The man behind the writer
Vaclav Pinkava was a Czech writer-in-exile who lives on as Jan Kresadlo
By Alan Levy
Writing under the pen name of Jan Kresadlo (the name means flint and steel; his art name, Troud, means tinder), this modern-day Renaissance man published -- alas, only in Czech -- 13 novels in a dozen years, plus the authorized English version of Nobel Prize poet Jaroslav Seifert's Venec sonetu as A Wreath of Sonnets (co-translated with his daughter, Eva Stucke, under the joint pseudonym of J.K. Klement).
In May 1997 -- less than two years after his death of lung cancer at 68 in Colchester -- his admirers came together for a commemorative afternoon at the Czech Embassy in London, where Helena Kupcova of Charles University pronounced Kresadlo "a literary figure of the 21st century."
'An exceptional talent'
In an interview right after Pinkava's death, the novelist Josef Skvorecky -- whose emigre 68 Publishers Toronto issued the first three Kresadlo novels plus a bilingual edition with the Seifert translation -- told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the man was one of the most remarkable authors of the 20th century:
"He only started publishing his work very late in life ... so literary criticism has overlooked him until recently, when critics have recognized that he was not a bizarre scribbler, but a first-class author."
Skvorecky recalled his reaction to the manuscript of Kresadlo's first novel, Mrchopevci (which, in literal slang, means Stiff Singers, since its "hero," Zderad, is second tenor in a quartet that sings graveside at funerals): "I immediately realized that here was an exceptional talent." In its 68 Publishers edition, the book won the prestigious Egon Hostovsky Literature-in-Exile Prize for 1984.
In an afterword accompanying a highly welcome Czech/English bilingual edition of the novel, recently issued as Mrchopevci/GraveLarks Skvorecky adds:
"I consider ... Mrchopevci to be one of the most original, shocking, truthful and artistically very interesting works of contemporary Czech fiction. It is profound, ironic, witty and -- what is rare in today's writing -- it betrays a learned author who, in spite of the width and depth of his knowledge, has remained an acute observer of real life and real people. It is not often that one finds, in fiction of any nation, a portrayal of the Stalinist '50s that has been executed with so much freshness, incisiveness, charming cynicism, accuracy. ... It is also devoid of any sentimental seriousness and it makes excellent reading even for those who are not interested in the political background against which the macabre story is played out."
Though an obituary in Britain's The Independent placed Kresadlo "somewhere between Jaroslav Hasek [The Good Soldier Svejk] and Franz Kafka," and though Vladimir Novotny of the Institute for Czech Literature called him "a worthy successor to George Orwell as well as Graham Greene," this writer places Kresadlo closest to the late Vladimir Nabokov, who did his most exuberant work in exile. If, instead of being written by a literary scholar, Lolita had been the work of an expert on perverts and perversion still smarting from the perversion of language and values in his homeland, then Nabokov's lyrical hymn to a nymphet might have read more like GraveLarks. And as with Nabokov's other Great American Novel, Pale Fire, much of GraveLarks' action is to be found in the footnotes.
In an ode to the "interment industry," Kresadlo writes why Zderad finds solace in cemeteries:
"Numerous works of stonemasonry offer to educate in many respects, and the subtle melancholy of impermanence breathes forth from the inscriptions. Posters won't be found here exhorting one to 'vigilance and alertness' and for the fulfillment of the Five-Year Plan. The slogan, 'The Soviet gravedigger: our role model,' cannot be erected there."
This footnote follows: "Once, in a mental asylum -- in fact, in the psychiatric teaching unit of the university -- the inmates erected a placard, 'The Soviet madman: our model,' which was, of course, hastily removed. This really did happen."
Paying for false teeth paid off
Pinkava was born in Prague on Dec. 9, 1926, to a manufacturer of Bohemian cut glass. His mother was Czech descended from Italian nobility. Though German was the dominant tongue in the Bohemian glass industry, the boy was expelled from grammar school before his teens for protesting both the Nazi occupation and the compulsory teaching of German.
After the Germans themselves were expelled from his country, he completed high school in 1947 and was admitted to Charles University's Philosophy Faculty. But soon after the 1948 communist takeover, he was arrested and charged with complicity in organizing an armed uprising. Pinkava was lucky, however, that real judges had yet to be replaced by party hacks, so he was acquitted and escaped the mandatory death penalty. But he was expelled from the university, pressed into military service at the lowest rank, and denied live ammunition because he was a "political unreliable."
Returning to civilian life, he was miraculously readmitted to Charles University to study psychology. In the kind of absurd stroke of luck that permeates Pinkava's prose, a former employee of his father -- whose crystal business had been confiscated -- was now a high education official. Grateful that his ex-boss once paid for his false teeth, he greased the son's path.
Upon graduation in 1954, Pinkava took a job nobody else wanted -- in the university psychiatric teaching hospital's clinic for sexual deviations. But he was denied promotions -- first for his "wrong" past; then for refusing to join the Communist Party. In the thaw preceding the dawn of 1968's Prague Spring of reform, however, he was allowed to defend his doctoral thesis and to publish. But when the Soviet tanks came that August, he emigrated to England with his wife, daughter and three sons. Settling in Colchester, he rose to the post of head of psychology at Severalls Hospital.
Mrchopevci/GraveLarks is a family affair. The English version was translated by the author's daughter and two of his sons -- Vaclav, an information technologist here, and Pavel, a London trading wizard -- with Mark Sawko, a former BBC translator. The cover and illustrations are by second son Jan Pinkava, who won an Oscar in 1998 for best animated short film, Geri's Game.
The black-and-white illustrations are haunting, and so, too -- in a translation that is often poetic and sometimes clunky with bureaucratic words such as "respective" and "aforementioned" -- is Pinkava's odyssey into internal emigration as a writer in exile.
Alan Levy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org