Interview: Why Czech writer Jáchym Topol joined ‘quixotic’ Greens as Senate hopeful

The author of celebrated novels like ‘Sister’ (1994) and ‘Nightwork’ (2001) reveals he is a ‘forest spirit’ at heart

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With the elections to the Czech upper house of Parliament only some five months away, political parties are trying to lure voters in with new faces. To its list of new heavyweights Senate hopefuls like the prominent sociologist Ivan Gabal and former Constitutional Court judge Eliška Wagnerová, the Green Party (SZ), which is looking to stage a comeback, has added a figure with star power: writer, journalist and former dissident Jáchym Topol.

Himself the son of poet and playwright, in the late ‘70s Topol began writing lyrics for the rock band Psí vojáci, led by his younger brother, Filip. In 1982, he cofounded the samizdat magazine Violit, and in 1985 the samizdat review Revolver Revue, which specialized in modern Czech writing.

Because of his father’s dissident activities, Topol was not allowed to go to university. He was imprisoned for short periods, both for his samizdat publishing activities and for his smuggling across the Polish border in cooperation with members of Polish Solidarity. A Charter 77 signatory, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Topol wrote for the independent newsletter Informační servis, which later became the investigative weekly Respekt.

Why the Greens? “The Don Quixote-ness of the Greens is what attracts me. There are, in a sense, like the current underground, exactly what I’m close to,” Topol told Czech Position in an interview. “What’s more, I like the certain style that I don’t see in the others — a sense for humor and ‘happenings.’ I like that there are twentysomethings with dreadlocks alongside serious professors in their sixties. They are open and transparent, and I think their program is good and natural. Nuclear power and the looting of the country already many people do not want.”

Q: Why have you, as a writer and intellectual, decided to enter politics?

TOPOL: Frankly, it came like a bolt from heaven. There is politics in everything, whether we want it or not; it simply envelops us every day. There was no personal initiative in it, that is to say that I somehow sought to join a political party. When I got the offer some days ago, I was a bit taken aback. Even though as a journalist I am from time to time dealing with politics, I didn’t know that much about the Senate itself. Neither do I know details of the work of the Green Party, such as biomass policy or what exact parameters a boiler must have to meet environmental protection standards. So my reaction at first was dismissive. I almost laughed at the idea.

Q: What made you change your mind?

TOPOL: Maybe the fact that at the moment I’m program supervisor of the cultural club at the Václav Havel Library. I remembered another friend, Ivan Martin Jirous [a collaborator of the banned Plastic People of the Universe band and fellow Charter 77 signatory], and his engagement. Maybe now is the right time to begin to deal with public affairs from within the den of lions of current politics. I also realized that I feel close to the Green Party and certain principles they espouse, that is their lifelong aims. But there are also differences; for example, in the case of the [US anti-missile radar on Czech soil], I was on the opposite side. At the time I was in favor of the radar.

Q: Is that a problem?

TOPOL: They know this and do not consider it an obstacle. And neither do I. Maybe their opinion has changed since then. I deeply distrust Russia, and when I see how Putin shuts up his opponents, making life impossible for them, and how journalists are fined and beaten or killed, I cannot lightly talk with them about our seamless integration into Europe. And that bothers me. For me, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — perhaps unlike for so many young people — are not exotic, innocent countries that would be victims, so to speak, of the U.S. radar. So why not to fight for such ideals? I have done so in public life many times, such as in becoming a signatory of Charter 77.

As for expertise, the Greens certainly have plenty of top professionals, so I need not be an expert on technical guidelines and standards. Finally, I know from experience as a journalist that there is no problem that you cannot learn about. I will try to turn this apparent disadvantage into an advantage. In short, it came very naturally to me. I’m angry at the political situation just like everyone else, just shy to say it. My personal position is however still a bit different.

Q: What is the role you have in mind?

TOPOL: I’m rather — with some exaggeration — in the first instance a tramp [camping enthusiast] and forest spirit, and not at all an expert on political lobbies. But it’s not just about having a woodland adventure but also being concerned about what is going on in the countryside, what we’re selling off there. Maybe it will sound bizarre, but under communism I was once a signatory of the Manifesto of Czech Children of Petr Placák that embraced his belief that ants and trees are sacred. I may risk being laughed at, but today I still believe so. Ants and trees are sacred. Period.

Q: Romanticism probably doesn’t last in politics. Why did the Greens choose you? And why did you choose the Greens?

TOPOL: I feel close to them. Before I was in the underground during communism, I was a member of an illegal Scouts troop. After the revolution, as a journalist with Respekt, I wrote about the environment and the associated problems of civilization in an “unromantic” way; for example, about lynxes and wolves that are almost extinct here, and monitoring their movements.

I had the opportunity to present my views and they know what I’m about. I’m not a stranger to them and they came to believe I could be a good candidate. But I also pointed out that even though I identify with their causes I am not technically savvy and don’t know if I would manage that function. And I have health problems — I suffer from a disease of civilization and have poor hearing. That is one of the main incentives I had to go into politics.

Q: How are we mean to understand that?

TOPOL: For years I have suffered from an unpleasant and quite unknown disease called tinnitus. There’s a constant humming in my ear, so I have to wear a hearing aid. While this is my personal problem, it is mainly a so-called disease of civilization as it relates to public spaces and the environment. Fifty years ago, thousands were afflicted with it [in this country], mostly blue-collar workers in saw mills and the like, or those in the artillery, now some 300,000 people are.

In the U.S. and Germany, millions have it, and there are different regulations. In the Czech Republic, there are none. And even if we tout that we are part of Europe, that includes there barbarism and vulgarization of those countries. Indeed, there is hardly a public space where the radio or television isn’t playing; you cannot shop in stores without it or sit peacefully in a restaurant. Everywhere is the roar of some music. In the summer, we don’t have the [idyllic] countryside of Josef Lada but of screaming lawn mowers and blowers.

Q: And what can we do about it?

TOPOL: I may be an open-minded spirit from the underground, but I would implement noise control. In Germany and Austria, grass can only be cut at a certain time, and on Sundays such noisy activities are forbidden. For those not bothered by it, this may seem ridiculous, but it is important to me personally. I lived in Berlin for a year and no I’m not abnormal. Those that let a dulling noise permeate their brains are abnormal.

Everyone is obsessed with some topic and this is my issue. When I go to various doctors’ offices, it’s not people in their fifties and sixties I see [afflicted by this] but young people. Just as it has become normal to wear glasses at any age, now it is almost becoming normal to wear a hearing aid.

Q: Do you have various causes as a writer or journalist?

TOPOL: I’m interested in how the world around us has totally changed. What I wrote 15 years ago, for example about wind power, which seemed like something from Jules Verne, has become reality. I’m interested in the Czech generation for which it is normal to be sitting in class with Roma and Vietnamese. This was hardly conceivable for my generation.

I’m not a technically oriented person, but for many years have been in the world of higher education — I taught about [Czech émigré writer] Josef Škvorecký in high school and recently held a literature seminar at the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University. From the university environment I know of problems in the sector and am quite current on education law and the issue of state maturity exams. From years working as a journalist, it would not be foreign to me to comment on the press law and the like. I also know quite a bit about cultural issues. I would be pushing for zero tax on books, for example, or to have more money from the budget go to culture.

Q: Why have the Greens thus far failed [they are not currently in Parliament]?

TOPOL: I don’t know that of course. I’m not a political scientist. They were, however, in government for a time, and they didn’t do badly. Certainly they had no corruption scandal — and were perhaps the only ones not to. This is really quite important. I would not accept an offer, for example, from the [Civic Democrats] ODS.

The Don Quixote-ness of the Greens is what attracts me. There are, in a sense, like the current underground, exactly what I’m close to. What’s more, I like the certain style that I don’t see in the others — a sense for humor and “happenings.” I like that there are twentysomethings with dreadlocks alongside serious professors in their sixties. They are open and transparent, and I think their program is good and natural. Nuclear power and the looting of the country already many people do not want.

Q: And how can you be benefit them?

TOPOL: Perhaps voters will be interested to know that someone will defend nature in connection with the abolition of the Jince military zone — in the middle of an amazing, almost unspoiled Brdy forest area I would not allow a shopping mall or another Disneyland. Or that I am someone who could oppose the mining lobbyists hungry to abolish limits and plunder the Czech Republic.

As a [scout and camper at heart] I will say what is destroying the Czech countryside. It may sound crazy, but I hope to protect the deer from the evil miners. That’s how it is. I wrote dozens of critical articles and was always furious that nothing happened. I have always challenged the policy; I was a bit of a marauder. Now I may have the opportunity to see how it really works in politics — whether I can push thing through better than others.

Q: Can’t the result be harsh and disappointing?

TOPOL: Anything can happen. Every morning we fight a battle that we know well. Disappointments could well come from me or in the policies of the Greens, but I certainly hope not. I will not be alone; it is a fight for a common cause and done in good will. I recently watched a public debate organized by representatives of the Temelín [nuclear power] plant, who let green activists wait seven hours before they were given the floor and allowed to say something. A total provocation. Surely common sense would dictate that if the Japanese, who are such a meticulous and technically proficient people, failed at Fukushima, are the Czechs immune?

Q: Are you concerned that politics will, as they say, grind you down, and destroy your ability to write books?

TOPOL: Many people have said this to me. But I think that anything can destroy a man; that’s just part of life. I will give it a try not commit to it for all eternity. I find it enticing to enter the struggle. If I’m going into the lion’s den, at least I can meet my adversaries face to face. Not that there are only such types. [Senator] Petr Pithart is a decent man; as a journalist I hung around Moscow with [journalist cum Senator] Jaromír Štětina; among the candidates there is for example [former Constitutional Court judge] Eliška Wagnerová.

For a writer everything provides inspiration, so why not politics or the Senate? Some writers were soldiers, diplomats, police officers, such as Jack Kerouac and George Orwell and I don’t know who else. It goes with the profession. I have an archaistic awareness of what [Czech writer Bohumil] Hrabal said: let yourself be muddied by life. I am not yet 50, and I can still do something before diving back into the world of books.

Q: What are your politics? How do you work?

TOPOL: It’s a total mess. I’m not a scaremonger; I’ve travelled to rough regions like Grozny. So I take it as a normal endeavor. I do not see government policy as evil; when I look at Russia, then I see we are not so ill. Although it might be hard to believe there is still a good foundation and something healthy. It’s a matter of not letting it descend into hell. So although these people at Temelín hardly let the green activists speak, they also didn’t shut them down entirely.