Translation of address by Dr. Helena Kupcová at the Jan Křesadlo Commemorative Afternoon, Czech Embassy, London on Saturday, 17th May 1997
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about an author whom I consider to be a literary figure of the 21st Century. His novels and collections of short stories could be concluded with the same words that Stendhal used in closing his The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme; 1839)TO THE HAPPY FEW. Jan Křesadlo could also have been sure that his work would be read a hundred years on. Today's happy few who have discovered Jan Křesadlo's comprehensive and exceptional work amid the proliferation of older and contemporary Czech authors, will enter a world which is both demanding and entertaining, a space which is both wise and playful, bizarre and cruel - in truth the very world of our own happiness and anxiety.
When the reader comes up against Křesadlo's works of literature he is beset by a suspicion that he has come up against a phenomenon which has gone beyond the humanly possible, something out of this world. Perhaps Fate has simply played a lighthearted trick by placing so much talent into the being of one man - talent which would have sufficed for a number of successful men, Václav Pinkava, for that is Křesadlo's real name could have been a significant philologist. He had mastered both the written and spoken word of classical Latin and middle Latin, classical Greek, German (which he learnt from infancy at home), and also English, French, Spanish, Italian, but also Hungarian, Romany. Slovak, Upper Lusatian, Russian and Pali. During his student days he enrolled to study Sanskrit under Prof. Lesný, the expert in Europe. For his own purposes he constructed the Urogal language (Fuga Trium) and the Sub-Tuřín dialect (Obětina). He was fascinated by various alphabets - for example he was able to use the difficult Old Slavonic Glagolitic script to write the Czech language. He loved to play on words and this has become a trade mark of his personal style. He could have been a succesful musician. He had the gifts of an absolute ear for music and a superb voice. When, after the purges of February 1948 he became a member of Prague's Catholic semi-underground, his "missa parodica" Spiritus Flat Per Deserta, on the theme of Ježek's Vítr vane pouští, became a popular hit. His novel Vara Guru includes a musical score - Postmaster Kodra's Requiem - his own composition which was performed at the office of the mass for the deceased Václav Pinkava in the old church od Sv. Mikuláš in Vršovice. All his life he was involved in various musical activities, one of these was his experience of the world of funeral singers or "Mrchopěvci", which he describes in such a superb way in his literary debut, the novel which was awarded the Egon Hostovský prize. He was an active musician both at home and abroad. He could also have been a professional logician and mathematician. he was often invited to lecture at international conferences of higher mathematics because of his discovery of a broad class of functionally complete multiple-valued logics, named Pinkava Logics. he was so proud of this feat that it was his wish that the four symbols of the basic functors be carved in the corners of his headstone. He could have been a philosopher - he began his studies at University with this subject. He could have been a professional caricaturist - one who was both biting and witty, pleasant and merciless. One only has to look through the pen and ink drawings which he published in his novels - this time in the guise of illustrator Kamil Troud. he could have been, and in truth he was, an excellent clinical psychologist - both in Prague and in Colchester, where he worked his way up to the position of Principal Psychologist and became an honorary member of King§s College. London University. I personally believe that he could have been a much better literary historian than I am myself - if, that is, he had wanted to spend time on such ephemeral activity.
In the end he went professional with the one talent which I consider his greatest - he became a Czech writer in exile. As an author he remained a personality which was always different, one which withstood outside pressures, one which was received positively or negatively, but hardly ever with indifference. This controversial individualist lived life as a Czech at a time which demanded collective totalitarian assent. In the Czech lands of his birth he chose to take up the position of a solitary outsider, constantly prosecuted but never broken. The first such incident was during the Nazi occupation when he was expelled in his fourth year at grammar school for ridiculing German language teaching. The second time he was expelled from Charles University during the winter semester of 1948/49. It was only by a miracle that he was freed in a trial, naturally a political trial, during which he had been accused of preparing an armed uprising. he only narrowly escaped being conscripted into the notorious "Black Baron" unit. Thanks to an absurd stroke of luck he was able to return to university to study psychology in the 50s - a former employee of his father's business who was grateful that his boss had once paid for his false teeth had become a nomenclature cadre with influence over admissions to higher education. As a graduate Pinkava was only able to take up a position which no one else wanted - in the clinic for sexual deviations. This became a significant experience in his life. As late as 1968 after earlier delays he defended his thesis for the Candidature (the equivalent of a PhD) - which, in line with the Soviet model, was the only "ticket" to a place among experts, a place almost impossible to aspire to from outside the communist ranks - and in the autumn of the same year he emigrated to England, complete with his family.
Pinkava's life is chracteristic of that section of his generation which had never identified itself with the communist vision of a brighter tomorrow. This is the source of Křesadlo's almost obsessive distaste for Milan Kundera's view that the "better half" of the nation enthusiastically joined in the Marxist-Leninist ideology (Kniha smíchu a zapomění) and this is the source of the evaluative expressions "Stalinist Nightingale". He quite justifiably considered himself and those like himself to be the "better half" and this is the point of departure for his works.
His life experience together with his creative inventiveness and extensive reading are the fertile soil from which such interesting work grew. Křesadlo's entry onto the literary scene is marked by a number of handicaps. He made his debut as a prose writer at the age of 58 when others of his generation were already well settled and entrenched in their literary positions. He was an educated traditionalist who felt the link between the wrod art and artisan (n. a skilleed workman; craftsman), he valued the craft of literature - and he was master of it. What is more, he had what I call " the talent to horrify": he saw things as they are, not the way they should be. He knew about strange behaviour in abnormal situations, he wrote of unbridled passions, of the loss of common inhibitions, he was provocative in creating an atmosphere of looseness and the fall of social standards. The World Order is refuted, it turns int grotesque" The apparently closely familiar world is suddenly unmasked as strange and dishonest, the existing sense of direction fails and the curtain rises on the bizarre theatre of reality. Among the motifs of the grotesque are madmen and individuals who are mentally disturbed, there are anthropomorphic monsters, fantastic animals, mutants, in whom the features of various real life creatures are combined.
I would also like to mention a problem which has sometimes caused Křesadlo to be excluded from the ranks of Czech literature - it is the frequent motif of overexposed sex. Tha majority of critics fail to notice that in Křesadlo's work these moments are always a method for parody and radical irony. perversions, ritual sex, the whole palette of sexual deviations are for the author a fundamental metaphor for the failing of tried and tested conservative values and social instinct, a metaphor for barbarism, upheaval and chaos. Křesadlo was a moralist in the best sense of the word. Unusual sexual practices - as he called them - were a tool for ridiculing the semantically empty segments, always the subject of bitter parody. His rejections of cheap sentimental optimism, his distanced sarcasm, his biterness over socierty's rejection of wisdom - these are the reasons why Křesadlo destroys, why he violates the accepted codes of communication with intentional non-conformism. Křesadlo's insane world of fanatics and demagogues is deviant and extreme. The grotesque smashes the universal image of communist progress.
Radical eclecticism is a frequent element in Křesadlo's texts: his own personal experience of life combines with his knowledge stemming from extensive and indepth reading. The result is a text similar to the palimpsest of the Middle Ages. When the scribe scraped the original text off the parchment and then wrote his new text over it, the old text could still be seen behind the new. Similarly, in Křesadlo's works it is impossible to distinguish clearly between the elements of other works of literature and the author's own. The author himself continually comments on this syncretic structure, thus forcing the reader to notice it. he makes him play with meaning, search for it, ponder. Frequently Křesadlo imagines how he himself might have written someone else's text - and sometimes he also does so. For example he had read Fischl's idyll Kuropění and he wrote his own version of the life of the country doctor in the novel Zámecký pán aneb Antikuro.
When the reader enters the bizarre world that is Křesadlo's prose (a total of thirteen books have been published in the period 1984 -1996) he may well at first feel himself buried under a mound of examples of strange behavious in abnormal situations. The deeper he delves into that world, however, the more it will fascinate him. he will be able to appreciate how the wonderful narrative diverges into numerous digressions, how the author both entertains and torments him, and how he tactfully educates him. It is unfortunate that the reader only has access to a small selection of Křesadlo's poetry and that the exceptional translation of Seifert's Věnec Sonetů into English is so difficult to come by.
In conclusion I would like to express my hope -which is supported by the interest shown by my students - that the band of the "happy few" fans of Křesadlo's work will continue to grow and that you will alsofind your way to enjoy his legacy.
Dr. H. Kupcová, Charles University, Prague
translation by Eva Pinkavová