In search of a lost book: a novel re-emerges after nearly a quarter of a century

Jiri Pehe

If you listen to Radio Prague regularly you will probably be familiar with the political scientist and academic Jiri Pehe, who has written widely on political developments in the Czech Republic over recent years and is often interviewed on our programme. You may also remember that for several years in the second half of the 1990s he was an advisor to President Vaclav Havel. It is also quite possible that you will have come across some of his essays on Czech literature. But it will probably be as much a surprise to you as it was to me that Jiri Pehe is also a novelist.

He started writing fiction as a young man back in the early 1980s, just after he had emigrated from communist Czechoslovakia to New York. After studying law, philosophy and political sciences he moved to Munich in 1988, where he worked for Radio Free Europe, until returning to Prague in the mid 1990s. But it is only now that his first novel has been published. It is called "Na okraji zmizeleho", which translates literally as "on the edge of the disappeared". For this week's Czech Books Jiri Pehe tells us more about the novel.

"If I should describe it in one sentence it's a book about identity. This is the story of a disappeared person, whose life story is being retold by a close friend who is searching for him and realizes how insufficient his memory and the memory of other people is in reconstituting the existence of this lost person. In the process he discovers himself and realizes how little he knows about himself and his own past."

In the crack that appears for a moment in the white sea of cloud below the belly of the plane, I glimpse the coast of America. A brown strip of land, a formless honeycomb washed by the grey of the ocean. Presently the land disappears like a phantasm, swallowed by the milky mist. For a moment I reflect that in a few hours I shall be home in New York, but then a vague sense of anxiety overcomes me. It creeps into my consciousness quietly, inconspicuously like a snake. Suddenly it takes form. It has a face and a name: Josef. For a number of weeks this face and name have refused to leave me alone. Even though at that moment on the plane there was no way I could have known what I know now several days later, they aroused in me a vague sense of unpleasant foreboding.

"The book has a plot which could be described as a detective plot, a mystery. It is the story of a disappeared person who leaves behind him a small mountain of notes and biographical sketches and perhaps pieces of what could be a novel. All of this is discovered by an old friend of his, a professor of philosophy, who becomes obsessed with trying to reconstitute the identity of this lost person, because he hopes that in the process he will find some leads as to where this person could have disappeared. So there is a detective plot, which is quite strong, but what was really important to me about this book was the story beneath this plot. It's a story of life and possible answers to questions such as who are we, where do we come from and all those basic questions that people have kept asking themselves for centuries and thousands of years."

The novel also has a political aspect. The man who searching is an émigré, who went into exile many years ago. The person he is searching for is the son of a friend of his who decided to stay and suffered all the consequences of being in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s under Stalinism and eventually died as a consequence.

"Both main characters in this book are exiles or émigrés but each of them in a different way. The professor is someone who has lived almost his whole life in the United States. He left Czechoslovakia as a young man after World War II, after the communist putsch to be precise, and he is Americanized to a large extent, and does not really know very much about Czechoslovakia and the communist regime. But he is deeply marked by the death of his friend, who decided to stay in Czechoslovakia, and when the son of his friend disappears - or first appears in New York as an émigré and then after a few years disappears - he decides to search for him. During this search he is discovering much about himself, about those forty years he spent in the United States and his whole life."

Recently the idea has kept haunting me that I should make one last trip to Prague. I have often wanted to go; in 1968 I had all but got onto the plane when the occupation came. I wanted once more to see the city where I had grown up and which I remember as my home. Now I am drawn to Prague by the irrational feeling that it might be the one place where I can understand what happened to Josef. Or that I might even meet Josef!

I know it does not make sense. Yet I am driven by a stronger subconscious desire to challenge the possibility that I might have invented Josef, if not completely, then at least in part. Prague must hold some more evidence of his existence. But do I need further proof? After all, I have spoken to people who knew Josef, to people who loved him. I can paw over his notes, I met him many times, and I remember much of what we said to each other. There are records of his statements to the police. Yes, I realize all this, but it is not about reconstituting a person named Josef, it is a question of his very existence.

Although the book has been published now, it was written more than twenty years ago.

"The book has its own story, which is also interesting. I myself was an émigré. I fled Czechoslovakia in 1981 and shortly afterwards I started writing this book in the United States. I spent about three years writing. At the same time I was a student and I worked in various jobs in the United States, and I kept writing this book. I finished the book in 1985 and then the manuscript really quite mysteriously disappeared. I was probably too eager to put things in order and in doing so I put it in a box, which I was using for clippings from various newspapers and magazines, interesting articles.

"This box then traveled with me from the United States when I moved from New York to Munich in 1988, and then from Munich to the Czech Republic in 1994. The box traveled with me without my really knowing it. It was probably always loaded by removers with other boxes and with other stuff, and I discovered this box with the manuscript in it 2005, that means a year ago, when I was moving in Prague. I should say that before that I had been moving in Prague several times as well, never really looking. So I discovered this manuscript by total accident, coincidence, and I read it and thought that the book had something to tell about a certain period of time and about other things. I gave it to several friends who said, 'Well, you have to publish it', and so I did. But as I say in the foreword this book is partly published because it asked for it. Its fate is so strange that it would almost be a sin not to publish it."

The fate of the book in a way reflects its subject matter, with its theme of disappearing and returning in different places and different times.

"The title of the book is also a reflection on the fate of the book itself, because the book, just like the main character in it, disappeared, and then, unlike the main character, reappeared."

You were in your twenties when you wrote the book. Reading back now that you have rediscovered the manuscript, were there things that you felt embarrassed by? And were you tempted to tinker with the script? You say that you published the book just as it was, as a historical document from a period in your life.

"Of course I was tempted to make changes. When you read something that you wrote twenty-five years ago you feel that certain parts should have been written in a different way and of course you have had all kinds of experiences, which you didn't have then. You should be wiser when you are fifty. And so I certainly felt that I would write certain parts of the book in a different way today.

"But then I thought that this was a book that waited in a box, hidden from the world for twenty-five years, and it would not be right to change it. It is a testimony, which was written during a certain period. It narrates the story of the communist era, and I felt that to rewrite it today from the point of view of someone who already knows how it all ended, who already knows about the collapse of communism and all those things that the main characters in the book couldn't know about, would really not be right. So at the risk of being criticized by reviewers for adolescence and immaturity and things of that sort, I decided to publish the book as it was. Moreover I have been writing another novel, and whatever I want to say from the position of someone who is fifty years old, I can say in this new novel."

Would a reader who will read the second novel identify your voice from the first novel? The political realities have changed utterly since the mid 1980s. You are now not twenty-five but fifty, so to what extent do you think that your writing style or your preoccupations have shifted?

"It is difficult to say. I should perhaps mention that in this first book the master voice is that of an old professor, which was really difficult for me to write when I was twenty-six years old. People who have read the book tell me that actually it is for them almost incredible that I managed to capture the mind and voice of someone who is seventy years old. So it was certainly someone who wasn't me who narrates this book. The person who is more myself is the second person, the young man who disappears.

"But my second novel is a bit more complicated because it is a story of the twentieth century in three different letters that members of the same family write to their descendants. So there are three different voices that narrate this book, and one of them is female, which is really very difficult to write. I'm struggling with it but it's an experiment and I am really enjoying it."

Is the book set here in the Czech Republic?

"The second book is set partly in what used to be Czechoslovakia, partly in Russia, because my grandfather, who is the model for one of the heroes, was a Czech Legionnaire in Russia, who traveled around the world after World War I, and only came back in 1921 through Russia and then the United States. The third character is more contemporary and it is someone whose fate resembles mine: that means an émigré who went to the United States and came back. So I would say that the book really spans the globe [laughs]."