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That the English version of this
book was published almost a year before the Czech is hardly surprising. Miroslav Holub,
like several other Czech writers the majority of whose careers were overshadowed by a
repressive regime, learned to rely on audiences and languages beyond his homeland. Milan
Kundera, who now writes in French, comes to mind; Josef Sakvorecký too, whose novels
occupy a strange hinterland between Czech and English and can only be fully appreciated by
those readers who know both languages; and the most poignant case of all is that of Ivan
Blatný, a gifted lyric poet who emigrated to England in the 1950s and lived out his years
in mental asylums writing bizarre and at times brilliant macaronic poetry which moved from
line to line between English, German and Czech. It is in such dislocations of language
that political repression leaves its most lasting mark, and not in the literature of overt
dissidence, which the younger generation of Czech critics is now discovering to be dull
and repetitious, however courageous and necessary it was in the years of left-wing
Holub has remarked that the process of translation into
English is an integral part of his creative process, with the arrival of the English
version often making him turn back to change the Czech text. This makes it difficult then
to approach The Rampage as a translation of Narození Sisyfovo,
because it is in a strange way the original also. (I should also say that the Czech text
of the book which I have is an uncorrected proof so it is possible that even more changes
will be made in the light of the publication of the English text.) One of the consequences
of this is that nothing, on balance, is lost in translation. There is a world of
difference between reading, say, Seamus Heaney or Paul Valéry in the original and in
translation, but Holub's Czech holds no pleasures not available in English.
Indeed, he is a more integral part of British poetry than Czech.
One can hear him echoing in many British poets, whereas on the Czech scene while he is
acknowledged as a senior poet, he is by no means a central one. An excellent recent study
of Czech poetry did not even mention him in the index. I asked a Czech poet why few people
in the Czech Republic read him and he said there are two reasons: one, that he is a
scientist (and how could a scientist be a poet too?) ; two, that his dissident papers are
not in order. By this he meant that Holub continued working as a scientist through the
"normalisation" period of the 1970s and while he only began publishing again in
the 1980s when there was a political thaw, it was still a time in which many of his fellow
writers could not work or publish, and in some cases suffered brutal treatment at the
hands of the State.
The first reason is not really worth addressing and says more
about Romantic ideas the Czechs still have about their poets than about Holub's poetry.
The second is more understandable, but it is hard to imagine foreign readers or later
generations of Czechs caring much about such gradations of guilt. Holub was neither the
court poet of a dictator nor did he protest and suffer (as for instance Véclav Havel). He
belonged, as did most people, to what is called the "grey zone" : not for the
regime, but not speaking out openly against it either. (In this respect it is worth
remarking that the title of "non-person" which described him in the blurbs of
his English collections is misleading; it has no equivalent in Czech.)
Arguably his occupation of this grey zone, with its special
tensions and threats, created his allure for English readers. Knowing that the writer
lived in a Communist country encouraged them to read a coded political meaning into
everything. Holub's unrelenting use of the perspective and vocabulary of science slotted
in well here too, as it enabled comparisons between the hubris of political power and the
more fundamental horizon of nature, as revealed through the microscope. Thus all the
presumptions of dictators and Romantic idealisations could be curtly demolished with a
knowing smirk. That Holub's most natural form is allegory also helped, as it encouraged
the reader to look constantly between the lines for traces of lives under pressure, for
desperate messages in bottles washed up on the shores of England and America (even when
Holub was driving at something different).
Now, almost ten years after the fall of Communism, Holub, like
other Central European writers whose back catalogues are beginning to look like
yesterday's news, faces a new challenge. The subtitle of the Czech text ("Poems
1989-1997") boldly indicates his intention to chart the course of the nation since
the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Typical of this mode is 'At Last' :
At last we were masters of our heads,
masters of the city,
masters of our shadows
and our equinox.
But we couldn't step out
of our doorways;
someone might cast
a spell on us.
We might even
Elsewhere he confronts the excesses of
capitalism in the Wild East, where "for the murder of, say, a creditor, one pays/
less than for a Mercedes 230". And there is a clear-eyed pathos in his descriptions
of the suffering of children.
But for the most part the book, as William Scammell remarked,
displays a "preachiness, garnished with the periodic table". His continued use
of allegory is also somewhat tired and in places obscure. It is as though Holub has
registered the political changes on the level of content but not on the level of form.
Allegory was an important device for encoding meanings subversive of left-wing hegemony in
the dark days, but his continued use of the mode in The Rampage looks like a case
of habit winning over the impulse to observe and reassess. I doubt if even the back-room
boys at the Kremlin or the Pentagon could get to the bottom of this:
In a barred chamber
on web-draped walls
the coffee dregs mount
the oriental silence of being
and the only human drama
is premature ejaculation.
Imagine this is written by a poet under pressure in a land of
which you know little: you crane to attend to the meaning. Imagine it's by a middle-class
man living in a country much like your own: it's just a vatic mumble.
Now that Communism is gone, the poets of Central Europe and
Russia will have to find other reasons to engage us. Holub, insofar as he is stuck in old
grooves, is representative of Czech poetry in general at the moment. Poets here have not
yet managed to move beyond the divisions and allegiances of the past, with a lot of work
still derivative of the Beats and the Surrealists. Perhaps most interesting of all are the
recent revelations of poetry which very few people (even among those in the samizdat
loop) knew about during the 40-odd years of Communism. For instance, last year the senior
playwright Josef Topol published to great acclaim a collected poems, a body of work hardly
anyone suspected of existing. And there has been a steady stream of posthumous publication
of the works of Ivan Blatný. It is this recovery of the unknown past that probably holds
the most hope of exciting developments in Czech poetry for the next decade or so.