The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 an Anthology
edited by Louis Armand
Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010
This book positively brims. With words, with pictures, with experiments and experiences. At eight hundred pages plus, it is as a definitive testament to Prague’s so-called International Literary Renaissance. Apart from the prose and poetry, there are photos of those involved and an extensive bibliography of journals, zines and newspapers which have been published in Prague over the last two decades. Such scope can be a little overwhelming, with exquisite works seguing into others of more questionable merit. Yet, despite some rough patches, or because of them, the poems and stories come together to create a work of verve and artistic boldness.
Australian-born poet and the book’s editor Louis Armand states in his ‘Editor’s Note’ that Prague was the centre of “an unprecedented cultural experiment” and his intention with this anthology was “to record what became of that experiment”. While the word experiment suggests something too deliberate, the moment was certainly exceptional in how it brought together disparate artistic strands. In representing these, the anthology succeeds. Moreover, Armand has done a commendable job preserving the creative energy of the time in such a huge volume. Many of the poems are redolent of the smoky bars in which they were performed and perhaps first written. If words had eyes, many of these would be bleary and just a little rolled.
However, the anthology does not make a case for a coherent literary school. Armand states, “[I]t may be that a ‘Prague School’ (or schools) exists.” However, earlier in the introduction he states that the literary communities and endeavours were “a creature of circumstance.” People from various countries and artistic backgrounds were coming together and interacting with Czechs who were also divided by experience and predilections. No wonder one of the earliest reading events was called Beef Stew because, if this sample is anything to go by, a hodgepodge of styles and perspectives dominated the scene. Nor is it necessary to impose homogeneity – or a series of homogeneities – on the writers. To reiterate a question posed by one contributor, Donna Stonecipher, “Do trees massed together consent to be called ‘forest’ or is each tree chafing against the crowd?” This anthology responds with an emphatic yes to the second part of that question.
The contributors cannot be neatly divided into expatriate and local. As Armand says referring to the outpouring of dissident work following the Velvet Revolution, for example, “the younger generation […] often found itself alienated from the historical revision in progress and with more affinity for contemporary from elsewhere.” Many young Czechs could not be properly seen as locals as many expatriates were not necessarily strangers. All were coming to this moment with a shared bewilderment and wonder. Affinities and difference were blind to the passports held. True, English predominates over other languages in this anthology and by implication the milieu from which it arose, but these poets exist in an uneasy space between two cultures. They have not simply been grafted on.
For this reason, the expatriate experience does not pervade the texts. Certainly, the experience of living in a new country is found in some of the work, yet there is little We’re-not-in-Kansas-any-more perspective. Some writers engage explicitly with their new setting. The most obvious location for this dislocation is the pub. Paul Martia in his poem ‘Žižkov Pub’ approaches the setting as a distant observer whereas Julie Ashley in her story ‘Interlopers’ refers to outright exclusion followed by short-lived camaraderie born of a few shared words. A more fully realised work is Justin Quinn’s ‘Prague Elegies’ in which history twists through the city like the Vltava River. It is an erudite piece, in which the burden of knowledge compounds the city’s melancholy attraction. Ironically, it is that burden which allows Quinn to find solace and so finish with, “I was in Prague: I was flooded with light.”
This dislocation is also explored in other ways. Revan Schendler, more than any of the non-Czech writers, delves deeply and perceptively into the country during its transition. She engages with this changing society not at the bar stool with a handful of Czech phrases but by taking the imaginative step into the lives of the people who were experiencing these changes more dramatically – the Czechs. By recounting the seemingly trivial events, such as the closing of a communist era cafeteria or the increasing availability of mandarins (which were scarce during the former regime), Schendler captures how the new society was foreign to all concerned. Objectivity becomes the mask through which cultural distance is explored. She, as an American, imagines what Czechs are viewing the Americans who are arriving. Prague does not serve as a playground for the self. Instead, Schendler reflects both cultures against each other with rare irony.
Sensibilities such as Quinn’s and Schendler’s do not seem at odds with the work of poets who were born in the country. Armand’s choice of poems manages to obviate the ghetto mentality which Miroslav Holub referred to and which Armand cites in the introduction. Sylva Fischerová is one poet who struggles with this distance. Her ‘The Language of the Fountains’ has that same quality of unstable objectivity found in the other pieces cited:
But the salt statues still stand by the Dead Sea,
there’s still Jerusalem, Athens, Rome,
still someone lives in Prague speaking Yiddish –
and memory, sister to self, sister of sin,
and guide to the saved
leads us back
to our own destruction
That someone still speaks a language of a people mostly driven out of the city or killed is a symbol of hope. It also alluded to the great vicissitudes of history in this place which cannot be easily comprehended. Fischerová is, in a sense, as foreign as Schendler and Quinn.
Kateřina Rudčenková destabilises this sense of home even further. Hers is a seemingly more personal approach. In ‘Rubble’, history does not flow. It has to be salvaged:
That you pulled from the rubble, books, photographs,
letters and jewellery.
That there, you found your childish hands, your head,
your sleep and fear.
Once obtained, the past does not comfort. If the other poets have kept a distance it might be because they are wary of the dangers Rudčenková is intimating. Moreover, pieces like these further illustrate that pigeonholing loses sight of how effective, and universal, such personal verse can be.
The writers also create a sense of separation in the forms they employ. A few of them choose to structure the work as journal entries, such as Bil Brown’s ‘3:15experiment’ or Lara Conway’s lengthy prose poem ‘The Well of Night’. According to these poems, to live somewhere for too long makes days indistinct. Routine erases the uniqueness of the moments, and the calendar becomes external. Travelers and expatriates, at least at first, live more in time as these two poems exemplify. Despite some shortcomings – underdeveloped images in Brown’s and verbosity in Conway – they keep that sense of experiencing alive whether it is Brown’s visiting a cinema club or Conway’s taking salt to bless a stone altar at the sight of Prague’s second castle Vyšehrad.
Such minor problems should not overshadow the much wider success of The Return of Král Majáles. The starkest of these is how Armand has captured a collective endeavour without imposing the fiction of community. More importantly, the anthology questions the need of schools or nations as reference points for literature. Simply, the anthology is a platform from which writers and artists can say, “We were here. We were a part of this. We still are.” That in itself is something worth documenting.