Responses • Kafka’s Prague, by Jiří Kolář, Twisted Spoon Press, 133 pp, £16, ISBN: 978-8086264578
Responses • Kafka’s Prague is a book of two halves. The first half, called Responses, is a compilation of brief musings on poetry and art by the Czech poet and visual artist Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), originally written in the early seventies and only published for the first time in 1984, when the author was already living in exile in Paris. The title implies we are reading a kind of truncated interview where the questions are missing and we are left to make the best of the author’s fragmented answers. These mostly read like impromptu, informal briefings on the development and significance of Kolář’s own poetic and artistic influences, sources of inspiration and creations, the latter often considered as processes or methods rather than completed works. But what the short paragraphs really represent, in spite of appearances, are “years in moments” – the distilled and highly-condensed essence of Kolář’s thinking and writing about the nature of poetry and visual art, especially in relation to one another. As the author puts it: “My interest from the beginning has been to locate the points of friction between visual art and literature”, with the former’s greater affinity with the world of material things and the latter’s preference for the realm of meanings and ideas. The dynamic of Kolář’s dense dialogue with himself is not always easy to follow or to recapture in another language. Ryan Scott, who has translated Responses from Kolář’s Czech into English and who also wrote the brief but informative translator’s note which places the poet and artist in the wider Czech and European cultural context, has on the whole done an admirable job, in spite of some inaccuracies and even mistranslations of Kolář’s tricky prose. His rendition of Kolář’s voice in prose manages to capture the originality of the artist’s perspective as well as the occasional strangeness of his formulations.
In the second half of the book, under the title Kafka’s Prague, we are then treated to Kolář’s own artwork from the late seventies: a series of collages prefaced by short excerpts from Franz Kafka’s writing, in the original German and with an English translation by Kevin Blahut (here the few mistranslations of Kafka’s prose are easy to spot given the presence of the original quotations). The collages reprinted here, thirty-four in number, are high-quality reproductions of photographic prints literally crumpled and then unfolded and fixed to an underlay in such a way as to produce a new, surprising image of the object photographed. The technique, called muchláž in Czech and translated as “crumplage” into English (both terms are portmanteau words that merge crumple with collage), is one of Kolář’s inventions, for which he became internationally famous. All of the images so “crumpled” in Kafka’s Prague are of buildings and places in Prague with either an obvious or an implied significance to Franz Kafka’s life and work, further amplified by being placed next to Kafka’s own words – quotations from works of fiction (the unfinished novels The Castle and Amerika as well as short stories such as “Description of a Struggle”, “The Burrow”, “Investigations of a Dog” etc) but also passages from Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenská, diaries, notebooks and other unpublished manuscripts. In the act of repeated juxtaposition both Kolář’s images and Kafka’s words acquire, in their mutual interplay, not just new meanings but also a larger significance as intersecting conduits of a spirit very much shared by the two authors: the kind of spirit that inhabits a world of the “sleepless dream” (which Kolář saw as a key surrealist invention); a spirit condemned to roam a night-time world full of street mazes and lost paths (”And learn to live with the night and speak only when someone asks you a question, when someone comes up to you and asks the way”, as Kolář put it in his Prometheus’ Liver); a spirit burrowing in a world hollowed out from inside and therefore on the verge of slow, seemingly unprovoked internal collapse. As such, the juxtaposition of Kolář’s crumplages with the bewildered voices of Kafka’s narrators and Kafka himself seems to bring about the desired effect – the “short circuit” that attracted Kolář to collage in the first place – whereby the artwork becomes the tangible embodiment of an immediate and striking connection, occurring as if by chance, between distant, seemingly unrelated phenomena.
Putting the two halves of the book together, one could say that Responses introduces the reader to a theory of poetry and art in interaction, at least insofar as anything like a theory can be abstracted from Kolář’s fragmented commentary. Subsequently, in Kafka’s Prague, we are offered the chance to see that theory put into practice by a master practitioner using one of his favourite techniques. The book as a whole seems to invite its readers to judge for themselves not just how effective such juxtaposition of word and image may be but also what kind of effects it might generate when transposed into a different cultural context. In the hands of an Irish reader, might not the book turn into a kind of challenge: what would happen to your perception and understanding of Dublin were you to put the images of your favourite places through Kolář’s method? Whose words would you choose to throw light on crumplages of the GPO building, Dublin Castle, Trinity College, St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Poolbeg chimneys?
One may, of course, see Kolář’s reflections as too piecemeal and contradictory to constitute anything deserving to be called theoretical. One may, in fact, take his dicta to be downright “hypocritical” as Kolář understood the word, guided by his reading of Baudelaire: as merely serving to justify his own way of doing things so that he as an author may survive in a hostile environment, so that his works may survive acts of hostile criticism, censorship and even targeted destruction (as happened repeatedly to Kolář under the Communist regime). Kolář himself seems to suggest as much in Responses: “Pummy, a man with an electric brain who should survive a thousand fatal accidents. This is the fate of each work of art. Each month, before each spectator, before each and every critique, to remain untouched, or to survive!” Even so, it seems undeniable that there exists at least one guiding principle that informs all of Kolář’s critical thought and creative activities very deeply, one could almost say systematically: he is fascinated just by what he calls “the principle of destruction” operative in most human endeavour or, more generally, by “the idea of how things come to an end” – starting from simple everyday objects and moving all the way to entire traditions and even socio-political orders.
Kolář’s principle of destruction is no mere intellectual or artistic game but a deeply felt response to the world as he personally experienced it: as someone who grew up in the shadow of the Great War; who matured as a poet in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during the Second World War; who created his most powerful poetic work during the postwar revolutionary upheaval of the late 1940s and early 1950s; and who experienced at first hand the destructive cultural politics of the new communist regime from 1948, the year of the Communist takeover, until his emigration to France in the 1970s following the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the subsequent process of oppressive “normalisation” that put a stop to the Prague Spring reform movement. Destruction and collapse could be found everywhere in the world that Kolář was part of during his formative years and a great part of his adulthood – provided one was willing to look and sustain the gaze. In his poetry and later his visual art he did his best to observe and to understand it: the “crumbling” of the old world brought about by genocidal wars (“Each of us constantly tries something out / Each of us longs to destroy / This or that Hiroshima”) as well as the totalitarian rule first by the Nazis, then by the Czechoslovak communists: “How long can it take / This age, this era of religion / Before everything collapses / Under the weight of its own shame / And people start searching for one another / Across the continents just so / They can look upon each other, marvel / Death has not undone that many.” (Both quotations are from Kolář’s Prometheus’ Liver, a collection of poetry written in the early 1950s. Kolář was a huge admirer of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and he translated Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” into Czech.)
Kolář’s poetry and his art are in fact remarkable for their integrity, the repeated insistence on the work as an intimate part of the life lived by its creator, whether seen in the sources of inspiration, in the processes of creation (with their peculiar combination of meditation, method and chance encounter) or in the completed poem or artwork in its fragility. This intimate connection between life and work is palpable early on in Kolář’s work, well before he switched from poetry to visual art as his main medium of expression. An early example of his existential question-and-answer approach to creative meditation can be found in Years in Days, a collection of brief, poetically condensed prose pieces based on diary entries he wrote in the politically unsettled period of 1947-1948. “How many jobs have I had?” he asks his thirty-three year old self, and answers : “I started out at seven as a baker’s helper [the baker being Kolář’s own father], then picked fruit for money, stomped cabbage into barrels [for sauerkraut], collected tennis balls, learned carpentry, wrote Westerns and detective stories, was unemployed, worked as a navvy on construction sites, an editor and a servant, I skived, worked in sewage maintenance and as a general dogsbody, helped out in fields and forests, dragged a cart, worked as a carpenter, drove a lorry, slaved on a digger, poured cement, hewed wood, worked as a nightwatcher, waiter, writer, care worker, member of a youth organisation, and I also helped out in a butcher’s, in a barber’s, in various editorial offices, worked as a colporteur, speaker, editor-in-chief of a weekly and head editor in a publishing house and I also write poems.”
Until then the poet was indeed free not only to write but also to publish, his poems heavily influenced by the French symbolist and surrealist traditions and by their reception among the Czech avantgarde poets and artists of the 1920s and 1930s. In his 1948 collection Days in a Year he was, however, already moving beyond those influences, and the subsequent Years in Days was meant to follow closely on the poems as their prosaic background and existential counterpoint. There is something deeply paradoxical in what happened to Kolář next, following the communist takeover in February 1948, especially when one compares his fate with two other well-known Czech authors, Milan Kundera and Václav Havel. (As Kolář is perhaps not as famous as the other two, it is worth pointing out that his work has been as influential as theirs and that neither Havel nor Kundera, both of whom also wrote poems, can match the authentic voice, imaginative power and intellectual depth of his poetry.) Kolář was in many ways a true member of the proletariat, the authentic embodiment of a working class striver and skiver in one, at home with the underdog – and in this he was very much unlike Havel, the son of a business magnate and therefore a natural target of communist power, and also unlike the solidly middle-class Kundera, who started out his poetic career as an ardent communist celebrating Stalinism at a time when Kolář, an early member of the party, was vocally registering his disenchantment with communist ideology and practice.
The fact that not even his working class origin and socialist leanings could save Kolář from communist persecution is a measure of his inner freedom, creative authenticity and resistance to social conformity. Soon after 1948, he was branded as politically unreliable, a poetic traitor to the revolution, and his works were effectively blacklisted, subject to politically motivated rubbishing and suppression. What’s more, in 1952 he found himself the target of police prosecution as a political subversive, with a pretext found in a manuscript of his poems to be published much later as Prometheus’ Liver. The manner in which Kolář was identified as its author by the secret police could hardly be bettered even by Kafka, based as it was on a line of verse that goes, “It’s a mistake, really, please, will you believe me, I’ve never / met you before, I’m not guilty of anything, I am / Kolář, I can prove it to you!” When he refused to be blackmailed into becoming an informant, he was arrested – for sedition, among other things – and sentenced to a year in prison, of which he served seven months. From then on, he was largely barred from publishing or exhibiting his work officially (he published translations under the names of others and circulated his poetry in samizdat). His Years in Days was published for the first time only in 1992, after the two previous attempts at publication in 1949 and in 1970 ended in the destruction of the proofs; other collections of Kolář’s poetry were heavily censored even during the reform period of the 1960s. Kolář and Havel grew closer and supported each other as fellow travellers in dissident circles. Kolář and Kundera found themselves in exile in Paris at more or less at the same time. They did not strike a similarly supportive relationship, however, which is perhaps not hard to understand – it was Kolář who had actually been all the things (and more) that Kundera was claiming to have been before he ended up in exile; it was Kolář who knew the truth behind Kundera’s expedient refashioning of his communist past into something close to dissident resistance.
Given that Kolář first made his name as a poet relying on the word to make his representations, was it this political persecution and ongoing censorship that led him largely to abandon poetry for visual art? There are in his poetic works of the late 1940s and early 1950s signs of an increasing sensitivity to language as the medium of manipulation and propaganda, language misused to such an extent that the word taken in its ideal dimension (as a symbol, a source of meaning) becomes unsalvageable perhaps even by a poet. This is, at least, what Kolář seems to be suggesting in a poem entitled “Nothing Without Noble Words” from Days in a Year:
First, they taught us to blow them up like guts or balloons,
Then they told us
These are molds to play with in sandpits in the parks, mudpools on the riverbanks, snow drifts in winter,
Still later they commanded
We should use them to carry our schoolbooks, inkpots, drawing boards.
Then when our school years were over
We relabelled them toolkits, became used to
Using them as wallets.
Thereafter came the blood.
And today –
They’ve forgotten that breath, sand, mud, snow, ink, wood, tools, cash, the blood have left behind
Such undying marks
That the purity
We are asked to lend our words
Is as likely to be received by them
As a drunkard slapped awake would take to
a glass of fresh milk.
Almost thirty years later, however, in Responses, Kolář embraces the process of creative destruction targeted at verbal expression and representation as something that goes well beyond any one political regime with its propaganda and punitive prescriptions of how words may or may not be used. Kolář recasts his poetic experiments and his later transition away from poetry toward visual art as a more general attempt to get beyond the “symbol-generating con” that permeates all words and seems to be an inherent feature of most, if not all world literature: “For me, the point was to divorce things from their conventional symbolic schema. This symbol-generating con nauseated me more than anything else. Everything became loaded with symbols, and yet everything had already lost meaning before them.” This kind of destruction is understood by Kolář as a form of interrogation, a way of relating to traditions – especially poetic and artistic traditions, including one’s own past work – that must be overcome and yet cannot be simply forgotten or ignored. A poet and artist engages in acts of interrogation as a way of liberating himself from the past without dissociating himself from it or pretending to be creating without precedent. “They all just build and no one sees what stands already”: this line from Prometheus’ Liver, originally aimed at communist attempts to raze the old world to the ground and build it anew from nothing, is directed by Kolář in Responses equally at the poetic and artistic avant-garde insofar as it denied its roots and heritage.
Last but not least, Kolář found ways of translating such interrogative acts of destruction into particular methods of composition. When “dismembering verse” ceased to be enough for him, he came up with the idea of so-called evident poetry, in which words are replaced with objects in an attempt to compose poetry intelligible even to the illiterate or the blind. In his visual art he relegated words to the background, using print in collages for various visual effects and treating it primarily as a material substance rather than a sign. He also started to dismember images – finding in crumplages just one way among many of building anew while acknowledging what stands already. The remarkable thing about Kafka’s Prague, then, is the fact that Kafka’s words are allowed to stand as words full of meaning – and thereby recognised, in a clear act of hommage, as something worthy of being retained even in the process of destructive interrogation that is Kolář’s crumplage.
What is the point of crumplage? Kolář tries to capture the intimate connection between life and work as it applies to the practice as follows: “Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done. Its meaning can be demonstrated on yourself, in that I think each one of us is burdened by countless moments when something has collapsed and we have to get on with our lives, even if reluctantly – don’t we all live with something broken inside? Maybe what’s inside us or in whomever sings again, sings even better – can we then say with any certainty that destruction doesn’t represent the beginning of something new?” For Kolář, both poetry and art are ways of representing the world as fundamental in their contribution to our knowledge of reality as science – specifically in that they reveal what reality may be, what counts as reality for the human being. This is how Kolář puts it regarding crumplages in his Slovník metod (Dictionary of Methods, 1999): “The analogies with fateful events and explosions in life which crumple human beings so suddenly and so thoroughly that they shall never again be able to straighten out or iron out the inner aftereffects of such hurricanes have convinced me that my actions [in producing crumplages] do after all contribute to our understanding.”
At the very end of Responses, Kolář, now in his sixties and having suffered a debilitating stroke, seems to ask himself again the same question he asked, in Years in Days, his thirty-three-year-old self – then youthfully ignorant that his collection would be destroyed twice before finally getting published nearly half a century after its composition. His mature response suggests the emphasis has changed. It is no longer a question of how many jobs the author has had while also writing poems but rather what it is that has sustained his “stubborn persistence” in creating and hoping his creations would survive – even while remaining aware of the thousands of people dying and the millions of things coming to an end every second of his life. He suggests the answer lies in his “hypersensitivity toward everything” on which his “belief in the immense oneness of reality” seems grounded. This is as close as Kolář comes to religious faith. “I know I am mad, but isn’t this whole dangerous world mad? And does it make any sense? What does it matter: I am indifferent to nothing. And hence the fact that I’m still alive implies [that it makes] at least some sense. Just insofar as I am indifferent to nothing.”
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, and most recently The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).