[Karolinum Press; 2020]

Tr. from the Czech by Gerald Turner

“I am not a hero. That is not my job” — Heiner Müller, East German playwright

Early in 1979, Ludvík Vaculík was in a pickle. The Czechoslovakian secret police (StB) were after him, he was over-committed to editing projects, and he had just pissed off all his dissident friends with an insensitive essay questioning their special “hero” status. He was overburdened with the demands of friends and family — including multiple affairs. And he had a terrible case of writer’s block.

No doubt the times were not helping. Some ten years after the Prague Spring’s reformist hopes were dashed by a Soviet-led invasion, Czechoslovakia was enduring what its hardline leadership cynically called “Normalization” — a brashly dishonest restoration of the status quo, accompanied by vigorous repression in the cultural sphere. Vaculík’s small circle of dissident writers continued to circulate their work through underground meetings and Samizdat publications, the most important of which (Padlock Editions) he edited. Vaculík was a serious dissenter, his provocative essay “Two Thousand Words” alleged to have triggered the hardline Soviet response; he was continually harassed and interrogated by the StB for his work in the cultural underground. Yet he could not quite shake his feeling that the dissident scene was growing cliquish and professional — no longer a relatable movement of concerned citizens, but a closed community of Prague intellectuals who opposed the state so diligently that they risked becoming its tame mirror image, losing in the process the cultural autonomy they had set out to defend. Bravery is all well and good, he wondered aloud, but isn’t the silence of a thousand workers worse than one playwright going to prison? You can imagine why his friends were so annoyed by his essay.

To conform is to surrender; to speak out risks entering into the “dreary dance of opposites,” as Roethke put it. No one can act without coming to terms with reality — but the reality that existed was constructed by a mendacious regime, which survived through a mix of petty consumerism and cultivated complacency (plus, of course, the threat of Soviet tanks). For Václav Havel, no doubt the most prominent of Prague’s dissidents, the answer was “living in truth”: a catchy byword for a form of ethical resistance that was built upon the honesty and good principle of pre-political life. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie,” Havel wrote, “then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” The self, fractured by injustice, could be repaired through whole-hearted commitment to truthfulness.

But is truthfulness ever so simple? Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers one famous rejoinder. Its characters are continually condemned to play-act — as loyalists, as dissidents, as lovers — both because of state power and because, well, that’s life. Vaculík too was hesitant to accept the idea of private life as a realm of honest goodness. We all sense this instinctively, but perhaps no-one knows it quite so urgently as adulterers — a category that includes not just Vaculík, and countless Kundera characters, but also Mr. Havel himself. The pure, intentional self rising above political distortion to speak truth to power: for Ludvik Vaculík, as many others, this just didn’t feel real.

Back to the writer’s block, then. After hearing Vaculík complain, his friend Jiří Kolář suggested that he write about his inability to write: to keep a record of his failure. So emerged A Czech Dreambook, an experimental diary-turned-novel that contains over a year’s worth of near-daily journal entries. Unable or unwilling to reconcile his private world with his public one, Vaculík turned for inspiration to the frontier zone between waking and sleeping, a space where symbols grow unsettled and where meanings tend to multiply. His beautiful, sprawling entries add up to a remarkable chronicle of one year in a literary life: compromised, unglamorous, and vigorously social. The language is magical, rich in mysterious hope and everyday irony. Two short entries:


The forest path emerged abruptly above a steep-sided hollow full of golden trees and their scarlet berries. Then another shadowy walk through the forest. Until at last something glistened at the bottom of the icy black lake: a memory of a treasure from when the forest was free. Yes, as a memento of that memory, I’ll buy her, if I find one, a golden chain.


Or would you sooner go back to Prague already? — Not at all, I’m happy to be here! — Well, I’ll go out then, and leave you alone so you can think your thoughts and write. I’ll be back in about three hours. — Fine. Only don’t get lost! — So what did you do? — Thought my thoughts and slept. — Great! And what shall we do now? — Come here.

Being an editor of Samizdat literature, Vaculík is constantly on the move — delivering manuscripts to typists, harassing subscribers for their dues, visiting contributors in their homes. As he walks through Cold War Prague, he excavates its history and memory: a kind of huffy, flustered flaneurie. His record of daily events is intermingled with sequences from his dreams, fictional interludes, and meditations on political and literary questions — often with long quotations from arguments either in person or in writing. The resulting account is equal parts exciting and mundane. Petty literary disputes stand alongside life-changing family events; secret police interrogations and Voice of America broadcasts share entries with dental appointments, technicalities of gardening, and elegaic descriptions of the countryside:

At the border, clouds float above the mountains. In the cool atmosphere beneath them, every fallen tree on the steep forbidden slopes is reflected in detail. I am old.

Like Kafka’s short fiction, Vaculík’s Dreambook positions itself at the slippery intersection of everyday life and parable. The logic of dreams allows him to write associatively, or perhaps appositionally: not only are the distinctions between reality, dream, and fiction frequently muddied, but so too are the usual expectations about dreams and interpretation. Vaculík was considered a master of the feuilleton, a journalistic form that typically began with an observed scene and opened up into a tentative social argument. The entries of the Dreambook are often structurally similar, but they refuse to provide a connection between its imagery and ideas. Interpretive schemes are offered and then withdrawn, sometimes with glee: “Dear Reader, fat lot you know!” The real and the unreal, the significant detail and the throwaway comment, the political and the “pre-political” — all these flow together on the page.

Politics is all throughout the novel, as is the StB, but it refuses to become a political (or even “pre-political”) work. If Kundera is right in suggesting that totalitarianism turns society into an empty “world of answers” — and if single-minded political opposition risks the same — then the Dreambook’s instability offers a cunning defense. “I am dwindling into health again,” Vaculík writes after a period of illness and despair, “I have started telling lies once more.” (He adds that when he weeps at night, he does so silently — then swears out loud in order to give false impressions to the listening StB.) Late in the novel, Vaculík notes that his writer’s block had lasted until he gave up on reconciling the contradictions of himself and his society. Being reconciled, he argues, is something to be avoided — far better to entertain more than one opinion about things, and to learn to live well within that doubt. “I have no understanding,” he writes, “for people who regenerate their integrity by continually rejecting old components of themselves the moment they no longer fit.”

At a time of phony “Normalization,” when political pressures threatened to turn his life into pure performance, Vaculík responded by articulating a sense of the self as dynamic, continuous, contradictory — and mysterious. An unofficial literary editor, he makes his living in the space between public and private worlds. His visits to writers and typists across Prague make him a threshold figure in another sense, too: a sort of Hermes of the underground. Between the domestic refuges of totalitarian Czechoslovakia, he shuttles along with his brown leather briefcase, discoursing with himself and with others while he grumbles on about missed deadlines and poor transcriptions into Slovak and the narrow-mindedness of Party apparatchiks. “By opening my arms as wide as I can,” he declares in a rare Whitmanian moment, “I will try to embrace everything that was ever mine and I will stay sane!” Instead of “living the truth” as a kind of performative public sincerity, Vaculík aims for personal authenticity — recording and reflecting on his fluid, dogged self; his tricks with his truths, his mistakes with his achievements, and his courage with his compromise.

Reading the Dreambook, one gradually becomes aware that the novel itself has been constructed through a collaborative process. Having drafted the majority, Vaculík then showed the text to various characters, incorporating their feedback and sometimes — though not always — agreeing to their requests for changes. These interventions make their way into earlier entries, along with comments from the Vaculík editing his final text in 1980. Concerned about the impact on his friends, he decides: “All I can do is try to rewrite it, more and more against myself.” As a result, the whole text is interpenetrated by Vaculík’s milieu as well as both his past and future selves. At one point the author confesses that he, re-reading a passage months later, found himself weeping again. Following a strange sexist diatribe, Vaculík the editor notes feeling “astonished” by what he had written but resolves to leave it in. Other moments feature parenthetical objections — “(‘That’d be right up your street, Ludvík, wouldn’t it?’ — Z.M.)” — or even long passages where friends excoriate Vaculík and the novel itself:

“You’re vulgar, inconsiderate and vain, and for the sake of your novel, or whatever it’s supposed to be, you spare no one, so if your deranged realism doesn’t even let you use the slightest degree of imagination and you lack the slightest notion of how to sublimate reality, then be so kind as to leave me out altogether!” She was perspiring slightly, incensed, exquisite. OK, OK. So I am crossing out today’s entry about her.

Some dialogism! Yet this sense of open discourse is just what Vaculík wanted to defend and to encourage within the dissident scene. When his essay on courage triggered a storm of response, he set about publishing the criticisms. “It is not right,” he argues, “to go pointing up our similarities and showing us to be identical — [Pavel] Kohout, Havel, Vaculík — when it is not true.” For Vaculík, public argument was not just an important way to show the movement was not cliquish and professional: it represented the very heart of dissident life. Above all, Vaculík resisted how he and his friends were being mythologized. This he saw as a way for the population to outsource their virtue to a small group of professionals, only to be disappointed when they turned out to be human. In one powerful passage, Vaculík’s wife Madla says that it’s odd people think of him, a chronic liar, as a fighter for the truth. “I don’t need any fighter for the truth, so let them do without one too!”, he retorts. “My lies are as much mine as my truth, and I don’t know which will prove the more reprehensible.” Vaculík wanted to de-glamorize the dissidents, forgive everyone for not being Havel, and then see what could be done from there. The intellectual, like everyone else, had a duty to stand accountable for who one is and what one might realistically be capable of.

The limitations and opportunities of this scheme are particularly revealed in the novel’s women. Many of them are sketched with great affection and respect, and Vaculík as an editor was an eager promoter of independent Czechoslovakian women’s writing. But in the Dreambook he is also a grub and an adulterer, occasionally prone to anti-feminist outbursts. These may be outweighed by the eloquent passages of Ludvík-excoriation given to Vaculík’s wife Madla, and to his mistresses — but the modern reader very rightfully expects better than simply being a bastard but admitting it.

Obviously Vaculík is not alone among twentieth-century male intellectuals, Czech or otherwise, in this regard. Havel himself, the dissident hero par excellence, provided the post-Communist tabloids with plenty of fodder by having affairs while preaching an ethic of personal responsibility. (Isn’t that the “live in truth” guy?) But whereas Havel enters history as a “hero, but — ,” Vaculík’s anti-heroic worldview allows for a more interesting dynamic between the inspiring public lives and complicated private lives of such figures. The Dreambook aims at a social authenticity, claiming Vaculík’s weaknesses alongside his strengths, his lies beside his truths — his public dressing-downs and his occasional self-defense. Even still, his depth of field is limited by his position, and thus the women in his account remain tantalizingly half-formed and half-articulated.

After reading Vaculík’s masterwork, I found myself eager to read Madla’s dreambook — or that of Mrs. P, Zdena, or Lenka. Women, as the novel suggests, were heavily involved in Prague’s counter-culture, sometimes in concert with their husbands and sometimes as independent writers, activists, and typists. Jonathan Bolton has argued in his magnificent study Worlds of Dissent that the devaluation of women’s role in Czechoslovakian dissent is not just a feature of power dynamics in that setting — it also reflects the priorities and expectations of Western commentators, who tend to seek out a familiar, male-coded ideal of dissident heroism. And, when the category of courage is only extended to those who take a particular type of political stand — a stand enabled by certain privileges — then a whole world of everyday courages are lost from view. Indeed, Madla and numerous other women from the Dreambook have published responses to the novel, offering different interpretations and reflections on events. Together with Vaculík’s, these would generate a richly textured view of a fascinating epoch. But alas — only his has been translated into English.

In this and other ways, the West’s superficial view of Central European dissent during the Cold War — male, pro-Western, explicitly political, heroic in the Havelian image — obscures the vital (and relevant) conversations and literary experiments that took place in these alternative cultural spheres. How do you build an open, free, creative life under conditions of public moral breakdown? What is the role for intellectuals in effective resistance, and how can they avoid the temptations of inwardness? How can they point a way forward when the act of opposition takes them further from the people they belong to? In cafés, bugged apartments, and Samizdat journals, Prague’s dissidents argued obsessively about such questions.

“Literature,” wrote the Czech novelist Ivan Klima, “doesn’t have to scratch around for political realities, or even worry about systems that come and go; it can transcend them and still answer questions that the system evokes in people.” If Vaculík’s Dreambook gestures at one sense of an answer, it might be this — that one job for intellectuals in a crisis might be not just arguing the right point but also the art of showing one’s working, of modeling authentic ways of thinking, of finding a path to honest courage through the doubts and contradictions.

Alexander Wells is a freelance writer living in Berlin. His prior work has been published by History Today, Mekong Review and The Lifted Brow among others. He tweets @ajbwells. 

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.