With the elections to the Czech upper house of Parliament only some five months away, political parties are trying to lure voters in with new faces. To its list of new heavyweights Senate hopefuls like the prominent sociologist Ivan Gabal and former Constitutional Court judge Eliška Wagnerová, the Green Party (SZ), which is looking to stage a comeback, has added a figure with star power: writer, journalist and former dissident Jáchym Topol.
Himself the son of poet and playwright, in the late ‘70s Topol began writing lyrics for the rock band Psí vojáci, led by his younger brother, Filip. In 1982, he cofounded the samizdat magazine Violit, and in 1985 the samizdat review Revolver Revue, which specialized in modern Czech writing.
Because of his father’s dissident activities, Topol was not allowed to go to university. He was imprisoned for short periods, both for his samizdat publishing activities and for his smuggling across the Polish border in cooperation with members of Polish Solidarity. A Charter 77 signatory, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Topol wrote for the independent newsletter Informační servis, which later became the investigative weekly Respekt.
Why the Greens? “The Don Quixote-ness of the Greens is what attracts me. There are, in a sense, like the current underground, exactly what I’m close to,” Topol told Czech Position in an interview. “What’s more, I like the certain style that I don’t see in the others — a sense for humor and ‘happenings.’ I like that there are twentysomethings with dreadlocks alongside serious professors in their sixties. They are open and transparent, and I think their program is good and natural. Nuclear power and the looting of the country already many people do not want.”
Q: Why have you, as a writer and intellectual, decided to enter politics?
TOPOL: Frankly, it came like a bolt from heaven. There is politics in everything, whether we want it or not; it simply envelops us every day. There was no personal initiative in it, that is to say that I somehow sought to join a political party. When I got the offer some days ago, I was a bit taken aback. Even though as a journalist I am from time to time dealing with politics, I didn’t know that much about the Senate itself. Neither do I know details of the work of the Green Party, such as biomass policy or what exact parameters a boiler must have to meet environmental protection standards. So my reaction at first was dismissive. I almost laughed at the idea.
Q: What made you change your mind?
TOPOL: Maybe the fact that at the moment I’m program supervisor of the cultural club at the Václav Havel Library. I remembered another friend, Ivan Martin Jirous [a collaborator of the banned Plastic People of the Universe band and fellow Charter 77 signatory], and his engagement. Maybe now is the right time to begin to deal with public affairs from within the den of lions of current politics. I also realized that I feel close to the Green Party and certain principles they espouse, that is their lifelong aims. But there are also differences; for example, in the case of the [US anti-missile radar on Czech soil], I was on the opposite side. At the time I was in favor of the radar.
Q: Is that a problem?
TOPOL: They know this and do not consider it an obstacle. And neither do I. Maybe their opinion has changed since then. I deeply distrust Russia, and when I see how Putin shuts up his opponents, making life impossible for them, and how journalists are fined and beaten or killed, I cannot lightly talk with them about our seamless integration into Europe. And that bothers me. For me, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — perhaps unlike for so many young people — are not exotic, innocent countries that would be victims, so to speak, of the U.S. radar. So why not to fight for such ideals? I have done so in public life many times, such as in becoming a signatory of Charter 77.
As for expertise, the Greens certainly have plenty of top professionals, so I need not be an expert on technical guidelines and standards. Finally, I know from experience as a journalist that there is no problem that you cannot learn about. I will try to turn this apparent disadvantage into an advantage. In short, it came very naturally to me. I’m angry at the political situation just like everyone else, just shy to say it. My personal position is however still a bit different.
Q: What is the role you have in mind?
TOPOL: I’m rather — with some exaggeration — in the first instance a tramp [camping enthusiast] and forest spirit, and not at all an expert on political lobbies. But it’s not just about having a woodland adventure but also being concerned about what is going on in the countryside, what we’re selling off there. Maybe it will sound bizarre, but under communism I was once a signatory of the Manifesto of Czech Children of Petr Placák that embraced his belief that ants and trees are sacred. I may risk being laughed at, but today I still believe so. Ants and trees are sacred. Period.
Q: Romanticism probably doesn’t last in politics. Why did the Greens choose you? And why did you choose the Greens?
TOPOL: I feel close to them. Before I was in the underground during communism, I was a member of an illegal Scouts troop. After the revolution, as a journalist with Respekt, I wrote about the environment and the associated problems of civilization in an “unromantic” way; for example, about lynxes and wolves that are almost extinct here, and monitoring their movements.