Czech Dissident Writers Can Teach Us How to Protect Language from Lies

When people in power want to control thought by controlling words, literature can become a weapon

In 1959, a week before his debut short story collection was slated to be published, the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal was informed that the entire print run was bound instead for the pulping mill. Just a few years prior, under intense pressure from the USSR, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had ousted and executed its own general secretary, Rudolph Slánský, after he confessed to paranoiac charges of aiding a Western capitalist conspiracy in a speech spoon-fed to him by interrogators. The heady melody of revolution that would crescendo in 1968 with the Prague Spring was still no more than a faint whisper, and artists were expected to hew strictly to socialist realism, a style that espoused formal conservatism and didactic content of a kind often derided as “boy meets tractor” tales. Those pushing against these state-prescribed aesthetics did so at immense risk to their careers, their livelihoods, and the well-being of themselves and their families. A little over a decade later, censors once more dashed Hrabal’s dreams for publication in dramatic fashion, this time twice over in one year: distribution of Home Work was blocked, and all copies of Buds were ordered to be set ablaze.

In light of his biography, it’s difficult not to see something deeply personal in Hrabal’s later Too Loud a Solitude,which appeared in a samizdat — underground self-publishing — version in 1976 but wasn’t given an official print run until the collapse of communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Too Loud a Solitude centers around a protagonist who makes his living crushing books at a waste paper mill, indiscriminately shoveling volumes of Kant and crumpled-up newsprint into the belly of the compactor. Yet Hrabal’s novel was not only a reaction to his own experience of censorship; it also spoke to a thematic concern shared by many Czech authors of his generation. Writing at a time when the expectation that public speech should toe the Party line had resulted in the uncoupling of speech and thought — and when the disjuncture between government proclamation and lived reality was readily visible but politically dangerous to voice — these writers frequently explored the theme of language’s decay and collapse. With the current global rise of the far right, when phrases like “post-truth” and “fake news” are uttered by pundits and plutocrats alike without so much as the bat of an eyelash, the literary investigations of writers from the Eastern Bloc can take on an eerie second life, like Cassandra’s prophecies recollected as Troy burns.

Too Loud a Solitude is a paean to the many-splendored beauties of the written word: Han’ta, the paper-compacting narrator, is paradoxically an avowed admirer of the texts he is charged with destroying, tenderly arranging them in bales and occasionally fishing out something to be saved. Strains of Han’ta’s salvaged readings thread themselves through the novel, giving texture and rhythm to his often breathlessly long sentences. Yet the novel also revels in its descriptions of books’ physical breakdown: in the basement room where Han’ta works, volumes of Goethe and Lao Tzu rub shoulders with discarded playbills and blood-soaked butcher shop wrappers, and “the wastepaper, piled to the ceiling, wet and moldy, ferments in a way that makes manure seem sweet, a swamp decomposing in the depths of my cellar, with bubbles rising to the surface like will-o’-the-wisps from a stump rotting in the mire.” Here, Hrabal captures the moral repugnance of the state’s suppression of ideas via a scene that is viscerally repulsive, twinning the literal rot of pages bound for the compactor with the spiritual rot of the government power that consigned them to such a fate. The metaphor continues elsewhere in the novel when Han’ta introduces readers to the Czech underground in quite a literal sense: writers, philosophers, and professors who have run afoul of Party orthodoxy and been forced to do drudgework in the reeking municipal sewers.

Other works of Hrabal’s take aim at official speech directly. In 1965’s Closely Watched Trains (also translated as Closely Observed Trains), a story of Czech railway workers who variously collaborate with and fight against the German occupation during WWII, the seditious stationmaster appropriates bureaucratic rubber stamps for use in sexual games, undermining the governmental gravitas the stamps’ words embody and suggesting the moral poverty of the authority with which they are invested. But Hrabal was hardly alone in observing the decay of meaning under totalitarian rule; dogged by state suppression, many of Hrabal’s contemporaries likewise addressed the theme of language’s breakdown in their work. The Memorandum (1965) — whose author, Václav Havel, would go from jailed playwright to prime minister after the fall of communist rule — concerns a business’s attempt to create an emotionless and unambiguous language, as well as the bureaucratic violence that ensues when workers object to such a project. In their quest for linguistic control, the firm’s leadership succeeds only in rendering meaningful communication impossible. A rule mandating that all words be as dissimilar as possible to avoid confusion results in a language composed of consonant-encrusted nonsense words that can reach hundreds of letters in length — and an office full of workers completely unable to wrap their heads around it. The name for Havel’s invented language, Ptydepe, has since become a Czech byword for incomprehensible officialese.

Dogged by state suppression, many of Hrabal’s contemporaries addressed the theme of language’s breakdown in their work.

One writer who took a less allegorical route in his institutional critique is Milan Kundera; the plot of his debut novel The Joke (1967) is set in motion when university officials refuse to interpret a student’s sarcastically pro-Trotsky postcard any way but literally, upending the young man’s life in the process. The apparatchiks who summon the student in question, Ludvik, for an explanation of his actions refuse to believe that what he wrote did not express his true feelings: “Whether you wrote it quickly or slowly, in your lap or at a desk, you could only have written what was inside you. That and nothing else,” they insist. The officials’ condemnation of Ludvik — and his real-life equivalents — relies on a contradiction: the assertion of two-facedness when confronted with protestations of innocence on the part of the accused, but also the firm denial that subversive content could be anything other than sincere. The university functionaries who ultimately expel Ludvik reduce speech to its flattest, most rudimentary form, presenting a hollowed-out version of language without nuance, without subtext — without substance at all.

The circumscription and breakdown of language as exemplified by official euphemism and state language policing, these works suggest, is corrosive to the public — but not because, as Orwell argued in “Politics on the English Language” (1946), it effectively prevents citizens from accurately perceiving the world around them. Everyone can see, for instance, that Ptydepe is a failure and that the policies attendant upon it are a snare of contradictions. The gap between reality and verbal depiction is readily apparent — but the inability to describe this, the need to constantly keep up public pretense, and the sight of everyone around you doing the same, is both exhausting and intellectually humiliating. Language control, then, works not because it successfully binds people together in one unifying belief, but because it atomizes, preventing the trust in honest communication that is necessary to building collective action.

I first read Too Loud a Solitude in December of 2016, on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It was that eerie uncertain twilight between Trump’s election and his confirmation, and in the time since it has frequently struck me that the themes treated by Hrabal and his contemporaries have found belated resonance in the current political moment. Recent reports that the Department of Health and Human Services is considering redefining gender as a binary and unchangeable concept determined solely by one’s genitals and genome — a move that would strip over a million trans Americans of legal recognition — are indicative of just the kind of top-down manipulation of language that Havel took aim at in Memorandum. So too is the fact that Department of Agriculture officials have warned staff members not to use the term “climate change”; such an attempt to find-replace global warming out of existence takes on new and despair-inducing urgency in light of the bombshell report unveiled by the IPCC last October. And in a climate where brazen falsities may be presented by poker-faced officials and their supporters as “alternative facts,” it is sometimes difficult not to feel that language itself is rotting just like the mouldering paper in the lightless cellar of Too Loud a Solitude.

Yet if Czechoslovakia’s dissident writers often offered grim predictions about the ease with which language could be appropriated and corroded by those in power, their work also embodied a mode of resistance to that very phenomenon. At one point in Too Loud a Solitude, Han’ta sympathetically describes the social structure of Roma who “light a ritual fire wherever they work, a nomads’ fire crackling only for the joy of it, a blaze of rough-hewn wood like a child’s laugh, a symbol of the eternity that preceded human thought, a free fire, a gift from heaven, a living sign of the elements unnoticed by the world-weary pedestrian, a fire…warming the wanderer’s eye and soul.” Han’ta’s description of a free society coextensive but distinct from the mainstream echoes dissident thinker Václav Benda’s calls for the creation of a “parallel polis,” a system of independent social institutions built by and meant to sustain the underground. At a time when the idea of a parallel polis is coming back into vogue among those seeking to actively resist the rise of the far right, dissident writers like Hrabal and his ilk can help point the way forward for how language and literature can be reclaimed as weapons.

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