The Unknown Renaissance Man and Writer: Jan Křesadlo

by Vladimír Novotný

literary critic at the Institute for Czech Literature
of the Czech Academy of Sciences and at the Social Science Faculty of Charles University.

(translation by VZJ Pinkava & Eva Pinkavová, first published in the British Czech and Slovak Association Newsletter of April 1997)

The literary cultural heritage of Central Europe in the 20th century tends to be associated with a few legendary names: Kafka, Werfel, Rilke, later Canetti or Milosz, and Milan Kundera, who is venerated more abroad than in his native country.

In truth, however, the world of Central European literature, encompassing the century as it draws to a close, is much richer than that and we witness many more inspirational authors, often denied the scope to publish during much of their lifetime, or, having lived and worked in exile, reaching their readership after an uncomfortable delay.

Such writers have paradoxically tended to enter the context of the domestic literary scene as latter-day novices, albeit swiftly acquiring the status of literary classics upon critical review.

In modern Czech literature, just such a living classic storyteller novelist was, until his premature demise, the author Jan Křesadlo (1926 - 1995), whose creative energy covered such areas as poetry, classical philology and music, as well as novel-writing.

He did not publish as a young man, was persecuted during the Nazi occupation of Prague and again after the Communist coup of 1948 and then spent years working at the Prague University Teaching Hospital outpatient clinic for sexual deviations.

After August 1968 Křesadlo opted for exile in Great Britain and settled with his immediate family in Colchester, where he worked as the Head of Psychology at Severalls Hospital. In Colchester, he was known under his own name of Dr. Václav Pinkava, and known for (among other things) his contributions to the theory of Multiple Valued Logics, and for being an active member of the Czechoslovak emigre community in London.

He started writing only in his retirement - whereupon his very first book, a biting political parody of the Czech situation under Stalinism - Mrchopěvci (the title is pejorative slang for Funeral Singers) won him the prestigious Egon Hostovský Literature-in-exile award in 1984.

Jan Křesadlo was more than a mere writer: thanks to his outlook on life and broad range of interests he fully represented The Renaissance Man. From his perspective, his books about the tragic absurdities of civilisation in Central Europe and beyond (in fictitious countries or on an invented planet mimicking Earth) are sarcastic moral tales, holding up a series of distorting mirrors to mankind.

That is not to say that Křesadlo's books are full of moralising lectures to his fellow man or monotonous pleading for moral rectitude: his world-view was, first and foremost, enlightened and knowing, and this artist and thinker harboured not the slightest doubt that this world is not reasonable or wise - that it can even fall prey to its own tendencies to entropy, and is capable of creating forms of society which are anti-life.

The period which Křesadlo experienced at first hand - life in Czechoslovakia during the time of the Soviet political protectorate, the time of political delusions and immense twisting of the moral fibre under power-struggle pressures - is an example of such an absurd social existence.

It was to this theme, this case-history of social co-existence, that the author constantly returned, linking it variously to a political form of sexual deviation, to the period of Satanism in Bohemia, to a time of lost faith and hope. His vantage point was his critical scepticism, his critical faculty, even more critical as more values were forsaken, in particular as mind-science and morality were reaching their nadir beyond Central Europe.

Jan Křesadlo's books are a body of fascinating postmodern parables of European and Czech social circumstances in the latter half of the 20th century, and his thematic excursions into other times and foreign space (something to which he devoted his monumental epic Astronautilia, written in parallel Czech and Ancient Greek verse!) are sarcastic metaphors, illustrating the loss of humanity in a period of history which seems to have entirely lost its sense of direction.

With this view of the world and Man's place within the scheme of things, Křesadlo makes a worthy successor to George Orwell as well as Graham Greene (in particular in his trilogy Fuga Trium) but by contrast we find in his work an incomparably broader palette of genres, ranging from anti-utopian sci-fi (Girgal) through surrealist poetry in prose (Dvacet snů), allegorical poetry satire (Vertikální spílání) right up to a party-piece discourse debunking the false legends of Czech exile (Obětina).

Even where Jan Křesadlo seems to be merely depicting those obscure and bizarre, albeit characteristic aspects of Czech provincial life (e.g. in the novel Vara Guru or in Království české a jiné polokatolické povídky), his effervescent, vivid storytelling is once again a metaphor for the inescapable issues of existence in the modern world.

At the same time he manages to combine a higher plane of universalistic discourse about the world at large with a remarkable empathy for all his figures, of whom he tends to speak with the hint of a smile, putting them in enlightened perspective, which, however, often ends in a wincing grimace.

This peerless creator is only gradually being discovered by Czech literature, but it is clear that literature's future beckons to this exceptional writer and polymath. For the world according to Křesadlo will not go away. Quite possibly, the world will increasingly become Křesadlo's world.