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How I learned the real meaning of dissent

After nearly forty years of engaging with political journalism—writing investigative reports, opinion columns, and straight news, as well as publishing other people’s work—I confess that I’m discouraged. Catastrophic events such as Bill Clinton’s bombing of Belgrade, purportedly in the interest of humanitarian relief, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which was predicated on lies, have reconfirmed my opinion that storytelling in the service of destructive ambition can easily overwhelm truth. More recently, as the author of a book about the social and economic damage caused by ­NAFTA and free-trade propaganda, I’ve begun to think that the greatest beneficiary of my attempts at reporting fact and recording dissent may be Donald Trump, champion of the anti-fact, teller of the tallest tales, liar to the core.

I still believe that history can be revised as it’s happening—altered, even—and that authentic information from legitimate sources contributes to deeper understanding and to a greater good; that every journalist’s attempt to speak out against corrupt authority brings us closer to the truth; that the cause of freedom is best served by hard fact and clear rhetoric. The first important historical and journalistic lesson of my life was realizing—along with hundreds of other hyperpoliticized reporters of my generation—that the Vietnam War and the domino theory that was its rationale were based on false information and opaque analysis.

A confrontation between Soviet troops and protesters, Prague, 1968 © Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

Nevertheless, I’ve increasingly come to doubt my political and journalistic credo—my somewhat black-and-white devotion to “reality.” I mean no disrespect to Harrison Salisbury, Martha Gellhorn, and I. F. Stone, who remain my heroes, but none of their Vietnam reporting made an impression on me equal to the finest fiction, poetry, or literary essay. Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, published in 1955, endures as the most compelling, most truthful argument against American intervention in Southeast Asia. To get to the heart of the matter (the title of another of his novels), Greene told stories from his imagination, and maybe the literary approach to truth matters more to the heart than any objective fact or principle can ever mean to the brain. Maybe literature is what really causes revolutions.

In September 1983, my future wife and I boarded a night train in Paris bound for Prague, the capital of what was then Communist Czechoslovakia. Back home, everyone was talking about the human rights movement in the Soviet bloc. By then, the idea that some form of universal civil rights should extend across national borders was an old one, but enlisting the principle of human rights as a popular political tool against Soviet Communist oppression was something new. With the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the Russians had agreed, broadly speaking, to respect human rights, and Western anticommunists—many of them liberals who had opposed the war in Vietnam—were emboldened. If no one really believed that the Russians would embrace democracy, or even ease up on control of their Eastern European satellites within the Warsaw Pact, at least Moscow could be formally monitored and challenged when it cracked down on the civil liberties of specific people in specific countries.

When Helsinki Watch, a private, New York–based group, was founded in 1978, Americans finally had an independent, nongovernmental vehicle for supporting Soviet bloc intellectuals who were fighting for free speech and freedom of movement, often suffering imprisonment and worse for their audacity. Thus did the Russian word samizdat become fashionable, at least in the Western media, to describe the typewritten carbon copies, sometimes bound into books, that spread by hand the underground writing of notable dissident intellectuals such as the Polish essayist Adam Mich­nik, the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, and the Czech playwright Václav Havel. Within the New York intelligentsia, these men had become celebrities, and from January 1977 on, especially after the manifesto of Charter 77 was published in Prague by 242 Czech and Slovak intellectuals demanding freedom, it seemed that hardly a week passed without my reading something by them, or about them, in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. So when Renee and I planned our trip, it seemed appropriate that as the publisher of Harper’s Magazine, on my way to Switzerland to visit my Paris-based brother, I should call on some heroic dissident writers in Prague. Political principle and sound publishing played a part in my decision—I certainly hoped to get a piece of writing from Havel, or an interview, or at least to demonstrate public solidarity with the victims of Communist oppression. But I also harbored fantasies, fed by John le Carré novels, of penetrating the Iron Curtain and daring the authorities to act, well, authoritarian.

We had to travel overland, by train, with the attendant tension one might expect at the border crossing. Renee was game, having already voyaged with her adventurous parents all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1960s. So we made our plans, even booking a room at the Alcron, the hotel in Prague where Renee’s family had stayed in June 1968, in the midst of the Prague Spring and not long before Soviet-led tanks crushed Alexander Dubcek’s attempt at a peaceful liberalization of Czechoslovak society.

As for the dissident writers, it wasn’t difficult to get the State Department to set up a meeting, especially during the anticommunist Reagan Administration. The Cold War had recently hardened in part because of the ascension, in 1982, of Yuri Andro­pov to the Soviet premiership. When he was the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Andropov had participated in the suppression of the 1956 anticommunist uprising there, and while the head of the KGB in the Sixties and Seventies he had taken a tough line against political dissidents. Moreover, he was deeply suspicious of Reagan and ­NATO’s intentions, fearing a preemptive military or even nuclear strike. The air in those days was filled with the American president’s anti-Soviet bluster—“The march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history”—and Reagan was putting big money behind his declarations, notably in the form of the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars, and the planned deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe. It wasn’t the ideal time to be playing liberal publisher in the Eastern bloc. As Renee and I departed Paris’s Gare de l’Est on the night of Friday, September 16, I was entirely ignorant of something very dangerous brewing between the two superpowers—the American war game called Able Archer 83, which some historians believe nearly led to nuclear war.

In my visa application to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, I had lied that we wanted to visit as tourists, but the Czechoslovak officials weren’t stupid. They informed me that besides needing to speak with me on the phone to get “information concerning your magazine,” they wanted ten dollars (Communist governments were always in need of hard Western currency) to pay for the cable costs of a further inquiry into the matter, presumably with their bosses back in Prague. My more important communication had been with the old United States Information Agency, until 1999 the propaganda arm of the State Department and the office that could hook me up with glamorous Czech and Slovak dissidents, especially Havel. It’s hard to believe that the Czechoslovak security services were unaware of my real intentions, but we got our visas anyway, and found ourselves in a sleeping compartment on an overnight train from West to East, from bourgeois freedom to police-state tyranny.

After passing through West Germany at night, we arrived at the Czechoslovak frontier—in the predawn darkness, I recollect—where a couple of armed policemen boarded our train and knocked on our compartment door. When one of them asked in broken En­glish for my “papers,” he seemed briefly concerned about my connection with a magazine, but my assurance that publisher just meant “businessman” seemed to mollify him. The romance of train travel mixed with the slight fear of arrest or deportation made for a frisson of excitement, and our journey had hardly begun.

Upon check-in at the Alcron, as if on cue, the smiling, obsequious desk clerk informed us that we had no reservation there and that, in fact, we were booked at the Hotel Jalta. That can’t be, I argued. I was nervous, in part because I assumed we would be targets of bugging. No doubt the secret police had selected the Jalta for their convenience more than for our comfort.

I protested to the clerk, insisting that we wanted to stay at the Alcron because it was a nicer hotel; I knew the Jalta was a hideous example of socialist architecture. Taken aback, he expressed his consternation in Czech to someone on the phone, then disappeared. When he returned, he had relented. They had found a room in the Alcron and we could stay, though I thought that we should watch what we said in room 412.

“Charles Bridge, Study 1, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1982” © Michael Kenna. Courtesy the artist and Weston Gallery, Carmel, California

Renee and I tried to act like normal tourists and not attract attention to the main event—a meeting, we hoped, with dissident writers in a yet-to-be-determined location. We strolled across the ghostly Charles Bridge and examined the sculptures along the railings, self-consciously staring at our guidebook. We visited the ancient Jewish cemetery, with its overcrowded hodgepodge of tilted gravestones. We wandered the streets haphazardly. But there was no blending into the crowd, because there were no crowds, just occasional German tourists, as I recall, and we must have stood out. It made us anxious, all the more so since I’d received a handwritten note on Saturday, the day of our arrival, from William Kiehl, the counselor for press and cultural affairs at the United States Embassy.

“It is important that I see you this evening with regard to your program in Prague on Sunday, the 18,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I was unable to reach you at your Paris number to tell you of an engagement planned for the 18.” He didn’t mention names and he asked me to call him at “any hour this evening” to arrange a meeting between us.

I don’t remember when I called Kiehl, or from where, but I do remember wandering into a kind of nightclub, sparsely populated and shabby, where tinny recorded pop music was playing and bored-looking people sat around little café tables, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes. To be sure, the customers weren’t listening to the legendary Czech dissident rock band the Plastic People of the Universe. Renee and I didn’t stay long—I think we ate some smoked meat and I drank a bottle of beer—but I looked at individual faces to see if any were looking at us. Nobody seemed to be, and I began to feel that my fears of arrest, and even of surveillance, were exaggerated.

Outside, we strolled down a dimly illuminated street. And then Renee saw a man she had noticed in the nightclub. He was walking at a steady pace about forty feet ahead of us. When we slowed down, he stopped at a corner. When we picked up speed, he started walking again. Yes, we were being watched.

We met Kiehl in the lobby of the Alcron, and he told us to come the next evening to his apartment. The writers evidently felt safe there and we’d be able to socialize freely. If all went well, we would meet two dissident stars, Václav Havel and the lesser-known (at least in New York) Ivan Klíma, and the playwright Alexandr Kliment. So when Renee and I arrived at Kiehl’s spacious, old-world, fourth-floor apartment at Námestí Míru 4, I was disappointed to learn that Havel would not be coming, having been detained not by the government but by other pressing matters.

Klíma, a novelist, and his wife, Helena, a psychotherapist, greeted us in En­glish. Klíma had courageously returned to Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion. He had been living in London and could easily have followed the example of Milan Kundera and gone into permanent exile—the next year he took a teaching post at the University of Michigan and had ample opportunity to stay in the United States—but something kept him loyal to Czechoslovakia, and to his friends and family. Klíma and his parents, who were Jewish, had miraculously survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp until it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. Klíma became a Communist Party member in adulthood, so there was extra irony and bravery in his dissent after Soviet troops returned to Prague with objectives very different from the crushing of fascism.

But the guest who caught my immediate attention was Ludvík Vaculík, and the image of his slightly ironic and mournful expression, longish hair, and thick gray mustache made a lasting impression on me. Vaculík, then fifty-seven, was an originator of Czech samizdat. Nearly a decade before the appearance of Charter 77, a rather dull legalistic document, Vacu­lík had composed Two Thousand Words, a manifesto produced in the full flower of the Prague Spring that, according to Jonathan Bolton, a scholar of the period, “enraged the Soviets” because it urged reforms and liberalization beyond what Dubcek’s government was already instituting. Vaculík’s manifesto was presciently sarcastic:

The summer holidays are approaching, a time when we are inclined to let everything slip. But we can safely say that our dear adversaries will not give themselves a summer break; they will rally everyone who is under any obligation to them and are taking steps, even now, to secure themselves a quiet Christmas!

Official condemnation of Two Thousand Words followed from the Communist Party, and Czechoslovak hard-liners joined with their Russian comrades in denouncing the audacity of Vaculík and the sixty-nine other well-known signatories to the manifesto, who included writers, scientists, and Olympic athletes.

Two Thousand Words appeared in Prague newspapers on June 27, 1968, Soviet tanks in Prague streets on August 20. As a twelve-year-old, I had watched the news scroll across the bottom of our TV screen late at night in Winnetka, Illinois. In those days, Havel, the future president of the Czech Republic, was “not yet a dissident,” according to Bolton, “but a thirty-one-year-old playwright whose absurdist dramas . . .  were enjoying success at home and abroad.” Vaculík had already become an established leader of the intellectual opposition, and here he was in Bill Kiehl’s living room talking about his life under Communist tyranny. Whereas Havel had spent considerable time in prison, Vaculík had remained out of jail, though he suffered long-term harassment and humiliation. In the 1970s, the secret police had tried to blackmail him into emigrating or shutting down his dissident literary operations by threatening to publish nude pictures of him and his girlfriend. Vaculík refused to buckle, and the police made good on their threat, cruelly embarrassing their public enemy and his wife, Madla, as well as the woman in the photo.

On that night in 1983, I gradually became aware, however, that Vaculík didn’t want to talk about politics. And he wasn’t much interested in my questions about the constrictions of daily life in his country. He wanted to talk about literature, and that’s what we did. Given the near certainty that Czechoslovak security was recording us, if not actually listening in (Kiehl, now retired, told me recently that the apartment, which had been the residence of the Israeli chargé d’affaires until the Czechoslovak government expelled him in 1967, had been “thoroughly bugged” before the American government took it over), it’s remarkable that the atmosphere wasn’t more strained. Knowledge of the eavesdropping might also explain why literature, rather than politics, was the main topic of the evening. But I’m not convinced that self-censorship was at work. After all, I was the publisher of a well-known American literary magazine, and these were writers who wanted to be read. As the evening and the drinking wore on, we reached a point at which the writers wanted to say something jointly. Would we take some samizdat out of the country for them? Would we consider publishing it? Of course we would, I said.

I can’t remember who handed me the first sheets of paper, but they looked just as I had expected: flimsy, pale-yellow carbon paper covered with blurry type. This, it was explained, was the transcript of a forum of writers, most of them not present that evening, who wanted to talk about writing, not politics. Many in their world were tired of being lionized as bold and courageous freedom fighters.

Then Vaculík produced his own sheets of carbon paper, three in total. I recognized one word on the top of the first page, fejeton, which I presumed meant “feuilleton.” But if it was a feuilleton, then clearly it was no political document, no outraged polemic that would get attention for Harper’s Magazine.

Photograph of Ludvík Vaculík (detail) © Josef Horazny/CTK/Alamy

Renee and I accepted the clandestine material and politely took our leave. We would all meet again under better circumstances, we said. I can’t remember what Vaculík said, but I do remember his wistful, somewhat sad expression. Had I known more about the plight of Czech and Slovak writers, I might have quoted out loud, for the benefit of the eavesdropping authorities, from an interview with Havel by Antoine Spire, published in Le Monde in April 1983, just a month after Havel was released from prison:

I am not, never have been, nor do I want to become a politician, a revolutionary, or a professional dissident. I am a writer. I write what I want and not what others want from me. If I get involved in anything other than my literary work, I do this simply because I see there a natural human obligation and civic duty which, when all is said and done, flows directly from my position as a writer—that is, of a man who is in the public eye and is thus duty bound to speak up on certain subjects in a louder voice than one who is not. Not because this man is more important or more clever than others, but simply, whether he likes it or not, because he is in a different position which carries with it a different kind of responsibility.

I had carried a copy of the interview with me to Prague, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to quote it then.

Renee and I didn’t take any chances with our samizdat—she hid the texts under her sweater in case our bags were too thoroughly searched. It was a smart precaution with a decidedly romantic angle: smuggling dissident writing out from behind the Iron Curtain had a certain savor to it. At the Prague airport, the search of our luggage was uneventful, and nobody tried to search us physically. Of course, if they had, all they would have found was a sort of anti-political discussion about literature . . . and a feuilleton.

At the gate, through the window of the terminal, we saw that our Czechoslovak Airlines flight to Zurich was surrounded on the tarmac by uniformed officers carrying automatic weapons. I had never seen such a thing before and have not since. The officers appeared to be limiting access to the plane, in case anyone made a break for it from the terminal, and seemed quite prepared to shoot. Totalitarian rule was a serious business, and I owed something to the writers whose work Renee was carrying. We boarded the plane the old-fashioned way, descending to the tarmac, walking to the plane, and passing the government gunmen as we walked up the boarding stairs toward freedom. I didn’t feel calm until we had been in the air for a few minutes.

Back in New York, I passed along my samizdat to Michael Pollan, at the time a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. A translator, Suzanne Hruby, was hired to work on the transcript of the literary forum of Czech dissidents. But Pollan was doubtful that the conversation among writers would be compelling enough for the editor whose department it would have fallen into. “This looks very interesting,” he wrote to me in a memo. “I’ll show it to Mark [Danner], as a possible forum, but I suspect he’ll find it too limited, and lacking in major box office stars (Kundera, etc.).” However, “I think it could work well as a Reading.” But what about money? We had only a partial translation and a synopsis from Hruby, and translating the entire text would be expensive, he said. Would we have to pay fees to others, presumably the participants and their foreign publishers?

To my discredit, I did not insist. Of course we could have afforded it—that is, if I had encouraged Pollan to spend the money. True, Harper’s was at the time making its long climb back to health after nearly folding in 1980, but I apparently allowed that to be the excuse to let the matter drop. As for Vaculík’s feuilleton, there’s no record that we ever discussed it, even though someone—the text I had in my files all these years is unsigned—had evidently translated the whole piece for me. Ignorant as I was of Vaculík’s importance, and his courage, I was probably still disappointed that Havel, the box office draw, hadn’t shown up at Kiehl’s apartment.

Reasonable people often disagree sharply about the value of literary texts and writers. At serious magazines such as Harper’s, these arguments are part of our raison d’être. The full transcript of the forum was never returned to me—Hruby could not find it thirty-three years later when I inquired about it. All that remains are the excerpts, unpublished until now in En­glish, that she initially prepared from “Reflections on the State of Czech Literature,” including some trenchant remarks by Milan Jungmann, once the editor of a prestigious literary magazine, who wound up working as a window washer when he ran afoul of the government:

It might seem that politics is all-permeating and that in Bohemia all human life and the most authentic expressions of human life are fascinated with political power. But really that is only the way it appears. Recently some world-renowned Czech artists—Nobel laureate poet J. Seifert, playwright V. Havel, and novelist M. Kundera—have frequently pointed out that they are not professionally interested in politics. They do not consciously engage in politics and they do not make an effort to become at all involved in its “game.” But it is the fate of this small country that every person with integrity and his own ideas about the world, who bases his attitudes, actions, and creative work on those moral commitments, must collide with politics in one way or another. Every once in a while he will stumble in its pitfalls. To a superficial observer, therefore, it may seem that Czech underground literature is also fascinated with politics and cannot rid itself of politics. In reality . . . Czech literature is concerned with trying to understand man and the meaning of human life, with defending his dignity against dehumanizing forces, and with protecting him against everything that threatens the nation’s moral health.

According to Hruby’s summary, the four other participants—Klíma, the novelists Karel Pecka and Jan Trefulka, and the dramatist Milan Uhde—were divided on the effects of being a dissident: “Literary life in both the official and the unofficial ghetto has suffered, according to Klíma,” she wrote:

Writers are excluded from entire avenues of social life and then cannot communicate freely with their readers and critics. However, Uhde argues that he enjoys more creative freedom now than when his plays were published. . . . He suggests that although Czech writers cannot break through the ghetto surrounding them they can and must break through the ghetto within themselves.

Uhde’s own words, translated by Hruby, put it this way:

Official intervention has in effect created two ghettos. We live in one, and the official writers live in the other, even though they often are unaware of it. There is no public exchange of views in either ghetto.

Fair enough, and definitely worth an extended conversation. Even in a “free” society, cultural ghettos develop, with “official” and “unofficial” writers and artists talking only to their own kind. But what about my journalistic ghetto, my overly politicized approach to life, my excessive concern with celebrity and box office appeal? And where was Ludvík Vaculík in all this? Why hadn’t we at Harper’s published his feuilleton, or even discussed it? At the time, I don’t even remember reading the unsigned translation that has been moldering in a file folder all these years.

The reader may prefer to contemplate “On a Plane” without my commentary. Published here in En­glish for the first time, and translated anew by Alex Zucker, it was written the month of my visit to Prague and first published in Czech in Obsah, a samizdat journal founded by Vaculík and others. Politics does appear, in the allusion to the victims of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. But Vaculík’s voice drowns it out with humanity and irony. I’m sorry I didn’t publish the essay in 1983, and I regret that I can’t discuss it with him, since he died in 2015. Among other things, I would have liked to talk to him about what role the human factor plays in politics and journalism, and about the best path toward the truth, which I mostly missed that night in Cold War–era Prague, populated though it was with freethinkers of great warmth and intelligence. And I would have thanked him for this sentence from “On a Plane”: “I will never know the truth anyway, and if I were, accidentally, to stumble upon it, wandering in the night, they would kill me.”

“On a Plane,” by Ludvík Vaculík. Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker

In the following essay, the Czech dissident Ludvík Vaculík reflects on the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet on September 1, 1983; all 269 people aboard the plane died, casualties of Soviet-American tensions. “On a Plane” was originally published in the samizdat journal Obsah (“Contents”), which was founded by Vaculík and six other Czech writers in 1981. It also appeared in the collection Spring Is Here: Feuilletons 1981–87, published in Czech by Mladá fronta in 1990. Vaculík’s novel The Czech Dreambook, translated by Gerald Turner, will be published this year by Karolinum Press.

I can’t get even a sentence down on paper from the whirlwind of thoughts in my mind. All I can do is walk the floor, and my feet are already hurting, so instead I go lie down. I try to read but can’t follow the lines in the order they are written, so I turn out the lights. Yet doing that is like switching on a device that arranges the unruly waves into an image. A plane hangs suspended in space, bulky and inert. Then, suddenly, the image begins to twist and fall apart. It’s both comical and sinister at once. I can’t even really quite grasp it in a single screening, so I run it over and over, like a naughty boy tormenting an innocent animal, until I can tell what happened. Who did it and why? echoes the horrified question, but I know. I can answer it with a profile as old as the hills themselves: it was a killer, by nature and nurture, by wish and command, and a gleam of joy lit up his dreary life the moment he heard the order for which his father unwittingly fucked him into being, and his offspring will be programmed killers, too.

In the morning, however, I see it can’t be true. The report will be retracted, the deed must be undone. The sun hangs in the sky, shining brightly overhead, the night mist melting away in the unspoiled air, just a breeze swaying the leaves in the garden and the pears lolling about the dew-covered grass. Thank God, I can write about pears! But the clean sheet of paper left in the typewriter from the night before disturbs me, as if some of my tortured thoughts had in fact managed to find their way onto it. I tear it out, insert a new sheet, and, imagining all 269 people safe at home, I compose my first sentence about the end of summer as I originally resolved. The sentence doesn’t work, though. Even the blue sky itself is losing its confidence. Yes, it was summer. Then comes winter. Then, with any luck, a new summer again . . . but what of it? How and where do I pry out the truth? Again contemplating the blank sheet of paper, I wonder how many things I still need to close up, square away, secure in place, before I set out to get there. How should I say goodbye?

I pick up my heavy typewriter and carry it down the steps, through the garden, and into the summerhouse. Inside, it smells of wood, a wreath of garlic, a pick and a shovel, phenol and pears. The typewriter sits firmly on a little white wooden table jammed into a corner between two windows. Through the window in front of me I see the fire pit, a circle of rough stones filled with loose ash. The window on my left gives onto a hall of green, vaulted with the branches of a walnut tree, a spotted woodpecker hacking away at its trunk. I roll in a new sheet of paper that knows nothing, just looking forward to whatever comes next. Over the edge of the sheet I stare thoughtfully out the window into the ash. A fresh, healthy stump, serving as a chopping block, stands beside the fire pit. One axe hangs on the wall by my elbow, another—a heavy two-hander—leans against the wall. There are plenty of fine manly themes here in the summerhouse, and all the necessary tools. I have pondered more than once, for example, what kind of dispute, if any, would bring a man to defend himself with an axe nowadays. Two scythes hang between the windows. A small handsaw, a larger bow saw, a two-man crosscut saw. All you need to build a house in an out-of-the-way place where no government will come looking for you. Where to find such a place? There’s also an iron bed here, in case of writer’s block. I have a third axe-head, given to me by the Slovak writer Pavel Hrúz ten years ago, but it hasn’t been mounted yet. I hear the scrape of the walnut branches on the roof, the woodpecker, even the murmur of the water across the weir, and a slight rattle coming from the windowpane, held in place mainly by cobwebs. I wait stiffly for the roar of a plane to pass over the mountains and for the glass to settle back into its webs.

Photograph © akg-images/Glasshouse Images

Stooping down, I pick up the axe-head from Pavel Hrúz and go to the toolshed. The first thing is to find a piece of hardwood. I work at it for about an hour, since, as usual, I run into all sorts of complications. But the entire time I feel more at ease than I did writing about an airplane somewhere far away, and safer, even though the roof is just soft slate and the walls aren’t that thick, either. As I walk back to the summerhouse with the long-handled axe, hearing the pears fall and seeing the light bob in the crests of the birch trees, I feel downhearted again that I can’t just send off three harmless pages of acknowledgment and thanks for the magnificence of the departing summer.

Dutifully I sit down to the typewriter. I appreciate the peace and quiet and the fact that the floor is raised half a meter above the ground. I deliberate over the first sentence. As a rule I can’t go on until I’m satisfied with that. Once I have two satisfactory pages, a suitable title comes to mind, which clarifies what the whole piece is about. After that, the third page is a pleasure. All that remains is to rewrite the first two to fit better with the third. It’s a negative method of writing, actually: the main part is what’s left out. Like a talented artist painting only the background around a figure so the figure clearly stands out. On the other hand, there are times when I know exactly what I want to write, and start right off with the title. But even that is no guarantee of quick success: here it is September, and all I have of my July feuilleton is the excellent title “Blacks in Brumov”! Finishing it will be hard, since, for God’s sake, what can you add to that? So I make up my mind that, for August and September, I will stick a sheet of paper in, look around at my surroundings, and describe what I see.

The paper is in the typewriter. I look around at my surroundings and immediately remember what I so urgently wanted to do: I take the shovel, walk outside, scoop up the ash—the autumn dragon’s wind blowing it into my face—and carry it to the pit of rotten apples. I take a beautiful walk around the garden and see how many pears have fallen since I began to write. I gather them up and rinse the sticky juice off my hands in the washtub. I will never know the truth anyway, and if I were, accidentally, to stumble upon it, wandering in the night, they would kill me. I go get a piece of chicken wire and tie up the three-meter climbers on the “sympathy” rose.

The clear blue-gray sky confirms my decision that the best thing for everyone is just to go about their daily routine. I need to write. I sit down in my chair once again, as if for the very first time. Free now of the weight of my terrible nightmare, I place my hands on the keyboard, determined not to force the typewriter or my hands to do anything they don’t want to. Summer isn’t over yet, there are still a few nice days left. Right off the bat, my fingers type out a title, the one that stands on the first of these pages.

 Translation © Alex Zucker 2017

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