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Iron Curtain Monday, 11 October, 1999, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Writers without a cause
Czech writers have lost their status
By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

Michael Viewegh is one of the Czech Republic's most popular authors. His novel, Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, is a clever, satirical story of the trials, tribulations, adventures, and loves of Beata Kralova, the daughter of the local mafioso.

Communism - the end of an era
Told through the adoring eyes of her much older tutor, Beata's story reflects the lives of many after the Velvet Revolution. With irreverent wit, it portrays the effects of the sudden influx of western influences and new freedom on old habits and human weaknesses.

The book - and its author - has received widespread critical acclaim. But critics say its consumer bent and focus on sex is worrying.

Ten years ago, Czech writers were synonymous with political dissent. Today without a cause, Czech writers seem to have no clear identity. Books have become products. Authors have lost their status.

"Literature has had little impact after 1989," said Dr Jan Culik, a Czech lecturer at Glasgow University who was 15 at the time of the 1968 Prague Spring. "Intellectuals are demoralised and confused."

Losing the plot

It's true, Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia is a far cry from the works of playwright and current Czech president Vaclav Havel and Charter 77 members like Ludvik Vaculik.

Havel's essays like "The Power of the Powerless" and plays such as The Garden Party mocked and denounced the grueling life under Communism and a police state. Vaculik's essay, A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator, describes his grilling with a light but devastating touch.

Repression gave birth to a culture of dissent. After Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the general public was gagged. As the post-1968 prime minister Gustav Husk seemed to be doing a good job with the country's economy many were afraid to question him. But Czechoslovakia's writers were not prepared to stay quiet, and continued to circulate their literature.

From 1968 until 1989, books written by dissidents and published abroad, or locally in typewritten copis (samizdat) were precious and often dangerous to own. Persecuted by the state, authors were revered by the public and gave people a voice. Their works were an engine for social reform.

Today, many writers like Vaclav Havel, are part of the government. Playwright Milan Uhde was speaker of the Czech parliament and Vaclav Klaus, who was involved in the 1960s literary scene, served as prime minister from 1993-97.

Andrew Stroehlein, editor-in-chief of Central Europe Review and a former television journalist, says that this is part of the problem.

"The media is an absolute disaster," he said. "Programmes allow politicians to chose who will appear on the programme with them and write their own questions. There's no concept of follow on questions, no sense of independent TV, investigative journalism."

Learning curve

But others argue that literature's journey is just an example of the Czech Republic's growing pains. The Republic, officially created in 1993, is just more than six years old.

Writers are "still trying to face the recent history of the nation," says Dr Jiri Holy who lectures at the Charles University in Prague. "In my teaching, I see my students are more and more open and independent in their thinking and discussing things every year."

Nevertheless, Dr Holy worries that the bureaucracy and old-regime structures that still plague universities will stunt creativity.

"Bureaucracy is slow and non-efficient and the technical equipment and financial conditions are really miserable," he said.

Lecturers on average receive 109 per month (after tax) as salary. That's a low wage even considering Czech prices are much lower than other European countries. It is also considerably lower than the average 272 per month income of the country as a whole.

One thing is certain. As the Czech Republic gets used to its new identity - a market economy, a member of Nato, a future part of the European Community - Czech writers are still searching for their own personalities. This, it seems, is the price of freedom.

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