Paul Wilson: Pure humour without jokes in 1970s Prague

Paul Wilson, photo: David Vaughan

Last week the Václav Havel Library hosted the second of a series of interviews with people who knew and worked with Havel. This month’s guest was the Canadian Paul Wilson, who has translated much of Havel’s work and lived in Prague from 1967 to 1977. He witnessed the Soviet-led invasion, and in the years that followed he became part of the Czech underground music scene, until he was ultimately expelled from the country. Few people in the English-speaking world can claim to be as steeped in the life and culture of Czechoslovakia in the last two decades of communist rule as Paul Wilson. In Czech Books this week, we bring you extracts from his conversation with David Vaughan.

Paul Wilson,  photo: David Vaughan
In the early 1970s Paul Wilson found himself playing in the Czech underground band The Plastic People of the Universe. This was to be decisive moment in his life. It was the arrest of members of the band in 1976 that became the catalyst for the launch of Charter 77 and ultimately led to Paul’s forced return to Canada. He went on to champion Czechoslovakia’s beleaguered dissident community as a journalist but he is best known for his translations of the work of many of Czechoslovakia’s most important writers of the second half of the 20th century, including Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma, Bohumil Hrabal and above all, Václav Havel. I started our conversation by asking about his life as a translator.

There used to be a typing error on the Václav Havel Library website referring to you as a “translation” of Czech. I rather like it because it conjures up an idea that if you translate writers for thirty or forty years, you might become, by a process of osmosis, a translation of the people you translate! Has that happened to a certain extent?

“One thing does happen when you learn a new language. Every language has its own kind of physical dynamic and when I’m speaking Czech I use different body language than when I’m speaking English.”

Have you noticed which body language is different?

“Well, my wife, who doesn’t understand Czech, says that I’m much more animated when I’m on the phone speaking to my Czech friends. Somebody wrote a book on translation in which they put forward a theory that language is physical as well as vocal and that every language has its own physicality, so, in that sense, when I speak Czech, I feel that I’ve been translated.”

Was there something in your childhood that launched your relationship to Czechoslovakia?

“There was nothing in my childhood whatsoever that had anything to do with Czechoslovakia and certainly nothing that had anything to do with translation. I know that there are children who want to grow up to be writers and children who want to be playwrights or firemen, but I don’t think there’s ever been a child who has said: ‘I want to be a translator when I grow up!’ It just doesn’t happen. I actually didn’t know very much about Czechoslovakia at all. I was in the position of all those people who thought it was a far off country that nobody knew much about until I came to England. I was in London at the time of Swinging London. The Beatles were putting out these great records, The Who were just starting to play, girls wore plastic, and it was a very interesting time.”

George Orwell
In the 1960s it was also still the London that George Orwell had written about earlier, with great contrasts between wealth and poverty.

“I lived in a very poor part of London for a couple of years that was very close to where Orwell had lived – in Kentish Town – and when I started reading him, I realized that this vision he had of England under totalitarian socialism was actually pretty much what he was seeing around him – these very depressed, poor and dirty neighbourhoods – and with the threat of atomic war and all that. It was something that he drew from real life. And when I came to Czechoslovakia I talked to Czechs who thought he was a great prophet, who thought that he was seeing the future, but he was just looking around him, observing and extrapolating from that.”

And Orwell has been one of your lifelong obsessions, I think. He has accompanied you through your career.

“I wouldn’t say I was obsessed about anything, but he’s someone I first read when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I thought it was all about sex. I have a photograph in my computer, an edition of ‘1984’ that came out probably in 1951 or 1952, and it depicts a woman, whose breasts are bursting out of her jacket, with somebody leering at her. And that’s how I read it!”

Some years later as a student Paul ended up writing a postgraduate thesis on Orwell, but instead of completing it he came to Czechoslovakia, after being offered a job teaching English. This was in 1967, just before Alexander Dubček became Communist Party Secretary and set into motion the reforms of the Prague Spring. Paul remained in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968 and witnessed the gradually erosion of reforms, during the period that came to be known as “normalization”. In the grey atmosphere of the early 70s, he found the anarchic energy of the underground music scene irresistible. He got to know the members of The Plastic People of the Universe, which revolved around the band’s larger-than-life artistic director, Ivan Martin Jirous.

“It was about being yourself, doing what you liked. One of the great things about the Plastic People was that they started up in the fall of 1968 when things were really bad – the country had just been invaded – and they were starting up a rock band. There was an almost childlike optimism that was really attractive and they didn’t care about the politics. They wanted to make music. That became politicized because eventually the police took an interest and I think the reason why that group – it wasn’t even a movement – ended up being so powerful was because the police tried to suppress it. It created a kind of pressure-cooker situation where, if they’d simply ignored the Plastic People, that whole scene wouldn’t have happened. “

Plastic People of the Universe,  photo: Globus Music
And when did you become part of all that?

“It was 1970 and there was a group of people called the “crusader school of pure humour without jokes” [křižovnická škola čistého humoru bez vtipů]. We used to meet at a pub which is now a fashion store – U Svitáků it was called – and they decided that they were going to sing the repertoire entirely in English and it would be the repertoire of The Velvet Underground and The Fugs. They needed someone to transcribe the texts and they needed someone who knew what the texts meant and they needed someone who could sing them. And so I was very useful at that point in the development of the band although I don’t think I contributed very much to it musically. But then it seemed to me foolish to be singing in English when there were so many keen fans who would travel half way across the country to hear us play, and we were singing in a language that they didn’t really understand. And then, along comes Egon Bondy and he becomes the lyricist for the band and Milan ‘Mejla’ Hlavsa began to compose music to which these poems could be set.”

What happened? Why did you have to leave the country?

“First of all they arrested seventeen or eighteen people, not just in the Plastic People but also in other musical groups in the underground. There were two trials. Havel and Jirous actually met, I think it was in March 1976, and they had an all-night session where they drank a lot of wine or beer or whatever and Havel suddenly understood that what was happening in the underground was a realization of one of his basic ideas, which was that you cannot actually stop society from functioning. You can put a lid on it but you can’t stop it from bubbling up. And Havel was scheduled to come to one of the underground concerts, and just before it happened – and I think there’s a connection here – the police rounded up all these people in the underground. Then Havel and his people came to their defence. A lot of people were arrested, but all but seven were released and the sentences that the seven got were not as heavy as they had thought they would get. So the ‘success’ of that effort led to the foundation of Charter 77. So there’s a connection there.”

Have you seen the StB [secret police] file on you?

“Yes, I have.”

Is it interesting?

Ivan Martin Jirous,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“The file that I have is very thin. It’s only about thirty pages. I thought they would be watching me like a hawk from the time I first arrived in 1967, but apparently, if they did and if there were files, they’ve destroyed them. But at a certain point in early 1977, the word came down from somewhere that they wanted to take a look at me and that means following me around, tapping the telephone, doing all this obvious surveillance. And then at a certain point the knock comes on the door at five o’clock in the morning and they take you down to the police station. They interrogated me – the usual stuff that they do…”

You say “the usual stuff that they do” but not many Canadians have experienced that usual stuff!

“No, but so many of my friends had been interrogated that there was a kind of culture of what you do when the police question you, what you say and what you don’t say. The best advice that I got was: Don’t tell them anything. So maybe that’s why my file is so thin.”

Not long afterwards Paul Wilson was expelled from Czechoslovakia. Back in Canada he worked as a journalist, often drawing attention to the plight of Czech and Slovak musicians and writers, and at the same time he became a prolific translator of contemporary Czech writing. Our conversation turned to his translations of Havel, and I asked him to what extent he feels that Havel’s plays have dated. He pointed to some very successful recent productions of one of Havel’s most famous plays, The Memorandum.

“They were kids in their twenties and early thirties and they came to Havel not because he was famous, but they came to him because they actually liked the play. They liked The Memorandum – they thought it was funny, they thought it was relevant, and they put it on. They put it on in the most stunning way. The clarity of their understanding of what that play is about is really astonishing. To me that’s a tremendous sign of hope that there is something in his writing that transcends the period it was written in.”

Could you summarize briefly what happens in the play?

“The Memorandum is set in an office setting and it starts off with a man reading a memo in gibberish. He asks his secretary what it is and she explains that it’s the new official language, Ptydepe. So he goes around and tries to get the memo translated, and he runs into the most awful bureaucratic blockades, because they say: ‘Yes, I can translate it, but I can’t translate it unless I have an official statement from somebody and you have to have official ID and you have to be vetted.’ So he finds it’s impossible to get this memo translated. It’s a farce, but in the course of the play the director is replaced by his deputy, who is in favour of bringing this new language in and uses it as a lever to get him out of his job, so there is a power struggle which revolves around this language. For some reason or other, these young people who put it on in Toronto, all had jobs working for the government. The director of the play was working for a government organization where he went through a period of ‘repositioning’, where they restructured the whole ministry he was working in. So they brought in all these new expressions and new language. And he was completely lost in the whole thing. He read this play and said: ‘This is my life. I have to put it on stage.’”

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
Can you read us a brief extract from your translation of the play?

“He finally gets his memo translated and what the memo says is ‘Please put a stop to Ptydepe.’ We’re really happy with the way you’re running this agency.’ And so he barges into his former deputy’s office and says, ‘I’m taking over again,’ and then he wanders through the classroom and the same teacher is teaching a new artificial language. So, instead of getting rid of Ptydepe they bring in a new one called Chorukor. The lecture says that Ptydepe was too complicated so Chorukor is based on different principles, and the principle is that the words sound very much alike.”

This is the teacher speaking:

PEŘINA: Of course. In Chorukor, Monday is ilopagar, Tuesday ilopager, Wednesday ilopagur, Thursday ilopagir, Friday ilopageur, Saturday ilopagoor. How do you think Sunday is in Chorukor? Hmm? (Only Kalous moves) So Kalous! KALOUS: (standing up) Ilopagor. (he sits down) PEŘINA: Correct, Kalous! Good point! Isn't it easy?

Then he goes on to say – and this is the very funny part of it – that if you send a memo which says that we will have a meeting on Thursday and you accidentally write Tuesday, nothing bad has happened, because the meeting will still take place. It will take place two days earlier and that will expedite the whole issue the meeting was about. So this is an actual advantage in the ambiguity of this language.”

I’m sure that for anyone who has ever worked in any bureaucratic institution, all this sounds just as relevant today as it was in Czechoslovakia when Havel wrote the play nearly fifty years ago.

We have been hearing extracts from my conversation with the Canadian translator and journalist, Paul Wilson, in front of an audience at the Václav Havel Library on 15 May 2014.