[Translator's note: This interview with Josef Nesvadba, conducted by science-fiction writer and
journalist Ondrej Neff, took place outside of Prague in the summer of 1996 and appeared in Ikarie, the leading Czech science-fiction periodical]
What are you working on now?
By the end of the month I should have finished with a book, which has a working title of Peklo Benes ("The Hell of Benes"). I'm two-thirds done, the whole manuscript should have maybe 250 pages. It's slow going for me...Dialog s doktorem dongem I finished in three weeks. At the same time, though, I am preparing another book, one that will flow from reality. It shall be a memoir, which will predominately cover the 1950's and 1960's. That was a classically libertine time! Communism and sex, those were its two main themes, at least as I see it. Memoirs are very big in today's literary scene. It surprises me, though, how carefully some authors approach their own past. I am reading the memoirs of one very committed nymphomaniac and it's as if it was written by a twelve year old virgin.
Let's return to Peklo Benes. Is it political fiction?
The true, historical Czechoslovakia is presented in it as the hell of Edvard Benes (translator's note: President of Czechoslovakia, 1935-38 and 1945-48). There also exists in it a paradise, in which his ideals are realized. I return here also to some of my favorite themes, such as the effect machines have on people's humanity. Nor is a doppelganger theme lacking here -- this is something which always interests me, even more than I sometimes realize. It comes mainly from my own experiences and feelings. I belong, however, to the last generation which was born into a stable state. I come from, quite literally, a Czechoslovakian family -- my father was born in Moravian Slovakia.
Does Edvard Benes appear in your book?
The key character is an old doctor. The question is: is what he relates reality or a senile infatuation? It could also be a psychic aura which is a premonition, foreshadowing a brain apoplexy, stroke. It isn't purely science-fiction and it isn't mainstream. Rather, it's essayistic literature.
And so, again, you're on the borderline between reality and fiction.
I can't do otherwise. I can't, seriously, create a fictional world which doesn't deal with reality. A work of "pure" fiction would seem to me absurd. What I write always serves as a kind of mirror -- as it is always allegorical.
But allegory is, on some level, in all science-fiction!
It depends on how strongly it pertains to reality. Pure fiction holds little appeal for me. I wouldn't care to travel along the path that, for instance, Tolkien did -- although I did consider doing a Tolkienesque adaptation of Starych povesti ceskych (tr. note: "Old Czech Legends," a book compiled by Alois Jirasek). Today, naturally, I say to myself that perhaps I made a mistake when I abandoned the style of stories I was writing at the beginning of the 1960's. Perhaps I didn't have enough confidence in science-fiction as a genre and so finally I made myself into a kind of bi-polar author. Perhaps that was a mistake. But on the other hand, I got my greatest number of ideas around puberty and after that. I didn't want to repeat myself. I always say to myself, when I look at a picture by Kamil Lhotak (Czech painter of the 1930's and 40's) -- how can he paint those same balloons all the time? Vladimir Paral (a contemporary Czech novelist) once said to me -- each Paral must be the same, like a hamburger.
That is evidently frequently the case for science-fiction authors. Ludvik Soucek (tr. note: popular Czech science-fiction author of the 1970's) got around this obstacle by linking up with subjects on the fringes of science.
Ludvik Soucek came to this very differently from me. He began to write science-fiction as entertainment. In the beginning we, naturally, were very similar. We both studied medicine and neither one of us suspected that someday we would write. He began to write, though, after me. Once Mrs. Soucek reproached me for thwarting his career as a doctor...I was in a different situation. My stories simply went with the times. At this time they were sending translators to the East like spies, searching for talent! I read for the first time about the Strugatsky Brothers in the German daily Der Zeit, in an article by the editorial staff's Kremlinologist! Erich Bertleff contacted me, an amazingly adventurous character -- a half-German Praguer. He saw us as the standard-bearers of unorthodox thinking. They took our work as political. Today it is just the opposite. Brian Stableford recently offered a story of mine to the American edition of Penthouse. They rejected it, saying it's too allegorical!
Which stories did they respond to the most?
Bertleff was a great advocate of, for instance, Vynalez proti sobe ("Inventor of His Own Undoing"). He took it as being political, whereas I considered it somewhat differently -- as being about a man who needs inequality for motivation. He took Ostrov piratu as a polemic with dogmatic communism. Everything that we wrote they took that way -- with the possible exception of Stanislaw Lem, who they held to be largely theological because of Solaris. Not only in the West, but also the public here at home took it that way. Science-fiction wasn't a literature according to the Stanislavsky method. It disturbed the Newtonian mechanical model of the world. The indeterminate nature of physical phenomena -- that was understood as political!
We were speaking of your next work. In this context you stated that communism was the second primary theme of that time's creative life. Today there aren't many writers who would have the courage to treat communism as other than to condemn it, or possibly to apologize for it.
From my youth I moved in intellectual circles. From that time I also know many of today's vehement anti-Communists. Some may not have been members of the party, but practically all of them stood substantially to the left. As to the rest, the whole nation was very left-oriented. I have to laugh sometimes when I read in the paper some statement of the type, "I'm conservatively-oriented." If they hadn't stayed so long on the left, perhaps they wouldn't be saying that. The 1960's meant, for part of the leftist intellectuals, a disillusionment with Leninism. They had to live with the disappointment of their naive faith, but nor at this time did they doubt the basic sense of the left. This also has a psychological dimension. My relationship to the world was always one of skepticism. I could never get so enthusiastic as Mnacko or Pavel Kohout. Therefore it is comical for me today to see Komsomol ("Young Communist's League") capitalism and the attitude of people, who act as if the past never happened.
From these traumatized feelings of intellectuals in the 1960's came some excellent literary works. Isn't it a bit late, though, to return to such themes after thirty years?
For me it is something like a balance-sheet. I see that historical phase as a closed book. At the time of the 1948 communist takeover Bohumil Sekla, the excellent geneticist, said to me: "They are conspirators! It is easy for them, as conspirators, to play politics. They will get themselves into power, but the results of the conspiracy will come back around on them." And that's precisely the way it went.
Did the collapse of the leftist dream traumatize you?
I don't know if "traumatize" is the right word. Nothing different really ever interested me. Already during the war Karel Kosik (tr. note: leading Czech philosopher and influential reformist communist) loaned me some Marxist works. Of course, then came the communist coup of 1948 and the intense pressures of the 1950's But I always asked: how is it possible, how can we get there? A believer in the true sense of the word I wasn't; naturally, with a Marxist analysis I agreed. In that I wasn't alone. Fred Pohl, Donald Wollheim and other American futurists saw things the same way. As to the rest, that was the true foundation of our intercourse, our friendship. The question is, has the destruction of the dream really come to pass? The times may have simply gone elsewhere, away from ideology.
Naturally both of the books that you are writing are ideological: Peklo Benes, your memoirs on sex and communism...Will they interest someone?
I don't anticipate success. Benes could interest the older generation. For them it will be something between Swift and Henry Miller... As far as the memoirs are concerned, I really can't guess whether they will succeed or fail.
What did science-fiction give to you, and what did it take away?
It meant a miraculous change in my life. I began to write it before I knew much about it. I studied in an English-language high school and read Wells and Huxley there, together with Capek. This reading created my aesthetic. I also had great fortune in that there was a favorable climate for cultural dialogue, which I've already mentioned. This was a very unique thing. I have, right here, a letter from Brian Aldiss. In it he complains that they don't want to publish him in the U.S.A., either.
And what, then, did it take away from you?
I could speak of a kind of corruption. That first success was, quite literally, staggering. I hadn't expected that it would turn out that way. When I was at my first science-fiction convention in Oakland and observed the strange people around me, it didn't occur to me, that they could sometimes be so celebratory...and with all that I found myself involved in the hectic nature of that time. Regarding the question of how science-fiction can be restrictive, I would mention my book Minehava podruhe. Science-fiction could be more socially consequential, although outside circumstances naturally played a role, such as when normalization came (tr. note: the period of repression that followed the August 1968 Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia). Also I lost lots of time. And I didn't take advantage of some substantial opportunities. Donald Wollheim offered to publish a novelized version of my short story, Vampire, Ltd., but first, of course, I would have to write the novel and I said to myself, "A novel about vampires? How's that?" Around this story there was always something happening. Dino de Laurentiis sent Franco Salinase here to inquire about a film version of this story...but nothing ever came of this. Then they said they can't make a film where the hero is a machine. One New York firm managed to tie the story to a scenario where there was "Satanella," I naturally wasn't interested...the other day I saw on cable at midnight a grade B porno film, in which starred Satanella and a vampire motorcycle! Three years all that lasted. Only one thing really came out of it, I saw a part of the world I hadn't seen before. Of course, when a person looks back, he tends to see those lost opportunities. Those things which one didn't have tend to remain in one's memory more strongly than those things one did have...So that the balance always comes out badly. And death? That's a complete bust!
-- Ondrej Neff (Na navsteve u Josefa Nesvadby originally appeared in Ikarie magazine in 1996)
(translated by G.S. Evans)