New literary award in honour of a Czech who became a true world citizen

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One of the highpoints of last month’s Bookworld international book fair in Prague was the presentation of the first George – or Jiří – Theiner Award. Named after a Czech who devoted much of his life to promoting Czech literature abroad and to drawing attention to the corrosive power of censorship, the award aims not just to promote the memory of George Theiner himself, who died just before the fall of communism, but also to support those who continue in his footsteps. David Vaughan finds out more in this week’s Czech Books.

George Theiner
Before we talk about the George Theiner award, we should say something about the man himself. He spend many years editing the influential magazine Index on Censorship, that tirelessly drew attention to censorship in totalitarian countries, but he also was unparalleled as a translator of Czech literature into English. From his exile in London after 1968, he helped a whole generation of English speakers to get to know the work of Czech writers, whose writings, more often than not, were banned at home. It was through George Theiner that many people first came to know the work of prominent dissidents, from Václav Havel to Ivan Klíma.

For a flavour of his skill as a translator, here is his rendering into English of a short poem by the dissident Catholic poet, Antonín Bartušek, a poem that also embodies the core values that George Theiner himself represents.

THERE ARE CERTAIN LIMITS… There are certain limits,
to exceed which
is to find oneself
somewhere other than habit decrees… There are certain limits,
to exceed which
is to realize the futility
of the dialectics of love and hate… Thus love becomes
an infinitely great love;
hate becomes infinite
death…

Central to George Theiner’s world view was his openness, the seeds of which were sown during his childhood. He was born in 1926. Both his parents were Jewish and intensely patriotic towards Czechoslovakia, cultivating in George a strong sense of right and wrong. They fled the country as the German invasion loomed, and as soon as war broke out George’s father joined the Czechoslovak army in Britain. This meant that George spent his teenage years in England. His son, Pavel Theiner, picks up the story with George returning to Prague after the war.

Pavel Theiner
“He came back at the age of eighteen in 1945. Immediately he joined the Czechoslovak News Agency, ČTK, and after 1948 he was thrown out and sent down the coalmines.”

This was because, once the communists came to power, he was perceived as untrustworthy, having grown up in the West….

“Yes. I think the signs were clear after 1948 that he wouldn’t be allowed to stay. You could say he was quite lucky, because he was sent down the coalmines as one of the people who weren’t trusted with a rifle, and he spent three years in the coalmines. I say lucky because he wasn’t jailed, nor was he sent down the uranium mines, which was clearly the worse option. He met my mother there – she worked in the administration of a coalmine – and then they came back to Prague and lived a fairly normal life. In the latter part of the 1950s he joined Artia, a publishing house in Prague, and in 1962 he took a risk and decided to go freelance, earning his living as a translator of fiction and poetry.”

And how was it that he ended up, after the 1968 Soviet invasion, in Britain again?

“I think he didn’t want his children growing up in what he foresaw as being very hard Stalinist times coming back, and also I think he was just personally drawn to living in England. He’d had enough of being a second-class citizen, which people here were if they didn’t join the Communist Party. He spoke perfect English, without an accent, he had friends there. So, in some ways, I think he looked forward to a life in England and the fact is that it wouldn’t have been a bad decision for him at all, but unfortunately his wife, our mother, died soon after coming to Britain of cancer.”

In many ways it was his work with Index on Censorship that enabled George Theiner to overcome the shock of this loss. It was apt that he should find himself working there, as the magazine itself had its roots in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

August 1968 in Prague
“After the invasion, seven very brave Russians demonstrated in Red Square, including Pavel Litvinov, grandson of the former Soviet foreign minister. It was the contact between Litvinov and Stephen Spender, the famous English poet, which started the organization off. Michael Scammell, a Russian scholar who wrote a book about Solzhenitsyn, was the founding editor of Index on Censorship and a few years later, when my father met him, Scammell offered him a job to come and join Index, which he was extremely pleased to take up.”

And in the years that followed he came to be associated with Index on Censorship more than just about anybody else.

“I think what he managed to create in the office was a very good atmosphere. He was a very strange combination of a person who tried to build bridges rather than destroy them, somebody who was quite mild, not really career-minded as such, but at the same time I think he was very sure of himself in terms of opposing totalitarian regimes and opposing censorship.”

And what were they actually doing at Index on Censorship to help people who were the victims of censorship and to help to draw attention to censorship in countries where there were totalitarian regimes?

“The magazine came out six times a year and from the beginning there were excellent articles, not just from communist Europe, but, also the Greek Colonels – including the Letters from Prison by George Mangakis; one could name a dozen superb articles from Africa. It was the only magazine that solely concentrated on censored writers and intellectuals. In the middle of the magazine it had ‘Index Index’, which was a report, country by country, of who was arrested and so on. If you look at Czechoslovakia, you had reports of people who were arrested and jailed, you had articles by them, people like Ivan Klíma or Ludvik Vaculík. So it was a very important magazine. In the office itself there were researchers, each concentrating on a different part of the world. You had an African researcher, and Asian researcher, and so on.”

Ivan Klíma
One of the things that is so interesting about your father is that he stepped beyond being a representative of Czech dissent and campaigning against censorship in Czechoslovakia, and he came to play a role in the fight against censorship all over the world. The Czech experience was setting an example for many others.

“Yes, I think if you go back to someone like my father, who was born in the 1920s and you look at the society of the time, which was mixed, with Germans, Jews and Czechs – and with mixtures among families who intermarried – this was the world he was born into. Coming from that background makes it almost impossible to be other than tolerant in the ethnic or religious context. He was as much at home with an African as with a Czech and to him it didn’t make an iota of difference. This was what I think was remarkable about him, because this expanded to whether the person was 25 years old or 65 years old or whether they were black or whatever colour. It made no difference to him. This is the environment I was brought up in and I’m extremely grateful for it.”

Tragically, George Theiner died in London just before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, but his work carried on even his death and the collapse of communism one year later. Index on Censorship continues to do very important work in monitoring censorship around the world.

“Yes. Index still very much carries on. It looks at issues of censorship in the West, as well as in Asia and elsewhere. The nature of it has changed, but the primary base of looking at censorship issues has not changed.”

It was in honour of his father’s memory that Pavel decided to establish the George Theiner Award, with the help of Bookworld’s director, Dana Kalinová. Acknowledging his father’s work, Pavel decided that the prize should be given to someone who has helped to promote Czech literature abroad. Nominations were open to all, and the final decision was taken by a distinguished literary jury.

Bookworld fair in Prague
The awards ceremony took place on May 13 in the midst of the busy Bookworld fair in Prague, and several of Pavel Theiner’s former colleagues from Index on Censorship were there. The winner was the Polish translator, Andrzej Jagodzinski, who has devoted years to promoting Czech writing in Poland – in communist times often working underground to translate and publish the work of banned writers. Pavel Theiner feels he was an ideal choice.

“I just saw the clear combination of commitment to Czech literature and translating a lot of our major writers into Polish, as well as clearly a long track record in Poland in the ‘70s and ‘80s in human rights issues and in supporting samizdat, as well as censorship issues and freedom of speech issues. In the end it was a unanimous choice.”

In an impromptu speech on receiving the award, Andrzej Jagodzinski rather touchingly thanked his wife for putting up with so many years of what he described as his infidelity, as he indulged his passion for Czech literature.

There are two reasons why I particularly hope that the George Theiner award will continue to thrive. Firstly, it is a useful reminder of the power of literature, at a time when writers like the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are still being locked up simply for seeking the truth. Secondly, today’s Czech Republic often seems overly introverted and rather provincial, but George Theiner is an example of a Czech who recognized the parallels between the quest for freedom at home and elsewhere in the world. This was confirmed by one of his former colleagues, who came to Prague for the event, the Egyptian historian and campaigner for free speech, Haifaa Khalafallah:

“I think one of the contributions of George Theiner is that he laid the ground for a lot of activism, a lot of consciousness about freedom of speech everywhere, in places you would not think about. You wouldn’t think about George Theiner’s contribution in the United Arab Emirates or Egypt or Qatar, but George Theiner is there, and this is the amazing thing. Actually, right now somebody is writing a short story about George Theiner in Arabic! It’s this momentum, his kindness and his gentle nature – but he also had this wonderful quality of an activist. When it comes to civil freedoms, with all this gentleness, he was as rough as a diamond, he was tough. You know, you couldn’t break him, you couldn’t bend him for any reason.”

And I cannot think of a better tribute to George Theiner than those words of Haifaa Khalafallah, with which to end the programme. If you want to find out more about Index on Censorship, you can go to the magazine’s website www.indexoncensorship.org.