APRIL 4, 2020
BACK IN THE DAY — the early 1960s to be precise — Ludvík Vaculík was one of Czechoslovakia’s leading public intellectuals. Under pressure from him and others, including future luminaries such as Milan Kundera, the governing Communist Party’s policies slowly evolved from Stalinism in the 1950s to “socialism with a human face” by spring 1968. In addition to Vaculík’s day job as a journalist, he wrote novels (The Axe and The Guinea Pigs are both available in English) and composed feuilletons and essays that were beautifully written, often provocative, and increasingly independent of the prevailing communist orthodoxy, which landed him in a lot of trouble when Soviet soldiers and tanks arrived.
His essay “Two Thousand Words,” published in June 1968, cemented his confrontational reputation and was widely cited as a pretext for the Soviets to invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. It was only afterward that Milan Kundera and Václav Havel came to international prominence. And it was Vaculík, not Kundera or Havel, who, through his nonfiction, provided the most nuanced and measured narrative of the political and cultural changes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Unfortunately, from the early 1970s onward, Vaculík’s ability to write fiction deserted him. He suffered a lengthy bout of writer’s block until the poet Jiří Kolář suggested he write about not being able to write. Thus, what began on January 22, 1979, as a remedial diary-keeping exercise listing personal encounters and thoughts, ended on February 2, 1980, as Český snář — A Czech Dreambook.
Almost from the beginning of A Czech Dreambook, it becomes grotesquely clear why Vaculík couldn’t write fiction anymore — he was just too busy doing other stuff. First, there was the not insignificant time spent running the underground publishing company Edice Petlice (Padlock Editions), which published 400 titles in 10 years — a gargantuan achievement for any publishing enterprise, let alone a clandestine one. The work involved is presented here as a never-ending and frustrating chore, an energy-sapping slog through mundane production tasks, editing, delivering texts to and collecting money from subscribers, and, worst of all, dealing with authors.
Maintaining a public political stand opposing a less than democratic government and its institutions was also time-consuming. A Czech Dreambook begins with fellow “dissidents” mulling upon his recently circulated, incendiary essay “Notes on Courage.” Vaculík reports their wide-ranging and often hostile views. Representatives of the Secret Czechoslovak State also acted as critics, but, while Vaculík notes their presence, he tries to stop himself recording their many entanglements. Nevertheless, those entanglements slip into his dreams, which then enter the Dreambook.
Vaculík’s other time-consuming passions include his family, gardening, his neighbors, his friends, his fellow oppositionists (though their number dwindles as the book continues), and his growing number of lovers. One can only admire his determination to live what he considered a “normal life of the mind,” to continue writing and doing whatever else he could to cajole, encourage, and occasionally provoke the dissident community into thinking about how best to oppose the government rather than campaigning blindly and ending up in jail. And in addition to actually making all that stuff happen, he also wrote about it.
New English readers will miss another gentle but important provocation. The original Czech title, Český snář, refers to a Dreambook that is consulted rather than used for keeping a dream diary. By recording and publishing his thoughts, Vaculík was once again provoking his readers, family, and friends, this time by giving them a mirror reflecting what he regarded as the nightmare of the present rather than a guidebook offering an explanation or comfort for the future. A Czech Dreambook is not a “light read”; its main text weighs in at 536 pages split into dated diary-like chapters. However, it is an exceptionally compelling account of a mind and an era, presented here in English for the first time, 40 years after it was completed.
With such distance in time and removed once again by translation, today’s reader has the opportunity to enjoy a few historical parlor games within the text. For example, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on Saturday, October 13, 1979. (If you must know, it was my 14th birthday, and I went to see the movie Where Eagles Dare with some friends.) In contrast, Vaculík begins his entry for that date: “I am not interested any more in yet another special broadcast from Voice of America about the Pope’s visit.” This leads to finding “beautiful music” from Radio Budapest and musing upon the similarities between “Magyar music” and the “Moravian Slovak music” of his childhood, which was a long way from Prague. He then ruminates about his garden and a visit from a friend called Pavel; their discussion of recent government-sponsored (fake) media news relating to the activities of the (banned) author Pavel Kohout; the philosophy of random arrest (intimidation); and how he felt “discreetly ashamed” after Pavel paid him a sincere compliment. Even on his quiet days, Vaculík packs a lot in.
A further intriguing historical feature of Vaculík’s Dreambook is the melancholy presence of the two figures who came to represent the Soviet invasion era and its aftermath of “normalization” to an international audience: Milan Kundera and Václav Havel. Both “characters” haunt the text. Havel, in jail at the time, is restricted to cameo appearances only, mentioned in passing by mutual friends. Vaculík refers to him half-joking, half-mocking as “Mr Václav.” Kundera makes two appearances recorded in comments published in foreign newspapers, but it is in his third and final appearance that he delivers a coup de grâce in the form of an interview published in Frankfurter Rundschau. In it, Kundera states “the Czechs’ fate mirrors the fate of humanity as a whole, in which the greatest injustice is not violence but oblivion.”
Kundera’s wounding, nihilistic, brutal, self-aggrandizing collection of clever bons mots upset Vaculík. He even observes that engaging with Kundera’s views “is no way to finish my book.” It is an irony, and a real shame, that the best Vaculík’s many international admirers can hope for is that his work will be compared to that of Milan Kundera and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a fine author of “the political novel.” A more considered view of A Czech Dreambook would be to regard it as a startling and original work of art describing the mess and the joy of being human.
The book itself is handsomely presented, and bibliophiles please note: the hardback edition has a silk ribbon marker, a lovely touch. Jonathan Bolton’s afterword, titled “How to Read A Czech Dreambook,” provides valuable insight into the author’s complex life and nuanced political thoughts, which are revealed too elliptically in the text to draw easy conclusions. Bolton, a Harvard academic, reveals that not all the events in the narrative are necessarily true and that many of the “characters” featured have differing recollections. He also touches on what he describes as Vaculík’s “patriarchal streak that runs through much of his thinking.” This is the scholar’s way of warning the reader to buckle up and grit his or her teeth for certain sections in the book that have not aged well. Vaculík made extra efforts to provoke his readers, whether they be fellow dissidents, friends, family, lovers, or even his secret police interrogators. Not all of his “characters” forgave his depictions. For readers seeking to learn more, Bolton’s monograph, Worlds of Dissent, is a stunning, heroic example of scholarship of that era.
It is here that I must reveal my own relationship with this text. I first encountered it in the early 1990s while I was studying Czech in Prague. The history of the English translation is a long and frustrating one, which began in 1990 but is now joyfully resolved with this beautiful volume. As Gerald Turner reveals in his translator’s note, my publishing firm, Jantar, was the first publisher to make a concrete proposal in 2015. Gerald Turner’s English translation reduced me to tears of laughter in many sections, but in the end Jantar was unable to see the project through. I can only thank Karolinum Press for stepping in and realizing the full potential of A Czech Dreambook. The fact that it took a further five years to publish it provides unambiguous evidence of the challenges it poses for any publisher.
There is a world-class list of intellectuals who have read some or all of the text in a variety of languages over the last four decades. As already mentioned, their reactions ranged widely, but I most heartily agree with Tom Stoppard’s assessment: “An unclassifiable book — history as memoir, through the imagination of an artist.”