Ludvík Vaculík came to literature as a member of the Czech Communist Party and Party journalist; he belonged to that wing of the Party which worked in the late 1960s for democratic reform. His second novel, Sekyra (1966; The Axe), is an extremely personal account of his disillusionment as a Party journalist with the socialist order.
Vaculík took part in the Czechoslovak struggle for democracy and independence from the grasp of Soviet power; he composed the major manifesto of the liberation movement, “Dva tisíce slov” (1968; Two thousand words). But the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces in August 1968 brought his exclusion from the Party and, though he was not arrested at the time, he was deprived of his opportunity to publish, as either a
journalist or a writer of fiction. Still, all literary avenues were not closed to him, since a substantial literature of samizdat had grown up in Czechoslovakia, with typewriters and carbon paper used to produce works of literature at home, without censorship. Vaculik soon placed himself at the head of this effort, known in Czechoslovakia under the name of the largest group of these home-produced publications as Petlice (“the padlock”). He also published abroad, which remained technically legal in Czechoslovakia. Morčata (in German, 1971, in Czech, 1973; The Guinea Pigs), his third novel, is a surreal, Kafkaesque fantasy of man’s calculated inhumanity to defenseless pets, an obvious allegory of totalitarian dictatorship.
In spite of the fact that Vaculík possessed outlets for publication, he had no income and no way of dealing with the repressive Czechoslovak regime, which eventually did imprison him for several months. His earlier work suggested that journalism was the answer: why not revive a traditional Czech form of free journalistic expression? And, since even in samizdat writings he was hardly free to express everything he wished, why not employ the traditional Czech literary techniques of irony and understatement to make his points by indirection?
Vaculík proceeded to revive the traditional Czech feuilleton, a form cultivated with success by Jan Neruda and Karel Čapek. The Czech feuilleton is a kind of newspaper column, which can be more or less journalistic in style and manner, or more or less literary. At times it approaches the essay in its length, preoccupation with style and stylistic devices, and introspective manner. Vaculík’s feuilletons are probably less essaylike than certain of Karel Čapek’s, but their use of irony and understatement and their introspection fully entitle us to call them essays.
Vaculík sought literary action, for effectively he was leading a political crusade. He organized a network of Petlice correspondents who exchanged home-produced feuilletons, editing them in collections that could be circulated at home or sent abroad for publication.
He produced his own feuilletons in cycles of roughly 12 per year. Beginning in 1976, he began each annual cycle with a piece called “Jaro je tady” (Spring is here), presumably a reference to the “Prague Spring,” the name by which the Czech struggle for liberation that took place in Spring 1968 was known. Similarly, each annual cycle includes a piece on “August” (srpen), the monthly anniversary of the Soviet invasion which crushed Czech liberties in 1968. The “Spring” pieces do contain the lyricism about nature we might expect, as well as an appeal to a paganesque mythology of creative growth and strength. However, in neither case is there a sense of commemoration of a political movement or of the anniversaries of the events they mark.
The use of devices such as irony or understatement is so traditional in Czech literature that positive meanings, expected and called for in other patriotic and democratic literature, are fully present and comprehensible, despite the absence of literal statements.
The “Spring” pieces at once recall the Prague Spring to the attentive Czech reader.
Moreover, understated irony makes possible the inversion of other value systems: the feuilleton “Šálek kávy při výslechu” (1977; “A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator”) shows the secret police interrogator treating the author with the utmost kindness and consideration, while the author replies with the greatest tact and delicacy; these inversions actually serve to suggest the real brutality of the moment depicted.
The “narrative” or “story” type of this feuilleton is less common for Vaculík than a “lyric” type more typical of the essay. This has already been illustrated in the cycle of “Spring” feuilletons. Others are lyric meditations, e.g. “Poznámky o statečnosti” (1978; On heroism), which reflects on whether one would have the heroism to go to prison for personal beliefs. This problem is posed as purely hypothetical, though it must have been very real for its author. Another lyric meditation, despite minimal “story” elements, is “Feuilleton o 1. Máji 1975” (1975; The first of May), which takes its start from Neruda’s similarly named feuilleton, hailing the emerging triumph of the working class, but ending bathetically with the all-powerful communist president Husak attempting to speak over a broken loudspeaker that perversely remains silent.
Vaculík’s feuilletons lost some of their urgency and significance after December 1989, when the Czechs and Slovaks asserted their independence. Still, the new Republic was dogged by many political and social problems; throughout these he has continued to produce his feuilletons at the same pace. He has thus revived for his people a leading Czech literary genre, one full of understatement and irony, a genre that has lasted well into the time of the re-creation of a new young democratic republic.
Born 23 July 1926 in Brumov, Moravia. Studied at the Commerce Academy for International Business, 1944–46; High School for Social and Political Sciences, Prague, 1946–51, B.S., 1951. Worked in a Bata shoe factory, Zlin and Zurc, 1941–43; teacher, until 1949, and tutor, 1950–51. Member of the Communist Party, 1946–68: expelled.
Married Marie Komárková, 1949: three sons. Editor, Rudé Pravo publishers, 1953–57, Beseda Venkovské Rodiny (Native rural journal) 1957–59, Literární Noviny (Literary journal), 1966–69, and Literární Listy (Literary papers), 1968–69; worked for Czechoslovak Radio, Prague, 1959–66; organizer of Edice Petlice (Padlock editions) samizdat publishing. Arrested and imprisoned for giving an interview to the BBC, 1973.
Awards: Československý Spisovatel (publishers)
Award, 1967; George Orwell Prize, 1976.
Essays and Related Prose
Milí spolužáci! Vybor písemných prací, 1939–1979, 2 vols., 1986
A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator: The Prague Chronicles, translated by George Theiner, 1987
Jaro je tady: Fejetony z let, 1981–1987, 1988
Srpnový rok: Fejetony z roku 1988, 1989
Stará dáma se baví, 1990
Jak se dela chalpec, 1993
Other writings: four novels (Rušný dům, 1963; Sekyra [The Axe], 1966; Morčata [The Guinea Pigs], in German, 1971, in Czech, 1973; Český snář, 1980).
Harkins, William E., “The New Czechoslovak Feuilleton—A Literary Genre Revived,” Ulbandus Review 1, no. 2 (Spring 1978): 50–57
Liehm, Antonin J., The Politics of Culture, New York: Grove Press, 1968:181–201
Liehm, Antonin J., “Ludvík Vaculík and His Novel The Axe,” in Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, edited by William E. Harkins and Paul I.Trensky, New York: Bohemica, 1980: 91–102
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