Obituary: Vaclav Pinkava

Vaclav Pinkava's novels, published in the 1980s under the pen- name Jan Kresadlo, while Pinkava was living in exile in Britain, have already become classics of contemporary Czech literature. To Josef Skvorecky, next to Milan Kundera probably the best-known Czech writer living in the West, Pinkava was one of the most remarkable Czech authors of the century. "He only started publishing his work very late in his life . . ." Skvorecky said, "so literary criticism has overlooked him until recently, when critics have recognised that he was not a bizarre scribbler but a first-class author."

Skvorecky, speaking in a BBC World Service interview recorded after Pinkava's death, also recalled Pinkava's first novel, Mrchopevci ("Stiffsingers", 1984): "I immediately realised that here was an exceptional talent." The book won the prestigious Egon Hostovsky Prize and before the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, Skvorecky's Sixty-Eight Publishers, based in Toronto, published several more of Pinkava's novels.

It was once said that Czechoslovakia, situated in the very heart of Europe, was susceptible to heart disease, politically speaking. This was arguably true of Vaclav Pinkava's life as well. He was born in Prague in 1926, to a manufacturer of Bohemian cut glass whose wife's ancestors hailed from the Italian nobility. Brilliant and outspoken from childhood, he was continually dogged by political misfortune and individual malice. Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Pinkava was expelled from grammar school for his manifest dislike of the compulsory German language.

Having completed his school studies in 1947, long after the Germans themselves were expelled, he was admitted to the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, in Prague. After the Communist coup of February 1948, he was arrested and charged with complicity in organising an armed uprising. Despite repeated prosecution appeals, he finally escaped the mandatory death penalty when the judges (soon to be replaced by more implacable Communists) had to admit the indictment was simply absurd. Forced into a period of national service, he eventually returned to graduate in Psychology in 1954 and worked as a clinical psychologist at his Alma Mater, specialising in sexual deviation. It was not until 1968, and many more struggles with the authorities, that he was allowed to complete his PhD.

When another Czechoslovak heart attack struck, in the shape of the Soviet invasion in 1968, Pinkava fled to the West with his wife Eva and their four children. They found a new home in Colchester, where Vaclav was head of the Psychology Department of a psychiatric hospital. In the early 1980s he was an ardent opponent of the closure of psychiatric wards and the ill-conceived NHS policy of "care in the community". He retired early to devote himself to writing. Many products of his immensely prolific "retirement" are still awaiting publication.

As a poet, Pinkava published in Czech and English. His profound poetic sense and language skills made him uniquely equipped to translate the works of other poets, most notable amongst works being his authorised translation of A Wreath of Sonnets by the Nobel laureate Jarsolav Seifert. Pinkava's magnum opus is Astronautilia, a science fiction epic written in Homeric Greek hexameters with parallel Czech translation. It will be published later this year in Prague.

Yet Pinkava's literary achievements are just one aspect of the man. His polymath talents as novelist, poet, artist, musician and composer, linguist, logician philosopher and even naturalist mark him as perhaps one of the unrecognised geniuses of his age. He published several texts and many scientific papers in psychopathology, the theory of automata, and mathematical logic, a field in which he discovered a new class of algebra bearing his name. When his friend and colleague Dr Ladislav Kohout was getting married in London some years ago, Pinkava considered it a matter of honour to compose a wedding mass for the couple - it was an excellent piece of work, as many of those present testified. His Glagolitic Mass, an earlier work, was for several years regularly performed in Prague.

In London, Pinkava was choirmaster of the Sokol Society (a Czech movement originally established in Prague in 1862). There, his sonorous tenor voice was regularly to be heard, along with those of his family among the choir members, singing his own arrangements. The choir performed at many functions and venues in London including Westminster Abbey, and, in 1989, sang Christmas carols at Trafalgar Square with the proceeds of the collection being sent to Civic Forum, the precursor of Vaclav Havel's new regime in Czechoslovakia.

Pinkava's tireless contributions to the life of the Czech community in Britain will also be remembered by members of the British Section of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences where he held the position of secretary for many years. Without his painstaking work on the computer my own book on the history of the London Sokol (published in Prague in 1990) would not have materialised.

Pinkava's natural humour was best reflected in his novels. Thus in Fuga Trium (1988) an unrecognised but gifted poet is eaten by unruly pigs and subsequently buried with honours by the pig farmers. In all of Pinkava's novels, even the Communists of bad character are often capable of appreciating a good joke. Yet he was not a humorist author per se. Vaclav Pinkava's keen insight into human nature and folly, which renders mankind susceptible to the devastating influence of this or that ideology (usually communist), finds its expression in such apposite sarcasm and scathing satire that I have no hesitation in placing Jan Kresadlo somewhere between Jaroslav Hasek and Franz Kafka. His novels certainly deserve translation into the English language and no doubt this will happen.

Vaclav Pinkava, writer: born Prague 9 December 1926; married 1957 Eva Krizova (three sons, one daughter); died Colchester 13 August 1995.

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