On the morning of April 26, 1973, plainclothes agents of the Czechoslovak secret police (StB) were following “an unknown man, about 40 years old, 175cm tall, slender, with an elongated face, black thinning hair, light-rimmed glasses … carrying a paper board with a map of Prague …” The man was tailed for the remainder of the morning. At approximately 11:35 a.m., he left an exhibition of socialist realist art, dallied a bit, took some notes in the street, and hopped on a tram heading in the direction of the Castle. The agents, who didn’t engage, later discovered the man’s identity after he was checked by a public security patrol: It was the American writer Philip Roth, who was staying in Prague at the Yalta Hotel with a companion named Barbara Sproul.
The StB opened a file on Roth shortly thereafter, based on his having met with “persons of interest in Czechoslovakia, who in 1968 participated actively in the creeping, opportunistic, right-wing developments in the ČSSR.” No conspiracy being complete without an aspect of anti-Semitism, Roth was also flagged as a potential “supporter of international Zionism.” Since Roth had traveled to Prague on a visitor’s visa, he was assigned the case name “Turista” ––“the Tourist.”
The “persons” in question were dissident Czech writers like Ivan Klíma, Milan Kundera, Ludvík Vaculík, and Stanislav Budín, whose works were suppressed in the era of insidious banality known as “Normalization.” Roth’s meetings with these writers often took place in dark apartments, where congregations exceeding an unspecified number were deemed illegal. It was an informant inside Budín’s circle of friends, referred to in declassified files as “Agent Jan,” who alerted the secret police to Roth’s activities.
Roth’s first visit to Czechoslovakia had been the previous spring, in 1972. He and Sproul were traveling through central Europe and took a whimsical trip to Prague, eager to see the city where Franz Kafka lived and worked. While there, Roth met with editors of a Czechoslovak publishing house. When the meeting ended, a young woman who was present took Roth aside and told him that the men he’d just met were all obsequious party lackeys who’d been installed in the publishing industry after the events of 1968, when attempts to reestablish a free press in the country were crushed. Thus began Roth’s education about the state of literature in the USSR and his campaign to help stifled writers trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
“Literature got me into this,” Peter Tarnopol (one of Roth’s narrative avatars) says in My Life as a Man, written during this period (1974). It was Kafka in particular who’d gotten Roth into it––Kafka, “who was responsible for getting me to Prague in the first place.” The other Roth novels published in the ’70s, the “Kepesh” books, The Breast (1972) and The Professor of Desire (1977), display an ongoing and anxious fixation with Kafka’s work: The Breast is a bathetic take on “The Metamorphosis,” in which the narrator awakens to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant mammary gland; while The Professor includes a scene in Prague where the narrator is given a tour of famous Kafka sites by a forcibly retired professor of literature named Soska, who acts as a stand-in for Klíma and for an entire class of dispossessed Czech intellectuals.
“What gets him up in the morning?” Kepesh wonders. “What gets him through each day?” Soska responds, “Kafka, of course.” This dialogue is likely a close recreation of real conversations with Klíma, who told Roth that Kafka was rightly regarded as dangerous by the communist regime, not just for his threatening critiques of power and bureaucracy in The Trial and The Castle, but because his work was that of a man whose soul refused to be colonized. In 1963, Kafka actually became a catalyst for subversive activity, when the Czechoslovak Writers Union organized a congress and discussed the writer’s work for the first time since it was banned as “decadent anti-realism” in the 1950s. The event would christen the ship of the Prague Spring, as the absence of state retaliation imbued these writers with new confidence to test the apparatchiks. This may be the only time in history that an academic conference about Kafka could be called “revolutionary.”
In the summer of 1967, the group (Kundera, Klíma, and Vaculík among them) met again in Prague, where they openly criticized Communist Party doctrine and demanded that the government put an end to censorship. A flowering of intellectual and artistic activity occurred in this interim: Miloš Forman’s Fireman’s Ball was released the same year, followed by Kundera’s The Joke, and Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum (an absurdist satire on communist bureaucracy) was being performed in theaters for enthusiastic audiences. The following January, reformist Alexander Dubček came to power and set about fashioning a new, democratic vision of “socialism with a human face.” This effort was swiftly suppressed in the summer of 1968 with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion: The streets of Prague were filled with parked armor as Dubček was spirited away to Moscow and forced to curtail his initiatives. An age of monotony and ignorance ensued, and it was into this gray vitae that Roth wandered in the early ’70s.
Much of Roth’s time in Czechoslovakia was spent with Klíma, who became his “principal reality instructor.” Roth quoted Jan Kott in describing Klíma as a man who had undergone a “European education” in the 20th-century sense. Born into an inconspicuous Jewish family, he and his parents were nonetheless sent to Theresienstadt (a concentration camp the Nazis always promoted as a kind of gated haven for European Jewry); as a teenager, he watched as the Soviet-backed communist party secured its coup d’état in 1948; and as an adult, he saw his own freedom of expression trammeled by the authorities.
As an added humiliation to their censorship, artists and intellectuals were issued menial, soul-shriveling jobs as street sweepers, stevedores, bread deliverers, and janitors in remote museums stocked with Russian art. Roth’s disdain was visceral and verbose––he wanted to understand why everybody wasn’t angry all the time. Under such a system, he wrote:
The usual rites of degradation prevail: the ongoing unmooring of one’s personal identity, the suppression of one’s personal authority, the elimination of one’s security … Unforeseeableness is the new norm and perpetual anxiety the injurious result. And to enhance the disgrace, anger appears in all its scorching monotony … The maniacal raving of a manacled being … imbibing the tyranny with your morning coffee. Totalitarianism’s remorseless trauma-inducing machine cranking out the worst of everything …”
Klíma drove Roth around and showed him “street-corner kiosks where writers sold cigarettes, to the public buildings where they mopped the floors, to the construction sites where they were laying bricks, and out of the city to the municipal waterworks where they slogged about in overalls and boots, a wrench in one pocket and a book in the other.” Unwise to be seen speaking in public, Roth only got a chance to meet these writers in the safety of Klíma’s apartment, with his wife, Helena, (a psychotherapist) acting as translator. “They were forbidden to publish or to teach or to travel or to drive a car or to earn a proper livelihood …” Roth wrote. “For good measure, their children, the children of the thinking segment of the population, were forbidden to attend academic high schools …”
The frustration Roth tried to communicate to his counterparts in Europe was the tendency of free societies to drift toward frivolity when nothing was at stake.
Kundera would dramatize this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which his protagonist Tomas is demoted from doctor to window washer, as would Klíma in his novel Love & Garbage, about a writer who composes essays on Kafka in his head while working as part of a cleaning crew. Klíma’s novel is strewn with meditations on the nature of waste, on the things that are carved and discarded. The garbage here is more than just metaphoric. Kundera called it “Totalitarian Kitsch”––“the absolute denial of shit.” Klíma called it “jerkish,” a propagandized pidgin whose shrinking lexis was suitable only for communication between men and monkeys. And it was this piffle that W.H. Auden described in a hotblooded octave he fired off after the events of August 1968:
About a subjugated plain,
Among the desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
To counteract this, in 1975, Roth helped launch the Penguin paperback series “Writers from the Other Europe,” which published 17 titles (mostly by Czech and Polish authors) until 1989, the first two of which were Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs and Kundera’s collection Laughable Loves. According to Roth, the goal of the project was to “bring together outstanding and influential works of fiction by Eastern European writers … who though recognized as powerful forces in their own cultures are virtually unknown in America.”
Kundera, who’d defected to France that same year, quarreled slightly with Roth’s description of the “Other Europe,” which (in Kundera’s mind) conflated the history and intellectual tradition of central Europe with the Russo-influenced states of the East. Kundera was himself trying to straddle the perspective required of a Czech writer who was now living in another country and writing for an international audience. He was worried that Roth was unknowingly reinforcing the Soviet Union’s effort to bisect Europe, as well as contributing to American notions of there being “two worlds.” Kundera was also concerned that such a diverse set of writers would be grouped together as a single cringing minority, whose works were more significant for being samizdat than being innovative fiction.
Roth may have been guilty of knowing less than he could have about regional history, but he wasn’t guilty about fetishizing the sufferings of others. As a serious, blood-conscious Jew, he was all too aware of the impending threat of persecution, something that Klíma affirmed in his memoirs: “However much he [Roth] had managed to evade it in a free country he harbored a feeling of solidarity with those being persecuted in a country that had been deprived of its freedom.”
Martin Amis once said that as a writer living under totalitarianism, “you find out what you’re made of.” Though Roth never had to find out what he was made of under direct oppression, he built relationships (at personal risk to himself) with men who did: Kundera eventually defected and opted for a reclusive life, writing in French; Klíma and Vaculík stayed put and continued circulating illegal novels (often copied out manually on typewriters); while Vaclav Havel agitated the powers and got thrown in-and-out of jail for sending Herzog-like letters to President Gustáv Husák, the man that would one day become his predecessor.
Roth kept up a correspondence with Klíma and Kundera and continued to take annual trips to Czechoslovakia throughout the ’70s. These visits were anticipated in advance, and as Roth recounted, “I was followed by a plainclothesman most of the time … my hotel room was bugged, as was the room’s telephone.” His last visit ended in a confrontation that nearly mirrored his first brush with the StB years earlier:
… it was not until 1977, when I was leaving an art museum where I’d gone to see a ludicrous exhibition of Soviet socialist realism painting, that I was detained by the police. The incident was unsettling and the next day, heeding their suggestion, I left the country.
This encounter was later fictionalized as the denouement to The Prague Orgy (1985), the epilogue to the Zuckerman trilogy. Roth’s applications for a visa were denied for the next 12 years, and his next visit to Prague wasn’t until February 1990. When he returned, he interviewed Klíma, and the two spoke at length about how literature operates under constraint and its role as a “life preserver” in free and unfree polities. Roth was quick to disown what he called “the muse of censorship” and the romantic fantasies enjoyed by uncensored writers, who could freely imagine how they would hold up under an oppressive regime, who envied the fact that governments took literature more seriously than critics did, and who longed for the compliment of having their own books branded as samizdat.
The frustration Roth tried to communicate to his counterparts in Europe was the tendency of free societies to drift toward frivolity when nothing was at stake. As he put it, in Europe “nothing goes and everything matters,” while in America “everything goes and nothing matters.” Now that the other half of Europe had been liberated, Roth cautioned Klíma about the “dangers” of a trivial and relentlessly commercialized culture. The fetters of an authoritarian system are obvious enough. But in a free-market society, they are more diffuse; the author lives under the tyranny of moneyed interests, philistinism, public opinion, and its brother “good taste.” As someone who had repeatedly offended this taste, Roth was all too familiar with the pressures facing “the freedom-rich man.” He told Klíma: “You have fought for something for so many years now, something that you needed like air, and what I am going to say is that the air you fought for is poisoned a little too.” Klíma understood, but reminded Roth that Czechoslovakia, that little bridge between Eastern and Western Europe, which had forever been under a foreign imperium, had always had to deal with constraints, and had always endured.
This seemed to be confirmed in 1990, when it really looked as if literature had won. The writers who first attended the conference on Kafka in 1963, and signed the dissident “Charter 77,” later morphed into the Civic Forum, the country’s first opposition party, and many of its members were elected after the Velvet Revolution. Vaclav Havel became the country’s philosopher-king and Jaroslav Korán (a writer who translated Henry Miller, Ken Kesey, and Charles Bukowski into Czech) became the mayor of Prague. Never before or since have so many writers actually found themselves in the halls of power, a phenomenon Roth described as K. actually making it to the Castle––and not only meeting the elusive Mr. Klamm, but taking over his job.
During this trip, Klíma again drove Roth around, this time, they passed bookstalls where copies of Kafka’s work and those of other censored writers were now freely available, and an old address by former party leader Miloš Jakeš (composed in “pure jerkish”) was being ironically broadcast in Wenceslas Square to mocking audiences. It was in the truest sense of the phrase, poetic justice, the kind that finally affirmed the other quatrain in Auden’s prescient poem about the Prague Spring:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
Jared Marcel Pollen is a writer and the author of the story collection The Unified Field of Loneliness