The Czech PEN club on Monday marked its 85th anniversary. Established in Prague just three years after the worldwide association of writers was founded in London in 1922, the Czech PEN club brought together some big names in pre-war Czech literature, including Karel Čapek, František Langer and Viktor Fischl. Today, the Czech PEN club carries on its mission of promoting freedom of speech, supporting oppressed writers in many countries around the world.
Café Louvre, in Prague’s Národní třída, was where several leading Czech writers got together on February 15, 1925, to establish a Czech branch of the international PEN organization. Headed by Karel Čapek, the association emphasized the role of literature in promoting mutual understanding between the nations of the world. Eighty-five years later, members of the Czech PEN club met in the same venue to mark the anniversary. The head of the Czech branch of PEN International, poet and singer-songwriter Jiří Dědeček says PEN has changed along with the times.
“I think in the beginning, in the 1920s, there was a relatively democratic atmosphere, very easy to exist in. Also, Karel Čapek was very efficient. He established the PEN club with close links to the ministries of foreign affairs and culture, and these two ministries were sponsoring the PEN club. The situation today is completely different.”
For one thing, the Czech PEN club relies on private and corporate donors for funds. As an international organization, it’s not eligible for Czech government grants. But more importantly, it’s no longer just a writers’ club. Their main activity is the promotion of free speech and artistic freedom in countries where this is still an issue.
“This is maybe the biggest difference between the PEN club today and 85 years ago. We decided to support our colleagues – writers, translators, poets – in non democratic countries and to publish their work here in the Czech Republic in two languages. For example, our colleague Jorge Olivera Castillo from Havana, Cuba has been published in Spanish and Czech. And we distribute these books not only here in the Czech Republic but especially in the writers’ homeland.”
Writers in the Czech PEN club have first-experience with oppression of freedom of speech. The communist regime did not tolerate the club, and the Czech centre was “dormant” through most of the communist era. Many independent writers, including the dissident playwright and future president Václav Havel, were persecuted and often jailed. Novelist and playwright Ivan Klíma says support from their colleagues abroad always meant a great deal.
“It was very important for us. When Václav Havel and Eva Kantůrková were in prison, they were getting letters from colleagues from around the world. They sent notes of protests to Czechoslovak embassies in their countries, and they even collected some money and sent it to the authors – not only the ones who were imprisoned, but also to those who could not publish at all. So it was great help – material and spiritual.”
Members of the Czech PEN club now help writers in countries like Cuba, Belarus, Turkey, and others. In the past two years they have put out two books – besides Jorge Olivera Castillo, they have put out a book of poetry by the Kurdish poet Ahmed Arif as part of the Czech PEN Club Library. Their next project involves Chinese dissidents. Working with the Czech NGO People in Need, they want to publish a book of letters between the Czechoslovak democratic initiative Charter 77 and the Chinese group, Charter 08, directly inspired by the Czechs. Jiří Dědeček explains.
“I met one of them, a very brave woman, in our centre, and we decided to try this project – to publish the correspondence between people from Charter 77 and Charter 08. It could be very interesting, but the crucial problem for us is the language in which it will be published. In Chinese or in Czech, and then in English maybe – I don’t know.”
The Czech PEN club is also marking the anniversary with an exhibition that runs until February 25 in Prague’s Klementinum. More details about the Czech PEN can be found at www.pen.cz.
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