The Man Who Left the Castle to Get Out of the Kitchen

An interview with Jiří Pehe

By Kyle Walker / Originally published September 19, 2016 in the New York Transatlantic
Jiří Pehe (left) with Václav Havel (right)
Photograph courtesy Jiří Pehe

Jiří Pehe spent his high school summer vacations in Prague. His uncle, a journalist, kept a collection of books and magazines from the Prague Spring—a brief liberal moment in communist Czechoslovakia’s otherwise autocratic history—and Jiří pored over them, taking in the heady days of 1968 from his uncle’s apartment in 1970. Those magazines spawned in him an interest in literature that wouldn’t fade: not when he fled Czechoslovakia with his wife in 1981, not when he returned to the Continent seven years later to work for Radio Free Europe, and not when he was chief political advisor to Václav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president of the post-communist era.

Pehe now works for New York University. He’s director of the school’s Prague branch and a professor at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. (The Center also publishes the New York Transatlantic). Pehe will give a talk this Thursday, Sept. 22, at the Bohemian National Hall about the “Fiction vs. Reality of Central Europe,” focusing on four “pictures” of the region: the Habsburg Empire, the German Mitteleuropa, the Central Europe of communism, and the post-communist present. Pehe will sign copies of his novel, Three Faces of an Angel, after the talk.

Kyle Walker interviewed Pehe about literature and Central European political life across the 20th century, and what it means to have come into the 21st century as a writer doing double-duty as a politician.

Kyle Walker: Of your four pictures of Central Europe, the best known in America may be from the Habsburg Empire, although many Americans may not know that that’s what they’re imagining when they think of Franz Kafka. How has the relationship between literature and politics changed since the fall of the Habsburgs?

Jiří Pehe: The Habsburg empire was sort of a patchwork or a mosaic of different cultures, but at the same time even those writers who were writing in German and who resided in Vienna created something that was common to the entire empire. Even today when you read writers who started writing about this region and about that period later—such as Gregor von Rezzori in his famous book The Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, or Sándor Márai, a Hungarian writer who emigrated to the United States—those writers still convey something that you immediately identify as Central European.

There was this cultural commonality, and at the same time there were political efforts in all of the constituent nations to free themselves from the Habsburgs. And today we see in a way the opposite. We see four Central European nations, occasionally joined by Austria, trying to form something that would be a sub-bloc within the European Union—the Visegrad Group. They work quite hard politically toward this goal, but at the same time culturally there is almost nothing in common anymore.

KW: What about works written in the West? Do they tell us something about Central Europe? I’m thinking of George Orwell and Animal Farm—which is recognizably about the Soviet Union, of course, but also recognizably about communist regimes elsewhere—but also of films like Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

JP: When George Orwell and other writers wrote about totalitarian regimes, they were writing about something that people in Eastern Europe or Central Europe could easily identify with. So they obviously were in many ways related to writers here such as Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, or György Konrád in Hungary, because they were writing about something that was a common experience here.

When you have something like Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s more an allegory. It uses something that goes way into the past—and we all know it, but it’s no longer here. And I would even argue that some people who still feel that they’re real Central Europeans would find it even slightly offensive, because it uses Central Europe or certain images of Central Europe in a rather stereotypical way, trying to show certain archetypes of backwardness and so on. It is of course based on certain shared notions and memories of Central Europe as what it used to be. But it’s using it for different purposes. It’s really about something else

KW: The political climate in Central Europe today seems ripe for literary treatment. You wrote for Politico in January about Poland as a threat to liberal democracy and European unity.1 And in Austria we’re likely to see the far-right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer win the presidential election. Has the literature of these regions confronted this fact?

JP: One could describe the current political situation in general terms as a departure from the ideals of liberal democracy, which Central Europe seemed to embrace after 1989 and the whole region was on its march to Europe. And now what we are seeing is the march in the opposite direction. Liberal democracy has proved to be too difficult an idea, or too elusive in some ways. So we have various Central European Visegrad leaders coming up with their own ideas of democracy: Orban saying that we don’t need liberal democracy, we need a different kind of democracy—by which he basically means we need no democracy at all.2

How does culture reflect this? And that’s a really interesting thing, because there’s almost no reflection. We had a lot of literary reflection of from dissident writers of the “Situation” with a capital ‘S.’ Philip Roth wrote in his famous letter to Ivan Klima, in the United States “everything goes and nothing matters,” whereas in your region, communist central Europe, “nothing goes and everything matters.”3 And that was one of the features of those times. Now we are in that American situation that Phillip Roth describes: everyone can freely talk about whatever they want to talk about and write about, but no one really finds a position to tackle what’s going on here. Writers and filmmakers and so on seem to be confused.

In the first decade after the fall of communism, when suddenly, at least from today’s point of view, we see that there was quite a lot to write about—there was a lot of corruption, a regime change, the emergence of things such as these economic mafias and so on, a political thriller of sorts—writers were not able to capture it.

KW: You worked as the chief political advisor to Václav Havel during this period. Havel himself is an interesting figure in that he was a major literary figure before he was a world political figure. What can we learn about literature and politics from looking at Havel and Czechoslovakia in the years immediately after the fall of Communism?

JP: Havel was an interesting example of how difficult it is to continue as an intellectual and writer once you enter the world of politics. So after he became a politician in ’89 he basically lost for many years his ability to write plays. He very often said that he’s really looking forward to the end of his political life because he would then write another play, which he did.

In some ways he was not entirely happy in politics because of this. Because it was for him more important to reflect than to do things as a politician. But he felt that it was a service to his country, so he continued in this position for a total of 13 years.

KW: You yourself have a literary persona: You’ve published poetry and novels, and you frequently comment in the Czech press. Has this tension between political life and literary life and the desire to reflect political and social life from the outside affected your own life as a poet, novelist and writer?

JP: This was actually at the root of my leaving the Office of the President. After two years of working in the administration, I approach him one day and I say, “I want to leave because I really have problems with being your mouthpiece. I admire you very much, but whatever I write these days, be it a political commentary or an essay, it’s interpreted as something that you made me write or say. I become your medium. And that’s not something I really enjoy. And also quite frankly I don’t enjoy being in the political kitchen. I may enjoy writing about the political kitchen but not really being one of the cooks.”

And he was really trying to convince me that I should stay. I didn’t know how to convince him that he should let me go. He kept saying, “But you promised that you would stay with me until 2003 when my term is finished.” So in the end I said, “Well, let me ask you what would you do if you were in my position. You would feel that you are compromising your independence and that you would much more prefer to be reflecting things intellectually, rather than actually being a politician.” And he thought for about 30 seconds and then he said, “I would leave.”

This interview has been edited for content and brevity.

  1. Jiří Pehe, “Poland Threatens Europe’s Unity” in “Is Poland a Failing Democracy?,”, January 13, 2016.

  2. Zoltan Simon, “Orban Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary,” Bloomberg, July 28, 2014.

  3. Roth first went on the record with this remark in a 1984 interview with Hermione Lee for The Paris Review, “Philip Roth, The Art of Fiction, No. 84.”