Jiří Stránský: a doctor of prison sciences

Jiří Stránský

As a writer Jiří Stránský has never had to look far beyond his own extraordinary life story for inspiration. He was born in 1931 into an influential Prague political family – in fact his maternal grandfather even served for three years as prime minister in the 1930s. During the German occupation Jiří’s father Karel survived Auschwitz, and as a teenager Jiří took part in the Prague Uprising in the last days of the war. But ironically, the family suffered just as much under the communists after the war as they had under the Germans. They had never made any secret of their dislike of both political extremes. Jiří was not allowed to study and in 1953 was arrested on fictitious charges of spying. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, much of which he spent working in a uranium mine. Paradoxically, it was here that Jiří Stránský found the inspiration to write. This was the time of the Stalinist purges, and he found himself alongside some of the writers he most respected, including the well known Brno poet, Jan Zahradníček. In a busy Prague café, Jiří told me about how these writers became his role model.

“Those people I adored. I met them in prison and the moment I told them I wanted to be a writer, the way they ‘warned’ me was so persuading, one could say, that that was the moment I decided I had to be a writer, whatever it cost. I was lucky to meet them. The regime didn’t let me study at all, so I always say that, if I’m a doctor of something, then I’m a doctor of prison sciences.”

In prison in 1950s Czechoslovakia the very act of writing was a dangerous occupation.

“It was terribly complicated, because in the first years you were not even able to reach a tiny piece of paper or a piece of pencil, but at the moment they put you into those uranium concentration camps, where we were working with civilians, from that time the possibility to reach pencil and paper was real. And that was not all. You could write, but the moment they found it, it was not only that they destroyed it, but you were terribly punished for it. As an already experienced prisoner – I was seven-and-a-half years in prison – I very soon found a civilian who was bold enough, brave enough, to smuggle all I wrote to my family, because the moment they caught him with what I wrote, it meant fifteen years in prison for him. So they really had to be brave.”

Were you writing about your experiences?

“I felt as a duty that first of all I must somehow collect all those unbelievable stories and fates of people I met. I was the only one who did it. And there were hundreds and hundreds of tiny pages with tiny writing that I was sending home just to preserve them, nothing else. To this day, I have at home those fifty or fifty-five year old papers, and I take stories out from them. For me it is fascinating.”

It has sometimes been said of another Czech writer who was slightly older than you – Bohumil Hrabal – that he built his whole writing career on telling other people’s stories. Did you do the same thing?

“The moment that - within yourself - you carry and cherish that decision to be a writer, you feel it as a duty to be a man who is just collecting those stories. Sometimes it is only a sentence. Somebody tells you a book in three sentences. That was such a unique time.”

Here is an extract from Jiří Stránský’s story “Liver”, which he wrote in 1969 and is set in the uranium mines. In this extract the prisoner Radek has been sent by the camp doctor to work at the chute above ground.

Radek climbed the wooden steps, more than three hundred of them, stopping every few minutes. It wasn’t just the fatigue from his blood cells, but also the view, which seemed to change with every step he took. The world of the mine shaft fell away, deeper and deeper beneath him, while the world of humans came into view, more and more over the peak of the slag heap.

Working high up on the slag heap, he meets a young woman civilian worker at the mine, Květa, and it marks the beginning of an unlikely romance, among the conveyors, hoists and rocks.

It was grueling work, especially in the beginning when the wind kept flipping the belt, even with the stones on it, so he had to keep bringing over bigger and bigger ones. His tenacious, bullheaded struggle to keep up with the wind showed in his face, he was oily and wet, and there was a stream of blood from the back of his hand, where it had been pinned between one of the stones and the iron framework of the conveyor.

Suddenly Radek felt something moving behind him and saw Květa there. She was trying to tell him something, but between the wind and the rain there was too much noise. He motioned to his ear that he couldn’t understand her, and wrestled the next stone onto the belt. The next thing Radek knew, her hands were there alongside his, helping him. Once they had the stone up, he thanked her with a gesture and motioned for her to take cover.

She looked him over for a second, the wind whipping her hair out from beneath the rainproof miner’s hat she had strapped under her chin. She smiled, shook her head, turned her back to him and went off to get the next stone.”

And here is another short extract a little further on in the story.

Behind them, in the darkness, the framework groaned, followed by the thud of waste rock falling into the chute.

He started to sit up, and she tugged him back down to her. But the next thing they knew, their deep kiss was interrupted by a double blast from the horn.

She was nearly trembling. Her eyes were like saucers. “That horn is going to drive me insane. It is driving me insane.”

He pulled himself together. “Just be glad it was only two. Hoisting’s still better than those guards. They’re here all the time and I’m scared to death that one of these days – even if it is almost impossible – they’re going to find some other way to clamber up here besides the stairs.”

After his release in 1960 Jiří Stránský continued to write, and in 1962 he managed to get one story published in the weekly magazine Mladý svět. The story was read on the radio, and this was eventually to lead him into the world of film.

“I met the most famous Czech film director, Martin Frič, who asked me to work with him, to write scripts with him, and it changed my life. Very slowly, without being aware too much about it, I stepped into this part of art, the art of filming.”

Although for political reasons Jiří Stránský had to stay very much in the background, he began a fruitful career as a scriptwriter and assistant director. His collection of stories “Štěstí” – happiness - which included the story “Liver”, was due to appear in 1969, but the political clampdown that followed the Soviet invasion meant not only that the book was never published, but also that Stránský once again became a persona non grata. In 1974 he was even imprisoned for fifteen months, which paradoxically gave him a further opportunity to write.

“For me it was, in a way, a very curious time, because I suddenly had a fantastic time for concentration. It was wonderful. My wife didn’t feel it that way, because we already had kids at that time.”

'Zdivočelá země'
Then, after the fall of communism, your career as a writer blossomed. Not only were your books being published, but you also built on that earlier experience of working with film. You have a whole series of films which have been based on your stories or screenplays.

“You see, I differ a little bit from my colleague writers in that whatever I write is already a potential base for some film or TV story.”

In the late 1990s Stránský worked again with his old friend the director Hynek Bočan on the highly successful film and television series Zdivočelá země – the land gone wild – which tries to capture the tough reality of life in the former Sudetenland since the end of World War Two. In the series Stránský doesn’t shy from depicting the brutality that accompanied the forced expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s German minority in the three years that followed the war, and then he goes on to portray the impact of Stalinist rule. At 77 he continues to write, and his short novel “Stařec a smrt” – the old man and death – which was published last autumn, was well received by critics. Unfortunately, only very little of Jiří Stránský’s work has been translated into English – a fact that he says does not bother him too much:

“I think that I belong among those authors who are better known as the scriptwriters of films. So I think I am one of those authors who perhaps – as authors – are translated after their death! [laughs].”

In that case I hope you won’t be translated for a long time yet…

“Well, I don’t mind…[laughs].”