Remembering Pavel Šrut’s Worm-Eaten Light

This essay by Deborah Garfinkle prefaces a week in which B O D Y focuses on her new translations of the Czech poet, Pavel Šrut.

Forty-five years ago this past August, Soviet tanks crossed into Czechoslovakia to put a violent end to the reforms of Prague Spring. The Invasion launched the start of the so-called era of normalization when life in the country was anything but normal. It’s almost equally hard to believe that next year will mark a quarter century since the Velvet Revolution extinguished forever normalization’s cold freeze. Almost fifty years – two generations: a generation of loss – those who had to reconcile the memory of spring with the harsh reality of the Cold War’s eternal winter, and a generation of remembrance – their children, raised in the shadow of the red star and their parents’ yawning despair over the loss of their homeland. In November 1989, this is this generation who flocks en masse to Vaclavské náměstí to demand payback for the past and the restoration of true normalcy. Then in 1993, Czechoslovakia ruptures into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Slowly the fissures begin to heal. Now comes the next generation – the grandchildren of Prague Spring who were born after these events, individuals for whom little context still exists to make sense of the events that shaped their parents or grandparents’ generations. Now they have to sort out the past, without a clear framework, if they choose to, that is. After all – life must go on. The world continues its march. The newest generation looks ahead; to make its mark, it embraces the slow act of forgetting.

When I first arrived in Czechoslovakia in June of 1990, like children born after the Velvet Revolution, I had no real way of gauging what life had been like under normalization. As a child I had heard about the Invasion in 1968; but, at the time, my mind was preoccupied by the news about another country, Vietnam. Despite the greater distance, the jungles and rice fields felt much more tangible. Every night on the news, I watched the GI’s being carted off in helicopters as the palm trees bent and swayed under the force of choppers’ blades – some of the soldiers were still living, but injured; others were zipped in body bags on the first stage of their the final journey home. Czechoslovakia’s plight hardly made a ripple in the stream of prominent political disasters that had marked my consciousness that year – from the Tet Offensive to Martin Luther King’s assassination and RFK’s and then the Democratic convention and the siege of Chicago. At the dinner table, we heard about the War; we even heard about Moscow, our dangerous adversary in the Cold War. For a child, it’s almost impossible to sort out the whispers of her parents who desperately try to shield her from their harsh adult truths while trying, equally desperately, to shield themselves. The whispers flutter and burst like bubbles as we try to catch them. We wind up empty-handed.

Whispers and shadows were, for the most part, what I had gleaned from friends and acquaintances during the many years I’d lived on and off in the Czech Lands, first in the small town in the Czech-Moravian Highlands, Světlá nad Sázavou, then in Prague. When I studied Czech culture, I stuck to exploring the comfortably distant past of Czechoslovakia between the Wars. I shielded myself from the difficult questions because I felt I had no right to pry, especially because of my overwhelming ignorance. To do so would be, I thought, an imposition of the highest order – an invasion of privacy, historical rubbernecking. Ghost were easier to contemplate than flesh and blood. Less complicated. Less present. I could consult books and the experts without any need to make it personal. So I continued to become an expert on ghosts, ignoring what had been staring me right in the face. That is until Pavel Šrut handed me one of his two copies of Červotočivé svĕtlo (Worm-Eaten Light).

I’d come to Prague in 2009, to work on a new translation and I was helping Pavel translate his bibliography because he’d been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize for his children’s book, Lichožrouti (The Socksgobblers). I’d known Pavel for almost twenty years; I’ve forgotten the exact circumstances of how we met back in 1992, but I clearly remember one afternoon he chaperoned me around and we wound up having a glass of white wine in the café of the Akademie věd on Národní třída with some of his prominent writer friends, among them the poet, Petr Král who had returned from Paris where he’d lived in exile. Pavel knew everyone there was to know when it came to writing and it was very clear that these talented and influential people held him in deep esteem. I could hardly speak Czech at the time; God knows why he should have even bothered to introduce me around, an American who had only a barely working knowledge of Czech and less an understanding of the cultural scene. But that’s Pavel. Over the years, we ran into each other from time to time. By then my Czech improved and I started translating his work.

Which brings me to Worm-Eaten Light. I’d seen the title on the list of his bibliography and was intrigued by the metaphor and by the fact that it had been published in 1969, after the invasion. “Here,” he said when I asked where I could find a copy. Nothing else. I took the book, not knowing what to expect. And I began to read and as I read these poems that were written in the six months that followed the invasion of Czechoslovakia, were a revelation. Suddenly, I was transported back in time to this manifestation of Pavel, the promising young Czech poet, a former student of English and Spanish, who at twenty-eight, had returned from a stay in England to find the tanks ravaging the countryside and the door to his world snapping shut. For the first time, I was living this nightmare through his young eyes; I was standing with him just as the devastation unfolded in the days, weeks and months after the invasion, along with the painful realization that spring had come to an end and the lush garden was already being eaten away by the uncanny worm-eaten light. What I could once only imagine, Pavel, more than forty years earlier, through these poems, had made tangible and real. This isn’t what he must have felt. Captured in the poems’ powerful immediacy and intimacy are all the horror and loss that the distance of time and space could ever do justice to. This Pavel is the masterful lyric poet singing the moving variations in this elegy to his homeland and youth, his homage to Eliot, his Wasteland. The haunting lyricism belies his later irony and slapstick black humor in his samizadat poems written from the detachment of the doppelganger who stepped into his shoes to live out this queer existence – Pavel – the ghostly survivor, one of the multitudes of walking dead that he powerfully evokes in one of the collection’s most moving works, “Survivors” (pozůstalí). In this poem, written just a week after the invasion, we get the terrifying glimpse of what is to come; under normalization, life became a shadow, a euphemism for the real thing. Not surprisingly, almost as soon as this powerful and moving collection made it to bookstores in 1969, the copies were stripped from the shelves and the work banned by the authorities. Afterward, as Pavel told me, he stopped writing poetry for ten years because, under such circumstances in such a country, “poetry no longer made any sense.” A decade later, when he began to write in samizdat, his work had radically been transformed into the funny, absurd and deeply Czech voice that I had come to know so well. As for Worm-Eaten Light, it stayed silent. Forty years of silence during the time that Pavel couldn’t return to the collection because of the painful memories it evoked of the moment in history that inexorably defined himself as a writer and human being. After I started translating it, Pavel could finally go back to the book. In an email, he thanked me for the návrat, the homecoming, the return. But it was always there waiting for him; waiting for us.

It is hard to define the art of bearing witness. All I know is that each time I experience these poems as a reader and translator, I travel along with Pavel to that time before my time in Bohemia – to Pavel and Veronika, his four year old daughter, as they play together in the snow – games that in any other context would be innocent, but in this context, chilling and horrifying. In another poem, I watch Pavel’s son, emerging into the world from between his wife’s thighs; this intimate snapshot, in any other time, would be the source of joy, but back then, one tinged with despair and anxiety. How could any sane person bring a child into the land, where the future had been eaten away by worm-eaten light? The answers, both then and now, are neither easy, nor clear. Only the poet’s powerful voice remains calling from out of the murk; the two generations bound together in that time and that light. As I watch Pavel, the Pavel I’ve known for more than twenty-years laugh with Veronika, now a grown woman almost my age, I hear and see the young man and the playful little child. I feel the light working the terrible magic of loss. Thanks to Pavel’s gift, we, too, can make the painful journey back in order to remember.
Read poems by Pavel Šrut tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday in B O D Y.
PAVEL ŠRUT (1940) is a renowned award-winning poet, essayist, writer and translator who belongs to the generation of post-war Czech writers whose voices gained prominence in the flowering of Prague Spring, voices silenced in by censorship in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Once his collection Worm-Eaten Light (Červotočivé světlo), his elegy for his fallen homeland written in the months following the Soviet Invasion, was banned, Šrut stopped writing poetry for ten years because he felt, in an occupied country without the freedom to express himself openly, poetry no longer had any meaning. Ultimately, the need to speak won out and he began writing again, publishing unofficially, although his voice had greatly changed in the intervening years as a result of its being suppressed. In 2000, Šrut earned the Jaroslav Seifert Award in 2000, for the compilation of his samizdat works, Paperback Poems (Brožované básně) and his screenplay in verse, Evil Beloved (Zla milá). In 2012, Šrut received the Czech PEN club’s Karel Čapek Prize for lifetime achievement in literature. His work as a poet testifies to the power of poetry and the human spirit that can overcome the forces that would silence an individual’s will to speak the truth. Aside from being a poet, rock lyricist and translator, Šrut is also a celebrated writer of children’s literature. The first volume of his trilogy, The Socksgobblers (Lichožrouti), garnered all the top literary awards for children’s fiction in the Czech Republic and was nominated for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen prize. The third and final volume of this beloved series has just been published. He is currently at work on the screenplay for the animated film of Socksgobblers.

About the translator:

DEBORAH HELEN GARFINKLE is a writer, poet and translator living in San Francisco. Her criticism, translations and creative writing have appeared in literary reviews and journals in the US and abroad. Worm-Eaten Light: Poems from a Life under Normalization by Pavel Šrut 1968-1989, is Ms. Garfinkle’s second full-length translation from the Czech. Her first book, The Old Man’s Verses: Poems by Ivan Diviš, was nominated for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. In 2012, she was awarded both a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and a the PEN Center USA Translation Grant for her translations of Pavel Šrut’s work. Selected poems from Worm-Eaten Time have appeared in TWO LINES, Tri-Quarterly Online and The Massachusetts Review. A longer poem, “Survivors,” was selected for Landmarks, the 20th anniversary installment of the TWO LINES print series, published fall, 2013.