The press attache of the Czech Embassy offers in a letter to the editor today an official version of the story of Jaroslav Seifert, recent winner of a Nobel Prize for poetry. In the letter, and even more in a press release distributed a month ago, Mr. Vaclav Zluva, the attach,e, wraps the full mantle of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic -- the communist regime -- around the 83-year-old Seifert and presents him as a national literary figure, a son of the working class no less, who has always been honored and read widely in his homeland and who is now coming into richly deserved international fame.
The broader truth of the matter, however, was suggested a few weeks ago in "A Little History Lesson" written in The New York Review of Books by the Czech writer Milan Kundera who now lives in France and is well known in the West in translation. He identifies Jaroslav Seifert as the sole survivor of five writers, "the greatest constellation in the entire history of Czech poetry," who were born at the turn of the century and together ran afoul of the communists who seized power in 1948. Mr. Seifert quickly came under attack and "for a long while he withdrew from public life." In 1969, however, "when the Russian horror (the military intervention) was battering the country," Czech writers -- "the occupation's main target" -- elected him president of their union.
"I can still see him," Mr. Kundera writes. "He already had great difficulty walking, with crutches. And -- perhaps because of that -- there in his seat he seemed a rock: unmoving, solid, firm. It consoled us to have him with us. This little nation, trampled and doomed -- how could it possibly justify its existence? There before us was the justification: the poet, heavy, with his crutches leaning against the table; the oet, the tangible expression of the nation's genius, the sole glory of the powerless."
This is the man that the regime in Prague now wishes to expropriate as "our greatest living poet." But the "our" must be carefully defined. It should mean the Czech people, not the regime.