Postcard from Prague: The velvet underground: Julian Duplain on the booming Czech thirst for English, from Dick Francis to the Revolver Review

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The Independent Culture
THE coffee-house bookshop has arrived in Prague, two of them in fact: the French toast and burritos come with a transatlantic accent, and there's hardly a Czech book in sight. This is where the ex-pats come for their books and magazines, more and more of which are produced in Prague itself to cater for the resident Americans (who number 30,000, according to urban myth). The Old Town buskers, the waiters in the refurbished Art Deco splendour of the Obecny Dum cafe (now bought up and run by Americans), even some radio DJs - everyone seems to speak English.

English has never been the natural second language in Prague. After a century and a half of the Habsburgs, German was firmly entrenched (one thinks of Kafka). But in the four years since the Velvet Revolution English has taken over, not because Czechs are looking West, but because the West has come to Prague. English language publishing has boomed. There are two newspapers, one weekly and one fortnightly, and half-a-dozen literary magazines, as well as the 'Twisted Spoon Press', which brings out English translations of modern Czech work.

On the main tourist tracks, Penguin Classics editions of Kafka are available at any postcard stand, bought up at a trade and educational discount offered to Eastern Europe and sold here at below the British cover price. Even second-hand bookshops are starting up. One owner believes he has such a market here that he buys second-hand books state side and ships them over.

The newest of Prague's English magazines is Trafika, with its elegant cloudy grey binding. But instead of the usual diet of local American hopefuls, the Vltava Hemingway wannabes, Trafika has spread the net more widely. It has internationally-known Czechs (Josef Skvorecky, Miroslav Holub and Arnost Lustig) but there are also contributions from Finland, Central America, India and the Philippines. Despite the publishers' internationalist intentions, it is the Czech work which is by far the best. But judging from the contents page, there is no reason why it should be published in Prague at all, except that this is a place where costs are low, and enthusiasm is plentiful.

English emigre publishing here is often a shoestring operation - but Czech writers who've returned to the country since 1989, the people who used to be emigres themselves in Germany, Canada or Britain, are finding that Czech language publishing is also on an uncertain financial footing. After the initial post-Revolution excitement, tastes have gone down-market. Metro station bookstalls now shift Dick Francis and aerobics manuals; three years ago it was Havel and Kundera.

There are no best-sellers' lists published in the Czech Republic - no-one has thought to collate the information. But even at Fiser's, a dignified, academic emporium between the Old Town and the University, there seems to be little interest in Czech writing, although the titles are loftier. Dictionaries of psychology and philosophy occupy half the places in Fiser's informal best-seller list, Aristotle and Plato are in the top ten, French surrealists and the Russian writer Isaac Babel are popular.

Czech writing has quite a world reputation, but does it have a future at home? The new generation of writers which should step into the shoes of the likes of Kundera and Skvorecky are appearing in small magazines like Revolver Review. This started life as an underground paper in the late Eighties - it is now a solid paperback volume, publishing photography and art as well as fiction. Without Revolver Review and its ilk, new writing would simply not get published. But dogged by poor distribution - a frequent problem for small presses here - and lack of funds, it is now on the point of collapse. Ironically, people who fought the state in the years before 1989 are now looking for a saving hand from the Ministry of Culture.

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