From the Bulldozer to fiery Utopias: the literary forays of Czech politicians

Jiri Paroubek, photo: Korzo

There is nothing unusual about politicians writing books. Sometimes they outline a political vision, or they might be a gesture to posterity in the hope of putting a particular "spin" on how events are remembered, and occasionally we come across an attempt to discredit political rivals or former friends. In this respect the Czech Republic is no exception, with such books available in abundance in our bookshops. But one recent publication did cause quite a stir. It was a huge glossy picture book, devoted entirely to photographs of the man nicknamed "The Bulldozer" - that is the last Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, who left office last summer and makes no secret of his ambitions to return to power. In the Czech papers the book was greeted with humour and more than a little ironic comment.

Jan Kanzelsberger
To talk about this and other forays by Czech politicians into the world of book publishing, I'm joined by one of the Czech Republic's most successful booksellers, Jan Kanzelsberger. Let's start with Mr Paroubek's mighty tome - weighing four kilos and with no less than 2,600 photographs of Mr Paroubek.

"Yes, it's very exceptional. This kind of book from my point of view is very much connected to today's political situation in the Czech Republic, so I think it is a question of political promotion. I would even go so far as to say that it is a kind of political cult around the person of Mr Paroubek."

It is a little evocative of the time before the fall of communism - the kind of cult of personality that sometimes emerged around political leaders.

"Maybe that is also the reason. Books by politicians, or about politicians, have quite a deep tradition in our country. It began with the first Czechoslovak President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who was a much admired person. So since that time there has been a certain cult of the presidential position, and I think that today's politicians would often like to be like Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. They would like to do things to make themselves feel like real statesmen, but publications of that kind are not making statesmen of them."

You hint that Mr Paroubek isn't alone in coming out with this sort of book. Are there other, similar publications that Czech politicians have produced recently?

"This kind of book is really exceptional, and I don't recall any similar book of that size and of that content - practically a picture book only on one person. I can't remember there being something similar. But politicians and people around politics have occasionally prepared books of their writings or their political opinions. I have to say that in the great majority of cases all these books are published for vanity and no-one reads them, but there are some exceptions, like the books of today's President Vaclav Klaus. He is an economist and the majority of his books are focused on economics and his economic visions, but also since he became president, every year one publication is published of his speeches, newspaper articles and so on. It's a kind of selection of his publications in the media and so on."

Here is an extract in which Mr Klaus reflects of one of his favourite themes, the European Union:

The idea of building a "State of Europe" must be forgotten. Since we all are - I suppose - against the "national" nationalism, we should not start building "European" nationalism. We need a system of liberal democracy that requires authentic citizenship connected with the natural loyalty of people towards their own nation.

We should create an Organisation of European States, whose members will be individual states. It will be necessary to get rid of words such as "European citizenship". The membership must be motivated only by a common belief in the ability of the member states to act in some areas jointly, in the common interest. The mechanism of decision-making must be consensual, at least in all important matters.

As a book buyer, I can't imagine going into one of your bookshops and buying a collection of Vaclav Klaus's speeches as a Christmas present for my wife. Do these books really sell?

"Yes, they do. I don't think it's a question of a gift for your wife, but it is a question of archives and political commentators and even people who want to read and think about the opinions and attitudes of our major politicians. Only one book was really successful in this field. It was by the former Prime Minister Milos Zeman, whose political memoirs were really a hit number one for several months, but it is really an exceptional case, for political memoirs to be so in demand."

And that was also because everyone was wondering what he would say about his fellow politicians...

"Exactly. He also published a sequel of his memoirs, but demand was about one tenth of that for his first book, because the second book was really much more serious than the first one."

Here is a short passage from Milos Zeman's "How I Was Wrong in Politics":

I have sometimes been accused of stamping my feet, humiliating and offending those who don't agree with me.

It is true that I have behaved in that way towards idiots, who I considered to be a damaging plague and cancer in any environment.

An idiot is not a person who has a different point of view, but a person who as a rule has no view at all, apart from the idea that he should hold some post or other.

It was not until too late that I found out that a necessary condition for success is to make sure that people like that do not get into your team; otherwise they will break it apart.

Not all politicians who write books necessarily write about politics. Have there been cases of prominent Czech politicians writing books about other subjects over the last fifteen years or so?

Vaclav Havel
"I would say that a major case of that kind is former President Vaclav Havel, who was originally a playwright. He has written plays on political or philosophical themes generally. He published his memoirs a year ago and they were very successful. They were of very high literary quality, and so Vaclav Havel is a very exceptional part of this sort of literature."

It is interesting too that it is not just his plays that have been published, but also his political and philosophical reflections over the years.

"Yes. There is a specific situation in that he wrote books years ago, but they were banned, and it's taken many years for all his books from the past to be published. So we can say that readers just discovered Vaclav Havel as a writer and his past works were brand new for a majority of readers."

Here is Havel, reflecting in 1988 on the nature of communist society in Czechoslovakia after two decades of so-called "normalization":

The advanced totalitarian system depends on manipulatory devices so refined, complex, and powerful that it no longer needs murderers and victims. Even less does it need fiery Utopia builders spreading discontent with dreams of a better future. The epithet "Real Socialism," which this era has coined to describe itself, points a finger at those for whom it has no room: the dreamers.

Looking back to the communist days - communist leaders throughout Eastern Europe were famous for writing very long tomes that nobody would read. That is certainly the case in East Germany, the Soviet Union and other countries. Was it the same here in Czechoslovakia?

"Of course there were certain books and titles that you as a bookseller must order into your bookshops and must display. There were people from the government who were going into your bookshops and checking if you fulfill these quotas."

Did any of the Czechoslovak presidents of the period between 1948 and 1989 produce any books of particular interest?

"No. We can say that all these books were really superceded. I can't remember a single book that influenced literature."

Going back to the first Czechoslovak President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, he wrote a great deal as a philosopher and politician, and, as you said, his writing was very influential. Under communism, none of his work could be published. After the fall of communism, was there a great deal of interest in re-publishing his writings, and were people interested in reading about Masaryk again?

"Yes, absolutely. The collected works of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk are normally presented in every bigger bookshop. So it is absolutely visible that works of quality have a place in people's minds, even eighty years after they were written. But as for works by people who just want to impress, nobody will read them after a very short time and no-one remembers them."

I have the impression generally that Czechs are unusually interested in politics. For example I know many people who will watch the TV news at seven on one channel and then will switch over and watch the TV news on another channel at seven-thirty. There really does seem to be a lot of interest in this country in political discourse.

"I think that people enjoy the possibility to discuss politics, which was impossible to imagine twenty years ago. So I think there is still a feeling inside people that they need to be interested in those things and to be interested in what politicians say and what they mean. But of course it is changing. The younger generation that has no personal experience with the communist time, they treat politics and politicians as something from their everyday life and as something normal and ordinary."

And also there seem to be more and more career politicians, who are professional politicians - technocrats - and fewer politicians who might also be political philosophers or writers.

"Of course there is a problem with the size of our country. We are a very small country with ten million inhabitants, in comparison with our near neighbours, Germany, Poland and France. So this means that our political themes are, from my point of view, always much smaller and much more local. Of course this means that we have more local politicians than real statesmen."