OBITUARY : Jan Culik

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Jan Culik was born in time still to benefit from the all-round, "classical" education in the tradition of the inter-war, democratic Czechoslovak Republic. This education however failed to prepare the members of his generation for the political cataclysms which were to befall Czechoslovakia from 1939 onwards and left them often rather isolated in the totalitarian decades which were to follow.

After eventually completing his secondary education (in the early 1940s, the whole class was expelled "from all the secondary schools in the Protectorate of Bohmen und Mahren" because a graffito saying "Hitler is an idiot" had been discovered in the school toilet), from 1945 Culik studied English and Latin at Charles University in Prague, where he was taught by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir. Culik's doctoral thesis, on "Paradox in Modern English Literature", was not accepted in 1949, a year after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, because it "did not include any quotes from Lenin and Stalin". It was eventually awarded in 1969.

From 1949, Culik worked, for two decades, as a clerk in a state foreign- trade company, and later as a technical translator. His Catholic background and his refusal to compromise with Communist ideology prevented him from being able to find more suitable employment. In the 1950s, two of his close relatives were imprisoned by the Communist authorities. His uncle, Antonin Culik, a Catholic priest, who had brought him up, secretary to the then Archbishop of Prague, spent nine years in prison; his brother- in-law, the Catholic intellectual and editor Dr Rudolf Vorisek, was killed in prison in 1953.

From the late 1950s, after the Stalinist grip on Czechoslovakia loosened a little, Jan Culik translated modern English literature into Czech: works by Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, William Golding, Graham Greene and other authors. He translated more than 30 English and American titles in all, often accompanying his translations with his own essays.

On commission from a Czech migr publisher in London, Culik translated, still before the fall of Communism, Paul Johnson's 900-page A History of the Modern World (1983), as an antidote to the Communist view of history. The computer discs were smuggled from Prague to Britain. The book was published in Prague shortly after the 1989 democratic revolution and produced a lively debate. For many years Culik also taught English in Prague. He saw in the English language an instrument of freedom, a means to avoid isolation and manipulation.

Jan Culik felt a particular affinity for Graham Greene, in whose personal philosophical and religious development, from relatively orthodox Catholicism to a loose, individual Christian belief, he saw a close parallel to the development of his own views. He translated four works by Greene, over the years exchanged letters with him and in 1969 met him in Prague.

In 1994, Culik published in the Czech Republic an extensive study of Greene's writings, Graham Greene: basnik trapnosti ("The Poet of the Painful"), a "literary and philosophical analysis" which differs from the studies by Norman Sherry and Michael Shelden primarily by relating Greene's work to various Christian (mostly neoplatonic) thinkers and placing it in a broader philosophical context.

Culik argued that there is a close intuitive parallel between the views of Graham Greene and the views of the German existentialist thinker Karl Jaspers, even though Greene may have never read Jaspers, whose translations into English are often very opaque. Greene, like Jaspers, saw this world as problematic and imperfect. Greene demonstrated this by testing his heroes by placing them in extreme situations; the pressure of extreme situations produced ambiguity. In Culik's view, the questionable nature of our world pointed both Greene and Jaspers towards another world.

Greene was, said Culik, a poet of failure, who realised that failure provided our world with a metaphysical dimension. He interpreted Greene's systematic, lifelong disloyalty and extreme independence as a protest against power and the dehumanising influence of success.

Jan Culik jnr

Jan Culik, writer, teacher, translator: born Prague 6 July 1925; married 1952 Hana Sediva (two sons, one daughter); died Prague 30 April 1995.