YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Richard Eder

A Cup of Coffee With My Interrogator: The Prague Chronicles of Ludvik Vaculik translated by George Theiner (Readers International: $14.95; 127 pp.)

August 23, 1987|RICHARD EDER

It is 20 years since a Czechoslovak writer helped set off the events which, within a year, would so decisively overturn the country's oppressive institutions that Soviet tanks had to come to set them up again.

In June, 1967, Ludvik Vaculik told a stormy session of the Writers Congress that the limited artistic freedoms allowed by the government must be converted into a matter of right. Official tolerance was not enough. Power--a share of power--must be relinquished.

Vaculik's speech, which came to be called the Two Thousand Words, was only one spark in an incendiary situation. But it was the one that caught. It was the "J'accuse" of what later became the Prague Spring; it was its "Give me liberty or give me death."

Yet consider its key phrase. Vaculik was speaking of the harshness that artists encountered beneath the guise of official leniency: "We have taken the bull by the horns and we are holding on, and yet something keeps butting us in the seat of the pants."

Every original lurch of history writes its own rhetoric. Here was Prague's: modest and wryly humane. It suited an idiosyncratic revolution whose fate was probably decided from the beginning, but which proceeded in the belief that liberation, like other human activities, is a matter not of triumph but of living until you have to stop.

After the tanks, Vaculik was banned from publishing and has survived ever since doing odd jobs, like many of his fellow artists. He helped found the Charter 77 movement. Despite repression--he was arrested briefly; others have spent considerable time in jail--the movement established a network of communication and support among the dissidents that has never been dismantled.

Vaculik has also been writing, and now Readers International has brought out a collection entitled "A Cup of Coffee With My Interrogator." There is nothing quite like it. Its brief topical essays and reflections show that two dark decades after Two Thousand Words, the peculiar Czechoslovak genius for inflamed reasonableness is undampened.

Vaculik writes them once a month on a typewriter; they are copied and circulated. He is the night watchman at a temporarily shut-down enterprise whose product is the national soul. He punches in, unfailingly. It is important, in maintenance work, to keep your time clock in order.

The pieces are as hard to describe as to recover from. Vaculik rambles amiably; only at the end, does everything snap together with a power that is lethal and life-restoring at the same time.

"Funeral of a Spokesman" is an example. It is seven pages long; a tapestry of ironic reticence and fulminating directness. Jan Patocka, an elderly philosopher and a signer of Charter 77, had died of a brain hemorrhage after a police interrogation. There was no violence; simply the profound indignity of having to answer to policemen for expressing oneself; this, and a bureaucratic delay in getting medical help.

"I had intended to go to the funeral, but, as luck would have it, I received a summons to a certain official institution for exactly the same hour," Vaculik writes. It is a polite euphemism for police headquarters. Vaculik is always polite, even charitable. It is his deadliness.

The senior official who receives him assures him that there will be no interrogation. Vaculik can read or take a nap; and can leave when the funeral is over.

Outside, at the cemetery, a helicopter sweeps low to drown out the ceremony for the reduced group of mourners. Inside, Vaculik records the painful tedium. The official reads a newspaper; Vaculik reads a book, "What We're Like," a classic about the Czech national character. Vaculik quotes it, helpfully. It is a reasonable, non-extremist national character.

And here is this reasonable, non-extremist detainee and his reasonable, non-extremist guardian in the wildest of situations: a prohibition of mourning. Time passes; the official does a crossword puzzle. "A six letter word meaning fabric," he calls out. "Calico," suggests a young colleague. Vaculik, humanity's timekeeper, picks off the leaden seconds.

Later, he's released. He goes to the cemetery. Everyone has left, but there is the newly dug grave. "Which goes to show you," he concludes, "that you can't really miss a funeral. Only the living you can miss."

Vaculik can write with murderous geniality. For years, he remarks in "Good News?," the mail has brought him nothing but bad news. There is the official correspondence that goes with his state of permanent surveillance. It is all interdictions and refusals.

Even the good news is not really good. Vaclav Havel, another much-punished writer, notifies him that they've been invited to a PEN conference in Vienna. The very fact of receiving the letter, Vaculik ruminates, means that it has been read en route and that it will become impossible for them to go.

Los Angeles Times Articles