Satellite Review / Central & Eastern Europe / Literature / History

Crucif*cked: the extraordinary career of Egon Bondy 

Outside Czech-speaking circles, underground writer and philosopher Egon Bondy remains almost unknown; however it’s hard to see where the Czech literary scene would be without him

Cover of the 2012 Akropolis edition of Bondy’s Invalidní sourozenci (photo by Petr Krejzek).

When Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was asked to name the contemporary world’s greatest writer, Egon Bondy was his answer.

Nobody could write about beer and sausages with quite as much spiritual devotion as the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. One of Hrabal’s most famously beer-soaked scenes comes from the 1973 novel Nežny Barbar (The Tender Barbarian), in which a character named Egon (based on Hrabal’s real-life colleague Egon Bondy) lovingly smears the foam from a half-litre of beer all over Hrabal’s face.

Written in 1973, Nežny Barbar is the largely autobiographical account of a three-way friendship between Hrabal, Bondy and painter Vladimir Boudnik in the early Fifties. It was a time when they led a vagabond, bar-crawling existence on the fringes of a society just waking up to the realities of communist power. Filmed in 1990, it is a story that many Czechs remember for Egon’s repeated use of the expression Kurvafix!, a term the real-life Bondy invented by stitching together “kurva” (“whore”) and “crucifix” to create a swearword of comic absurdity. “Crucifuck!” might serve as a freely-translated English alternative.

When Hrabal was asked during a lecture tour in the United States to name the contemporary world’s greatest writer, Egon Bondy was his answer. It was a mischievous choice, given that his audience would have no idea who he was talking about, but it was also a sincere choice.

The many warm but humorous references to Bondy in Hrabal’s memoirs and letters left even Czechs unsure of who Bondy actually was. When Hrabal delivered a collection of Bondy’s poems to a Prague theatre director in the hope of organizing a reading, the director replied “Is he real? I thought you’d made him up!”

Egon Bondy was in fact very real indeed. Born Zbyňek Fišer to a military family in 1930, Bondy dropped out of school in the late Forties to begin bohemian life in a Prague that was increasingly falling under the sway of Stalinist cultural policy. The young Bondy wrote unsettling, surrealist poems that were published in the typewritten, privately-distributed Půlnoc (Midnight), Czechoslovakia’s first ever samizdat journal.

Be-bop, hard-sex and vagabondage

Hijacking banal Stalinist-style sloganeering for subversive ends, Bondy developed a style he described as “Total Realism”. Realism for Bondy usually meant writing about everyday vulgarities: constipation, beer-drinking and flatulence were just three of his favourite themes. (“I fart with gentle caution/In order not to shit myself/Yesterday was not marked by anything in particular/Except that I had bean soup” he wrote in the 1951 poem Yesterday on Sunday.)

Together with slightly older and slightly more liberated muse Jana Krejčarová (daughter of Kafka’s brief love interest Milena Jesenská), Bondy led an alternative lifestyle based on personal freedom and non-engagement with the state. As Bondy himself wrote in 1990, “our way of life developed certain analogies with the American Beatniks, such as be-bop, hard-sex, vagabondage, begging, theft (we stole anything but cars which were not around at that time), and anti-social activities of any kind”.

Another member of the Půlnoc circle was Bohumil Hrabal. Despite being 16 years older than Bondy, Hrabal was totally in awe of his charismatic and mercurial colleague, admitting later that he would never have persevered with writing had it not been for Bondy’s encouragement. Hrabal went on to become one of the most popular prose writers in the Czech language, while Bondy remained an underground figure for the rest of his life.

Why did Hrabal admire Bondy so much? Probably because Bondy was the real underground writer that Hrabal himself could never be. Bondy once wrote rather too cattily that no member of the Půlnoc generation had ever gone on to seek publication in the mainstream media – except Bohumil Hrabal.

A best-selling writer well before the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968, Hrabal found himself on the list of banned writers in the years that followed. He was offered the chance of partial publication from the mid-1970s onwards, but was forced to give a humiliating interview to the magazine Tvorba in return, appearing to renounce his anti-regime feelings.  As we shall see later, however, not even underground guru Bondy was the unblemished figure he appeared to be.

Although Bondy’s poems always enjoyed cult status in the Czech Republic, commercial success was never really on offer, nor was it sought. Both a radical Marxist and a determined critic of almost every manifestation of power that he came across, Bondy opposed both the communist regime and the free-market system that replaced it. After the break up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Bondy expressed his disapproval by moving from Prague to the Slovak capital Bratislava. He died in relative poverty on April 9 2007, having accidentally set alight to his flat by smoking in bed.

The Happy Hearts Club Banned

Bondy’s place in the underground literary canon owes much to his association with the Plastic People of the Universe, the psychedelic prog-jazz band that attempted to carve out an existence independent of the officially-sanctioned music scene of Seventies Czechoslovakia. It was the 1976 trial of musicians associated with the Plastic People that led Vaclav Havel to launch Charta 77, the human rights petition that helped inspire the political changes of the 1980s.

Then a Prague-based English-language teacher, Canadian writer and translator Paul Wilson sang with the Plastic People during the early Seventies, when their repertoire largely consisted of Velvet Underground covers. “The last concert in which I appeared with the Plastic People took place in a factory concert hall on the outskirts of Prague”, Wilson recalls. “Bondy was in the audience, having been invited there by Ivan Martin Jirous [1944-2011; Jirous, nicknamed ‘Magor’ or ‘the fool’, was the alternative cultural theorist who acted as the Plastics’ artistic director]. Bondy and Jirous had met when they were both spending time in the psychiatric ward at Bohnice hospital. I'd already heard of Bondy - he was a bit of a legend in underground circles, but belonged to an older generation. Bondy’s reaction to the concert was ecstatic, and he immediately suggested that the Plastics should put his poetry to music.”

As Plastics’ keyboard player Pepa Janíček remembers, imitating Bondy’s delighted high-pitched squeal, “Bondy said ‘oooh the concert was lovely, but I believe it would have been even better if we had been able to hear the poetry of Egon Bondy!’”

The Plastic People’s first album, with music set to Bondy’s poems, was distributed unofficially in Czechoslovakia in 1974. It was released in France under the title Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned in 1976. The Plastics went on to use Bondy’s work in their subsequent recordings, alongside work by other cult Czech writers such as Ladislav Klíma (1868-1928), Mila Nápravnik (1931-) and many more. By using so much serious poetry in their music, the Plastic People provided Czech underground literature with a new audience and a renewed sense of purpose.

The connection with the Plastics certainly provided Bondy with a new family of anti-establishment friends. His major prose work of the 1970s, Invalidní sourozenci (The Disabled Siblings), in which a group of misfits struggle to preserve common values in a dystopian future world, was in many ways a tribute to the closely-knit scene in which he now found himself.

Cultural historian and Bondy specialist Martin Machovec remembers attending a reading of Invalidní sourozenci as a teenager. “Bondy thought that this new novel would be of interest to his new young friends, and he spent two evenings (and a combined total of 6 hours) reading it. It changed my life. Not only because I was fascinated by the text, but also fascinated by all the people I saw there, there were people a couple of years older than me, but also people who were 20-30 years older.”

Truthfully Horrifying Stories

Another person with vivid memories of Bondy in the 1970s is Veronika Tuckerová, now a lecturer in Czech language and literature at Harvard University. Her father, literary critic Jan Lopatka (1940-1993), was a close friend of Bondy. “Egon Bondy was my babysitter in the mid 1970s, when he lived near us on Nerudova ulice in Prague’s Mala Strana district” Tuckerová remembers. “Bondy and his wife Julie would take care of my sister and me in their legendary one-room apartment, which faced in all four directions – one of which overlooked the Petrin hill. My sister’s tempera painting of a peacock was hanging on their wall, and my father helped Bondy build his library shelves. “

Bondy wrote a book of children’s stories, Pravdive prišerne pribehy (Truthfully Horrifying Stories) and dedicated it to Veronika and her sister.  “The stories involved various characters from our lives, such as our school's caretaker who spent his days in the U dvou slunců pub, occasionally leaving the premises to throw some coal into our classroom stoves. Then there were of course various ghosts; the stories were eventually collected in a booklet. Bondy would sometime take us on long tram trips to the city peripheries and to the amusement park in Fučikárna. Prague peripheries were important to his writing, as I would find out later. Bondy became important to me again in the mid 1980s, when he became my ‘private tutor’ in art history and contemporary classical music.”

In spring 1976 members of the Plastic People were picked up by the police, and although most were released without trial, both saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec and their artistic manager Ivan Martin Jirous were given prison terms. Bondy was not among the arrested; on the contrary it became apparent that he had been supplying information to the secret police.

“We now know that Bondy collaborated with the Secret police, with breaks, from 1961 to 1977, when his file was closed” Tuckerová says.

According to Martin Machovec, “Bondy was involved with the secret police since the mid 60s, although it’s assumed that he was forced into it to a certain degree. He always used to warn his friends not to tell him too much, adding that he was not the kind of person who could keep a secret.”

Veronika Tuckerová’s father was one of the intellectuals who parted company with Bondy at this stage, although others were more forgiving: “Jirous wrote an essay about Bondy in 1979 in which he dealt with his “betrayal” by Bondy during the questioning for the trial that sent Jirous and others to prison. Bondy was willing to talk more than anyone else”, Tuckerová recounts. “In this essay, Jirous describes his initial anger, a letter, that he was composing in his mind, but also how, after he came back from prison, he met Bondy after two weeks – they simply embraced, and the letter was forgotten. As Jirous himself writes, the act of embrace was the act of forgiveness.”   

Neither Bondy nor the police took his collaboration all that seriously, and Bondy continued to see himself as a pivotal member of the underground. He was an early signatory of Charta 77, although his name was taken off the list by colleagues disturbed by his police connections. Bondy’s flat on Nerudova remained an important meeting-point for young writers throughout the 1980s, although he increasingly avoided contact with dissidents as the decade wore on. According to Machovec, “he wanted to concentrate on his work, and constant interrogations wore him out.” Bondy spent the years 1977 – 1990 writing a 14-volume history of philosophy, available only in samizdat until its official publication in the 1990s.  Hrabal wrote in one of his essays that he attended a promotional party for the 17th volume of Bondy’s history (a typical Hrabal embellishment bearing in mind that there were only 14 of them), congratulating Bondy on being the heir of Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek and Ladislav Klíma. To which Bondy replied “Why can’t you say that in front of the TV cameras, Kurvafix!”

The future is bleak

It’s a shame that the literature of the Czech underground remains so unknown to non-Czechs. “As far as I know the only Ivan Martin Jirous text to be published in English is the Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival“ says Monika Tuckerová, referring to the text Jirous wrote while serving as artistic manager of The Plastic People of the Universe. Circulated in samizdat form in 1975, it was translated by Paul Wilson in 1978. “It was a crucial text of the Czech underground, a manifesto of sorts. So yes, Jirous and Bondy should be translated more!”

Underground ideologue Jirous was subsequently recognized as one of the Czech language’s major poets, and was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize in 2006. “Some critics maintain that Jirous’s poems are too much intertwined with the specific milieu in which they were written, especially Jirous’s prison references, and that renders them untranslatable, but I disagree” Tuckerová concludes.

According to Paul Wilson, who has also translated the Bondy poems that were used as song lyrics by The Plastic People of the Universe, “it's almost impossible to capture the original impact of Bondy’s work, so the translations tend to feel like dead artifacts rather than the living things they seemed at the time. Bondy came close to being published by a major New York house, but the novel in question needed a lot of editorial work, because, as a work published in samizdat, it was essentially a first draft. Bondy refused to change anything, and the publisher backed away. I know this because I was to be the translator and acted as the go-between. So despite being an adept self-promoter within the self-help culture of the Czech underground, he was hopeless when it came to promoting his work abroad. I suspect he just didn't care about that kind of exposure.

“His poetry was sometimes brilliant, and sometimes sheer doggerel; he wrote a tremendous amount, but never appeared to edit. At one point, I made an effort to translate a book he had written, as Zbyňek Fišer, on Buddhism and the Buddha, and it was a strange piece of work, given that the bibliography contained all of twelve books. I stopped work on it when I realized that the book would never pass muster with any publisher in the West, simply because it was based, or much of it was, on pure speculation, the extrapolation of information he'd found in those twelve books. It was then I realized that he was, in a sense, a typical ideologue who was able to spin extensive theories out of almost nothing. I have, but have never read closely, his Consolations of Ontology, and not being a philosopher, it may well be a solid book, but you'd have to get other opinions on that. I was never very close to him, and I think part of the reason for that was, as I say, a certain lack of trust on my part.“

So which of Bondy’s works does Wilson consider to offer most in terms of literary longevity? “Some people think that his most important work is Invalidní sourozenci - and it was certainly important in the underground at the time, because it was a parable, set in a distant future, that echoed Bondy's understanding of 1970s underground culture, and it was certainly popular among the people who, in a sense, inspired it, and for whom he had written it.  Bondy’s vision of the future is pretty bleak and dystopian, and I can imagine that this story and others like it might find an audience, now that the broken-down worlds they depict are becoming more and more believable.

“Culture from the 1970s and 80s continues to inspire new generations of young people. The fact that the Plastic People of the Universe are still playing, and that Ivan Martin Jirous is considered a major cultural figure, is indication enough that the powerful stand that he and Bondy and many others took against socialist realism, against any kind of political interference in culture, any attempt to make culture the handmaiden of politics, of whatever stripe, is still a part of Czech culture.”

For Veronika Tuckerová too, the Bondy generation retains an important voice: “Rereading the 1970s texts of Jirous, Bondy, and Havel, I am struck anew by how powerful they are. Bondy’s poems remain funny, irreverent and magical. They articulate the kind of general disgust that translates well to any perceptive, intelligent, youthful culture, no matter what the political context.”

“It is time that someone wrote a good biography of Bondy” Tuckerová continues. “Lots of stuff about his life is legendary – including the 1950s, the period that he wrote about in Prvnich deset let (The First Ten Years) and which included his friendship with Jana Krejcarová – this period also became the source for a film a few years ago [the ambivalently-received Three Seasons in Hell directed by Tomáš Mašín]. It would be great if someone serious wrote a reliable account of his life.”

Perhaps the last word should go to the Plastics’ keyboard player Pepa Janíček, who remembers attending a poetry reading in the mid-2000s, shortly before Bondy’s death: “the young audience couldn’t believe that these poems had been written fifty years ago, they simply assumed he was promoting his new material!”

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list