Laughter and remembrance of 1968 at the Prague Writers’ Festival

Writers from all over the world gathered in Prague this week to recall the strange days of 1968. The Prague Writers’ Festival, which was originally set up to promote Central European writing abroad, attracted a larger-than-ever number of authors to the Czech capital – here to recall the Prague Spring of 1968, as well as what they themselves were up to, the year that shook the world.

Gary Snyder and Michael March in 2007,  photo: CTK
The theme of this, the 18th Prague Writers’ Festival is that of ‘1968: Laughter and Forgetting’. Michael March is the event’s organizer:

“1968 was a way of thinking, the enlightenment was a way of thinking. People blame ’68, they blame the enlightenment for thinking. But thinking is extremely important, it allows the individual to continue in life – to meet life, to greet life, to change. And ’68 was about change.”

A lot of discussion in the course of the festival has been about whether 1968 has become a bit of a myth over the last 40 years. What is your stance on this – do we idolize ’68 in a bit of an inappropriate way now?

“If we go to Roberto Colasso, he said that everything in the world can be destroyed except myth – so if it has become a myth, then that is a bit of compliment.”

Paul Auster,  photo: CTK
One of Michael March’s old classmates at Columbia University, and a guest of honour at this year’s festival, is the novelist and film-maker Paul Auster. For him, this trip to Prague has been a long time coming:

“Fifteen years I’ve been invited, every year, and I was never able to come – there was always something interfering with the possibility of coming to Prague. But I always wanted to, and this year the calendar was clear, and so I accepted.”

This year, the theme is 1968 – is this one you feel very at home talking about?

“Well, it’s ironic, but that was a very big year in my life. In New York, at the time, I was a student at Columbia University, where we made a big revolution. And so I was just there last month, at Columbia, for events about ’68, and now here I am in Prague talking about ’68. It seems like everywhere I go, 1968 is on people’s mind.”

And why do you think that ’68 is on everyone’s mind? Why do you think that year has so much resonance?

“It’s because it was one of those crazy years in which everything seemed to happen all at once, all over the world. It was a time of the Vietnam War, of course, which was at its peak – and America was split, America became a very wild, contentious place. In Paris, the students made their revolution in May. In Mexico, hundreds of people were shot before the Olympics, and then of course in Prague there was the invasion, not to speak of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, of Robert Kennedy. It was a year of horrendous cataclysm.”

And does it mean something for you to be here in Prague on that anniversary?

“Well, I’m glad that I waited so that it would be this year rather than any other year.”

Tariq Ali and Slavenka Drakulić,  photo: CTK
This year, there’s a special place in the programme for some of the main players in the revolts of 1968 around the world. At this book signing on Wednesday, Pakistani-born political activist and writer Tariq Ali recommends a few of his works to the Croatian author Slavenka Drakulić. Mr Ali thinks the events of 1968 cannot be looked at in isolation:

“It wasn’t one year, it was ten years. It was a period which started in ’65 and ended in 1975. And ’68, if you like, was the high point. Because the Americans knew they were defeated in Vietnam, the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, which was the beginning of the end of their own system. And in France, you had a general strike of ten million workers.”

You have previously said that 1968 was a global phenomenon. Where would you place what happened in Prague in the context of the events of 1968 around the world?

“Well, I would place it as one of the most important events, because it marked the failure of the Soviet leadership to understand the importance of what was happening in Prague. And they behaved brutally in crushing it. And that was the end of their own system.”

Prague,  1968
In articles you have written about 1968, you have divided the events of 1968 into three main strands of importance – political activities, sexual liberation, and entrepreneurship from below – what did you mean by the last one of these?

“Well there were a lot of sort of radical hippies, who wanted to do their own thing, set up their own stalls, challenge the big corporations – and they did it. And the corporations more or less took over that culture, so there is very little of that entrepreneurship from below left. When you come to the city of Prague after a break of 40 or so years, you see the brand names all established – and what are these brand names? Boss, who used to dress the SS in Germany – this is the guy who designed all of the lovely leather jackets for the German fascists. Louis Vuitton, who collaborated with the German occupation in France, and many others with very dubious records. And that is what you can find, these are the brand names you can find in every city.”

I wasn’t even born in 1968, what do you think the relevance of 1968 is for someone, say, of my generation?

“Well, I think the importance is that if you get active, if you work collectively, if you decide to challenge the established order – you can do it.”

Tariq Ali,  photo: CTK
Mr Ali may have been one of the most important political activists in the United Kingdom at least in 1968, but his companion at Wednesday’s signing, the Croatian-born journalist and author Slavenka Drakulic has quite different memories of the year that shook the world. I asked her whether the Prague Spring and the Czech Republic featured at all in her recollection of the time:

“No, it doesn’t figure at all in these memories, because I was 19 years old, I was in love, and I took the slogan ‘make love, not war’ very, very literally. And the product of that was my daughter, who was born in 1968. These are my memories of ’68 – not politics. So, ‘make love, not politics’ was my own personal slogan.”

The Prague Writers’ Festival may be over for another year. But in the flurry of talks, conferences, signings and readings to have taken place in the capital over the last couple of days, the turbulent times that were the late 1960s have been remembered, and the legacy that these times have left behind has been brought to the fore.