Prague's library of banned books.
The state police could come any minute...
Thousands of books, hundreds of writers are banned....
You have a copy of one book--Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago--smuggled to you by friends in England.
And now you are translating it into your native tongue, transcribing it word for glorious word onto layers of onionskin and carbon paper, making a few copies for a few trusted friends who, like you, will risk anything to read Solzhenitsyn's forbidden work and will risk again to pass it on.
You do your best to muffle the sound of the keystrokes. Useless. They sound as ominous as The Telltale Heart, roaring in your ears like a freight train through a tunnel.
The state police could come at any moment, yet you tap away, driven, and at the same time wonder: Months from now, an eternity from now, when you type Solzhenitsyn's final line on the final page, will his closing words be said of you?
"And our younger brothers would only look at us contemptuously: Oh, you stupid dolts."
I don't believe I could have imagined such a scene had I not held its product in my own hands a few months ago. It was dusk in Prague, a city whose fairy tale medieval architecture seems in perpetual mourning under the soot and grime of decades of environmental neglect--the lingering dusk of communist occupation.
I was in a small room facing Gorky Square which is now home to Libri Prohibiti, the library of banned books. Newly constructed wooden shelves line the walls and form a latticework of narrow corridors holding rows and stacks of manuscripts, magazines, pamphlets, and books banned throughout the Soviet Empire as subversive, counterrevolutionary, or whose writers were considered so potentially disruptive that their works, no matter what the content, were simply, categorically forbidden.
As we entered the room, Libri's visionary founder Jiri Gruntorad pulled a sheaf of papers from a nearby shelf and handed it to me. I slowly fanned the pages, back to front, not realizing until the title page fluttered to rest that what I was holding was the first of hundreds of such folders containing the hand-typed Czech translation of The Gulag.
That's when it became real for me. That's when I began to grasp the sense of fear, of isolation, of mental and physical exhaustion that some forever-anonymous Czech overcame to pass Solzhenitsyn's work on to a handful of readers who understood the risk and took it nonetheless. That is cultural revolution.
Among the stacks, as one would expect, are also preserved works by Vaclav Havel and Ivan Klima, of Kafka and Orwell, of Adam Michnik and Czeslaw Milosz. There are also books for children, cheerful and apolitical stories and poems with whimsical illustrations screen-printed by hand.
"Why would these books be banned?" I asked, still having difficulty comprehending the reach of the Soviets' censorship Hydra.
"The authors were banned," Gruntorad replied. "It didn't matter what they wrote."
"Take the risk? To create."
To create. Words. Images. Thoughts. A legacy of the cultural spirit.
I say something about courage, verbally stumbling over my naivete. Gruntorad shrugs--no false modesty, no "Aw shucks, ma'am, |twarn't nothin' much." Courage does not seem to be an issue for these Czechs; the issue is integrity. Truth--the power of powerlessness, in Havel's words. Neither does there seem to be any value judgment attached to this courage-that-isn't; like creativity, one either has it or one doesn't. End of discussion.
Well, not quite. Jiri Gruntorad's courage is worth mention because what he accomplished, almost single-handedly and at great personal sacrifice, not only rescued from oblivion a treasury of Czech historic and cultural heritage but preserved it as testament to the vastly underrated legacy of the Czech spirit.
Of some 500 titles now safely housed in Libri Prohibiti, Gruntorad personally collected and preserved--throughout the communist era--about half of them.
"Collected and preserved" sounds so sterile. Think of him as a solitary freight train in a literary underground railway, always under the watchful eye of the state police, meeting underground typist X to swap a bag of groceries, say, for an identical-looking bag of banned literature, spiriting the contraband to one of several hideouts in Prague, not knowing when, if ever, the growing collection would be liberated--or confiscated and destroyed by the police.
While one ream of paper may be relatively easy to hide in a sack of potatoes, hundreds of them being smuggled, week after week, from rendezvous to hideout, would become nearly impossible to disguise.
Gruntorad was caught. He spent four years in prison, under conditions not unlike some of the places Solzhenitsyn describes in The Gulag: sweltering in summer, frigid in winter; packed floor-to-ceiling with political prisoners, petty thieves, and psychopaths alike; infested with viruses and vermin; reeking of human waste and physical decay; seemingly incapable of sustaining human life, much less the human spirit.
All that suffering for some books? Some magazines? Some of which may in fact be world-class literature, but some of which are merely hum-drum, and some of which--let's be honest--would not merit a publisher's attention under any circumstances. In the great cosmic scheme of things, what good could ever come of those boxes and carts and carloads of words? Just words, after all.
If at some point in their Sisyphean struggle, Gruntorad and his collaborators thought of themselves, "Oh you stupid dolts," the thought was fleeting. Gruntorad endured, the underground writers and typists continued to tap-tap-tap, the Libri collection remained, for the most part, undetected, and eventually the totalitarians were given the heave-ho.
"After overcoming many problems," Gruntorad writes in classic understatement, "the library was opened in 1990." It is open to researchers from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. Mondays through Thursdays; the rest of the time Gruntorad is on a free-market-style paper chase, trying to raise the money to expand Libri's collection (which he estimates now contains about two-thirds of the titles in existence), to protect the works from deterioration caused by heat, humidity, insects, and Prague's permeating host of air pollutants and to collect audio- and videotape oral histories to document human- and civil-rights violations under the communist regime.
As we start to leave the library stacks, Gruntorad strokes the side of a large metal storage cabinet. "This is where we keep our collection of rare titles," he explains. "Some are worth hundreds of dollars."
Hundreds? I begin to say "thousands" but let it slide. How can anyone set a price on the documentary history of the creative spirit?
We walk into the study area, where a student sits taking copious notes from a selection of books and manuscripts. The tables and chairs are painted in bold primary colors, as if to shout, "Victory!"
On a corner table stands a relic reminiscent of the headier days of American protest movements: a clunky old drum-roller mimeograph. A low-tech means of reproduction, but a vast improvement over the onion-skin and carbon-paper method. But Gruntorad says they were rarely if ever used. Too heavy, too bulky to hide; too difficult to con the police snoops into believing its real purpose was to make, say, noodles.
Next to the mimeograph lay two small wooden frames, page-size Gutenbergs of the Czech literary underground. Absorbent cloth to serve as an ink pad was attached to a solid sheet of wood and hinged to the back of the frame; stretched tightly across the opening was the screen, made of nylon bridal veil. The process of reproduction was: Place typed stencil on ink-soaked pad, lower screen, place sheet of paper over it, and--using a window-washer's squeegee--press ink through stencil onto page. Voila.
Slow but effective and--most important--easily hidden or broken into unassuming pieces to be trashed. Wonderfully simple, simply deceptive. All common household materials, readily available, cheaply purchased, no questions asked.
All except the stencils. "Were they pilfered from offices?" I asked. Gruntorad's face lit up with that power-of-the-powerless, cat-got-the-canary grin.
"No," he said, "those were carefully monitored in all offices. You had to sign them in, sign them out, account for every one. No, we couldn't get them from offices.
"But"--and he plucked an old stencil from the table, waving it like a tiny, gooey flag-"you could go into any office-supply store in the city and buy these by the hundred."
Through much of the Twentieth Century, Czechs have been stereotyped as the wimps of Eastern Europe. Their attempts at armed insurrection against their oppressors can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and consequently, it would appear, they have lived under domination by everyone from the Vatican to the Hapsburgs to the Nazis to the Soviets for all but a few years of their history. Their fictional literary icon, "The Good Soldier Svejk," is a typically Czech, inept, bumbling buffoon.
The stereotype is self-perpetuated. The infamous Czech rocker Ivan Jirous (a.k.a. Magor, leader of the Plastic People of the Universe, the band whose arrest sparked Charter 77, which practiced the nonviolent activism crucial to the downfall of the communist regime) said recently, contemptuously, of his own people, "You can shit on a Czech's head and he will say, |Thank you.'"
Perhaps. And just perhaps, in the long run, that speaks more persuasively of courage and pride and resistance to oppression than armed revolt.
In fact, the national heroes have been humanists: the Fifteenth Century religious martyr Jan Hus; first president of the republic Tomas Masaryk; Alexander Dubcek, the socialist with a human face; Vaclav "I-will-not-lie-to-you" Havel.
To me, the Czech embodied in Svejk is no more a symbol of national cowardice than M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce or Catch-22's Yossarian. All three are subversives, playing the fool while undermining authority with surprising finesse.
Nonviolent resistance may not provide the incendiary spectacle of armed revolt, but that does not make it any less effective. Nor is it any less courageous.
As a former Charter 77 spokesperson, who is also a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, told me, "People who have the intention to fight, they find their weapon."
Ah yes, the Uzi of the Czech underground:
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|Title Annotation:||Libri Prohibiti, Czechoslovakia|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1993|
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