April 7, 2021

THE TOURIST:

On the morning of April 26, 1973, plainclothes agents of the Czechoslovak secret police (StB) were following “an unknown man, about 40 years old, 175cm tall, slender, with an elongated face, black thinning hair, light-rimmed glasses … carrying a paper board with a map of Prague …” The man was tailed for the remainder of the morning. At approximately 11:35 a.m., he left an exhibition of socialist realist art, dallied a bit, took some notes in the street, and hopped on a tram heading in the direction of the Castle. The agents, who didn’t engage, later discovered the man’s identity after he was checked by a public security patrol: It was the American writer Philip Roth, who was staying in Prague at the Yalta Hotel with a companion named Barbara Sproul.

The StB opened a file on Roth shortly thereafter, based on his having met with “persons of interest in Czechoslovakia, who in 1968 participated actively in the creeping, opportunistic, right-wing developments in the ČSSR.” No conspiracy being complete without an aspect of anti-Semitism, Roth was also flagged as a potential “supporter of international Zionism.” Since Roth had traveled to Prague on a visitor’s visa, he was assigned the case name “Turista” ––“the Tourist.”

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Kundera would dramatize this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which his protagonist Tomas is demoted from doctor to window washer, as would Klíma in his novel Love & Garbage, about a writer who composes essays on Kafka in his head while working as part of a cleaning crew. Klíma’s novel is strewn with meditations on the nature of waste, on the things that are carved and discarded. The garbage here is more than just metaphoric. Kundera called it “Totalitarian Kitsch”––“the absolute denial of shit.” Klíma called it “jerkish,” a propagandized pidgin whose shrinking lexis was suitable only for communication between men and monkeys. And it was this piffle that W.H. Auden described in a hotblooded octave he fired off after the events of August 1968:

About a subjugated plain,
Among the desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

To counteract this, in 1975, Roth helped launch the Penguin paperback series “Writers from the Other Europe,” which published 17 titles (mostly by Czech and Polish authors) until 1989, the first two of which were Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs and Kundera’s collection Laughable Loves. According to Roth, the goal of the project was to “bring together outstanding and influential works of fiction by Eastern European writers … who though recognized as powerful forces in their own cultures are virtually unknown in America.”

In an era where Marxist-inspired wokedom is rapidly worming its way through colleges and the corporate world, and safetyism-addled crybully newspaper, magazine, and publishing house staffers think that opinions they disagree with are “violence,” Roth’s attempt to bring greater notoriety to writers being brutally punished by what Tom Wolfe once called “socialism done by experts” makes for quite a contrast.

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