Thursday 27 April 1995
After several years of extreme Stalinist repression which followed the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the first cracks began to appear in the totalitarian monolith. From 1956 Czech intellectuals systematically worked at widening these cracks by attempting, at the beginning against overwhelming odds, to open the country to Western thought, by publishing modern Western literature and by encouraging debate on the most important issues of the day. Hajek took an active part in this liberalising, cultural movement.
He graduated in English and Czech from Charles University in Prague and received a doctorate for a thesis on the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett, then worked for several years in a Prague literary agency. Soon after graduation he had started translating works by modern English and American authors. The role of an English-speaking translator was extremely important in this period, but the authorities regarded most modern Anglo-American writers and their Czech translators as subversive. The translated novels needed to be defended by carefully drafted, bogus "literary" essays, printed with the translations, which "placed the work in the context of the Marxist struggle" and persuaded the censors that the Western author was "progressive".
The first work that Hajek translated into Czech was John Steinbeck's The Pearl, published in Prague in 1958. Translations of works by Charles Beaumont, Graham Greene, John Updike, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty and David Riesman followed. Hajek also published authoritative articles on leading British and American literary figures.
Between 1964 and 1969 Hajek worked as a foreign literature editor for Literarni Noviny ("Literary Gazette"), the official weekly of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union, which stood in the forefront of the Czech drive for freedom. The rebellion of Czech writers against the Communist regime culminated in the autumn of 1967, at their fourth Congress. The authorities reacted by suppressing Literarni Noviny. However, the rebellion accelerated events leading to the Prague Spring of 1968, during which the paper was revived and reached, during those heady months, a weekly print-run of 300,000 copies (in a nation of 10 million Czechs).
In 1968, Hajek received a prize from the American Ford Foundation for his translation of John Updike's The Centaur. The prize was a grant for travel to Britain and America. In August, while he was travelling, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact armies and the Prague Spring came to an end. Literarni Noviny was banned, as was everyone associated with it. Hajek became one of some 400 Czech writers whose name could not be mentioned in print in Czechoslovakia, not even in scholarly publications, from 1970 until November 1989.
In 1971, Hajek became Lecturer in Czechoslovak Studies in the Comenius Centre at Lancaster University, which had been founded by Sir Cecil Parrott, a former British ambassador to Czechoslovakia, for the study of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. When the centre was closed as a result of Margaret Thatcher's university cuts in 1983, Hajek was transferred to Glasgow University.
While in Britain Hajek strove to inform the Western public about the plight of his native country after the Soviet-led invasion and about modern Czech literary tradition, which paradoxically became extraordinarily vibrant after 1968, producing works of international renown by authors such as Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Ivan Klima, Bohumil Hrabal and Vaclav Havel. A close friend of Skvorecky, Hajek became associated with his small Toronto-based publishing house, 68 Publishers, which between 1971 and 1989 brought out more than 200 new titles of modern Czech literature banned in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Hajek analysed these works in scholarly periodicals and other publications. From 1968 he wrote regularly for the Times Literary Supplement about Czech literature.
Recently, Hajek had become somewhat disillusioned with developments in the Czech Republic, which seems now to have been largely overtaken by consumerism and commercialism and where there now appears to be little inclination for informed critical debate in the media. He realised it will probably take Czech society longer to become a civilised democracy than was originally envisaged. I spoke to Hajek on the day he died, telling him about some of the latest problems in Prague. He reacted: "But in a week's time, these scandals will be overshadowed by other scandals. These things are never properly investigated and nobody draws any conclusions from them."
Igor Hajek was one of the nicest and brightest of the intellectuals who chose exile after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, writes Richard Davy. I first met him in Prague early that year, enjoying the freedoms of the "Prague Spring".
When he visited London in the summer I took him to a trendy production of The Tempest in which Prospero was portrayed as a colonial governor handing over to the rightful native owner, Caliban. Igor was appalled and amused. "I come all this way to escape Marxism," he fumed, "and I find it taking over your theatres."
We also went to see a French film about the Czech show trials of the 1950s in which senior party figures were tortured and executed by other senior party figures. Shaken by the horror of it, I turned to Igor. He shrugged. "Dogs eating dogs," he said. He was still in London when his country was invaded by the Soviet Union and its allies. The morning after, I was sitting in my office in the Times, wondering how to get news out of occupied Prague, when Igor walked in carrying an elaborate radio. "Listen," he said excitedly, "I can pick up all the clandestine radio stations in Czechoslovakia." Thereafter, for several days and nights, he sat in my office monitoring the news that poured out of these stations.
He remained a good friend, deeply informed on Czech culture and also eager to discuss, with mournful good-humour, the advanced hi-fi equipment for which he yearned. It had been unobtainable in Prague and was now too expensive for him in the West.
Igor Hajek, writer, translator, journalist and critic: born Ostrava, Czechoslovakia 22 March 1931; editor, foreign literature, Literarni Noviny 1964-69; Lecturer in Czechoslovak Studies, Lancaster University 1970-83; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in Czechoslovak Studies, Glasgow University 1983-95; married 1955 Marcella Maskova (one daughter), died Glasgow 19 April 1995.
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