Paul Wilson’s Bohemian Rhapsodies

Paul Wilson, photo: David Vaughan

Any history of Czechoslovakia’s dissident movement in the 1970s will include more than a passing reference to the writer, editor and translator Paul Wilson. Originally from Canada, he came to the country in 1967, then in his twenties, and he was to stay for ten years, eventually being expelled in 1977 for associating with dissidents and the underground music scene. Paul Wilson was back in Prague last month for the launch of a collection of his essays about this country over the last three decades. He spoke to David Vaughan.

Paul Wilson,  photo: David Vaughan
During the decade he spent in Czechoslovakia, Paul Wilson was far more than just an observer. After witnessing the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of 1968, he became increasingly involved in the dissident movement during the political, social and cultural clampdown of the 70s. His friends included not just writers and thinkers, among them Václav Havel, but also musicians, and he ended up playing with the legendary underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. After his expulsion and return to Canada, Paul continued to promote the work of dissident writers and musicians, helping to draw attention in the West to their plight, and he writes frequently about the Czech Republic to this day. A Czech edition of Paul’s essays has just been published, and was launched – with the surviving members of the Plastic People in attendance – at the Vaclav Havel Library here in Prague. That was where I met him.

Do you have a particularly memory of Havel?

“I do have a very vivid memory of the last time I talked to him, which was March 2011, when I was on my way to Egypt to find out how much like 1989 – or unlike 1989 – the revolution was. I took along some of my translations, especially ‘The Power of the Powerless and Other Essays’, and I asked if I could have his permission to find a translator into Arabic, because I thought the Arabs might be able to use an essay like ‘The Power of the Powerless’. He told me to go ahead. But then he said, ‘But listen, Paul. Do you think the Arabs are ready for democracy?’ And I said, ‘Vašek, do you think the Czechs were ready for democracy in 1989?’ Nobody’s really ready for it, especially when things happen so quickly. So that was the last time I actually talked to him directly. And then I was at his funeral, of course, which was a sad thing, but also quite inspiring, because of the upwelling of feeling that people expressed.”

Photo: CTK
You went to Egypt to see if there were parallels with what you remembered of the Velvet Revolution here. How many did you find?

“I found a few. I don’t know how profound or superficial they were, but the idea that suddenly fear disappears overnight definitely did happen. The incredible sense of empowerment that people felt, because they had brought this dictator down, was even stronger, in fact, because they actually did have a direct influence on the fall of Mubarak. But there were so many differences that I think the parallels the people were drawing, the facile parallels, did not apply. And I think now they’re going through a pretty difficult stage. We’ll see how it turns out, but my fingers are crossed for them.”

As long as it doesn’t end up like 1968…

“There’s no one to invade them. They can only screw it up themselves.”

And we’re here in the Václav Havel Library to launch your book with the rather corny title, “Bohemian Rhapsodies”. Why that title?

“Well, we were looking around for a title that expressed the spirit of what’s in the book and couldn’t find any. I thought it would be interesting to have a title that would be recognizable even to people who didn’t understand English. You call it corny, I call it ironic. There are no rhapsodies in the book. Some of the pieces are quite critical of some of the politics that go on here…”

So there’s clearly an element of tongue-in-cheek in the title…

“There’s definitely an element of tongue-in-cheek, and there’s an even bigger one, because Ivan Jirous, the fabled, now passed-away, artistic director of the Plastic People of the Universe and the godfather of the underground – I don’t know how else I could describe him – hated Queen. Ivan had very strict musical tastes, and, according to some young people I talked to – people who were young then – he forbade them to listen to Queen.”

You’re being very mean, because he’s no longer with us and can’t answer back now that you’ve called this book Bohemian Rhapsodies!

“Now that he’s no longer with us, he can’t answer back, but I am prepared to defend it before him, before whichever throne we stand!”

And what did you decide to put in this collection of essays that you have written over the years about Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic? Czechs are notorious for being very, very sceptical about foreigners who write about them, so you’re exposing yourself to being torn apart.

“Well, exactly, and I’m actually looking forward to it. I gave Viktor Stoilov, the publisher at Torst, a collection of essays, most of which were about Czechoslovakia, but some of which were about other subjects as well, music and philosophy and Marshall McLuhan and all sorts of different subjects, but Martin Machovec, the editor, chose only Czech subjects, and he kept reassuring me that people would find it interesting. But if I’m exposed to a public tearing down, I don’t mind. The pieces were written over the past 30 years and I feel a certain sense of distance from them. And I won’t take it personally if people hate them.”

Can you give us examples of pieces that are in the collection, for example from that period 30 years ago, when there was no light at the end of the tunnel, as far as communist Czechoslovakia was concerned?

“Well, the piece that leads off is called ‘Growing up with Orwell’ and it’s a piece about reading Orwell at various stages in my life. The most important stage, of course, was when I came to Czechoslovakia. So it’s kind of autobiographical, describing how I arrived here and the Orwellian things that I saw around me, or didn’t see around me.”

And you arrived as a young man in 1967…

“I was in my mid-twenties in 1967 and I had just abandoned a master’s thesis on George Orwell, so I decided to strike out and see Orwellian territory for myself.”

In the fall of 1967 […] the signals were very mixed. There were student demonstrations, followed by crackdowns. People told me that there was more freedom of expression than before, but then suddenly a popular magazine would be banned. Wherever I went, though, people seemed happy, or at least expectant. They told me horror stories, but the stories all seemed to refer to the past. Hope had begun to cast its glow everywhere. It was as though the natural optimistic exuberance of the young people I taught in Brno and Prague had infected the whole of society. Whatever was going on, it did not feel like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Oddly enough, though, the visible features of Nineteen Eighty-Four were almost all there: the elevators that didn’t work, the drab clothing, the dismal public art, the chronic shortages of basic goods like toilet paper and potatoes, the rot-gut local rum, the cold filthy trains and crowded trams, the dimly lit streets, the vile cigarettes that spilled their tobacco whenever they were tipped vertically, the banners and the signs flaunting boiler-plate slogans that celebrated the gains of socialism. In the prevailing optimism, however, such things seemed like temporary inconveniences to be borne with sporting good humour until things got better. I didn’t understand that they were not symptoms of a disease, but the disease itself. Nor did I appreciate the grinding humiliations of everyday life, which were largely invisible to me.

The Plastic People of the Universe
“There’s another piece which I wrote in the early eighties about The Plastic People. That was partly because they were still in terrible trouble with the police and I wanted to give them some kind of profile abroad. That was published in a big magazine called Musician. Then there are book reviews and essays on translation and a series of essays I wrote for The New York Review of Books on the elections of 1992 and the break-up of the country. And there’s a lot about Havel, because people asked me to write about him. So I have tried to be fair, but with a certain distance and some of the essays about him are fairly critical.”

There is a danger of hagiography…

“There is, and I don’t think there’s any hagiography in my pieces, when I look back at them. Especially when I read them in Czech, I think that the only fault may be that they’re too kind. Not that I don’t admire the man, but I have a certain distance from him. I have a very intimate knowledge of his work as his translator.”

There’s evidently a great deal you do agree with in Havel, so what are the points that particularly niggle with you?

“What niggles with me is his rejection of political parties, something he may have inherited from Masaryk, and he may also have inherited an ‘allergy’, as Czechs say, against big political parties because of the Communist Party.”

Do you think that the alternative to a party system is intrigue and a lack of clarity on the political scene?

“I think that distancing himself from being involved in party politics weakened him in his negotiations with parliament. When he tried, quite rightly, to get certain laws passed or certain changes made to the constitution, he had no negotiating power, because he had no party behind him. It left him quite helpless sometimes vis-à-vis Václav Klaus.”

Václav Havel
You’ve mentioned your differences with President Havel. Which of his ideas comes closest to your view of the world?

“I think it’s this incredible capacity that Havel had within him to forgive people who asked for forgiveness. In other words, he did not hold it against communists who were sincerely willing to drop their communism and take part in the creation of a new democratic state. He was completely willing to forgive. That willingness not to carry old conflicts into the future is an amazing quality. But I think even deeper than that is his quality of decency. He treated people decently. He treated the secret policemen who were trailing him decently…”

… going out and offering them cups of tea when they were watching him at his country cottage – that sort of thing?

“That’s right, and helping them out of the ditch when they got stuck in the snow and letting him know where he was going in advance. He was kind to them in a very strange way. He couldn’t hold grudges and I think that that sense of his presence really had an impact, especially on his immediate circle – but even among people beyond that.”

And finally, Josef Škvorecký, who was the most famous Czech in your home country of Canada, died recently; a few years ago Professor Gordon Skilling, who was the foremost North American historian of twentieth century Czechoslovakia, also died. Do you feel a growing sense of responsibility on your own shoulders to inform your compatriots about this country?

“I don’t necessarily feel a growing sense of responsibility, because this collection of essays is an example of what I’ve been doing over the years in those very terms: informing the Canadians, Americans and Brits about what was going on here. But the fact is that both Škvorecký and Skilling leave a huge hole behind them, although both of them – and Havel as well, and even Ivan Jirous, who also passed away recently – have left behind them what I would call a completed work. They did not die not having fulfilled their destiny as writers or politicians or whatever they wanted to be. And so the only obligation that I feel, especially in terms of Škvorecký, is that there might be some of his books that may need translating, and certainly I think that I’d like to work on raising Ivan Jirous’s profile because he was very important in this country – more important than a lot of people know…”

… and very hard to translate into English.

“It is, but his story about The Plastic People is pretty straightforward – and it was by translating his essays, that I first started translating in the 1970s.”