Why the Prague Summer Program for Writers Has Existed for Twenty-five Years, and Why It May Endure Another Twenty-five
As we come upon our 25th anniversary session, Richard Katrovas (PSP founder and director) and Ema Katrovas (PSP coordinator) reflect on the historical context of these past 25 years of the Prague Summer Program for Writers.
At the heart of the Prague Summer Program for Writers is the ethos of the Prague Spring, the spirit of Charter 77, and the gentle, wry, ironic, egalitarian, life-affirming hardheadedness of the great Vaclav Havel. My favorite anecdote (possibly an urban legend, though one true to the spirit of the time), from the Prague Spring is of Czech women posing seductively before Soviet tanks, casting come-hither glances, like velvet hand grenades, at the horny Russian boys within, and then fleeing. Such behavior today would not receive any Feminist Seal of Approval, but only the most fleckless ideologue would require one. Such a gesture, apocryphal or not, is quintessentially Czech. Charter 77 is among the more noble examples of a society’s artists and intellectuals asserting collective moral pressure upon the restrictive powers of the State, and Vaclav Havel–the Philosopher King, the Poet Prince, the Playwright President, the most luminous exponent, after Nelson Mandela, of resistance to the vast reactionary forces that rendered the 20th Century a bloody, apocalyptic mess–clarified, by the quality of his life (which is to say the quality of his resistance to oppression and to the failure of imagination that occasions evil), the intersection of the aesthetic and moral realms.
The Prague Summer Program’s reason for being is Prague itself, its history and the relation of its people to that history at the core of which is something akin to what the great English poet John Keats coined as “negative capability,” which in the Czech historical context is best exemplified by the grainy, black-and-white images of more than a hundred thousand Czechs gathered on Wenceslas Square to greet the invading German army; they gave the Nazi salute as they sang the Czech national anthem, “Where Is My Home?” Such an ironic mixed message was likely lost on the self-righteous jackboots and their doomed commander, Reinhardt Heydrich, who would be assassinated by the Czech Secret Services and was the only Nazi high official to be assassinated during the entire war. Two Czech villages were decimated as retaliation. It is more than interesting to note that Heydrich had famously characterized the Czechs as “laughing beasts.”
No people on Earth better exemplify the idea that the personal is indeed the political, and no other small-language literary tradition is richer and more essential to ethnic identity than that of the Czechs. The Prague Summer Program for Writers seeks to celebrate that tradition, and, through a more or less organic process of comparison/contrast, to contextualize big American ambition relative to the ambitions of world-class Czech writers whose work reaches wider audiences only through the alchemy of literary translation.
Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989, to which I was blessed to bear witness as a Fulbright fellow, represents one of history’s more shimmering confluences of hope and change, truth and beauty. The Prague Summer Program for Writers exists as a humble testimony to that spirit.
This Spring, I attended two protests on Wenceslas square. The first, on March 3rd, was against the appointment of Zdeněk Odráček to head the department of General Inspection of Security Forces. The second, on April 9th, was against our prime minister Andrej Babiš. Ondráček is a former communist policeman who, to this day, is brazenly unapologetic for beating protesters, including women, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Andrej Babiš collaborated with the StB (the Czech Secret Police) during the communist regime and is under investigation for fraud and conflict of interests concerning his businesses.
On March 3rd, Wenceslas square was packed with protesters. They sloshed onto metro entrances and onto the limbs of low trees lining the square. Someone played a drum in the middle of the crowd (I later saw a video that revealed the drummer to be a long-haired hippie type between thirty and forty; he looked as though he’d been sent by Central Casting), leading the chants: “There are thousands of us here!” “We´re not a herd of sheep!” “We´ll come again!” “Yes, it´s true, we´re being ruled by a member of the StB!” (The latter was in the form of a nursery rhyme.) People waved rolled-up pieces of paper representing the police club Ondráček used to beat protesters. There was also a 4-meter long white tube, which looked like one of those tunnels for dogs made of wire and fabric, being passed over the crowd which I only later learned was also supposed to represent a police club. People jangled their keys and sang the national anthem. There was an unmistakable atmosphere of nostalgia. Though the younger protesters were the loudest, there were protesters there who undoubtedly had stood on that square 27 years earlier during the Velvet Revolution (I recall one woman of about fifty holding up a sign that read, “I can´t believe I have to do this again.”) The younger protesters must have felt, as did I, a false nostalgia for a time they didn´t experience, that mythical time when our parents jingled their keys until the communists left, and, in my case, the mythical time of my unlikely conception. The older protesters must have felt nostalgia for a time when they had something unambiguous to fight for, a time when their values were pure or at least clear, a brief time when “sticking it to the man” (though by 1989 this was a nostalgic 60s sentiment, my father tells me) was as much a delicious pastime as a civic duty.
On April 9th, I met my mother walking down Klikovka street near our building. She was off to join the protest against our prime-minister Andrej Babiš. My mother is the woman beside whom (thanks to whom, really) my American father rang his keys on Wenceslas square during the Velvet Revolution and, incidentally, she is also the co-founder of the PSP. She had not been able to join the previous protest against Ondráček and was absolutely glowing with the prospect of participating in the protest against Babiš. Again, I could tell her participation wasn´t just about current politics but about nostalgia. I joined the protest later, with my dog, Toti, just in time to hear opera singer Dagmar Pecková warble our national anthem. The protest sprawled over the square, this time, and I heard a drum (I wonder if it was played by the same long-haired man from last time) in the distance, at the foot of the square. “Babiše do koše” everyone chanted, among other things, “Babiš into the trash” (rhymed, of course.)
After the first protest on March 3rd, prime-minister Babiš removed Ondráček from his post. Ondráček, clearly a man of gut reactions, did not depart gracefully. Babiš, however, got to play the role of a politician who listens to the people. The second protest (and the others that followed) against Babiš himself had little effect, of course.
Those who gathered on Wenceslas square this Fall and Spring to protest the rise to power of former communist collaborators were really protesting (and this was clear from the banners that focused as much on Babiš´s wealth and business interests as on his ties to the StB) a plutocrat who gained power by virtue of cutthroat machinations and shady business dealings. It seems that former communist collaborators make good businessmen. And, nowadays, as it turns out, businessmen make successful, if not particularly effective, politicians.
I stood on Wenceslas square in November, 2016, in a small crowd of ex-pats as well as Czechs, protesting the election of a shady, clownish multi-millionaire as American president. There was electricity in the air. There were witty banners in both Czech and English. There were, thankfully, no pink Pussy Hats. I thought about how lucky I was not to be living in the US. I was thankful to be there, underneath king Wenceslas´ statue, where I felt safe, protesting something on the other side of the ocean in a land I never have to live in again. I didn´t know the millionaire Babiš would become prime-minister and that the president who supported him, Miloš Zeman, a public drunk and anti-political-correctness performance artist, would be reelected. I didn´t consider that the idiotic nationalist populism infecting the US was a contagion to which Czechs also were susceptible, though, of course, I should have known.
My father´s words on the historical context of the Prague Summer Program are beautiful. The premise that the Prague Summer Program is a tribute to a great victory of democracy over totalitarianism is inspiring. We should see that past as a mere prelude to the future, however. It is not just Czechs who have a beautiful tradition of ironic protest. It´s artists. The PSP hopes to be part of a vast global community of such artists and of people who think, who question, and who, to varying degrees, resist. Sometimes resistance simply means becoming better at using language and telling stories. We hope to be part of that modest resistance.