Although Franz Kafka was a Prague citizen born and bred, it was only in 2004 (i.e. eighty years after he had died) that the city paid tribute to his accomplishments by building a distinctive statue in Dušní street in the Old Town district. Kafka could speak Czech fluently but German was his native language and this was the language that he decided to write in. Indeed, lots of scholars maintain that his idiosyncratic work is very difficult to comprehend completely in any other language than his native German language. As a result, the Czechs have never totally regarded Kafka as a fellow citizen. But this has not prevented a whole chain of restaurants and cafés in the area he used to live in, Josefov (a Jewish area frequented by Tourists), from using his name to cash in.
The other Czech literary great, Milan Kundera, has also experienced problems similar to Kafka’s. Much of his writing was done in French as Kundera actually resided in France during the seventies.
Once more, many of his fellow citizens have seen him in a less favourable light as they often do with anyone who was able to avoid the harsh Communist era in their country. Kundera’s most well-known work, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, got published during 1984 but only arrived in Czech in 2006, due partly to the author’s unhappiness with all of the prior attempts at translating it.
Then, in October of 2008, the low profile writer was caught up in the middle of a media storm when a Czech magazine published a piece implying that he had been a Communist Informer. Kundera vehemently refuted these accusations.
Other Czech Literary Writers
To gain a better idea of the Czech’s perception of good quality Czech literature, it is a good plan to examine some other, less famous, works. The early twentieth century’s Jewish community, which was beset with problems, produced other great writers as well as Kafka. These include Max Brod (who was told to destroy Kafka’s writings after his death) and novelists Gustav Meyrink (who wrote ‘The Golem’) and Paul Leppin (who wrote ‘Severin’s Journey into the Dark’), who both wrote chilling accounts of the last days of the Habsburg Regime. Holocaust survivors, like Arnošt Lustig and Jiff Weil, the former still a fixture in the prolific theatre scene in Prague, kept up this tradition.
In other places in this genre, watch out for the political novels of Ivan Klíma, the revolutionary work of Ludvik Vaculík and the alternative poems of Jiřf Kolář, to name only a few.
Special emphasis should further be placed on Jaroslav Hašek, who produced possibly the most well-known character in Czech novels: the Good Soldier Švejk, from his book (of the same name) written in nineteen twenty three. Set during World War One, the novel portrays the experiences of Švejk, a military veteran who is so enthusiastic to follow orders exactly that many are not sure if he is cleverly trying to bring down the powerful Austro-Hungarian Regime or if he is just a fool.
Czechs liked the anti-establishment attitude of the book’s hero and lots of restaurants and public houses throughout the city refer to him. Both author and character have also had the asteroids: 7896 Švejk and 2734 Hašek named in honour of them. The writings of the dissident former President and playwright, Václav Havel, also still inspire. Havel’s actions during the communist regime led to prison sentences frequently. During later, more progressive, times the letters he wrote to his wife from this era were sold as: ‘Letters to Olga’. After he retired from his profession at the Castle of Prague, the fussy and introverted writer has, again, found a broad audience after returning to his writing.