A new anthology celebrates Prague’s international literary culture

Since the fall of communism, Prague has been a very international city, and this has had a deep impact on the city’s literary culture. Many Prague writers today have their roots outside the Czech Republic and are not necessarily writing in the Czech language. At the same time, Czech writers themselves have been strongly influenced by the growing cosmopolitanism of the city, which contrasts starkly with the stifling political atmosphere of the 70s and 80s. In a few weeks’ time Prague’s international literary scene will be celebrated with the publication of a major new anthology, a hefty volume featuring two decades of writing from the Czech Republic in English or in English translation. Its editor is the writer and artist Louis Armand, who teaches at Prague’s Charles University, and he told me how the anthology came about.

“It came about from a desire to represent the richness and diversity of the international literary community that has flourished in Prague over the last 20 years from the time of the Velvet Revolution.”

I remember my fellow journalist, Alan Levy, talking about Prague as the “Paris of the 90s”, comparing it with the Paris of the 20s. Do you think that’s a legitimate comparison?

'The Return of Král Majáles'
“Well, a great deal, as you know, has been said about this, and I think that perhaps what Levy was trying to do, rather than make direct comparisons, was to evoke a particular temper, a sense of possibility, a sense of potential, the enthusiasm and excitement that existed here after the revolution, the sense of a renewal, a renaissance, of something that writers, both Czech and from abroad – from English-speaking countries and elsewhere – could participate in.”

This is not just a collection of expat writing. You have a total of 90 different writers [including Radio Prague’s Sarah Borufka]. Some of them are Czech and some are not. Some are writing originally in English, some are writing originally in Czech. Would you say that the common thread is a sense among these writers of being part of an international – or cosmopolitan – community in Prague?

“I think today that a lot of writers, particularly younger writers, take this more for granted than perhaps was the case immediately after the revolution, a time which in publishing terms was very chaotic. Writers who’d been banned under the former regime, alongside Czech classics from previous centuries and younger writers, were all finding their work being published at the same time. This was exactly when the international scene was emerging here with publications in English publishing houses, literary journals and newspapers and the like. What we find, though, when we look back to the early 90s, is that a lot of these early literary endeavours – literary journals like Yazzyk and Twisted Spoon Press – were deeply involved in a dialogue from the very beginning, publishing either bilingually or publishing translations of works that were little known in English from Czech, German and other languages of the region.”

The full title of this anthology is “The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance, 1990-2010. An Anthology”. Can you explain this title?

Allen Ginsberg in Prague,  1965,  photo: CTK
“The title refers to a traditional student festival on the first of May. It’s the May Festival – Majáles, and in 1965, when Allen Ginsberg visited this city, he found himself elected the ‘King of May’ by the students of Prague, and he wrote a poem celebrating this at the time when he was deported from Czechoslovakia by the communist authorities for allegedly corrupting the city’s youth.”

So, in a sense, Allen Ginsberg is for you a symbol of that interaction between Czech writers and the English-speaking literary world. This link has, I think, been very important, particularly in the period of normalization between 1968 and the fall of communism, and since then, with the opening of borders…

“Yes, Ginsberg commanded an enormous amount of international attention at the height of his fame, and was translated and published in Czech, as early as the 1950s in fact, and was considered to be extremely influential on the development of a counter-culture here, an underground literary culture during the period of normalization, but in particular leading up to the Prague Spring in 1968.”

The anthology has nearly 1,000 pages and 90 writers, so it is difficult to choose a few extracts to give our listeners a taste of the writing, but you have chosen a short extract here by Hana Andronikova, a Czech writer who studied American Studies. This is an extract from her novel, “Zvuk slunečných hodin” (The Sound of the Sundial), set in India:

I have always been intrigued by the fact that cows in India are sacred. Unmolested, they roam the streets of towns and villages. In some parts they have a bell round their neck and a jasmine topknot on their head, sometimes they are painted. But mostly they are wretched. Gaunt, filthy and sick, they munch away on pounds of rotting waste, eating up slops, paper, or bits of cloth they find along the wayside. Drivers, rickshaw-men and pedestrians break their necks avoiding the cows sprawled in the middle of the road. Anyone who happens to bump into one must face the outrage of the crowd. Cows have power. They can bring traffic to a standstill. And people show them respect. Yet many of them die of starvation.

Hana Andronikova is one of a number of Czech writers now in their 20s, 30s or 40s, who have come to the fore since the fall of communism. The fear that the muse would go silent without the “stimulation” of censorship has actually not been confirmed at all. On the contrary, there has been a lot of interesting writing in the 20 years since the fall of communism.

Hana Andronikova
“I think this is one of the major misconceptions regarding not only Prague of course, but all of Central and Eastern Europe. This had to do, I think, largely with a Western fascination with the poetry of witness and the sense that writers in the East had genuine experiences, whereas writers in the West no longer had any sense of a pressing or compelling reality to write about. And what we find with the removal of the constraints imposed by communism, is that writing has been able, as it were, to liberate itself from that particular narrow task of responding to a political situation. And what we find is a much richer and deeper body of literature emerging.”

There is also something quite typical in the extract we have just heard, in that Czech writers have turned to countries like India to write about. There is something much more outward-looking about Czech writing today, isn’t there?

“Yes, certainly, and I think this is one of the features of any what you might call mature culture, if the culture is not being held back artificially by any sort of constraint. And this applies equally to the more international literary community in Prague, which is very diverse in its origins, but also very diverse in the subject matter that it treats.”

I would like you to choose a piece of poetry this time – written by one of the non-Czech writers who have found inspiration in Prague.

“The poet who I’m going to read an extract from is Gwendolyn Albert, who originally came to Prague in 1989 and was involved with the events in November and worked for Civic Forum and has had a long history of social advocacy in the Czech Republic. So she’s perhaps indicative of a particular type of writer in Prague who is deeply involved with the local Czech community. This poem is entitled ‘Final Rewards’.

Final Rewards (A COLLECTION OF FACTS) Charles VIII,
a monarch
accidentally smashed his head
against the lintel of a doorway
in the Château d’Amboise
and died in agony (1498). His dying words were: I hope never again
to commit a mortal sin,
nor even a venial one, if I can help it. {a venial sin being one which is pardonable,
such as clumsiness} Machiavelli,
a politician
said at the last:
I love my country more than my soul. and Žižka,
a religious fanatic:
Make my skin into drumheads
for the Bohemian cause! and Goethe,
a poet:
light, more

There are various stereotypes about the English-speaking community in Prague – the most engrained image being of the backpackers who came after the fall of communism in search of cheap beer and new experiences. But the reality is much more subtle than that, isn’t it? There have been so many changes and developments over the last twenty years in terms of the position of Prague’s English-speaking community in terms of who has come, who has gone, who has stayed, how people have interacted with the domestic cultural scene here.

Louis Armand,  photo: David Vaughan
“Yes, it is very diverse here. I think that when we look back over twenty years, we can see changes, particularly in attitudes about the writing that has come out of Prague. If you look at some of the earlier anthologies, because this anthology doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it is preceded by different anthologies – we find early on these tended to be anthologies that were interested in representing writers from behind the Iron Curtain, that were concerned with a type of exoticism, and what we’ve got more recently, with some of the anthologies that have appeared in the last ten years is more attention given directly to the quality of the writing itself. Particularly poets like Kateřina Rudčenková and Petr Borkovec have received attention as poets, and Michal Ajvaz has been publishing in English in America with a very respected press, Dalkey Archive. I think that this is a good signal that interest is being directed at Czech writing being published in English for all the right reasons.”

We’re sitting here in your flat surrounded by the proofs for the book. When will it actually be coming out?

“It will be launched at the Alchemy reading series at the Globe Bookstore on May 3, and the anthology includes photographs of all the authors, alongside memorabilia from the last twenty years, flyers, posters, covers of magazines, and it includes an illustrated bibliography, which is as comprehensive as I’ve been able to make it, reflecting all, or almost all, English-language publications in Prague over two decades.”

To find out more about the anthology, go to: www.litterariapragensia.com