“Second Exile”: a true story from communist Czechoslovakia in poetry and prose

Born in 1946, Aleš Macháček, has been through experiences that it is hard for people from the west to imagine. In 1977 he was sentenced to three years in prison for helping to distribute books and periodicals that were banned by the regime in Czechoslovakia, and in 1985 he was bullied into exile in London, as part of a secret police campaign to get rid of troublesome dissidents. That was where he met his partner, Jane Kirwan. Today they live in Prague, in a flat above an old cinema built by Aleš’s grandparents nearly a century ago. All this has provided inspiration for an unusual and moving book, “Second Exile”, in which Aleš tells his story, interspersed with Jane’s poems responding to events in Aleš’s life, his family’s history and their shared life. David Vaughan reports.

Aleš Macháček, photo: tongues-and-grooves.org.ukAleš Macháček, photo: tongues-and-grooves.org.uk Aleš Macháček tells his story in very simple, direct prose, going back to the lives of his parents and grandparents before the war, the death of his uncle during the German occupation, and a childhood in post-war Czechoslovakia marked by a growing awareness of what it means to live in a totalitarian society. What follows is a life of exclusion and ultimately persecution. His prose contrasts with the lyricism, even sensuousness, of Jane Kirwan’s poems, which offer another version of these events, as she has come to understand them through Aleš, through members of his family, through her own experience of Prague and through the process of osmosis that comes from years sharing your life with another person. The book’s illustrations, mostly photographs from Aleš’s family album, are a further piece in the mosaic. The result is a book – in English – that is very different from most accounts of life in communist Czechoslovakia. I spoke to Jane and Aleš, and we began by talking about this unusual form.

Aleš: “We can call it an unusual form because it contains both Jane’s poems and my memoir. I thought it needed to be some kind of record of what really happened.”

Jane: “I’d been writing the poems and Aleš thought he could add the bits that I’d been somewhat poetic about a bit more accurately!”

Put simply, Aleš, the book tells the story of your life and of some of the strange, surreal and dramatic things that happened to you in the course of the second half of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia….

Aleš: “Yes, it does. Jane started in a way to take in my story, which for me was much easier than any writing. I can talk but it’s difficult to write in my second language. So Jane made notes and then converted them into poems.”

Jane KirwanJane Kirwan The most dramatic moment in the book, Aleš, is when you’re arrested in the late 1970s for your involvement with Charter 77 and for smuggling publications in and out of Czechoslovakia.

Aleš: “Yes, it was most likely the most difficult moment in my life, but we tried to include all these points of history turning in my life, so it’s not just about that.”

And you were sentenced to three years in prison.

Aleš: “Yes, three-and-a-half years, which I served in Bory, a well-known prison close to Plzeň.”

There’s an incident in a Dick Francis novel when they arrest a jockey. Francis describes the man’s shame and his urge to convince others that he’s innocent. It’s exactly the same feeling of shame I remember in 1977 when the police come. I go so meekly. As I’m pushed down the stairs in handcuffs, I almost feel I should apologise when we crash into people. Neighbours pretend not to look, while I want to explain that it’s a mistake. I’m expecting it, have often imagined the knock on the door – friends like Ivan Dejmal have been in prison – but this feels unreal. Why don’t I yell at the onlookers that this is no better than the fifties when people disappeared, call out that I’m not guilty?

And for you, Jane, it must be very hard – not coming from Czechoslovakia – to understand this process whereby people were being locked up, more or less arbitrarily, for crimes which they hadn’t committed.

Jane: “Yes, one of the hardest things was to hear Aleš talk about having to leave his young children. He had a child of about five and one of about two, and it was hard to hear that, together with his description of the cell he was in – especially the first year. I’ll read the last little bit of a poem called ‘Gamblers’. Aleš has always been a gambler. He used to fund his way through university by gambling.”

Gamblers

[…] An air about you
of those missing fathers, in a cell with four others,
throw of the dice, light on day and night,

stacks of beds, one table, four chairs.
There was no argument, whoever could not sit
stood. Books were mainly tractor romances.

You hid the dice under the toilet rim,
occasionally a bet, a small twist of tobacco
but not necessary

throw of the dice, random call of numbers.
An instant in that flight
of chance, change, of letting go.

[…]

Tell me about tractor romances…

Jane: “I did interrogate Aleš, but that’s another thing: he hates questions, so most of the time it’s ‘I don’t know,’ but I did want to know what they were given to read, and they did sound mostly Russian and mostly about tractors.”

Another thing that intrigues me, Aleš, is that we’re sitting in your flat in Prague, and this is actually a flat that figures very prominently in the book, because it’s where your grandparents and your parents lived, and it’s also where your grandparents had a cinema, which is now, aptly enough, a gambling den in the ground floor.

Aleš: “I think this is a kind of life-saving gift from my grandparents, because it provides me with a safe haven in Prague and much-needed accommodation for me and Jane.”

The fact that your grandparents had a cinema here in Prague figures both in your narration and also in Jane’s poems. I very much like Jane’s poem dedicated to Aleš’s grandmother, and referring to the wartime fate of his uncle. It’s called “Still Life”.

Jane: “It describes how his uncle was arrested. Aleš was actually born nine months after his uncle died in Ravensbrück. His name was also Aleš and he was arrested in 1943. And he was here in this flat. His parents were with him. He was twenty. So this is the poem.”

Still Life: Prague 1943

She sits in the flat above the cinema,
downstairs they’re watching a comedy

looks away from the station opposite:
trains that no longer take lovers to sigh
in crushed grass, beds of mint and thyme
or feel the fur that cushions
the peach, paths slimed purple with plum.

Downstairs they’re not rolling in the aisles,
no one laughs as the small man slides
on goose-fat, lands on the squawking pig.

She can see mushrooms among pines,
carpet of rough stemmed kozáks under birches,
the orange-cup near aspens,
the fragile yellow
lišky, holubinky, the hřib with its
tough short legs, dark brown cap.

She rolls the film back
and back, slowing the frames as she breaks
through moss, earth, clay
until she reaches her centre,
the dark grey granite.

I have the impression, Jane, that you identify somewhat with Aleš’s grandmother. Am I right?

Jane: “I suppose in a way that it’s a kind of battle with Czechs generally, that they have a very male history. It’s just that she was so incredibly shadowy. She was down at the box office running the films. And then there was Aleš’s mother. She was the one who came into Bory every three months, when you were allowed a visitor, and she smuggled in a radio twice. She could have got into trouble. So it’s the women really of his particular story that he just left to the side and I found completely fascinating. I knew his mother. She only died a couple of years ago. She was an extraordinary woman.”

After you were released from prison, Aleš, you eventually ended up emigrating to Britain.

Aleš: “After five years of quite hard life here I emigrated. I was included in the so-called ‘Asanace’ [‘cleaning up’] action and it was quite easy to leave the country…”

That was a time when the regime was actively trying to encourage dissidents to leave, so that they wouldn’t cause trouble. And that is presumably how you came to meet Jane.

Aleš: “Well, I chose London for a really good reason and Jane was just a bonus!”

Jane: “He came in 1985 with no English, and my neighbour-but-one used to bring samizdat to Prague. She was helping him learn English, and he couldn’t get work, so he fixed my gate, and it still doesn’t work!”

That brings us closer to the present day, and I know that there’s one more extract both from the prose and the poetry that you would like to return to. So what are we going to hear next?

Jane: “I will read a bit of a poem called ‘Lásko’, which is based on where we’re living. We live a lot of the time in the country in a ruined cottage.”

And I should add that “lásko” means “love” but in the vocative case, so it’s “Oh love!” or “My love!”.

Jane: “This is the final bit of the poem.”

Lásko

[…]

I can see skin on toadstools harden, split
azalea buds loosen and open.

The gate is stiff, the metal bucket that props it shut
stuck into mud. You went off in a rush, packing
papers and books, cries of children in the yard
the sky quite grey. Trees were luminous those days
the silver birch wept when you left.

In the city you might have been woken at dawn
and taken to Bartolomějská.
I will go to the bridge and wait for you.

Bartolomějská, photo: ŠJů, CC 3.0 licenseBartolomějská, photo: ŠJů, CC 3.0 license Bartolomějská is the notorious headquarters of the police in Prague, where people were taken to be interrogated.

Aleš: “Yes it is. They have nice little cells there.”

You’ve now both come back and settled in the Czech Republic, but I have the feeling, Aleš, that there’s still something of the dissident in you.

Aleš: “Well, I like to think of myself as a dissident. As my friend says, ‘Once a dissident, always a dissident.’ I embrace various causes.”

Here is an extract from the book that illustrates this.

Now I embrace the freedom to protest. We hold candles in Wenceslas Square against the Iraq war, march on the Castle when [President] Klaus vetoes same-sex marriages, picket outside parliament when Čunek [Jiří Čunek, former head of the Christian Democrats, currently a Senator] is still deputy prime-minister – and spouting racist abuse – and in October 2007, I’m arrested again, four policemen haul me away from demonstrating against nuclear weapons at Faslane.

This time I’m guilty as charged. In 1977, I felt innocent, even months later, when talking about my case with inmates in the detention cell, it was a shock when they laughed Innocent! It’s three and a half years.

Why thirty years before, I didn’t simply lie on the floor when the police came to the flat, refuse to move, like I do at Faslane?

I control the urge to fight back (which had seemed inconceivable with those Czechoslovak police in ’77). I don’t resist when they put me in a cell for twenty four hours. Jane is in Greenock in a cell on her own. I’m in Clydebank, locked up with two others.

It’s fascinating; a union organiser tells me about the miners’ strike, a doctor about his conviction that nuclear weapons are the biggest enemy to health.

I describe being on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Russian missiles that were set up near Prague.

And finally, I find it such a strange paradox in this country, the odd combination of continuity and discontinuity, the fact that we’re sitting in the flat where your grandparents lived, where your uncle was arrested in 1943, and here you are, two generations later, living here. And yet at the same time there’s been all this very dramatic discontinuity in Czechoslovak and Czech history.

Jane: “When Aleš came back he found that his family were quite unwelcoming, in a way. They saw him as evidence of that discontinuity, while they had tried to keep things going through the whole Bolshevik era. But there is an anger underneath. There’s an anger with people who feel that something’s been taken from them, they’ve been cheated. And I think that suspicion is still around.”

Aleš: “Well, I was mostly surprised about the hostility towards people returning from exile. I couldn’t understand where it had come from. It’s probably from a kind of guilt. It’s quite difficult to square it.”

And Jane, there’s obviously a discontinuity in your life as well. You’re of Irish origin but have lived in Britain; you’ve now moved to the Czech Republic.

Jane: “Yes, but I still feel quite nomadic. I think there are definitely traveller roots in my background. The place where I feel most at home is actually about an hour-and-a-half from Prague. We bought it in 2000 as a ruin and were living without water and electricity for some time. It’s slowly being built. That countryside could be Mayo. It could be the west of Ireland. So I feel a kind of global link.”

“Second Exile” by Aleš Macháček and Jane Kirwan is published by Rockingham Press in the United Kingdom.