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Apr 2, 2020 - Apr 30, 2020

Time to Return to the Classics – Czech Books We Want You to Know

The Czech Center New York and Radio Prague International present a series of books that belong among the Czech classics every Czech culture lover in the USA should know. As part of the project, prepared by the Radio Prague International editorial staff and award-winning author Pavla Horáková, the CCNY is featuring an interview with the author about the selected works, and the CCNY Program Manager’s take on why these Czech greats can hold their own and engage American readers.

Launched in February 2020, the aim of the Radio Prague International literary series The Czech Books You Must Read is two-fold: to enumerate the classics of Czech literature and discuss their relevance in today’s world, and to introduce international audiences to leading contemporary Czech writers, mapping as well how readily available – and in demand – contemporary Czech literature is on a global scale.


The series opened with a focus on Czech classics, including Božena Němcová’s The GrandmotherJaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier ŠvejkVladislav Vančura’s Markéta LazarováEduard Bass’s The Chattertooth Eleven, and Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts
The series continues with Franz Kafka's The Trial and Czech Comics.
The provided links will take readers to each individual episode.

The English translations of the books included in the RPI series can be found here:

The Grandmother by Božena Němcová.
Translated from the Czech by Frances Gregor. Cornell University Library: Ithaca [NY], 2009.

The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hašek.
Translated from the Czech by Cecil Parrott. Penguin Classics: London, 1990.

Markéta Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura.
Translated from the Czech by Carleton Bulkin. Twisted Spoon Press: Prague, 2016.

The Chattertooth Eleven by Eduard Bass.
Translated from the Czech by Ruby Hobling. Karolinum Press: Prague, 2009.

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek.
Translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers. Catbird Press: North Haven, 1990.

Each audio episode provides an insightful overview of the particular work and the cultural context within which it was created, published, and translated into world languages. Included are interviews with literary experts, critics, and translators which focus on particular stylistic features, storylines, and points of interest integral to Czech life and culture embodied within the literary texts.

“Human character never changes, regardless of historical era or location.”

Photo credit: Richard Klíčník 

Each episode features a short video overview of the discussed work, written and introduced by award-winning Czech writer and literary translator, Pavla Horáková.

The Czech Center New York had a unique opportunity to ask Pavla Horáková about her creative process and research behind these videos and her views on the literary works themselves. We bring forth the full interview as follows:

1. What kind of approach did you choose for presenting the selected works and why?
Do you use the same approach for each literary work, or did any of the books call for a more narrow or different focus?

PH: First of all, I read the book again to refresh my memory, I go through reviews and analyses, just in case I missed some important aspect of the work, and then I proceed more or less intuitively. Each book requires an individual approach. If the story takes place at a photogenic location, I include that in the script. In some cases, it might be important to explain the context or introduce the author in more detail. If there is a film adaptation, I refer to that, too. Everything has to fit into roughly 2.5 minutes, so I need to be concise.

2. What aspects did you choose to focus on within the limited timeframe of the videos?

PH: If the work has been translated into many languages, I always point it out. If the author’s life was affected by international events, such as in the case of Karel Čapek or Vladislav Vančura, I mention that as well. Or if the author is bilingual and bicultural, such as Patrik Ouředník. Incidentally, Ouředník’s Europeana and Čapek’s War with the Newts are works that comment on global issues. Just like The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek or The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks.

[Episodes on Patrik Ouředník and Ladislav Fuks in the making. Ed.]

3. In your research of the selected texts, did you come across any points of interest that did not make it into the final cut, but that you might like to share with readers?

PH: For instance, in the case of the “Czech Comics” video [forthcoming, ed.], I was sorry I couldn’t fit every author and every book I would have liked to because the script is already too long as it is. I am also sorry I cannot really put across the artistic value and the depth of thought of the books which in my opinion – had they been written in one of the “big” languages, would be part of the world literature canon.

4. Are there any storylines or literary aspects of the discussed works that represent characteristics or a mindset/approach to life which could be considered (stereo)typically Czech?

PH: Personally, I find a certain lyrical, idyllic quality in them, and kindness even in works that address painful topics. They can convey serious messages using very subtle means. The Good Soldier Švejk, a powerful anti-war novel, does not need to picture any bloodshed. All it does is show human nature. Ladislav Fuks doesn’t have to depict the unspeakable horrors of death camps, and yet we know precisely what he’s talking about in his compact study of evil. And I believe some of the works also share a certain tongue-in-cheek humor. A kind sense of humor and a certain level of understatement are perhaps stereotypical of Czech culture. 

5. On a lighter note: if you were stranded on a deserted island, and could only bring one Czech book with you, which one would it be and why?

PH: I would bring my great grandmother’s 350-page memoirs which contain a bit of wisdom for every occasion. I can read them over and over again and every time I discover something new. She writes about the time of her youth a hundred years ago in a little village in rural Moravia. Human character never changes, regardless of historical era or location.


Pavla Horáková is a Czech author, literary translator, and radio journalist. She has translated over 20 books from English and Serbian. After graduating from Charles University in Prague, she joined the English section of Radio Prague International for which she is now preparing a video series on Czech literature. For the Czech Radio’s arts & culture station, she co-wrote and co-presented a 30-part series titled Polní pošta (Field Post), featuring memoirs, journals and correspondence of Czech soldiers, marking the centenary since the outbreak of WWI. Her published works of fiction include a detective trilogy for young adults and the 2018 novella Johanaco - written with A. Scheinostová and Z. Dostálová.Her first novel for adults, Teorie podivnosti (A Theory of Strangeness), published in late 2018, won the national Magnesia Litera Award for best fiction in April 2019 and is now being translated into several European languages.


Drawing Parallels between Czech and American Literature

Editorial by Tereza Novická

Works of literature have the potential to explore common global issues and universal themes, despite being written in different languages, and can become timeless gems whose many facets become clearer upon each re-reading and re-interpretation. Parallels in American literature can be found to the books already discussed in “The Czech Books You Must Read” series by Radio Prague International, and a comparative interpretation could surely offer a fascinating insight into how universal themes manifest in different and very specific contexts and discourses. At the very least, it can provide a list of books to add to your reading list, be you a fan of anti-war literature, sci-fi, modernism or romanticism.

Photo credit: Kelsey Parker

Re-evaluating classical works of literature considered to be part of the canon can offer new readings and focal points, like in the case of Božena Němcová’s novel The Grandmother (1855) – the story a nostalgic descent into an idealized, picture-perfect rural Bohemia of the 19thcentury, seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl.

As Daniela Lazarová remarks in the RPI episode, “some of the rituals and chores depicted in [The Grandmother] may bring enjoyment to people who have embraced the ‘back to Nature’ trend and are opting for a life of voluntary simplicity” – calling to mind, for instance, the iconic work of American Transcendentalism, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), which can be read as an appeal to a return to simple living, self-reliance, and a reconnection to nature.

In the episode, the interviewed Associate Professor of Czech at University College Oxford, Rajenda Chitnis, also points out how the novel focuses on “the emotional lives of women” – something that could be seen as quite revolutionary for a 19thcentury literary text. The storyline of Viktorka, who gives birth to a child out of wedlock and whose tragic love story arguably drives her insane, resembles the allegorical aspects of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850). An interesting American counterpart for comparison could also be Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868).

Photo: Harper Perennial



Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-1923) embodies an anti-war sentiment and reflects the absurdity of war and military practices. Reading about the adventures and escapades of the ever-elusive character of Švejk in the midst of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, the senselessness of military discipline and pointlessness of conflict his seemingly innocuous inquiries and conduct often reveal bring to mind the American classic anti-war novel by Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961). Despite the latter being set during World War II, but being also a critique of Cold War and McCarthyism, both literary works criticize the absurdities, paradoxes, and red-tape of war.

The Czech author Arnošt Lustig wrote that Joseph Heller once told him he would never have been able to write Catch-22 had he not first read Hašek’s Švejk. The similar focus of both novels on militaristic and bureaucratic absurdity make this parallel and inspiration all the more believable if one remembers that Švejk was deemed insane for his behavior and transferred to a madhouse, thus avoiding enlisting, but being kicked out after the doctors decided he was merely a malingerer. This anecdote embodies in a way the catch-22 paradox central to Heller’s main storyline based on the premise that if a pilot is crazy, they do not have to fly missions. Pilots who wanted to avoid flying missions could file to be grounded, but if they were concerned enough for their safety to file, they could not possibly be crazy and thus had to continue flying missions. And so it goes.

Photo: Martino Fine Books

Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts (1936) is sometimes regarded as one of the great anti-utopian satires of the 20thcentury. A work belonging to the sci-fi satiric tradition of the likes of H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood, and indeed having inspired Orwell and Vonnegut in their own work, the latter calling Čapek’s voice “blackly funny and prophetic.” And prophetic it was indeed – its time of creation and publication prescient of the Munich Agreement, the novel warns of the rise of fascism and Nazism as well as criticizing isolationist politics, nationalism, and totalitarianism. The text also contains poignant critiques of segregation and civil rights violations in America in the lynching and scapegoating of Newts taking place in the USA, and a parallel is drawn to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in regards to the brutal commodification of the Newts under capitalism. The scathing and spot-on anti-totalitarianism and war-weariness of the novel make it a timeless classic of world literature.

The literary texts hitherto discussed in the RPI series are all classics of Czech literature – and thanks to translations into English and other languages can be enjoyed by international audiences. In a time when the world has been brought to a standstill due to a global pandemic that calls for social distancing, the literary project of Radio Prague International is a welcome endeavor that the Czech Center New York hopes will encourage readers to rediscover their inner bookworm selves and any literary gems hidden within their libraries – Czech or otherwise.


Tereza Novická, the Program Manager at the Czech Center New York, is a California-born literary translator. She has translated a number of contemporary Czech and Slovak poets into English, including Sylva Fischerová, Nóra Ružičková, Olga Pek, Ondřej Buddeus, and Jan Škrob. She is the co-translator of Vítězslav Nezval’s surrealistic poetry collections The Absolute Gravedigger (awarded the PEN/Heim Translation grant in 2015) and the forthcoming Woman in the Plural (Twisted Spoon Press). Her most recent translations into English are Zuzana Brabcová's novella Aviaries (Twisted Spoon Press, 2018) and the collected oeuvre of Ludvík Šváb for the eponymous monograph (NFA, 2019). 





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From: Apr 2, 2020
To: Apr 30, 2020


Czech Center is a coorganizer of the event

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