Jan Culik - Part One

Jan Culik

Jan Culik is a senior lecturer in Czech at the Slavonic Studies department at Glasgow University's School of Modern Languages and Cultures. He is also well known here in the Czech Republic as a political commentator and the man behind the Britske listy website. In this, the first of a two-part interview, Jan Culik talks about his studies at Prague's Charles University, his translator father, his brief time at Radio Prague, and how he ended up in Glasgow.

"The English Department [at Charles University] was quite an oasis of openness, there was an American Fulbright lecturer, there was a British lecturer, and we kind of took refuge as students in the English department. Also we had an incredible rapprochement with our lecturers, to whom we could speak quite openly about everything - basically, we could be very, very anti-communist.

"Which isn't probably terribly surprising, because our course leader Jarmila Emmerova - I don't know if you're familiar with the novels of Josef Skvorecky? She's that Irena, the love of his life, throughout the novels.

"And in fact his incredibly subversive satire on the communist army, Tankovy Prapor or Tank Battalion - which was published in English for some reason under the title Republic of Whores - is dedicated to Jarmila and Vladimir Emmer. It was published in early 1970, while he was in exile, and they didn't sack her. Anyway, it was a very interesting experience."

There's another Jan Culik I've been reading about, or who I found on the web, who translated Graham Greene - is he a relative of yours?

"That was my father. My father died in 1995. I had a very, I suppose unusual, argumentative 'philosophical' background in the sense that my father was also a graduate of the Arts Faculty - he studied philosophy, Latin and English there.

"But he was unlucky to graduate in 1949 or thereabouts. He wrote a doctoral thesis about GK Chesterton, the English writer, and his notion of paradox. And when he submitted it they asked him, are there any quotes from Comrade Stalin in it? So he sort of took it away and said goodbye, and got his doctorate in 1968.

"He was frustrated for most of his life, from being trained to do something which he couldn't do. Which is also a kind of Czech story - whatever is achieved is achieved in a kind of roundabout way and often in very amateurish conditions; that is incidentally the story of the Czech émigré publishers in the West in the 1970s.

"So similarly, what he did, he did after work. He became quite a well known translator, he probably translated around 40 titles, from English mostly. And yes, he wrote a book about Graham Greene."

I understand you yourself worked here at Radio Prague for a while.

"It was very incidental. I don't know if I should be ashamed of it. In the 1970s the communist regime tried to corrupt the young people, because they weren't affected by the reforms of '68. I was in my early 20s and obviously it was very useful for the regime to have people who were without history, in a way, because if you were 11, 12, 13 in the '60s they didn't persecute you.

"So it was really up to you whether you were willing to compromise yourself with the regime or not, and I suppose many people did. Mine was a kind of dalliance. As you are a student of English - and I had lots of English or American friends in Prague...

"Also at one point I worked as a student guide at the Prague Summer School of Czech, and met a lot of English speakers from around the world, with whom I kept in touch for quite a long time.

"Actually, it was a sort of spin-off from this. And the story is really quite romantic in a way. There was a Canadian student of Czech who came to the Summer School, I think it was '75, his name was Joe Tretina. His parents were Czech but he didn't speak any Czech, he started learning it here. And he was actually a follower of the Baha'i faith - he was a missionary. He ostensibly came here to study medicine, but he was actually trying to proselytise, to spread the Baha'i faith.

"There was a ridiculous scene - and this was before the Xerox era - where he discovered at the university library a book in Czech about the Baha'i faith published in the 1930s. He said, Honza, we need to make copies of this. So what we did, we took photographs of it and we actually did three or four copies of a 300-page book. We had a bath full of an incredible amount of prints of this book.

"And this person got me in touch with the English service of Radio Prague, which was obviously communist. I came here and worked here for a few months, but unfortunately I was too...outrageous for them. The secret police started dragging me for interviews. Because everyone was connected with everyone in Prague, I was given hints that they were persecuting me because I was here. And that basically I was unacceptable for them to broadcast, so it ended and that's basically it."

Later in your twenties you moved to Glasgow - why Glasgow?

"Well, that was very simple. I met my wife here, also basically a spin-off of this Summer School. Actually, this is also weird. It's interesting, the regime was incredibly oppressive, but this was all for home consumption.

"I'll tell you another - it's only an example - very brief story. Sir Cecil Parrott, British ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1968 and a great lover of Czech culture, he translated [Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk] into English, wrote various books about Svejk, did programmes about Voskovec and Werich's Liberated Theatre from the '30s for the BBC...

"Because he loved local culture, the regime rewarded him by hating him. In about '75, when the hysteria about the Prague Spring and all those reformist years was at its highest, there was an exhibition in the Lenin Centre here in Prague, Non pasaran.

"Cecil Parrott came here on an official visit from Britain, and there was a whole section of that exhibition devoted to the arch enemy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the CIA-MI5 spy Sir Cecil Parrott, with photographs of how he was liaising.

"Well, he went to see it and had a picture of himself taken in front of those panels. As a local person you would have thought, oh this person, if the regime got hold of him he would be in prison. No, it was only for local consumption.

"So there was all this hysteria and yet, at that Summer School, there was an American fighter pilot there. And this fighter pilot introduced me to my future wife. That's all."

Next week, in the second part of our interview with Jan Culik, he discusses what happened when he got to Glasgow, how he runs a website about Czech affairs from there, his career in the media and his work as a teacher.