Václav Havel in underground poetry exhibit opens in Prague

Plastic People of the Universe

Václav Havel is known as the first president of the Czech Republic, an anti-communist dissident, and a playwright. A new exhibition, which opened in Prague on Tuesday, presents Mr Havel in yet another role – as inspiration for poets from the unofficial Czech culture of the 1970s and ‘80s. Entitled “We had the Underground, Now we Have F-All”, the exhibition features texts by underground Czech poets about Václav Havel.

A bottle of beer and a rohlík, a kind of Czech bread roll, was what the audience was treated to at the launch of an exhibition about Václav Havel in the poetry of Czech underground authors. Organized by the Václav Havel Library, the show, at Galerie Montmartre in Prague’s Old Town, is an homage to the man who spent more than five years in prison for standing up for Czechoslovakia’s unofficial culture. Martin C. Putna is the Library’s programme director, and the curator of the exhibit.

“This is a rather strange exhibition because this is an exhibition of texts, of poetry written by poets of the Czech underground of the 1970s and ‘80s. In these poems, Václav Havel appears as a central personality – not as a historical, but as one of the circle of friends, and perhaps as a mythical hero whose suffering has a central, symbolic meaning for the whole Czech community and nation.”

The exhibition features texts by five poets – Ivan Martin Jirous, the manager of the band the Plastic People of the Universe, Vratislav Brabenec, the band’s saxophone player; singer-songwriter Jaroslav Hutka, catholic poet Fanda Pánek and the thinker and writer Egon Bondy. One of Bondy’s poems provided the title for the exhibit “Měli jsme underground a máme prd, or “We had underground, now we have jack shit”. Written in 1982, when Václav Havel had been in prison for three years, the poem is a lament on the times that followed a large-scale trial of dissidents in 1979. Martin C. Putna explains that in these poems, Václav Havel stands out in a different role than the one that made him famous after the fall of communism.

“Well, I think that the image of Václav Havel which today appears in the media is one of an international personality, of a politician and statesman, and the like. But this is not the whole truth. Besides that, there was and still is Havel as a man with a very original lifestyle, a man of an immense audacity, and a man who had the ability to connect people from different cultural circles.”

Ivan M. Jirous with Václav Havel, photo: CTK
What is known as the Czech underground formed in the late 1960s, after the Soviet led occupation of the country. Perhaps the best known representative of the movement was the band The Plastic People of the Universe. They often put Egon Bondy’s poems to music and were managed by Ivan Martin Jirous. The latter says he does not particularly enjoy these kinds of events.

“These are just poems. These events remind me of school reunions. But I suppose that it makes some sense that things like this are happening.”

Václav Havel and Ivan Martin Jirous first met in 1976, just months before the communist authorities launched a campaign against the Plastic People, which ended in prison sentences for the musicians and their manager. Havel, who was aware of the importance of independent cultural scene and the dangers it posed for the regime, decided to stand up for them. In January 1977, the manifesto Charter 77 was published, calling on the communist authorities to respect human rights. Martin Putna says that this was one of the periods frequently reflected in poetry.

“I would say that the central meaning is that of a symbolical hero, a symbolical martyr. There were three years when these poems appeared most – 1977, which is the year Carter 77 was founded; then it was 1979, the year of a major trial against VONS, an organization to protect prosecuted people, when Havel was imprisoned for four years, and then the year of 1983, which was when he was released from jail. So these three moments were very inspirational for the poets of the time.”

Underground authors did not have the slightest chance of being published in their own country at the time. Some works by Egon Bondy, for instance, were brought out abroad by exile Czech publishers. However, most of them were restricted to a small group of readers, usually the authors’ friends. These were the golden years of Czech samizdat.

“Through the medium of what is known as samizdat. That is a term of Russian origin, meaning “samostoytelnoe izdatelstvo”, something like “elf publishing house”. The publishing method was simply typing. The books were typed and then they passed from hand to hand to other people. All this was of course a clandestine activity, and there were many occasions when people were prosecuted solely on the grounds of typing and distributing the samizdat, these sorts of books.”

Last year, the Czech Republic marked the anniversaries of a number of significant events in the nation’s modern history – from the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 to the Soviet led occupation of the country 50 years later. This year, Czechs will celebrate 20 years since the fall of communism in November 1989, in what is known as the Velvet Revolution. The exhibition on Václav Havel in underground poetry is the first in what will be a long series of events to mark that anniversary.

“No, there is a special occasion. The year of 2009 has just begun and this is the year of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. And it’s obvious now that the year will be full of events, exhibitions, books, reviews, and so on, reflecting the period of the Velvet Revolution and the times before that. So we tried to start the whole thing, to be the first – and apparently, we are.”

The exhibition is open until March 13. For more details, visit the Václav Havel Library website at www.vaclavhavel-knihovna.org/en/.