"Come with me to Prague" - Kurt Vonnegut and the Czech underground

Kurt Vonnegut

The literary world is still mourning the death of the American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who passed away last week at the age of 84. But few of Vonnegut's fans - even here in the Czech Republic - know much about his links with Czechoslovakia. In this week's Panorama we look at why Kurt Vonnegut was so popular with Czech readers during the grim times of Communism and how he stood up in defence of persecuted jazz enthusiasts.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. not only earned the admiration of a great number of Czech readers, but also stood up in defence of the Czech dissident movement in the 1980s. During that time, he visited Czechoslovakia as a guest of the American Embassy and met some of the cultural figures who were under pressure from the regime. Several of these activists were part of the so-called Jazz Section, an independent cultural organisation which promoted jazz music, organised concerts and published books in communist Czechoslovakia. As Kurt Vonnegut later told American television, the group was about far more than just jazz.

"It's about having a good time in life, now and then, it's being a little playful, being a little childish, being a little open. And this is generally much resented by dictators and bureaucrats, and dictatorships, and this has been the case in Czechoslovakia. And my contact with the jazz group, the Jazz section, is I visited Czechoslovakia and met several of them and they had me plant a tree, and water it, and a couple of months later, John Updike came and they had him plant a tree, and both of the trees have now been cut down by the Government. They did not last very long."

That TV interview was broadcast shortly after the Jazz Freedom Concert in Washington D.C., which Kurt Vonnegut helped to organise in December 1987 in support of the Jazz Section. The previous year, the organisation had been banned by the authorities, and several of its members sentenced to prison. I asked Karel Srp, who has led the Jazz Section ever since the mid 1970s, how Kurt Vonnegut first became involved with this dissident group.

"The very first meeting with Vonnegut took place at the American Embassy, it was on the 29th of March 1985. The Jazz Section had a little house in Prague at the time and we decided to plant some trees and shrubs along a busy road in front of it. The planting was scheduled for the 30th, so I got this idea at the reception with Vonnegut - what if we ask him to help us! And sure enough, the next day in the morning, a whole company came from the Embassy including Mrs Wendy Luers, the Ambassador's wife, and we started planting."

The next day, Kurt Vonnegut went to Brno to see a performance based on his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Petr Oslzly, who produced the performance, recalls Vonnegut's visit to the Divadlo na provazku (Theatre On a String), a highly acclaimed drama company in Brno:

"We did a special show for him, I think it was a Sunday morning performance which normally we did not do, but it was crowded with young people, and Vonnegut was enthusiastic. He said he never saw this form of theatre, so open, so varied, and with such ability of the actors to have authentic contact with the audience. After the performance, we organized a discussion with the audience and he said it openly during this discussion. His reaction was very nice."

Petr Oslzly later went on to become an advisor to President Vaclav Havel after the fall of communism in 1989.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the many American writers who were highly popular with Czech readers. Publishing American fiction in totalitarian Czechoslovakia, however, was not an easy job. Surprisingly perhaps, Kurt Vonnegut's first book to be published in Czechoslovakia - Slaughterhouse-Five - only appeared five years after the 1968's Soviet-led invasion of the country. The translator Jaroslav Koran, who became the mayor of Prague in the early 1990s, was in jail at the time and the book therefore omits any mention of him. In fact, it does not mention any translator at all. Hana Ulmanova, professor of contemporary American literature at Prague's Charles University, explains how modern American fiction including Vonnegut's best work escaped the notoriously vigilant Communist censors:

"I have to say that it is thanks to the work of numerous translators and editors at the Odeon publishing house who actually did get the books through the system. How it worked was that for every single American book published in Czechoslovakia, there had to be two lecturers' judgements submitted, written by scholars or translators or editors. And there, those people had to point out that the books do criticize American way of life."

Ulmanova points out that the communist censors were also labouring under the misapprehension that Kurt Vonnegut's left-wing and pacifist views made him an anti-American writer:

"I also think that the other mistake the Communist authorities made was that they believed that Kurt Vonnegut criticised the American reality as such. In my opinion, he actually believes in the American ideals, such as democracy and freedom of speech, and he just criticises certain negative aspects of the reality, and that is a huge difference."

Following the 1986 arrest of members of the Jazz Section, Kurt Vonnegut wrote an editorial for the New York Times entitled "Can't They Even Allow Jazz?" There he expressed his opinions on the repression of freedom that was taking place in Czechoslovakia:

Kurt Vonnegut,  photo: CTK
"Of all the triumphs of life-haters today, of fun-haters today, of beauty haters today, of thought-and-love haters today, of the Forces of Satan, if you will, the one that most troubles my heart is the inducement of some Czechoslovak politicians and police to behave like cannibals toward the most humane and generous and gifted members of their society. [...] These people are rooted like the saplings in a tiny nation whose people have created a major fraction of the Earth's most important architecture, sculpture. painting, music, poetry, imaginative prose and most recently motion pictures. [...] If a flying saucer person were to ask me what Earthlings considered to be their most habitable city, architecturally speaking, I would reply without hesitation: Come with me to Prague."

Out of the 12 novels Kurt Vonnegut wrote before 1990, half of them appeared in the Czech language under the difficult conditions of censorship and restricted freedom of speech. He was well aware of his influence in a country behind the Iron Curtain, and when he saw it was needed, he raised his voice in defence of the principles he highlighted throughout all his work. In the Czech Republic, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. will be missed.