The Czech books you want to read
The global pandemic of coronavirus has forced schools across the globe to shut down and citizens worldwide to spend weeks in a quarantine at home. Although students are mostly still required to submit assignments, write papers and continue with mandatory readings, we believe this situation also brings us an opportunity to read a book or two which are not on any of your syllabuses.
Here is a list of some quality Czech novels and plays that you can read in English, presenting not only the established classics, but also introducing the leading contemporary authors.
by Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera was born in that-time Czechoslovakia, however, since his emigration to Paris in the mid-1970’s, Kundera perceives himself as a French writer. Still, there is a small pile of books that he published before he left the country, and these novels could be considered as Czech. In the Joke (1967), Kundera expresses openly his critique towards the totalitarian era of Czechoslovakia and towards the censorship. Another world-famous work of Kundera is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel about things so fundamental like life or love on the background of 1968 invasion of the Soviet-led forces into Czechoslovakia.
by Jan Neruda
A collection of Jan Neruda’s intimated, wry, bitter-sweet stories of life among the inhabitants of Mala Strana, the Little Quarter of nineteenth century Prague. Prague Tales is a classic story whose influence has been acknowledged by generations of Czech writers.
The Good Soldier Švejk
by Jaroslav Hašek
The Good Soldier Švejk is a satirical dark comedy novel and the most translated novel of the Czech literature: it has been translated into more than 50 languages. Good-natured and garrulous, Švejk becomes the Austro-Hungarian army’s most loyal Czech soldier when he is called up on the outbreak of the First World War – although his bumbling attempts to get to the front serve only to prevent him from reaching it. Playing cards, getting drunk and becoming a general nuisance, the resourceful Švejk uses all his natural cunning and genial subterfuge to deal with the doctors, police, clergy and officers who chivvy him towards battle. The story of a ‘little man’ caught in a vast bureaucratic machine, The Good Soldier Švejk combines dazzling wordplay and piercing satire to create a hilariously subversive depiction of the futility of war.
All the Beauty in the World
by Jaroslav Seifert
Jaroslav Seifert is still the only Czech laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1984). Although the Seifert was a poet, All the Beaty in the World is in fact prose in which he poetically remembers his life. It is the true masterpiece of the memoir literature.
Spaceman of Bohemia
by Jaroslav Kalfař
Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman of Bohemia (2017) follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. The book is a debut of a Czech novelist Jaroslav Kalfař was born and raised in Prague, Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. Kalfař wrote the book in English, it was only then translated to the Czech language by a translator.
I Served the King of England
by Bohumil Hrabal
In a comic masterpiece following the misadventures of a simple but hugely ambitious waiter in pre-World War II Prague, who rises to wealth only to lose everything with the onset of Communism, Bohumil Hrabal takes us on a tremendously funny and satirical trip through 20th-century Czechoslovakia. Bohumil Hrabal is consider one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. His other famous works include Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age and Too Loud a Solitude.
by Franz Kafka
One of Czech Republic’s greatest features is its tendency to inspire chilling and exciting tales of mystery and intrigue. Franz Kafka was entranced by Prague’s mysterious side and was inspired to write the popular novel: The Trial. After a bank officer is accused of committing a crime that is never revealed to him, he tries to defend himself against a higher authority and an impossible situation. Resonating with readers as a chilling totalitarian truth, The Trial has captivated audiences for decades. Another book by Kafka, Metamorphosis, along with The Trial, is one of the most important short stories in the history of literature. It tells an absurd story about the transformation of traveling salesman into the monstrous vermin which is, in fact, more about the reaction of his family, about their falsity and unwillingness to help in this extreme situation.
A Prayer for Katerina Horowitzova
by Arnošt Lustig
Arnošt Lustig, the Holocaust survivor, wrote this deep and touching book based on his personal experience with clear and crystal evil. This should not be missed by anyone interested in the Czech experience with Holocaust and the Second World War.
by Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek was a Czech writer, playwright and critic. He has become best known for his science fiction including his novel War with the Newts (1936) and play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920), which introduced the word “robot”. R.U.R. quickly became influential after its publication and has been translated into over thirty languages. The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots). They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of replicants. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of humans. Čapek later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society.
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The Power of the Powerless
by Václav Havel
This political essay by Václav Havel, political dissident and the first president of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, dissects the nature of the communist regime of the time, life within such a regime and how by their very nature such regimes can create dissidents of ordinary citizens. Havel also criticized communism in works such as The Garden Party and The Memorandum, in which he used absurdist style.