Radim Kopac and the joys of Czech Surrealism

Radim Kopac

Today I'm joined by Radim Kopac, who is one of the better known figures of the Prague literary scene. Radim was born in 1976. He studied media theory at Charles University, and works as a journalist. He is involved with Czech Radio, and writes book reviews and essays; he has also often helped other authors, who are trying to publish their books. Radim is well known as editor of the literary magazine "Intelektual".

Radim Kopac
Well, given that we're a literary programme and we talk about Czech writing, let's start with a short reading from one of your favourite poets, the great 20th century Czech surrealist poet, Vitezslav Nezval. I'm just going to read a few lines from his collection "Praha s prsty deste" - Prague with fingers of rain would be a literal translation.

I bend over forgotten corners Prague

woven by your gloomy splendour

smoke of inns in which the chirping of birds is lost

evening like a harmonica player makes the weeping doors creak

long fat keys lock up indecipherable things

and footsteps scatter like a broken rosary.

Nezval is notoriously difficult to translate from Czech because his language is so rich and so full of nuances, isn't it?

Literary magazine 'Intelektual'
"It is. When I first met his poetry, when I read his first book I was really fascinated by his imagination. He started as a poetist in 1922 and at the end of the 20s he was twice or three times in Paris. And there he was in contact with the Parisian surrealists like Benjamin Peret and Andre Breton, and when he came home to the Czech Republic he started to write fascinating surrealist poetry and I think that after 70 years it's still so living, it's still so fascinating and so inspiring for me, and not only for me but for many poets, book reviewers, critics and writers."

So you think that Nezval and the poets of the surrealist period in the Czech Republic are enjoying a kind of renaissance at the moment.

"Maybe it's not a renaissance, it's still living, because surrealism was the theme of the day in the 60s and the 90s and nowadays there are some 20-30 people who consider themselves as surrealists. That's not a renaissance, it's a continuing fascination."

Which brings us to the subject of the magazine that you edit. It's got the wonderful title "Intelektual" - which means the same in Czech as in English. This is where a lot of contemporary Czech writers are able to publish, isn't it. Can you tell me something about the magazine?

"We wanted to do a magazine somewhere on the edge between literature and art, photography, painting and drawing, and somewhere on the edge between erotic literature, erotic art and surrealism."

Well, one of the problems from the point of view of this programme is that very little of the work of these writers has been translated into English - or at least in any quality that would do them justice - so I think that we'll return to Vitezslav Nezval and we can look at one of his poems from a little bit earlier than the poem we heard at the beginning - this is an extract from his poem from the mid 1920s, "Edison". I'll read a couple of verses.

Life is but once and then there is dark night

we are dying in the ruins of light

like day-flies, like a flash of lightning

And now the sky beyond the trees is brightening

electric wires tremble in the snow

now promenades and corsos are aglow

now our souls are viewed on the X-ray screen

like ichthyosauri from the pliocene

now the clock's hand is moving towards six

now we go off together to the flicks

now spectral shades of gamblers and of witches

are put to flight by our electric switches

and now applause and cheers ring through the house

and Thomas Edison now takes his bows

The party's over now your soul is dark

the guests have left and you are back at work

Look at those inventors and at their resources

yet the stars have not deviated from their courses

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn't work nor even energy

this is adventure as on the high seas

locking oneself in one's laboratories

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn't work it's poetry

It's intention and a bit of accident

to become one's country's president

to become a poet who's outstripped you all

to become a songbird holding you in thrall

to be always lucky at roulette

to be the discoverer of a new planet

A thousand apples have dropped in profusion

but only Newton drew the right conclusion

A thousand people have had epileptic seizures

Saint Paul alone had his converting vision

A thousand nameless deaf have sought a haven

but only one of them was Beethoven

A thousand madmen have considered ways

but only Nero could set Rome ablaze

A thousand inventions come to us each season

but only one of them was that of Edison

That poem is typical of Nezval, isn't it, in that it combines the language of the everyday with the language of high poetry?

"Yes it is. As we were saying before, Nezval mixes everyday reality with his fascinating imagination, with his associations."

Do you have a feeling that maybe in today's Czech Republic, which is very much about fast-living, materialism, getting on, that maybe there's a lack of poetic inspiration, of poetic imagination, that we're maybe not even encouraged to think in these ways?

"I'm not a sociologist, so I do not know, but I think more and more publishing houses are starting to publish new Czech poetry, and more and more authors are starting to write. Poets have their inspiration in every case, in the fast life, in the post-modern world, in the avant-garde or the modern world."

And is there the same political edge, that there was in Nezval and the writers of the time, who were also at the avant-garde of the political left?

"Nezval and all the poetists and surrealists were on the left side. They were very into politics. It's not the same today. I think that young authors absolutely do not care about what is happening in government, who is ruling the state and stuff like that."

Let's return again to Nezval and his poem "Rabbi Loew", referring to the famous 16th century Prague Rabbi. Once again this is from "Praha s prsty deste".

You sought poetry and found legend

so they are good for something the stories about Rabbi Loew

it is your story poetry

it is your story how could I mistake you you

reach out to me from faraway centuries

it was you who ventured onto the Stone Bridge

to obtain an audience with the Emperor

the mob greets you with stones but on your clothes

flowers fall not mud

your house is not like other dwellings

you are a lion and you are grape

you bring things of clay to life, and make them willful creatures

into each of their mouths you place the shem

its power lasting a century or a week

needing renewal every Friday

and yet poetry why did you kill the Golem

it is terrible to wipe the mysterious sign from one's forehead

and be carried to the attic and crumble into dust

jealous you lie in wait for Death and take from its hand

the letters that list your name amongst the doomed

once you escape but in the end you too poetry will find

death hidden in a rose.

I think that listeners who are familiar with Prague legend will find many familiar references in that poem. It's strange, isn't it, how many writers in how many different genres, have been inspired in one way or another by Prague legend.

"I think Prague is inspiring not only for writers, but also for photographers. Maybe we could compare it with Paris. I think Prague is on the same level, but I do not know why it is so inspiring. Maybe it is because of the magic atmosphere in the narrow streets of the Old Town, of the legend, of its history, but I'm not able to answer this question completely. I don't know"

All that legend and the magic of the Old Town often seems very detached from the everyday lives of Czechs, doesn't it. It's not something that's an integral, interwoven part of the way people lead their lives here in Prague, is it?

"I think it's the same as reading books, or being a poet, it also has nothing to do with regular life - like waking up in the morning, going to work and back. You have to have time to write poetry, and to be alone, to read books. So it's the same to walk in the streets of old Prague and see the pictures of the previous ages, but you have to concentrated, you have to be concerned."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.