Obituary: Vladimr Macura

VLADIMIR MACURA was the director of the Institute of Czech Literature at the Academy of Sciences in Prague from 1993, as well as a literary critic and theorist, a novelist, and a translator of Estonian literature.

He first became a public figure, disapproved of by the mechanically nationalist Communist establishment, with the publication of Znamen zrodu ("Birth- Signs") in 1983. This erudite, myth-breaking treatment of the literary revival of the early 19th century shocked the establishment with its affectionately ironic treatment of writers and its depiction of the patriots as little more than members of a small incestuous club. An expanded version was published in 1995, including new research and parts of the original unacceptable to the Communist censors.

Also in 1983, Macura published his first work of fiction, a collection of short stories, Neznymi drpky ("With Tender Claws"), self- parodying narrations chiefly about men of an academic literary bent and their frailty in matters erotic. His first novel, Obcan Monte Christo ("Citizen Monte Cristo"), completed in 1981, was not published until 1993, although it was circulating in typescript throughout the second half of the 1980s. This erotic comedy satirises the police state and the activities of writers and literary scholars during late Communism.

In 1992, he published the first volume of his tetralogy set during the National Revival, mainly in 1848. (He finished the last volume while bed- ridden in 1998; it has not yet been published.) As in his scholarly work, the dominant mood is irony, directed at Revivalists and at the intellectuals of today. Particularly in the third volume, Guvernantka ("The Governess", 1997), he tacitly associates 1848 with 1989.

Macura was born in Ostrava, part of Moravian Silesia, in 1945. He read Czech and English at Prague University, where he took his BA in 1968; his undergraduate thesis on an inter-war Czech avant-garde poet was awarded a PhD in 1969.

A year earlier he had joined the Communist Party and in August 1968, at the time of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was doing his military service. The commandant of his unit in western Bohemia immediately initiated guerrilla warfare training; within a few days, however, the training stopped when the Czechoslovak People's Army officially became allies of the Soviets again.

After the fall of Alexander Dubcek in 1969, Macura left the Party. He was accepted as a post-doctoral assistant at the Institute of Czech Literature, and in 1971 he became a permanent employee (as far as there was permanence in those early years of "normalisation" for anyone like Macura). In 1974 he co-founded the illicit cultural organisation the Baltic Union (not recognised until 1990), and edited their samizdat periodical under the pseudonym Vladimr Kreutzwald.

Having hitherto known Estonian literature only in Russian translation, he set about teaching himself the language. By 1977 he had begun translating verse, prose and drama into Czech, beginning with Paul-Eerik Rummo's Tuhkatriinumang ("Play with Cinderella"); in the end he published some 20 translations in book form, the last an anthology of Estonian short stories in 1989. He also wrote the Estonian entries in The Everyman Companion to East European Literature (1993). The week before he died he was awarded the Cross of Estonia, 3rd Class, "for the transmission of Estonian culture"; his widow will receive the order on his behalf on 25 May.

Though he published uncompromising literary critical and theoretical essays throughout the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s, only after the breakdown of Communist rule in 1989 could Macura come into his own as the analyst of Czech national mythology as reflected in the written word. In numerous contributions to conferences and a series of three books, Stastny vek ("The Happy Age", 1992), Masarykovy boty ("Masaryk's Boots", 1993) and Cesky sen ("The Czech Dream", 1998), he wrote extensively of the myths of the National Revival, of Stalinism, and, more daringly, the mythicisation of Communist Czechoslovakia. In 1998, he won the state prize for literature, the first writer in the post-Communist era to be awarded the prize for specific works ("The Governess" and "The Czech Dream") rather than for his or her life's work.

His acceptance speech drove dignitaries and friends into fits of laughter. So it was at conferences. In lectures, often on writers his audience barely knew, he skilfully mixed erudition with comedy. He once organised a parody conference on nymphs entitled "An Introduction to Naiadology", and after 1989, he invented the forgotten writer Jaromil Kremen, partly based on the hero of Kundera's Life is Elsewhere, and published and had colleagues publish deeply serious articles on this figment of a parodic imagination.

Vladimr Macura will be remembered for his ground-breaking literary critical works and learned novels, but also for the inspiration he gave young scholars, his fairness (he fought against post-Communist witch-hunts, but would not abide former police agents and informers in his institute), his energy (he was still organising things by telephone the day before he died), and his friendship. Few scholars and foreign postgraduate students of things Czech have not at some time benefited from his generosity or moral support.

The immediate cause of his death was pneumonia, contracted while giving a typically jolly talk on the bicentenary of the birth of the Czech poet F.L. Celakovsky en plein air. Macura had been sick for several years with leukaemia, and medication had devastated his immune system.

He is survived by his first wife, the linguist Alena Psenckov, and their daughter, and by his second wife, the literary scholar Nadezda Simonov, and their son, Ondrej - who is also beginning to publish fiction.

Robert B. Pynsent

Vladimr Macura, writer and translator: born Ostrava, Czecho-slakia 7 November 1945; married 1966 Alena Psenckova (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1978), 1978 Nadezda Simonov (one son); died Prague 17 April 1999.