-thirty years later.

MK: The Cowards made you famous in Czecho-slovakia. The censors made you a literary figure.

JS: The publicity was very good for me.

MK: Booksellers were hiding the book in order to resell it later at double or triple the price.

JS: That's exactly what happened. The booksellers had experience with censorship. The Cowards had been in the stores for a month. I was an unknown writer and my book had a protective blurb stating, "harsh criticism of the bourgeois". Nobody wanted to read another book about the bourgeois. The so-called reviewers started to butcher it-one review every day for two weeks. They were told what to write. The booksellers read these reviews and they immediately sensed the book would be banned. So they hid it. The police were trying to collect this banned book, but the booksellers were saying, I'm sorry, I'm sold out. They kept them for their privileged customers. It all sounds funny now.

MK: Were you scared?

JS: Of course I was scared. I could be arrested. There was a Party Congress and the president talked about my novel.

About a year after the scandal, I contracted Hepatitis B. There was a young woman doctor who kept coming to my bed and asking me how I felt. She was very concerned. One night, she told me that she had been married to an army officer who was the editor of an army monthly. He was on night duty when he received a call that he must immediately delegate one of the editors to go to the radio. He was alone, so he went himself. At the station, he was given a review that he had to read as his own. It was about The Cowards. Later he somehow got hold of a copy of the book. He liked it and he was so ashamed that he wanted to call me to apologize. Then he was sent to the Soviet Union on manoeuvres, and was killed in a plane crash.

MK: Your life in a totalitarian country has given you much material for your stories...

JS: Of course. In The Saxophonist's Story, for example, all the short stories are based in facts of that sort. There's a story of a girl who was arrested and interrogated for being in possession of a manuscript of a short story of mine. She somehow convinced the interrogators that the story was not reactionary but progressive. She spent five years in prison for spying for the French.

I always think it is good for a writer to live in a dictatorship or to go to war, because those experiences are so strong and rich that you have to be a lousy writer in order not to write at least something decent. The story is already made.

MK: By the time you came to Canada at the age of forty-five, you had personally witnessed all the political systems of the twentieth century...

JS: That was true not just of myself. By the age of fourteen, I was living under a "bourgeois democracy" like in Canada, and then I spent six years under Nazism, three years under Democratic Socialism, then Stalinism, then Communism, then Dubcek...

MK: When you left Czechoslovakia, you were at the peak of your literary career. Your books were sold in hundreds of thousands of copies. You were an unknown when you came to Canada-a country, you realized, where no one even knew about their own writers like James Oliver Curwood, whom you read as a child.

JS: Curwood was a very famous writer in his time. He was writing a trilogy and he died after he finished the second part. My very first literary effort, at the age of nine, was the third part of that trilogy.

MK: So your Canadian writing career started at the age of nine...

JS: Probably. I really admired the Canadian writer, Ernest Thompson Seton, without knowing he was Canadian or that his novels were set in Canada. I had a rough idea that they were set somewhere in North America. And I loved particularly his novel, Two Little Savages, about boys who spend the summer in the woods in a wigwam. I didn't know that it actually happened here in Don Valley (I don't think it was called Don Valley in the book). I learned about that recently from a tourist guide.

MK: It seems to me that in your fiction you are constantly writing your autobiography.

JS: Most of my books are based on my life, but don't make the mistake that this is actually my life. Except for my detective stories, my books, including my latest, Two Murders in My Double Life, are based on my own experiences. But the experience is mixed with quite a lot of imagination. So it's more accurate to say that my books are inspired by reality. In Two Murders, the Prague side is obvious. But even the Canadian characters are based on people, on students that I knew.

MK: Your work in Czechoslovakia always incorporated American elements. Here, writing in Canada, you must have been writing with the intention of having your work translated...

JS: I never wrote with the intent of making my books translatable into English, like Kundera, who says he adapts linguistically to his translators. I first wrote in Czech, for Czech-speaking people. But, yes, my early literary models were British and American: Hemingway, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, etcetera.

MK: Two Murders in My Double Life is your first novel written in English. What made you start writing in English?

JS: Everyone kept asking me, when are you going to start writing novels in English? It irritated me. When I retired, I had more time to write. I had written a play in English before the novel. I wrote it in order not to be loquacious. If you write in an acquired language, your writing is much more concise.

MK: What do you remember from that annus horribilis of 1968?

JS: Not much, because I wasn't there. We were finishing a film called "End of a Priest" on the afternoon of August 20th, and then we went to Germany. Our goal was France. We crossed the border and spent the night at the home of some German friends. I woke up to a radio announcement that the Red Army had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was a shock. We spent two weeks in Munich and then we went on to Paris. We decided to go back because my wife, Zdena Salivarova, was a student at the Cinema Centre. At thirty-three, she was considered a very old student back then. They wouldn't accept her earlier because her father was an exile who died in the States and her brother was in a concentration camp... But when Kundera was made a professor at the Film Academy, he arranged for her to be accepted as a student. And she only finished the second year when the Russians came. We stayed until we realized there was no future for us there.

MK: You've said, "my place was no longer there". And, "Why should I miss the beauty of Central Europe in a region as visually beautiful as Canada?" You wrote that you don't need the country of your birth anymore. Don't you miss beautiful Bohemia?...

JS: I am not sentimental, so I never suffered from "exile". I never felt nostalgia. My wife did. She is a writer, too, and she was sick with nostalgia. What saved her was the idea of starting a publishing house, of having meaningful work.

When we came to Canada, Zdena didn't speak any English. Her languages were French, Russian, and Czech. She spoke excellent French. She was really alone. When I started teaching at the University of Toronto, there was a wonderful lady who was the chairperson of the Slavic Department, a French Canadian who married an American professor. She was the only person with whom my wife was able to converse.

MK: You said a while back that you wrote more books during the first fourteen years of exile than you wrote in twenty-five years in Czechoslovakia. Now you say you never missed your homeland, but your books are immersed in it.

JS: When I came to Canada, I did become more interested in the history of the Czech nation than when I was there. That, for instance, is why I wrote The Bride of Texas, about the Czechs in the Civil War.

MK: What is your condition as an émigré writer in Canada? How has it changed as the systems back home have changed?

JS: The system back home has changed, but people haven't changed very profoundly. They are influenced by forty years of communism. There is still a Communist Party; there are still unreformed Stalinists who say that the Communist Party was right in executing all those people, in sending people to concentration camps.

Zdena's brother spent ten years in a camp. He was a boy scout and he had helped his friends cross the border into Germany; but he himself returned because he had an unemployed mother and two younger sisters. As a man, he felt responsible for them. He was caught as he was crossing the border into Czechoslovakia. And of course they made him into a CIA spy. He got about twenty-five years. After ten years in jail, he was released during an amnesty. How can anyone be a communist these days unless he is an idiot or a crook? There is no third option.

MK: Two Murders in My Double Life is in part about lustration, about going back into the communist files and uncovering those who collaborated with the regime. What do you feel about that process?

JS: If lustration were to uncover real and voluntary collaborators, then it would be all right. But not many people collaborated like that. Many were blackmailed into collaborating. I have a friend who lives in Ottawa. He was a medical doctor who was forced to sign an agreement to work for them because he had a seventy-five-year-old father who, they found out, had been a Hungarian army officer during the Bela Kun Uprising. His reports were purely formal. Fortunately, the policeman in charge was just about to leave the service because he couldn't stomach that anymore. After they opened the archives, my friend went to Prague and found the documents. The policeman wrote across his file, "Never supplied us with any information." He had proof that he didn't really collaborate, but he signed that agreement because he was scared they would do something to his father. You don't have to do much to an old person.

If lustration were only uncovering real agents, no one could have anything against it. But how can you trust communist documentation? How can you trust secret policemen who were filing reports about nothing? And somebody leaked the lists of so-called agents. I believe very strongly that the leak was by the communists to draw the public's attention from their own past. Everyone hates a spy. And nothing really happens to the communists. Now many people are more interested in the lists of agents than in what the communists did. And there were no communists on the list because it was their duty to report; they didn't have to sign any agreement. It's a terrible thing.

MK: In your book, The Engineer of Human Souls, I was astonished to read your story about Joseph Conrad. Your narrator was talking to students about Heart of Darkness as a projection of the Soviet Union.

JS: That's my interpretation. Heart of Darkness is a novel about what happens to people in an authoritarian regime. Why is there this Russian harlequin? There were no Russians in Africa in those days. The Russian harlequin admired Mr. Kurtz and said, you must excuse Mr. Kurtz because he is beyond criticism. The novel is a prefiguration of what happened in the Soviet Union. Conrad knew the Russian character from his own experience. He spent several years in Siberia where his father was exiled after he took part in one of the Polish uprisings. He knew that, after a thousand years of czarism, Russians adore the man on top.

Part of my admiration for Conrad is that he wrote beautifully in English. Graham Greene once said that Conrad was the twentieth century's best stylist of the English language-and this was an acquired language for Conrad.

MK: Sam Solecki called you "Orpheus caught halfway between the Eurydice of the Czech past, which will never quite disappear, and the daylight of the Canadian present which [you] will never fully enter".

JS: Well, that is the situation. I wrote something of the sort in the preface to Two Murders-that the "longer one lives in a foreign country, the farther away one feels from the old homeland, and the fonder one gets of the new one. However, the old country never disappears beyond the horizon, and the new one, to the exile, will never become the open book that it is to those who were born there, and can read it with no difficulty." So those are the two lives. Mentally to a great extent you are still in the past. But this doesn't cause any problem for me.

At first, of course, every political exile has the so-called exile's dream. You dream that you are back in your own country and cannot get out. But that disappears. I no longer have such dreams.

MK: Two Murders in My Double Life is a crime novel. Is it true that you first got involved with crime novels because of your friends? You were ill in the hospital and they were bringing you cheap crime novels.

JS: Yes, I was very ill. The hospital had a horrible library. They had the Collected Works of Lenin and the Collected Works of Klement Gottwald, the Czech president. There was nothing I could read with interest. And they had a rule: they allowed books to be brought in, but because it was the infectious ward, the books couldn't go back out. That was silly because hepatitis was not directly infectious. My friends were crime novel buffs and they had these little paperbacks that were falling apart and they started sending them to me. I must have read over a hundred novels in the four months I spent in the ward. There was no TV in those days; you couldn't listen to the radio. So I read and read. The novels actually helped me to survive. I developed a great liking for them. Then I decided to try my hand at writing them.

MK: In a 1988 BBC interview, you said that one should never forget that at the very bottom of human life there is a mystery, and that that's what art should remind us of-that there's always a mystery. Is that what is at the heart of your using the detective genre?

JS: That's an interesting idea. The detective story is a mystery that has to be solved; the mystery of life and of our place on this earth, which is what I was referring to in the interview, never is. It's a different kind of mystery.

I wrote a mystery novel, The Miracle Game, based on a real police murder of a priest back in 1949, which is not really solved in the end: either it was a police trick or it was a miracle. In 1968, I had a friend who was a jazz band leader who then became a politician and he forced the authorities to reopen the case. The man who killed the priest had been arrested but then was released. In 1998, he was rearrested and sentenced to five years in jail. He, of course, denies he had anything to do with it.

In my novel, the police install a remote control mechanism. I'm told by specialists that remote controls did exist in those days but they were very primitive. So it is highly unlikely that the secret police in 1949 would have one. But then did the village priest install such a mechanism? He was not that kind of man. It remains unsolved. But what is true is that the Party at that time started a campaign against the Church and they needed an example. They made the priest into a fraudulent Catholic priest who worked for the CIA. And he was killed. They beat him so badly that he died. It was the first communist murder in Czechoslovakia.

MK: Right after the war, you decided to become a doctor...

JS: I studied medicine for one and a half semesters. I didn't stop because I wasn't able to cope with the sickness, but because I wasn't able to cope with physics and chemistry.

MK: There was a Jewish girl in Náchod who came from Auschwitz and who was dying in the hospital. Did she inspire you to study medicine?

JS: I was working in a hospital. I thought the only meaningful occupation after World War II was to be a doctor and to help these poor people. The hospital was full of people who survived the camp only to die in the hospitals. This girl, I remember, was very young, and she was in the last stages of tuberculosis.

MK: Do you remember her name?

JS: No, I don't think I ever knew her name. This was the most terrible death. To survive the horrible ordeal only to die a few weeks later. You see the sun of freedom, but it is beyond your reach. She was crying all the time. I was very young and this was such a strong experience that I felt I must become a medical doctor.

MK: You became a writer instead. Do you have an idea of your future reader when you write?

JS: No. I write for myself. If I like something, I think that someone else will like it as well. I have to be satisfied. As for my Canadian readers... I know, of course, that intellectuals read my works. But it is the ordinary Canadians who really interest me.

I was showing my chequebook to a bank-teller. She said, "Oh, are you Mr. Sss..." Yes, that's me. She said, "Oh, I read your novel." Another time, I was going down the escalator in The Bay. When the lady in front of me got off and saw me, she said, "Oh, Mr. Skvorecky, you are a great writer." But the best time-the painting over there [he points to one hanging on the wall] is by a friend who lives in England. I had to carry the painting through customs. When the customs officer asked what the value was, I thought, oh my God, I have to pay duty. When he saw my passport and asked, "Are you the guy who wrote The Engineer of Human Souls?", and I said, yes, that's me, he told me to go on through. These are not intellectuals, but real readers. That's very refreshing. I don't know how many there are... probably not many...

MK: How do your books sell in the Czech Republic?

JS: Relatively well. My Collected Works are now being published in Prague. But the book market has fallen apart. There are very few readers. For forty years, no interesting non-fiction books were translated, and now everyone translates non-fiction books. There are few people who continue to write fiction, except for lousy writers who always write. Part of the reason is that now suddenly the magazines are interesting. In the communist regime under censorship, nobody read the daily papers because they were full of lies. So everyone was buying books. The books were the only milieu which told some truth about life. It was the same during the thaw in 1968: suddenly magazines and newspapers became very interesting and the sale of books dropped immediately.

MK: So that's why Bohumil Hrabal followed you to Canada...

JS: [Laughter] I got a call from the CBC asking me if I knew a Bohumil Hrabal, who was applying for a job, and if I could come? I went and, yes, Bohumil Hrabal was the guy's real name but it wasn't the writer. He was about twenty years old-the real Hrabal was past sixty at the time-and he had a copy of Closely Watched Trains that he was passing off as his own. So, unfortunately, I had to dissuade them.

MK: Did you tell the real Hrabal about it?

JS: I don't think so. That was in the early `70s, and I met Hrabal again about a year before the fall of the regime when he was visiting the States.

MK: Speaking of names and similarity-your mother's name is Kuraz, which translates into "courage"...

JS: It comes from the French. There was a legend that she came from a French aristocratic family that left after the Revolution. When the Nazis came and we had to prove Aryan origins, my uncle, who was a Catholic priest, began to dig into the parish registry. He found that my mother's ancestors did come from France after the revolution, but that the man who came was a butler who married a Czech girl.

MK: It shows that revolution is very important in your life. Now I understand why you use Conrad's description of revolution.

JS: I quote it all the time. He writes that in a real revolution, the best characters do not come to the front. It falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites first, then pretentious intellectual failures. Which is why hopes are grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured-this is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes. 

Marek Kusiba is a Toronto-based journalist and poet.


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