Literary light in the darkness of 1970s Czechoslovakia: Egon Bondy and Ladislav Fuks

Pavla Jonssonova

In the last programme I spoke to Bernie Higgins, one of Czech Books' regular presenters about her favourite Czech writing. Today it's the turn of another regular presenter of Czech Books, Pavla Jonssonova and we'll be talking about some of the Czech writing that has inspired her over the years.

You are currently teaching Czech literature to university students here in Prague, but you do also write yourself, don't you?

Pavla Jonssonova: Yes, but it's mostly lyrics for my band Zuby Nehty, or its present variation, which is called Pani Pavlova Band.

And in today's programme we're going to be looking at and reading from some of the writers that have inspired you. Where would you like to start?

PJ: I would maybe like to start with the incredibly joyful atmosphere of my high school, where, in spite of all the very oppressive circumstances of the late 70s, the young people were so excited about sharing documents of Charter 77 and distributing various forms of the samizdat writers, be it Havel, Vaculik or Grusa, but especially we loved Egon Bondy, so maybe this is where we could start.

I'm now going to read an extract from a short story by Egon Bondy. Could you put this into context a little?

PJ: Well, Egon Bondy for us was the most exciting figure because as a revolutionary philosopher and poet he combined everything that we expected of a hero and a literary hero at that. This extract, "Berta" I think describes very well the oppressive situation of the 70s, and this is the story of two sisters living under difficult conditions, as we were at that time.

So that's a very bleak passage from Egon Bondy's "Berta" describing the rather grim period of what was called "normalization" in the 70s and 80s in Czechoslovakia. And I should add that Egon Bondy is still alive. He's living in Bratislava.

PJ: Bratislava, in a kind of exile, and he teaches Buddhism and Marxism.

You were talking about the period of the 1970s as a very cheerful period for you, and yet passages like this are very depressing, very bleak. How did you keep going at that time, as a young woman at secondary school?

PJ: I guess that especially with Charter 77 something opened - some bravery, some civic courage that was incredibly elating for us and made our lives quite cheerful. The way I remember that time is like every day running through the city, especially the Lesser Town, and going to concerts of all these protest singers and distributing these leaflets of Charter 77. So I think we really had a great time.

Let's move on to another of your favourite writers, Ladislav Fuks.

PJ: Ladislav Fuks had a special position at the time when we were in our formative years in the late 70s, so I guess that for my generation he was the representative of both the streams that were being published, that were being supported, but yet his masterful story-telling was so powerful that I remember being so completely taken over by his stories that I just wasn't able to go to school at all, because I just had to keep reading these stories. The extract that we're going to read today is from "Little Kchony Sees the World" and describes a story right at the start of the Second World War in Czechoslovakia, where Kchony is this ten-year-old boy, and he confides a secret to his schoolmate that his family is ready to leave the country, that they have a ticket for the train, and he shows him on the map all the places that they're going to visit. And we see how hard it is for the ten-year-old kids to make any sense out of what's happening to them. Especially the geography teacher keeps torturing the kids in a horrible way - he's a very anti-Jewish person.

So I'm going to read a short piece from the story, where the geography teacher is testing the boys.

"The geography teacher began testing us on everything we had learnt since the start of the school year, giving every boy an F after each question: Minek, Carda, Bronowski; Turkey, Arabia, Egypt.

He said our memories were rolling up on us. 'You knew more last autumn,' he growled, and again we tried to work out what it was for a memory to roll up, and again, except for Krappner, everyone was scared. We prayed for the teacher to hurry up and call on Kchony. Kchony was more scared than anyone and was praying he wouldn't be called on.

At last the teacher called him up and gave him Palestine. Did he know what was in Jerusalem?

'The Wailing Wall,' Kchony stuttered.

'Delightful. And what else?' the teacher asked.

'A temple,' Kchony whispered.

'A temple?" the teacher said, shaking his head. 'You must be confusing it with something else. You are sorely mistaken!'

Kchony shuddered in fear and turned to the class for help. But in vain.

No one dared give a hint. I shuddered to think the teacher might start on the Virgin Mary again and make Kchony cry. But this time he chose something different:

'A temple adorned with splendiferous stones and with gifts dedicated to God, and not one stone shall be left on another. Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and woe to those with child!'

Then the teacher told Kchony to pray to the Virgin Mary, the faithful servant and Mother; he told him to go to the Wall if he wanted to whimper about his F, and in his grades-book the teacher wrote: David Kohn is lacking in religious education."

This is bleak stuff, isn't it, yet that was the food that you were feeding from in the 70s. How is it today? Since the borders have opened do you feel that you're almost lacking that kind of darkness?

PJ: I guess so. I guess when the cultural chaos set in after 89 and books stopped being these cult objects, when the writers lost their voices as being the consciousness of the nation, it is really like a completely different world, and to find orientation is very difficult. With the band we had a funny song that we never actually performed, it went: "Bring back the Iron Curtain!" Of course we didn't mean it literally but there was a little bit of nostalgia for these times when we were dreaming about the free world and having these fantasies.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.