TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.4. New Multi-society and Cultural Integration in Asia and Europe | Die neue multikulturelle Gesellschaften und die kulturelle Integration in Asien und Europa
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Rhie Hae Za (Kunsan National University, Korea)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Multi-cultural phenomena in Czech Literature  

Kyuchin Kim (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Korea) [BIO]

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1. Preface

A small country, like the Czech Nation, has a unique national and international character as well as culture, which includes French, Germanic, English, American, Slavic, Jewish and other elements such as anti-Semitism. Many Czech composers are well known including Antonin Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů in Classical Music. Notable painters include the Art Nouveau painter and poster artist Alfons Mucha, and the cubist painters Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubista, and Mikoláš Aleš. Architectural artwork has strong western European influence in their works. Also thinkers such as Jan Hus in Religion and Jan Patočka in philosophy, Tomaš Masaryk in Democracy, Czech educator, Jan Amos Comenius (Komenský) have made a significant contribution to European culture. They were also strongly influenced by western culture. The stature of Comenius was truly universal.

In literature, Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Karel čapek, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klíma and Josef škvorecky and many others provide not only examples of a rich Czech literary tradition but also they show western traditions in their creative works. In Czech cinema Vera Chytilova, Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel and Jan Sverák who produced high quality movies also were influenced by the western tradition. The Czech Republic is amongst the best in the world for marionette and puppet theatre. We can find Italian or French tradition in these fields too.

Czech literature is rooted in western and central European literature more than in Slavic or Russian, even if Czech language belongs to the Slavic language family with Russian, Slovak and Polish. The Moravian Empire (of which is a part of present Czech Republic) received religion, language and literature from the Byzantine Empire first among Slavic countries in 863. But in spite of its thousand-year old history, it has not received its rightful recognition abroad due to the smallness of language and the more recent political problems of the communist era in late 20 century. Czech Old Church Slavonic culture initiated by St. Cyril and St. Methodius started the oldest literature tradition in Moravia influenced by southern and eastern Slavic countries.(1) German reformers including Martin Luther admitted that it was the teachings of Jan Hus who influenced the German Reformation movement. Russian writer and thinker Lev Tolstoy said his religious writings were influenced by Petr Chelčický’s(2) religious philosophy.

Although Czech literature was developed in the Latin tradition from the middle ages, it never neglected to accept the great Greek antique literature and western literatures including French, German and English literature, and more recently American literature. Of course we can not ignore the influence of the romantic traditions of Russian and Polish literature of the 19th century. One can find multi-cultural traditions in 20th century Czech literature which deal with various motifs and themes like other European literature.

Czech literature is divided into several major time periods: beginning with the Czech old literature in the Middle ages of the 9th–14th centuries, the Hussite period, the years of reformation, and the renaissance and the baroque period in the 15th - 17th centuries. The literature of the National Revival (Narodní obrození) in the 18th late century and early 19th century, realism and neo-romanticism in the 2nd half of 19th century, the modernism and avant-garde, the golden age of Czech literature of the interwar period (1914-1939), the years under Nazi War and Communism and the Prague Spring (1939-1989), and the literature of the post-Communist era (since 1990). Like other countries such as Hungary, Czech literature and culture played a major role on at least two occasions when Czech society lived under oppression and political activity was not possible. In the early 19th century and then again in the 1960s, the Czechs used their cultural and literary efforts to create political freedom and to establish a confident, politically aware nation.

In this article we will discus various multi-cultural phenomena, such as of the anti-war themes and humor in Hašek's works, Gerrman and Jewish culture from Jewish Czech writers such as Franz Kafka, humanism and multi-cultural phenomena in the works of Čapek, who is known for writing many scientific plays, philosophical novels and inventing the word 'robot'.

We will discuss also Jewish themes and anti-Semitism motif by Czech Authors, such as Ivan Klima, Ladislav Fuks, Arnost Lustig and others.

 We will discuss many kinds of western literary and cultural traditions as well which appeared in Kundera's works. He became very popular in the world due to his specific motifs and themes such as philosophical speculation on love and sex through his novels. And also American motifs in the work of Bohumil Hrabal will be briefly discussed.


2. Hašek, čapek and Kafka

Let’s start to talk about Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik (Osud dobrého vojáka švejka za světové války). Hašek(1883-1923) is a Czech novelist, humorist, joker, storyteller, journalist, onetime communist.(3) He is known as a canon writer of the anti war stories by his famous satiric masterpiece The Good Soldier Schweik.(4) Hašek along with Franz Kafka and čapek was one of the key figures of literary Prague of the early 20th century, the golden age of Czech literature. He was arguably more dynamic, blasphemous and popular.(5) As Fiedler points out rightly that it seems appropriate that Jaroslav Hašek and Franz Kafka lived at the same time in the same city of Prague. For, though their politics differed as did the very language in which they chose to write, though one was mildly anti-Semitic and the other a Jew, their visions of the world’s absurdity were much the same. Perhaps there was no better place from which to watch the decay of Europe and the values which had nurtured it than Prague; no better place to see how comic that catastrophe was.(6)

Hašek’s major work, The Good Soldier Schweik has been acclaimed as one of the greatest war satires in world literature. Unlike Kafka's novels, which were written in Prague German, Hašek’s novel was written in Prague common Czech. Good Soldier Schweik depicts a character that undergoes difficulties during World War I by acting both stupid and simultaneously clever so authority can't decide how to deal with him. Some Germans read it as typical Czech idiocy while Czechs have taken the character to heart, representing clever passive resistance to authority even if they do not agree that he a typical Czech, but form the point of my view he has a lot of typical Czech characteristics.(7)

Nearly holy fool Schweik (Švejk) is honest, naive, incompetent, feeble minded and perhaps more clever than he acts. It is difficult to judge whether he is a good-natured simpleton or just acting. Perhaps he is the wise fool, a typical character ‘hloupý Honza’ in Czech literary tradition (like American Jack the Simpleton, or the Korean simpleton hero ‘Ondal’). Schweik cleverly avoids becoming victim moving through a society of victimizers. 

Schweik is arrested by the secret police for making indiscreet remarks about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in the famous Prague pub ‘U Kalicha’, and interrogated by the Austrian civil and military authorities. He is then enforced to enlist and is posted as an orderly to various officers including Lieutenant Lucas. Through these descriptions Hašek effectively criticizes the Austrian police system and the war. 

He undermines the lofty military bureaucracy wich his strategy. Schweik's adventures have many connections to the life of Hašek. Like Schweik, the author was a soldier in the Austrian army, and later he surrenders to the Russians. Through this we can learn about the conflict of the Russian revolution and internal war.(8)

 Schweik has sympathy for the cause of his Southern Slav brothers, Serbia and Croatia with the demands of loyalty to the Austrian Empire. He anticipates that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian in Sarajevo will start a war, which, he contemplates, should naturally put Austria and Serbia together as allies against the Turks, the traditional enemy of both. Here we can see the historical and political background of the novel. In conclusion, Schweik is a great Czech literary hero and has a unique place in world literature alongside such characters as Sancho Panza of Cervantes and Oblomov of Goncharov. Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik profoundly influenced other Euopean war novels such as Remark and many others. It is regarded as a canon of anti-war novels there after. The anti-war novels including Hasek’s do not end wars in human history, but they give us lessons about the inhuman activities of the super powers. It also portrays the concept of Honor which is a tradition in Western European culture. It seems to say, no cause is worth the death of a human being in the history of the world.

Schwejk, the hero of Hašek is not only an anti- war hero but also a proto type for anti-heroic heroes generally in Czech literature.

“A great epoch calls for great men. There are modest unrecognized heroes------. An analysis of their characters would overshadow even the glory of Alexander the Great. Today, in the streets of Prague, you can come across a man who himself does not realize what his significance is in the history of the great new epoch. ------If you were to ask him his name, he would answer in a simple and modest tone of voice: “I am Schweik.”

And this quiet, unassuming, shabbily dressed man is actually the good soldier Schweik; ---- I am convinced that you will all sympathize with this modest, unrecognized hero. He did not set fire to the temple of the goddess at the Ephesus, like that fool of a Herostrate, merely in order to get his name into the newspaper and the school reading books. And that, in itself, is enough.(9)

Hašek shows the horrors of war, the ironies of being a chaplain, the shortcomings of the Emperor Franz Joseph and the limitations of the military mind through Schweik’s view points in the novel. Present in the novel are themes of the author’s anti-German, mildly anti-Semitic views related to the atheist Jewish chaplain, Otto Katz, who possesses strong anti-clericalism, some distrust of Hungarians, disbelief in the decayed Austrian Empire, Czech Nationalism and defense of Czech language against the German linguistic domination in the novel.

When Schweik was charged with political crimes by an absurd Austrian police spy Bretschneider, he pleads guilty; and to a fellow prisoner who cries, “I am innocent, I’m innocent,” he remarks blandly, “So was Jesus Christ but they crucified Him for all that. Nobody anywhere at any time has ever cared a damn whether a man’s innocent or not.”(10)

Schweik’s resistance to war is based on no higher of a principle than his business sense; both are rooted in the conviction that a man must somehow live and thrive on the very disasters which surround him. In such a way he is actually never involved in fighting in war, he always avoids the battle somehow. He fools his superiors in the novel they share, and also he fools readers in the process. Repeatedly, his sayings have double meanings in various situations. On his lips the noblest slogans become mockeries. Let him merely cry, “God save the Emperor” and all who listen are betrayed to laughter. Schweik always survives in concentration camps and army barracks, in prison cells and before investigating committees, assuring his interrogators of his feeble mindedness and his good will as their pretenses to virtue collapse before his unexpected chattering.

His characters are revealed in the following conversation between the doctor committees and him; ““So he doesn’t think at all, doesn’t he? Why don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?” bellowed one of the members of commission, clanking his word. “Beg to report, sir, I don’t think because soldiers ain’t allowed to. “Hold your tongue,” the chairman of the commission interrupted Schweik fiercely. “We’ve heard all about you. You’re no idiot, Schweik. You’re artful, you’re tricky, you’re a humbug, a hooligan, the scum of the earth, do you understand?””(11)

One half of them asserted that Schweik was “ein bloder Kerl (an idiot), while the other half took the view that he was a humbug who wanted to poke fun at the army. As they characterize him as a typical tricky humbug, he behaves just like that when he wants.


American Pragmatism and Humanism in Čapek’s Works

As a short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, feuilletonist and travel writer Karel Čapek (1890- 1938) was a writer of many forms.(12) His study of Bergson’s metaphysics and the American thought, especially pragmatism of William James, was reflected in his writings.

Čapek was especially a supporter of American pragmatism. He wrote a book about Pragmatism, in 1918 and a 2nd edition in 1925. Pragmatism was a fashion and ‘as a new trend’ caused a stir among the scholars in the newly born Czechoslovakia. Philosophically, the starting point for the play writer František Langer(13) as well as Čapek was in pragmatism. It was the creed of democracy and freedom, it was democratic spirit of the Republican and civilian West which –in the simplified war ideology-stood against caesarism and militarism of the central powers.(14)

His conscientious search for truth in his Wayside Cross (Boží muka, 1917) and in Tales from Two Pockets plays generative role in his trilogy, Horudval, Meteor(Povětroň) and the Ordinary Life (obyčejný život). Picasso’s and Czech painter Emil Fila’s cubism has strong relationship with Karel Čapek’s cubism novel Meteor.

Čapek has given more thought then any other Czech writer in his metaphysical novel Wayside Cross in the boundaries of reason and language, the possibility of miracle and the truth of mystery. Čapek was the very antithesis of all the mystics in Czech literature. His intellectual focal-point was relativism which was well presented in his trilogy novels. Relativism which Capek admires is the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual. Czech born American critic Rene Wellek highly praised Čapek as one of the best philosophical novelists in the 20th century regarding this trilogy. Čapek purified the novel of its negativist tendencies through infusion of pragmatism as well as a highly sober form of humanism. He argued that men should content themselves with truths which are within the scope of human discovery and with temporal wisdom. He highly opposed revolutionary changes in the development human society, which was well described in his writings such as the anti-utopian drama R.U.R. R.U.R. and the Life of Insects were written by him and his brother Josef. R.U.R.(Rossum’s Universal Robots) even introduced the word robot(from Czech word robotit; to drudge) into the English language.

Josef Čapek was a Cubism painter and the author of one of the most acclaimed Czech children stories about a fellowship of a cat and dog ("Povidaní o pejskovi a kočičcce"), short novels. and theatre plays together with Karel Čapek.


The Czech, German and Jewish themes and anti-Semitism

Prague is full of the legends of Czech, German and Jewish stories. One of the typical Jewish legends is the Prague Golem story. The most famous golem narrative involves Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, of the 16th century. He is reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from anti-Semitic attacks.

Prague has a unique culture of Czech, German and Jewish characteristics. We can find those cultures in the works of many Czech born Jewish writers, such as Franz Kafka, Frantíšek and Jiří Langer, Alfred Fuchs, Egon Erwin Kish, Karel Polaček, Max Brod, Josef Kodiček, Franz Werfel, Pavel Eisner, Jan (Johannes) Urzidil and Felix Weltsch, and many others.

Among those writers Kafka is unique even if he lived in Prague his whole life he did not describe concrete references to Prague. But Kafka’s testimony about the Prague symbiosis is the most eloquent of all above mentioned Prague related writers, even if he did not describe any street names or places in his creative writings except one nine-stanza poem. We can not find any motif relating to Czech or Prague in his major work including Metamorphosis as a French scholar mentioned. Isolation and struggle between three cultures can be found in themes of his writings. As Avigdor Dagan correctly points out, Kafka’s work unquestionably bears the stamp of his Prague destiny.(15) It is easy to imagine that his work has originated from the mood of Prague streets to his home, Kafka Square, the Old Town Square, Jewish Quarter-Josefov to the Charles Bridge, his sisters home-Alchemists’ small houses in Golden Alley and the Prague Castle.

As Iris Bruce makes a case for Kafka's interest in Zionism and demonstrates the presence of Jewish themes and motifs in Kafka's literary works in her book Kafka and Cultural Zionism, Dates in Palestine, we can find various Jewish themes in Kafka’s novels. But Kafka was skeptical and kept distance from Zionism as ‘Krahwinkelei’ which was defined by Max Brod.(16) That’s why Kafka’s literary world is not only belonging to the Jewish community in Prague but also to the world.

Ladislav Fuks (1923-) is a unique and inventive author who is not from Jewish family but deals with many Jewish themes. Until the turbulent 1960s after World War II, many Czech Jewish victims were not mentioned publicly even if their stories were very productive themes in Czech fictions. During the relatively free atmosphere of the early 1960s, Fuks wrote many works that show Jewish themes. His understanding and sympathy of Jewish life and suffering stemmed from his personal experiences during the Nazi occupation. During the war he lost many Jewish friends. Fuks's works are often psychological, sometimes filled with horror, and full of unforeseen developments. He was a contemporary of Czech Jewish writers like Ivan Klíma, Arnošt Lustig, and Jiří Weil. His first novel Mr. Theodore Mundstock (Pan Theodor Mundstock, 1963) can be classified with Lustig's Darkness Casts No Shadow, Klíma's Love and Garbage (Láska a smetí), and Weil's Life with a Star (Život s hvězdou). All of these works deal with Jewish themes and experiences of concentration camp.

Fuks's novel The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol)(17) deals with the horror of Jewish victims during the Nazi war. The novel shows how ideology changes an eccentric crematory worker, Pan Kopfrklingl, into a cruel man. Under Nazi pressure he becomes an informer and executioner of his half Jewish family for the Nazi Gestapo.

In his major novel Mr. Theodore Mundstock, Fuks deals with psychology of the Jewish families who are supposed to be sent to the concentrate camp in any time. Fuks has developed Mr. Mundstock, a character who is gifted with incredible foresight and keen powers of observation as well as a creative imagination.

While many Jewish families and individuals around him get by in manners such as nervous collapse, rejection, and even suicide, Mr. Mundstock attempts to mentally and physically prepare himself by turning his lonely apartment into a mini concentration camp cell. Mundstock exercises while carrying a heavy suitcase and uses an ironing board as a wooden bed to get used to concentration camp life and so on.

The preparation takes the reader through Mundstock's mind's misperceptions, denial, and fear while the novel's other characters see Mr. Mundstock as a fearless man in his later years who is more prepared than anyone else for the nightmare they will face in the camp.

Many Czech writers drew on experience in Nazi concentration camps to produce emotional novels and tales. Norbert Frýd (1913-) depicted his memories of life in the Terezín, Osvěti (Auschwitz) and Dachau camps in his novel Box for the Living(Krabice živých).

Ivan Klíma (1931.9.14-) is a novelist, playwright and a television and radio writer.(18) He miraculously survived 3 years of his youth imprisoned by the Nazis at the Terezín concentration camp in the northern suburbs of Prague. The memories of his direful stay at the camp are reflected in many of his works. The Jewish theme is prevalent in Klíma's novels. Much like Arnost Lustig, a Jewish descendant who also survived a Nazi concentration camp, Klíma tried to artistically express his horrendous experiences at the camp.

In his novel The Merciful Judge (Soudce z Milostí), which dealt with the life of an intellectual during the political normalization period (when the communist enforcement movement was predominant) after the invasion of the Russian tanks in 1968, he drew from his experiences at the Terezín concentration camp.

Love and Garbage (Láska a Smetí), in which he criticized the totalitarian regime and dealt with the theme of women's fate and the horrific experiences during the Nazi era, has an autobiographical aspect to it. The biographical story of Hoess, the human butcher of Auschwitz who disposed of people as if they were garbage, is especially appalling. The writer also hallucinates that the girl he loved during his youth, who disappeared into the gas chamber, returns to him reincarnated as Daria, the heroine of the novel. 

  “And it seemed to me, as I was gazing at the face of the woman whom I had now, nearer the end of my life, met, who seemed familiar to me from the depth of my being, that by some miracle the one who had stood at the very beginning had returned, and as after so many years I again saw that motionless, dreamlike, loving face before me at night I was engulfed by a wave of joy mingled with sadness, even though I worked out with some relief that Daria had already been alive for three years when they gassed the other."(19) "When I learned after the war that all those I had been fond of, all those I had known, were dead, gassed like insects and incinerated like refuse, I was gripped by despair."(20)

The reason he felt as if the girl appeared to him reincarnated as the sculptor was because his traumatic experiences in the Nazi concentration camp made him become obsessed with that period. The hero writes novels to try to overcome this deep-rooted fixation. The streets that he swept were more of a location for contemplation to the writer than the desk at which he wrote. Klíma's high regard for Kafka, an existentialism and absurdity writer of the early 20th century of Jewish descent, is most notable(21) in this novel.

Likewise the 2002 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Hungarian Kertesz Imre who seemed suffer from the same disposition as Klíma also dealt with this subject all his life.(22) As the hero sweeps the streets he reminisces past memories and contemplates about God and love. He also envisions scenes from Revelations and the end of world. The scapegoat theme has been inescapable to the Jewish writer Klíma. He continuously examines Kafka's creative technique and life throughout his novel thus expanding the theme of scapegoat. Kafka feels despair in all aspects of his life.

"Franz Kafka became a sacrificial victim by his own decision. It does not seem as if those around him were as anxious to sacrifice him as he was himself. Time and again he recorded the state of mind experienced by the victim. With few exceptions the victim resists, and even thinks up elaborate means of self-defense, but his tragic end is unalterable. In this respect Kafka certainly anticipated the fate of the Jews in our age of upheaval. His youngest sister met her end in gas chamber. That is where he would probably have met his end too if he hadn't been lucky enough to die young."(23) is what the author conjectures. The image of freedom coincides with the image of the freedom deprived concentration camp throughout the novel.

"I was still determined to rebel, to ask for at least one moment's respite. Writing, after all, meant life to me.......Even though my wartime memories were getting dimmer, I kept returning to them. It was as if I had a duty to those whom I'd survived, and had to repay the benevolent forces which had snatched me from common fate and allowed me to live."(24)

Like the author of the novel, the writer who is the hero in the story tells that "suffering resulting from a life deprived of freedom seemed to me the most important of all themes to think about and to write about. I was able to quote by heart the thoughts of the captured Pierre Bezukhov(25) on the subject of freedom and suffering, which are so close to each other that even a man in the midst of suffering may find freedom."(26) "A lot of people talk about freedom, those who deny it to others most loudly. The concentration camps of my childhood even had a slogan (“ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, “Prace osvobozuje”) about freedom inscribed over their gates."(27)

Arnošt Lustig (1926.12.21) is one of the Czech Jewish writers who based his work on the suffering and humiliation of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps, Terezín (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Buchenwald) from where he survived from 1942.(28) He himself experienced these horrors as an adolescent and used his experiences in fictions to warn of the dehumanization of people in totalitarian regimes.

When he and his whole family was deported to Terezín, which is a cruel ghetto, for the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia during the war and later from Terezin they were transported to Auschwitz. His father died there. Lustig's mother and sister survived the war. Lustig was one of the few out of fifteen thousand Jewish children to return from a concentration camp.

In the novella Darkness Does not Have a Shadow (Tma nemá stín) the author based the fictional escape on his own dramatic escape from a transport taking prisoners to the concentration camp. Again he used his own experiences of this in the story Boy at the Window (Chlapec u okna) from his collection Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci).

Lustig’s first major work Night and Hopes (Noc a naděje) was favorably received by the critics. In this novel he portrayed the passions and lives of weak, defenseless people, crushed by an inhuman system. The characters were old people and children, victims of violence, unlike the heroes that had been the aesthetic norm of the so-called socialist realism of the post-war Czech literature.

His novella Dita Saxová (1961) is the story of a Jewish girl who suffered as a child in a concentration camp. When she returns from the camp she can not overcome the horrible experience in her socialist country and she also can’t adjust to Western Europe.

Neither her surroundings nor the ideas of an old Marxist intellectual can reach her through the dark curtain of her past. Nor does she find contentment in the West where she eventually emigrates.

Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova (Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou) is well accepted by critics. The heroine is a beautiful Jewish girl, who is saved by a rich Jewish American. In the story, by promising them freedom, a German officer lures the wealthy prisoners to pay money. But he is merciless and when they can’t pay any more he sends them to the gas chamber. The girl Katerina, who has seen through this horrific deception, shoots him. The theme of rebellion and revenge is very strong here.

During the Prague Spring in 1968 when the aesthetic norm of the so-called socialist realism was loosened, Lustig's a collection of stories entitled Horká vune mandlí was published. One of the main short stories, Echoing House(Dum vrácené ozveny) is the story of a Prague Jewish family at the mercy of the evils unleashed by Nazism. Lustig’s latest work is a collection of stories entitles Fire on snow (Ohen na snehu) which again deals with Nazi concentration camp themes.

King Spoke, Said Nothing (Král promluvil, neřekl nic) is one of  the best of Lustig's novels. In the Czech context he represents the continuing traditions of Prague Jewish literature and considered one of the most important writers on the holocaust. Lustig does not simply make accusations of racial hatred in his work. Its scope is much wider. On this subject the author says, "It is important for me to show that my books are universal, that they are for all people... It is important for me to show that the fate of the Jews is the fate of all people of the present age. Even if I weren't a Jew, I would choose Jewish themes to write about... The tragedy of the Jews is the tragedy of the twentieth century."(29)


3. Internationalism of Kunderas Literature

Kundera’s novel writing style is based on the European Classics. Kundera especially showed great interest in 17th and 18th century French literature among European literature in his discussions and essays. He often confessed that he read many French works. He showed a keen interest in French satirists. It is easy to assume that the roots of his creativity are based on their works. He also accepted the play Jacob and His Master as a variation of Diderot’s novel Jacque the Fatalist (Jacques le fataliste).(30)

“I am enormously fond of French culture and I am greatly indebted to it, especially to the older literature. Rabelais is dearest to me of all writers. And Diderot. I love his Jacques le fataliste as much as I do Laurence Stern.”(31)

Kundera proclaimed that he was also immensely influenced by domestic writers such as Kafka, Hašek, Čapek and Vančura. In Ivan Sanders’s essay “Mr. Kundera, The European,” Kundera is identified as a European writer.(32) Kundera is a genuine European writer who surpasses not only his country but also the boundaries of Central Europe.

He also shows his admiration for European writers such as Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, François Rabelais, author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Diderot, author of Jacque the Fatalist, and for 20th century writers such as Herman Broch, author of Sleepwalker (Die Schlafwandler), and Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz, author of Ferdydurk.(33)

In 1964 an international seminar about Kafka was held in Prague, which was until that time forbidden by the communist regime. At that time one French scholar said that he could understand Kafka better after he traveled the streets of Prague where Kafka used to walk every day. The new literary technique of Kafka, which Kundera highly praises adds new meaning to the entire history of literature.

In the seven critical essays Kundera wrote between 1979 and 1985 he expressed his views and opinions on genres which readers are familiar with, European decadence and many other subjects. These critical essays were later published in a collection, The Art of Novel. You can see that all the writers and reference works mentioned in The Art of Novel are a detailed list of works that have greatly influenced the writer’s creativity.

He emphasized that the novel is Europe’s creation; its discoveries, though made in various languages, belong to the whole Europe. The sequence of discoveries (not the sum of what was written) is what constitutes the history of the European novel. It is only in such a supranational context that the value of a work (that is to say, the import of its discovery) can be fully seen and understood.(34)

Kundera highly praises Broch’s Sleepwalker, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Kafka’s major works. These masterpieces have influenced his literature. The actual beginning of Kundera’s personal creativity genealogy starts much earlier than The Art of Novel. In 1968 he wrote a play based on Diderot’s novel Jacque the Fatalist. In the preface of the edition published in 1981 in France he explains that the play was an experimental attempt made in the present state of unstable political turmoil and economical difficulties of society. At that time he had accepted a request to write a scenario based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot but later refused, showing an unabashed preference for Diderot’s unconventional novella style.(35) In truth, the purpose of writing Jacob and His Master was to show that he could keep in step with the comical tradition of Laurence Sterne and Diderot.

Kundera highly values the controversial and unconventional aspect of these novels that follow in tradition with Tristram Shandy. And this is why you can say that Kundera’s novel writing style is a part of 18th century European tradition.

Let’s talk about some phenomena and various motifs in Kundera’s novels. We can find the sexuality motif almost all in his works. He confessed that certain erotic passages of George Bataille had made a lasting impression on him.(36) We can find some Jewish motifs in his Life is Elsewhere and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; “She had learned that her husband had been having a prolonged love affair with a Jewish girl, even before the war. When Germans occupied Bohemia and Jews had to wear the humiliating yellow stars on their sleeves he did not reject her, continued to see her, and helped her as much as he could. Then they dragged her off to the Terezin ghetto and he decided on a mad scheme: with the help of a few Czech guards, he succeeded in smuggling himself into the closely guarded compound and in seeing her beloved for a few moments. Deceived by his success, he tried to repeat the exploit, was caught, and neither he nor the girl ever returned.”(37)

Kundera describes Sarah, the Jewish girl with sympathy in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting. “One of the students was a young Israeli girl named Sarah. Several days before she had asked the two Americans if they would let her look at their notes (everyone knew they took down every word Madame Raphael said), but they had refused. “Don’t cut class to go to the beach.” Ever since, she had detested them, and she was glad to see them making fools of themselves.-----Sarah realized what a shame it would be to let this kind opportunity go by. During a short pause when Michelle had turned to Gabrielle to indicate she was on, Sarah left her seat and started walking toward the two girls. -----Sarah kicked Michelle in the behind, took aim again, and kicked Gabrielle. Whereupon she returned to her seat with great calm-no, great dignity.-----Then Madam Raphael, who had at first been surprised and shocked, caught on: Sarah’s little misdemeanor had been a prearranged part of a carefully prepared student joke in the interest of getting closer to the work.(38) -----Sarah is out there some where,  I know she is, my Jewish sister Sarah. But where I can find her?(39)

Josef Škvorecky points out the influence of American literature in Hrabal’s work in his article “American Motifs in the work of Bohumil Hrabal”. Just after World War two many American writers including Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner were well introduced. Hrabal was one of the important Czech writers who developed their literary career in this tradition. The name Edgar Allen Poe is synonymous with morbid imagery then The Legend of Cain is truly Poesque. Hrabal wrote a famous war story Closely Watched Trains which was based on his earlier story The Legend of Cain. As Škvorecký points out that reading Hrabal ‘s The Legend of Caine is often reminded of Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet. In the late fifties and early sixties every body in Prague read Faulkner in translation such as A Rose for Emily the grotesque story and others(40). Faulkner, like Poe, and like the silent film comedy, has entered the subconscious mind of the Czechs. He is among the few American authors Hrabal mentions explicitly. Škvorecký writes that Hrabal’s novella Dancing Lessons for the Advanced and Elderly (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé) written in one endless “Faulknerian” sentence.

Škvorecky further comments that among the influences Hrabal talks about himself, most prominent are the painters: Matisse, Munch, the surrealists, Jackson Pollock, and many others. Hrabal even asserts that he has learned much more from the painters, from the technique of the collage, from the abstracting process of modern art, than from writers. It may be a better understanding if we would consider these phenomena when we read Hrabal’s using collage technique in his works. Škvorecký further compares the similarity of Maggie: A girl of the Streets of Stephen Crane with Death of Mr. Baltisberger in his artilec “Hrabal’s American Motifs”.(41)

As Škvorecký rightly points out that the deepest roots of Czech literary tradition are firmly rooted in the life-long soil of Western art.


4. Conclusion

As we have discussed, there are various themes and motifs in Czech literature. There are Jewish themes, including anti-Semitism of the holocaust writers such as Klíma, Lustig and others, the anti-war motif in Hašek’s war satire, pragmatism and humanism in Čapek’s works, dynamic internationalism of Kundera, and the American motif of Hrabal are a very distinguished, and multi-cultural phenomena in Czech Literature.

Prague is an unique center where three cultures-Czech, German and Jewish were cultivated together, peoples of these three ethnicities lived side by side, sometimes with harmony and other times under tense conditions. But this circumstance created a unique atmosphere of three mutually fructified cultures which enriched each other. Much of the literature that arose in the framework of these three peoples, whether Czech, German or even Hebrew (in case of Jiří Langer(42)) could have come into being nowhere else. Only in this unusual city could the same atmosphere create such totally different literature. 

In Prague of the 1920s, there were three equally good but very different writers, an alienated and abstract Jew, Franz Kafka, an earthly Czech Communist Jaroslav Hašek and a rational Czech writer Karel Čapek. They are good, and are necessary for the development of mankind, but the genius of Kafka is more favorable for Jews. The humor of Hašek is most likely to be more interesting for the Germans. As there are many more Jewish professors of literature and newspaper editors than are Czech ones, it is but natural that Kafka is universally known and recognized. While Hašek’s name remains in Czechoslovakia, Čapek is known more widely.

Small countries like Czechoslovakia could never neglect the cult of a big country’s cultural history. In terms of culture, Mr. Kundera points out, Czechoslovakia has never been part of Russian-dominated Eastern Europe, but belongs instead to Central Europe, with its legacy of Freud's psychoanalysis, Schonberg's music and the novels of Kafka and Hašek.

As Škvorecký points out, it is just another, supremely aesthetic proof that the best literature of a small nation, which was sometime under Russian rule, has nothing to do with the literary traditions of the real East, whose writers’ mentality and emotionalism, to quote Joseph Conrad(43), have always been repugnant to us, hereditarily and individually.(44) As Kundera points out that Czech cultural tradition is rooted in catholic European culture. Although he writes essays and letters in French since moving to France, he continued to write all his fiction in Czech and to set all his stories in the city where he grew up until the mid 1990s. “I always write of Prague, but Prague has become for me a kind of imaginary country,” he says. ''To write a novel, you must be true to your obsessions, your ideas and your imagination, and these are things with roots in your childhood. It is the images from your childhood and youth which form the imaginary country of your novels, and this imaginary country, in my case, is named Prague.”(45)

Where Kundera is a European writer of Czech origin, Josef škvorecký is a North American writer of Czech origin. He also deals with various motifs such as Jewish themes and many others in his novels. I will discuss about the internationalism of škvorecký’s writing later on. There are so many Czech authors whose writings show many dynamic motifs and themes of Western traditions.





1 Novák,Jan & Arne, Dějny české Literatury, Praha, 1946 s. 7
2 Bohemian religious thinker Petr Chelcický(1390?-1460) produced 56 known works, but the majority remain unpublished and inaccessible except in the original manuscripts. His thinking was influenced by Thomas of Štítný, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and the Waldensian tradition. Chelcický has been called the foremost thinker of the 15th-century Czech Hussite Reformation movement. He certainly was an influential thinker among the Bohemian brethren of his day.
3 Novák, Arne, Dějny české Literatury, Praha, 1946, s. 1486-1488
4 Haman a jini, Litertura v diskusi, H & H , 2000, s. 32
5  Hasek’s The Good Soldier Sweik is the most popular and best selling novel during the last 100 years in Czechoslovakia.
6  Fiedler, Leslie A., “Forward”, in Hašek, Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War, trans., Paul Selver, New American Library, 1963, p. xiii-xiv
7 For the detail about Hašek, refer to introduction of Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War, trans. Cecil Parrot, 1973
8 As a side note, the novel’s German translation burned on Nazi bonfires in 1933 in Berlin due to the negative attitude to Germany.
9 Velká doba žádá velké lidi. Jsou nepoznaní hrdinové, skromní, bez slávy a historie Napoleona. Rozbor jejich povahy zastínil by slávu Alexandra Macedonského. Dnes můžete potkat v pražských ulicích ošumělého muže, který sám ani neví, co vlastně znamená v historii nové velké doby. Jde skromně svou cestou, neobtěžuje nikoho, a není též obtěžován žurnalisty, kteří by ho prosili o interview. Kdybyste se ho otázali, jak se jmenuje, odpověděl by vám prostince a skromně: „Já jsem Švejk…“ A tento tichý, skromný, ošumělý muž jest opravdu ten starý dobrý voják Švejk, hrdinný, statečný, který kdysi za Rakouska byl v ústech všech občanů Českého království a jehož sláva nezapadne ani v republice. Mám velice rád tohoto dobrého vojáka Švejka, a podávaje jeho osudy za světové války, jsem přesvědčen, že vy všichni budete sympatizovat s tím skromným, nepoznaným hrdinou. On nezapálil chrám bohyně v Efesu, jako to udělal ten hlupák Herostrates, aby se dostal do novin a školních čítanek. A to stačí. Hašek, Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War, trans. Trans., Paul Selver, New American Library, 1963, p. xv
10 Milan Kundera creates a similar prisoner character in his first novel the Joke.
11 Hašek, Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War, trans. Trans., Paul Selver, New American Library, 1963, p. 85
12 Novák, Arne, Dějny české Literatury, Praha, 1946, s. 1446-1455
13 František Langer was a physician and a  writer, one of the outstanding Czech dramatists of the interwar period. Langer studied medicine in Prague and wrote a collection of short stories and a few plays. He is Čapeks closest rival for theatrical laurels at home and abroad. His major works are Saint Wenceslau(Svatý Václav), Milions(Miliony),The Carmel through the Needles Eye(Velbloud uchlem jehly)
14 Bohuslava Bradbrook, Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth Tolerance And Trust, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, p. 24
15 Dagan, Avigdor, “The Czech-German-Jewish Symbiosis of Prague, The Langer Brothers” in Cross Currents, a Year Book of Central European Culture,  Yale Univ. Press, 1991, p. 191. Dagan argues details of The Czech-German-Jewish Symbiosis of Prague based on Czech Jewish writers focused on The Langer Brothers.
16 Andreas, hg. v. Kilcher. B. Metzler Lexican der deitch-judedischen Literatur, s. 282, , recited from Oh, Han Jin, German and Jew, the Tragic Duet in European Culture, Han Ulrim, 2006, p. 196
17 This film was shown in Seoul Czech Film Festival in 2007, I never seen such a horror film more dreadful than this in Czech films.
18 From 1951 Klíma studied Czech language and literature in Prague and he served as an edditor of the Publisher Československý spisovatel’, Literární noviny, Literární listy until 1970. From 1970 to 80s he experienced many manual works such as street sweeper. At the end of 1989 he established writers' association, he served as the president of Czech Pen Club from 1990 to 1993.
19 Ivan Klíma, 1991, 44,
20 Ivan Klíma, 1991, 35
21 Klíma wrote a critical study on Kafka; Klíma, Ivan, čapek, československý spisovatel, 1965
22 Klíma's meditation and criticism is described in part three.
23 Franz Kafka se stal beránkem, jenž se učil za obět sám........Klíma, Ivan, Láska a Smetí, s.148, Klíma, Ivan, 1991, pp. 135-136
24 Klíma, Ivan, 1991, 41
25 Pierre Bezukhov is a hero of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, He is from a Russian noble family and was captured by French army who invaded Moscow in the novel.
26 This scene reminds me that Korean dissident poet Kim Ji Ha tries to cling to the sought of life after he released from the imprisonment.
27Koncentrační tábory v době mého dětství měly dokonce heslo o svobodě přímo nad vchodem, Je to nemecky “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, česky to znamená volným překladem “Prace osvobozuje”, je to tedy velká ironie, když víme, co to koncentracní tabory byly. Klíma, Ivan, 1991, s. 130
28 Galík, Josef, a jině, Panorama Českě literatury, Rubico, Olomouc, 1994, S. 346
29 For the detail of Lustig, refer to the Aleš Haman’s long article, in
30 Kundera, Milan, jakuba jeho pan pocta denisi diderotovi, Atlantis, 1992, s. 115
31 Roth, Philip, “Afterword: A Talk with the Author” in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Penguin Book, 1981, p. 231
32 Sanders, Ivan. "Mr. Kundera, the European." The Wilson Quarterly Spring, 1991.
33 Čulík, Jan, 2000, “Milan Kundera” in
34 Kundera, Milan, The Art of Novel, Grove Press, 1988, p. 6
35 Kundera, Milan, jakuba jeho pan pocta denisi diderotovi, Atlantis, 1992, s. 7
36 Roth, Philip, “Afterword: A Talk with the Author” in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Penguin Book, 1981, p. 236
37 Kundera, Milan, Life is Elsewhere, trans., Peter Kussi, Viking Penguin, 1986, p.103
38 Kundera, Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Penguin Books, 1981, pp.73-74
39 Ibid, p. 76
40 It is interesting that this story is well taught and read in Korea’s universities in 60s and 70s too.
41 For the details refer to the following Skvorecky’s artilce, “Hrabal’s American Motifs” in Cross Currents, a Year Book of Central European Culture,  Yale Univ. Press, 1991, pp. 207-218
42 Jiří Langer younger brother of F. Langer, the dramatist, was born in Prague, and was a friend of the theologian Alfred Fuchs and the writer Franz Kafka. Attracted to the mysticism of the Chassidim, he became a devotee and assiduous chronicler of their way of life. His writings were banned and destroyed when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. He was able to escape to Palestine in 1939, but died in 1943 of illnesses brought on by the hardships of the journey. Before the First World War, Jiří Langer in Prague of Jewish parentage, suddenly packed his few belongings and to the consternation of his family, made a journey into a remote part of eastern Galicia, where he settled among the Chassidim, a strange, self-contained community of Jewish mystics. Nine Gates is the legacy of Langer's life among the Chassidim. He tells of their enthusiasm, their childlike faith, their ecstasies, their austerities, their feasts, their wonder-working Holy Rabbis, and their esoteric wisdom. The story told of the saints of the Chassidim is one of their most precious possessions, and to relate them is an act of piety. A part of this book comprises a collection of these shrewd and earthy tales of the Holy men who ruled these little spiritual kingdoms generation after generation.
43 Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Polish-born English author and master mariner wrote Heart of Darkness (1902).
44 Ibid., pp. 217-218
45 Kundera, Milan, Nesmrtelnost, 1993, Atlatis, Brno, s. 15

1.4. New Multi-society and Cultural Integration in Asia and Europe | Die neue multikulturelle Gesellschaften und die kulturelle Integration in Asien und Europa

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