It’s too late now

My life began in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren and I am likely to end my days in the Czech Republic.  As it happens, at the start and at the end of my life there it was an entity from which Slovakia has been cut off. However, the majority of my life took place in Czechoslovakia. Does that make me feel a Czech or a Czechoslovak? I would say that things are more complicated, especially in my case.

Let me explain.

My grandfather on my mother’’s side was a Ukrainian. His name was Žyla and he was the grandson of an Orthodox bishop from the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, who had reached these parts sometime in early nineteenth century. My grandmother on my mother’’s side (i.e. his wife) née Emilie Hübelová, was a German. My other grandmother came from the Polish Simonides family that had settled in Moravia several generations back. Her husband, my grandfather on my father’’s side, was a full-blooded Moravian. That makes me one quarter Czech (Moravian), another quarter Pole, a quarter German and a quarter Ukrainian. Let’s say Central European which is an ideal genetic make-up suited for life in the European Union.

But this is where the problem lies. For that to be true, I would have to feel wholly positive towards this family trousseau and each one of its national branches. And I have to admit shamefacedly that this, unfortunately, is not the case. As a little boy I used to be embarrassed by the fact that our door was adorned with a strange name whose Ukrainian otherness and spelling irritated me. And the only Ukrainian writer I know (and love) is Nikolai Gogol. But he wrote in Russian and russified his original Ukrainian name. When a few years ago my compartment on the night train from Prague to Brno was invaded by a bunch of Ukrainians,  instead of friendly fraternization I felt only fear and when we arrived in Brno I was relieved to be rid of their intrusiveness, veering between bear-like heartiness and explosive aggression. Of course, I did not admit to my Ukrainian grandfather.

German used to be a taboo language in our family because the wild expulsion [without a legal sanction]  of her parents had marked my mother for life. What happened was that my Ukrainian grandfather had declared himself a German too (maybe out of fear that he might otherwise end up in a German concentration camp), so after the war he was expelled together with his German wife. (Influential friends from my Father’‘s partisan days pulled some strings and they were allowed to return to a camp near Mikulov).  That is why, ever since my childhood, everything that is connected with German makes me feel anxious.

Although my literary career started through short stories inspired by Sławomir Mrożek, I have never learned Polish,  I don’’t have a clue about contemporary Polish literature and the Poles don’’t seem to be in a hurry to translate my books either.

My father’’s father came from a ironsmith dynasty based in the village of Dolní Kounice. After studies in Rome he devoted his time to philosophy describing himself as a Moravian neo-Thomist philosopher.  Even though I now live on my grandfather’s turf, not far from Dolní Kounice, I can’t say I feel a great affinity with Moravianness and consider myself a Czech.

I apologise for this extended introduction and will now return to the crux of the matter.

So I consider myself a Czech.  It will take some time and effort for me to identify with the idea of a wider Europeanness.  However, what I am quite certain of is my Czechoslovakianness.  It is inseparable from me even though I do not feel any (rational) inclination for it.  I am not keen on the morass of nostalgia it is drowning in, especially as everything is completely different now. Nevertheless, being a Czechoslovak is a natural and irreversible fact of life that I have come to accept. It was in Slovakia, in Kláštor pod Znievom, that I met one of my first platonic loves.  Another, not so platonic one, is living in Zvolen. My literary Czech has been influenced by Slovak inflections with scores of Slovak words just waiting for an opportunity to happily invade  my Czech literary texts.  As a young boy, before I even knew Baudelaire and Rimbaud, I was enchanted by the poetry of Ivan Krasko from his collection Nox et Solitudo and learned many of his Slovak poems by heart. Later I was fascinated by the Slovak surrealists and, soon afterwards, the Slovak existentialists. I had the honour of meeting great personalities such as Dominik Tatarka, Ján Johanides, Ivan Kadlečík, Miro Kusý and the pataphysician Albert Marenčin (to whom I would like to send special regards).  Czechoslovakism (what an awful word!) or, more precisely, the feeling that Czechs and Slovaks are one nation separated only by a language, is forever engraved on my Czech soul. It’s too late now; I haven’’t got that much time left.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

We are grateful to Jiří Kratochvil for the permission to publish this text in English.