Zdenek Urbánek: Writer and friend of Václav Havel

Zdenek Urbánek was a Czech writer and translator of English literature with a wide following at home and many friends abroad. He was a close friend of Václav Havel, the playwright and former president, who paid tribute to him last week: "Zdenek Urbánek was one of those rare writers whose talents you recognise at once. He was steadfast in his beliefs and ideals, and his most characteristic quality was consistency. Zdenek and I were lifelong friends. With his departure, a piece of the world I grew up in, and which formed me, is gone forever. He was one of the last great members of his literary generation."

Urbánek was born in 1917, a year before the creation of the independent republic of Czechoslovakia, to whose liberal ethos he would remain faithful in the face of successive totalitarian regimes. At the end of the 1930s, he was regarded as an important member of the rising generation of writers; he was a close friend and collaborator of the Jewish poet Jirí Orten, whose work he preserved for posterity when Orten died after being knocked down by a German ambulance in 1941 and then refused hospital treatment on racial grounds.

Later, Urbánek was recognised by the state of Israel as a "Righteous Gentile". Livia Rothkirchen, in her 2005 book The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: facing the Holocaust notes that "his modest two-room Prague apartment, where he lived with his wife and two children, served as a mail depot for food packages dispatched to friends at the Terezí*ghetto. Several Jewish people found temporary refuge at his home before being taken to safer abodes."

After the Communist putsch in 1948, Urbánek was employed as a script reviewer for Czechoslovak film until he contracted TB in 1957. He then became a freelance translator of English, American and Irish literature. He translated seven of Shakespeare's plays (his translation of Hamlet remained in the repertory of the Czech National Theatre from 1959 to 1965), and many of the seminal texts of the past 150 years, including works by Dickens, Walt Whitman, Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Galsworthy and Eugene O'Neill.

Unlike many of the most prominent Czech writers who later moved into opposition, he was never caught up in their early enthusiasm for Communism. During the temporary freedom of the Prague Spring in 1968, he would remark drily that all these people were discovering that Communism did not work, although he could have told them this 20 years earlier.

His detached and critical position required considerable courage. He was often called in by the police for questioning, and his translations, which were very popular, were often banned and had to be published illegally or under the names of friends. In 1977, he was closely associated with the Charter 77 human rights declaration, which cost many signatories their jobs.

When I first met Zdenek in the mid-1980s, he had a large map of the British Isles on the wall at his home, on which he pointed out the places he had visited in England. Although an avid traveller, he had not been allowed to set foot outside Czechoslovakia since 1969, when he returned from a six-month sojourn at All Souls College, Oxford, following the Soviet-led invasion of his country in August 1968.

He was also a Hibernophile (an "honorary Irishman" in his words) and was invited by the Irish Czech and Slovak Society as one of its first speakers in the early 1990s because of his knowledge of James Joyce. Before the Second World War, he had been to Paris, apparently to hear Léon Blum in person. Yet America was his first destination when he was finally allowed to travel abroad in October 1989 as a guest of Wendy Luers, president of the Charter 77 Foundation, and her husband Bill, the former US ambassador to Prague, just weeks before the Communist regime went into its death throes.

For such a mild man, he was a surprisingly fast driver. The writer Ludvík Vaculík was once a passenger and had the temerity to complain. Urbánek's response, as reported by Vaculík, was: "A sort of textbook for drivers has come out in England; I've got one on order; it's called How to Unteach the Back-seat Driver to Drive."

Gerald Turner

Zdenek Urbánek, writer and translator: born Prague 12 October 1917; married Vera Mühlwaldová (died 1972; one son, one daughter); died Prague 12 June 2008.

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