Benjamin Kuras - political polemicist and occasional poet
It is a pleasure for me to do this week's edition of Czech Books. I had the opportunity to speak with Czech author, playwright and journalist Benjamin Kuras. We have had Benjamin numerous times here at Radio Prague, so perhaps some of you may already know that he planted his seeds in journalism here at our station. But his stay at Czech Radio was cut short. He started in April 1968 and after the Soviet invasion in August, emigrated to Britain where he began to work for the BBC. Although still residing in England, Mr. Kuras continues to write polemical commentaries for several local newspapers in the Czech Republic, some in reaction to Czechs slackening their ties with their past. But on a personal note, I actually got hooked on Benjamin's work in my desperate effort to connect with my past. I'm a first generation Canadian whose parents also emigrated in 1968. Upon moving back to Prague in the year 2000, I read my first Benjamin Kuras book. Here is an excerpt from Czechs and Balances - a Nation's Survival Kit published both in English and Czech in 1996. You may laugh, but after reading it I took a deep sigh and knew I belonged. This section was entitled, Flagellation.
"Few nations spend so much time and intelectual energy brooding on their national characteristics, purpose, role, destiny, meaning of existence, image, and self-image, as do the Czechs. Few nations brooding about their existence are so consistently wrong in their conclusions. And probably no nation in recorded history has viewed itself so much more harshly than it is viewed by others. To a detached but concerned observer, the Czechs' persistent self-reflection looks like self-flagellation. And yet, there are too many Czechs - mostly among intellectuals - who believe they have had nowhere near enough flogging yet."
Czech's and Balances is one of three Benjamin Kuras books that are published in English, the others being: "Is There Life on Marx?" and as "Golems Go". It took him till the early 90's before he felt he could approach the whole caboodle of Czech history, myths and legends. His flippancy in his writing has proven to be popular among the Czech ex-patriots to whom I've introduced his work to in Canada. In saying that, creating witty dialogue regarding sacred Czech history would take a lot of Courage. I asked Benjamin whether the distance living in Britain allows him to work in this way.
"The distancing was quite necessary the time that I had spent outside the country because if I had lived here, I would not have been able to step back and look at it as if it were not me or as if Czech history did not concern me. Of course it does and a lot of it quite painful and one way of healing painful things is taking the mickey out of them."
You insert such hilarious fictitious dialogue within a historical context. How long did it take you to research these topics? Or did you just get the general bits of history and imaginatively create the dialogue or is it from very specific sources?
"It's even funnier than that. It usually starts with my publisher and I sitting down over a bottle of wine thinking, 'what are we going to publish next year?' Usually by the end of the first bottle I think well, I really don't like repeating things and doing things that other people do or things that I know how to do. I like the challenge of doing something I've never done before. So we usually came up with a subject that is something that I'd like to research for myself. Like the Rabbi Loew in the Golem story or Czech history before that and the History of Villains, which was my second book in Czech. And so I agree with my publisher that that is going to be. We come up with a title usually first and he publishes it in his books for next year list. Which puts pressure and a deadline and that whips me up into such discipline. What I do then is I take my calendar I see the deadline is so and so and I work my way back to the day where I am at the time and find that I have something like a hundred and twenty days to research it to write it (he laughs) and that is actually so exciting because I then go to the library or go on the internet and read a list of books that I think I have to go through and I go through about twenty or thirty books but I don't read them as complete books. I sort of scan them to feel how would they fit into the book that I'm writing. So I may say I have read this particular book, but I have only read fifteen percent of it because the rest of it was irrelevant to the way I was going to write the theme. And people then ask me well how come you read so many books and where do you get the time and then they ask me what was that book? You read that book. What was that passage...and I say I don't remember. What I usually do is once the book is finished, that's the end of the story for me. I just let it go out of my head. And later on people remind me of something I wrote and I say I don't remember because if I did remember all these things I could not possibly handle the next one."
Passion and Desire to Learn
"Love of learning, motivation to learn, as a necessary condition of success. Inspiring and motivating a pupil to desire knowledge as a journey towards wisdom. Wisdom does not consist in the memory. Knowledge is merely something we acquire and can lose through forgetting. Wisdom becomes an integral part of our being which manifests in our actions. "
An excerpt from a list of desirable teaching attributes of Rabbi Loew from "As Golems Go" published in 2000.
So if somebody knows absolutely nothing about Central European and they read one of your books. Are they going to be knowledgeable?
"I think Czechs and balances is the best way of approaching Czech history if you've never read anything about it because it gives you a very fast overview of the whole of the history, it really rushes you through it, and makes you have a good giggle as you go. It also helps them understand some of the myths that the Czechs have about themselves and the self-image that they try to present which are different than from what they really are. They present themselves differently to differently to different nations like they would behave differently with Germans than they do with Americans and certainly than they do with Russians."
But recently published is Mr. Kuras's book "Sekl se Orwell o Dvacet Let? Or, Did Orwell Get it Wrong by Twenty Years? Benjamin being a prominent Euroskeptic in Czech media based this book on a quote from George Orwell's essay, "Nineteen Eighty Four", also known as Orwell's nightmare, which has been influential in traditional Western modern literature since its publication in 1949. Benjamin explained to me how the conception of the book came about.
"Somewhere in April I got an e-mail from Vaclav Klaus's president's office saying that the think tank called centre for economics and politics is doing an Orwell symposium and that the president expressly requests my presence and a presentation. So I thought, well, I can't turn this one down. How he came to this idea is still a mystery to me but he did. He must have been reading some of my articles and particularly the articles critical of the development of Europe into a bureaucratized multi or superstate. And I thought well what do I do. They are going to be talking about Orwell and what do I care. Orwell is dead, everything has been written about him endlessly. So I thought what about looking at the aspects of Orwell's vision or nightmare, and looking at facts around us in Western Europe how they are year by year, month by month, so visibly under Blair's government turning into something very similar to Orwell's nightmare though not in such sharply identifiable terms. And how, particularly the Brits, but most Western Europeans are oblivious to it because they have not lived through it. And I thought this might be very relevent to the Czechs who would recognize that they had already lived through something very similar and worse and they know where it can lead. So I thought maybe this will help the Czechs maybe prevent it happening to them. And I thought o'kay fine that's what I'll do. I divided the whole essay into ten sub sections and I was getting laughs left right and centre. About five hundred people were there, the president seemed to be having a good time, he was sitting right next to me scribbling down...ah, creeping Orwelization...good...this is something I might use one day and so on. So it was a very stimulating evening.
Excerpt from Sekl se Orwell o Dvacet Let?
Creeping Orwellization takes place in several parallel streams, out of which I've so far managed to identify ten. I allow myself to classify them with somewhat unorthodox names that will not be immediately understandable to everyone therefore I shall explain them one by one. They are the following:
1. contextual trivialization
2. cultural warholization
3. value-based post modernization
4. semantic linguinization
5. legal suicide jumpization
6. social inspectorization
7. street cameraization
8. institutional rip-offerization
9. Institutional vandalization
10. Economic globalisation
I translated these categories from your book myself. Are you going to publish this work in English?
"Well I don't think there would be a market for it in English. It is so critical of the development of Western Europe and particularly of Britain swiftly falling into patterns reminiscent of communism that it probably wouldn't get a market in England. But it might wake Czechs from the illusion that by joining Europe or Western Europe as they see it, without getting themselves prepared for the increased bureaucratisation of the whole of the European continent that they are in for quite a few disappointments and I just thought that I'd scare them a bit and prepare them for it maybe even optimistically reminded them that they are still on the way from something quite bad to something rather better while Western Europe is going the other way downhill. And they are about to meet somewhere half way now where we find that Western Europe is as bad as former Eastern Europe or possibly getting worse."
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.