PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE:
- Ivan Jirous / Underground
- Wolfgang Sterneck / Die Plastic People und der Underground
- Bruce Sterling / Triumph of the Plastic People
I have often used the term underground, and twice the
term second culture. In conclusion, we should make clear
what this is. In Bohemia, the underground is not tied to a definite
artistic tendency or style, though in music, for example, it is
expressed largely through rock music. The underground is a mental
attitude of intellectuals and artists who consciously and critically
determine their own stance towards the world in which they live.
It is the declaration of a struggle against the establishment, the
regime. It is a movement that works chiefly through the various
art forms but whose representatives are aware that art is not and
ought not to be the final aim of an artist's efforts. The underground
is created by people who have understood that within the bounds
of legality nothing can be changed, and who no longer even attempt
to function within those bounds.
Ed Sanders of the Fugs put it very clearly when he declared a total attack on culture. This attack can be carried out only
by people who stand outside the culture. Briefly put, the underground
is the activity of artists and intellectuals whose work is unacceptable
to the establishment and who, in this state of unacceptability,
do not remain passive, but attempt through their work and attitudes
to destroy the establishment. Two absolutely necessary characteristics
of those who have chosen the underground as their spiritual home
are rage and humility. Anyone lacking these qualities will not be
able to live in the underground. It is a sad and frequent phenomenon
in the West, where, in the early sixties, the idea of the underground
was theoretically formulated and established as a movement, that
some of those who gained recogmtion and fame in the underground
came into contact with official culture (for our purposes, we call
it the first culturel, which enthusiastically accepted them and
swallowed them up as it accepts and swallows up new cars new fashions
or anything else. In Bohemia, the situation is essentially d;fferent
and far better than in the West, because we live in an atmosphere
of absointe agreement: the first culture doesn't want us and we
don't want anything to do with the ffrst culture. This eliminates
the temptation that for everyone, even the strongest artist, is
the seed of destruction: the desire for recognition, success, the
winning of prizes and titles and last but not least, the material
security which follows.
In the West many people who, because of their mentality, would perhaps
belong among our friends, live in confusion. Here the lines of demarcation
have been drawn clearly once and for all. Nothing that we do can
possibly please the representat~ves of official culture because
it cannot be used to create the impression that everything is in
order. For things are not in order.
There has never existed a period in human history which could be
considered an exclusively happy one; and genuine artists have always
been those who have drawn attention to the fact that things are
not in order. This is why one of the highest aims of art has always
been the creation of unrest. The aim of the underground here in
Bohemia is the creation of a second culture: a culture that will
not be dependant on official channels of communication, social recognition,
and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment; a culture
which cannot have the destruction of the establishment as its aim
because in doing so, it would drive itself into the establishment's
embrace; a culture which helps those who wish to join it to rid
themselves of the skepticism which says that nothing can he done
and shows them that much can be done when those who make the ciulture
desire little for themselves and much for others. This is the only
way to live on in dignity through the years that are left to us
and to all those who agree with the words of the Taborite chiliast
Martin Huska who said: A person who keeps the faith is more
valuable than any sacrament.
Ivan Jirous (Plastic People of the Universe), Prague, February,
DIE PLASTIC PEOPLE UND DER UNDERGROUND
Im Januar 1968 konnte sich der reformistisch ausgerichte Flügel
der Kommunistischen Partei der CSSR gegen die VertreterInnen einer
dogmatisch an der Sowjetunion aus-gerichteten Politik durchsetzen.
In Folge wurde eine Phase der Demokratisierung, der sogenannte Prager
Frühling, eingeleitet, die auch im Bereich der Kultur zu einer
Öffnung führte. In dieser Zeit entstand eine vielfältige
Musikszene, die sich teilweise an westlichen MusikerInnen orientierte,
in einigen Fällen aber auch einen eigenständigen Weg einschlug.
Die Prager Band Primitives Group gehörte in den späten
sechziger Jahren zu den ersten Bands, die Stücke us-amerikanischer
Rock-Stars wie von Frank Zappa und Jimi Hendrix nachspielte. Sie
verbreitete damit nicht nur eine Musik, die in der CSSR selbst in
Jugend-kreisen kaum bekannt war, sondern vermittelte auch ein gegenkulturelles
Lebensgefühl, das im klaren Gegensatz zu den staatlichen Werten
und Normen stand. Einen völlig anderen Weg ging die Gruppe
Aktual um den Avantgarde-Künstler Milan Knizak, die sich ursprünglich
Deti bolsevismu (Kinder des Bolschewismus) nannte. Beeinflußt
von Komponisten der Neuen Musik, so insbesondere von John Cage,
und der Fluxusbewegung entwickelte die Gruppe einen eigenständigen
und Grenzen überwindenden Stil. Die Auftritte entsprachen Happenings
bei denen bizarr-parodistische Texte vorgetragen und unter anderem
Motorräder, Äxte und Reis als Klangerzeuger benutzt wurden.
Aktual blieb jedoch selbst in gegenkulturellen Kreisen eine angemessene
Anerkennung versagt und stieß zumeist auf Unverständnis
Im August 1968 wurde der Prager Frühling durch den Einmarsch
der Truppen des Warschauer Pakts militärisch beendet. Schrittweise
wurden die VertreterInnen der Reformpolitik entmachtet und eine
sogenannte Normalisierung eingeleitet, welche die völlige Zerschlagung
oppositioneller Strömungen zum Ziel hatte. Die repressiven
Maßnahmen richteten sich bald auch gegen die unabhängige
Kulturszene und am Anfang der siebziger Jahre insbesondere gegen
Rock- und Jazz-MusikerInnen. In Folge durften mehrere tausend MusikerInnen
keine öffentlichen Konzerte mehr geben und wurden dadurch faktisch
mit einem Berufsverbot belegt. Generell mußten alle MusikerInnen
vor staatlichen Gremien auftreten, die dann, von musikalischen und
insbeson-dere von inhaltlichen Kriterien ausgehend, über die
Auftrittserlaubnis ent-schieden. Dabei führte für viele
Musiker schon das Tragen von langen Haaren auf Grund des angeblich
ungepflegten Aussehens zum Entzug der formell notwendigen Genehmi-gungen.
Grundsätzlich untersagt wurden englischsprachige Songtexte
Als Antwort auf die totalitäre Politik des Staates entwickelte
sich mit dem Underground eine vielfältige Gegenkultur, die
vor allem von MusikerInnen getragen wurde, welche sich den staatlichen
Auflagen nicht unterordneten. Ausgang war keineswegs eine klar formulierte
politische Haltung oder eine bestimmte stilistische Ausrichtung,
sondern ein Lebensgefühl, das von der Ablehnung des Bestehenden
und dem grundlegenden Bedürfnis nach einem freieren Leben ausging.
Ivan Jirous formulierte das Selbstverständnis des Undergrounds
wie folgt: Der Underground ist nicht mit einer klar definierten
künstlerischen Stilrichtung verbunden, auch wenn er im Bereich
der Musik vor allem durch die Rock-Musik ausgedrückt wird.
Der Underground ist die geistige Einstellung von Intellektuellen
und KünstlerInnen, die bewußt und kritisch ihre eigene
Position innerhalb der Welt in der sie leben definieren. Der Underground
ist eine Bewegung, die hauptsächlich mit verschiedenen künstlerischen
Ausdrucksformen arbeitet, deren RepräsentantInnen sich aber
darüber bewußt sind, daß die Kunst nicht das höchste
Ziel ihrer Bestrebungen bildet. Verbindend war eine abgrenzende
Verweigerungshaltung gegenüber dem bestehenden System: Der
Underground entspricht der Deklaration des Kampfes gegen das Establishment,
gegen das Regime. Der Underground besteht aus den Aktivitäten
von Intellektuellen und KünstlerInnen, die für das Establishment
inakzeptabel sind und die angesichts dieser Ablehnung dennoch nicht
passiv bleiben, sondern mit ihren Werken und ihrem Verhalten an
der Beseitigung des Establishments arbeiten. Nichts von dem, was
wir machen, kann den Repräsentanten der offiziellen Kultur
gefallen; denn man kann es nicht dazu benutzen, die Illusion aufrecht
zu erhalten, das Bestehende sei in Ordnung.
Zur einflußreichsten Gruppe des Undergrounds wurde die 1969
gegründete Band Plastic People of the Universe, der unter anderem
Vratislav Brabenec, Milan Hlavsa, Josef Janicek, Jiri Kabes und
als sogenannter künstlerischer Leiter Ivan Jirous angehörten.
Anfangs orientierte sich die Band deutlich an gegenkulturellen MusikerInnen
aus den USA, darunter insbesondere an Velvet Underground und Frank
Zappa, sowie an Schriftstellern der Beat-Generation wie den in der
CSSR äußerst einflußreichen Alan Ginsberg.In den
siebziger Jahren lößte sich die Gruppe zunehmend von
diesem Einfluß und entwickelten eine eigen-ständige Verbindung
von Rock- und Jazz-Elementen, die meist von einer schwermütigen
Stimmung geprägt waren. Konsequent verweigerten sich die Plastic
People staatlichen Auflagen, denen sie sich weder inhaltlich, noch
musikalisch unterordnen wollten. In ihren Texten, ihrer Musik und
ihrem Auftreten spiegelte sich beständig ein gegenkulturelle
Lebensauffassung. Die Gruppe verstand sich jedoch nicht als politische
Band und formulierte in den Texten auch keine direkten politischen
In ihrer Anfangszeit hatten die Texte der Plastic People vielfach
einen mystischen und phantastischen Charakter, später wandte
sich die Gruppe zeitweise christlichen Themen zu. Die ausdrucksstärksten
Texte entstanden während der Zusammenarbeit der Plastic People
mit Egon Bondy, dem es gelang, das Lebensgefühl des Undergrounds
sprachlich auszudrücken. Charakteristisch war der prägnante
tabulose Stil, sowie die inhaltliche Ablehnung der Normen des Establishments
und die Beschreibung des eigenen Lebensstils. Beispielhaft für
die Arbeiten von Egon Bondy war das von den Plastic People 1974
vertonte Gedicht 20: Wenn heute jemand zwanzig
ist, dann wird er mit Widerwillen kotzen. Denen die vierzig sind,
kommt es noch viel stärker. Nur die mit sechzig Jahren haben
es einfacher, friedvoll schlafen sie mit ihrer Sklerose.
Nach einem Auftrittsverbot für die Plastic People beschränkte
sich die Gruppe auf Konzerte in einem vorgeblich privaten Rahmen.
So trat die Gruppe mehrfach im Landhaus des oppositionellen Schriftstellers
Václav Havel, sowie bei Geburtstagsfeiern und Hochzeiten
von befreundeten Personen auf. Zu den Konzerten, die starke visuelle
und performanceartige Elemente beinhalteten, reisten teilweise mehrere
hundert Menschen aus der ganzen CSSR an. Sie wurden dadurch zu einer
Manifestation des Undergrounds und erhielten damit einen konkreten
politischen Charakter: Es war immer eine phantastische Atmosphäre.
Eine innere Freiheit. Es war ein Versuch, normal zu leben in dieser
Mehrfach wurde der Underground mit Prozessen überzogen, die
zum Ziel hatten, einzelne Personen zum Teil über langjährige
Haftstrafen zum Schweigen zu bringen und dadurch die gesamte Szene
einzuschüchtern. Der weitreichendste Prozeß fand 1976
als Reaktion auf die Hochzeitsfeier von Ivan Jirous statt, bei der
verschiedene Underground-Bands auftraten. Sechs Beschuldigte, darunter
Mitglieder der Plastic People, wurden in Folge zu Gefängnisstrafen
verurteilt. Fast gleichzeitig setzte eine staatlich gesteuerte Medienkampagne
ein, in der die MusikerInnen des Undergrounds als asozial, arbeitsscheu
und drogenabhängig beschimpft wurden. Im Zusammenhang mit den
Prozessen wurde 1977 die Charta 77 gegründet, eine lose Vereinigung,
die sich für die Bewahrung der Menschenrechte einsetzte und
schnell eine nationale Bedeutung erlangte.
Neben seiner kompositorischen Tätigkeit bei den Plastic People
arbeitete Milan Hlavsa im Rahmen des Musikprojekts DG 307 unter
anderem mit dem Dichter Pavel Zajicek zusammen. Der Bandname wurde
von der medizinischen Bezeichnung Diagnose 307 abgeleitet,
unter der psychische Störungen in Folge von langwierigen Konfliktsituationen
zusammengefaßt wurden. Zynisch bezeichneten sich die Bandmitglieder
selbst als Gruppe, deren Verhalten von Störungen der Anpassungsfähigkeit
geprägt ist. Wie der gesamte Underground stand auch DG 307
am Rande einer kranken Gesellschaft, deren Normalität in einer
extremen Weise auf erzwungener Unterordnung, Selbstverleugnung und
der verinnerlichten Unter-drückung der eigentlichen Bedürfnisse
basierte. Die Bewahrung der eigenen Identität war nur über
eine klare Abgrenzung und Verweigerung bzw. über ein im eigentlichen
Sinne des Wortes bewußtes Verrücktsein möglich.
In ihren Texten arbeitete die Gruppe mit unterschiedlichen Ausdrucksformen.
Dadaistische und humorvoll-absurde Sprachspielereien wechselten
mit provozierenden Metaphern und offen formulierter Gesellschafts-kritik.
Mehrstimmige Gesänge, die mit lang andauernden monotonen Rhythmen
unterlegt waren, wurden von improvisierten und teilweise atonalen
Einlagen abgelöst. Neben herkömmlichen Instrumenten wurden
dabei unter anderem Staubsauger und Schreibmaschinen eingesetzt.
Die Musik der Underground-Gruppen konnte innerhalb der CSSR nur
illegal durch Kassetten verbreitet werden. Die Staatsorgane versuchten
immer wieder die Verbreitung der soge-nannten Magnetizdat-Aufnahmen
zu verhindern, was ihnen jedoch nur sehr eingeschränkt gelang.
Allerdings wurde Petr Cibulka wegen des Vertriebs von Musikkassetten
zu mehreren Jahren Gefängnis verurteilt. Neben den Bands des
Undergrounds gab es auch eine Reihe von sogenannten alternativen
Gruppen, welche scheinbar die formellen Auflagen des Kulturministeriums
erfüllten, tatsächlich aber versuchten, auf der Basis
der Legalität einen eigenständigen und unabhängigen
Weg zu gehen. Die meisten MusikerInnen und Gruppen, die diesen Weg
einschlugen, wie zum Beispiel die einflußreiche Extempore
Band um Mikolas Chadima, waren in der 1971 gegründeten Jazzova
sekce, der Jazzsektion, organisiert. Anfangs orientierte sich die
Organisation völlig auf musikalische Belange, wurde dann aber
zunehmend zu einem Sprachrohr der Opposition. Nach einer Kampagne
gegen die Jazzsektion in den Medien wurden von den entsprechenden
staatlichen Stellen Ein-schränkungen verfügt und letztlich
nach einer langen Phase der Halblegalität die Auflösung
der Jazzsektion erzwungen.
Im Zuge des gesellschaftlichen Wandels in den Staaten des ehemaligen realen Sozialismus kam es auch in der CSSR im November
und Dezember 1989 zu massenhaften Protesten und in Folge zu revolutionären
Veränderungen, die zum Übergang in ein bürgerliches
Staatssystem führten. Eine herausragende Position innerhalb
der demokratischen Bewegung nahm der Schriftsteller Václav
Havel ein, der bald darauf zum Präsidenten der Tschecho-slowakei
gewählt wurde. In dieser Funktion betonte er die Bedeutung
der Musik und traf sich unter anderem mit den amerikanischen Musikern
Frank Zappa und Lou Reed, um mit ihnen über kulturpolitische
Fragen zu sprechen. Gleichzeitig wurde die Bedeutung der Plastic
People für den gesellschaftlichen Wandel anerkannt. Die Gruppe
bzw. der Underground an sich hatten an den Veränderungen einen
wesentlichen Anteil, indem sie über zwei Jahrzehnte hinweg
immer wieder durch vielfältige Aktivitäten den Zwangscharakter
des Staates offen-barte. Zudem hatten sie beispielhaft gezeigt,
daß es auch in einer Diktatur zumindest ansatz-weise möglich
ist, die eigene Identität zu bewahren und einen konsequenten
Weg zu gehen.
Vom Autor überarbeiteter Abschnitt aus dem Buch:
Der Kampf um die Träume - Musik und Gesellschaft. (1998).
TRIUMPH OF THE PLASTIC PEOPLE
When the return-of-the-repressed came, and the Communist regime
cracked and fell apart, these mad Czech hippies acquired a cultural
authority and credibility like no mad hippies have had ever before,
anywhere, any time. Bruce Sterling reports from Prague in this,
the sixth year of the Velvet Revolution. --September 17. I'm sitting
right now at a big wooden desk in a Ruská Street apartment
house in Prague, typing on a PowerBook 180. In the only country
in the world where the president is a revolutionary literary intellectual,
there's an arcane Kafkaesque pleasure in typing immaterial electronic
words into this silicon box. Literatura, words-in-a-row, still means
something here in Prague. A lot of odd guff is talked about this
town, but when they said that Prague was literary, they were living
in truth. This is probably the most utterly literary city on the
My hosts here on Ruská Street are a publisher, Martin Klíma,
and his wife, the Czech fantasy novelist Vilma Kadlecková.
Martin publishes novels because he feels that this is the sort of
thing one ought to do, and to make money, he publishes boxed sets
of Western role-playing games, which sell very well. Vilma writes
fantasy novels - she's been weaving complex fantasies since she
was a little girl - and to make money, she works as an editor of
Harlequin romances, which have struck gold in the nothing-if-not-romantic
female Czech population and are selling like crazy.
The desk I'm working on right now, in my hosts' cavernous, high-ceilinged
office, has a big container of little hard floppies, an even bigger
container of big wobbly floppies, a bouquet of yellow flowers in
a vase, two short-story collections - one in Czech, one in English
- a voltage converter, a QuickTake camera, an émigré magazine, a thick, English-language monthly calendar of Prague cultural
events, some Czech rock tapes, a joystick, a printer, a pack of
Dunhills, and a rotary phone.
They're all sweet and harmless little objects, except for the cigarettes,
which are bad for me, and the rotary phone here at my elbow, which
is truly a device from hell. This phone is an ancient Siemens pulse
unit. Out the back of the set comes a yard of round-as-a-noodle,
gray Czech phone wiring, which ends suddenly in a splay of four
bare wires: white, brown, green, and yellow. The green and yellow
wires end in severed copper stumps, while the white and brown wires
enter a small plastic doohickey. From the other side of this makeshift
gizmo comes a flat American phone wire, with four little internal
wires of its own. This time, the black and yellow wires are dead
stumps, and the red and green wires are the unhappy survivors. This
butchered American phone wire runs 6 inches and ends in a modem,
and I don't mean a modem with a label or a shell. I mean a bare
piece of green circuit board with some Malaysian and Filipino bit-eating
caterpillars and a naked little tin speaker. Yet another American-style
pinch-clip phone cord exits from this inert modem and trails into
a Czech domestic phone outlet, which is an alien doorknob-like object
big enough to brain someone with. And out of the bottom of this
ceramic phone outlet comes a truly ancient length of round, pre-Communist-era
phone cord, running down the wall, along the baseboard, and behind
a towering glass-fronted bookcase of Czech literary classics, to
god-only-knows what eldritch, electromechanical, Nazi-era, phone-switch
My host Martin Klíma, who was a physics major and student
firebrand during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, has an Internet
address and a 486. He's got WordPerfect and Paradox and Corel Draw.
By Prague standards, Martin is one wired dude. His wife, Vilma,
writes her fantasy novels on a Leading Edge PCin the bedroom. It
sits on top of her amazing steampunk sewing machine, which used
to be a pedal-pushed manual unit back in the Pleistocene, and was
refitted with an electric motor by Martin's grandfather. Martin
and Vilma have one phone line. In the West they'd probably have
On the subject of modems and phone lines, Martin and his '89er friends
still talk about "the Japanese guy." Back in '89, Czech
students were trying to coordinate the uprising across the nation,
and the technical students, including Martin, were running the telecom
angle. They used a 300-baud device with the size, shape, and heat
of a kitchen toaster. The Czech secret police were far too stupid
and primitive to keep up with digital telecommunications, so the
student-radical modem network was relatively secure from bugging
and taps. Fidonet BBSes were springing up surreptitiously on campuses
whenever an activist could sneak a modem past the border guards.
Modems were, of course, illegal. Most of the Czech cops, however,
had no idea what modems were.
The police were engaged in the hopeless task of beating the population
into submission with billy clubs, without the backup of Soviet heavy
armor. Martin's independent student movement was smarting from street-beatings
and sensed that '89 was '68 upside down. They had a list of seven
demands. They were pretty radical demands: three of them were never
met. Everyone knew the situation was about to blow. But getting
the word out was very difficult.
And then, without any warning or fanfare, some quiet Japanese guy
arrived at the university with a valise full of brand-new and unmarked
2400-baud Taiwanese modems. The astounded Czech physics and engineering
students never did quite get this gentleman's name. He just deposited
the modems with them free of charge, smiled cryptically, and walked
off diagonally into the winter smog of Prague, presumably in the
direction of the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy.
They never saw him again.
There doesn't seem to be much doubt that this Japanese guy existed.
I've talked to four different sources who claim to have seen him
in the flesh. The students immediately used these red-hot 2400-baud
scorcher modems to circulate manifestos, declarations of solidarity,
rumors, and riot news. Unrest grew steadily. By late November, Václav
Havel and the older-generation dissident intelligentsia were playing
a big role in the demonstrations. Then the general populace took
to the streets, and without Red Army backing, the puppet regime
collapsed like a rotten marshmallow. By mid-December, the Civic
Forum was in power.
Those were glorious days indeed. But all that was five years ago.
Now Martin is a professional publisher, an ex-student pal of his
is a member of parliament, Václav Havel is president, and
this country, liberated by a miraculous mummery coalition of playwrights,
actors, rockers, students, and hippies, is doing its level best
to transmute itself into the functional equivalent of Luxembourg.
This may have been the Temporary Autonomous Zone for about a year
and a half, from 1989 to 1991. Right now, it is the Hopefully Permanent
Capitalist Scaffolding Zone.
The Prime Minister, Václav Klaus, who is calling all the
shots in this country, is a right-wing economist who openly admires
the godlike genius of Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Unlike the British
Tories, however, Klaus and his party are doing a pretty good job
economically. Unemployment is below 4 percent nationally - in Prague,
it's below 1 percent. Inflation, which was inevitable considering
Czech socialist subsidies had no tangible connection to reality,
is contained at less than 10 percent. The Czech koruna is becoming
a real currency and could probably be made fully convertible tomorrow,
if not for the fact that the canny Klaus thinks that might hurt
And Prague has become one of the most popular tourist destinations
in the world. The people of Prague have dislodged their Red Army
overlords, but they are now under occupation by an army of tourists.
About 80 million of them a year. The Nation of Tourists comes here,
and it spends money. Slowly, tourists and their money are changing
everything about this place.
A lot of visitors fall in love with this city, for a variety of
excellent reasons, and they try to live here. Some of them find
a foothold in the crush and succeed in moving to Prague. A lot of
them - a whole lot, somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people -
are Americans. It's a rare and noteworthy happenstance - maybe the
last example was Paris in the '20s - when thousands of Americans,
most of them of the same generation, show up en masse, with some
sense of common purpose, in one single (hospitable, if bewildered)
The émigré community in this city is real, a genuine
little island of bohemia in Bohemia. Prague supports three English-language
émigré newspapers, The Prague Post (an actual weekly
newspaper), Prognosis (the hipper, cultural, voice-of-the-happening-people
rag), and the gray and tedious Central European Business Weekly,
which is read by the capitalist gnomes.
There are quite a few American business people here, but they don't
set the tone. The tone is set by graphic artists and wannabe musicians
and common-or-garden slackers off to drink great cheap beer on Dad's
There is an absolute load of poets. You can't turn around without
tripping over a poet. There don't seem to be many novelists here,
but when it comes to poets and short-story writers (the two most
noncommercial species in the global literary enterprise), they are
here in Prague in massive numbers, barking in utter joy like big-eyed
Greenpeace seals on some ice floe beyond reach of the furriers'
Prague is very much like Paris in the '20s, but it's also very much
unlike Paris in the '20s. One main reason is that there is no André
Breton here. People do sit and write - stop by The Globe, the crowded
émigré bookstore on Janovského 14 in north
Prague, and you'll see a full third of the cappuccino-sipping black-clad
Praguelodyte customers scribbling busily in their notebooks. There
are many American wannabe writers here - even better, they actually
manage to publish sometimes - but there is not a Prague literary
movement, no Prague literary-isms. No magisterial literary theorists
hold forth here as Breton or Louis Aragon or Gertrude Stein did
in Paris. There isn't a Prague technique, or a Prague approach,
or a Prague literary philosophy that will set a doubting world afire.
There are people here sincerely trying to find a voice, but as yet
there is no voice. There may well be a new Hemingway here (as The
Prague Post once declared there must be). But if Prague writers
want to do a kind of writing that is really as new and powerful
as Hemingway's was in Hemingway's time, then they will have to teach
What there is, however, is Václav Havel. And that is a great
advantage. Václav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic,
is a resolutely noncommercial writer. Havel writes three kinds of
things: speeches (lots of those lately), moral and philosophical
essays (very worthy but a few of 'em go a pretty long way, frankly),
and absurdist theater. Havel is not the greatest playwright of the
20th century, but you know, in all honesty, and not just because
Havel is sleeping peacefully, a few kilometers away in the Hradcany
Castle at the moment that I'm typing this, the guy's plays are not
half-bad. I just read them all in translation - it wasn't hard,
for there aren't that many - and I enjoyed the heck out of them.
All of his plays are clever, some are deep, they are always interestingly
structured, and almost all are hilarious. He's without question
the funniest head of state in the world.
There will be a meeting of the International PEN Club in Prague
next month, and it will be half-again as large as most meetings
of this august, world literary body. Havel has issued personal invitations
to such luminaries as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Umberto Eco, Harold
Pinter, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa
(who narrowly missed capturing the Peruvian presidency), Kurt Vonnegut,
Norman Mailer. You can bet a shiny handful of Czech korunas that
all these worthies will strain every sinew to show up in Prague
at the polite behest of Saint Václav. If there's any power
left in Literature, as a force to move and change the world, Václav
Havel is uniquely fitted to mobilize it. A lot of writers come here,
not because Havel can teach them how to write, but because Václav
Havel is a symbol of what words-in-a-row can do.
That is a very romantic achievement in an almost painfully romantic
city, which is trying with increasing restlessness to become rather
less romantic. People here like Václav Havel personally.
They can scarcely help that. He's a man genuinely guided by principle
who is not impossibly self-important and stuffy, an incredible achievement
in the 1990s. People know this.
Nevertheless, Václav Havel embarrasses people sometimes.
Not every president in the world will hold a formal audience with
Pink Floyd, but Havel did just that last week. Havel thought John
Lennon was politically important, and was proud to be a personal
friend of Frank Zappa. Havel also redesigned the night lighting
for Hradcany Castle because he used to be a stage-lighting hand
in Prague's little alternative theaters. The Hradcany Castle looks
terrific now, tastefully lit in low-key, magic-realist verdigris
and salmon pink, but most other presidents don't even know what
verdigris and salmon pink are.
Having Havel as president used to be unbelievably thrilling and
exotic, but nowadays, as the Czechs knuckle down to the business
of renovating their capital and systematically fleecing tourists,
Havel seems just a little bit, well, weird.
Havel used the poetry of decency and morality to take power from
a numb and corrupted regime, but his formulations have become political
catch phrases now. It's "ethical" this and "ethical"
that, "moral" the dog and "moral" the cat -
and in the meantime, the Czech government is starting to act pretty
much like normal governments act, in the usual Realpolitik money-and-interest-group
fashion. Havel could kick the desiccated guts out of the Communist
mummy, but there is scarcely a moralist alive who survives the nerve-shattering
grip of postmodern capitalism. Nowadays Havel does a lot of ceremonial
ribbon cuttings at bridges, and the country is in the can-do grip
of the increasingly determined and autocratic Václav Klaus.
If Havel is a world-class dreamer, Klaus is a heavy-duty hustler.
And most Czechs today - most Czechs any day - would far rather be
hustlers than dreamers. Havel speaks and they are deeply moved,
and then Klaus says "frog" and they jump.
Havel, despite his worldwide renown, was not the only Czech dissident.
Considering the hideous price one had to pay to be a dissident in
this country, the former Czechoslovakia had them in abundance. In
particular, one dissident group, known as the Plastic People of
the Universe, was (or is) probably the heaviest, down-and-dirtiest,
most successful rock-and-roll revolutionary force in the world.
When the Plastic People were busted by state security Gestapo in
1976, indignation at this gratuitous breaking-of-butterflies-on-the-wheel
led directly to the formation of Charter 77, the dissident group
that eventually became Civic Forum, and then, briefly, the revolutionary
government of this country. Without the influence of the Plastic
People, the flowering of American alternative culture here today
would have been impossible.
Those who followed the astonishing career of the Plastic People
- "We carried the police around with us like flies," said
Plastic Person Vratislav Brabenec - could only conclude that they
were either amazingly brave or crazy. In point of fact, as I have
recently learned from interviewing local hipster Czechs who ought
to know, the Plastic People were both those things. Those courageous
Czech hippie revolutionaries were really brave, really Czech, really
hippies, really revolutionaries, and really bonkers.
The éminence grise of the Plastic People was, or is, a Czech
revolutionary philosopher-poet who called himself "Egon Bondy" (Zbynek Fiser). Egon can be imagined as a kind of Eastern European
cross between Kropotkin and Allen Ginsberg, a turbo-Beat Marxist
free-love anarchist rant poet. Egon is still alive, 64 years old.
He's been so upset by the capitalist turn of events in the Czech
Republic that he has emigrated to Slovakia. Egon owns one pair of
pants - Czech-made jeans - one dirty jacket, and one battered pair
of shoes. Egon has worn this ensemble for years, a declaration of
Christ-like ultra-leftist solidarity with the suffering and shirtless
of the earth. Here's what Egon had to say about the Velvet Revolution
The new generation is sober in orientation:
the last 40 years don't exist and before us
is a clear and tough future
quite unconnected with anything
It will be - as is already suspected - short
It won't be long before it starts tossing madly
like a tin can on a cat's tail
tied to the shambles of a world divided
between the winners who lost and are
running around searching for their missing victory
and the ones who in the end will foot the bill
This angry prophecy would be less disturbing if Egon hadn't been
proved right earlier, against all the odds. Many people question
Egon Bondy's sanity, but I've yet to meet a single one anywhere
who questions his integrity.
The Plastic People's formal leader was one "Magor," or
Ivan Jirous. Magor is also a poet who, unlike Egon, could rock and
roll. Magor is a living legend and probably the perfect model of
a Czech hippie-dissident-tribal-shaman-poet-heavy dude. But magor
means "madman" in Czech, and his handle was no accident.
Magor suffered for years from uncontrollable mood swings, provoking
fistfights, drinking binges, and raving in the street. He's a powerful
lyricist, a pretty good musician, and a courageous man to whom his
country owes a great debt, but he's not what you'd call commander-in-chief
material. Magor has been through drugs, booze, rock, jail, police
beatings, show trials, the maximum-security prison in Valdice, mysticism,
madness, a revolution, and lots and lots and lots of poetry. Magor
is kind of kicking back somewhere in the Bohemian countryside these
days, and he probably deserves the rest.
Plastic-being Vratislav Brabenec was arrested in 1976; this proved
an international embarrassment, so in later years the cops simply
pounced on him repeatedly and beat him up in the streets. Brabenec
fled the country in 1982 and is now a Greenpeace activist in British
Columbia, where he seems to be doing pretty well for himself, although
he had to miss a lot of the local fun.
There were others: Svatopluk Kavásek, Pavel Jazícek,
many other astoundingly courageous people, a few of them fairly
well known to those in the West who followed this sort of thing.
In their own country, they were all desperately obscure. An American
bohemian-intelligentsia type like Allen Ginsberg was probably 10,000
times better known in America than Magor was ever known in the former
Czechoslovakia. To call the Plastic People rock stars is a misnomer,
for they were legally denied any right to play music. When the Plastics
played, they rocked out privately on homemade speakers and instruments
in front of an audience of maybe 50 people who attended in fear
for their lives. The Czech regime hated and feared the Czech counterculture
with truly hysterical bitterness.
Official reviews of the Plastics' music were less than kind. Here's
the government organ Rudé Právo discussing the Plastics
(September 25, 1976): "Our society will not tolerate any forms
of hooliganism or public disorder, and quite naturally, will resist
any moral filth and efforts to infect our youth with that which
every decent man condemns and which harms the spiritual health of
the young generation." By "quite naturally," the
authorities meant beatings, bannings, constant police surveillance,
And when the return-of-the-repressed came, and the regime cracked
and fell apart, these mad hippies acquired a cultural authority
and credibility like no mad hippies have had ever before, anywhere,
When Václav Havel showed up to address big crowds during
the Velvet Revolution, most of his listeners, even in his own home
city of Prague, had only a vague idea who he was. Czech underground
publications, manually typed, and smuggled hand-to-hand, had such
tiny circulations that modern émigré small-press efforts
like Yazzyk and Trafika are booming enterprises by contrast. Living
in Prague offers a way to take small-press publication seriously.
It offers living proof that artists and writers can make a real
difference, with no money, no backing, next-to-no audience, and
savage and heavily armed official disapproval.
And besides, it's very pretty here, and it's cheap.
I'm now back at the desk again, two days later. I went to visit
a place publicly declared to be "one of the most dangerous
places in Prague" by the Prague police. It's the outdoor market
by the subway station in Námestí Republiky (Republic
Square). I expected a maelstrom of prostitution, violence, and corruption;
what I got was about 30 hippies at little wooden tables trying to
sell lipstick, love beads, and women's underwear. The street market
closes down at five o'clock sharp, and after that lovers go there
to sit on the tables and kiss.
Crime statistics show that the modern Czech Republic is about half
as dangerous as Germany, which is to say about half as dangerous
as warm dishwater. That's not to say that you can't find trouble
in Prague. There are pickpockets, bag thieves, corrupt taxi drivers,
hookers, occasional drunk-rollers, short-change artists, and a lot
of drugs. But if you arrive here and you're a young American man,
then, statistically speaking, you and your fellow Americans are
by far the most dangerous people you are ever likely to meet here.
Czechs will be rather impressed by your strapping good health and
may even be slightly afraid of you. You'll be big and rich and loud
and from a country that won the Cold War.
And no matter what a pampered, Yankee, swaggering lout you are,
they'll never resent you as much as they resent the Germans.
September 19. I'm now typing at a wooden table, artfully painted
in vivid red and black, at the Libri Prohibiti Library downtown,
a library of forbidden books.
This modest enterprise is the central historical storehouse of Czech
samizdat, or illegal self-publication. Chief librarian and founder
Jirí Gruntorad runs this mind-boggling archive, which contains
4,400 underground books, plus some 6,000 previously forbidden publications
in Czech by Czech refugees and émigrés.
People were once imprisoned for owning the very books in this place.
People pored over these books in secrecy with feverish intensity.
People typed these books, letter by letter, on manual typewriters
(some of the typewriters are here), bound them in primitive wooden
presses (they have the presses on exhibit too), and cut them on
monster iron paper cutters that look like instruments of the Spanish
Inquisition. This place is a Communist censor's nightmare, and all
the better for that.
There are legendary publications here, formerly despised contraband
transmuted into treasured cultural monuments. There are complete
runs here from Václav Havel's pre-liberation "press," the Edice Expedice. There are complete editions of the forbidden
poetry of Egon Bondy. There are homemade books produced with such
loving care that they look just like real books, and there are also
moldering, little green and yellow pamphlets that are acts of utter
desperation and fading carbon paper. There are matchbox-sized forbidden
books with antlike print that come with a half-round magnifying
prism stuffed into the spine so you can read them line by line by
The two-story walk-up into the library is dusty and gloomy, with
graffiti and cracked glass. But inside, the library is determinedly
cheerful, all opened window shades and bright primary colors. Old
posters for Charter 77 and Amnesty International share the walls
with posters for modern Czech counterculture rags like Revolver
Revue and Vokno. Gruntorad, who spent four years in prison during
the regime for his book-smuggling activities, looks like a medieval
Slavic saint. Mrs. Gruntoradová, who also runs the place,
is a direct and level-headed woman of such vivid and obvious integrity
and humanity that I would unhesitatingly trust her with my car keys,
my door keys, and the care of my only child, even though we share
no common language.
In this storehouse of words-in-a-row, so pungently redolent of terrible
fear and incredible resolve, young Czech volunteers type on spanking-new
computers, and run off pages on big shiny photocopiers, and answer
phone calls, and chatter in Czech, and laugh aloud. It's a quiet
place, but it's a happy place and almost, in its own odd way, a
holy place. I sit here typing on my portable computer and I feel,
with great immediacy, that samizdat is a spiritual ancestor of everything
truly important in my life.
Samizdat is what a counterculture looks like when the forces of
repression compress it as hard as a diamond. Samizdat is a spiritual
ancestor of fanzines, bulletin board systems, fidonet, the Internet,
the World Wide Web, shareware, free personal cryptography. And the
world outside these windows, the whole world now, is what a world
looks like when samizdat is winning.
A bearded young man from the staff just brought me hot coffee and
asked me to sign the library's guest book. Václav's looping
signature is right here on page 1. I just inscribed information
wants to be free and signed it with my Internet address.
There may not be such a thing as a Prague voice, but there is such
a thing as a Prague look. It doesn't show quite so much on the men,
who basically dress like Michael Stipe clones only with cigarettes
and backpacks. But there are young women all over Prague, especially
the downtown, old-city areas - bookstores, art galleries, coffeehouses,
and bars - who are instantly recognizable as core scenesterettes
and muses-in-training. Praguelodettes, one might call them. Let's
take the Prague look head-to-toe.
The hair is straight, shoulder-length, blunt-cut, severely parted
in the middle: your basic Ingenue Heroine of an Epic Russian Novel
do. In the ears - pierced of course - silver filigree earrings.
Then comes a big, baggy sweater, often loose at the neck to reveal
the straps of a halter top, hanging right down to the wrists and
stretching to about mid-thigh. Under the tuniclike sweater is a
big flowing skirt, a hippie drawstring job in black and white print
pattern, very thin fabric usually, but pleated or wrinkled, and
ankle-length. Under the patterned skirt, black leather shin-high
boots with silver lace-ups. Maybe black flats or big, funky Doc
Martens. The effect is a cross between Anna Karenina and Greenwich
Accessories: a big, brightly patterned scarf or shawl, street-vendor
silver necklaces with amulets, bracelets made of horn or wood, a
black woolen beret, stone and ceramic finger rings, cigarettes,
a neat little denim backpack. Maybe a hair-wrap, a technique that
braids a single long strand of hair into a tight sleeve of thin
colored yarn. (If you're up for it, hipster kids will hair-wrap
you right on the sidewalk, for a few korunas.)
For the popular Goth Chick variant, black nail polish, scary big
pewter biker rings, extra ear piercings, thin gold nose ring, dead-black
hair dye. For the arty bluestocking look, wire-rimmed but oddly
oblong glasses, hair pulled back in a decorative ceramic or bronze/copper
barrette. For that night out on the town: killer mascara, scarlet
lipstick, and a longer and thinner skirt with two or even three
big slashes up to mid-thigh. In the context of this Sicilian Widow
get-up, those skirt-slashes are amazingly provocative, living proof
that in things erotic, less is often more.
There is also, interestingly, an older-woman Yuppie Praguelodette
look, with a baggy cashmere sweater, black silk skirt, nicer and
less scuffed shoes, styled hair, nail polish, and hose. Accessories:
a plastic shopping bag, a sturdy-but-stylish leather purse, a cellular
It's a good bet that if you see a woman striding the cobbled streets
of Prague who looks unbelievably picturesque and authentic - more
Eastern European than the Pope, with her chin held high, ethereal
Slavic cheekbones, looking very spiritual and maybe just the least
little bit smug - she's a Yankee. A YAP: Young American in Prague.
Real Czech woman are also known to dress in high Praguelodette drag
because Czech fashion designers are very hip and can do counterculture
inside and out, but the classic accessories for a young Czech woman
in early to mid-20s are a wedding ring, a baby carriage, and maybe
Eva Hauserová is a Czech feminist and environmental activist.
She was also, before the revolution, one of the country's better-known
and more influential science-fiction writers. Before 1989, science
fiction wasn't understood by the authorities any better than modems
were, and therefore a lot of Czech science-fiction stories were
allegorical parodies describing the utter anguish of the Czech population.
Eva specialized in this.
As Eva once put it, "In totalitarian times, science fiction
enabled us to speak about society much more openly and critically
than the literary mainstream; it is an outstanding medium for political
metaphor." She wrote gruesomely fantastic stories, often with
grisly biological themes, for she was trained (like many Czechs)
as a biochemist. She wrote stories and novels, did her own samizdat
science-fiction fanzine, and later worked as an editor for the leading
Czech science-fiction magazine, Ikarie.
Czechs are fond of fantastic writing. Kafka's work is metaphorical
and fantastic, Karel Capek and his brother Josef gave the world
the word "robot," even Havel's plays have artificial intelligences
and absurd invented languages with comic "scientific"
properties. Marxists sometimes classed science fiction as a "degraded
literature," pokleslá literatura, but in practice, fantastic
writing was taken quite as seriously as any other sort.
Yet with the liberation of her society, Eva fell mute. Or rather,
she began to campaign openly and vigorously for things she'd only
hinted of in her fiction, such as environmentalism (somewhat odd
and radical) and feminism (very odd indeed in a Czech context and
quite the uphill struggle politically). Now she edits books on feminism,
coordinates Czech women's groups, and writes tracts for an environmental
To make money, Eva translates Harlequin romances. Eva has an enviable
grasp of the stereotypes involved in Western romance fiction, and
can whack out a translation on her PC clone in about a week. It
pays far better than subversive science fiction ever did, and she'd
be rolling in the korunas if she wasn't renovating her house, as
everyone in Prague seems to be doing. "When I want to say that
Klaus is stupid and his ideas are stupid I can say it directly!" she told me cheerily. After the revolution, she published one quite
cheerful science-fiction story, and then felt completely relieved
of the need to write any more science fiction.
The small, intense world of Czech publishing has been turned upside
down by the revolution. The former dissidents belong to a vanished
epoch and are getting old enough to discover that they have a favorite
easy chair. The Communist Writers' Union time-servers have stopped
writing laudatory pseudo-novels about Marxism and have switched
to writing advertising copy, the modern functional equivalent of
their old gigs. Other fiction writers have gone into politics or
private enterprise or turned to journalism. As for Czech science
fiction, it's swamped by 40 years of American science fiction, previously
forbidden and now smothering the Czech scene in a sticky avalanche
of space opera and Tolkienesque fantasy. Some Czech writers are
finding that their sales soar when they write under English-sounding
Eva Hauserová is a very bright woman and she obviously has
a point. Feminism has scarcely made a dent here, and large tracts
of Bohemia are strip-mined or seared by acid rain. Czech life expectancy
is still dropping. Prague isnasty in the winter, when fogs and temperature
inversions turn it into a toxic soup of diesel fumes. The country's
primary exports are cement and steel, neither very good for your
lungs. Václav Klaus openly loathes environmentalists, and
has often declared that Greens are Reds in sheeps' clothing who
want to re-regulate the economy. There's a lot of work here for
an activist of Eva's description, but here she is, a gifted Czech
writer who is translating Harlequin romances. Something isn't right.
Doug Hajek has published Eva in his émigré literary
magazine, Yazzyk. I met Hajek in a happening little downtown bar-and-gallery
called Velryba (the Whale). We had lunch: a slab of fried cheese,
fried potatoes, and a little dab of shredded cabbage with a slice
of cucumber and tomato. And big, tall beers. Typical Czech lunch.
Yazzyk was founded in 1992 by Hajek, fellow Canadian Laura Busheikin,
and Californian Tony Ozuna. "We didn't want to say that we
had Havel or Skvorecky or Kundera," Hajek declared, forking
up his scanty greens with a will. "We want to publish new Czech
writers, people the West has never heard of!" To date, there
have been three issues of Yazzyk, which has a print run of 2,000.
It's the best-known émigré magazine here, with the
exception of Trafika, which prides itself on internationalism and
publishes writers from all over the world.
Yazzyk, by contrast, printed Egon Bondy, Eva Hauserová, Jana
Krejcarová, Michal Ajvaz, et even more obscure alia, plus
some of Prague's North American talent. The magazine had hoped to
break even, though it never has, quite. While busily cooking up
issue four, Hajek teaches English and manages a design and publishing
company called Aha, one of the first capitalist companies formally
and legally registered in the Czech Republic. Hajek is a 27-year-old
globetrotter who has been on the road for 10 years: Italy, Japan,
Argentina. Now he lives in Prague and has no plans to leave.
Yazzyk may not be the best little literary magazine on the planet,
but it's the best one to deal directly with this corner of it. I
highly recommend the Michal Ajvaz piece in issue three - "Hey!
This guy Ajvaz is good!" In the hard-hitting "Erotica,
Sexuality and Gender" issue there's a hot-and-heavy love letter
from the late Jana Krejcarová to Egon Bondy, circa 1962,
which is such an astonishing yowl of raw feminine passion, cut with
disquisitions on philosophy, that it makes one's respect for Bondy
Yazzyk is published in a fairly spacious (by Prague standards) office
in Blahoslavova Street, northwest Prague. The place is infested
with PCs, laser printers, scanners, and a fax (one lousy phone line,
unfortunately). Piloting the mouse in the back room is Aha business
associate, Yazzyk art director, and Hajek main squeeze Veronika
Bromová, 27. Veronika designs Yazzyk, posters, magazines,
photo exhibits, CD covers, Prague tourist guidebooks, rock-band
promotions, newsletters, and anything else that shows up and can
be fed into her new 486.
Despite his surname, Hajek isn't Czech. Most of his ancestors are
Ukrainian, and he picked up Czech by showing up in Prague and soaking
it up on the spot. Doug is a very smart guy.
There are probably a lot of guys in North America who dream wistfully
of kicking over the traces, flying to Prague, starting a way-arty
magazine that publishes cultural exotica and with-it, happening
people of your own generation, while, not incidentally, starting
up a flourishing personal corporation and taking up with an exotically
beautiful and artistically gifted girlfriend. But Doug Hajek has
actually done this stuff. It's not hype. Hajek never talks hype.
He's very practical; he just does the work. And it's real. It's
real like this desk is real.
Snapshots. I spent a couple of hospitable nights on the office couch
of émigré Robert Horvitz (email@example.com),
who is a media consultant for the Soros Foundation. Bob is a former
graphic artist turned network expert who works to develop radio
stations in Eastern Europe and frequently vanishes to sites in the
former Yugoslavia with a valise full of modems. His Serbian wife,
Biljana, is about to have their first child. Bob knows very well
what he's doing here in Prague. Bob looks to me like a happy man.
Doug Arellanes is a graphic artist and network expert who designs
computer interface graphics for Econnect, a nonprofit environmental
foundation. Doug Arellanes is one of the "Santa Barbara mafia,"
a group of 30 or so Gen-X types from the University of California,
Santa Barbara, who started Prognosis and work in journalism and
graphics. In classic Prague serendipitous fashion, Arellanes walked
into a bookstore where I was signing copies of the Czech edition
of my science-fiction novel and said, "What in hell are you
Later we had a beer at the Velryba and decamped to a cavernous cellar
restaurant, where I feasted on a monster joint of roast pork. Graphics
are happening here: there's Post, now there's Raut, and some of
the finest typographers and book designers in the world. Arellanes
just got his deft designer mitts on a PowerPC Mac, and someday he
hopes to fulfill the ultimate YAP dream: Western work at a Western
salary via the Internet from his rent-fixed Prague domicile, which
costs him 20 bucks a month. His dream looks eminently possible to
me. What else is TCP/IP for?
Jaroslav Olsa works for the Czech foreign ministry. He also publishes
science fiction, and his idea of a good time is getting Czech science-fiction
stories published in English in India. Jaroslav used to consider
it a wonderful forbidden thrill when he was able to cross the border
into Poland. Since the revolution, he's been to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon,
South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia, and is planning a trip to Fiji.
Jaroslav took me to the Marolda Panorama in Prague. Panoramas were
the 19th century's precognitive answer to virtual reality, a 360-degree
painted backdrop embedded in physical stage-setting.
Prague's Marolda Panorama was painted and set-designed in the 1890s,
and a friendly payoff to the sympathetic custodian got us in after
hours, entirely alone. The panorama shows the defeat of Europe's
first Protestant Reformation - here, worse luck to the Czechs, in
the Czech lands. It's a battle scene, where Hussite Czechs struggle,
heads uplifted, against a tide of angry foreign Catholics. They
lost, of course. The Czechs always lose. They haven't won a war
since 1620, and they lost that one, too. But they never give up.
There are pikes and spiked maces and charging cavalry and Hussite
war wagons, the western world's first mobile armor. There's blood
and swords and toppling standards, and creepy, wood-mounted, primitive
hand-cannon. Panoramas are a dead medium now, but 100 years ago,
panoramas were enormously popular. It's very virtual inside that
panorama, it's just as if you were there; but the horizons aren't
real and, you're actually inside the bitter nationalist visions
of some clever artist's head. The sense of wonder and eldritch nostalgia
is only accented by the clumsy retouching of the aging canvas.
Prague isn't all beautiful; out on the edges of town there are desolate
concrete sídliste, prefab workers' barracks that will probably
warp the lives of another generation. But the city center deserves
its fame: Prague is one of the few European cities to avoid the
20th century's tide of annihilation. The splendid Jugendstil Art
Nouveau architecture from before the first world war is so lovely
it makes one conclude, almost with a sense of despair, that everything
else built in this century is profoundly wrong. Maybe Prague really
is Second Chance City. That's far from proven, but at least there's
a chance to prove it.
Yet this is a very '90s city. Even its artistic problems are '90s
artistic problems: the struggle of a bewildered and put-upon generation
to speak authentically in an era whose central directive is to reduce
all art and all life to an infinitely replicable commodity, to turn
Kafka into a T-shirt and Havel into a carny attraction, to shrink-wrap
cultures as pasteurized package-tour exotica, to make art a bogus
knickknack and heritage the hottest-selling market segment of the
To talk about that artistically without becoming part of it is a
tough problem. But problems like that are a luxury. Without problems,
art can't exist. No people, no problems, as Stalin used to say.
There'd be no problems here if this city today were what it might
so easily have become, a smoldering slag-heap, littered with the
radioactive second-stage casings of American nuclear missiles. I'm
old enough to feel glad that I don't have that on my conscience.
I'm not a YAP, I'm not young, and I'm just passing through here.
But how marvelous to be an American and walk like a young god through
a city that your parents were grimly prepared to annihilate. How
wonderful to be an American writer in Prague, to have a perfect
chance to yammer out most any damned thing that enters your head,
in a city where people of genius once paid for free expression with
their lives and their health and their futures and their happiness.
And lost every battle, but won the war. How truly splendid that
And the Czechs are even getting rich. And the beer is every bit
as good as they say. And I even have a computer here.
God, I love the '90s.
Bruce Sterling, 1995.
Lovers of Literatura:
- Jirí Gruntorad founded the Libri Prohibiti Library, which
contains thousands of underground books and previously forbid-den
- Eva Hauserová was one of the country's more influential
science-fiction writers before the revolution. To make money, Eva
translates Harlequin romances, whacking out translations on her
PC clone in about a week.
- Doug Hajek publishes the émigré literary magazine
Yazzyk. It may not be the best literary magazine on the planet,
but it's the best one to deal with this corner of it.
Beyond the Beyond - Sterlings
Thanks to Bruce Sterling.