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a single dramatic journey behind the Iron Curtain where Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is attempting to rescue the unpublished manuscripts of a dead Yiddish writer from the clutches of its maniacal keeper, Olga Sisovska, and past the ever-looming surveillance of the communist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.
His brushes with the secret police and his observations of his surroundings left him with a unique experience that was wholly outside his privileged free speech existence. He is struck by the apathy that pervaded the general culture and the injustice that was wrought upon the “subversive” writers. They were made to work menial jobs and expelled from the Writers’ Union, “forbidden to publish or to teach or to travel or to drive a car or to earn a proper livelihood each at his or her preferred calling” (Why Write? 369). In totalitarian societies where the culture and media are rigidly top-down controlled, the job of the writer as a truth-teller is of fundamental importance. Understandably, free writers from America are drawn to this censored and surveilled society where their craft takes on a new critical dimension. But as Olga puts it, “All the great international figures come to Prague to see our oppression, but none of them will ever fuck me. Why is that?” (Prague Orgy 37). Because perhaps when apathy and cynicism supplant creativity and hope and writers are unable to engage in the truth-telling and self-expression that empowers themselves and others, they turn to their only remaining source of autonomy: sex.
While it was the lure of visiting Kafka’s old stomping grounds that initially brought Roth to Prague, in due form, he would experience the palpable ostracization and unwantedness that the famous Prague Jewish writer suffered from all his life. Consider the final lines of Roth’s novella, when the protagonist passes border control and the guard bids him farewell: “‘Ah yes, […] Zuckerman the Zionist agent […] An honor [..] to have entertained you here, sir. Now back to the little world around the corner’” (Prague Orgy 85). The anti-Semitism that the communist authorities flout throughout the work is one issue the author wants to bring to light. But there is no evidence that anti-Semitism was widespread among Czech people, as Roth also confirms in his work. The authorities simply use anti-Semitism as a means of gaining favor with the Soviets and being promoted to higher rankings in the communist party. Labelling anyone who is Jewish or affiliated with Jewish topics as a Zionist conspirator appears to be more opportunistic reductionism than anything else. While Allen Ginsberg was also detained and forced to leave the country a decade prior, it’s clear his notoriety as a writer was the main reason for his expulsion, not his Jewish background. Nonetheless, the anti-Semitic remarks that the communist authorities continue to use freely in Roth’s work show that this is an aspect of the oppression that Roth personally felt.
In a society where hope is dying on the vine, mundanity is offered, assumed, or provided as the explanation of every question, encounter, or mystery. Take the case of the dead Yiddish writer whose manuscripts could rival the work of Kafka. The son of this mystery man is Czech defected writer, Zdenek Sisovsky. While Zdenek tells Zuckerman that his father was shot dead by a cruel Gestapo officer, Olga has a different story:
‘Sisovky’s father was killed in a bus accident. Sisovsky’s father hid in the bathroom of a Gentile friend, hid there through the war from the Nazis, and his friend brought him cigarettes and whores […] They all say their fathers were killed by the Nazis. By now even the sixteen-year-old girls know not to believe them. Only people like you, only a shallow, sentimental, American idiot Jew who thinks there is virtue in suffering.’ (Prague Orgy 58-59)
The audience must decide whether to believe Zdenek or Olga. But what is clear is that Olga’s version resigns itself to the ordinary. The fantastic persecution story becomes a mundane city accident following an unglorified life in hiding. She is emblematic of the culture; there is denial of other’s suffering and a willingness to embrace the prosaic explanation over the sentimental.
This is the city I imagined the Jews would buy when they had accumulated enough money for a homeland […] a used city, a broken city, a city so worn and grim that nobody else would even put in a bid. (Prague Orgy 62)
While the motivation for Roth’s real-life visits lied primarily in rescuing literature from communist censorship, his fiction deals much more heavily with the idea of old-world Judaism and a sense of wanting to salvage or symbolically honor it. He is risking his personal safety for some Yiddish manuscripts that may not even be any good. As he reflects in his journal, there is a very personal motivation for this:“Still the son, still the child, in strenuous pursuit of the father’s loving response? (even when the father is Sisovsky’s?)” (Prague Orgy 67). It is clear Zuckerman is not simply acting in solidarity of oppressed writers. He is compelled by a paternal complex that runs analogous to his felt ancestral duties, symbolically saving the memory of the European Jews who in actuality had no saviors during the Holocaust. Due to its epistolary form, the author is able to unleash these personal reflections. The most memorable comes during a stroll across Charles Bridge when Roth merges his childhood conception of a would-be Jewish homeland with run-down medieval-looking Prague:
The old-time streetcars, the barren shops, the soot-blackened bridges, the tunneled alleys and medieval streets, the people in a state of impervious heaviness, their faces shut down by solemnity, faces that appear to be on strike against life—this is the city I imagined during the war’s worst years, when, as a Hebrew-school student of little more than nine, I went out after supper with my blue-and-white collection can to solicit from the neighbors for the Jewish National Fund. This is the city I imagined the Jews would buy when they had accumulated enough money for a homeland […] a used city, a broken city, a city so worn and grim that nobody else would even put in a bid. (Prague Orgy 62)
Irena Pavlásková included this inner monologue in the film. Roth uses irony, characteristic of Czech culture, parlaying it into his conception of a would-be homeland for the Jews. This is not a land of milk and honey but of “leaky pipes and moldy walls and rotting timbers and smoking stoves and simmering cabbages souring the air of the semidark stairwells (Prague Orgy 63). And once again, Roth nudges to the expectation of suffering entrenched in Jewish identity as he describes the would-be inhabitants huddled together, telling stories, and that “when you see the Jewish faces mastering anxiety and feigning innocence and registering astonishment at their own fortitude—you ought to stand and put your hand to your heart” (Prague Orgy 64). The spiraling stream of sentiment places Jewish identity onto the Prague landscape, or rather, it re-introduces Jewish culture to a city that has been stripped of it and any other culture for that matter.
It’s difficult for any visitor, or even local Praguers, to be devoid of similar musings when stalking the century-old streets. But during the Soviet era, original thoughts like this might never make it to the page, even of a home-kept diary, for fear of retribution. Through their relentless persecution of the written word, the communist system both validated and invalidated the maxim that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Their obsessive fear of its potential powers shows that it is true while their effective campaign of punishing those who used it freely evidenced that the sword could suppress it, albeit temporarily. Roth, however, has an altogether different angle: “Mightier than the sword? This place is proof that a book isn’t as mighty as the mind of its most benighted reader” (Prague Orgy 61). The ignorant reader has ascended to the role of governance. The clueless communist authorities are tasked with spying on the intelligentsia but are laughably out of their depth. Roth jokes earlier in the book how one spy was so bad at writing reports that he allowed his subject to write the reports for him! Ignorance along with apathy are holding the reins of control so literature that cannot or does not want to be understood is rendered powerless.
In his New Year’s address (3), Vaclav Havel remarked that the human spirit “slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy.” Havel is not in Roth’s book, but Pavlásková gives Viktor Dvořák, the actor who played him in the recent biopic Havel, a cameo in the film. Regardless, the sense of apathy, which was propagated by the communist authorities is summed up perfectly by the words of the bullyish Minister of Culture who is in the process of deporting Zuckerman. Like his deportee, he too reflects on his father, only his is much different:
“My father is a simple machinist, now long retired, and do you know how he has made his contribution to the survival of Czech culture and the Czech people and the Czech language—even of Czech literature? […] In 1937 he praised Masaryk and the Republic, praised Masaryk as our great national hero and saviour. When Hitler came in he praised Hitler. After the war he praised Beneš when he was elected prime minister. When Stalin threw Beneš out, he praised Stalin and our great leader Gottwald. Even when Dubček came in, for a few minutes he praised Dubček. But now that Dubček and his great reform government are gone, he would not dream of praising them. Do you know what he tells me now? […] He says to me, ‘Son, if someone called Jan Hus nothing but a dirty Jew, I would agree.’” (Prague Orgy 81-83)
Again embedding anti-Semitism into the persona of the Czech communist official, Roth makes clear that this is a pervasive element of the ruling class’s ideology. But that aside, the point of the Minister is that Czech people should go along with whatever is the ruling narrative. It’s perfectly logical how a communist collaborator would come to this conclusion since it was siding with the more powerful Russians that brought him to his position of power. While the counterpoint would be that resignation, silence, begrudged acceptance, submission, and obedience are simply euphemisms for cowardice in the face of overt injustice, the Minister would have it known that acts of bravery are overrated; the public should not care about standing up for what is right and doing so is even embarrassing. His depiction of a Czech chameleon, that changes its colors based on its political environment, is a national insult to those who choose bravery but a comforter for those who choose inaction. The Minister talks about his father sitting quietly in his little home, smoking his pipe, and drinking his beer (Prague Orgy 82). The model Czech therefore is someone who understands what is important in life, enjoying the simple pleasures and ignoring political currents that are too big to challenge. Standing by as your neighbors are taken away and murdered is acceptable. In this way, he is able to assuage public guilt and sell shameless obedience in one patriotic ode.
He says to me, ‘Son, if someone called Jan Hus nothing but a dirty Jew, I would agree.’” (Prague Orgy 81-83)
How enduring is this legacy of apathy that was espoused and cultivated by the Czechoslovakian communists? Just after the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel remarked on the cynicism of Czechs as something quite unlikely to yield the revolution that came:
Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way.
Havel goes on to provide a twofold explanation for this. One, that there is some innate human spirit that can never be overcome by an external oppressor and two, that democratic traditions were passed down generationally, in secret, until the right time came. The passing down of tradition, whether it’s the ideals of freedom, virtue, or religion is something that transcends political fluctuations. But the Velvet Revolution could also prove true the Minister’s cynical perspective: that Czechs will go along with the latest trend—in this case, freedom and democracy. Surely, during the transition, many politicians would have seen freedom and democracy as inevitable choices given the overwhelming public sentiment without truly believing it. But the result is the same: freedom has won, apathy is on the retreat as evidenced by the outpouring of support for Ukraine in the face of a totalitarian takeover, and writers can put down the broomstick, hop off the delivery bike, and pick up the pen to craft a more truthful and robust story of the future of the Czech lands.
Roth, Philip. The Prague Orgy. E-book ed., Vintage International. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle.
Roth, Philip. Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction, 1960-2013. The Library of America, 2017.