Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
A Testimony of Failure:
Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate
Jako ptak na drate (Like a Bird on a Wire)
Although almost ten years have passed since the fall of Communism in the Czech Republic, so far one has not been able to say that a distinct, new Czech literature has emerged, which convincingly and authentically describes the post-1989 situation. For example, as far as I know, no Czech author has examined the huge differences in the perception of reality which exist between different generations of Czechs, depending on which regime they experienced and were shaped by.
Czech literary historians have long pointed out that after 1989, Czech literature was ruled by a confusion which reflected the chaos and instability that prevailed in post-Communist Czech society. Since 1989, several autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works have appeared whose authors attempt to grasp the surrounding chaotic reality from a subjective, personal perspective and attempt to force upon that reality a particular interpretation and a particular character.
Among these works one must undoubtedly include Jachym Topol's extensive, and unfortunately after the first hundred pages in my opinion almost unbearable, excessively "baroque" outburst Sestra (Sister, Prague 1994, soon to appear in English translation through Catbird Press) and the two-volume diary of the young (predominantly documentary) filmmaker Igor Chaun. Martin Fendrych more or less admiringly cites Chaun's work as a model of its kind. He also mentions Ludvik Vaculik's Cesky snar (The Czech Dreambook) (Toronto, 1983). Obviously, for Fendrych both of these works served as examples.
Vaculik's Cesky snar is an interesting experiment. Like Fendrych's work, Cesky snar is an open, extensive and sincere testimony (Vaculik's book has 635 pages!) about the author's immediate life and about the life of Czech dissidents in the Prague ghetto of the 1970s and 80s.
When, after many longer years of silence, Vaculik wrote Cesky snar, some dissidents criticized his testimony for being so direct and open as to be disclosing. In other words, that the book revealed so much about dissidents that it provided a good source of information for the Czechoslovak Communist secret police.
Surely, by publishing his Jako ptak na drate (Like a Bird on a Wire), Martin Fendrych is offering himself up to similar rebukes. It is a paradox. Although the book is good, it paints an unflattering picture of Fendrych himself and the politicians with which he associated and worked. Intelligent people, used to practicing a certain amount of self-censorship in their journalistic work (Radio Free Europe commentator Martin Schulz, for example), are quoted in Fendrych's book as basically saying that the work is very good and authentic, but not publishable in the Czech Republic.
Vaculik's work is difficult. Cesky snar is a book that delicately balances on the border between fiction and reality: only with great difficulty is the reader able to distinguish between documentary testimony and Vaculik's created fiction. The most interesting aspect of the work is founded on this very tension between a documentary approach and fictional narrative.
Fendrych's book is a different matter. The difficulty lies in the fact that if Martin Fendrych is known at all in the Czech Republic, then he is known primarily as a politician (Fendrych spent seven years as deputy minister of the interior, during the period that Jan Ruml was head of the Ministry). Therefore, the reader necessarily opens Fendrych's book first as the testimony of a politician. From this perspective, Fendrych's underground text is rather shocking:
I got up unusually early, for me, that is, like Alena, at six thirty. At first, I always just lie there, on my stomach, the pole, which by means of various imagined buttocks, breasts and other fragments I turn into something acceptable for adults and children, something small, modest and bat-like (by the way there is an awful, saintly, mindless pride in a hard-on). Then I roll over onto the floor and do my sit-ups and push-ups, because since my knee-operation, I am unable to practice my beloved suryanamaskara. (p. 12)
Saliva welled up in my mouth. I had to firmly grip the pint with both hands. No, seriously I have an amazing will. Then they brought a plate with bread, vinegar, sliced onion. Silverware wrapped in a napkin. Another beer. Saliva sprayed out from my cup so much that I didn't have time to swallow; it had to leak out from me somewhere. I grew damp like the walls of a vagina. Then I let go of the beer and went at the pancakes. I began to brutally liquidate them, as if I had just been let out of a concentration camp. Then they brought the headcheese and somehow inconspicuously sponged off my pint and exchanged an empty one for a full one. Slurp, slurp...I wolfed down rings of headcheese, bread. My stomach spilled all the way to my thighs. (p. 46)
I am all dried up like a cracker. When we flew in Saturday morning, I pulled Allie into the shower and we made love. She liked it, even if it was that time of the month. I always like it, even when it is that time of the month. (p. 137)
I read Fendrych's book while at a Moravian summer camp in the company of several Czech families from Prague and other cities. The women present were irritated by Fendrych's above-quoted style. They wrote it off as alleged exhibitionism: a person who truly wakes up every morning with an erection doesn't write about it, I was told. It is Fendrych's manipulative attempt to be publicly controversial in order to sell books and make money.
I do not agree with this condemnation. On the contrary, I believe that Fendrych's book is motivated by a tenacious attempt at authenticity, a great effort to map out his existence personally and individually, so as to make it alive and convincing, devoid of the rustle of schematic pages. The themes of love and death are, after all, the basic themes of human existence: they occupy all of literature and all of human art. Fendrych is well aware of this. In Fendrych's book, these themes - under the influence of an underground, almost naturalistic poetics - are also dealt with by means of other motifs which communicate the imperfection and inferiority of our earthly existence. This, I believe, is why the author programmatically talks completely openly about his bodily functions, secretions and various illnesses.
Throughout one's life, a person constantly struggles against various physical hurdles: as one nears old age, this struggle intensifies until eventually we succumb to sickness and death. This is precisely why a large part of Fendrych's diary is preoccupied with the intense, emotional description of the long death of his father and in the end even his mother - the book ends with the mother's death. From a certain perspective, it could even appear that the main objective behind Fendrych's writing of the book was to honor his deceased mother and father and to bow before their human fate of a normal but nevertheless awful death.
Through his diary entries, Fendrych has succeeded in stretching testimony about his individual existence between love, bodily functions, art, nature - especially mountains - religion and death. Some parts of his text are written in an urgent, almost poetic language. For Fendrych, the anchor within the present-day chaos is religion - he is a devout adherent to the Evangelical religion and subconsciously weighs everything against his faith. Religious faith also gives Fendrych a firm moral framework, as it does for few other politicians.
In this sense, Fendrych's book is an excellent testimony of human fate, as seen in the concrete example of a person living in the current, chaotic Czech day-to-day reality.
At one point in his book, Fendrych mentions that he has been writing literature for twenty years. This is apparent in his book: it is the well-written, ripe work of someone who knows very well what literature is. Let us just put this to a small test: except for the death of the author's mother and father, Jako ptak na drate does not actually have any coherent plot. It is a series of individual diary entries recorded from 27 February 1996, the time when Fendrych decided not to run for any political party in the June 1996 elections, until 22 October 1997, the day of his mother's death. Nevertheless - except for a minimal number of dull spots - the 455 pages of Fendrych's text are remarkably readable. How did he achieve this? Fendrych is a skillful and intelligent author who contemplates important questions and contemplates them in such way that makes one want to read on, since contemplation of Fendrych's text brings the reader something new.
Until recently, however, Fendrych was a politician, and if in his book he is trying to portray his own personality, he cannot conceal the political traits of his being - even if he discusses his political work only minimally. He was deputy minister of the interior for seven years, but in the book, we never find what he actually did at the Ministry.
Nevertheless, the political picture of Martin Fendrych and his colleagues and supporters that his book offers is complete - and it is a shocking one. This is why I was so extraordinarily depressed by those close to five hundred pages of Fendrych's text, which I read in Moravia in the extreme heat, primarily at the public pool in Holesov.
The title of Fendrych's book "Like a Bird on a Wire" is taken from a song by gloomy Canadian singer Leonard Cohen. Fendrych quotes several lines from Cohen's song as the motto of his diary:
Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free
This quote perfectly captures Fendrych's book, especially from the political perspective.
Beatniks and undergrounders like Martin Fendrych or Jan Ruml, people who are indisputably intelligent but nevertheless without a completed formal education and with only a poor knowledge of the context of European civilization and politics, were swept up by the "Velvet Revolution" and thrown into unprecedentedly prominent political posts (in Ruml's and Fendrych's case, apparently on the basis of Vaclav Havel's influence). In a way, it was a situation analogous to the Communist revolution after 1948, when the party also called upon enthusiastic, naive and unqualified activists - who had only their enthusiasm to their credit - to fill management positions.
As I have already mentioned, Fendrych does not discuss his work at the Interior Ministry in the book and has no desire to discuss it. Nevertheless, he says much about his political life. Especially telling are the first pages of the diary which cover the beginning of the year 1996, when the ideology of the so-called Czech post-revolutionary Klausian "right" still ruled more or less unabated. The political and ideological thick-headedness which Fendrych and his colleagues exhibit is appalling and, in connection with their high governmental functions, leaves an impression of the grotesque.
Although Fendrych already begins to distance himself from party politics at the beginning of his diary, throughout the book he often expresses a deep lack of understanding for the principles of pluralistic, democratic politics. He replaces it with an uncritical faith in that which he considers "right-wing" and a post-Communist cronyism with people of like age and mind.
I am arguing with Jan Ruml over what to do with the petition to the Supreme Court which suggests the liquidation of the Communist Party... Dissolving the Bolshevik party is always a winner, at least in these parts. But, we have a CAMPAIGN! Why were the Commies even registered by the Interior? Of course, the explanation is legislative: there was no other way, there was no reason not to, etc. And all of a sudden there's a campaign and the reason is there. The suggestion was made to me by my deputy colleague Vlada Zeman, whose office registered them and who did so little to see that they were not registered.
And Jan is stuck in it like a fly in honey.
It is his deepest conviction that they have no place here after everything that's happened - criminals...
It's good to break up these fallen angels. That way there is more of these parties and they don't all crowd into one.(p. 40 - 41)
The glimpse of a democratic politician, a deputy minister (!), who is trying to manipulate the laws to the detriment of a political party that is preparing to compete for votes in the forthcoming general election is noteworthy.
Among Fendrychian beatniks, the trauma left over from their past experience with Communism is very strong, and it clouds all normal, sensible, human judgement:
On the way down the stairs it suddenly occurred to me, it was like some kind of atavism: are we not badly mistaken in our write-off of the Bolshevik? It was something like the fear of darkness. It has to be overcome, stretch your arms in front of you and carry on. The feeling as if I were a girl who had at one time been raped, everyone would tell her not to be scared, that it's all over, but...
So what then is the guarantee of authenticity, the insurance, the security before the threat of Bolshevism, which lurks everywhere, in the most varied forms? The very thing which people turned to under Communism: cronyism. Fendrych has his friends, and he feels a kinship with them. The opposite of these close friendships is the strong, personal hate towards the Social Democrats, with all evil embodied in the villain (party leader) Milos Zeman, whose name it is necessary to disfigure into an expression of contempt.
It appears that everything in Czech politics derives from this basic scheme of personal cronyism or on the contrary hate. Fendrych does not hesitate in forming personal friendships with some journalists. For example, with the TV Nova reporter Tomas Smrcek, who following the June 1996 election calls Fendrych daily to inform him that he no longer has to be afraid in the coalition discussions, that "he is in the clear," (p. 210). Fendrych delights in the knowledge that a Nova reporter apparently sympathizes with him. He devotes a whole passage to the description of how the Jan Ruml edition of the Czech Television (CT) program Arena was prepared in a corrupt manner and reveals that some of the questions for Jan Ruml were even prepared for Arena by the Ministry of the Interior with the knowledge of CT. In another section, Fendrych writes that there was a meeting at TV Nova and the station management gave the order that the general public should be manipulated in a way which would bring about a new general election as soon as possible.
These incredible facts are mentioned passively, incidentally, without the author's stopping to deliberate over them. Personal friendships and ties between journalists and politicians are considered to be something utterly routine and normal.
When journalists criticize him as a politician, Fendrych holds it against them. Behind the criticism, he sees malicious intent. The reader is not able to judge to what degree the oft-rejected Mlada fronta Dnes reporter Sabina Slonkova prints really inaccurate or false information - Fendrych hatefully squirms under her attacks, but rarely concretely refutes them.
If we move on in the book to May 1997, a time when grave reasons for criticism of Premier Vaclav Klaus already existed, we notice that Fendrych attacks Klaus's critics with almost the same bigoted faith and hate with which he rejects journalists who criticize him for bias, inaccuracy and deceit. In spring 1997, Fendrych, roughly speaking, writes that it has become fashionable to take jabs at Klaus, so everyone has started taking jabs at him.
Again, I repeat: on the whole there is little discussion within Fendrych's book about any concrete politics whatsoever. Everything is founded on personal relationships, and this is symptomatic of the Czech political scene. For Fendrych, Czech politics is not about political programs but about personal feelings of love and hate toward this or that political protagonist.
Drunks in a midnight choir
Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free
Yes, it is a very sincere confession. And it crashed and burned across the board. Freedom arrived, but what did we do with it? Little, provincial greenhorns with a primitively oversimplified, even if moral, view of the world have made it into high politics. ("There was talk about the position of ombudsman, the word supposedly comes from the Swedish," p. 107; Fendrych makes an earnest effort to learn English but cannot fully get a handle on it, during negotiations in Brussels he has to try hard because he has trouble communicating, p. 87; on the other hand, he has already learned that it is necessary to be tough when negotiating with Western partners - they only respect it. p. 141). For a while, it looked like it might work, and then, dramatically, everything went to pieces. The little greenhorns are to this day not sure why.
I, like most international commentators, saw the June 1996 elections as basically undecided. For people like Martin Fendrych, these elections were, according to his book, a political tragedy. He did not comprehend why the June elections did not result in another sweeping victory for Vaclav Klaus. Brecht would have taken pleasure in seeing Fendrych, the new lord of the manor, accusing Czech citizens of an erroneous political conviction and an erroneous casting of votes.
Why didn't Klaus enjoy a sweeping victory in the June 1996 elections? It was the fault of journalists, of course. When one read the newspaper over the last two years, the news was not good, Fendrych argues. The government was torn to pieces, the atmosphere was strongly left-wing (p. 185). Fendrych at least admits that it was necessary to criticize the government. He does not analyze this further. Instead he develops the following excuse:
The Communists controlled people's lives. They tried to infiltrate families, opinions, souls... We will do everything for you, they said. It was not known who, because in their ideology they did not need responsibility. They did not buy that Existentialist feeling that I am effected by what goes on on another continent, that I am responsible for every little part of the world, me personally. They wanted to control lives.
And people accepted it. I would almost even say to the fullest degree possible. It is comfortable. Responsibility, day-to-day decision making, a full daily life is demanding, tiring.
And then all of a sudden everything changes miraculously. With a minimal contribution by people here, a miracle happens, which within a few weeks becomes the most common thing. Freedom is here. Well, of course, why shouldn't it be? And what now, Velveteers?
It turns out that it's difficult, that it hurts, that even this magical gift has its price...
I can imagine how on a Friday afternoon, after all it's a beautiful day, a little family gets into the car - not Bolsheviks, perfectly normal people, who want to be at their cottage already, for whom politics is a dirty business. They have a bit of a bad conscience about not going to vote, but somewhere deep inside them that unproductive, untargeted, always available anger bubbles up, and so they kind of forget, kind of brush it aside, and kind of let a little bit of it splash out, bubble over. After all, the taxes are so high, they don't need me. They slam the door shut and wroom.(p. 186 - 187)
Not that Fendrych is wrong in his argumentation in these paragraphs - a person has to look out for his own self. Only this argumentation did not explain the results of the June 1996 elections, just as it is not on the mark today. After all, people did not vote against Klaus mainly because they were not aware of that which Fendrych refers to when he mentions individual responsibility. What Fendrych lacks in his political analysis is the humbleness that is apparent in his moral and religious deliberations. What is missing is the slightest reflection about what Klaus's regime did wrong. Fendrych does not know how to bow before the opinion of ordinary citizens as before that which is the defining factor in a democracy.
Meanwhile, almost seventy percent of Czech citizens voted in the June 1996 elections - which is generally an exceptionally high turnout, testifying to a large civil responsibility. Why did people reject Klaus? According to Fendrych, the answer is simple: the entire democratic program had already been fulfilled. "We have already reached the finish line!" screams Fendrych (p. 374). On the other hand, in another section of the book Fendrych quotes a different opinion:
Ruml's office has a new part-time employee, Gladys or something, a young conservative. He is different than we are, not weighed down with all the various responsibilities and savoir-like complexes. I don't know how old he is, probably about twenty-three. Jan said he doesn't know who should replace him when he leaves, that it's a problem, and Gladys said to him: 'Get your stuff together and get out of here. You guys are always worrying about your positions and going on about how no one will be found to replace you, but as soon as you get your asses out of here, a hundred others, better than you, will be found. What did you know how to do, when you started? Shit. So what are you on about? You've got a mess over there and you're not able to do a thing about it, so get out.' He travels around the regions a lot and sees what an awful state our (the Ministry of the Interior's) economy is in. (p. 377)
Fendrych presents himself and his friends as conspirators whose world has crumbled around them. They formed a state of cronies, which ultimately began to fall apart. Fendrych's friend, the TV Nova reporter Tomas Smrcek, is terrified by the results of the June 1996 elections: "'Is the media also at fault?' he asked me." (p. 188) A good independent reporter!
In spite of this, even the political passages of Fendrych's book contain important and thought-provoking insights. Their catalyst is often Fendrych's religious faith and a firm ethical consciousness.
Vacalv Belohradsky: Subconsciously a Czech spitefulness is at work here, against people who have a clear vision and a strong opinion. We consider them to be arrogant. (p. 196)
It is also a problem of openness. Our society does not allow you to be open; it doesn't want you to be open. The custom is to lie; it is acknowledged. It is a method of peaceful sleep. (p. 280)
The syndrome of the day is the inability to concentrate, flightiness. I am saying something, he asks me something, and when I am in the middle of explaining it, he gets up and walks away. Insanity, all of a sudden you are talking to empty space. (p. 292)
It was raining, I was leaving, when Vlada Mlynar, king of [the Czech weekly] Respekt, came out after me and said: 'It pisses me off, how they are making [head of the company Motoinvest Pavel] Tykac out to be a dissident.' Several articles had come out about Motoinvest, portraying it as something of a victim of a conspiracy between the banks and the state.
'He has good PR,' I said stupidly.
'It's insane,' said Vlada, 'paid-off journalists.'
'It's insane,' I said, 'I was really thinking about trying my hand at newspaper work, but there are no newspapers to work for.'
We stood out there in the rain and stared into the darkness like idiots.(p. 315)
Jitka phoned and relayed the following:
'Imagine what I, the moron, have been dreaming about. That Flek tells me I'm too dumb to make out the invoices and instead forces me to clean up some really sticky black substance. I have to use my hands, and it's not working, and I am getting all stuck in it and can't go on any more. But there is more and more of it, and I am completely exhausted, but I'm trying to get a handle on it because he is watching me, with a really strange look, and he keeps saying: Well I knew it, you can't even handle this. So I woke up and began crying out loud and couldn't stop.'...
The dream of a child of the doubted generation.
And also the dream of the present day.
We are reaching into it. It's black. It sticks to our hands. We're not able to get rid of it, and what's more we're reproached for it.
The perfect dream about how the little greenhorns became king, how they disintegrated. The hangover remained. In November 1997, Martin Fendrych left the Ministry of the Interior and became the editor-in-chief of Respekt magazine. Another half a year went by and a completely new regime came to power in the Czech Republic. Will it be smarter or stupider than the Klausites and the Fendrychites? Will it learn from their mistakes and be less ideologically blinded and more practical? Will it be more capable and willing to look to the world?
So far, large doubts exists about what will happen next in the Czech Republic. People prefer to distance themselves from politics and focus rather on other surrogate activities. Something I heard while at the camp in Moravia is an expression of the prevailing sadness and cynicism:
The only hope now is that the ones who stole while in government in the past and who are now in the opposition will effectively control the new Social Democratic government, because they got to know the government structures over the years and know where to steal effectively.
Martin Fendrych certainly did not steal while in government. His firm religious faith surely prevented him from it. But he was the witness of the disintegration of an illusion.
The story which he has relayed in his diary, however, falls firmly into his religious view of the world. We cannot except anything in life except failure. It is our duty to strive for success, but we live in a valley of tears. The little greenhorns became the sorcerer's apprentices. They opened up the way to forces which they do not understand and which they could not control. After the failure of politics, Fendrych turns to family matters. More and more often he travels to the mountains - to Slovakia or Romania - which for him are the symbol and incarnation of authentic reality.
I went unequipped.
It was beautiful.
I carried dad on my back, like Tom and I used to do way back when, dragging him up by the poles to Krivan, to Rakytov, to Krizna, up loads of mountains. There was no snow in Rackova. It was smooth sailing until the upper chalet, which is beautifully renovated. Above the chalet, it started. Snow that caved in. I couldn't go as fast anymore. The view of Klin and Jakubina kept appearing and then clouding over again. On my right, the side of Bystra shot upward. Clouds and wisps of fog.
I have to make it up there, I said to myself.
Then I tore up through the snow. I had to dig in my boots so as not slip backward. I used my hands to help, crawling on all fours. My Achilles tendon was hurting, I was limping, but I didn't care. It was pulling me upward. I had to.
Underneath Blyst, I decided to go off the path - there wasn't one anyway - and head directly up the side ridge. There were bare strips up there, grass and rocks. I crossed over snowdrifts and looked for secure spots. The snow was breaking off. I walked above cracks so I wouldn't break off with it. Fallen avalanches with large blocks of clay-soiled snow lay all around. I crawled along the ridge for about an hour. My fingers were freezing from digging them into the snow. All of a sudden I was on the ridge between Blyst and Bystra. There was blown snow up there. Heading down was the slope to Podbansky. I went along my side and held on with my hands. Sharp wind, fog, clouds, zero visibility.
And then I stood on top of Bystra. The wind was so strong that I had to hold on to a wooden pole. I pulled out the jar and held it in my hands. I wanted to yell out at His Reverence with all my might 'Ruu-daa!' or 'Dad!', but then I began to pray the Lord's Prayer. The wind tore the tears from my cheeks and I was happy that we are there: Ruda, God and I.
I opened the jar. In a second, the wind imperceptibly sucked out the ashes and carried them into the High Tatras, to Krivan. 'It looks like a sleeping Indian,' dad always said.
As I stood there, the sun made its way through the clouds. It was like a lit-up chandelier at the Rudolfinum. The wind was playing dad's Wagner.
Then I ran down to Blyst. I was used to it by now and slid along the edge between the chasm and the windward side...
I didn't meet a living soul. Yet, nevertheless I was not alone. My love was with me.(p.318 - 319)
Translated and slightly abridged by Kazi Stastna
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