The 'Dutch Rhapsody' of Czech émigré writer Jan Stavinoha

The writer Jan Stavinoha was born in Prague in May 1945, a couple of weeks after the Soviet Red Army freed the Czechoslovak capital from Nazi control. In 1968, the Soviet Army returned to Prague not as liberators but as oppressors. Stavinoha, then a young student of classical music, forged paperwork saying he was a "reliable person" worthy of a passport — and promptly fled to the West. Today, nearly forty years later, he is a popular 'Dutch' novelist, and, he says, a "tourist" in the land of his birth.

Over coffee and cognac in the kitchen of his townhouse in Amsterdam - and later just over cognac - Jan Stavinoha describes his early, "uninspiring" and fleeting days of steady employment, as an assistant at Czechoslovak Radio in the late 1960s.

"I had to assist in a programme which was broadcasting music for farmers. So it was that terrible oom-pah-pah music, you know."

RP: Dechovka?

"Dechovka -- yes! -- and I hated that music. After three months, I could only work when I was drunk. I was drinking only beer, of course. Then one day they found out that I was drunk so they kicked me out."

RP: I would think that drinking and 'dechovka' go quite well together!

"They did! They did! That's probably what it was about, you know. The music inspired me only for that, for a very primitive farmer's life, you know."

By August 1968, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to Czechoslovakia to crush the reform movement now known as the Prague Spring, Jan Stavinoha had made the fateful decision to flee his homeland.

"I was 23 years old. The Russians came and I was already out of the army and I was working in theatre. I was actually a musician; I studied at the conservatorium. And I had no steady employer, so I couldn't get a passport; I couldn't get this piece of paper in which an employer would proclaim that I am a 'reliable' person and so deserve to have a passport. So I did it myself. One evening in a theatre - Divadlo za Branou - I went to the office and I took the official paper. I put a stamp on it and wrote a recommendation that I was a 'reliable' person to obtain a passport. So, they gave me a passport. And I left."

Jan Stavinoha describes 1969 as the best year of his life. Leaving behind an uncertain future in communist Czechoslovakia, the young musician found himself in London at the height of the swinging '60s. The Beatles' "White Album" had just come out and there was a sense that this generation was full of promise; it was going to lead its own revolution. Stavinoha formed a duo in London with another guitarist, playing a mix of classical, pop and jazz music. Invited by Dutch promoters to play in Holland, he stayed on in Amsterdam, where he found steady work as a music teacher, and enrolled in a conservatorium to finish his studies. But after more than a decade of working as a professional musician, Stavinoha turned his back on the craft.

"I was giving concerts and performances and composing music — classical music — and then one day I stopped. It was 1982. And I said that's enough; I have to do something else.

"But not just 'something' else, I have to do what my father did, because he was a writer. I met him only for a few minutes, when I was very small. I think maybe I was two-years old. I remember his smell of cigarettes and alcohol - that's all." My father was helping smuggle Jews out of the country; he ended up in a German prison. He survived, but when the Stalinist communists came they put him in prison. He got tuberculosis and then he died."

"But you can't fake what you are. One day comes the day and you say: No, it's useless; I have to be who I am."

An irreverent man with sparkling eyes and an easy laugh, Mr Stavinoha recounts with humour, if not exactly humility, the roots of his transformation from classical musician and Czechoslovak exile to respected "Dutch" author.

"The Soviet Union... the Russians were quite dangerous at that time, so people had respect for you so they really helped you very, very much because helping you - they were fighting against the Russians, of course, somehow. I never actually felt like an émigré, or an immigrant. Not at all, in Holland, I was accepted, and treated very well. Everyone was very nice — up to the moment that they would find out that I was better than them [laughs]. Then they would have a different idea about me: I became competition."

"Musicians appreciate very much if someone is good. But writers are, certainly in Holland, they are like, you know, shopkeepers. It's like you open a shop next to their shop and they get a little bit frustrated, yeah."

Jan Stavinoha didn't actually "write" his first stories, or rather, he wrote them in his head and dictated the pages in a mixture of English and Dutch to his girlfriend at the time. The result was "Praagse dixieland," a collection of 12 stories, which was published in 1982.

"And since then, I took the Dutch language seriously. I was reading only Dutch newspapers, Dutch books, and I think in one year I managed well enough that suddenly the next book was in some kind of Dutch."

Stavinoha has been writing in Dutch for more than 20 years now. His early work was mostly set in the Czech lands; he has also written from the perspective of Czech émigrés in the Netherlands. Even so, Stavinoha says he cut himself completely off from his homeland.

So did the Velvet Revolution and the collapse of Communism in 1989 affect Jan Stavinoha's life - and work?

"Yes it did. I, in the first place, couldn't believe it; could not believe it. And it changed my life in that, I said, okay, I'll go back to the country. I did. First, I was very scared, and when I went with my Dutch publisher there, I had to take tranquilizers because I was shaking, you know, like a leaf on a tree — from emotion.

"And then I realised, while I was walking there, that I could understand the language; I could drink as much as I used to; I could eat those terrible Czech meals — without any problem. But I was a tourist. And I didn't belong there."

One of Stavinoha's best-known works is the 2001 novel "Hollandse rapsodie," or Dutch Rhapsody, which was set in 1983. He explains why.

"That year, I made — every day — notes. Everyday, through the whole year. And I forgot about them. And one day [some 12 years later] I was going through all these terrible papers of mine and I found them. And I said, my god, and then I remembered why I made those notes, why the year 1983. At that time I read [George] Orwell's 1984 and I said,' Mr Orwell, I'll make a diary for you about 1983 — the year before.' He made a [work of] fiction, but I gave him the reality; in the form of fiction, as well."

A writer with a philosophical bent and a taste for the tragicomic and absurd, Stavinoha hasn't stopped writing about totalitarianism, or Czechs, but no longer feels compelled to.

His latest novel, which came this spring, is about a Czech living in Amsterdam who returns to Prague after the Velvet Revolution to reclaim his family's nationalised factory. But at heart, the novel is a third-person narrative of how life on Earth began. It's the story of a molecule.

"It's called 'Kafka's margarine'. It's a novel about how an inorganic molecule became organic, a billion years ago, on this planet, became organic, and life started to be life. And if I tell you this, then of course, nobody would read this, nobody would buy this. You know, it's some kind of an attempt to make a scientific mythology, create a new scientific mythology about this question. Scientists have a very hard job; they have to come up with very concrete evidence. As a writer, I can make some mythology about it, like the Greeks did. And now you can guess what my next book going to be about: the Greeks, of course."