Young Europeans today have grown up in a world on which the shadow of communism no longer falls. It is often hard to explain to them what it was like to visit Soviet-controlled Europe, as I first did, in the late seventies. At that time the bids for freedom – East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 – all lay in the irrevocable past. The diligent work of the secret police had created a society so riven with suspicion and mutual betrayal that citizens could not combine against the ruling Party. Moreover the dissidents had been ‘normalised’. They were no longer done to death in Uranium mines or concentration camps, but treated as normal criminals, hardly more wicked than rapists or murderers, entitled to visitors and food parcels during their times inside and kept under quiet surveillance during their holidays at home. A kind of graveyard stillness hung over the cities of central Europe, and only in Hungary were there loud conversations, dancing and laughter. Even there you had to watch your step, knowing that someone else was watching it too.
I was involved from 1979 onwards in helping to set up what became an underground university in Czechoslovakia, working in close collaboration with my highly secretive friend and colleague, Jiří Müller in Brno. Unlike Jiří I am not of the heroic kind and to be quite frank I found my short spells behind the Iron Curtain seriously scary. Nevertheless, as Spenser famously said in The Fairie Queene, the ‘brave exploits which great Heroes won/ In love were either ended or begun’, and this is as true of the exploits achieved against nature by the timid as it is of those clocked up serenely by the brave. In my very first seminar in Prague I met a quiet, beautiful and poetic girl who, to my surprise, made it clear to me, through letters, that she would welcome another visit. I was still young, Lenka younger. And through her I got to know many of her contemporaries who had lost out on educational opportunities, careers, travel, and every kind of privilege because of the wrong thing said or done.
In Lenka’s case the wrong thing was to have organized a reading group among students in her university dorm, in order to study the works of Kafka and Dostoevsky. Others had been deprived of an education because their parents had signed Charter 77, or committed some other offence indicative of moral virtue in a world where nothing was a greater sign of unreliability than the disinterested desire to do good.
The thing that most vividly struck me about the young people I got to know was that they were not part of the ‘dissident’ world. You had to graduate to the status of dissident, and that involved being taken up by the Western media, being jailed from time to time, having the kind of signature that would create a stir when it appeared on an incriminating document. Dissidence was a social status like any other, and even if the price was one that most people were not be prepared to pay, it brought order where there might have been chaos. Dissidence had a career structure, and your place in that structure gave meaning to your life and a reason for carrying on. It also brought fatigue and privations, and never has its atmosphere been so effectively caught as by Havel, in his play Largo Desolato, written in 1984, and first appearing in samizdat after my visits came to an end.
Those cloth-bound, type-written samizdat texts were precious to Lenka as a sign that thought cannot be stolen, and will always find the beautiful words that it needs, even if there is no ‘socialist paper’ on which to write them down. They can take everything else, but not this. But when I sat in Lenka’s room reading the forbidden poems that nourished her, a thought ran through my mind that was thereafter to obsess me – the thought that she and her friends were excluded even from the world of dissidence, and that beneath the arc-lights focused on that ever more public stage she would shrivel like some diaphanous insect and be swept, a dried husk, into the wings.
As my knowledge of that world increased, through the sad ending of the affair with Lenka, and through my arrest and expulsion from her country, I continued to reflect on the atmosphere of that strange place that she called ‘Absurdistan’. I came to think that she and her friends represented the true underground, the archeological layer beneath the one explored by our journalists, when they had dug down as far as the dissidents in their temples to the truth. Dig further into the crypts beneath those temples and you would find the young people who had nothing, and whose isolation from the world of action was only exacerbated by their isolation from each other. For love too, and this I often had occasion to observe, is impeded when each has nothing to offer save total powerlessness.
Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the registration of our underground university as the first on the register of charities in post-communist Moravia, I remained obsessed by what I had known in those times of love, sorrow and fear. After many attempts – because there was so much to say – I hit on a simple story-line, and the novel wrote itself. I should emphasize that the characters are entirely imaginary, though one or two of them are based on people I knew. Certainly Betka, the heroine, if that is what she can be called, has nothing of Lenka about her, and would be less interesting if she had not jumped into my imagination and dominated it for weeks as though on her own initiative. Much that she says and thinks was as though spoken into my head, sometimes in Czech. In taking over Dostoevsky’s title, I did my best to make my ‘notes from underground’ read like voices echoing in the catacombs, on the trompe-l’oeil doors of which she and her bewildered lover, Jan Reichl, were beating in vain.
Roger Scruton’s Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014) is available from Amazon at £10.06. For a review of the book – also published on this site – please click on the image below.