The Cambridge University Czech and Slovak Society is an association of international students from Czechia and Slovakia, and of enthusiasts of the two countries’ cultures, with the purpose of maintaining a dialogue with students from both UK and Czech/Slovak universities. In this week’s column, Society Secretary Kateřina Cohnová and the Committee highlight some key books from the diverse culture of these countries to give TCS readers a taste of Czech and Slovak literature and history.
Karel Hynek Mácha – May
Described as a romantic dramatic poem, this work is a celebration of the beauty of the nature of spring. It exists as a parallel translation for any interested English readers, and features a protagonist who appears to be a typical romantic figure – an impulsive bandit whose many philosophical thoughts (on love, death and the passing of time) are introduced to the reader in a stunning poetic style.
Jaroslav Hašek – The Good Soldier Švejk
Otherwise known by it’s full title, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, this satirical novel is considered a demonstration of the pointlessness and absurdity of war through the use of simple language and grotesque episodes. Globally, it is the most translated Czech novel of all time!
Karel Čapek – R.U.R.
This conspicuously abbreviated title stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, and what follows is a science fiction and dystopian drama of epic proportions. It warns the reader of the dangers of rapid technological progress, which in Čapek’s view may not be matched with human moral maturity. He was the first to coin the neologism “robot”, a historic landmark in science fiction writing. The Society also recommend reading other works by the same author: War with the Newts, a similarly themed satirical dystopian novel, and Talks with T.G. Masaryk, which is based on Čapek’s talks with the first Czechoslovak president who authorised the text; it is thus a reliable representation of his political and philosophical views.
Franz Kafka – The Trial
This internationally revered text written by Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist, centres around the protagonist, Joseph K., who is prosecuted by a remote bureaucratic authority for an unknown crime, which slowly crushes his spirits and removes his agency. The novel famously deals with existential themes and explores the character’s motives of helplessness,
loneliness and alienation from the world. The novel is assumed to takes place in Prague, though this is never mentioned explicitly in the text. Other works by Kafka include The Metamorphosis, a somewhat bizarre short story about Gregor Samsa who wakes up turned into an insect one morning and finds himself struggling to adjust to this transformation.
Bohumil Hrabal – I Served the King of England
Set in Prague in the 1940s, this fascinating novel forms an account of the life and aspirations of a young man who attempts to overcome his insecurities by building up a successful career while contending with the increasing double threat of Nazi occupation and early-stage communism. It was also adapted into a film by a famous Czech New Wave director, Jiří Menzel. Hrabal also authored Too Loud a Solitude; a text about an old man who works at a paper crusher from where he rescues rare and banned books; the destruction of books, a common feature of Fascist regimes, crushes and saddens him.
Ladislav Fuks – The Cremator
This psychological horror story combines philosophical reflections on death, morality and the effect of power and ideology on the individual in a simple premise: the story of a cremator, who views his job not only as the mundane task of cremating corpses but also as the sacred responsibility of liberating suffering souls. The novel takes place in Prague under the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia—a culture scar that many of these texts feature—and follows the development of his personal life, career and ideological views. It should also be noted that there is a very good film adaptation directed by Juraj Herz, which comes recommended by the Society.
Josef Škvorecký – The Cowards
This intriguing piece takes place in a week towards the end of World War Two, and is narrated through the eyes of a teenager—his town has not yet been liberated, and the citizens are planning their own revolution in a last-ditch attempt for freedom. The author of this book, Škvorecký, himself lived a life pursuing liberty: he fled to Toronto following the 1968 invasion where he founded the publishing house 68 Publishers where he published books by exiled and banned Czech and Slovak writers.
Ladislav Mňačko – The Taste of Power
As a critique of hypocrisy and totalitarianism, The Taste of Power has it all—as an account of the moral decay of a Communist Party member in the 1950s, his transformation from a heroic opponent of the Nazi Germans to a greedy Stalinist politician and thus his moral ruin. All these thoughts are
captured succintly: at the statesman’s funeral, his friend reflects on the nature of power and on its effects on the individual.
Ludvík Vaculík – The Two Thousand Words
This 1968 manifesto of the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation under the communist rule which ended with the August 1968 invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies, is a call for openness and accountability from the governing bodies of Czechoslovakia as it was at the time. Also known by it’s lengthy title, 2000 Words to Workers, Farmers, Officials, Scientists, Artists, and Everyone, the manifesto was signed by many public figures and by more than 100,000 citizens.
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
This novel takes place during and following the period of the 1968 Prague Spring, and endeavours to uncover the motives of ideology and existential crisis. Kundera’s bibliography also includes his first book, The Joke, and Laughable Loves, a collection of short stories combining the tragedy and comedy of romantic relationships.
Václav Havel – The Garden Party
Havel was a playwright, a leader of political dissent against the communist regime, and became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 following the Velvet Revolution. This absurdist drama sees the middle-class protagonist’s career skyrocket as he masters the use of functionary and empty phrases used by officials of a highly nonsensical state bureaucracy. Its absurdity, the cyclicality of events and the emptiness of language serve to caricaturize totalitarianism, bureaucracy and conformity with the regime. Tied in with the themes of this drama is another work of Havel’s, The Power of the Powerless, a political essay on the communist regime, dissidence and the Charter 77.
Universally known as Charter 77, this document, which was signed in 1977, gave its name to the broader civic dissident initiative against the repression of human rights and civil liberties by the communist regime. The first spokesmen of the Charter were the aforementioned playwright Václav Havel, politician Jiří Hájek and philosopher Jan Patočka.
Peter Krištúfek – The House of the Deaf Man
This novel follows the life of a Slovak general practitioner, illustrating the contrast between the appearance of a happy life and the reality of his morally questionable actions. Foregrounded by the history-altering political regimes in both his political and romantic life, it attempts to show how an ordinary person was simply trying to get by in politically turbulent times without compromising his morals. Throughout the story, the man’s son gradually discovers the truth about his father’s life.