Jaroslava Moserova: from Dick Francis to Wollongong

Jaroslava Moserova

Jaroslava Moserova's biography is quite extraordinary. She is one of those people who manage to have three or four careers at once. On the one hand she is a leading Czech burns specialist. She is also one of the country's best known literary translators, and a writer in her own right. Many know her as a diplomat, or as member of the Czech Senate, and at one point she was a serious candidate for the Czech Presidency. So she is known both at home and abroad in many different capacities. In this edition of Czech Books she talks to David Vaughan.

Jaroslava Moserova
It is interesting that to many people here in the Czech Republic you're best known as the translator of Dick Francis' novels from the world of racing, aren't you?

"Well, yes, indeed but I owe that to the writing of Dick Francis. He simply is the most popular writer in this country, which is amazing. I like to think - and it's not wishful thinking - that people like his books because they feel the strong feeling that he has for fair play."

You are also a writer in your own right, you have written stories and plays. When translating you have the safety of having the original text but when you're writing, you have a blank piece of paper. Do you find it difficult to 'take the plunge'? Do you find it a very different process?

"Of course it is a different process. One can sit down to a translation at any time and under any circumstances... whatever you might feel or what worries you. As a matter of fact, it helps you eliminate the worries. While for original writing, you have to be well composed or feel like writing. Yet, when I write the original text I write much faster than when I translate."

That's because you don't have to think yourself into somebody else's mind...

"Exactly. I am now translating Kipling and it's terribly difficult."

A few years ago you published a collection of short stories - memories or little portraits of people you have known in the course of your life. It's called 'Historky' in Czech and I hope it will come out in English in the not too distant future. It rather wonderfully tells your own life story through the people you have known. In that sense it is a kind of indirect autobiography, isn't it?

"It's not only an autobiography but it also tells a lot about the latter half of the last century. Each story, which starts with people I met from my childhood up to the Velvet Revolution, illustrates the time during which it happened."

Going back to your childhood during the Second World War, do you have a story in the book that you would like to tell?

"Yes, I will tell it and not read it from the book. The most important person during my childhood was my governess Hilde. She was a Sudeten German and I loved her dearly. I don't think I ever loved anyone, except my spouse and my parents, as much as I loved Hilde. Before the beginning of the war, she married a gynaecologist - also a Sudeten German - and they moved to the Sudetenland. Immediately after the war I took pains to find out when Hilde was to be transported from the town she was in. Her husband, at that time, was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. I found out when she was going to be transported and told my parents that I was going to go the small town, to spend the night with Hilde, and carry her suitcase to the train the next day.

"Well, my parents weren't too happy about it because the feelings against the Germans were so strong at that time and it was in fact dangerous to befriend a German. Anyway, they knew how much I loved Hilde and allowed me to go but said I should not provoke anybody and should be careful. So I went, spent the last night with Hilde, we shared a bed in the camp that she was in, and I carried her suitcase to the railway station. I think it was the most unhappy moment in my life when she boarded the train and I waved her good-bye. I have never been so unhappy in my life but I didn't have the slightest feeling that an injustice was being done. I thought it had to be...it was awful, regrettable, but it couldn't be helped."

Do you feel that to this day?

"Yes, I am not ashamed of the feelings I had as a young girl. Of course I now know that there were many among the people who were transported who didn't deserve it, but well..."

We have touched on your career as a doctor. Obviously one of the huge changing points in your life came in 1968 with the Prague Spring, then with the Soviet invasion, then the fact that you were working as a burns doctor when Jan Palach set himself alight and you were one of the doctors in the burns unit when he was taken to hospital. This set of experiences must have completely changed your perspective on life?

"I don't think so. It certainly was a milestone for the country, for everybody. I don't like to talk about Jan Palach. When people ask me I never talk about him but about the situation at the time and what made him do what he did. During the Prague Spring so many intelligent and talented people suddenly surfaced and earned a lot of respect for young people. After the Soviet invasion when the so-called normalisation set in, quite a few of these people, the young and the admired, started giving in and I know that Jan Palach did what he did to shake the conscience of the nation."

The story of what Jan Palach inspired a play that you wrote: 'Letter to Wollongong'.

"It's only marginally tied to what he did. It just makes the point of the importance of conscience, what you must forgive others and what is hard to forgive oneself. It was the time of the greatest demoralisation. In fact, what the regime did to our way of thinking and our attitude was the greatest crime that the regime committed. It forced us into hypocrisy and forced us to teach our children to be hypocritical. Truth was suppressed to an unbelievable degree. During the totalitarian regime, people thought ambitiousness was irreconcilable with decency because if you had any ambition and tried to build a career you had to make concessions to the regime, which was irreconcilable with decency. This has somehow prevailed and decent people still stand in their corners and don't come forward, thus allowing more space to the less decent."

To what extent would you condemn those who gave in to the old regime? For example, the narrator in "Letter to Wollongong" begins to collaborate with the secret police. To what extent do you sympathise with those who took that step?

"Well, I understand why she or the others took it but I still think that they didn't have to. No-one had to join the Communist Party, no-one had to cooperate with the secret police, with the exception perhaps of the people in the 1950s, who were imprisoned, whose families were threatened and it was a matter of life and death. But after the 1950s, no-one had to."

When the communist regime finally fell in 1989, you were already sixty years old. Was it frustrating that it hadn't happened sooner?

"No. I was glad to have lived to see the day and an entirely new life started for me in at the age of sixty. I suppose I have had more experiences and met more interesting people than I ever did before."

We're here in your flat and looking out of one of your windows, you can see Prague Castle. At one point, you were a candidate for the presidency of the Czech Republic. Do you ever stop and think: 'What if'?

"Yes, of course, because people make me. You know, strangers stop me on the street and say they are sorry. The other day I was walking towards the Castle, where the presidential office is, and there was a family walking in the opposite direction and they stopped me and said, 'What a shame that you're not going to your office'. I thought this was cute. Yes, quite a few people make me think about it but I didn't expect to win, I was surprised that I won in two rounds in the Senate, and my husband shuddered. So, he was relieved when I wasn't elected. Had I been elected I would really have lost everything that I enjoy. Anyone who takes on this kind of an office does."