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21) Michal Viewegh - Master of satire in modern Czech literature

Michal Viewegh, photo: Jana Myslivečková / Czech Radio
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With more than 30 books and 1.5 million copies sold under his belt, Michal Viewegh is quite possibly the Czech Republic’s most popular contemporary author. His books have been published in 15 different languages and have also been adopted into several films. He is perhaps best known for his humorous but revealing book Bliss Was it in Bohemia (Báječná léta pod psa), which centres around the life of a family during the communist era.

Bliss Was it in Bohemia - Viewegh’s breakthrough novel

It is the beginning of the 1960s in Prague and, desperate to save herself from embarrassment, a heavily pregnant woman has just managed to make it to the ending of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. She is one of the actors and went into the play believing she was safe. The doctors, after all, had told her the baby was due later, when the theatre season was finished. But she started getting cramps already as she was preparing to go on stage and, now, as the curtains close, she screams.

A crowd gathers around her and an ambulance is called, but it is too late. The woman gives birth on the stage. “It is a boy!”, shouts one of the men. “Godot!”, calls the crowd. “His name is Kvído”, whispers the mother.

Photo: DNES publishing

This is how Michal Viewegh’s semi-autobiographical novel Bliss Was it in Bohemia (Báječná léta pod psa) begins. It follows the life of the main character, Kvído, as he grows up in a Czech family during the Communist era, depicting the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces in 1968, the normalisation period that followed and the end of the regime in 1989. Mixing humour with elements of societal criticism, the book became a massive hit when it came out in 1992, just three years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and Michal Viewegh was suddenly a well known author. A year later, the book won the Jiří Orten literary award and Viewegh was soon able to quit his jobs as a teacher and then a journalist to become a full-time writer.

Recently interviewed by Czech Radio, Mr. Viewegh agreed that Bliss Was it in Bohemia was indeed his breakthrough.

“I guess it really was. Opinions on a Murder (Názory na vraždu) did come out [a couple of years] earlier. That was a novella focused around a small town in which a teacher is murdered, but it did not have such an appeal.

“Bliss Was it in Bohemia, on the other hand, did. It is a depiction of life under socialism. Of a great family living in bad times. It is simply about those wonderful years that also sucked.”

Not all critics were enthralled by Viewegh’s writing. Some were perplexed by his writing style, which they classified as low literature and the author had significant difficulties even getting his novel published in the first place.

Viewegh himself told Czech Radio that he avoids rereading the book, but insisted that in retrospect he would not change anything about it.

“I confess that I do not have a masochistic tendency to look back into the past. I do not read my books five or ten years later to look at what I could have written differently or to be shocked by some of my formulations. That is not me. I have seen the film adaptation of the book three or four times though. The first time was in the cinema and then several times on television.

“There are some books where I do think I would have changed a few things or omitted something if I was writing them now, but not with Bliss Was it in Bohemia. That is a book I can proudly call my own.”

The art of writing humour

Michal Viewegh,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Viewegh is a prolific writer. In his 30 year career he has written, or co-written well over two dozen books, of which 15 are novels. Many of them depict, or at least touch on, common aspects of Czech life in a humorous, but also ironic way and have been adapted successfully into film. To be funny, is not easily faked, he told Czech Radio.

“Humor is a form of craftsmanship and it also requires a certain outlook on life. A writer who is boring as a person cannot become a funny writer. From my experience, a writer has to have the ability to make his friends laugh with the stories he tells them during pastime. He has to hone that skill somewhere.

“I sometimes laugh at my own stories when I write them and those are the best and happiest moments. It also assures me that it will work for the reader, because if I, the self-critical reader that I am, can laugh out loud after reading something that I have spent four hours trying to write down, it is a signal that it might work. The best way to find out is at public readings. That is the ideal test not just of humour, but of the quality of the writing. Anyone who does a public reading knows what 60 bored or amused faces look like.”

Self-critical but also modest, Michal Viewegh insists that he only knows the sight of 60 bored faces from the readings of other writers. He has reason to be proud. His books have not only been among the most popular Czech literature written since 1989, but his German counterpart Thomas Brussig, who writes similar satirical novels, went as far as to call him the new Czech Milan Kundera.

Photo: Druhé město publishing

Despite his ability to write funny stories and lovable characters, not all has been rosy in Michal Viewegh’s life. Just before Christmas in 2012, the aorta in his heart ruptured and Viewegh had to be hospitalised.

The experience had a deep impact on Viewegh. He says that the experience gave him the opportunity to realise how trivial some of the concerns a person has in life actually are. As he told Czech Radio, it also caused a spell of writer’s block.

“For several years, I was lucky that I did not suffer from any creative crisis. I was able to jot things down fast. However, after my aorta ruptured, I had severe physical and psychological problems. That hit me and I can say that I did have this issue when I wrote the novel Eco-Husband (Biomanžel) and the collection of short stories Back in the game (Zpátky ve hře). That was a proper writer’s bloc episode.”

Since then, Viewegh says that his life and writing routine have returned more or less back to normal.

Born in Prague, just as his autobiographical character Kvído from Bliss was it in Bohemia, Viewegh has nevertheless spent most of his life in the Central Bohemian town of Sázava. It is here that he writes his novels, either in his home or in a special room inside the local inn, whose owners granted him special access through the back door. Writing requires absolute concentration, he says, but discipline is necessary too.

Photo: Jantar Publishing

It was a trait without which Viewegh would likely not have escaped his original job as a schoolteacher.

“I wrote my first novels during the summer holidays. I would prepare notes and choose the right writing style during the weekends, but the real substance, the text, would be written in the 60 days of summer holidays that a teacher has. You have to write five pages a day. I do not think I would manage that today, but, back then, I would not go to sleep  if I did not write my five pages first.”

Among Michal Viewegh’s other most popular novels are Holiday Makers (Účastníci zájezdu), A Woman´s Novel (Román pro ženy) and Dodgeball (Vybíjená). All of them contain Viewegh’s familiar, slightly melancholic, grotesque style.

Exploring new genres

Michal Viewegh,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

However, in more recent years, Michal Viewegh has experimented with his writing considerably. In 2009, he became the first Czech author to co-write a novel with his readers in a special format organised by one of the country’s leading newspapers. Titled Srdce domova (Heart of the home), the novel consists of an opening chapter penned by Viewegh, with subsequent chapters being written by his readers under the guidance of the popular Czech author.

Apart from this unusual venture, Viewegh has also written literary thrillers, fuelleitons, collections of short stories and a theatre play.

He even ventured into a genre that he calls “adult fairy tales”, which interlink children’s bedtime stories with content aimed at adults. He explained his reasoning to Czech Radio.

“I wrote those at a time when my own children were at that age when you read them fairy tales. I thought that there could be something a bit more spicy in there for mum and dad. When I made references in the stories to sex or alcohol, I would put that text into cursive. It makes it easy to jump over those parts if parents are reading the book, but lets them skim the text while they are at it and, hopefully, have a laugh. It makes those evening rituals of reading bedtime stories less boring.”

Kvído in 'Báječná léta pod psa‘,  photo: Czech Television

Another of Michal Viewegh’s books is a loose sequel  to his most famous novel, Bliss was it in Bohemia. Written in 2002, “The Wonderful Years Under Klaus” (Báječná léta s Klausem), it revisits the family of the previous book’s main character, Kvído, now living in a post-communist Czech Republic. As the title betrays, it also touches on the life of the leading politician at the time - Václav Klaus - who led the country during its transition from communism to market capitalism. It is not the only book in which Michal Viewegh includes politicians from real life. He does so in several of his thrillers, often lending leading figures in Czech current affairs humorous, but easily decodable pseudonyms.

Asked about any new style he may be tempted to try out in the future, Michal Viewegh says there is one he has been dreaming of for a long time.

“I kind of fulfilled my dream of writing a book in nearly every single genre, but I would still like to write a purely humoristic novel. Of course Bliss was it in Bohemia was a funny book, but it also had the ambition to be a novel about society and it explores politics. However, if I am honest, I would like to write a book like [Zdeněk Jirotka’s 1924 novel] Saturnin, a novel that is just funny without being weighed down by trying to explain any societal phenomena. That is perhaps the hardest target I am facing now.”