Ludvík Vaculík Essay - Critical Essays

Vaculík, Ludvík

Vaculík, Ludvík 1926–

Vaculík is a Czech novelist whose work has not been published in Prague since 1969. Even though he has suffered the pressures of rigid censorship, his intention is to "create something beautiful, something inspiring" and to write "as if current conditions did not exist." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

The Axe is not a political novel, but rather a ballad, in which the character of the father stands out as having almost mythical dimensions. It is no coincidence that Vaculík has set his story on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains, where it is still possible to live in close contact with nature and where traces of an earlier humanity survive despite the onslaught of what goes under the description of modern civilization; the section of the novel dealing with the son's problems in Prague seems rather flat in comparison.

The countryman in Vaculík obviously detests the faceless monster which changes villages into dormitory towns from which people are taken by bus to nearby factories, but what he is really after is the erosion of the more spiritual aspects of a particular way of life. A strong believer in basic human virtues, he has a low opinion of the rot that is spreading from the West….

[Though] it is written by a disillusioned and angry man, sarcasm, self-irony and plain comedy abound in The Axe as part of the homely wisdom with which it is infused. Czech critics have pointed to another quality in Vaculík's novel, which regrettably cannot be imparted by any translation: his use of the Valachian dialect as a way of reviving a language stifled by clichés. He reduces it to its rudiments—odd word order and the occasional regionalisms—but on the Czech ear it makes the immediate impression a Westerner's speech may have on the Londoner: that of people who live closer to the soil and are somehow truer to themselves and more trustworthy.

But Vaculík's admiration for traditional ways does not make him a man merely anxious to bring back the past, nor is The Axe simply a piece of social criticism relating Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. It is set in the author's homeland, but his passionate defence of man's right to preserve his integrity against disruptive pressures and his warning that a true sense of values is being diluted in the name of conjectural welfare apply universally….

Parts of The Guinea Pigs remain incomprehensible, and are seemingly intended to be so, yet this is possibly one of the best novels to have come from Eastern Europe since the war. But what does it all mean? The key to the riddle lies in the date when the novel was written. What it describes is the state of mind, not only of its author, but of a whole nation: for this is Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion. Here we do not just have the gradual destruction of a way of life, the erosion of ideals and profanation of values as in The Axe. In The Guinea Pigs we witness the total collapse of every aspect of humanity: words have lost their meaning, reality is adjusted to suit theory, life is not only absurd, it is utterly nonsensical, and people turn into fearful little animals. What starts out as a cheerful story, ends in the darkest, almost metaphysical horror; there is no faith left, no hope—in anything. Kafka, too, lived in Prague…. (p. 1209)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973.

In The Axe Ludvik Vaculík begins by tackling with … indirectness the depiction of a peasant childhood, fields and forests evoked with the cosy charm of a Vienna Secession woodcut. Only halfway through does it emerge that the narrator has been addressing his remarks to a gathering of journalists. Thereafter the novel is increasingly sabotaged by the complexities of its structure. Perhaps it is a measure of the totalitarian pressures on the novelist that the present-day activities of his journalist hero are only obliquely suggested, while the picture of childhood stands out in pleasing clarity. The appeal of time-travelling into the happy past is understandable in these circumstances. However, the novel ends with the journalist and his brother exhilarated by the theft of some timber, a cheering example of that passive resistance to authority well known through Milos Forman films and the Good Soldier Schweik, which seems so deeply rooted in Czechoslovak attitudes. (p. 65)

Clive Jordan, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1974.

Vaculík is as deeply concerned with social questions as is Solzhenitsyn, though he takes a very different route. No huge canvases here, but his cunningly wrought works of art cut into the fat heart of Socialist society and by extension, of all modern society, with exquisite precision.

In its narrowest sense, The Axe is a family novel, told from the point of view of the son of a Moravian carpenter…. Father and son are party members, and their interwoven excursions into the dangerous social life of their time is the story of the novel. They are good men, a type of social hero that has gone clean out of style, and their quest is for the way to be good men among living men and women, and living institutions. Nothing is more difficult to do in literature, particularly for contemporary audiences, who find the good man hero as hard to swallow as the good man politician. Vaculík's stunning success is in his shifting, playful technique, dazzling in its variety of tones, and great fun to read. His father-son good men are intelligent, funny, perceptive, lovable, totally human heroes.

The manner is all, but only on a strong base. Vaculík's base is reality and honesty, which is not to say that he is a realistic or naturalistic novelist. He isn't. And if we end cheering this book, it's not because Vaculík's hero has won anything tangible, or because there's much within the world of the book or outside it, for that matter, to cheer about, but because of the exhilarating effect of following Vaculík's unflinching gaze. (p. 440)

There is the question of the fate of a carpenter who built himself a house. His wife died "and he was left alone with his child. He sat in his new workshop, singing to himself. They came and took him away to the madhouse, and if he has not died, he is living there to this day."…

Vaculík will retell the story again and again. The effect, unlike Saul Bellow recounting Herzog's obsession with the infant thrown against the wall, is not to burden the reader with the oppressive weight of an author's conscience but to free the carpenter, to return him to life. In another version, the carpenter is given the power of the threat of retribution. He has been put away because it never would have occurred to "the horrified citizens" to sing in his circumstances….

In still another version, the carpenter's story melts into another's—that of a man whose daughter, through official meddling, has been driven to kill herself. He too is locked up because he insists his daughter is living. Finally, we're all in that boat….

In a vein uncovered by Kafka, Vaculík leads us to the furthest edge of absurdity. Official control cannot be more simply rendered in all its funny and agonizing aspects….

The wise and witty author of The Axe is something of a miracle worker, because at the end, in spite of all, the reader is full of hope for men and women and for the possibility of social institutions which will leave man free "to conduct himself in accordance with his inner being." The novelist who can do that, today, without lying, and while giving great pleasure to the reader, is to be cherished. (p. 441)

Helen Yglesias, "Truth: At Very Least Impolitic," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 6, 1974, pp. 440-41.

[The Guinea Pigs] refuses to be explicit about its allegory: instead it articulates a politically safer discussion about narrative honesties…. And the guarded blur of the fiction, its straining at camels and swallowing of gnats, makes an honourable, indeed pointed enough muteness. A mute Kafka Vaculík is compelled to be, but he's certainly no less glorious. And no doubt the gagged grimness of his novel will ultimately be sealed with the final silences: death as an artist, and even death itself. (p. 708)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 15, 1974.

Ludvik Vaculik's bank clerk is not Kafka's K, nor do his pets make an Animal Farm; but, if not quite the master-piece Jiri Mucha has called it, The Guinea Pigs is a curiously touching and disturbing novel. Judged by 'the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair', Vaculik is a powerful and original writer. Living in disgrace in Prague, where his book has not been published, Vaculik uses the underdog's weapons of irony and allegory. He employs, too, a Socratic mock-modesty. When he cannot avoid 'nasty' topics, he switches from first to third-person narrative. He shies away from direct censure into more oblique paths: 'But let's not talk about filth, let's talk about pets, which are nicer.'…

Pets are useful, he thinks, because a man always wants someone lower than himself; so long as there is a being he could kick, he usually does not kick him, taking pity instead. An argument against interpreting equality too literally? Vasek's son yells when he catches his shoe in a crack, and Vasek tells him not to call for help so revoltingly: one must not disgust one's rescuers. Is Vaculik getting at Russia? Or saying that the Czechs could never have counted on help from the hypocritical West? The book asks uncomfortable questions and implants guilt. (p. 754)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), December 5, 1974.

In the spring of 1967, Ludvík Vaculík rose before his colleagues at the Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers and admonished the Communist Party for its abuse of power and its failure to lead the country toward humanitarian socialism. As news of Vaculík's speech spread, his novel The Axe (Sekyra) sold out at bookstores throughout the country. Though Vaculík was expelled from the Party, his words set a precedent for courageous truthfulness which led, less than a year later, to the emergence of Alexander Dubček and the promise of "socialism with a human face." Vaculík's novel The Axe is one of the period's literary masterpieces: a transmutation into art of the moral and philosophical struggle which had plagued Czechoslovaks of good conscience for twenty years.

In the first sentence of The Axe, the narrator announces …: "This was going to be my first visit to my bus-driver brother." But that visit does not take place until the novel's final chapter, where it constitutes an epilogue to the narrator's tortuous journey into the past and a symbolic act of defiance for the future. What occurs between the opening line and the final chapter is an intense emotional confrontation between the narrator and his father, a confrontation which ranges over decades and incorporates the narrator's childhood memories, the crises of his adult life and the recreated thoughts and actions of his father's life. (p. 7)

Events from different times and different contexts are woven together in stream-of-consciousness style…. Vaculík's style and composition have the express purpose of keeping past, present and future constantly in view, constantly in mutual juxtaposition. (pp. 7-8)

In the second part of the novel, the thoughts of the narrator's father enter as a second voice, one which alternates with the son's, so that the conflict which has heretofore been viewed from only one side is now viewed from both. The transitions in narration are unmarked and are identifiable solely by style and context. The son's style is that of a modern oral narration (skaz) which resorts frequently to colloquialisms, asides to the reader and mildly vulgar expressions. The father's style is much more lyrical and much more rooted in traditional romantic nature description. It is a reflection of the father's own more idealistic personality; occasionally an awkward expression demonstrates that he is a man of the people striving to express himself poetically.

What is the nature of the conflict between father and son? If we attempt to trace its outlines, it is with the understanding that the respective ideologies are nowhere stated, but must instead be gleaned from the novel's complex remembrances. These ideologies grow organically—their points of conflict are sharpened, but their points of unity and continuity also become more apparent, just as in a musical composition a mighty theme may emerge in the bass register and ultimately swallow a competition of conflicting trebles. (p. 8)

The narrator views his father, who fought to build communism, as an accessory to the destruction of the delicate symbiosis of man and nature which is part of a truly humanistic environment. The destruction of forests and streams, of birds and fish, of songs and legends, are only parts of a larger anti-humanism: the destruction of human relationships. In the narrator's own experience, the process of collectivization is a colossal example of the anti-humanism of that old formula: the end justifies the means. (p. 9)

The positive lyrical stream of the early sections of the novel is built around the narrator's excursions and adventures with his father, experiences which are evoked for him by the very countryside through which he walks…. The novel's central leitmotif (that which gives the work its title) derives from the events of one of these excursions into nature. Father and son … embark on a day's adventure in the forested hills. They walk for hours until they come to a giant fallen tree; they spend the day in an almost ritual effort of labor: sawing the giant tree into smaller logs which they later intend to carry off. They complete this immense task, but before they can return to cart the logs away, they are stolen by someone else. Their experience is more than just contact with nature and with each other, it is more than exhausting and redeeming labor; it is an act of defiance, a Robin Hood-like theft from the rich, who do not care for or use their wealth. Through this incident and its symbol, the axe, the narrator's dilemma becomes clearer. The same father whose actions against family and friends result in the destruction of human relationships is also the source of positive creative energy, of the unity of man and nature. At this moment of crisis, the narrator begins to realize that the energy, determination and defiance are the most important part of his father's legacy. One can be obstinate, one can resist, one can protect one's soul from the State. Above all else, an individual can speak the truth as he understands it. A man must realize that he defines himself by his actions and that to act falsely is to destroy one's own existence. The narrator sees that his father's legacy was not socialism, but creative activity, commitment, and defiance. (pp. 10-11)

Ludvík Vaculík still lives on that high and exalted plane today. The Axe is Vaculík's own story. The events of the novel closely parallel those of his father's life and his own. Today, Vaculík still steadfastly refuses to make the kinds of compromises and admissions of past guilt which might allow him again to be published in his own country. Instead, he remains gainfully unemployed: writing new works, issuing periodic messages to the regime, and, in general, confounding his oppressors. (p. 12)

Herbert Eagle, "Ludvík Vaculík's 'The Axe': A Quest for Human Dignity," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 7-12.

'There are more than a million people living in the city of Prague whom I'd just as soon not name here.' This must be one of the most striking first sentences of a novel since 'it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife'. 'Me,' writes Vasek, the narrator of Ludvík Vaculík's The Guinea Pigs, 'I'm the Daddy', and so begins this tale of grey life in Prague with a job in the State bank, a family and some guinea pigs….

Of course, the novel has political overtones. It must be excessively difficult to write anything that does not have political overtones in Czechoslovakia today…. To a certain extent Vaculík's Prague is the Prague of Kafka; a city that casts a strange shadow in whose darkness its inhabitants live. People slide almost imperceptibly in and out of Vasek's life. He cannot be sure of them, for always, in their dealings with him, they reveal a side of themselves that is both elusive and imponderable. It is as if footsteps which have previously been covering the ground with ease, seemingly approaching their objective with regularity of pace and effort, are heard momentarily to falter.

There are more than a million people in the city of Prague who could learn a great deal about the present state of Czechoslovakia by reading this book.

Max Egremont, "Big Brother," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont 1974; reprinted with permission), January, 1975, p. 59.

The Guinea Pigs is a story of experimental animals, and is something of a guinea pig itself: tormented, playful, observant, in hiding. Vašek the bank clerk, his school teacher wife Eva, and their two boys, young Vašek and Pavel, are model animals, except for the father's incubative madness. Like Dostoyevsky's Golyadkin (The Double), another terrorized civil servant, Vašek is equally a prisoner of the State and of his feelings about being watched and noted. He decides to brighten his life by giving his children guinea pigs for Christmas.

There is nothing like a man for bringing out the animal in an animal. Here the animal emerging is two-legged; the guinea pigs are made to be afraid, resourceful, cooperative and competitive in turns according to the growing obsessiveness of their keeper. Vašek brings the little creatures torture and reward, but uncertainty above all. He tests them—they are guinea pigs after all—but his experiments have no pattern or context outside the momentary pleasure of a mind quietly and precisely becoming murderous. The guinea pigs become something else.

In the poem "Pike" Ted Hughes made a fish so large that it was "too immense to stir" in a pond "as deep as England." Vaculík's guinea pigs also grow large, until one of them finally fills the cavernous imagination of Vašek—some size. When that happens, man and guinea pig suffer the consequences of complementarity; each fills the other's capacities. A battle follows, a duel in the dark, after which the winner/loser returns triumphant to his cage, ready to resume the business of insanity as usual.

The resumption—dogged, steady—is the core nightmare of Vaculík's fantasy. Busy busy, Vašek and his fellow bank clerks return to their cages every morning, while children and teachers return to school, revert to type. The weather changes abruptly, without nuance. Houses and conversations do not change. Animals are purchased as Christmas gifts to perk up domestic tranquility. As with our hero's mind, the decorating is interior. (p. 31)

Richard Wilbur said the strength of the genii comes from his being in the bottle; and the strength of Vaculík … is similarly derived. Pathologically there may be no difference between a tormenter of children in a free state or a prison camp, but the difference in terms of art is enormous; the difference between little murders and tragedy.

For Vašek is a guinea pig himself, as all are guinea pigs under a government. The more abstract and unpredictable the government, the greater peril for the animals; their home life becomes shaky; they buy no cottages in the country. Under such a system everything is in miniature, except one's fears. They grow infinitely, feeding on their own mysterious circulation, and eventually may get to be as big as the ruby eye of a guinea pig in the dark.

At the outset of the story Vašek tells us that this will be a book about "Nature." Immediately he veers to the side, pretending that by Nature he means country life or the guinea pigs' behavior. But he means Nature in its most dreadful depth, the Nature known to Poe who was an economist of a special competence…. Vašek the tormenter is more tormented than he knows, because he is tormented by the mind that might tell him. That he does not feel so tormented constitutes his gravest suffering, for he may prod and maim perpetually with no satisfaction. Observed externally by "an ideal observer," Vašek cannot be reached. Nothing, not even the great god guinea pig can help him.

The healthy thing to do with one's demon, said Vaculík, "is to project him outside yourself, into something external, that you can still do something with." Like a guinea pig or a novel. In a world where the police burn the novels, one can always turn to drowning guinea pigs or abusing children in order to feel alive and kicking. Then the demon is externalized ultimately, Vaculík shows us. He lives in our own sweet paws. (p. 32)

Roger Rosenblatt, "Experimental Animals," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 30, 1975, pp. 30-2.

The Guinea Pigs assumes the form of a children's story that spirals wildly, strangely, and suddenly out of control, producing a total effect not unlike that of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger in which young boys are entertained by a seductive stranger, Philip Traum (Traum=dream) who creates a tiny people for the boys' amusement and then crushes them underfoot like ants.

On the surface, the plot is simple. A clerk at the State Bank in Prague buys a guinea pig as a Christmas gift for one of his two sons. One guinea pig leads to another, as the boys seek to breed the little animals. Meanwhile, however, the father, Vasek, begins to experiment with the guinea pigs, moving from disinterested observation to active manipulation and cruelty….

His wife affords a clue to the novella's theme when … she cries out to her husband, "What are you turning into? A beast?"… In fact, the entire novella is rooted in a role reversal which never quite, however, becomes the Ovidian or Kafkaesque metamorphosis of Philip Roth's The Breast. Vasek is never actually transformed into a guinea pig, but he empathizes strongly with their helplessness and conditioned passivity. He becomes, in fact, both tormentor and victim. When he places the larger male, Ruprecht, in a filling bathtub and finally intervenes, with his "miraculous power," to rescue it, he whispers to himself, "We're saved," as if he and the beast had become one…. At times Vasek so immerses himself in the life of the animals that he speaks of his hands as "paws," of his hair as "fur."…

It soon becomes evident that, on the microscopic level, the guinea pigs present a paradigm of the human condition….

We move through three parallel or analogous levels of experience in this book. The widest realm is Vasek's work world, where all the bankers are thieves and all the guards even worse (they confiscate and keep the money the bankers steal). The bank becomes a metaphor for the political and economic structures that run Czechoslovakia, and one is reminded of Kafka's The Trial or of Dickens's Court of Chancery in Bleak House. Above all, the bank epitomizes authoritarian, totalitarian structures. (p. 151)

But The Guinea Pigs is more than a satirical political parable. It explores the contradictory needs of the human psyche both to bow to authority and to exercise it over others. For example, in the second realm of experience, the family cell, the father tries to exert the power he lacks at the bank, where rumors are flying of mysterious shortfalls and disappearing money prefiguring total catastrophe….

As the bank plot increasingly threatens obscure violence towards Vasek, his sadism intensifies towards the guinea pigs, which encapsulate the third, microscopic realm of experience….

As the violence and brutality escalate, not only does Vasek forget that he is supposedly addressing an audience of children, but also the narrative voice shifts from first to third person, from "I" to "the banker." It is as though he had to dissociate himself from his moments of extreme cruelty. By the last page, however, we are ourselves totally disoriented, as we no longer have any idea who is telling the story. (p. 152)

[Vasek] … is never certain whether he is the predator or the prey, and his death coincides with the birth of a new litter of guinea pigs. He is responsible, however, for the death of both male guinea pigs in a manner which suggests he is also destroying himself. His obsession with self-destruction suggests that we may also be dealing with a parable of the alienated artist in an absurd, cash- and power-driven society.

Vaculík's work has affinities not only with the Kafka of The Trial and the Gide of Les Faux-Monnayeurs (the cash nexus, the haunted child), but most extensively with Edgar Allan Poe…. Vaculík quotes at length from Poe's tale of terror, "A Descent into the Maelstrom"…, and references to it are sprinkled liberally throughout. To be sure, his hero assumes that the maelstrom is a metaphor for a classical economic depression written by a nineteenth-century American economist! The irony is trenchant on the part of Vaculík, who knows better than his hero. Poe is probably, to Vaculík, the classic type of the misunderstood artist, profligate, decadent, always in debt and in disgrace, a perpetual outcast from society. (pp. 152-53)

Like many Eastern European writers (Polish experimental dramatists, for example), Vaculík must tread carefully. He cleverly uses the stratagem of writing over bureaucratic heads by using an apparently safe American frame of reference. But the initiated reader is free to draw his own conclusions….

[This is a] pungent, often acerbic, but always humane little book…. Resembling the guinea pigs themselves, this "tale of the grotesque" is a well-crafted and chiseled miniature. Its serious purpose, however, is to remind us of our own littleness in the great scheme of things, and of the need for fellow-feeling and tolerance of even the smallest created beings. With Vaculík, in fact, we reach a state of empathy where we seem able to hear what George Eliot has called "that roar which lies on the other side of silence." (p. 153)

Elizabeth Sabiston, "Ludvík Vaculík: 'The Guinea Pigs'," in The International Fiction Review, July, 1976, pp. 151-53.