Interview with Jirí Grusa

Context N°17

by Ana Lucic

Jirí Grusa was born in 1938 in Pardubice, East Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. After receiving a degree from Charles University in Prague in 1962, Grusa became involved with several literary magazines and with the Prague Theater. Grusa was arrested in 1974 for “the crime of initiating disorder” after distributing nineteen copies of his novel The Questionnaire and expressing his intent to have it published in Switzerland. He was released after two months as a result of worldwide attention and protests. After his citizenship was revoked in 1981, he moved to West Germany and, ironically, as a result of the political changes of the late ’80s, became the Czech ambassador to Germany. In 2004 he became the president of International PEN.

 

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ANA LUCIC: In the interview entitled “The Questionnaire, or the Sixteen Answers of Mr. Grusa” you say that “all good authors are really nothing but translators—from a universal and ideal language.” Could you elaborate on this idea?

JIRI GRUSA: “All good authors are really nothing but translators”—for me, to a certain extent, this is a kind of a “psychological preservation philosophy.” If an author (like myself) loses one language (and in my case this is the Czech language), the characteristic style that brought him readers also dwindles away. In an attempt to find another language—in my case it was German—I determined that it had nothing of this “meta-language” quality. What binds the authors around the world is the Lingualität, also the possibility to name what is not named yet. At the same time this is the reason for all personal misfortune, and also for metaphysical fortune.

AL: In that same interview you also say that individual languages form identity. And then, to quote you: “Ignoring a foreign language, however, is to lose the ability of creating a different metaphor. When I switch between Czech and German, I switch between two realms of metaphor. But I remain a Czech author, even when I write in German.” Is this how you perceive the translation process: switching between two realms of metaphor? Who are the writers that you translated into Czech language?

JG: This applies to the smaller languages and their creative specificity within a limited society. In case you are writing in English language this just doesn’t apply. I still haven’t found a writer who chose Czech language over English. [laughs] As for the question about the authors that I translated, the list is pretty long by now. However, some of the most important ones for me are: Schiller, Bachmann, Celan, Kafka, and Rilke.

AL: Could you tell us something more about your two latest books, which came out in the Czech Republic in 2004: Umeni starnout and Grusas Wacht am Rhein aneb Putovni ghetto?

JG: For me, Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhein), is a very exciting book that alternates between different languages. Apart from Czech language, English and German are used. With this book, my poetic work in Czech language has finished. Since then I haven’t written any text in Czech.

The Art of Aging—this is how I would translate [Umeni starnout]—is an essay that I wrote as a young man. As a consequence, a literary periodical that I helped found (Tvar) became forbidden. I chose this title because, for me, there is a kind of biographical reminiscence contained in it, first of all the experience of my expatriation and finally my return to Prague. This book for me is a memory, a hypertext—it contains lots of historical documents and commentaries. Since the reception in the Czech Republic was very good I am thinking of a German edition.

AL: Do you plan to return to writing novels?

JG: Yes! I will. There are plans for something like that. I will write three short novels before I die.

AL: Could you identify some of the literary influences that inform your work?

JG: Hoffmann, Stendhal, Swift.

AL: In what ways did the exile to Germany inform your work?

JG: In a radical way! In any case it freed me from the national strife and confirmed my sense of freedom.

AL: You are currently the president of the International PEN and are also the ambassador of the Czech Republic to Austria. Do these two important positions leave you enough time for writing? What are some of the projects that the International PEN is currently working on that you would like to single out?

JG: With time it’s a problem indeed. But I think it is possible, gradually, to win some of the time back. As far as the PEN Club is concerned, the plan is to revitalize its whole structure, since I am convinced that its significance will increase in a post-nationalist era. What is also important for me is the linking of smaller literatures into a functioning, international literary context.

I would like to show that although the “creation of meaning,” in a nineteenth-century sense, is no longer possible, we should not forget that literature was, to a certain extent, guilty of giving birth to nationalism. It is held that this kind of schema is replaced by communicative competence.

AL: You have written in both Czech and German. What language do you currently write in, and could you single out some of the factors that decide which language you will be using for a particular piece of writing?

JG: It’s the goal that decides—from a literary standpoint, during the past twenty years I was writing in German. Conversations, commentaries, and phrases still came out in Czech, but I cannot say whether I will ever write another book in Czech. “My” Czech language really got expelled. This loss of language is not my doing, but that of my nation.

AL: How would you compare the questionnaires of the 1970s in the Czech Republic to the present ones? Have they evolved, became more complex, simpler, or just stayed the same? Or can they not be compared?

JG: They can be compared. I can tell a short anecdote with regard to this—as a diplomat, after our joining NATO, I had to fill out a confidential questionnaire about our new political circumstances. This questionnaire was more thorough and burdensome than the questionnaires during the Communist regime! But I refused one thing: the instructions required that I write my biography by hand so that they could show their supervisors what each person’s handwriting looked like. I refused this categorically. And haven’t heard anything back since then. [laughs]

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Selected Works by Jirí Grusa in Translation:

Franz Kafka of Prague. Trans. Eric Mossbacker. Out of Print.
The Questionnaire. Trans. Peter Kussi. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Umeni starnout [The Art of Aging]. Paseka, 269 Czech crowns.
Gebrauchsanweisung fur Tschechien und Prag [Instruction Manual for Czechnya and Prague]. Piper, €12.90.
Grusas Wacht am Rhein aneb Putovni ghetto [The Watch on the Rhein]. Paseka, 129 Czech crowns.

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