It cannot have been easy to be a writer in a country which, for nearly 200 years of Hapsburg hegemony, lacked a national literature. Czechoslovakia was born after a century-long struggle for national independence, but it once again faced the possibility of cultural extinction during the Nazi occupation. In the 19th century, when language was tantamount to national identity, Czech writers were a national treasure. Although they enjoyed a status and a degree of political influence that were rare in other countries, the burden must have been a heavy one.
Without a Czech national literature there would be no Czech national identity. Thus, with pen in hand, Karel Čapek helped President Masaryk build the country after the independence in 1918. In the 1960s, Jaroslav Seifert, in opposition to the Communist regime, called upon poets to act as the conscience of the nation. In 1977, Václav Havel initiated Charter 77 together with Pavel Kohout and Ludvík Vaculík.
And during the outbreak of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, the author and dissident Milan Šimečka, exhausted and wishing he was among the crowd of demonstrators at Václavské náměstí in Prague, instead of at a meeting with Western writers at the Swedish Embassy in Prague, would hear a Westerner enviously exclaim how wonderful it must be to be an author in a country where the word carries weight. Šimečka, burdened by this weight, replied, "Please, don't envy us..." No, it cannot have been easy.
Putting texts into context
Against this backdrop, it seems only natural that a book about Czech literature would deal with its subject from the perspective of its role in society. Or does it? Prague, after all, is the home of structuralism, with its consistent emphasis on the independence of the text. Yet, in his book The Deserts of Bohemia: Czech Fiction and Its Social Context, Peter Steiner, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, manages to employ both perspectives.
The book is divided into six chapters: 1. Tropos Kynikos: The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek; 2. Radical Liberalism: Apocryphal Stories by Karel Čapek; 3. The Past Perfect Hero: Julius Fučík and Reportage: Written from the Gallows; 4. The Poetics of a Political Trial: Working People vs. Rudolf Slánský and His Fellow Conspirators; 5. Ironies of History: The Joke by Milan Kundera; and 6. Cops or Robbers: The Beggar's Opera by Václav Havel.
Steiner has proven himself a good structuralist who nevertheless does not hesitate to put a literary work into a context after a thorough text-based analysis. This is where he becomes a hermeneuticist, for whom "interpretation is above all an act of contextualization" (p 15) and any such interpretation must be based upon a close reading of the text.
Accordingly, Steiner argues that it is only through understanding that Čapek's Apocryphal Stories were originally published in a daily newspaper and conceived as comments on contemporary societal and political issues that one can begin to grasp the multi-layered complexity of these stories.
These readings do not all run along the same lines. While Čapek's stories are analyzed against the background of contemporary political events, Švejk is reinterpreted through a metaphorical-etymological connection between Kafka's The Trial and The Good Soldier Švejk, in which the image of the dog (Josef K's last words "wie ein Hund" ["like a dog"] and Švejk selling dogs with falsified pedigrees) leads to the kynik (from Greek kynos, "dog") philosophy of the Greek philosopher Diogenes (a rather adventurous link, but brilliantly pursued).
The chapters on Fučík and Kundera are linked together by a chapter about the political show trials in the early 1950s, which provides the historical background necessary for an understanding of the impact these works had on Czech readers at the time.
Misreadings as ideological strategies
It is, however, the book's final chapter that constitutes the center of the book. In his introduction, Steiner writes that the origins of the book lie in a discrepancy between the receptions of each of the three different versions of The Beggar's Opera. The irony in John Gay's original play, conceived as a satire of early 18th-century England, was neutralized by "Prime Minister Walpole's disarming 'honesty'" (p 9); Brecht's critique of the bourgeoisie of the post-WWI Weimar Republic backfired and served only the intentions of the emerging Nazi Party. And if anyone misread Havel's play, it was not the audience, who understood it only too well, but the regime, which took it as an attack on the state.
In the analysis of Havel's version, Steiner develops his most interesting idea: that such misreadings were all examples of ideological strategies, or—as in the case of Havel's The Beggar's Opera—strategies that in different ways pretended to be ideological.
Arguing that aesthetic fiction always is intentional, Steiner, employing terminology from Austin's speech act theory, concludes that engaging "in the game of non-serious illocutions is not natural but in and of itself ideological" (p 14)—that is, any approach toward or use of fiction is ideologically biased. This statement runs throughout the entire book, underpinning its arguments.
Steiner has a spectacular way of developing theses and establishing connections, often through lengthy digressions that may leave the reader wishing the book had undergone stricter editing, if only to help in following the author's train of thought.
But even if one does not always agree with the conclusions, it is difficult not to be impressed with the strength of the argument. Steiner forces the reader to rethink much of what has hitherto been labeled standard knowledge among specialists in Czech literature. His choice of authors and their chronological range provides the reader with a coherent picture of 20th-century Czech literature. This is a highly original book and should be read by anyone with an interest in modern Czech literature—or, for that matter, in literature in general.
Dick Nilsson, 20 November 2000
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Footnote:1. Developed in J L Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1962).