|Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.|
Ludvík Vaculík, people. If you haven’t read The Guinea Pigs, go grab it and prepare for an amazing and low-key analysis of quiet horror. It’s no surprise that its author was involved in the Czech dissidence movement, along with Václav Havel and so many others. And so we shouldn’t ignore his non-fiction, whether it’s the 2000 Words manifesto, his current journalistic work, or the fantastic (so far, at least) little collection of his samizdat feuilletons that I picked up in the bargain bin the other day, A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator.
Some understanding of late-20th-century Czech history is helpful, but not necessary, to appreciating Vaculík’s insights into the sad and dangerous absurdities going on around him– as well as the sense of humor he often has when addressing them. His observations about his country’s accepted forms of discourse, for example, might as well be applied to the contemporary US political and social spheres. Remarking on France’s then-recent (1976) efforts to guard against the corruption of French by English, he notes that Czech requires no such wariness about other languages coming in and mucking it up:
“The difference in our case lies in that our language is being rotted from within, it is all due to rotten Czechs, if you like. They have a very limited vocabulary and almost unlimited scope for using it in public, a puny theme and a vast amount of patience in sticking to it, lean ideas and fat powers. These people have established something like a Basic Czech containing 850 words.” (1)
Analyzing in a later essay a tourist’s comment that he liked Czechoslovakia better than Greece because it was “freer,” Vaculík partially overcomes his amazement at the assertion by speculating that human freedom is something “wider” and other than political freedom. (2) Not that he isn’t all for the latter– but I’m guessing he would agree with his friend Havel’s conviction that no (broadly defined) technical measures will save anyone, if their spiritual states are empty and useless.
Ancient history to be committed to the dust (or bargain) bin, then? Not in the least. If you’re able to read these short essays and so many others that came out of this movement without seeing warning signs all over the place, please go back for a second round. Once I’m finished with this collection, I might do just that– both for a kick in the pants, and out of sheer admiration at what a person can pull together in three pages.
(1) Ludvík Vaculík, “Free to Use a Typewriter,” in A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator (Columbia, LA: Readers International, 1987), 1.
(2) Vaculík, “The Genie,” in A Cup of Coffee, 16.