Jan Novák on Forman, Havel, the Mašíns, Kundera – and his own great stories

Jan Novák

Author Jan Novák has explored some of the most notable themes in modern Czech culture and history. The 70-year-old has devoted a huge amount of attention – in a novel and other forms – to the dramatic story of the Mašín brothers group, as well as co-writing movie director Miloš Forman’s autobiography and investigating the public image constructed by novelist Milan Kundera. He has also translated plays by Václav Havel, while other works of his have drawn on sometimes eye-popping stories from his own family history.

I’d like to first ask you please about your family background. I was reading that your grandfather was a war hero.

“He was not exactly a war hero. He had a gun. He was part of this underground group called Obrana vlasti, the Defence of the Fatherland. It was set up by officers of the Czechoslovak Army who were decommissioned when the Germans rolled in, if they were not arrested outright.

Jan Novák | Photo: Šárka Ševčíková,  Czech Radio

“I don’t know exactly what else he was doing but he was waiting for the moment when he could pull out the gun and, you know, rise up against the Germans.

“The moment never came. We’re from the Karlín area. A professor of Latin from a different cell of this underground organisation was nabbed and spoke, under torture – grandpa used to meet him after the war and had nothing against him – and named him.

“The group was not very well versed in conspiratorial rules, or they were cavalier about them. My grandfather himself knew of two other cells, which he never divulged to the Germans, even though he was tortured. He was beaten by rubber hoses and the Gestapo men extinguished their cigarettes on his skin, but he never talked.

“Nevertheless, having a gun was a capital offence, so he was sentenced to death. And he was sent to the concentration camps, basically so they could ring every last calorie of energy out of him for their war effort.”

But he survived the camps?

“He survived. He survived because he was bought out. What happened was after he was sentenced and went off… he was in Theresienstadt [Terezín] first, then Mauthausen and Nuremberg, Ravensbrück.

“He was from a small town outside of Kolín, 3,000 people, that he became mayor of after the war. And there was one business that made a lot of money on the war and the owner of this business was getting worried. My grandfather was eventually arrested in ’43. By that time it was past Stalingrad and the tide of the war was changing and this guy started getting worried.

“He needed some kind of insurance and he went and approached my grandmother and said, I would know a way of keeping your husband alive; I know a clerk in Berlin whose desk all the execution orders from all over the Reich pass through – and he could be bribed to put the execution order for your husband at the bottom of the pile.

Kolín | Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International

“She said, Oh great. And he said, I’ll finance it, but you have to pretend to sell me the house, because in case you get nabbed I don’t want to have anything to do with it; I’ll leave you to face the consequences yourself, but if you want to do this, this is my proposition.

“She agreed. He financed it. She made two trips to Berlin, paid off the guy and the paper went to the bottom of the pile. The pile was always tall [laughs].

“And he was saved. He himself had no idea what was happening. All he knew was that he was sentenced to death.

“The last three months of the war he spent in Nuremberg, in a prison. He said Nuremberg was basically levelled by carpet-bombing but somehow the prison went through it unscathed. He said that during the Allied raids all the Gestapo men ran into the basement, where he was chained to the wall.

“His cell was right next to the courtyard with the guillotine, where the executions were happening, and he didn’t know when they were going to get him.

“He got out of it by his wits. I think it was because he was older; he was about 45 when he got arrested. And he was a butcher by trade – you have to be tough, you deal with death, so all those things served him well.”

Your own family moved to the West at the end of the 1960s and settled in Chicago. What were the circumstances of the departure of your family from Czechoslovakia?

“Well, my paternal grandfather – the war hero, as you call it… his son, my father, was not allowed to go to school.

“After the war my grandfather was elected mayor of this small town, Velký Osek, for three years, on the ticket of the National Socialists – they had nothing to do with Hitler but were the most rightwing party in that era, which was already a very distorted democracy; there were only four parties allowed, and this was the most rightwing of them all.

“So as soon as the Communists grabbed power he was chucked out of the job and basically became a non-person. They threw him out of all these societies, of food growers and rabbit fanciers and all these things that he belonged to. He became a non-person.

Photo: Argo

“And because of him my father was not allowed to study so he ended up working menially at an oil refinery in Kolín, as a loader on a dock, rolling barrels of asphalt and stuff.

“He decided he wasn’t going to take this lying down and he volunteered to run the factory branch of the state bank; that was so that workers didn’t have to go downtown with their savings after they got paid.

“They had a branch, on paydays, in the factory, and my father volunteered to run it and started embezzling money.

“And for 13 years he maintained this. He embezzled two-thirds of the total deposits. By this time, he knew he wasn’t going to make it through another inspection; somehow, twice a year, he was passing inspections.

“The books were so thoroughly cooked by then that my father didn’t have a prayer of making it through another inspection.”

“The books were so thoroughly cooked by then that he didn’t have a prayer of making it through another inspection, so we left for Vienna. That’s how we left.

“And we didn’t have the money – he had gambled it all away.”

You spent time in some kind of refugee camp in Austria, at the age I presume of 16 or 17. What kind of things did you experience there?

“I celebrated my 17th birthday in the refugee camp. We spent almost a year, 10 months or so, while my father was convincing the Americans that his embezzlement was anti-Communist, underground sabotage and that we should be allowed to go to the US.

“And he did somehow convince them. He had spent some of the money on sending a couple of political prisoners who were released from the uranium mines, basically to die. He paid for them and their families to go a spa, to Karlovy Vary, for some time.

“The Americans somehow verified that this had been the case and classified his embezzlement as political work and we were able to go to the States after 10 months of waiting in the camps.

“The camps were fairly rough, especially in the beginning, when we got there. We left on August 3, 1969. That was the time when there was a massive exodus of people from here. The borders were wide open still. So we wound up in this wave of refugees.

“There were knife fights in the hall at the refugee camp. I saw a guy stuck with a knife.”

“We were sleeping in a room the size of a classroom, with 50 other people. There were knife fights in the hall. I saw a guy stuck with a knife in the hallway.

“I didn’t eat for about two weeks, because the food was so bad that I had to be really hungry before I started eating [laughs].”

When you made it to Chicago, how was the adjustment to life there for you and your family?

“It was a step up from the camps. And a step down, because now I had to go to school: for a year, from 16 to 17, I didn’t need to go to school.

“In the camp, we played soccer, chess, ping pong, I was reading. I decided to learn German, since I was there. And toward the end I actually had a job, at a linoleum factory.

Chicago,  Illinois | Photo: 12019,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“But all of sudden we were in Chicago. We wound up in Chicago because my father was writing letters to all kinds of addresses in America that he could find, all kinds of Czech support organisations.

“And the one in Chicago replied to him and said they would help. When we got to Chicago we had 60 dollars to our name [laughs], but they extended us a loan to pay for the rent and the deposit on an apartment. They found my dad a job. They wanted to put me to work – I was 17 at the time – but my dad said no, I would go to school. So I went to high school.”

When did you start writing? How long had you been in America when you began your writing career?

“I started writing here. In puberty, like so many people, I started writing poems. I was writing through the camps – I was writing some poetry. And then I kept on writing. For some reason I always knew I’d be a writer.”

Your first collection of short stories was called Striptease Chicago and it was brought out by 68 Publishers. Did you have much contact with [founders] Josef Škvorecký and his wife [Zdena Škvorecká]?

“Eventually I did, but at first I didn’t. I went to high school for a couple of years and then I went to the University of Chicago, which is a great school.

“At the University of Chicago they had writing contests, and I kept winning them. After a couple of years in the country, I was translating my old poetry into English and winning these things.

“When I was a senior there was a contest for 1,000 dollars for the best short story, best musical composition and best play. A thousand dollars each. So I sat down and wrote a short story and a play – and won both of those [laughs]. I wrote them in Czech and translated them into English. The short story was published by the student newspaper Maroon at the University of Chicago.

“There were articles in the Czech press: What is the youth doing? This Czech kid wrote this derogatory story about Masaryk.”

“At that time there was still a Czech press in Chicago; there was a daily and three weeklies. And all of sudden there were articles in them: What is the youth doing? This Czech kid wrote this derogatory story about Masaryk.

“Because the story that I wrote has a naive narrator. It’s from the point of view of a six-year-old kid whose parents flew off to Vegas to get a divorce, and they left him with an uncle who’s trying to save him for kind of Czech consciousness; he’s telling him these stories from Czech history, and the kid mixes it all up, hopefully to comic effect.

“The first sentence of the short story is something like, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, in his old age, had ape glands transplanted into himself so he could enjoy his reputation as the father of the nation.

Sixty-Eight Publishers

“They didn’t really read past that first sentence. They attributed all the nonsensical opinions of a little kid, a naive narrator, to the writer.

“So I sat down and explained to them what literature is. I wrote, as an angry young man, a kind of arrogant reply. They didn’t publish that.

“But all of a sudden I got a letter, from Josef Škvorecký, saying I read your story, I read all the reactions, I read your rebuttal to the reactions – and if you have more stories like that, I’d like to publish a book of your stories. So I was on cloud nine.”

You were a friend of Miloš Forman’s and you co-wrote his autobiography. How did you get to know Forman?

“Forman also called me. It’s funny, I had a really charmed existence. Many people deal will all sorts of rejections before they get published, or before they get to people like Forman. I had it really easy.

Photo: Atlantis

“Forman read my first novel, the first book that I wrote in English, The Willys Dream Kit, which is the story of my father, pretty much. It was highly reviewed in The New York Times. He saw a review and he called me up and said that he needed help with dialogue, writing the screen adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Choderlose de Laclose, and would I be interested?

“So after that I worked on what became Valmont, with him and Jean-Claude Carriere, the renowned French screenwriter: Buneul’s screenwriter.

“Miloš had a first version of the script with him, and they needed some American dialogues.”

What was Forman like? I interviewed him once, briefly, on camera. Before the interview began he was sitting there quite quietly, but as soon as the camera started rolling he became this incredible storyteller – every word was so dramatic. What was he like as a friend, or as somebody you knew?

“Forman was a great storyteller. He had a number of polished stories; eventually I knew the entire repertoire and used it in the book.”

“He was a great storyteller at dinners and stuff. He had a number of polished stories that he recounted; eventually I knew the entire repertoire and used it in the book.

“But some things he never talked about, like his childhood, very traumatic childhood. I think there was only one conversation we had about that before I started writing the book.

“He was great fun to hang out with, yeah. He was a generation older than I was, so there was a little discomfort there, occasionally. But you hang out with Miloš and you get to meet people like, I don’t know, Jim Carrey and Juliette Binoche.

“You walk down the street in New York with him and he stops some guy and says, Hi Norman – and it’s Norman Mailer. And you go to dinner with Norman Mailer. It was just wonderful.”

Another great name you had an association with was Václav Havel. You translated some of his plays into English and you also made two documentaries with him. What were your interactions with Havel like?

“I met him during the Velvet Revolution here. I was writing a screenplay for Maximillian Schell, this Swiss actor then living in Munich, when the revolution happened here.

“I drove here on December 2 [1989]. I still caught the last demonstration on Wenceslas Square that Monday, because the Communists wouldn’t accept the government that Havel and his friends were proposing, so there was one more demonstration and I went to see that.

“I was introduced to Havel during the revolution and he started to thank me.”

“I was introduced to Havel at the time and he started to thank me. It was, like, the leader of the revolution and I’m completely awestruck – and he says, Thank you, Thank you for translating my one-acts, they’re being played all over America and I’m getting money and stuff.

“So that was kind of funny. And then he was very generous when my son was studying film and photography and I decided that I would try to shoot some documentaries with him.

“I was thinking, who is the most famous person I know, who I can get money for a documentary about? And it was Václav Havel.

“So I started thinking about doing a doc with him, and I remembered a report he wrote in 1985 about a vacation trip around Czechoslovakia. He wrote a very dry report to the attorney general about how he was followed along the way. He counted that there were like 300 secret police involved in surveillance of his trip. He wrote a very dry, and therefore very funny, account of it.

“I figured that might be a pretty good spine for a documentary, for a narration.

“I approached him with the idea and he said, Yes, that could be an interesting documentary, but you know, I didn’t go on this trip with my wife.

Václav Havel with his wife Olga | Photo: Ondřej Němec,  Výbor dobré vůle,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“He went on the trip with his mistress. He said it would not be fair to his then wife Olga, who was by then dead, or to his current wife [Dagmar], to mention this situation.

“I said, OK, the trip is not important because of her, it’s important because of you, so I will not go and talk to her.

“But she would have been the best source of information for me. It would have been a lot better film if I could have talked to her.

“I said, If somebody mentions here, I’ll leave it in. And he said, OK, fair enough.

“So she is mentioned in the documentary eventually. And when we shot it he was very generous with his time.”

We met recently after a screening of your new documentary about the Mašín brothers group, Escape to Berlin, and you said then you’d been working on their story for half your life. How did you first come across their story? And what was it that grabbed you about it?

“Well, that’s the greatest story here, I think, since the war. And I found out about them, and about the story, through Miloš Forman.

“We started writing his autobiography, which started with me getting fired. I had a wonderful day job for a long time, working in computer operations for the phone company in Chicago, as a supervisor. And I got fired, rightly so, at one point.

“I knew that Miloš didn’t have an autobiography so I said, How about if we wrote your autobiography? Polanski and all the people in your league have autobiographies, you should have one too. He said, OK, if it helps you, let’s do it.

“Miloš remembered, You know, I sat beside a guy in school who was later executed.”

“So we were working on it and when we were finished and casting round for things we missed, Miloš remembered, You know, I sat beside a guy in school, in Poděbrady, who was later executed [Zbyněk Janata].

“I said I had never heard the story at all these dinners where Miloš had entertained the company. And that’s how I found out about the Mašín brothers.

“I was still working on the book. I was in Chicago writing and I’d fly east to his farm in Connecticut and gather some more materials – I’d take it with me to Chicago, and take another section of the book back.

“One time I flew there and he said, Ah, Novák, I’ve got something here for you – you won’t sleep all night, I guarantee you.

“And he had the first version of the Mašíns’ story, which came out here. It was just a transcription of a record the Mašíns made just of their escape through East Germany in ’53, in wonderful, concrete detail. About 120 pages.

The Mašín brothers,  Ctirad and Josef with Milan Paumer around 1950 | Photo: Archives of Ctirad Mašín//Memory of the nation

“And really you couldn’t put it down. It was just really interesting, very captivating.

“In the morning, when I finished reading it, I had so many questions in my mind and I realised this is not exhausted at all – this is only the beginning, and as my next project I want to steal this story from the Mašíns [laughs].

“Miloš had gotten the book from a Czech writer, who had written it with the older Mašín brother, Radek. His name was Rambousek. So I made Miloš call Rambousek – that was something that all the Czech writers dreamt of, that Miloš would call – and he gave us the number of, I think, the younger brother Josef, and I called him.

“By then my biography of Miloš had come out, and he really liked it. He said, OK, if you want to write about it in a belletristic way.

“I told him, I want to write about it as closely as possible to the experience as it was experienced by you guys. But of course I wasn’t there, so you’ll have to somehow run it through me.

“He said OK and he brought me all kinds of materials about the family, about himself, and the text that formed the book that I first read. And off I went.”

There are many things I could ask you about the brothers and their story. But one thing I was particularly curious about was the fact that Havel refused to give them any kind of state honour or anything, when he was president in the ‘90s and early 2000s. What do you say to the fact that Havel, who was such a moral authority, wouldn’t recognise them in that way?

“They all went to the same school. There was a wonderful school here in Poděbrady after the war for war orphans, which was some of the best education available at the time here.

“Forman went there as a true war orphan. The Mašíns had lost their father and they went there as half-legit orphans, though they also lived in Poděbrady, so they would have gone there anyway.

“And they were also the old bourgeois families, like the Havels, who were able to send their sons there. It was a kind of English-type education, where you resided in the dormitory for the week and left at weekends.

“Also the new powers that be, like Fierlinger, the Communist – he sent his kids there, so it was a very strange mélange of backgrounds and people.

“Havel was this ill-fitting, fat kid, looking up to these kids the Mašíns, who were boxing and had been heroes of the Second Resistance, to the Germans; they’d been decorated by the president for bravery, even though the things they did were at the age of 12, 13, 14.

“And I think there was a residue of this relationship, that was formed in school, to Havel’s attitude toward the Mašíns.”

In 2020 you brought out a book about Milan Kundera, Kundera: The Czech Life and Times. You don’t portray him in the most flattering light. Did you go into the project seeking to, in a sense, expose him? Or did you go in with an open mind and then found these negative things about him?

Photo: Argo,  Paseka

“By the time I was writing the book I was aware that he’d been fibbing about his life in a fairly significant fashion, and I wanted to set the record straight, basically.

“I admire him as a writer – he’s a great writer. But the very genesis of the project was completely innocent. I was waiting for a tram and there was a used bookstore across the street. I had 10 minutes to kill, so I went in and I saw a book, this poem and poetic story called The Last May, which is a version of the Fučík second world war story.

“Fučík was once a Communist hero here, streets in every town were named after him, who was killed by the Germans.

Julius Fučík | Photo: National Museum

“It was a typical example of socialist realism. It was written in verse, kind of labouring, it was didactic: It was a piece of shit.

“I was kind of taken aback. I knew that in the early ‘50s he was a Stalinist and he wrote Stalinist poetry, so I figured, OK, that’s something from that time.

“And I looked at the editor’s note, and I realised that he published it in 1963; it was like the third corrected version of the poem. In 1963 they were playing Ionesco here. Havel’s The Garden Party was being produced. The Prague Spring was already very much in the air.

“So I was shocked. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to find out under what circumstances he was writing this. And there was nothing. There was a complete vacuum around Kundera, around his life, there was nowhere to go.

“So I’m thinking, That’s fairly curious. So I started looking around and I found that he was completely fibbing about his past.

“After he left Czechoslovakia he wrote this in a piece in Le Monde and he was telling interviewers, like Philip Roth, that he had been expelled from the university, that he worked manually – complete lies.

"He said that he was an unknown writer till ’67, when he published The Joke – a complete lie, because he was opening writers’ congresses; he was very much a star. He was the youngest recipient of the State Prize in Literature and stuff like this.

“I thought, What’s going on here? So I decided to look into it.”

But even if he was a huge fabulist, did you have any qualms about bringing out this book? He was 90 years old, or more…

“Oh no, he was 85 when I started writing it.”

Anyway, he was in his 80s when you began. He was greatly respected. You knew his reputation would probably take a big hit with the book. Did you have any qualms about it?

“No, because that’s the truth. My allegiance is not to some nationalistic idea that we have one world-class writer and you can’t tear his reputation down.

“It was fairly outrageous, some of the stuff that Kundera did. I still don’t understand why.”

“I think people should bear the consequences of their fibbing. They were outright lies. It was fairly outrageous, some of the stuff that he did. And I still don’t understand why.

“In ’85 he really didn’t have any need to create a false autobiography and publish it in newspapers and stuff.

“I don’t know if it was because he wanted to increase the sales of his books by giving himself a kind of Jack London-like past, which in America sells books and stuff. I still don’t have any answer.

“But I think he was a genius at managing his own reputation and his own literary career. Plus he was also a great writer. I really respect his writing. He’s a wonderful writer.”

Jan Novák | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

If we could get back to yourself. You are now living here in Czechia. When did you move back here from the States? And how did you find the readjustment?

“I moved back in 2008. I’d been coming and going. I was writing for magazines about matters Czech and I was commissioned to write screenplays for a couple of movies that were produced here, so I was going back and forth. I had a couple of plays playing in Slovakia. So the adjustment was easy.

“What’s not so easy is this world is great, because Czechs like to entertain each other, so there’s a lot of laughter and humour.

“But you never what you’re dealing with. You can’t really trust people you don’t know. It’s not like in America, where basically everybody is pretty much straightforward – here you never know what’s going to happen with people.”