Jan Procházka: The writer behind Czech film classic The Ear
Director Karel Kachyňa’s Ucho/The Ear is considered one of the greatest Czech films of all time. It centres on a Communist elite couple in the early 1950s who are gripped by panic that – with party purges taking place – the secret police will come for them next. While the film is justly famous, the man who wrote the book it is based on, Jan Procházka, is today largely forgotten.
However, a new translation, entitled simply Ear, by Mark Corner should help draw attention to Procházka’s name in the English-speaking world.
Here is an extract from the book:
“What are we…?’ she begins to say. In a low voice. With
dry lips that feel as if they’ve been glued together. ‘Have we
become slaves…? Are we even human?’
She raises her head. To the ceiling. To the four walls.
‘What do you want from us? What do you want… Ear?
Do you want us to kill ourselves? Is that what you want?
Or do you want to kill us yourself?’
Anna gets up. And listens.”
(p.71 Ear, translated by Mark Corner, Karolinum Press, 2023)
To find out more about the writer – and his most famous work – I spoke to David Vaughan, author of the edition’s afterword.
Who was Jan Procházka? What kind of a man was he?
“He was, I think, a very nice man, a man who got on well with people; he was a communicator.
“He grew up in rural South Moravia, in a farming family.
“When he was in his teens he witnessed the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 by the Red Army.
“But he also witnessed the chaos immediately after that, and a lot of the brutality that came not just with the war but also kind of spilled over into peacetime.
“And that is, I think, something that is very typical for Jan Procházka
“All through his life and his career as a writer he was fascinated by the complexity of life: You don’t have war and then peace, you have something that happens and then echoes of the war, elements of the war, that go into the peace; you have people who are both perpetrators and victims.
“And to come back to what he was like, I think that came out of the fact that he was a very empathetic person and a very empathetic writer.
“You can see that in his brilliant dialogue. He really has a feel for the way people talk.
“And he has a feel, in a way that I think someone like Hemingway does, for saying very little and just having very short, pithy dialogues which hint at worlds beneath that.
“He was also, I think, a moralist. He had a very strong sense of right and wrong, which I think was what led him into socialism after the war.
“And what also led him into conflict then with real socialism, as it was acted out by the Communist powers that be later.”
Yes, but he went quite high in the Communist Party I understand, especially for a writer?
“It’s fascinating, because he was always critical.
“He always had heroes in his stories, in his novels, who weren’t your typical socialist realist heroes; they were always flawed.
“He was very heavily criticized by some of the censors, who were saying, Why don’t you have more positive heroes?
“And he said, If we’re going to make a better world, we have to show it how it really is; naming the problems in society is the only way you can solve them.
“That helped him kind of to get away with things that other writers wouldn’t get away with.
“There is another, bizarre factor in all this, which is that he was became a kind of friend with Antonín Novotný.”
“Also he was writing most of the time in the 1960s, when there really was a thaw, where writers could get away with a great deal more.
“And there is another, bizarre factor in all this, which is that he was became a kind of friend with President Antonín Novotný.”
You have to tell us the story of how he met Novotný.
“It’s bizarre. Novotný heard a report on the radio about farming, by a certain Jan Procházka, and he liked it so much that he wanted to invite this person to talk to him.
“And they invited the wrong Procházka.
“But the two of them got on so well that they became almost friends.
“He became Novotný’s advisor on film, which was extremely useful in the course of the 1960s, because there were a lot of filmmakers who were having difficulties with the authorities, with the censors – people like Věra Chytilová, for example, Jan Němec.
“Even though he didn’t massively like their films he was saying, These people have got to be given freedom of expression.
“And it helped.
“He was also very obviously committed to socialism. It’s interesting, there was a kind of sincerity to everything that he did.
“And this meant that when 1968 happened, and the Prague Spring, he was one of the first people who were saying, We’ve got to change everything.
“People were suddenly saying, This could be our next president.”
“There’s a famous quote from March 1968, where he says, For years and years we’ve been told who to vote for – and we might as well have just sent our dog Dingo to vote for the whole family; things have got to change.
“And he suddenly became an idol of the younger generation.
“Because his books were already well-known, he was a very popular writer then, which is interesting because not many people read him today, and people were suddenly saying, This could be our next president.”
Getting back to film directors for a moment, he worked closely with the great Karel Kachyňa?
“He did indeed. He started as a writer but there was another writer, František Kožík, who noticed his talent for dialogue.
“And he helped him to get work at the Barrandov Studios in Prague in 1960.
“Very soon, very early on, he started working with Karel Kachyňa, who was a few years older than he was, and was also from Moravia, which is interesting.
“There was a kind of symbiosis between the two of them and they made a dozen brilliant films.
“There was a kind of symbiosis between Procházka and Kachyňa and they made a dozen brilliant films.”
“All their films are good, but some of them are absolutely legendary, like Long Live the Republic, Coach to Vienna – or Ear, the film that we’ll be talking about and the book that we’re talking about today.
“He was writing these what he called ‘literary screenplays’.
“He was working very closely with Kachyňa – so most of what he wrote at the time can be read, more or less, as a screenplay, as a literary screenplay.”
Do we know what the direct inspiration for Ear was?
“What happened was he was utterly shocked by the Soviet invasion of August 1968.
“Actually just a week beforehand he had written a text in which he said, This is not going to happen, the Soviets wouldn’t be so stupid, nobody would support them.
“He was wrong.
“He was bitterly disillusioned, but unlike some other writers he didn’t try to get out, or he didn’t become silent.
“He couldn’t, I think, in himself make the compromises that a lot of writers and also filmmakers made.
“So he just tried carrying on, as if it hadn’t happened.
“And at some point just after the invasion – we don’t know exactly when – in the space of just a couple of weeks he wrote this screenplay, Ear.
“It’s set in the 1950s, but it’s very obviously also about the time we’re talking about.”
Just in terms of the timeline, because clearly it was a time of flux, the book was written just after the invasion and the movie was made the following year? Is that correct?
“The movie was made in 1969. The official date of the movie is 1970, but it was made in 1969.
“And it was actually approved, which is amazing.
“This is that strange period just after the invasion where there was still a sense that maybe things will get back to normal and it won’t be as bad as we think.
“And for some reason this film was approved.
“It’s very obviously critical of its time. You’ve got a married couple and the man is a senior official, he’s a deputy minister in the government, and this is the time of the purges and his minister has just been thrown out.
“They are terrified. They come home and they know that they are being listened to, that there are bugs in the house – this is the ‘ear’ in the book, and in the film.
“So what you have is this sort of psychological drama as you see these people, who are already compromised by the regime but are also victims of it.
“It’s absolutely fascinating and it has a wonderful twist at the end.”
And he wrote it as a novel and also worked on the screenplay with Kachyňa?
“He wrote it as, as I’ve said, a literary screenplay.
“If you read the book and watch the film at the same time, there is very, very little that is different.
“The one major difference is that the book has a chapter at the end set on the following day, which I actually think doesn’t need to be there anyway.
“I think that the film actually improves the story by not having that chapter at the end.
“Procházka worked so closely with Kachyňa on these films that it’s very difficult to separate the screenplay from the book.
“So you could say that the book that’s just come out in translation is a screenplay, a literary screenplay, or you could say it’s a novella.”
And it also reflects the anti-Semitism at the top of the Communist Party, not only here but elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc in the early 1950s?
“Yes, it’s fascinating.
“Probably people who wouldn’t know the situation here would miss – although the translation does actually draw a little bit of extra attention to the fact – because there are references to the names of people who’ve been purged.
“They’re often people who have Jewish names, and this is exactly what happened in the early 1950s.
“As we know, the majority of the people who were the victims of the show trials in the early ‘50s were of Jewish origin.”
I guess most famously in the Slánský case?
Is it the case also that – even though the film had been approved –neither the film nor the book actually came out in those days?
“Everybody knew straight away that this film was going to be banned.”
“Procházka’s daughter, Lenka, told me that she was one of the few people who were taken to the first screening at the beginning of 1970, when it was shown to a select audience at the Barrandov Studios.
“This was an audience of about 20 people, and she said that at the end there was absolute silence.
“Hardly anybody even dared to go up to him and shake his hand, because everybody knew straight away that this film was going to be banned.”
Jan Procházka sadly died at a young age, in his 40s. You relate in the afterword of the book a very interesting story about bugging devices found at his home.
“Yes, he died… the timing is very interesting. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1970, just as all the campaign against him was reaching its peak.
“And few people are in any doubt that it was at least accelerated by the situation that he was in.
“But what happened was that after he died, in February 1971, the family carried on living in the villa where they’d been in Hanspaulka, a rather nice part of Prague.
“Lenka said to new tenants, You might find a few strange listening devices in our house. They wrote back saying, Yes, we found 12.”
“A few years later they moved out, and when they moved out his daughter Lenka said to the people, the new tenants, You might find a few strange listening devices in our house.
“And they wrote back to her a little while later saying, Yes, we found 12 of them.
“Including in the toilet and the bathroom and the kitchen – which is exactly what we have in the book Ear.
“So he was absolutely spot on in noting that the authorities had absolutely no scruples in leaving people with no private space at all.”
We’ve kind of touched on it already, but how do the book and the film compare? Usually people are disappointed by film adaptations of books, but there are of course some examples where the film is better. Which is this?
“I think that the film is one of the best Czech films ever made, and that ever will be made, probably.
“I enjoyed reading the book, but I enjoyed reading the book knowing the film.
“I’m also extremely pleased that Jan Procházka as a writer is becoming more known, because he was one of the most popular writers in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.
“Then he was silenced for 20 years and he’s never really come back, although his books are wonderfully readable.
“So, yes, I love the book and I would really recommend it.
“But I would also recommend that people see the film.”
Do you know why the book is translated as Ear when the film is The Ear?
“We had a long discussion about that.
“Originally the translator wanted to call the book The Bug, and I thought that people would confuse with Metamorphosis by Kafka and whatever.
“We had quite a long discussion about it and in the end my preferred option was Ear, because I think it just looks wonderful on the page.
“Although I do slightly regret it actually, for the simple reason that whenever we’re talking about the book and the film together there’s that difference – either there’s the article or there isn’t the article.
“So I think if I were to sort of put time back again I would maybe suggest to the publishers that maybe we should have called it The Ear.
“But I still love just looking at the book and those three letters on the front of it: E.A.R, Ear. It’s nice, which was why I was keen.
“And also the ear is more than just the bug; it’s so much more.
“And the fact that you have this word, Ear, it makes it that little bit more abstract than having The Ear.”
David Vaughan is a former editor-in-chief at Radio Prague International.
Ear, translated by Mark Corner, is published by Karolinum Press as part of its series Modern Czech Classics.
The film Ucho/The Ear was finally released after the fall of communism and was in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990. It has been digitally restored by the Czech National Film Archive, with the new version receiving its world premiere at the Venice IFF last year.