Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow

The Prague marathon takes place on Sunday, its route marked by signs along the bridges, slopes and irregular "squares" of a city centre made even more absurdly picturesque by the spring drapery of chestnut candles and lilac flowers. As for Czech writers, they too have often had to run a gruelling uphill course. The former president Vaclav Havel, last great survivor of the wave of dissent that helped to bury the Soviet empire, surfaced to open Prague's book fair a week ago. Havel had a title to plug: a collage of diaries and interviews, Please Be Brief. His 13-year tenure wasn't, for which all Europe should be grateful.

After centuries of long-distance opposition to alien power wearing one hat or another, Czech writing since 1990 has earned the right to share the short-winded normality of a literary market economy. The novelist Hana Andronikova points out that her grandfather, now 98, "lived in seven states [from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the post-1993 Czech Republic] and never moved from one spot. That's the history of this place," she said at a meeting with British publishers and journalists organised by the University of Wales-based programme Literature Across Frontiers.

It's a place now just as porous as elsewhere in the face of global fads and genres. Symbolically, the bestselling comic-realist novelist Michal Viewegh - who worked as an editor - once turned down a book by dissident icon Ivan Klíma. Top of the current fiction chart is Sifra Mistra Leonarda (sadly, it's exactly what you think), and the Kanzelsberger bookshop on Wenceslas Square last year hosted a nocturnal party to celebrate the latest sensation from one J K Rowlingova.

Yet, pace the self-exiled Kundera, it would be wrong to present literature in the liberal republic as a story of laughter and forgetting. Just behind Dan Brown in the charts comes the new book by Irena Dousková, whose 1998 novel Proud Budzes examined through a child's eyes the "grey zone" of compromise with the Communist regime. Hana Andronikova, hailed for her historical novel The Sound of the Sundial, affirms that "I definitely don't feel liberated from the past". Rather, "We can choose what we deal with, and I decided to deal with the Holocaust trauma first".

Czech fiction now has the freedom to look back in something more than anger. Jáchym Topol, once a rebel songwriter and now a reluctant literary hero, wrote the definitive novel of post-Communist delirium in Prague: City Sister Silver. Tousled-haired, self-deprecating, elusive, Topol clearly loathes being labelled as the voice of the transition from Marx to market. He has returned to work as a full-time journalist, eager to escape the "terrible burden" of the "literature business". Yet even the quicksilver Topol keeps faith with national memory. Both his 2001 novel Night Work and the new Gargling Tar, which he calls "a game with Czech history", deal in different ways with children's experience of the 1968 Soviet invasion.

Today's writers do feel the weight of the past. When he came to Prague as a student, Milos Urban - lauded as a Czech Eco - found a "very hostile" place in the throes of rapid change: "I had to find a way to make this city mine". The result was Seven Churches, a literary mystery threaded round the medieval masterpieces of the New Town. Urban's latest book, on legends of Prague's origin, will join Canongate's Myths list.

Prague, of course, can never shrug off the glorious burden of its literary heritage, even if the homage comes in curious forms. The offices of the Workers' Accident Insurance Company, where painstaking Dr Kafka would assess claims, now house a hotel with a brasserie named Felice - after his long-suffering fiancée. If the service matches the level of Dr K's prenuptial dithering, then you'll face a marathon wait for your dinner.

Comments