Life with a Star
Jií Weil’s Life with a Star has been described as the first important work of Czech fiction to come out of World War II. Its reception and its author’s fate now seem all too familiar—indeed, exemplary. Weil’s first novel, Moskva-hranice (1937; from Moscow to the border), which described what he observed of the purge after Sergey Mironovich Kirov’s murder in 1934 and the beginning of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror while he was working in Moscow in the International Department of the Comintern, had earned him expulsion from the Communist Party and the Czech Writers’ Union as well as a year in the labor camps of Central Asia. In 1948, Weil sought readmission to the party and the Writers’ Union, submitting the required self-criticism of his former failure to become a “good Communist”; he was rejected by the party but readmitted to the Writers’ Union and, therefore, allowed to publish once again.
In the early 1950’s, Weil was expelled a second time as a result of Life with a Star, which was banned shortly after its publication as a “decadent” example of “pernicious existentialism” by the cultural apparatchiks whose dogma had become Socialist Realism. In 1957, during the cultural thaw following Nikita S. Khrushchev’s secret speech attacking Stalin and his “cult of personality,” Weil was readmitted to the Writers’ Union once more, permitted to publish a collection of short stories, and named director of the Jewish State Museum in Prague. He remained a marginal man, however, and when he died of leukemia in 1959 all of his works were out of print in his own country. He left two completed novels that were published posthumously: Na strese je Mendelssohn (1960; Mendelssohn Is on the Roof, 1991) and Drevena lzice (1992; the wooden spoon), a sequel to Moskva-hranice that was first published in Italian translation in La frontiera di Mosca (1970), a volume that included both the earlier work and the sequel.
Life with a Star now appears in English thanks to Philip Roth, who in his role as editor of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series helped to introduce American readers to the work of Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Tadeusz Borowski, Tadeusz Konwicki, Danilo Ki, Géza Csáth, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and other Central and Eastern European writers. In 1960, as a young writer whose eyes were focused primarily on the near at hand, Roth delivered a frequently quoted speech titled “Writing American Fiction.” The American writer, Roth said,has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
By the early 1970’s, Roth’s horizons had expanded considerably—largely because of his fascination with Franz Kafka—and he began making annual visits to Prague and other cities in Eastern Europe. There he met writers whose history and everyday reality were challenging to the novelist in ways that he had never imagined. He first heard of Weil in 1973 on one of his earliest visits to Prague; when he returned to New York he met a translator who had completed English versions of two of Weil’s short stories. Their publication in American Poetry Review (September/October, 1974), with a brief introduction by Roth, marked both Weil’s first appearance in English and Roth’s emerging interest in contemporary Eastern European writers.
Life with a Star is a novel stamped on every page by Jií Weil’s personal experience—both before and during World War II. Like his hero, Josef Roubicek, and tens of thousands of others, Weil wore the Jewish star during the Nazi occupation. Like Roubicek, he passed up a chance to emigrate to England early in the war. Like Roubicek, he watched the transports begin to leave for Terezín and points unknown in 1942, heard the rumors about their ultimate destinations, and grasped at the hope that the rumors were not true....
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