Czech poet, critic, dissident and diplomat Jiří Gruša has died in Germany, where he lived, while undergoing a heart operation. The Prague Post last talked to Gruša in 2009. A transcript of the interview is included below.
Gruša was born in Pardubice and later moved to Prague, where he moved in dissident in literary circles. He was banned from publishing after becoming a Charta 77 signatory. He was jailed after the publication of his first novel Dotazník (The Questionnaire) in 1980 and subsequently moved to Germany. He received the Jaroslav Seifert Prize in 2002, the New Culture of New Europe Award in 2006 and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France in 2007.
The Prague Post: How do you feel about the Czech Republic’s current place in European and world politics? For example, critics of the proposed U.S. radar base say that the Czech Republic is still being used as a pawn for superpowers.
Jiři Gruša: To get a proper place in this new context, it is necessary to leave our dirty soap opera, because even pawns must pose questions. Without critical questions, there is no responsibility. This is the reason for my departure from the Czech Republic. I am now leaving Austria – for Germany again – but not for retirement. It is my second exile, a voluntary and definitive one.
TPP: In a recent interview, you said, “Research on the Czech type of totalitarianism is crucial.” How is Czech totalitarianism different?
JG: [The Czech Republic is] the only nation that helped to create its own totalitarian system with a ballot in hand. Czechs, who chose national communism, contrast the Germans, who chose National Socialism. We are the chosen people of red rubbish. The consequence – which you can see in the last crisis in the Czech Republic – is a low immunity against populist power.
TPP: You have identified “the threshold of memory” for a nation’s recovery from historical trauma as 60 to 80 years. Are Czechs actively working through this process, or simply embracing the new future of Western culture?
JG: We have embraced the new future with a very old form of conformity.
TPP: Some have pointed to the prosecution of Ludmila Brožová-Polednová and the recent scandal involving Milan Kundera as attempts to clean “the skeletons” from the nation’s past. Do you see any logic in this, or is the timing of both incidents coincidental?
JG: Thank God for this first small step. Nevertheless, we needed nearly two decades to punish even slightly the lady whose name you have mentioned, who ordered maybe the most awful judicial murder after the Second World War: the execution of Milada Horáková, a courageous woman for whose life Einstein intervened. And we vilify Milan Kundera – our most famous writer – but not the problem of communist propaganda writing that he was a part of only in his young years. Therefore, we are not able to expose the damaging claustrophobia of Klaus, though he represents our true continuity: that of complete collaboration.
TPP: What are some specific Czech character traits?
JG: There is a kind of Czech trinity. First, we accept God, but we know that He doesn’t care about anything. Second, we love His Son, but we don’t imitate his masochistic self-sacrificing rituals. Third, we know that the Holy Spirit can be inspired by beer.
TPP: How did the inability to publish during communism affect your writing style?
JG: If you’ve survived, the past looks easy. If you were not allowed to publish, you were able to understand the traps of publicity. You can interpret publication as a risky tool.
TPP: You certainly have a very diverse resumé: poet, translator, critic, diplomat and politician. How did you make the transition from literature to politics?
JG: Your ordering of my diversity is very seductive. I would like to go in the direction you have described, but the other way around, and close my journey as a poet again.
TPP: Does poetry, rather than prose, have the ability to grapple with the political and humanitarian crises that this country suffered in the 20th century? What is poetry’s role in the face of such atrocities?
JG: Every country – at least in Europe – has delivered awful poets for nationalistic, heroic or historic glorification. No villainy would have been possible without such poets. If poetry is to grapple with new issues, it must have courage and temperance at the same time, because the type of poetry you are asking about means naming things that have never been named. The Holocaust, for example, signifies an inferno, so you only need a new Dante to describe it.