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Vaclav Havel

The Prague Orgy:
An American Writer’s Take on Communist Czechoslovakia

in Current Issue/Reviews

by Bryan Felber

“What good is socialism if when I want to nobody will fuck me?” (Prague Orgy 37). Biting one-liners like this are packed tight into the novella, The Prague Orgy, penned by the irreverent yet reputable Jewish American writer, Philip Roth. The book, which has recently been adapted for the screen by Czech filmmaker Irena Pavlásková, is inspired by the real-life visits Roth made to Prague during the mid-70s. In the fiction, the essence of his many yearly visits is distilled into a single dramatic journey behind the Iron Curtain where Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is attempting to rescue the unpublished manuscripts of a dead Yiddish writer from the clutches of its maniacal keeper, Olga Sisovska, and past the ever-looming surveillance of the communist authorities. In real-life, Roth was meeting with writers like Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ludvík Vaculík, and Karol Sidon, compiling the works of these Czech dissident writers to be published in America. So the idea of saving literary talent from obscurity was an actual feat Roth successfully performed, but his visits did not leave him unscathed.

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Havel Underground: A synthesis of artistic freedom and socio-political responsibility

in Posts/Views

by Matthew Somerville

The literary scholar, René Wellek, hypothesized that in the history of the Czech nation, only rarely has artistic creativeness coincided with periods of “intellectual advance and political good fortune” (29-30). For Wellek, there appears in Czechoslovakia a deep antagonism between the mind and soul, between contemplation and external business (30). There is merit in Wellek’s claim; for, the artist, if they are to remain true to their art, laments living in the head and only wishes to be left in peace to make art for art’s sake. Save for those times when a euphoric atmosphere overflows in a heady wave of anticipation and hope, when the nation calls forth the civic duty of the artist to shepherd the flock toward a new tomorrow, and excepting those times when the artist is co-opted, corrupted, or coerced into propagandizing political ideology, the artistic soul typically refrains, hides out of sight, or up and flees. Václav Havel often expressed the desire to be left alone to write in peace and quiet; yet, he was moved by what he considered a destiny of responsibility to speak for those who were unable to speak for themselves. Havel’s rise to the presidency in 1990 heralds one of those rare moments in Czech history where a synthesis of artistic expression and political good fortune is evident; a synthesis perceived not only in Havel’s symbolic turn from dissident playwright to political essayist, but in a humanist politics that seeks primarily to defend the rights of the individual. Whether or not the regime was destined to fall as it ultimately did in 1989, Havel’s directorship as one of the founding members and authors behind Charter 77 played a key role in the transition to democratic freedom. His rise to the presidency was activated through his engagement with the counter-culture movement and inspired by the underground movement’s refusal to live within a lie, and their initiative to free themselves by their own efforts, regardless of the personal sacrifices required.

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