Was Bohumil Hrabal a Politically Engaged Writer?

It was perhaps more than just an innocent joke when not long after the Velvet Revolution Václav Havel said in conversation with Bohumil Hrabal that he also could have become the head of state.

Shortly after Bohumil Hrabal’s death, a columnist of the Polish Polityka weekly wrote that he had been a thoroughly apolitical writer. Such an assessment is consistent with the self-description of Hrabal, who said repeatedly that he was not writing a la these. Seen from such a perspective, his late essays from the cycle Letters to Dubenka [Dopisy Dubence] might appear as a watershed or a breach in his strategy as a writer. But was it really at that late stage—like this “house refreshed by lightning” from one of his early short stories—that Hrabal showed his readers a completely new face of a politically engaged writer?

It was most certainly not so. The author of Gaps [Proluky] had defined political views and sympathies and gave expression to them in texts and press pronouncements as early as in the 1960s. In that decade, he published a dozen articles presenting his views on the social and political situation in his country.

The most important of them, entitled “Hra o pravdu” (The game of truth), was published on June 24, 1967, on the front page of the Literární noviny weekly. It was a kind of mission statement, presenting the position of the editors.

The context of this statement is important. Literární noviny, organ of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, gathered the advocates of liberalization of the Party’s cultural policy in the 1960s. To use the term from the Russian cultural sphere, they were the Czech “zapadnitsy,” Westerners, advocating—in contrast to the Stalinist “Slavophiles”— a return to (Western) European sources of native culture. Milan Kundera, Milan Jungmann, Karel Kosík, Ludvík Vaculík, Pavel Kohout, Ivan Klíma, Antonín Liehm demanded a vindication of the left-wing avant-garde, Surrealism, Expressionism, the writings of Franz Kafka, existentialist thought, phenomenology or the Theatre of the Absurd. Later they also started calling for political changes, taking positions close to those taken by Polish revisionists, such as Leszek Kołakowski.

Since 1965, Hrabal was a member of the editorial board of the Literární noviny and was often hosted by this journal: he gave humorous answers to various surveys and published his notes from foreign travels, regularly undertaken since he started writing fiction in January 1963 (in five years he visited such countries as the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Poland). He was happy to take part in the meetings of the editorial board of the most important social/cultural periodical of his times, treating it as a belated form of recognition as well as an opportunity to meet the most important representatives of the domestic literary establishment, usually long-time members of the Communist Party. He himself joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as early as 1945, he was a district party secretary for culture in his native Nymburk, but gave up his membership after the 1946 parliamentary elections won by the Communists, citing the same reasons for which—as he wrote when explaining his decision—he filed his application a year before. Since that time he did not involve himself politically, and after the full Communist takeover in February 1948 he was a blue-collar worker, in a steel plant and then in a recycling mill. Only in the late 1950s he got a literary scholarship, which allowed him to devote himself to writing (and take a lighter work as a theatre technician in the Libeň district of Prague, where he then lived).

Throughout this period (and in later years) Hrabal had left-wing views; he was a supporter of democratic socialism conceived as an alternative to the Stalinist model of totalitarian power. In the political context of these times the postulate of democratic socialism meant above all restoring the rule of law and civic liberties while preserving the monopoly of the Communist Party on power, maintaining social ownership of the means of production, and “staying loyal the Soviet Union.”

Particularly important for the literary community was acquiring a greater autonomy from the Party and government. The key role here was played by the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union and its weekly journal. Advocates of liberalizing the Party’s cultural policy were emboldened in 1962, when the General Secretary and also President Antonín Novotný, following the example of Moscow, gave his permission to start the process of vindicating the Communists repressed in Stalinist times. He also ordered the dismantling of the largest monument to Stalin in the world, standing in Prague. This was received as an announcement of enlarging the scope of freedom in all spheres of public life, including culture and arts, which in practice created institutional prerequisites for the later “New Wave” in Czechoslovakian cinema, theatre, literature, visual arts, and so on. These changes enabled the fiction debuts of Hrabal and many other writers.

The relative liberalization proved ephemeral, for in the longer term the Party’s policy was determined by signals coming from the Kremlin. And there, when Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power in October 1964, the new Soviet leadership, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, decided to tighten the screws. In this situation, Novotný (holding power since 1953) attempted another turnaround; in 1967 he started to repress the advocates of liberalization.

Literary people were the first to be targeted. The opportunity was provided by the 4th Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union. “We knew about it, so to avoid an open conflict at the Writers’ Congress planned for June, we agreed that [Milan] Kundera would prepare a moderate statement,” recalled Antonín Liehm, an editor of the Literární noviny. The choice of the speaker was not accidental. Kundera was a Party member since 1948 (with a break in 1950–1956, when he was expelled in circumstances remindful of the events described in his first novel A Joke, published in 1967, but completed two years earlier). He was also deputy chairman of the editorial board of Literární noviny and an experienced speaker, who knew how to diplomatically express the beliefs and expectations of his fellow writers.

For the same reason—that is “to avoid an open conflict”—the editors asked Hrabal to write a text for the front page of the weekly’s edition which was to appear just before the Congress. The idea was born during a meeting of the editorial board, when the writer shared his reflections on truth, progress, and artistic freedom, as well as on the relationships between these concepts. Those present decided that it was a ready text, it was enough just to write it down, which Hrabal did immediately (he himself recalled that it was Ludvík Vaculík who persuaded him to write the text).

The Czechoslovak presidential standard bears the slogan “truth wins,” he said at the outset. But what is this “truth which wins,” he asked. Resorting to the convention of dream, Hrabal confessed that when looking at the night sky, he often saw a woman vigorously unrolling tablecloths in which nations were wrapped: the woman makes ping-pong tables from the tablecloths and nets from borders between nations… Then she bounces the balls against the table and catches them again… Sometimes this game is played by the Creator and man… And also by Christ, Shiva, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Ovid, Jan Hus, Komenský, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Karel Havlíček, Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Sergey Yesenin, Izaak Babel, Ernest Hemingway, František Halas, Jiří Kolař. After this somnambulist enumeration Hrabal goes to the heart of the matter. The game of truth has its prize: prohibitions, repressions, and sometimes death. Christ died on the cross, Socrates had to drink hemlock, Plato committed suicide, just like the poets Vladimir Majakovsky and Konstantin Biebl (who, as we remember, jumped out of the window). The essay ends with the question:

“What is truth? What is this truth which wins? A phantom on the night sky, or perhaps just a swallow, its wing brushing the surface of a maelstrom stained with blood? It seems to me that truth is yet to come.”

The names of the figures mentioned in the text speak a lot about the author’s personal fascinations. From this point of view, it is surprising that the list does not contain the three “cornerstones of Hrabal’s outlook” indicated by Josef Zumr: that is Arthur Schopenhauer, Ladislav Klíma and—collectively—Surrealism (unless we regard Konstantin Biebl as a Surrealist). This may suggest that the writer’s “outlook” was even more eclectic than it is generally assumed.

Hrabal did not decline to participate in the public debate, as writing a lead article for the front page of the official journal of the Writers’ Union (next to the editorial by Karel Kosík, at that time the best-known Czechoslovak Marxist in the world, seeking inspiration in phenomenology, member of the editorial board of Literární noviny) surely must count as taking part in public debate.

The diplomatic overtures of the editors did not accomplish much. In June 1967, the Six Day War broke out in the Middle East. The triumph of Israel over the coalition of Arab countries, allies of the Soviet Union, led to a dramatic increase of political tension in many Eastern Bloc countries. Also in Czechoslovakia, were a significant part of intellectuals sympathized with Israel, against the official position of the regime.

Arnošt Lustig (a former prisoner of Auschwitz), Ivan Klíma (an inmate of Terezín in his childhood), Pavel Kohout, and Jan Procházka decided to protest against the one-sided presentation of the Middle Eastern conflict in the media. They prepared an editorial panel to be published in Literární noviny. However, the text was stopped by the censorship office. “Of course, we knew that the censors would not give it the green light, but immediately pass it on to the powers- that-be,” recounted Liehm. “But this was our aim: we wanted to give the authorities to understand that we did not share their position.”

Two days later on June 27, 1967, the Writers’ Congress began. On the first day of the meeting, Party Secretary Jiří Hendrych, Novotný’s right hand and the regime’s number two, climbed the podium. “We realized that the thing which we wanted to avoid happened, and that tomorrow we would have the last opportunity in many years to say anything,” recalled Liehm. “And during the night, each of us wrote a speech. The next day we read them out—and we were finished.”

Antonín Liehm, Ivan Klíma, and Ludvík Vaculík were expelled from the Party. “But this decision had to be approved by the Central Committee,” recalled Antonín Liehm, perhaps with a touch of megalomania. “And at that time there already were people who saw allies in us, such as Josef Smrkovský. And these people— for Party discipline demanded that the Central Committee’s decisions would be taken unanimously— were forced to vote for expelling us. They were humiliated and this sparked a revolt in the Committee.”

In retrospect, the 4th Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union was a prelude to the Prague Spring. In the autumn, faced with a threat of an expected purge, opponents of Novotný in the Central Committee joined forces and launched a pre-emptive strike. At the December Plenum of the Central Committee, with the support of Moscow, they voted the first secretary out; on January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček became his successor. And Dubček, wanting to definitively get rid of Novotný and force him to resign also from the position of president, suspended censorship on February 29. Jiří Hendrych, who in the meantime managed to betray Novotný and side with Dubček, personally allowed writers to resume publishing the journal (which started to appear under a changed title Literární listy). In this way the literary community acquired a significant influence on public opinion. Under their pressure, on March 22, 1968, Antonín Novotný resigned. The Prague Spring began.

In this period—until August 21, 1968, when troops from five Warsaw Pact countries (the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary) marched into Czechoslovakia—Hrabal supported the reform-minded policy of Dubček’s administration; he was particularly enthusiastic about Josef Smrkovský (who came from the same region), speaker of the National Assembly and at that time one of the most popular Czechoslovak politicians. Like these two politicians, he was not an advocate of radical changes, but of cautious, moderate reforms, taking into account the international position of Czechoslovakia (that is its dependence on the Kremlin).

The most interesting among Hrabal’s statements from this time is his article “Domácí ukol z pilnosti” (Optional Homework, Literární listy 19/1968). Hrabal again invoked the theme of the the “truth which wins”—and wrote a veritable accolade to Dubček, jokingly comparing him to the Slovak hockey player Jozef Golonka. In this text, published a month before the Soviet invasion, the writer said that “perhaps these few men, who astounded the world, for against the rules they took three steps forward, will now have to take one or even two steps back.” This metaphor (of ironically Leninist provenance) was consistent with the current line of the Party leadership. Just a dozen days before, right after the official suspension of censorship, several important newspapers and journals (including Literární noviny) simultaneously released the declaration Dva tisíce slov (Two Thousand Words), under which one hundred thousand signatures were collected in just a few weeks. Dubček and his group, balancing between awakened social expectations and the threat of Soviet intervention, denounced this manifesto as too radical (although two members of the Central Committee also signed it). But the “step back” mentioned by Hrabal was universally acclaimed.

The author of the declaration was Ludvík Vaculík, Hrabal’s friend from the editorial board of Literární noviny. Hrabal found his views too radical and renounced them, like Dubček and Smrkovský.

Hrabal firmly stood behind Dubček also in August 1968 and defended the memory of the Prague Spring to the end (also after 1989). In his essay entitled “Na hrázi věčnosti” (On the Levee of Eternity, Politika 6/1968) from October 1968 he wrote: “We are a nation capable of transforming its weakness into strength.” [Jsme národ, který dovede svoji slabost povýšit na sílu.] Nevertheless, he warned against the procrastinating policy of concessions, characteristic for the last days of Dubček’s rule. During his speech at the assembly of artistic societies and the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in the Prague Slavic House in November 1968, he used a suggestive metaphor of freedom as a “sausage with a human face;” the sausage imperceptibly disappears and finally only a piece of string remains. The writer appealed from the podium: “Today we cannot look indifferently into our common pantry and see all the sausages we hanged there in the beginning of this year, because in fact only one third of it is hanging there on a proportionately longer string, and it is possible that in a few months only the string will remain.”

Three months later, in the text “O výjezdních doložkách“ (About Emigration Clauses, Politika 1/1969), Hrabal presented the reasons which stopped him from emigrating. Seeking a model for his attitude, he pointed at Socrates, who also refused to “accept an emigration clause” [odmítl výjezdní doložku]. This is an extremely interesting moment: according to Hrabal, the attitude of the Greek philosopher symbolizes loyalty to the laws of your country. Socrates could, aided by his friends, escape from Athens, but he chose death, for the borders of his native city were also the borders of the world known to him, he did not want to live anywhere else. Hrabal also submits to the law of the land—with all the consequences. Twenty years later, during the Velvet Revolution, he will compare Socrates not to himself, but to Václav Havel.

In retrospect, all these texts seem like an exercise or a drill for Hrabal’s masterpiece of politically involved artistic literature, namely “The Magic Flute” [Kouzelná flétna]. This famous essay from 1989—which brought him international fame and became known as the herald of the Velvet Revolution—contains many themes present in his commentaries and essays from the 1960s (like the theme of martyrdom for truth, weakness transformed into strength, absolute artistic freedom, and even—as we saw above—a suicidal jump from the window).

I am not saying that Hrabal was a writer endowed with a political temperament or ever wanting to play such a role in the history of his country as Václav Havel did. It was most certainly not so. However, it does not mean that he refused to participate in public debate; on the contrary, he spoke whenever it was possible (during the “thaw” in the 1960s, during the Prague Spring of 1968, and during the Velvet Revolution of 1989).

And this is why it was perhaps more than just an innocent joke when not long after the Velvet Revolution Václav Havel said in conversation with Bohumil Hrabal that he also could have become the head of state.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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