Ludvik Vaculik: a Czechoslovak man of letters

Ludvik Vaculik

Ludvik Vaculik, one of the Czech Republic's greatest living writers turned 80 on July 23. Born in Brumov, a small corner of southeast Moravia, in 1926, Ludvik Vaculik became an acclaimed writer—important enough for the communists to ban after 1968—and his credentials have also included editor of both Literarni Noviny and Rude Pravo, radio journalist, publisher of the samizdat series Edice Petlice, essayist, and always an engaged citizen.

Among Ludvik Vaculik's better-known novels are "The Axe," and "The Guinea Pigs," as well as "Cesky Snar," or "The Czech Dreambook," though this perhaps most famous work published in samizdat at the beginning of the 1980s has yet to appear in English translation. But it was really "A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator" that established Ludvik Vaculik on the international literary scene.

Of his political activity, two moments stand out: the first was Vaculik's critical speech at the 1967 Czechoslovak Writers' Congress, for which he was expelled from the Communist Party. The second turning point came in 1968 when Ludvik Vaculik wrote his "Two Thousand Words" manifesto, which criticized the regime and ensured that he would not publish officially for the next 21 years. Gerry Turner, who first met Ludvik Vaculik in 1976 and would become his long-time translator into English, speaks about the effects of the "Two Thousand Words" manifesto and the legacy it left in Czechoslovakia:

Gerry Turner,  photo: Linda Mastalir

"I had a constant awareness that it soldered the sheep from the goats at that time. One tended to know and realize who had signed the manifesto, and who hadn't. This seems to be a constant phenomenon in Czech politics: first the Two Thousand Words manifesto and then Charter 77, which came under different circumstances of course, and then the Few Words manifesto in 1989 which in many senses had a similar response to the Two Thousand Words, but was not his [Vaculik's] work on that occasion. But no doubt, without the Two Thousand Words manifesto, the Few Words manifesto in 1989 wouldn't have come into existence, and of course the very title of the manifesto in 1989 was a clear reference to the earlier one."

By 1977 there was no question about Ludvik Vaculik's political orientation: he signed Charter 77 and worked to produce a handsome and widely-circulated samizdat series, Edice Petlice, or Padlock. In these dark days of the Normalization era in Czechoslovakia, he continued to write his feuilletons which reached the West via underground networks, and Gerry Turner remembers how impressive Vaculik's texts were:

"Living back in Britain at that time, I was always amazed—either seeing them in Listy or receiving them from the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre—we'd see in the latest feuilleton how he had this uncanny ability to encapsulate what people were thinking.

A letter from Ludvik Vaculik to Gerry Turner,  photo: Linda Mastalir
He was at that time the voice of...I won't say the voice of the nation, but the voice of the people, which was what he was at the Fourth Congress."

Since late 1989, when the official ban on Vaculik's writings disappeared along with the Iron Curtain, this Czech writer has only picked up speed. As he did for the underground scene in the 1970s and 1980s, Ludvik Vaculik has written hundreds of feuilletons, commenting on every aspect of Czech cultural and political life. These feuilletons appear in Vaculik's weekly Lidove Noviny column, and it's no exaggeration to say that if one wanted to recap fascinating aspects of the post-communist transition—the stuff that has touched everyday life in this country—Vaculik's observations are a fine place to start. Gerry Turner reflects on the development of Ludvik Vaculik's writings:

"Interestingly, reading just in the last two days tributes to Ludvik Vaculik for his 80th birthday, he himself said about the Fourth Congress speech and Two Thousand Words, that this is something that can only happen in adversity.I think that in fact his greatest feuilletons were written in adversity. He has become a columnist, like any great columnist, such as James Cameron in the case of Britain. In a sense now, his columns, you can take them or leave them. They always are written with enormous skill. But, as time goes by his causes are not always those I particularly share. A great writer like Vaculik is not going to write works of genius every week. So I see them [the feuilletons] on odd occasions, and on the odd occasion I relish the old fire that is there—that is still there. The pithiness with which that man can write!"

Does Ludvik Vaculik really have causes, or does he serve to provoke society?

"I think he does have causes. I think the environmental cause is one that he has always espoused. I think it goes back to his time as a kid in the hills, in Wallachia.

Gerry Turner
One of my favorite feuilletons is precisely on that theme, of how human sinfulness is really playing fast and loose with what humans have been given as an environment."

"What is Vaculik like as a person? The word bristly comes to mind immediately, and that's not only his whiskers or his chest hairs, both of which are very prominent. [Laughs]. Vaculik is a very difficult person to know, and a lovely person to be with. When I first went to talk to Ludvik about translating what I'd consider his seminal novel, Cesky Snar, which we can either translate as 'The Czech Dreambook' or 'The Czech Dream Diary' (as it's not yet published it doesn't have an official title), I had the impression of entering an audience with a monarch, or facing a TV camera. He is—as he rightly vaunts himself—a microscopic observer of humans, the human condition. There is a moment in 'The Dreambook' where he's observing the whiskers of Karel Trinkewitz, and it is so microscopic that we are actually at the roots of the hairs on his face. I found that one of the most shocking moments in the novel, that he has this ability to see minute details on the surface, but naturally also within the person, within their soul."

His critics call it regional activism, and others say it's typical Vaculik: he always looks out for the little guy. Yet what about this issue of Ludvik Vaculik's Moravian identity, how deeply does it run? I asked Gerry Turner, who has known Vaculik for thirty years.

"Well, I suppose one could say bluntly that if he were such a great Moravian he would be living there. He's chosen to live in Prague. I think of the feuilleton "Tramcar," particularly where he recalls coming to Prague back in the 1950s, and his awareness that he is a stranger here. Certainly in my case, I find it hard to think of Vaculik apart from Milan Simecka, who was a great friend of Vaculik's. Simecka was Moravian, living in Bratislava, and he became almost indistinguishable from his fellow citizens in Slovakia. I personally can't feel Vaculik as a Moravian activist or nationalist—I don't think that he thinks in those terms anyway. I suppose Professor Masaryk would have been pleased to find that there actually is a Czechoslovakian still alive."

Ludvik Vaculik belongs to a generation of central European intellectuals from whom we still have much to learn. In 2002 he published a collection entitled The Last Word, but luckily, we have hardly heard the last from this man of letters.