Literary festivals are usually devoted to individual writers or the writers from a particular language or country. That a festival can be devoted to a pair of writers — who never met one another and who come from such vastly different places as Central Europe and South America — is a testimony to the profound literary connection between Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.
The Prague Writers’ Festival (PWF) kicks off on April 14 with a typically diverse and impressive list of writers coming to Prague to read and discuss their work. Festival director Michael March sees the event as an opportunity to acquaint local audiences with some major talents that are far less-known here than they should be.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution and civil war, Prague played a surprisingly large and often unacknowledged role in 20th century Russian literature and thought. While the exiled aristocratic and political exiles settled in Paris and most of Russia’s intelligentsia chose Berlin, the scholars and writers that came to then Czechoslovakia would have a far reaching intellectual influence.
Nothing lasts forever, and the recent losses of Václav Havel and Josef Škvorecký emphasize the finitude of what was probably the greatest generation of Czech writers. Fortunately, there are numerous younger writers whose work is becoming better known at home and abroad, while for English speakers there remain prominent figures in Czech literary history still to be discovered.
In the winter of 1968-1969, a few months after the Kremlin sent tanks to crush the Prague Spring, two men who would go on to become the most famous Czech countemporary writers in the world, Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, waged a fierce battle in print about what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreckage. There are some delicious ironies in the Havel-Kundera polemic, writes Benjamin Herman for RFE/RL.
The award-winning New York-based children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís has covered some unusual ground in his books, from the discoveries of Galileo (in Starry Messenger) to his own boyhood in Communist Czechoslovakia (The Wall). His latest, The Conference of the Birds, is no exception, taking as its starting point a 12th century Sufi poem of the same title.
It is not only as a synonym for strangeness that Kafka has proven to have a lasting effect. He might be the most influential writer of the 20th century. As the editors of “Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka” point out in their introduction, “we suspect that no writer who ended his life as obscurely as Kafka has had his reputation expand so far, so quickly into the popular consciousness.”
Czech writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumíl Hrabal and Josef Škvorecký were an imposing presence in world literature in the last few decades of the 20th Century. Today, a new generations of Czech novelists is beginning to make its mark. Coming off a recent appearance at the International Literature Festival Berlin, novelist Tomáš Zmeškal spoke to Czech Position about the literary moment.
Under police scrutiny for having allegedly accepted bribes for letting off armed robbers and awarding her former deputies at the Czech Ministry of Justice with exceptionally large bonuses, ex-minister Daniela Kovářová has nontheless found time to write another racy fictional novel.
Prague’s literary history is no less grand than that of European capitals like London and Paris, and a group of like-minded Czechs have banded together to bring the city’s tales to the street. Both literally and figuratively.