French connections and European visions

Hello and welcome to Czech Books, which this week has a French accent. It would be hard to overstate the very important and longstanding relationship between the Czech and French cultures. Historically many writers and artists such as Alfons Mucha, Toyen and more recently, Milan Kundera, have found a home in France, and the tradition continues today with the translator and writer Patrik Ouředník, whose very powerful and remarkable book, Europeana, we'll be discussing today.

I went to the French Institute in Prague to meet with the Director of the Library, Ina Pouant, to discuss this "French connection" and I started by asking her to tell me a little about its history.

“It started at the end of the 19th Century when many artists started to travel between Paris and Prague. At the beginning of the 20th Century you could find many translations in Prague of classic French writers such as Balzac, but also more contemporary writers such as Céline, whose book Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) was first translated into Czech. Another strong connection at this time was the importance of Surrealism and the relationship between the French group and the Czech was very important. Nowadays there is still a Czech surrealist group in Prague, whereas in France it has been over since 1969.”

The close connection continued throughout the century and also was very strong around the time of the Prague Spring in 1968.

“Yes, the French Institute, which was created in 1920, especially played a very strong part. And even though it was closed in 1951, the library opened again in 1967 and so during this period, the Prague Spring, many, many intellectuals came to the library to meet, to discuss and to read, even though it was very dangerous for them. And I think this place was very important for maintaining what French culture could bring at this time to these people.”

Many writers did leave Czechoslovakia and settled in France. I think the most famous of these is Milan Kundera, who now in fact writes in French and is considered by many to be as much a French writer as a Czech one.

“Yes, of course Kundera is a famous example of these exchanges. The main thing is that his books played a strong part in the vision of Eastern Europe they gave for French people who didn’t know much about it. And his books spread Czech culture in Europe and Kundera’s vision of Czechoslovakia had a strong influence on people’s minds. But there are also many other writers and translators who came to France between 68 and the 80s, for example, Petr Král; I think he left Prague in 68 and now he writes in both French and Czech. Also Jan Vladislav, who translated many French poets and writers, and Václav Jamek, whose book, Traité des courtes merveilles was awarded an important prize in France. All these show how strong this connection is in the literary world.”

I’d like now to focus on one of the Czech writers who is now settled in France and look more closely at one of his books, which is the first, and I think sadly the only one so far, to have been translated into English. And this is Patrik Ouředník, who left Czechoslovakia in the mid-eighties. The book is called Europeana, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, and it is very brief, just about 120 pages. This is the opening of the book:

“The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertiliser a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.”

(Translation, Gerald Turner)

How would you characterise Europeana?

“I discovered the book two years ago and it is a very, very good book – well-written, subtle, deep, wittty, and both amusing and really frightening. When I read it, it reminded me of a philosophical fable in the manner of the 18th century writers such as Voltaire, for his irony, or Diderot, for his sense of fiction. In Europeana Patrik Ouředník describes the last century as a kind of utopia, with an innocent point of view, and he stresses the big horrors that European people had to face - world war, ideologies and the tragedy of the Holocaust. And sometimes you feel like smiling, because he jumps from one subject to another, one historical event to another. But there is also a subtle and clever link which forces the reader to think, and to think more about what Patrik Ouředník is constructing. And the nonsense of all these political decisions is both comic, but also terrifying, because it led people to death. It’s why it’s also a dark book.”

This mixing of the very serious and the trivial, this flattening out of all detail, is very very disturbing.

“Yes, Patrik Ouředník translated Jarry and Rabelais and in this book you can see this philosophical way of putting things upside down, but in a way that reveals the truth. Even if there isn’t any truth, because Ouředník doesn’t give any answer. It’s why you can read this book again and again, and I’m not sure I could say so of many books”

I’ll just read another short extract that I think illustrates very well the points you’ve been making

“The First World War was national and patriotic and people believed strongly in patriotism and the national soul and war memorials and long after the Second World War, which was called the war of civilization, people still thought more in terms of nation than civilization, and every nation had its specific characteristics. And the English were pragmatic and Englishwomen had big feet and Italian women had big breasts and Italians were carefree and Germans were hygienically minded and had no sense of humour. And the Irish were permanently drunk and the Scots were good walkers and the French were arrogant and the Greeks had hang-ups and the Czechs were cowards and the Poles permanently drunk and the Italians boisterous and the Bulgarians backward and the Spanish cheerless and the Hungarians big-headed. And sculptors and masons were glad they had lots of commissions. And the French had SAVOIR VIVRE and the English had a sense of FAIR PLAY. And on important occasions children stood guard at war memorials to show that the witness to war would remain forever and that people ought to give it thought.”

(Translation, Gerald Turner)

“In a way you can have the feeling that it is a pessimistic view of Europe because he often shows the antagonism between these old nations, for example, the French and English against the Germans, as if they were like puppets fighting one another. But, on the other hand, he shows the common suffering of the people and this leads us to the conviction that we can’t repeat it again, we can’t suffer these horrible events again.”

And the very strong relationship between the Czech Republic and France and the two cultures continues.

“Yes, you are right, and the very latest literary example is the last book by Jean Echenoz, the famous French novelist, and this book is entitled “To Run” (Courir) and Jean Echenoz imagines the story of a Czech workman who wants to become a new Emil Zátopek, the famous Czech runner, and this book will be published in October and I’m really eager to read it.”

Thank you very much Ina, and I look forward to enjoying French culture in Prague. And maybe someday also Czech culture in Paris.

“Thank you very much Bernie.”