Martin Machovec: exploring the rich literary world of the Czech underground

Martin Machovec, photo:

This week we visit Martin Machovec in his book-filled flat. Martin Machovec is a well-known literary critic, translator, editor and expert on the Czech underground scene. We'll start with a short piece from one of his articles on Czech underground literature between the years of 1969 and 1989.

The history of the Czech underground begins with the arrival and ends with the collapse of the totalitarian, Stalinist and later neo-Stalinist regime. The Czech underground sought to preserve authentic cultural values, undistorted by totalitarian demagogy and ideology through an insistence on the continuity of a creative process unconstrained by any kind of censorship or taboo. In this sense the Czech underground or 'podzemi' was from its inception remarkably similar to the medieval Jewish ghetto, where enough room was preserved for inner freedom, despite isolation from the world outside. Thus the Czech cultural underground was always a question of politics, since its very existence amounted to an indirect indictment of an inhuman political system.

There are some very interesting observations in that. First of all, could you say something about the Czech word for underground - 'podzemi'?

Martin Machovec: "Yes. I found it necessary to emphasize this difference, because the English word 'underground' was introduced to the Czech literary scene only in the late 60s, coming from America, of course, from the New York rock scene, underground scene. And so this influence was accepted by rock-n-roll musicians especially. They were far from having ambitions to become authors, writers, poets etc, whereas the Czech notion of 'podzemi', which is its literal translation, would refer to a much broader sense, meaning anything which was illegal in the totalitarian regime, which was 'hidden', 'covered', 'subterranean', so to speak - unofficial.

"So there were authors who were far from sharing the ideas or aesthetic views of the Czechoslovak rock musicians or their American counterparts in the late 60s. But they willy-nilly found themselves in similar positions in society, having been manipulated into an unofficial situation, where they could only have the possibility of publishing their works in the samizdat, unofficial form. So we could also use this notion when talking about the writings of Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik or Vaclav Havel and others. All of them were very far from the notion of 'underground' literature."

Egon Bondy
One of the leading figures of the Czech underground - something of an underground guru we could almost say - was Egon Bondy. You have been engaged in working with his work, and are currently, I believe, editing a bibliography of his work. Could you say something as an introduction to Egon Bondy?

"Yes. Egon Bondy has now become a relatively well-known person in the Czech literary scene, and unfortunately he hasn't been much known elsewhere abroad. Only a few of his books have been translated into German, Italian and Polish, but I'm afraid only a few examples of his poems were translated into English.

"He was born in 1930 and studied at Charles University. He became a philosopher, but also a poet. He started writing his poetry in the early 50s, and with a couple of his friends, including Bohumil Hrabal, at that time he established one of the first samizdat editions called 'Pulnoc', which means 'Midnight'. Then in the early 70s he was discovered by those young rock underground musicians, which were quite well-known, thanks to the best-known underground rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe. So the musicians started putting his lyrics to music."

There is a book called 'The Plastic People of the Universe', and in fact Egon Bondy wrote a forward. Here is a bit where he describes the beginning of his relationship with them:

I've never been a rocker - like everybody else I only knew the songs of the Beatles in the 60s. I got to the Plastic People of the Universe by sheer chance. The Plastics started of their own accord to put my poems to music (both those contemporary and from the early 50s) and they favoured them so much that at the beginning of their mature creative period they basically formed the groundwork for their repertoire. In fact I didn't meet them before they became an accomplished band (I heard my very first rock concert at the Plastics' performance in the summer of 1972 in Prague).

Immediately I realized the appearance of a new power. Circumstances were very depressing then. Eighteen- and twenty-year olds were sitting in pubs drinking beer and complaining about their devastated lives. It wouldn't have gone anywhere this way - but what impulse was needed to reach the self-realization of a generation? A rock music that in the West was already losing its original social significance for the time, and becoming only consumer music, still had its initial subversive drive in our country - thanks to among other reasons the stupid bans from the establishment. Rock was the road to go for the young, the element that helped to put the generation together.

Just how important were The Plastic People of the Universe politically?

"We shouldn't forget that the situation of those imitators and followers of the flower-power line and non-violence ideals and hippy ideas were treated in a different way in Central and East European countries - in the countries behind the Iron Curtain. They were treated as political opponents. They originally never wanted to become anything like that, and so, especially following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia of 1968, all those people, only thanks to their appearance, the way they dressed, the way they had their hairstyle, made them in the eyes of the official censorship part of a suspicious political opposition, which is very different from what was happening more or less at the same time in Western Europe and in the United States.

"So with the coming of the so-called 'normalization', when the neo-Stalinists took power and re-established political censorship in the early 70s, most of these young people were asked to comply with the regime. Have your hair cut! Change your provocative dress! Get dressed more decently! If you really want to go on and study at university you have to do what we advise you, or if not, then of course you can have trouble! So there were only a few of those rock musicians who refused to comply, the best example being the rock group, 'The Plastic People of the Universe'."

Here are a few of Egon Bondy's short pieces. Many of his works, as we've just said, were used as the lyrics for the Plastic People of the Universe.

Summer Autumn Winter Spring

Summer autumn winter spring

who's fault is this whole thing?


I ride around in my tractor

I ride it up and down

It's my second day

who knows what next week will bring

I like tractors

here on the farm

and the boys from the station

stand tall and firm


Peace peace peace

just like a piece

of bog roll

"Most of them were written in the early 50s as examples of very provocative, anti-lyrical trends, anti-poetic trends. They are to shock the reader with their simplicity, something which is to provoke you, to shock you. Of course in some cases you can also find features of parody of the enchantment of the bewilderment of the period of early Stalinism in the early fifties - such as the one about the tractors. The other ones are simply examples of shocking poetry, which were then discovered by the Plastic People, the rockers of the circle, as an example of something which can hardly be alienated, can hardly be misused by the official propaganda.

"And so they started putting such lyrics to music, thus subsequently helping them to become hits - of course hits only for the underground community! So thanks to these people Egon Bondy's poetry has also become very popular with rock-n-roll fans."

What status does the Czech underground have today in the 2000s?

"I would say as far as the interest of literary historians or review writers is concerned, it is still on the margin of their interest. Probably there are several reasons for it, one of them being in the fact that the literature produced by the underground writers has never had such high ambitions. These authors were completely unknown and they never had to face censorship, which meant that when they started writing in the early 70s, they immediately started publishing their texts only in the form of samizdat. So of course they didn't have to face any restrictions. They could completely stop thinking about touching taboos or political matters. They could be quite explicit, and that's what probably would make their writings rather unbearable to average readers, who would expect to be treated by writers in a slightly kinder way. So for many readers it's unbearable."


At the age of twenty today

you feel like vomiting all day

But those that are forty of age

have even more to spew at that stage

Only those that reach sixty, senility at hand

can go off peacefully to slumber land

If you'd like to find out more about the samizdat and exile literary production of the 70s and 80s, there is an archive and library called "Libri Prohibiti" in Prague:

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.