Václav Havel via The New Yorker
Václav Havel was a hero to my generation, a poet, playwright, and political dissident who stood resolutely against Soviet domination during the final decades of the Iron Curtain, who spent years in prison, and who eventually helped engineer his country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989. I have read Havel and about Havel all my life, it seems, and now it is a special honour to be able to publish in Numéro Cinq a hitherto untranslated Havel poem, “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” This is an amazing coup made possible through the efforts of the poet and translator David Celone who not only translated the poem and wrote an astute essay for us but also contacted Havel’s widow and obtained the necessary permissions for publication of both the translation and the original Czech version of the poem.
The Little Owl Who Brayed
Wisdom’s little owl brayed:
“How beautiful is rot’s decay.”
A pine grove bleated low:
“Come on, easy does it now.”
A serpent hissed: “I love graveyard’s bliss.”
A flower extolled:
“Where ambitions pit your soul?”
Pines gushed: “Wise up.”
Flower hissed: “Let it stink.”
“You should never, it’s true,”
calls motherland insistent,
“in twilight’s advancing gloom
be the least resistant.”
Pines shot: “Reason rots.”
Flower shrieked: “Beauty reeks.”
Serpent hooted: “The graveyard
is paradise, so tranquil and muted.”
You should never, I cry,
in our nation’s interest
beneath twilight’s grimace
ever have to resist.
Dig in. Resist. Persist…
— Václav Havel 1977 (translated by D. Celone, with Liba Hladik and Paul Wilson)
Zahýkal sýc: „Krásné je hnít.”
že: „To chce klid.”
Zasyčel had: „Hřbitov mám rád.”
Zaskvěl se květ:
„Kam se chceš drát?”
Zahýkal bor: „Rozumný být.”
„Nechat to čpít.”
„A tak by se neměl věru,”
Zasyčel bor: „Rozumně hnít.”
„Krásné je čpít.”
Zahýkal had: „Hřbitov je ráj
a je tam klid.”
A tak by se neměl věru
v zájmu vlasti
— Václav Havel, 1977
Václav Havel’s many incarnations led him from poet to playwright, to essayist and dissident, to become the final president of then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 before being elected as the first president of the newly formed democratic Czech Republic in 1993. He was jailed for his writing in samizdat (government suppressed and censored) underground publications and for signing Charter 77, a public indictment of the government’s human and civil rights abuses, the dissemination of which was considered a political crime. Notions of peaceful resistance proffered by Charter 77 evolved into what became known as the Velvet Revolution, ultimately toppling the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. During Havel’s nearly four-year incarceration, he continued to write letters and to dream of new scripts for plays. His letters from jail to his wife were subsequently published as Letters to Olga, a fascinating introspective journey of personal snippets, joys and woes during his prison term. Little is known of Havel’s poetry outside of the Czech language and archives of the Havel Library in Prague. His fame revolved around his plays that used absurdist humor to expose the plight of a country and its people oppressed by communist rule. Havel’s political career brought him into the public light, winning him many international accolades and honors for his work as an outspoken proponent of human rights including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Order of Canada. This poet turned playwright turned politician deserves much of our attention as writers and humanists. Yet, his poetry remains a mystery.
The 1970s in Czechoslovakia was an era and place where totalitarian rule under the then communist regime took great tolls on the Czech people. The state normalization politics of quietism backed by strong-armed police efforts and state-led propaganda campaigns attempted to convince the Czech people that silence and tranquility were the traits needed to live in peace and harmony with one another while submitting to the political will of communist rule. The alternative, of course, was jail. Imprisonment for speaking out against the state, including censorship and arrest of writers and artists, exile, loss of work, and loss of educational opportunities for the children of political dissidents became the norm. As a result, the heavy iron hand of the communist regime laid waste to artistic creativity and voice, breeding considerable unrest and dissidence.
Václav Havel, playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, politician, was part of a group of artists and writers that published samizdat, or underground leaflets, to avoid total censorship. This group, loosely organized to avoid political trouble, eventually authored and signed a document known as “Charter 77” in 1977. This public manifesto criticized the Czech government for failing to implement certain human rights provisions in national documents it had signed including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia. Some short time after signing Charter 77, Havel wrote the poem “Zahýkal Sýc,” which has gone largely unnoticed by the cohorts of Havel archivists, translators, and, therefore, readers. I have undertaken to translate this poem into English, which, to my knowledge after some considerable research of the Havel Library archives and other sources, is a first for any Havel poem other than his concrete poetry and one, short, nine-word poem entitled “We Promise” published in From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology. (Delbos, Stephan. From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology. Ed. Delbos. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia. 2011.)
The English title of the poem I’ve chosen is “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” It is replete with allusions and paradoxes, with an owl that brays, a serpent that hoots, a flower that hisses, and a forest that bleats, gushes, and moans. All are absurdities that point to the deeper absurdity of the political order of the day and its heavy hand of political, social, educational, and cultural censorship. “Zahýkal,” literally translated, means “murmured something painfully.” “Sýc” is an owl, and an owl with a history in Greek myth and European hunting practice. An owl that brays is clearly not well, and must feel considerable pain when making such an unusual noise. There are several antithetical vocal elements at play, beginning with the wise owl who speaks with the paradoxical asininity of a donkey’s voice, then moving through a host of natural elements whose voices strain reason. Havel approaches this poem in epistemological form, with an eye that describes and depicts nature at its most absurd, to convey a hugely powerful message to the Czech people. In many ways, this poem serves as a roadmap for the type of dissidence that Havel and the members of Charter 77 would propound and follow for the next decade or so until communist rule devolved.
Classics from the then-popular movie Doctor Zhivago, itself an early samizdat publication authored by Boris Pasternak that had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, are invoked through such lines as: “krasne je zit,” meaning “how beautiful it is to live” from the leitmotif “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago (later becoming the basis for the English-language song “Somewhere My Love”) turned on its head to “krasne je hnít,” meaning, literally translated, “how beautiful it is to rot.” Havel expresses his perspective of life in a satellite state of the Soviet Union as a place to rot rather than to live while also exposing a country that is, itself, rotting under the oppressive palm of the totalitarian hand. So, too, does Havel use “to chce klid,” a famous line from Hašek’s Švejk meaning “take it easy,” or “don’t speak out and awaken the powers that be” as a defeatist form of quietism prevalent in then-communist Czechoslovakia—keeping one’s mouth shut was heralded by the government unless it wanted damning information about a neighbor, family member, or friend, in which case silence may well have become a political crime.
Havel then moves the poem and the reader into a world of absurdities in which animals and other characters in nature, such as a pine grove and a flower blossom, along with the prevailing iconic cultural themes of the day noted above are upended to convey the need to resist the state, the police, and the required social norms purveyed by the communist regime’s deep-rooted marketing and sloganeering propaganda efforts.
Similarly, Havel uses paradox to deliver his final message. With “klast odpor,” meaning “to resist,” or, in biblical parlance, “to dig in” or “entrench,” and “vola vlast,” or, “motherland calls.” Havel allows, sottovoce, and in the extant voice of the country itself to, at first, encourage people not to resist, or, in an absurdist twist of linguistic irony, to never “be the least resistant.” Does this mean to not put up resistance against communism, or does it mean, as the country speaking in its double-negative voice implies, to never be the least resistant and, thus, arguably, to, in fact, be the most resistant to the country’s advancing gloom and plight? It would seem the latter is what Havel had in mind, yet he couched it in terms the government might not readily understand. Brilliantly, Havel used the absurd and circumlocution to make his political point while avoiding the strict scrutiny that otherwise might have censored his poem. This was a trick he used during his lengthy jail term when writing letters to his then-wife, Olga. He learned how to avoid censorship by making oblique references to certain places or people that he knew his wife would understand.
“Little Owl” also offers, at its most absurd, the notion of a cemetery as a place to which the Czechoslovakian people should aspire because it is a paradise of peace, tranquility, and quiet calm. The poem closes with the voice of the country merging with Havel’s own narrative voice to urge the Czech people to, in fact, resist, persist, and resist again. Throughout, Havel uses the voices of animals to mimic the political sloganeering of the communist government that offered constant passive-aggressive messaging and reinforcing innuendo that passivity and tranquility were the best ways to be a friend of the state in order to achieve peace and safety for oneself and one’s family. Alternatives for those who spoke their minds were not favorable or pretty as Havel and his Charter 77 colleagues learned while serving out prison sentences.
Quietism, or keeping one’s thoughts private about politics and the state became a cultural agenda that took root and extracted a considerable toll on generations of disenchanted Czechs subjected to the encroaching gloom of a twilight that settled in upon their country over decades of communist rule. Too, the notion of speaking out against friends or family to curry favor with the regime while “selling out” to communism comes under fire in this poem when the flower, a symbol of the country’s great beauty by virtue of its mention in the Czech national anthem, comments “Kam se chceš drát?,” meaning, “Why be ambitious?” to benefit yourself to the detriment of others. Personal ambition was frowned upon by the state and by most people living under the state’s powerful mind-control techniques. In a double entendre of irony, Havel also brings to light the type of ambition the state allowed, which was to inform on others, thereby putting entire families at risk of being incarcerated. Nobody felt safe from the watchful eye of the government as children, parents, or other family members, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers could levy accusations that might be taken seriously by the police. Due process did not exist. The rule of totalitarian law was extreme. Little beyond quiet acceptance of state rule was tolerated. The creative spirit of a nation was shorn.
As the final stanza suggests, and, again, with Havel’s use of the impish double negative, the Czech people should never have been put in a position to think about resisting the type of political regime under which they lived. Yet, here they were tolerating, and oddly ignoring, the evils of communism. They had entered the world of “Zahýkal Sýc” and its many absurdities that parallel reality under communist totalitarian rule. The world of “The Little Owl Who Brayed” lives somewhere between nursery rhyme and parable, or fantasy and reality. It is a rebuke of the prevailing defeatist tendencies of the people of Czechoslovakia at the time, leading to a country’s and a people’s entropy—politically, culturally, socially, individually, religiously, and artistically. Yet “Little Owl” is also a highly emotional summons to the Czech people to take action and stand fast to principals of humanity and moral practices not condoned by the state and the Soviet regime. By virtue of its use of cultural symbolism and natural elements known to all, direct story-telling prose, and poetic rhyme, this poem achieves its goal simply, dynamically, and with a deft hand and brilliantly wry wit. At its end, in classic comic and absurdist form for which Havel is known as a dramatist, the narrator draws the reader in to resist the type of “wisdom” being purveyed by the state, or the snake. In counterpoint to the serpent who hoots and preaches about paradise as a quiet graveyard, Havel offers the Czech people a poetic choice: they can choose freedom through resistance to overcome the serpent’s snare and break free of the political bonds that trap them like the owl, wise though it may be, or they can accept an ongoing existence of rotting within the decaying fabric of their once beautiful country by acquiescing to the demands of the communist propaganda, political, and police-state machine. This poem is an epistemological triumph that delivers new knowledge through the elements of nature posited as absurd voices, while illuminating the Czech populace that their notions of normalcy were, in fact, completely invalid and out of touch with nature, reason, and humanity. Havel hopes to move people away from entropy and call them to action to resist the ruling order of the day.
While Havel’s calling out to resist what is happening in the Czech homeland closes the poem, it gives rise to several complex questions about why he chose the various symbols to represent the speakers in the poem. The owl, the serpent, the pine grove, the flower, and, most certainly and obviously, the country itself all have important allusory standing within this poem.
In brief, the owl represents wisdom, much as it did when perched on the shoulder of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare, who carried an owl with her, and who carries the image of the goddess Nike on her helmet. It is Nike who is depicted in a statue with raised sword in triumph memorializing the Battle of Volgograd, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history with more than two million casualties and a turning point in which Russia defeated the German army in World War II. The statue of Nike is named “Matka Vlast Volá” or, “Mother Motherland Calls,” similar to Havel’s use of “vola vlast,” or “motherland calls” in the poem. Thus, Havel may well be offering a reminder of the terrible bloodshed that can happen under totalitarian rule—even when power is wielded to protect a country—and a stern rebuke that aggressive resistance leading to bloodshed is not the best way forward for the people of Czechoslovakia.
The Little Owl (Athena noctua) carried by Athena was common in European pine forests and typically was used to hunt small prey. Its particular facilities lay in its ability to be trained to catch animals (snakes included) in its claws and, most importantly, to learn to return again and again to the snare, or cage, of its captor and handler. “Drat” in Czech, means “wire” or “snare,” as well as “to wear a wire” or microphone for eavesdropping or spying purposes. “Drat se,” a reflexive verb, means “to push oneself forward” or “to be ambitious” to the demise of others as noted above. Thus, the owl, though wise, serves its master willingly, obeys, and returns to its captor’s snare over and over much like Havel suggests the Czech people do through entropy and defeatism in the face of their political oppressors. Too, like the owl, they are handled and trained by the state, held captive by the state police powers and propaganda machinery, and allowed only limited scope in which to live always being required to return to their nation-state cage itself held captive by the Soviet Union. They also fall into the trap the state set that encouraged them to spy on others for personal gain or else be considered enemies of the state. Havel delves deep beneath the veneer of the absurd, with an owl that brays, yielding further absurdities such as this symbol of wisdom that curries favor with its captor in exchange for a freedom that will never materialize.
The serpent suggests the obvious biblical allusion to Adam and Eve and its offer to them of knowledge versus life in Eden. In this case, it is the serpent’s paradoxically irrational offer of living in a cemetery in exchange for peace that represents the state’s offer to the Czech people—not much of an offer to be sure! The pine grove (“bor”) and the flower (“květ”) figure prominently in the Czech national anthem, thus invoking the love of country and Czech pride as important voices to heed. The flower is, with the exception of the narrator in the final stanza, perhaps the only rational voice in the poem. It is the flower that defines the beauty of the Czech homeland in the national anthem, and it is the flower that defies the seemingly rational voice of the pine grove.
I’ve been helped with this translation by native Czech speaker Liba Hladik of East Thetford, Vermont. Liba is a Czech refugee who works for Dartmouth College. I’ve also received generous assistance from Paul Wilson of Heathcote, Ontario. Paul was Havel’s biographer, translator, and friend for many years. He is also a freelance writer who was expelled from Czechoslovakia by the Communist government for his association with the dissident movement. Liba and Paul have agreed to add their names to my translation of the “Little Owl” poem as I now affectionately call it. I was further encouraged to take on this translation project by some wonderful people at the Václav Havel Library in Prague including: Jan Hron, Jan “Honza” Macháček, and Martin Palouš. They’ve given me access to the Library archives and have allowed me to translate “Zahýkal Sýc” into English. I’d also like to extend my gratitude to another Czech refugee who shall go only by the initials ZB, and his lovely wife, MMB, for their enduring friendship and for introducing me some time ago to the Václav Havel Library and its mission. You’ve all helped me bring a newly translated voice into this world. I am truly grateful.
Finally, and to echo the words of Robert Hass in his introduction to the selected poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translating is a “fiddlers task,” as opposed to editing, which belongs to the meddler. (Tranströmer, Tomas. Selected Poems 1965-1986. Ed. Robert Hass. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press. 1987.) I’ve come to realize that tinkering with the strings of the Havelian fiddle is an enormously gratifying experience, producing beautiful music in a mellifluous language that many ears will hear for the very first time. And, of course, I extend my abundant thanks to Jen Bervin and Rick Jackson of Vermont College of Fine Arts for their guidance as my faculty advisors, and to Douglas Glover of VCFA and his brilliantly designed online magazine Numéro Cinq for making Havel’s poetic music so readily available. I expect to tinker further with more of Havel’s yet-to-be-translated verse over time.
David Celone has worked in higher education development and alumni relations for the past seventeen years at Dartmouth College, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Vermont Law School. He holds a law degree from Vermont Law School and has practiced law in Vermont and Connecticut. Celone grew up in the seaside village of New Haven, Connecticut. He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, as he pursues a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
“I’ve come to realize that tinkering with the strings of the Havelian fiddle is an enormously gratifying experience, producing beautiful music in a mellifluous language that many ears will hear for the very first time.”
Thank you, David, for tinkering!
And i’m still tinkering. 24 poems translated thus far. An extraordinary journey! Thank you, ns, for reading and commenting…
are there any other English translations of Havel’s poetry?
Only those that I’ve translated. Twenty-four, and counting! Well, there is one other translation of a 3 or 4 line poem of Havel’s, but when I mentioned it to Havel’s biographer/translator I was told to disregard it because it’s a very poor translation. So, only my translations are the ones of which I’m aware. But, I’ve not gotten the ok from the Have literary estate to publish them, alas. I’ve tried, and hope to get permissions at some future date. Still translating, and still hopeful they’ll be published some day!