Philip Roth: 2013 Literary Service Award Remarks
From 1972 through 1977, I traveled to Prague every spring for a week or ten days to see a group of writers, journalists, historians, and professors there who were being persecuted by the Soviet-backed totalitarian Czech regime.
I was followed by plainclothesmen most of the time I was there and my hotel room was bugged, as was the room’s telephone. However, it was not until 1977, when I was leaving an art museum where I’d gone to see a ludicrous exhibition of Soviet socialist realism painting—it was not until that fifth year that I was detained by the police. The intervention was unsettling and the next day, heeding their suggestion, I left the country.
Though I kept in touch by mail—sometimes coded mail—with some of the dissident writers I’d met and befriended in Prague, I was not able to get a visa to return to Czechoslovakia again for twelve years, until 1989. In that year the Communists were driven out and Vaclav Havel’s democratic government came to power, wholly legitimately, not unlike General Washington and his government in 1788, through a unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly and with the overwhelming support of the Czech people.
Many of my hours in Prague were spent with the novelist Ivan Klima and his wife, Helena, who is a psychotherapist. Ivan and Helena both spoke English and, along with a number of others—among them the novelists Ludvik Vaculik and Milan Kundera, the poet Miroslav Holub, the literature professor Zdenek Strybyrny, the translator Rita Budinova-Mylnarova, whom Havel later appointed his ambassador to the U.S., and the writer Karel Sidon, after the Velvet Revolution the chief rabbi of Prague and, in time, of the Czech Republic—together these friends gave me a thoroughgoing education in what unstinting government repression was like in Czechoslovakia.
This education included visits with Ivan to the places where his colleagues, like Ivan stripped of their rights by the authorities, were working at the menial jobs to which the omnipresent regime had maliciously assigned them. Once they had been thrown out of the Writer’s Union, they were forbidden to publish or teach or to travel or to drive a car or to earn a proper livelihood each at his or her own calling. For good measure, their children, the children of the thinking segment of the population, were forbidden to attend academic high schools.
Some of whom I met and spoke with were selling cigarettes at a streetcorner kiosk, others were welding a wrench at the public water works, others spent their days on bicycles delivering buns to bakeries, still others were washing windows or pushing brooms as a janitor’s assistant at some out-of-the-way Prague museum. These people, as I’ve indicated, were the cream of the nation’s intelligentsia.
So it was and so it is in the time of a totalitarian system. Every day brings a new heartache, a new tremor, more helplessness and another reduction of freedom. The usual rites of degradation: the ongoing unmooring of one’s personal identity, the suppression of one’s authority, the elimination of one’s security—uncertainty, unforeseeableness as the new norm and perpetual anxiety as the injurious result. Totalitarianism’s ruthless trauma-inducing machine cranking out the worst of everything and, over time, everything more than one can bear.
One amusing anecdote from a grim and unamusing time and then I’ll sit down. On the evening of the day following my encounter with the police, when in haste I wisely left Prague for home, Ivan was picked up from his house by the police and, not for the first time, questioned by them for hours. Only this time they did not hector him all night about the seditious activities of Helena and himself and their cohort of troublesome dissidents and disturbers of the totalitarian peace. Instead—in a refreshing change for Ivan—they inquired about my annual visits to Prague.
As Ivan later told me in a letter, he had only one answer—one—to give them throughout their dogged night-long inquisition about why I was hanging around the city every spring.
“Don’t you read his books?” Ivan asked the police.
As might be expected, they were stymied by the question, but Ivan quickly enlightened them.
“He comes for the girls,” Ivan said.