Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although The Questionnaire was not officially published until 1978, when it was issued by an emigre publishing house in Toronto, Canada, founded by exiled Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, it first appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1974, in samizdat. At that time, Grusa was arrested and charged with “initiating disorder”; he subsequently emigrated to West Germany. Doktor Kokes Mistr Panny (1984; Doctor Kokes, master of the virgin), his first novel after The Questionnaire, was, like its predecessor, published in Canada.

The Questionnaire continues in the tradition of Czech humanism that goes back to the medieval allegorist Jan Amos Komensky, and continues in the twentieth century with myriad Czech writers. At least from the time of Karel Capek (coiner of “robot”) onward, Czech humanism has been combined with a love of modernism, sometimes carried to an extreme. Grusa’s prose is further enriched by the kind of innovative imagery more characteristic of twentieth century Czech poetry such as that of Josef Hora or Jaroslav Seifert.

The Czechs have been especially at home in the modern medium of filmmaking. Grusa’s choice of puppet making as a skill for Jan is a nod to Jiri Trnka, a pioneer in using puppets in animated films whose mute masterpiece, The Hand (1965), made a strong plea for the rights of creative man (and by extension, Everyman) to flourish organically and peacefully, without interference from the heavy hand of the state.

To be a humanist—a follower of a very old tradition, and Grusa is steeped in tradition—is, paradoxically, to be as modern as possible, since human nature does not change. The special feature of Czech humanism, from the Middle Ages through Grusa, has been to affirm human nature precisely as it is, with its weaknesses and absurdities, and to see true evil as a deviation from what is human. Grusa was among those who had to leave Czechoslovakia permanently, when the East Bloc turned down the Prague movement for “Socialism with a human face.” As a major statement of Czech humanism, The Questionnaire deserves an international audience. Its excellent English translation, by Peter Kussi, may help to ensure that readership.